The first few times I told my mother I was going “to Shangri-la,” she thought I was unusually excited about my next trip. Since its first appearance in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, “Shangri-la” has become a shortcut for paradise, a place so wonderful it cannot be described. Hence the Shangri-La Hotel chain, and so on. But Shangri-La is no longer merely a myth. In 2001, China announced that it had “discovered” that the Shangri-la of Hilton’s novel was in fact the town of Zhongdian (中甸) in northwestern Yunnan Province. When I told my mom I was going to Shangri-la, this was where I was headed.
In the past 13 years, the town has done everything it can to capitalize on that stroke of “luck.” Although you can still spot a few signs for Zhongdian, the town is now known as “Xianggelila” (香各里拉), which sounds a lot more like “Shangri-la” than the spelling might suggest. The “old town” has been completely revamped: Every storefront is bedecked with shiny wooden carvings. Restaurants are named things like “Lhasa” and “Potala,” to remind visitors that many of the residents are Tibetan. The Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, Shangri-la’s most important tourist attraction, is awash with new construction. A huge temple building has been demolished only to be rebuilt, and the only sign of the original is a pile of wooden beams, still wearing patterns of faded paint.
All this makes Shangri-La a rather strange place to visit: It is a real place, pretending to be an imaginary one, and a new place, pretending to be an old one. The evidence that the town had anything to do with Hilton’s novel is thin, and the cobblestoned old quarter extends only a few blocks in either direction. Outside of it, Zhongdian looks like any other largish town or smallish city in China, albeit with a disproportionately high number of hotels and guesthouses. And yet tourists flock there in incredible numbers. It speaks to the power of advertising, but also the power of the dream that somewhere in the world, we really can find paradise.