The eternal search for Shangri-la
IN answer to my questioning, friends gave me their interpretation of what’s meant by Shangri-La. Heaven on earth or a utopia presided over by monks, or a legendary land of harmony and longevity — but no one could give a precise location, only broad generalisations such as ‘‘somewhere in the Himalayas’’ or ‘‘near Tibet’’.
However, my search was narrowing. Our itinerary clearly stated we were destined for Shangri-La in Yunnan province in southwest China near Tibet, at an altitude of 3200m. This sounded convincingly definitive and when we flew in, the airport signage clearly said Shangri-La. Under the key word there was another: Zhongdian. Why the two?
In 2001, the Chinese government in its infinite wisdom called for proposals from provincial governments to have the title of Shangri-La bestowed upon them as a tourism promotional tool. Zhongdian was the winner.
But can you fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear? Can you make a Shangri-La by government decree?
China is one country that could grasp the dream and turn it into reality, but they have not. The area is totally unlike the fictional or imagined account. There is no protected green valley backed in the distance by snow-topped mountains. Instead there are barren, windswept hills and dusty village streets nearly bereft of greenery. But there is a large 17th-century monastery with 700 Buddhist monks.
James Hilton’s 1933 book Lost Horizon catered to those who choose to believe in the existence of a real-life ShangriLa. In the novel, a party of Westerners find a perfect civilisation hosted by kindly monks who are blessed with internal peace and exceptional longevity.
The 1937 film of the same name with Ronald Colman won two Academy Awards and added to the mythology. Viewers expecting scenes of any actual Shangri-La would have been disappointed, however, as the film was shot in California.
The Oxford dictionary lists Shangri-La as a noun and describes it as ‘‘Tibetan utopia, an earthly paradise especially when involving a retreat from pressures of modern civilisation’’. There is no monopoly on the word. There is a well-known hotel chain by the name. The then US president Franklin Roosevelt constructed a retreat near Washington and named it Shangri-La. It is now known to the world as Camp David, and is still used as the presidential escape from the White House.
But the real Shangri-La, if it exists, remains elusive. Perhaps it lies within us all; it remains my unfulfilled dream. RANT OR RAVE Send your 400-word contribution to our Follow the Reader column. Published columnists will receive a $60 gift voucher courtesy of kikki.K to spend on stationery, journals (pictured), travel accessories or stylish Swedish-designed gift items. More: (03) 9645 6346; kikki-k.com. Send your contribution to: firstname.lastname@example.org.