TRAVEL / Getting high on Shangri-La

Shangri-La, China (GenevaLunch) Shangri-La: a mystical and isolated paradise in the depths of Western Tibet.

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British writer James Hilton described this mythical valley in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, and Shangri-La has gained world fame since. Nearly 80 years since Lost Horizon and Shangri-La came to be, dozens of "Shangri-Las" have sprung up, from China to Pakistan and even to Orange, Texas.

The dream has captured the minds of many and although Hilton’s Shangri-La was fiction, people have undertaken expeditions in search of the true Shangri-La.

On a dreary, cold, and damp night my bus pulled into Zhong Dian, China, a town whose name was officially changed to Shangri-La in 2001. Zhong Dian is yet another Chinese town striving to boost its tourism. It claims to be the real Shangri-La.

I was not in search of paradise but rather on my way to explore the Tibetan countryside. Shangri-La happened to be on the way.

The warmth of Yunnan province’s lush river basins, bright colours, and lively dancers were still a fresh memory, and I wasn’t prepared for the chill of the Himalayas. I stood in a sleeveless shirt and argued with freezing temperatures as the bus pulled away and left me to the drizzling rain.

I trudged through the puddles of Shangri-La looking for somewhere to stay before finally finding a lodge and collapsing into a cozy bed that smelled of pine.

Several weeks earlier, in Beijing on business, I had been desperate to get away from the crowded capital. In the sprawling metropolis I could stare directly at the red sun and not fear for my eyes, with several thick layers of protective smog between us. Enough time in the city had made me long for wilderness and adventure.

I headed to Tibet.

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My first morning in Shangri-La was an improvement: the warm mountain sun replaced chilly rains of the previous day. I recalled seeing a photograph of "China’s Shangri-La" several months earlier: a blue sky, lush green hills and monks clad in red robes around a golden monastery. I decided to find these beginnings of paradise.

I talked to some locals and my best bet sounded like the local Song Zan Lin monastery, meaning the three playgrounds of the gods. A bumpy and dusty 20-minute bus ride later I was at the base of the gilded monastery. Tibetan children flocked around me and offered cheap photos.

This was not the slow-moving Buddhist monks I expected. My photographic attempts of the monastery didn’t measure up to expectation, either. Modern electric cables were an eyesore in the picture. As I knelt on the ground and tried to find an angle from which I could avoid the power lines, I found myself unable to breath through the thick clouds of gray dust thrown into the air by passing cars.

I soon stood up, abandoned my photography and concluded that if it ever had existed, this most definitely was not James Hilton’s mythical valley of happiness anymore.

I moved on.

Thoughts of Shangri-La came back to me only weeks later. By this time I was well into the depths of Tibet having walked and hitched rides in trucks from the border. I had chosen to enter Tibet without the necessary travel permit and without passing through any border controls. I wanted a trip where I was free from the Chinese government’s bureaucracy, free from regulations.

Near the small, dusty roadside town of Ba Su I found a truck parked in the grass, the driver taking a break. The driver appeared to be about 25 and wore a ragged shirt that covered most of his chest. He hid a bush of scraggly hair under an unusual cowboy hat. My Tibetan was non-existent, so we talked in broken Mandarin for several minutes until I was shown the way to his truck. I was surprised when I climbed into the back to find myself surrounded by five generations of Tibetan family, along with a tired and annoyed-looking brown horse.

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I bounced up and down next to the horse for several hours until the truck pulled to a sudden stop and everyone got off. I didn’t know where our driver had disappeared to and tried without success to ask what was going on. Eventually I worked out that there was a police checkpoint in the next kilometre. Surprisingly enough, it isn’t legal to drive 30 people and a horse through a checkpoint.

Without a permit to be in Tibet, police checkpoints were problematic:  being seen would result in a visit to a Tibetan jail, and deportation to the east. I started to make my way up the nearest mountain. Mountains in the east of Tibet are large rolling hills on a scale unseen in the West, rising to well over 6,000 metres. I had to hike up and around the mountain to avoid the armed police at the checkpoint below.

I climbed for several hours in the sun before making it to the top of a ridge overlooking the valley, where I dropped my pack and collapsed onto it. I sat perched on this ridge overlooking the rolling hills of Eastern Tibet. In the distance herds of yak could be seen making their way up steep hills, an army of black dots with the occasional white tail swishing in their midst. Far below me the Tibetan family and horse could be seen on the road, past the checkpoint. Far above me white marshmallow clouds perched in the blue sky, the type that make you hungry just to look at them. Two black dots stood out against the clouds: a pair of eagles that soared gently above me on the currents.

I sat on this mountain and caught my breath, observing the wildness around me.

This was Shangri-La. This was untouched, natural and very free. Gazing at the pair of eagles gliding along the horizon I felt a sense of freedom and thought back to Zhong Dian. James Hilton hadn’t been describing a particular temple, town or valley: Shangri-La caught me by surprise, it was a state of mind.  A state of mind brought on by a place like this.

Editor’s note: Liam Bates, from St Prex, Vaud, Switzerland, is co-founder of Bridges to China, which offers Chinese language and martial arts courses in China. He has contributed several articles to GenevaLunch, the most recent of which is "Tibetan thumbing lessons," 27 August 2007.

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  1. […] Getting High on Shangri-La – Written during the summer of 2007 this describes my first trip to Tibet and my search for ‘Shangri-La’. […]