Back in 2001, when I first visited Shangri-La (香格里拉), this town of northwest ethnic Tibetan Yunnan was still named ‘Zhongdian’ (中甸) . Back then, I reached Zhongdian after a long and bumpy 6-hours ride from Lijiang. From the bus, I could see workers building a new road and the construction of the airport announced both the arrival to Zhongdian and the upcoming development of tourism in the region.
The local government, in need for a new source of income after the ban on logging in the region, was looking to changing its name and re-shaping itself into the James Hilton’s inspired utopian world of Shangri-la. Between myth and reality, Zhongdian was ready to shed off the old and capitalize on a dream.
Destruction and reconstruction
In 2001, beyond the bustling new urban development of the new Zhongdian, the old town was a forgotten cluster of ancient Tibetan-style rammed-earth and wooden structure that the passing of time had weakened. It was late March, the temperatures were cool and there were only a few colorfully dressed Tibetan women carrying back home firewood in woven basket and some lost yacks wandering aimlessly on the muddy tracks.
When I went back in 2007, Zhongdian had officially changed its name into Shangri-la (although most locals still call its Jiantang 建塘). The old town of Zhongdian, where caravans on the ancient Tea and Horse Road converged to trade their goods on the market square, had been bulldozed : the ancient Tibetan-style rammed-earth structures had been replaced by rows of Lijiang-style storefronts where people from Sichuan, Guangdong, and elsewhere were selling overpriced, industrially-made souvenirs to tourist. However, tucked away from this new ‘old town’, a few cluster of Tibetan houses left intact.
Dorkhar Dzong : The Sun and Moon Town
With this destruction and re-construction process, the ancient Tibetan name of the old town also resurfaced : ‘Dukezong’ (独克宗). The actual Tibetan name of Dukezong is Semkyi Nyida Dorkhar which means ‘Sun and Moon Town’. Tibetan usually refers to the shorter Tibetan name, Dorkhar and the Chinese transliteration comes from Dorkhar Dzong (‘dzong’ meaning either ‘castle’ or ‘county’ in Tibetan language).
No reason to mourn Dukezong
Most of the ancient Dorkhar Dzong was destroyed in the years following Zhongdian’s name change. Like Dali, like Lijiang, like Fenghuang and many other historical towns in China, tourism had transformed the old town of Shangri-la into an open-air trinket mall. Tourists want shopping. They obviously do not want to wander into a centuries-old town which buildings have seen the caravans of the ancient Tea and Horse Road.
So, when the January 2014 fire, and the slow local fire brigade response, destroyed half of Dorkhar Dzong. However, the fire did not destroyed a ‘1,300-year old settlement’, but a 10-year old cluster of trinket stores and guesthouses. There is no reason to mourn the loss of Shangri-la.
From what I saw during the early days of Summer 2015, Shangri-la 2.0 is well under construction. Like the Shangri-la 1.0, which did not bear any resemblance to any real Tibetan settlement, it promises to be bigger, better, with more trinket store than the original Dorkhar Dzong.
So, why Shangri-la
The name change effectively boosted the tourism industry in the region, but does Shangri-la stands up to the connotations its very name conveys? Although the clients I brought to Shangri-la on my recent Yunnan tours were enchanted by the scenery of yaks, pigs and horses grazing on the prairies, mesmerized by the beauty of Napa Lake, thrilled at the idea of experiencing a taste of Tibet, they were not fooled by Shangri-la. Instead, I sensed disappointment.