From Zhongdian to Shangri-La | Myth and reality at the footsteps of the Himalayas

In the Yunnan-bound travelers’ collective imaginary, “Shangri-La” refers to the paradise-like world described by James Hilton in Lost Horizon‘. Published in 1933, the novel explains how a small group of India-based British diplomats fled in an airplane which crash-landed somewhere at the footsteps of the Himalayas where they discovered a monastery built by Catholic monks and nested in a lush valley where people lived to be 300 years old.

James Hilton gave birth to the legend of Shangri-la and his novel inspired the northwestern Yunnan town of Zhongdian (中甸) to change its name in 2001 to attract tourists.

View of Ganden Sumtseling, a Shangri-La-esque monastery

View of Ganden Sumtseling (aka Songzanlin Monastery) near the town of Shangri-La

Shangrila versus Shambala

The term of “Shangrila” was invented by James Hilton. However, the concept of Shangrila, that is to say the idea of legendary paradise does exist. The Tibetan tradition mentions a mythical kingdom hidden somewhere in the Himalayas. Called ‘Shambala‘ in Sanskrit, it means ‘Place of Peace‘. Although Shambala may exists on earth as a physical location, ‘Shambala exists purely as a spiritual realm‘ and can be reached only through intense meditation practice.

Therefore, the idea of ‘Shangri-la’ as a paradise found in a hidden Himalayan valley is a ‘romantic corruption’ of ‘Shambala’.

The monastery of Ganden Sumtseling and its reflection in the Lamuyang Lake, near Shangrila

The monastery of Ganden Sumtseling and its reflection in the Lamuyang Lake, near Shangrila

James Hilton, Yunnan and crashing planes

James Hilton did not travel to this remote corner of Yunnan to document his novel. We can only but speculate that he had read accounts of Joseph Rock‘s exploration of the region published in the National Geographic in the mid-1920s and titled ‘China on the Wild Side’. Joseph Rock, the Austrian-born American botanist and ethnographer who settled in Lijiang in the early 1920s, was among the first Westerner to venture in north Yunnan.

He witnessed the rituals performed by the shamans of the Naxi people, the Dongba, traveled in the Salween and Mekong valleys where he was helped by French missionaries in Cizhong (茨中) and was the first to venture into the kingdom of Muli on the Yunnan-Sichuan border.

The Shangri-La'esque shores of Napa Wetland area

The shores of Napa Wetland area near Shangri-La in north Yunnan.

The story of a plane taking off from India and crash-landing in the Himalayas is not far-fetched, but historically James Hilton was ahead of its time.

After the Japanese took over Burma in 1942, the Burma Road which linked Kunming to Yangon and was crucial in bringing war supplies to the Chinese troops, a group of American volunteers known as the Flying Tigers (飞虎队) started to take off from British Indian’s province of Assam and were flying over the Himalayas. They landed  land in Western Yunnan’s towns of Tengchong (腾冲), Baoshan (保山) and Yunnanyi (云南驿). This was between 1942 and 1945.

The merging of legend and history

In Cizhong (茨中) in 2007, six years after Zhongdian (中甸) changed its name into ‘Shangrila’, I was conducting research on the French and Swiss missionaries. I was interviewing elderly villagers and had asked a few of them to identify people on a few old pictures which had been taken in front of the village’s church between in the 1930s and 1940s.

A group of villagers I interviewed in Cizhong immediately named the two missionaries : Father Goré (from France) and Father Lovey (from Switzerland). The other men on the picture remained however nameless. That’s when the story of a plane that crash landed nearby came up : the man next to Father Goré, I was told, was the survivor of this plane crash and was, supposedly, a Flying Tiger.

Unidentified US pilots between Father Goret (left) and Father Lovey (third left)

From left : Father Goré, alleged unidentified US pilot, newly arrived French missionary, Father Lovey, unidentified man in front of Cizhong church in 1943

The debate shifted and one of the villagers told me : “You see, Cizhong is the real Shangri-La! The foreign pilots crash landed not far away from hear, not in Zhongdian!” To them, it was obvious that the story told by James Hilton in Lost Horizon (which they heard second or third-hand from one of the multiple Chinese translation of the book) was real.

All the ingredients of James Hilton’s novel (the Catholic priests, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery set in an idyllic valley, the crash-landing of Westerners somewhere in the Himalayas) were there. They just got mixed up in history and entangled in the will to develop Zhongdian’s tourism industry.

A view of Shangri-La

A view of Shangri-La

From Zhongdian to Shangri-La

Located in Western Yunnanese Kham and called Gyalthang (རྒྱལ་ཐང།) in Tibetan language and later Zhongdian (中甸) in Chinese language, the town had always been an important stop on the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道). Goods coming from the Himalayan Kingdoms, Sichuan, Yunnan and beyond were exchanged on the market square of Gyalthang until the late 1940s – early 1950s.

In 1949, when the Communist took over control, trade was banned. Zhongdian, like other towns located along the Tea and Horse Road, came to an halt. Following the exaction of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, the old town was abandoned. In the 1990s, even after the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, the old Zhongdian, with its  rammed-earth and wood Tibetan-style structures barely standing, remained forgotten.

A stupa in the village of Yila, near Shangrila

A stupa in the village of Yila, near Shangrila

Back then, the region’s main economic output was timber. According to Chinese scientist, the deforestation in this remote part of China was the main cause for the huge floods that devastated the provinces of central and eastern China, in the lower-Yangtze basin in the late 1990s. The central government thus enforced an unconditional ban on logging in the region.

Tourism became the only force to transform a poverty-stricken region into a prosperous one. In 2001, Zhongdian (中甸) won the right to change its name into Shangri-la (香格里拉). Since then, with the story of James Hilton in the background, bulldozers and crane were busy destroying parts of Dukezong (aka Dorkhar Dzong in Tibetan), the ancient centuries-old town of Zhongdian / Shangri-aa which was re-built and framed as an authentic old town.

If Zhongdian / Shangrila was undeniably successful into reconfiguring itself into a major tourist attraction in China, was Shangri-la successful in constructing itself as space that stands up to its name?

If you have visited Shangri-la, please let us know what you think!