The utopia of Shangri-La, a highland idyll perched among the peaks of Tibet, originated in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. In an attempt to capitalize on a booming domestic tourism industry, Chinese authorities changed the name of Zhongdian to Shangri-La in 2001 because of the resemblances it bore to Hilton’s wonderland. However, much of the 1,300-year-old Tibetan town was lost to a devastating blaze in 2014 and the numbers of visitors have since declined. I set out – traveling from Hong Kong to Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture via train, bus and foot – to see what remained of the ancient town and whether it is deserving of the name that it bears, discovering much about modern China along the way.
A 60-minute ride on Hong Kong’s enviably efficient MTR whisks me from my apartment on Hong Kong Island to the border crossing. For two cities that stand elbow-to-elbow on the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong and Shenzhen couldn’t feel more different. Along its northern edge, the former’s skyscrapers give way to emerald-enveloped hills, their lowlands populated by urban tributaries feeding one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Cross the border, however, and you’re immediately affronted by the city. The smell of cigarette smoke lingers in the air and people hustle to attract you to their taxi, their shop, their spa. It’s staggering to comprehend that a little over 30 years ago this mass of almost 11 million people was home to just 58,000. Now, one of China’s most affluent cities, its success is testament to the will of a country on the rise and one that’s not ashamed of its ambitions.
Further proof of this lies in the high-speed train that takes me from Shenzhen through Guilin province, peppered with karst formations, to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, in just seven hours (almost 24-hours faster than its pre-existing counterpart). Known as the City of Eternal Spring, I find Kunming in bloom. Fuchsia blossoms color quiet residential streets and willows line the banks of the Panlong River, a lazy stretch of water that bisects the town center, its leisurely pace an embodiment of the laidback approach of the locals, who assemble along waterways and in parks to sing, dance, play mah-jong and go about their daily rituals that range from the banal to the downright bizarre. Once darkness falls, the younger generations emerge to imbibe craft brews and Western delicacies – habits indicative of an encroaching globalization that pervades China’s youth.
The next train I board, an overnight sleeper, trundles at a sluggish pace to deliver me to Lijiang shortly after the sun rises. Friends had warned me of throngs of tourists that make Lijiang’s old town unpalatable, but first thing in the morning it’s quite the opposite – there’s barely a soul in sight. It’s the ideal time to explore the labyrinthine lanes lined with Naxi wooden houses, which have a certain charm, even if most are reproductions.
By nightfall it’s a entirely different entity, as the shuttered shops mutate into nightclub after nightclub, each complete with bouncing dancefloors, electronic music and Chinese people of all ages drinking, dancing and, inexplicably, clutching balloons. Besides a handful of incredibly bemused Western tourists, few seem surprised at the ease with which this UNESCO World Heritage Site transforms into a party destination, and fewer still hold back.
I’m on the road again the following morning, this time traveling a short distance to Qiaotou, a small village from which to start the two-day Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. Named for a tiger that is said to have bounded across the rapids as it was fleeing a hunter, it is one of the deepest river canyons in the world, flanked by Haba Snow Mountain to the north and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the south– and boasting some of the most dramatic scenery I have ever encountered.
A fierce ascent marks the first few hours of the trail, which rises sharply from the Jinsha River below. As a tributary of the Yangtze, silt has turned its churning waters an unappealing brown – a side-effect of the ceaseless construction that accompanies China’s economic advance, which punctuates the climb with echoing blasts as workers make way for the Lijiang to Shangri-La railroad. However, the natural beauty of the gorge is forceful in its intensity, particularly as the gradient plateaus and jagged peaks emerge from wispy clouds. A low-pitched roar can just be made out from the rapids below as rays and shadows play upon scree and forest, and a distant ring of a bell emanates from whichever beast it’s tethered to.
Seven hours after I set off, as the sun is sinking for the day, I make it to the village where I will call it a night and opt for a guesthouse perched on the side of the gorge. Run by a young couple, it is basic but with working WiFi and hot water. In a moment that would come to symbolize the perfect microcosm of modern China, roosters crowing and trap music provide the soundtrack to my breakfast. My early rise is rewarded by waterfalls and herd of goats, although the trek is over almost too quickly.
From here it is on to my final stop, Shangri-La. The route, which winds through the mountains to the highlands of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, is littered with accidents and congestion. Trucks ferrying construction debris slow traffic along the meandering road, while drivers impatient to overtake make risky and, it soon becomes evident, life-threatening decisions. The country’s headway has not been without its sacrifices, both human and environmental, and the scars inflicted by progress are visible along the way.
On the approach, Shangri-La is not as expected. Imposing, official-looking buildings stand proud, as if to remind you who is boss. In a trope that’s become typical, the ancient is besieged by the new – particularly in the ancient town, where the fire wreaked its havoc. Despite much rebuilding, it remains quiet and largely empty. But the beauty of the mountains that surround the town, the shimmering lakes that reflect dreamy cloudscapes and the warmth with which I am welcomed is irresistible – there is something very special about Shangri-La.
I hire a bike and venture forth, in search of Napa Hai Nature Reserve. I’m not entirely sure if I made it there or not, but the vistas that met me as I traveled through meadows, past pigs frolicking and yaks grazing, horses being broken, barley harvests and Tibetan farmhouses, were unforgettable vignettes into a life lived more than 10,000 feet above sea level, where modernity and Buddhist mysticism co-exist harmoniously, and where it is easy to imagine the fictional idyll of Hilton’s novel becoming a reality.