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On the trail of the real Shangri-La

A Chinese town resembles the paradise described in 'Lost Horizon'

By Dominick MerleContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2004


Is this city the mythical come true? You might have a hard time convincing the old farmer hoeing his field for 12 hours a day, but city officials have been bold enough to rename the main thoroughfare Shangri-La Road.

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And the upscale Shangri-La hotel chain is eyeing property in the area, something it does not do unless it can spot well-heeled travelers on the horizon.

I came here to find out what all the fuss was about and left with the conclusion that if this is not the elusive La-La Land ... well, we'll get to that later.

First, a little geography. Lijiang is well off the usual tourist route, situated in Yunnan Province in southwest China. A day's drive to the south is the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. Drive north for a day and you enter Tibet.

Few North Americans are heading here at the moment, opting instead for the big-three glamour spots in China's booming tourism industry - Shanghai, Beijing, and Xian. Lijiang wants to be added to that select list, and work up from there.

Webster defines Shangri-La as "any imaginary idyllic utopia or hidden paradise." Translation: It doesn't really exist. Even British author James Hilton, whose novel "Lost Horizon" first described a place called Shangri-La, said you would not find it on any map. But he added that it was located near "the loveliest mountain on earth" where people of many ethnic backgrounds live in perfect harmony.

He didn't know it at the time (or did he?) - and there are no records of his ever visiting here - but he pretty much painted a picture of Lijiang.

This ancient city lies in the shadow of the 18,300-foot Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the lower Himalayas. It is one of the most beautiful mountains anywhere - its 13 jagged peaks are snow-capped year-round.

Lijiang is also home to a number of ethnic minorities who believe in various religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, Dongbaism, and Hanguism - all of whom seem to live in "perfect harmony," just as in the book.

But if Hilton never set eyes on the place, how could this be his Shangri-La? Enter American botanist and writer Joseph F. Rock. This is where the plot thickens, bordering on (yikes!) hints of plagiarism.

Mr. Rock was leader of the National Geographic Society's Yunnan Province Expeditions. He published a series of articles, accompanied by scores of photographs, between 1924 and 1935, many of them describing the history, culture, landscape, and religions of the Lijiang area.

Hilton's book was published in 1933. You do the math, the locals are quick to say. The evidence is circumstantial and close, but still no cigar. The verdict is yet to come.

Lijiang's Old Town dates back at least 800 years to the Song dynasty. It is canal-laced and has often been described as a mini-Venice. Houses have earthen walls and tile roofs, courtyards are filled with flowers, and there's usually some type of tree in bloom year-round.

The narrow winding streets are cobbled; bridges are everywhere. Wooden planks lead from the streets - where no cars are allowed, only bicycles and carts - into quaint shops and restaurants. The food is good, and the service is warm and friendly.