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A dusty logging town tries to recreate itself in the image of the Lost Horizon utopia. Tackiness ensues.
UPDATE, Jan. 13, 2014: Over the weekend, a fire erupted in the “old town” of Shangri La, China, destroying hundreds of wooden shops and homes in a majority Tibetan area. GlobalPost visited this town last year for a series of stories about the ways in which China is trying to make Shangri La (which was given its mythical name in 2001) a sort of Tibetan Disneyland.
At the time, Shangri La’s “old town” was under heavy construction, with wooden hotels and shop-houses going up on every corner. Long-time residents complained that many of the buildings in the traditionally Tibetan quarter — which was filled with bars, backpacker hostels, English-language cafés, and trinket shops selling identical wares — had been hastily constructed in a pseudo-ancient style, to attract tourists, whose numbers were rising.
While some Tibetan entrepreneurs had managed to profit from the boom, most of the businesses belonged to Han Chinese. Below is the first of three Global Post stories — originally published on Feb. 13, 2013 — on this strange, beautiful, conflicted place.
SHANGRI-LA, China — The fabled land of Shangri-La is a “delightfully favored place,” where monks live for hundreds of years, in the shadow of a “dazzling pyramid,” the mountain Karakal. The air has a “dream-like texture.” Every breath yields a “deep anesthetizing tranquility.”
That, at least, is how Shangri-La is described in "Lost Horizon," British author James Hilton’s classic 1933 novel.
“If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation,” one of Hilton’s beatific monks says. “We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds.”
Hilton’s mythical land is a far cry from this real-life Chinese village of Shangri-La: a dusty, dingy upstart that is flinging moderation to the winds to become a Disneyesque tourist trap.
China’s experiment with manufacturing its very own Shangri-La began in 2001, when the logging town of Zhongdian — a remote, predominately Tibetan village standing on an 11,000-foot plateau in China’s southwestern Yunnan province — decided to change its name.
The move was mostly economic: Beijing had banned logging up-country in Yunnan after a series of massive floods along the Yangtze River. Though other towns competed fiercely for the right to rename themselves — and arguably had better reasons — Zhongdian prevailed.
Hence this once-isolated village became China’s first “official” Shangri-La.
In the decade since, Zhongdian has transformed itself completely. It may not be exactly what Hilton imagined when he penned his classic novel.
Visitors making the four-hour tour-bus ride from Lijiang drive past stray yaks and bucolic Tibetan homesteads, before being greeted incongruously with billboards advertising high-end red wines. A gaudy, 78-foot-tall Buddhist prayer wheel has risen over the square, a stone’s throw from a renovated People’s Liberation Army museum.
Shop after shop peddle tourist trinkets and fake tiger pelts. Where mud houses once stood, cheesy art galleries, restaurants, hostels, and even a cupcake shop now stand in “Old Town.” Signs tout yak burgers and Tibetan clothes for rent. A self-described reggae café has a cannabis leaf painted in the colors of the Jamaican flag.
“Eighty percent of [Old Town] was knocked down and rebuilt to look Tibetan,” said Jason Lees, owner of The Raven, the longest-running business in Old Town. The Raven serves as a watering hole for locals and the small, hard-drinking community of American and British expatriates in town.
An Englishman with matted hair and smoke-cured voice, Lees moved to Shangri-La a decade ago to escape the tourist hordes that had overwhelmed Lijiang, four hours away.
He’s profoundly ambivalent about the change. On the one hand, his business caters to tourists. On the other, as Shangri-La’s tourist sector has grown, wealthy developers and investors have moved in, driving up the rents.
“A culture changes to sell itself once the money comes in,” he said. “This used to be a special place. It used to be more open-minded, multicultural. Once it started to repackage itself as Tibetan, as a simplified version of itself, it changed.”
Even the 300-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside town has been turned into a cash cow. Tickets cost $15 each. In many respects, it feels like a theme park: Inside, groups of 25 to 30 tourists line up to deposit cash in a