Will the Real Shangri-la Please Stand Up
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
James Hilton coined the word Shangri-la in his book Lost Horizon. Perhaps the name came from Shamba-la, the Tibetan word for "paradise." Also perhaps, some think, the name came from the word sem kyi ni hda, meaning "heart's sun moon." "La" also means "pass" or "steep path" in Tibetan.
So where is this Shangri-la?
10 am, a group of four diplomats leave Baskul, India in an Indian cabin-machine plane to escape an insurgency
Early in the morning, the next day, they crash in the high mountains. A dying pilot, their hi-jacker, says that they must find the Lamisary of Shangri-la to survive the inhospitable climate.
At Shangri-la, the four westerners find a very different world: "a separate culture might flourish here without contamination from the outside world."
Mr. Mallonson, a twenty-something newly-crashed in this new world is anxious to leave: "we want to return to civilization as soon as possible."
A lama answers: "are you so very certain that you are away from it?"
The lama continues: "you will not find Shangri-la marked on any map."
"Curious," Conway says, "I wonder why?"
"There is very good reason, but I am afraid that is all I can say."
Mrs. Brinklou, a middle-aged westerner, asks "what do Lamas do?"
"They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom."
"But that isn't doing anything!"
"Then, madam, they do nothing."
James Hilton's Lost Horizon takes place during the 1930s, as international tensions are brewing
All characters react differently to Shangri-la. Conway wants to stay as it appeals to his wisdom and mind set. Mrs. Brinklou wants to stay because she wants to convert the locals to Christianity. Mr. Mallonson wants to leave and sees nothing of value in Shangri-la, away from civilization.
For decades after Mr. Hilton wrote his classic novel, countries in the Himalayan region have been calculating where the plane crashed--where is Shangri-la? Bhutan has its Shangri-la. India has its Shangri-la. Nepal has its Shangri-la. And now China has its Shangri-la. China was late to the game, recently picking its Shangri-la here in Zhongdian, Dequin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
But as the lama said: "you will not find Shangri-la marked on any map."
So why are all these countries picking a Shangri-la? And, for the record, it's not just a few countries: resorts, islands, bars, hotels, you name it, are called Shangri-la. You guessed it--tourism dollars. Since China has picked it's Shangri-la about eight years ago, tourism has increased tenfold here in the region, also known as Shambala
Most of the money stays in the large towns, with little money going towards the small towns--Trini, Hamagu, Badzhu, and others. Rare and protected Yunnan Golden Monkeys are driven towards town so that tourists can view them. The airport was built on a large wetland where rare Black-necked Cranes over-winter and yaks graze. The cable car will soon overwhelm the town of Trini, with all the concrete infrastructure and hotels that go with it. At the summit, the cable car will be intruding on bear and wolf habitat. Meanwhile in Dharamsala, the Dali Lama has deplored the Chinese push for rapid tourism in this area.
But people do benefit from tourism and there are solutions to the problem of unbridled tourism growth without local input
"They paved paradise, put up a parking lot"--Joni Mitchell
"Once you call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye"--The Eagles
So is Dequin, a land the size of Switzerland, Shangri-la? Once again...yes...and no. The land is high, steep, and immense in scale, with deep canyons, snow mountains, pine forests carpeted with Rhododendrons, and wildlife. Maybe it is Shangri-la. Monasteries thrive within the towns. People smile and greet you with a smile and a gleam in their eyes. Maybe it is Shangri-la. But look closer and clear cuts scar the land, animals are disappearing, trash lines the streets, towns are evacuated to make room for dams, Tibetans no longer speak Tibetan after years of government suppression, many are illiterate and are unaware of the world around them, and pastures are overgrazed.
Why does Shangri-la exist? This must be answered within yourself.
Can You find Shangri-la?