Greetings from Shangri-La. No, really. I’m actually in a city called Shangri-La!
That name seems to illicit the same response from people unfamiliar with this part of China, one that cannot believe that there’s actually a place called Shangri-La. “Shangri-La” is, of course, a fictional place from James Hilton’s fictional novel “Lost Horizon.” So how is it that this place received that famous name? Why, tourism, of course!
See, this used to be a small little town nestled in the mountains of northern Yunnan province named Zhongdian and a mere 13 years ago, it watched some of Yunnan’s other cities get enormous boosts from tourism and decided it needed a gimmick to attract its fair share. The local government declared that it had unequivocal proof that this was in fact the “Shangri-La” from Hilton’s fictional novel and renamed the town as such.
Now, it’s worth noting that James Hilton wrote this novel from London, having never traveled to this region of the world at all. According to a blurb in Lonely Planet, he may have gotten the description of the area from National Geographic Magazines that were covering this general part of the world at that time. Apparently, his description of finding Shangri-La involved traveling southwest of Beijing for many months (to be fair, I am quite a bit southwest of Beijing) and something about a pyramid-shaped mountain, which does in fact exist here.
If you’ve been following my blog for a bit, you’ll notice that I already declared Bhutan to have been the real “Shangri-La,” and I still stick to that point. Bhutan is a heck of a lot more “Shangri-La”-like than this place could ever possibly be!
So why do people come here? Aside from the obvious tourist draw in the name, which certainly seems to have worked in attracting many, many visitors, folks come to get a taste of Tibetan influence and high altitude life (Shangri-La sits at 3,200 meters or 10,498 feet). Of course, having spent 6 days getting a full on Tibetan experience in Western Sichuan (at 800 meters higher for a total over 13,000 feet) there isn’t much of that to interest me here either.
What Shangri-La does have going for it is a healthy dose of charm. As the new town has sprung up, they have preserved their old town, with its stone streets and “classical” architecture. Its roads are closed to vehicular traffic, and, while touristy, it isn’t so overrun that it no longer feels peaceful.
Every night, the old town’s square plays host to public dancing, which is quite the event to watch, or even to partake in for those brave enough!
Sitting high above the old town is a small Tibetan Buddhist temple which offers some nice views of the surrounding area. Its real claim to fame though is its Prayer Wheel, which is by far the largest I have ever seen. In fact it’s so large that it takes a small army of people to even turn it (as the poor fellow pictured below found out the hard way)!
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a whole lot of what Shangri-La has to offer, as ever since I arrived on Monday, I’ve been ill with a respiratory infection that has kept me pretty grounded all week. I did chat with an American doctor who roams the province and he suggested I pick up a medication. Like most developing countries, all medications are available without a prescription. So what did I get? Essentially Zithromax, which is an antibiotic you can get back in the U.S. to treat bacterial infections. And how much did it cost me with absolutely no insurance? 14.5 RMB or slightly over US$2! And no, nothing’s wrong with the cost of medication back home! No, nothing…
(And never mind the fact that a few days after I wrote this I ended up in the Chinese Emergency Room! But that’s another story…)
Throughout my bed ridden days, I’ve kept myself amused with the 50 channels of Chinese television that my current television receives, though notably absent is an English channel. I have enjoyed watching the Chinese version of “Family Feud” though, as well as this zany cooking show where, the other day, they were giving recipes on preparing, get this, a brain!
I’m hoping to move on in the next day or so, but we’ll have to see how I’m doing health-wise. In the meantime, at least I have good television to keep me amused!