Searching for Shangri-La

Is the price of finding paradise losing it? Writer Chris Watts goes in search of an infamous Himalayan mountain utopia.

By / December 2011

In 1933, the young British novelist James Hilton published his now iconic novel, Lost Horizon, in which a disenchanted World War I veteran, Hugh Conway, abandons his former life and discovers Shangri-La, a mythical utopia somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains. “The floor of the valley, hazily distant, welcomed the eye with greenness,” Hilton wrote in a typically starry-eyed passage, “sheltered from winds, and surveyed rather than dominated by the lamasery, it looked to Conway a delightfully favored place.”

Hilton’s refusal to divulge the real-life inspiration for Shangri-La set off a firestorm of speculation. In the decades that followed, a multitude of secluded mountain valleys and towns in Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and China laid claim to the title. One of the most vocal among them was Lijiang, a small town in the northern reaches of China’s Yunan province. With its Tibetan monks and secluded green valley presided over by a towering mountain, not to mention the reportedly long and happy lives of locals, Lijiang’s similarities to Hilton’s fictional paradise seemed too uncanny to be mere coincidence.

Lijiang lies at an epic crossroads, at the place where the Himalayas sweep down out of Tibet and head south towards the deep green valleys that form the Burmese and Lao borderlands. It is the city of the Naxi (naa-shee) people, a well-preserved, 800-year-old remnant of the Ming Dynasty.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for sweeping views, stone bridges, canals. Judging from the material presented in travel guides, Lijiang had loads of aesthetic, natural, and even spiritual allure, but could it really be the ephemeral Shangri-La? That was the question reverberating through my sleep-deprived mind as I boarded an overland bus in the Chinese city of Kunming on a chilly November morning.

For many years, I had been intrigued by the idea of Shangri-La, by the mystery and romance of a hidden kingdom on the roof of the world. When the opportunity arose to spend some time in southwest China, I could not resist the temptation to do some exploring of my own to judge whether the Chinese idyll could be Hilton’s utopia.

I was not alone. On the bus I was surprised to find several bedraggled backpackers in their early 20s. I asked a young Austrian lady named Cindee, who bore the marks of a recent motorcycle accident, why she was headed to Lijiang. She spoke of the stunning mountains and gorges, the Yangtze River and the Tibetan culture, but swiftly returned to her underlying motives.

“My guidebook says that it’s probably Shangri-La,” she said.

Waiting in line for the toilet, I got the same general story from two other backpackers. It appeared we were all on similar journeys, all wondering if heaven could, like the song says, be a place on earth.

At Dali, a Chinese city known for its marble, we turned north and headed straight for the high mountain passes that wind and snake their way to staggering heights before spilling into the Himalayan valleys of upper Yunan, and shortly thereafter, Tibet. The slopes were dry, brown, and ugly, and stayed that way until we rounded a precipitous curve and came upon Jade Dragon Mountain, the 18,000-foot peak in whose shadow Lijiang lies. I recalled Hilton’s description of the peaks around Shangri-La: “Beyond that, in a dazzling pyramid, soared the snow slopes of Karakal. It might well be, Conway thought, the most terrifying mountainscape in the world.”

I was still reeling from the rugged beauty of Jade Dragon Mountain when the bus came to a halt on a street filled with blocky, utilitarian architecture in what the gaudy signs on buildings claimed was Lijiang. Dirty tile and blue glass buildings frowned at packs of lost, confused travelers in the streets. If this was Lijiang, I figured, it was a part of town that had sprung up long after Hilton departed. I hopped off the bus and hurried towards what looked like an older section of town a few blocks to the east.

I passed through the stone arches that mark entry to ancient Lijiang. Gracefully curved roofs with red lanterns and tinkling bells hung over cobblestone streets that ran, ribbon-like, alongside rushing canals gurgling with cold, clear water from the glacier above. Wooden pillars lined shady porches, and red doors led to hidden courtyards where Naxi grandfathers meticulously pruned ornate shrubs. It was magical. I thought that this must surely be Shangri-La.

But as I strolled deeper into the old city, the charm I experienced initially began to wane. Looking around, I realized that I, a shaggy-haired American gripping the straps of a hulking backpack, was no longer in the minority, a shocking discovery to make in a remote corner of China.

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