Finding Lost Horizons

The view from the bus of the not-so-lost horizon
It was pretty darn easy to get to Shangri-La. In fact, it was the easiest bus ride I took in China. It was also one of the prettiest, and most definitely the coolest (literally). After a 2 day trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge (following a short visit to lame Lijiang) a bus load of tired trekkers (mostly European, plus me) were whisked from Tina's Guesthouse in the TLG to Shangri-La. It was a 2 hour bus ride back to the beginning of the Gorge and then we headed north west and up about 4,000 meters. We stopped after an hour and were just past a 2,000 m elevation and I had to put my jeans on over my shorts. By the time we got out of the bus and were navigating the old town streets of Shangri-La I was wearing the 2 long sleeved tops I owned-I was rockin' my light blue jean jacket with my dark jeans. I was too cool for Shangri-La. In 4 days I went from scorching summer heat in Dali, to humid, warm and rainy on the Gorge to 5 degree weather in Shangri-La. I topped off my outfit with a wool tuque I bought that night at the market. I wore it for 3 days straight before I ditched it for cloudy, muggy, but lovely Chengdu.
James Hilton wrote a book called "Lost Horizon", about a random group of people whose plane was hijacked and crashed into a mysterious location "beyond the Himalayas". The group took shelter in a nearby lamasery, and while their hosts spoke very good English, the people in the group were the only foreigners to live in the area for years. The main character, Conway, referred to the area as "Shangri-La". The story was told to the narrator by Conway, who was in a hospital in Chongqing years after his departure from Shangri-La, and apparently Conrad slipped into consciousness long enough to tell his story. After a series of investigations using the clues in the book, some Chinese concluded that this "Shangri-La" was in fact Zhongdian city in Western China on the border of Tibet. I borrowed the Lost Horizon from the Black Dragon Cafe in Dali. For those who actually follow this blog, I went to the Dali Bookworm and it was crap. There were two shelves of books, all faced and all inches apart. Shame on them for calling themselves a Bookworm! I couldn't get too mad at them though because I was in Dali. I didn't take me long to wander down the cobblestone streets and find a delightful bookshop/cafe. They had a copy of Lost Horizon, exactly what I was looking for (I wanted to read about this Shangri-La before actually going there) and they loaned it to me for 2 Yuan (25 cents) a day. This bookshop wasn't in my guidebook and the travelers I'd met hadn't been there (until I took them) even though it was in a little alleyway tucked behind one of the main roads. This place was so great that at one point the owner lady too busy to serve me because she was in the middle of making lemon curd! That's Dali for you. There were jars of homemade jams and lemon curd all over the cash. I could barely reach over the counter to pay because of all the homemade goodies in front of me. That's the dream.
Anyway back to Shangri-La. It was my one uber-touristy indulgence. Lots of people have heard the expression "Shangri-La"; this place that's somewhere in Asia. It's a rather vague reference to the exotic. And I was the one in China so I could go and see it! So I did.
The thing with a place, any place, being too touristy is that it risks being fake. Now, if a place is mostly tourism, is it mostly (if not all) phony? Not always, I think. But you run that risk more so in China when everything's been built up from destruction. With a mix of Japanese occupation, decades of communism, and the Cultural Revolution, not much was left of old China by the late 1970's. Except for the recipes. Good food never dies, thankfully.
Shangri-La was the first place in China I went to where the Western tourists outnumbered the Chinese. You can probably blame James Hilton for that. And most of the Westerners came out of the woodwork, I hadn't seen many anywhere else in Yunnan province. Where did they come from? Did they fly back east from Lhasa? Take a train or plane straight from Beijing or Shanghai? I was very confused; that's the lost horizon for you.
I pictured more mountains in Shangri-La. At least one epic hill. Not that I could have been able to climb it; the trek up the mini Shangri-La hill to temple required two ten-minute breathers. The amount of prayer flags was just right. though. But I didn't know that a typical Chinese town was adjacent to it. And the signs were tri-lingual; Tibetan, English & Chinese. Sometimes French was added as the fourth. There was way too much Chinese influence in Shangri-La for my taste. That's one of the reasons why I didn't go to Lhasa. I knew it was just gonna be a Chinese town with Tibetan characteristics. But for me Shangri-La was reminiscent for a winter vacation up north in Quebec. There were old school roads and wooden chalets everywhere. The cafes and restaurants were warm and cozy and filled with comfort food. There's a brownie shop in Shangri-La-just to give you a sense of how many Westerners actually go there. The restaurant we ate at our first night had mashed potatoes, and it was owned by a Singaporean. We ate hot pot the next few nights though; we were much too hardcore to have pizza and mashed potatoes every night! I resisted the Yak hot pot (you could even get Yak in your morning cereal if you wanted to in Shangri-La).
Filled with potatoes we wandered around and went to the most inviting bar we could find. There were old couches, an old dog, and a fireplace. It looked very Quebecois. except that it was a British bar. We ordered the cheapest beers (Dali Beer!) and asked the owner if there was a pool table. He replied in his rough British accent, "There's maybe one upstairs, it might be up and running still, I'm not sure." Up and running? What does that mean?? Was there a pool table or not? Does it walk away sometimes? Is it like Shangri-La-it's only there if you believe it? Anyway we tried our luck and sure enough there was an old (the oldest I'd ever seen) lonely table on the second floor. We started a game and some Israeli friends we'd met on the Gorge came into the bar and joined in our game. I think this was my favorite part of Shangri-La: playing pool with Israel and England on the little table that couldn't. Maybe it didn't even happen, because as you read this my British buddy is probably still contemplating the existence of a second floor of his cozy bar. After all, it's in Shangri-La, a place that only crazies think up, some still say it's built on a rumor of a place. It's based on some book, and it's super touristy. So, not real.
Here are just some "real" things I saw in Shangri-La: A sad looking yak, all the rose-cheeked Tibetan children walking around the chilly town, the people brushing their teeth in the alleyways with rainwater early in the morning, tons of people from all over the world working hard in a cafe they opened in the Shangri-La paradise, and the power that went out in the whole town the day I left. The lights really didn't turn on, and food couldn't be cooked. It wasn't just a rumor. The only sound that came from the main road was the buzzing of generators as I trotted down to the bus station with my backpack, this time dodging puddles and cobblestones instead of electric bikes. I knew I had been to somewhere real, I just didn't know what it was.
A woman working at a cafe, the main street with brownie shops, mashed potatoes, breakfast food, fireplaces and alleged pool tables, all the Tibetan "locals". They are what make up this "Shangri La". And the people passing through looking for it.
I saw all that, and I saw the temple, the prayer flags, the plateaus. Did I experience the real Shangri-La? For me it doesn't get any more real than that: Hardworking folk, prayer, a pretty landscape and pretty things. And I even enjoyed the cold air (I'm Canadian remember), even the alleged billiards, the good coffee and cold beer even cooler and crisper than the thin Shangri-La air.
Shangri-La was my last stop in Yunnan Province. I was gutted to be leaving. I felt like I was visiting a special country within a country. I hope a lot of it is still there when I go back and visit again. Even the pool table.


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