Seeking enlightenment and energy drinks in Shangri-la – Alec Ash
Listen to Kaiser Kuo read an audio version of this story
The plane juddered in a stomach-turning lurch as it banked steeply to the left, clearing a hilly ridge to reveal Shangri-la. It was a moment we have all had: a sudden jolt of turbulence, or drop in altitude, that reminds us we are in a metal box miles above the hard ground – before a safe landing makes us feel like milksops for ever doubting. Yet here the irony was too delicious. The town of Shangri-la in southwest China, after all, was named for a fictional lamasery stumbled upon after a plane-crash landed a group of Europeans in a Tibetan mountain valley. Now it has become a Chinese tourist town in the East Himalayan foothills, served by half a dozen flights a day. A crash landing would be grimly poetic.
This township in northwest Yunnan wasn’t called Shangri-la (Xianggelila 香格里拉in the Chinese phonetic rendering) at all until 2001, when the nondescript Tibetan county of Zhongdian won a bid to retitle itself after the fictional paradise. Investment and tourist renminbi followed the same illusion, and soon the place was unrecognisable. Five-star hotels sprung up, where once there were wooden country homes. Yak hotpot restaurants, Buddhist trinket shops and ‘ethnic’ dancing performances entertained guests looking for Tibetan flavor. The nearby Songzanlin monastery was refurbished, alloted a field-size carpark and fitted with electronic turnstiles. Paradise, indeed – for the local economy. I didn’t find enlightenment, but my wallet was certainly enlightened.