Shangri-La: the dream that became a reality

In the heart of 'olde' China, locals are busy giving everything a facelift. Have they managed to create the best of both worlds? Jeremy Atiyah finds out
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The Independent Travel

You might think of Yunnan Province as the Dordogne of China, with its pleasant weather, rustic landscapes, picturesquely dressed minority peoples, and quaint old towns. But in consequence, the tourists are now coming. And boy, are they coming - affluent Chinese urbanites by the thousand. Some come on package tours, others come independently. Huge crowds of camera-clicking tourists zoom in on every spot of cultural or natural interest. The "old" quarter of every town is a maelstrom of boutique shops and open-air restaurants.

You might think of Yunnan Province as the Dordogne of China, with its pleasant weather, rustic landscapes, picturesquely dressed minority peoples, and quaint old towns. But in consequence, the tourists are now coming. And boy, are they coming - affluent Chinese urbanites by the thousand. Some come on package tours, others come independently. Huge crowds of camera-clicking tourists zoom in on every spot of cultural or natural interest. The "old" quarter of every town is a maelstrom of boutique shops and open-air restaurants.

China has been only too happy to promote internal tourism. Domestic air travel has increased exponentially and already resembles that of Europe or the US. On the ground, comfortable buses with on-board hostesses and computer- reserved seats cruise the highways. Local tourists reserve hotel rooms on their Wap-enabled mobiles, or leaf through locally published guidebooks, receiving confirmations of their bookings as text messages.

And here I am trailing along behind, looking for ancient Eastern wisdom, though I am glad to note the analogy with the Dordogne breaking down when I consult a map. Yunnan is actually larger than Germany, and stretches from the tropical jungles of Burma, Laos and Vietnam to the wintry fringes of Tibet.

So far I've been doing the regular tourist stuff, beside everyone else. I've been in the regional capital, Kunming, which already resembles Chicago. I've been to scenic, sunny Dali, where western backpackers have been coming for years to drink cappuccino and eat spaghetti.

Mainly, though, I've been in Lijiang, which has become one of the great tourism phenomena of the world. If you wanted to be negative about Lijiang, you'd complain that it was a faked-up Disneyfied version of Olde China. But the town is also immaculately clean and immensely picturesque. Free of cars, it has cobbled streets, rushing waterways, ancient stone bridges, outdoor cafés and tiled rooftops, all overlooked by snowy mountains and sunny skies. In short, it resembles some perfectly quaint Tuscan hill town, complete with thousands of tourists everywhere.

I stayed in a rickety old wooden house built round a pair of courtyards packed with potted plants and ancient bonsai trees. It was someone's private home; one of many such inns where an old man and his wife will take care of your every comfort. The only sound I could hear from my room was that of cheeping birds. For all this I paid about £4 a night. Sophisticated home-cooked dinners cost 70p extra, with large bottles of excellent cold beer at 20p.

It is tempting to stay in Lijiang for ever, but I still have a final frontier to probe. The end of Yunnan is where I'm heading, by bus: to a small town, north of Lijiang, 12,000 feet up in the Tibetan borderlands. When I disembark here, several hours later, a serious frost is in the air. This feels like Tibet all right. The local people are ruddy-cheeked Tibetans. Distant Tibetan mountains ring the valley. Tibetan yaks amble on street corners. A Tibetan monastery commands the heights on the edge of town.

It doesn't look like a town where I'd find ancient wisdom, let alone an international hotel, but strangely enough, I'm booked into one. The Banyan Tree chain, owner of properties in countries not known for their frosts, including Malaysia and Thailand, has decided to test the waters in chilly upland China. So here I now am, in a room decked out with silk cushions, low beds, bespoke dark-wood furniture and tent-like fabrics hanging from the ceiling. The air is cold but the duvets are enormous, the electric blanket is toasty, the food is delicious, the service is charming, and the restaurant has a crackling fireplace.

But where exactly is this? A few years ago the local authorities had the big idea of renaming it to raise its profile as a tourist destination. If there is one thing I wouldn't have done, it would have been to give this town a new name. It already had two - Diqing (the original Chinese name) and Zhongdian (the Chinese rendering of the Tibetan name, Gyalthang). And now it has a third: Xianggelila (Chinese for Shangri-La). Which brings me to the British writer James Hilton.

In his 1930s novel, Lost Horizon, Hilton depicted Shangri-La as a valley hidden in the wilds of Tibet, where time moved so slowly that people could survive for centuries, steeping themselves in high art and culture. Hilton seems to have got the name from "Shambhala", a mythical haven for the enlightened, referred to in ancient Tibetan texts. His idea was that Shangri-La would eventually be called upon to re-seed human civilisation, after the rest of the world had destroyed itself by war.

The local authorities of the town to which I must now refer as "Shangri-La" may have identified their valley as the source of Hilton's story, but I fear that the mountains are too distant, and that the land is too brown and dusty. The other implausibility about this latter-day Shangri-La is that it is far too accessible. Look at me. I've just cruised up here on public transport. Daily flights land here. A huge economic boom, moreover, has caused a new Chinese town to spring up on its outskirts, packed with fashion shops, hairdressing salons, music stores, mobile-phone emporia and internet cafés. Three or four large hotels, oddly reminiscent of Las Vegas, have also appeared. Everyone you speak to admits that the place is no longer the Shangri-La that it once was.

