James Hilton conceived Shangri-La as an escape from the troubled 1930s, a fable of a spiritual utopian sanctuary. I first read Lost Horizon in 2011 on my first ever backpacking trip through Yunnan, China. I was captivated by Hilton’s vision of meditative llamas in secluded mountain temples. But when I finally reached Zhongdian, 6 years later, it had been renamed Shangri-La to boost tourism. Would it be the place of solace I had yearned for?
Travelling to South West China in 2017, tourism is now deeply rooted here when once it wasn't. I feared what may have become of the Yunnan I loved. Sadly, Zhongdian's old town was destroyed in a huge fire in 2014 with devastating losses. I spoke with the manager of a Tibetan gallery who told me of the loss of 7th century Thangkas’, irreplaceable intricate paintings of Buddha. The old town has been rebuilt in haste, underpinning all my frustrations with modern China, a new city rising like a phoenix from Zhongdian’s ashes. Any sense of wonderment or spirituality has been lost in it’s rapid construction. This is not the mountainous refuge I dreamt of. But mere hours from the Tibetan border, my search for Shangri-La will continue.