Paradise found? Why Zhongdian was renamed Shangri La

Paradise found? Why Zhongdian was renamed Shangri La
Napa Lake in countryside Shangri La, Yunnan province, in June. The area is a top destination for migratory birds.
PHOTO: China Daily/Asia News Network

Local and foreign settlers seek to raise remote town's profile, Satarupa Bhattacharjya reports in Shangri La, Yunnan province.

In Lost Horizon, the late British author James Hilton described "Shangri-La" as a mysterious valley in the Himalayan region where the 1933 novel's main character, Hugh Conway, a diplomat from his country, hopes to find peace from the conflicts of the world.

In a later media interview, Hilton said he imagined the place based on research at a museum library.

"A full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky," he wrote in the book.

A view of the main Buddhist temple in an old part of the town. A fire in 2014 destroyed a large number of hotels and houses here. The rebuilding is ongoing. ​Photo: China Daily/Asia News Network

In the last decade, the ancient town of Zhongdian in Southwest China's Yunnan province was renamed Shangri La. Located at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters above sea level, it is called Gyalthang, or the "valley of the blue moon" in Tibetan. Shangri La is the seat of the local government of the Diqing Tibet autonomous prefecture.

According to one theory, Zhongdian was renamed because it bears a strong resemblance to Hilton's fictional land, while another suggests it was done to boost tourism.

Nevertheless, this town in Yunnan's northwest-with its old wooden houses, quiet alleys, surrounding mountains, a large lake and mastiffs and yaks-is charming.

And, some residents, both local and foreign settlers, are working to raise the remote town's profile, as China Daily's recent interviews indicate.

The larger county's population of 170,000 is mostly made up of Tibetans. Members of the Lisu ethnic group, among others, also live here.

Entrepreneur Dakpa Kelden runs a school in Shangri La for those with interest in thankga art.​Photo: China Daily/Asia News Network

Dakpa Kelden, a 47-year-old Tibetan entrepreneur and art patron, returned to the town in 1987 from India where he was born. The town's airport was built in the 1990s, when foreign tourists started to first arrive from Malaysia.

Shangri La was a different place back then, he says.

The area's main business used to be wood export but a flood in the Yangtze River halted that trade. Subsequently, tourism picked up, and is now estimated to fetch 1 billion yuan ($147 million) annually.

Dakpa Kelden runs a boutique hotel and a thangka art school near the town's public square that offers a stunning view of a Buddhist temple, especially at night, when its top facade is lit.

Chinese youngsters from elsewhere regularly enroll into residency programs in the centuries-old Buddhist art form, which uses colors made by grinding materials, such as rocks and pearl.

"Our purpose (at the training centre) is to give them the required skills and knowledge of the history of thangka painting," he says.

Karma Tachen of Shangrila Highland Craft Brewery says he lives the "life of Zen" here.​Photo: China Daily/Asia News Network

Karma Tachen, 31, vice-chairman of Shangrila Highland Craft Brewery, studied the art form in college in neighbouring Sichuan province, his hometown. Lately, he has been living the "life of Zen" in Shangri La after spending some time in Italy, where he had gone to learn design.

The company-on the town's outskirts where a new development area is coming up-was established by Songtsen Gyalzur, a Swiss real estate developer of Tibetan origin, in 2009.

With a growing appetite for craft beer in the country and the availability of natural resources like freshwater and highland barley in Shangri La, they are aiming to up production from 4,000 tons a year to 24,000 tons in the future.

The company has invested 45 million yuan of its planned 98.84 million, Karma Tachen says.

While domestic sales have been limited to Yunnan so far, they will likely enter Sichuan, the Tibet autonomous region, and Qinghai province in the country's northwest, later this year.

Their beer bottles come with artwork inspired by Tibetan folk stories. But the demand for craft beer among the local youth has yet to pick up.

Shangri La's mysticism and fine summer weather have drawn many foreign tourists over the years, but there are few settlers among the visitors.

Uttara Sarkar Crees, a cafe owner who has lived in Shangri La for about 20 years.​Photo: China Daily/Asia News Network

Cafe owner Uttara Sarkar Crees came to Shangri La nearly 20 years ago and has since stayed. She had lived in Africa, Nepal and her home country, India, prior to beginning a life in China.

Shangri La has always been rich in culture and biodiversity, she says.

"There's a lot more integration among the ethnic communities today."

A deadly fire raged through the old parts of the town for hours in January 2014, dealing a big blow to more than 300 business establishments, including hers. Although the rebuilding is ongoing, tourist numbers have fallen in the past two years because of the large-scale destruction of restaurants and hotels.

"Some expats moved out after the fire," says Guillaume de Penfentenyo, a partner at Flying Tigers, a bar frequented by foreigners that takes its name from the US armed forces' volunteers who helped China fight Japanese attacks during World War II.

Before settling down in Shangri La in 2015, the 29-year-old man from France had lived in the city of Wuxi in East China's Jiangsu province for a while.

He says property rents here have increased in recent times and essential commodities like vegetables are expensive because local traders get them from other parts of Yunnan.

He doesn't find Shangri La exotic or laid-back-rather a place with a "quality of life".

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