Might not some mistake have been made in promoting a place as a peaceful haven, when the desired consequence of that promotion would be to lure large, noisy crowds to descend upon it?

Few of the locals seem to think so. Right now, the "old town" is undergoing a huge facelift. Everywhere I hear the sounds of hammering and chiselling from the interiors of fabulous Tibetan houses - stout structures with massive walls of stone and ornamental carved wood, fronted by mighty columns to support the upper floors. Work started a few months ago; the town should be ready, as good as new, in time for this summer's tourist invasion.

Not that I'm wholly disheartened. What impresses me is how affluent people from Guangzhou and Shanghai have come to Shangri-La to renovate these old houses and to convert them into mellow little cafés. They represent the vanguard of China's new bohemia. Meanwhile, the local Tibetans, lucky them, get to live in modern apartment blocks on the edge of the new town.

The more time I spend here, the more fascinated I become. Tibet is the borderland between the old world and the new. It is also a borderland between China and India. My guide is Tibetan, but grew up in India, before returning with his family to China a couple of years ago. He speaks good English, Hindi, Tibetan and Chinese. He and his friends have introduced cricket to Shangri-La. His boss, born to Bengali parents in Uganda, moved to the Sudan, studied in India, worked in Nepal and finally drifted here. These are the kinds of people you find on the fringes of modern Tibet. And what will happen to Shangri-La when Lijiang's tourist hordes arrive? Perhaps it will keep moving, until the tourists can penetrate no further.

I am still restless, in search of Yunnan's uttermost end. I hire a car and driver for two days, to make the trip north to Deqen. The driver brings his girlfriend, who, apart from visiting Lijiang (125 miles away), has never been anywhere in her life. She is car-sick within an hour of our departure.

The road from Shangri-La to Deqen is one of those incredible scenic mountain routes that you cannot imagine anyone bothering to build. It zigzags up and down near-vertical slopes surrounded by massive snowy mountains. We have lunch by the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in a sunny valley surrounded by orange trees; two hours later we are crossing a 13,000ft pass in bitter cold. The villages here are all Tibetan - full of grazing cows, nibbling goats, rootling pigs, pecking chickens, and magnificent peasant cottages of whitewashed walls, gorgeous painted window frames, and carved eaves. Houses like these in Tuscany, I reflect, would sell for millions.

We finally reach a cold little road on a cliff-top directly overlooking the Meilixue Shan mountain range, where 13 peaks soar to 20,000ft or more. It's de rigueur among China's new tourists to stay here and watch the sun rise over the mountains. In the evening, I find a trendy café playing western pop music and serving curry. My driver and his girl read old copies of the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan and listen to the music and feel an unfamiliar yearning for the rest of the world. In my hotel, the temperature in the room falls to freezing in the morning, and I am forced to wash in water from a thermos flask. But it is all worth it. Before dawn, I get up to watch the mighty peaks turn pink. Then we drive down into the deep valley of the upper Mekong, along a road with a 2,000ft vertical drop to the river. On the other side of the valley, it will be my task to walk up to the glacier of Mount Kagebo, which is Tibet's second holiest mountain.

My driver and his girl stay down below while I set off on the trek. The proper Tibetan pilgrimage is to walk around the mountain, spending 20 or 30 days over it. An Indian woman I met in Shangri-La told me how she had done this, walking alone through snowy wildernesses, falling ill, only to be rescued by passing lamas, who took her to a remote and unknown monastery to recover her health, leading prayers for her day and night. Compared with that, this touristic pilgrimage - up to the glacier and back - feels rather trivial. But the Chinese tourists help me to restore my pride. They all ride mules, while I walk. In fact, I only just make it, unaccustomed as I am to the altitude (nearly 12,000 feet). Here is the glacier, groaning and creaking in a colossal swathe down the mountain.

My big spiritual moment occurs on the return journey, when I fall in with a Tibetan family. Here is an old gentleman and his wife, and their grown-up children, splendidly dressed and smelling of yak-butter. They scurry like mountain goats down through the forest. Somehow, they encourage me to follow them along invisible short cuts. They keep offering to carry my bag. They seem to be asking me for money, but when I offer it, they look at me as if I am mad - all they want is a picture of the Dalai Lama. Anyway, we keep going, and as we go, I fall into a kind of rhythm, my head empties and my spirits rise and I tell myself I am half-way to finding Buddhism.

Jeremy Atiyah is a co-author of 'The Rough Guide to China' (£17.99).

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Jeremy Atiyah flew from London to Shanghai as a guest of Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-alantic.com) which offers return fares from about £390. He flew from Shanghai to Kunming return as a guest of Opodo (0870 241 7051; www.opodo.com), which can book flights and accommodation across China. It offers return flights from London to Kunming from £252 return with Shanghai Airlines.

Where to stay

He stayed in Shangri-la as a guest of the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel (00 86 887 822 3646; www.coloursofangsana.com/gyalthang). The hotel reopens on 28 February 2005. Double rooms cost US$135 (£70) per night with breakfast and a two-hour massage. Minimum stay is two nights. Contact Banyan for reservations (01494 675636)

Further information

Contact the China National Tourist Office (0900 160 0188; www.cnta.gov.cn). Tourist visas, which are valid for three months, are required. Contact Chinese Embassy Visa Information (0900 188 0808).

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