Shangri-La is a term many people associate with a country of lost content and eternal happiness. ‘Shang’ is, in fact, the name of a Tibetan district. ‘Ri’ is also Tibetan for mountain and ‘La’ means a pass. So Shangri-La is literally ‘Shang Mountain Pass.’.
Shangri-La became famous through that 1937 iconic film, ‘Lost Horizon’, based on James Hilton’s book, directed by Frank Capra, starring Ronald Coleman and actually filmed in California’s Ojai valley. I first saw the film on the television during a miserably rainy Saturday afternoon and the impression it made on me was immense, especially the last scenes where the eternally beautiful Maria suddenly becomes a horribly aged hag when she leaves the enchanted valley.
The development of the myth of Shangri-La would take several volumes to explain but there is indeed a Chinese precedent for it in the’ Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring’ by poet Tao Yuanming who lived during the Jin dynasty (265-420). In the story a fisherman discovers a gorgeous peach grove where happiness reigns among its inhabitants who are completely removed from the afflictions and pain of the world outside their grove. I think Oscar Wilde must have had something in mind when he wrote that moving story for his children called ‘The Selfish Giant’ and, indeed, another theme variation is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’.
James Hilton is, in my opinion, a highly underrated author, perhaps because he appealed to certain aspirations of a middle-class English readership which now often seems hopelessly dated. His books, however, produced some of Hollywood’s most memorable films and, indeed, Hilton contributed to several other screenplays.
Who can’t forget ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’, based on his Walthamstow, London-based, schoolmaster father and starring the unforgettable Robert Donat, and ‘Mrs Miniver’, perhaps one of the most insightful films about being a woman during wartime, starring the lovely Greer Garson and ranked as one of the forty most inspirational films of all time.
It’s so sad that Hilton died just aged 54 in 1954. He had many admirers in his time including Freud himself, so there has to be something that somehow attracts our unconscious desires in his books. Incidentally, if you go to Woodford Green (sir Winston Churchill’s old constituency) you’ll find the house where Hilton wrote ‘Lost Horizon’ marked with a blue plaque. It’s at 42 Oak Hill Gardens, Woodford Green, Waltham Forest, London. Nearby is Epping Forest, surely one of London’s most luxuriant green spaces.
But I digress. Despite expeditions to find where Shangri-La actually is (and there have been many hypotheses including such places as the Tian Shan mountains, Ladakh, Zanskar etc.) there is no agreement as to where (and if) this land of joy, love and beauty is situated. For many English people their Shangri-La is a retirement bungalow in Frinton-on-Sea or Bingley. The real point, however. is that Shangri-La can only be found within oneself, in one’s attainment of Moksha or liberation from the tormenting wheel of samsara and the weighty accumulation of negative karma.
When we finally reached Zhongdian we found a Shangri-La but realised that the title was a tourist attraction ploy by the Chinese government arranged through a competition between rival villages for the accolade of being named after the mythical place in 1997. Zhongdian is now called Shangri-La.
From earlier reports I gather that Zhongdian was not a particularly remarkable place. It was rather run down with a couple of travellers’ hostels and many largely abandoned older house in favour of the ‘new town’. The new name changed all that. Zhongdian restored many of the decrepit houses – in some cases knocking them down to rebuilt a more authentic ‘old town.’ By 2014 the town really looked the part, although many of the traditional-looking buildings were reconstructions.
Then in that year a disastrous fire, started by an electric heater placed near some curtains in a guest house destroyed over half of Shangri-La. In fact it had barely survived seventeen years. Because the authorities ordered the immediate evacuation the all its inhabitants there were no human casualties but at the same time there were great losses in the destruction of family heirlooms and old belongings which the inhabitants had no time to save because of the evacuation order. Furthermore, when the fire brigade came they found there was no water supply! The new ‘old’ town had been built so quickly that a proper sub-structure was insufficient to guarantee essential supplies.
A big investigation took place. The lady whose electric heater started the fire was arrested and imprisoned and, in typically efficient Chinese style, reconstruction plans were immediately put into operation. Fortunately the oldest and most authentic part of the town was untouched and, furthermore, a chance was given to give the new ‘old town’ a more secure sub-structure in terms of water supply, electricity and sanitary measures.
Luckily, the temple was untouched. It’s a lovely walk up to it and next door one has the benefit of being able to lend a hand or two at turning the world’s largest prayer wheel. At least sixteen people are required to get the thing started. I’m sure that a few of our potential reincarnations were swept away by our concerted effort in driving this great wheel since within it there are thousands more small prayer wheels contained.
The town still has large areas that looked like a bomb-site because they haven’t been reconstructed yet. However, there are enough pleasant old streets to keep one happily strolling around the place and window-shop. The Chinese may have gained notoriety at producing fake Gucci bags but their imitative skill has here worked positive wonders in getting Shangri-La rebuilt. I only wish similar sensitive skill could be shown in some European cities. Perhaps we should get the Chinese to lend a hand in rebuilding earthquake-destroyed towns in Italy like L’Aquila and Amatrice? I’m sure they could do the job rather more quickly.
The hotel was perhaps the nearest we got to the Shangri-La atmosphere. The swimming pool in the atrium, although looking tropically superb, was much too cold to even dip one’s toes in and I thought the aircraft that crashed into Shangri-La, as depicted in Capra’s, film was a superb example of oriental kitsch.
Next morning, however we’d be truly visiting more authentic sights. Our search for the real Shangri-La was still an on-going process. Would we ever find this haven of peace and eternal youth?