Paradise found in Shangri-La

Paradise was easier to hold onto than she thought.

I never thought I'd find myself in paradise – but then I never thought I would be displeased by it either. When I got off the bus in a little town in the isolated mountains of southwestern China, I discovered myself in what bills itself as the paradise of James Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizons." In 2001 the town adopted the name that rings of mystery and enchantment, Shangri-La. In less than 24 hours, I was ready to leave.

Although the town is in a remote valley, just as Hilton's Shangri-La was, the author didn't describe the stores of touristy knickknacks and the Western-style cafes I found.

Nor was the nearby Gansu Monastery anything like the lamasery of the novel. Even though it is the largest Tibetan monastery outside Tibet, it lacked the religious vibrancy I had become fond of in other parts of Asia. The monks loitered around looking bored or irritated, and the buildings pulsed with tourists.

Farther afield, I was unable to find the lake that, on the map, was as large as the town itself. Nonetheless, there was still a Lake Scenic Area where you could have your picture taken on a horse saddled in the Tibetan style.

Disappointed by all this, I was still persuaded to go to the town's weekly dance with my fiancé and a few others from our guesthouse. I prepared myself not to be impressed and gave little weight to our fellow guest's description of the dance as "a local thing."

Arriving at the square, we found the event in full swing. People danced, spinning in multiple circles along the square's edge. Everyone knew the steps to each song. Although I saw some obvious tourists in Gor-Tex jackets with new digital cameras around their necks, most of the crowd seemed to be local. Old men danced with gusto, embellishing moves they'd practiced for years. There were shopgirls and teenagers and even the occasional toddler, following Mom with awkward steps.

I searched for the source of the music and found a loudspeaker installed in one corner of the square. It seemed public and official enough to have been installed by the government. I wondered if the speaker was for the community's enjoyment or to create another event to attract tourists. But with the music and the movement, I couldn't remain cynical for long.

I joined the circle and followed the steps of those around me – with varying degrees of success. I spun and spun until my body and the dance's complexity urged me to stop. Panting, I decided that I needed to go take a nap. I was beginning to see the charm in this town and getting just a glimmer of why a person might never want to leave.

When I woke up, leaving was still at the top of my agenda, but my fiancé and I still had hours before our bus departed. Squinting in the bright morning light, we surveyed the terrain surrounding the town and began walking through the winding streets toward the closest hill.

Soon, we found ourselves following three old men and their cattle. They weren't herding exactly; each man had only one or two cows. It was more like Shangri-La's version of a group of friends taking their dogs for a morning walk. We followed them all the way into the hills until we spotted a peak we wanted to climb.

We broke off, climbing upward as the men went along the valley floor. Pink and yellow flowers, red leaves, and gray puffballs lined our route up. While furtively catching my breath, I stopped every few feet to examine the unusual plants.

Finally, the terrain flattened out, leaving us with a panoramic view of the town on one side and an endless array of hills on the other. I sat down beneath the prayer flags that marked the peak and bit into an apple bought early that morning. Fresh cold air hit my face and filled my lungs, and a feeling of contentment settled over me. Paradise had crept up on me, and I didn't really want to leave, ever. Nonetheless, staying didn't seem to be the right answer either.

In "Lost Horizons," Hilton's main character, Hugh Conway, finds peace in Shangri-La and then leaves. After climbing down the hill and picking up my bags, I was about to do the same. As the bus weaved along the road out of town, I kept sight of a rainbow framed against a brewing storm. At each turn, I saw the rainbow in a new location, arching in a different direction. I began to understand how Conway and I could both choose to leave paradise. Paradise is not confined to a single place; it moves with us – like a rainbow. Paradise depends more on our perception than on the location itself.

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