“Western Myth becomes Chinese Reality”

image1476James Hilton immortalized the concept of “Shangri-la,” a mythical utopia on earth, in his novel Lost Horizons in 1933.  A land full of beauty and wisdom, Shangri-la, according to Hilton, exemplifies all that is lovely, peaceful, and harmonious.  Scholars agree, however, that Hilton’s model of Shangri-la was probably based on the Tibetan myth of “Shambhala”.  Hilton’s work was also conceived from romantic notions of explorers and travelers who brought back stories of an untouched paradise.  Since 1933, numerous claims have sprung up declaring the true Shangri-la’s exact geographic location.  But in December 2001, a challenge from a remote county in China’s northwest Yunnan Province took hold.  After a hard fought lobbying effort, the State Council granted Zhongdian County, over multiple claims from neighboring areas, permission to change its name to Xianggelila County.Paradise has a place!  That place is in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) is composed of three counties, Shangri-la, Deqin ,and the Weixi Lisu Autonomous County. In 1990, the area had a total population of almost 354,000, of which 84 per cent were ethnic minorities.  Tibetans number around 33 per cent of those minorities, or approximately 116,000.  The three counties also have Lisu, Naxi, Bai, Yi, Mosuo, Hui, Miao, and Pumi minority populations, but except for the Lisu, are significantly smaller in numbers than the Tibetans.  Zhongdian is the capital of the Diqing TAP, and also serves as the county seat for Shangri-la County.  Shangri-la County is also the largest county by area in Yunnan Province, covering 11,345 square kilometers.  To the north and east is the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Sichuan Province,to the south, Lijiang Naxi Autonomous Prefecture (NAP) ,and to the southeast and northeast of Deqin and Weixi Counties, lie the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture (LAP) and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)   One marked distinction is that the Diqing TAP does not border any traditional Han Chinese areas, thus the area has been influenced by trade and customs from a variety of other ethnic minorities.


Black and white photographs on this page taken from:  Lost Horizon, by James Hilton;; Yunnan People’s Publishing House

Traditionally, the Diqing TAP has had strategic commercial significance based on its frontier position between central Tibet and other ethnic nationality regions to the south.  An ancient trade route called the “Tea and Horse Road” was a major transportation link between Yunnan and Lhasa . Tea, an important commodity to Tibetans for their staple yak butter tea, was sought in exchange for horses, which were needed in other areas of Yunnan for their transportation and commercial value.  Additionally, the route through Diqing to Lhasa has meaningful political ramifications.  In 1720, a Qing army entered Tibet via Kham and Diqing to oust the Dzungar Mongols from Lhasa.  Recognizing the strategic importance of the Diqing region, the Qing quickly set up a garrisoned post at Gyalthang, which they called the Zhongdian.  Since then the region has always been valued for its proximity to Tibet and its alternative route into Lhasa.

Topography has played an important role in Shangri-la County’s development, or as the case may be, limited image1485development.  The highest point in Yunnan, Meili Xue Shan is 6740 meters (22,000 ft.) above sea level.  With an average elevation of around 3,300 meters (11,000 feet), the short growing season of late-May through September limits the variety and amount of crops and vegetables to be grown.  Highland barley is the staple, with potatoes, turnips, rape seed and some oats being grown, and with small pockets of rice cultivated at lower elevations.  Other important crops include wheat, walnuts and some fruit, in limited quantities.  One important cash crop, growing wild amongst the forested mountain areas, is the matsutake mushroom, a delicacy especially on Japanese and Korean tables.  Found with great effort and diligent searching, songrongmushrooms are often the only source of cash to many households.  Other herbal medicinal plants are also found in the high alpine areas and sold to herbal medicine traders, who in turn sell them to the eastern and southern markets in China.  Most rural households rely on some form of animal husbandry, which has dominated the rural population’s livelihood; with yaks, pigs, and goats being the most prominent.

During the 1960s, large-scale commercial logging was the largest industry in the image14821prefecture, county, and even the township levels, bringing in almost 80 percent of Diqing TAP’s gross domestic product (GDP).  However, due to severe flooding in the lower-lying areas of the Yangzi River basin in 1997 and 1998, which the Chinese government blamed on logging practices in the upper watersheds of the mountainous west, all commercial cutting of timber was abolished.   In one fell swoop, many villages and townships lost their main source of income. Soon after, the Diqing government began to promote the area as a tourist destination, offering a unique blend of Tibetan flavor coupled with scenic outdoor beauty.  Three lakes (one seasonal) are within ninety minutes drive from the town center of Zhongdian, and limestone terraces, scenic river canyons, and open grassland within a few hours drive are the main natural attractions for tourists.  Tibetan culture is also promoted through home-style ethnic dancing and singing found in many made-for-tourists’ entertainment centers.  Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and holy sites also draw visitors interested in seeing a Tibet-like atmosphere without having to go to Tibet itself.

Tourism has brought in much needed investment, with the transportation image1479infrastructure seeing significant improvements in recent years.  Shangri-la airport opened in May of 1999 with daily flights to Kunming,the capital of Yunnan Province, twice-weekly flights to Lhasa and Chengdu,and charter flights from Beijing,Shanghai,and Guangzhou during peak season.  There are also plans for direct flights from Hong Kong and Katmandu.  Road improvements connecting Zhongdian with Lijiang, Yunnan’s premier tourist destination four hours to the south, is also sure to increase tourist flows.

All in all, establishing Shangri-la has paid off for county revenues.  Tourist numbers have doubled to over one million visitors in the year of 1998-99.  Over sixty hotels of various sizes and quality exist in Zhongdian, with more being built every year.  The government has completed a new waterworks and sanitation project, beautified the main streets, built a new government building and bus station, and have paved and widened the main roads to Deqin and Weixi.  Economic growth has led to other benefits for the area.   Social arrangements have improved somewhat, with hospital and school upgrades taking place in Zhongdian, as well as the county seats of Deqin and Weixi.

The consensus is that there is yet a long way to go to live up to the name of “paradise on earth”.

Kevin Skalsky

Excerpted from “Perceptions towards Education for Development in Shangri-la”

Victoria University, Wellington New Zealand, MA in Development Studies Thesis