The eter­nal search for Shangri-la

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - RAINALD MOSS

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: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au.

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