National Geographic : 2009 May
- A decade ago this was an obscure, one-horse village on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. To d a y, a er an extreme makeover, it s one of the hottest tourist towns in China, gateway city to the ree Parallel Rivers World Heritage site in northwestern Yunnan Province. Ten years ago the original village was becom- ing a ghost town of derelict buildings and deserted dirt roads. Most residents had moved out of their traditional homes---commodious chalet-like farmhouses with stone walls and magni cent wooden beams---into more mod- ern structures with running water and septic systems. e historic quarter they le behind seemed doomed. Tourism saved the place. e Tibetan farm- houses were suddenly rediscovered as unique, endemic architecture that could turn a pro t. Redevelopment began immediately. Water and sewer lines were buried beneath the crooked lanes. Electricity and the Internet were snaked in. e old homes were rebuilt and turned into fancy shops. New shops were constructed in the same style but with baroque facades---ornately carved dragons and swans and tigers---to attract Chinese tourists. Which they did: More than three million tourists, almost 90 percent of them Chinese, visited Shangri-La last year. Take for instance the woman in black leather pants who steps out of a Hummer in the park- ing lot of the Sumtseling Monastery, hands o her little purse, and climbs up on a wildly dec- orated yak tended by an elaborately costumed Tibetan, sword and all. Her friends snap photos. She could as easily be a tourist mounting a horse in Deadwood, South Dakota, or stand- ing beside a bu alo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Just as Native American culture has been com- modi ed in the American West, Tibetan culture has been commercialized in China s west. In the old town, high-end shops selling faux Tibetan jewelry, knives, and furs---the spotted cat skins are actually dyed dog hides---have replaced the chickens and pigs that once inhabited the ground oors of Shangri-La s homes. At the giant prayer wheel the tourists and monks have tired of the gilded merry-go-round and are leaving, when an elderly Buddhist woman arrives. She s wearing a traditional wool apron, but it is lthy, as if she d walked a great distance and performed many prostrations along her pilgrimage. A fuchsia head scarf is plaited into her graying braids. She is thumbing through 108 prayer beads while repeating in a humming whisper the holy mantra om mani padme hum, a prayer for compassion and enlightenment. The old woman grabs the rail of the giant spindle and, throwing her full weight into this act of devotion, keeps the wheel turning. with mythically reso- nant names, such as Timbuktu or Machu Picchu, Shangri-La never actually existed until now. The name comes from James Hilton s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, a tale of plane-crash survi- vors who nd their way to a utopian lamasery called Shangri-La in the wastelands of Tibet. In the book the lamasery, founded in the 18th cen- tury by a Catholic missionary named Perrault and now administered by a high lama, sits at the base of a mountain called Karakal, a fulgent pyramid of snow and rock. Home to more than 50 monks from nations around the world, all deep in spiritual studies, the lamasery is a grand repository of humanity s wisdom, embracing the best of both East and West. Midway through the novel readers discover that the high lama is actually Perrault himself. He s more than 200 years old, having been well preserved by serious study, the immersional serenity of Shangri-La, and isolation from a modern world mindlessly dri ing toward holocaust. Hilton is said to have taken his inspiration for Shangri-La in part from the writings of the eccentric botanist Joseph Rock, whose tales of exploration and adventure in remote Yunnan, Tibet, and elsewhere appeared in this magazine from 1922 to 1935. e irascible Rock led expe- ditions in search of exotic plants and unknown cultures. He wrote of sliding over the Mekong Mark Jenkins is a National Geographic contributing writer. Photographer Fritz Ho mann has been documenting change in China since 1995.