Monday, August 24, 2009

China's "Shangri-La" is a real dream

A street in China's officially recognized Shangri-La (Chicago Tribune/Ashley Colby).

SHANGRI-LA, China -- If you've ever dreamed of finding Shangri-La -- that mythical mountain paradise made famous in James Hilton's novel The Lost Horizon -- it's time to wake up. These days, the elusive Shangri-La isn't that hard to find. It's in China's Yunnan province.

It might not be exactly what you had in mind, however. When I arrived in Shangri-La, it was cold and raining, and there was a cow eyeing me as it lapped up water from a bucket in the Old Town, a patchwork of wooden houses on narrow streets. Not exactly the shining pathways and endless enlightenment I imagined, but I had just gotten there.

Shangri-La, with a population of more than 100,000, is nestled in a valley near the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in far south-central China, about 1,000 miles northwest of Hong Kong. In the far distance are glimpses of Himalayan snow-capped peaks hiding behind much lower mountains that hug the city.

In the late 1990s, with the expanding Chinese middle class thirsty to spend tourist yuan, several Chinese provinces started claiming they were the true Shangri-La. The government saw an opportunity and proposed that each place prove through empirical research that its physical characteristics match those in the novel. Several years later, Zhongdian County in Yunnan province was granted the title.

People come to get a glimpse of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Getting into Tibet can be difficult for tourists. Shangri-La, however, lies just outside the formal Tibet Autonomous Region but well within the plateau where Tibetans reside. More>>