Yunnan Diary 2: Shangri-La, Zhongdian, Kaiser Kuo and Man’s Search for Meaning

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The spectacular Songzanlin Temple outside Zhongdian. It was a highlight of the trip, once I overcame the challenge of climbing up 150 steep steps to get inside.

James Hilton’s little book Lost Horizon is considered strictly a grade-B novel, and yet an entire cottage industry has sprouted up around it since it was first published in 1933. Frank Capra turned it into a popular movie in 1937, and in 1973 it became a Broadway musical. It was the first paperback book ever published. The name of the mystical monastery-city Hilton describes as hidden in the mountains of the Himalayas has become a universal synonym for the utopia for which so many of us have longed for hundreds of years. Shangri-La tantalizes and lures us. The idea of an idyllic society where all are free to pursue their passions, and where moderation always rules, where the citizens live in a peaceful tranquility, yet retain their individuality and free will — it’s an image that fills us with fascination and longing.

The Shangri-La cottage industry continues to blossom in the Yunnan village of Zhongdian, nestled amid the foothills along the border with Tibet. This poor, dusty town was lucky enough a few years ago to win the official name of Shangri-La, a marketer’s dream, considering the continuous fascination of this magical name. Signs throughout the city refer to it is “Xiang ge li la” (or, somewhat less frequently, “Xiang ba la”). As the taxi drove us into town and we saw the broken street pavement and dingy buildings and wild pigs and yaks and chickens walking the streets, my first thought was, “So this is Shangri-la?”

Don’t get me wrong. Zhongdian is charming, and I am absolutely thrilled that I went there. It was one of the great highlights of this trip, and I will never forget it, the yak butter tea and boiled yak dinner and Tibetan cuisine, the incredible snow-capped mountains and the hard-working, kind people. I would recommend that every visitor to China try to make the trip to Zhongdian. We drove there from Lijiang, and the ride was utterly breathtaking (especially our stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge, which I’ll write about later). Of all the strange stops of this trip, Zhongdian was the strangest, and also one of the most rewarding.

Zhongdian is many things. Shangri-La, however, it is not. Obviously there is no such place as the Shangri-La described by Hilton (and even in the book, we are left wondering whether it was all imagined by the hero as he lay freezing in the cold after a plane crash). I see Shangri-La as a wishful fantasy of young people seduced by visions of the good Dalai Lama and a serene and blissful Tibet, a place that never, ever existed, but that Westerners like to superimpose on reality, desperately wanting to believe that there is something better, more meaningful than our Western culture. I saw two types of Westerners in Zhongdian: young hippie-types, and older Bohemian types (the kinds who dress unconventionally and smoke a lot of cigarettes, the 60-year-olds who don’t mind staying in youth hostels and who carry the Lonely Planet guidebook with them).

I was very happy to find at my hotel a book by China hand Laurence J. Brahm titled Searching for Shangri-La. It delves into this phenomenon of man’s obsession with finding Shangri-La in great detail, and looks at several of the places in the region that have been said to actually be “the real Shangri-La” (including Zhongdian). Most of all I enjoyed the chapter in which Brahm interviews rock musician Kaiser Kuo, who has many very wise, very thought-provoking observations on why Westerners continue to search for a Shangri-La that doesn’t exist, and how this search is affecting the way in which China is marketing itself. (Kaiser doesn’t use those exact words, but that’s the message I got.) He observes:

Clearly it is just an attempt to milk this new age trend for whatever it is worth, to grab middle aged people who are looking for more meaning in life. Yet, it’s an illusion. Maybe it’s not even that. It’s a kind of vulnerability which has made them accept without a real reflection mystic east philosophy while rejecting traditions handed on to them by their parents.

I’ve had some spirited (but always cordial) disagreements with Kaiser, but in this instance he is right on, and brilliant. It never ceases to amaze me to see how eager some Americans are to embrace any idea that goes against what they associate with commercialized Western culture. Thus the urge to explore traditional Chinese medicine and accupuncture (both of which I believe in, by the way), and to fall for the illusion of a real Shangri-La, to believe that it is something they can stumble onto in the hills of Tibet. Where I disagree a bit with Kaiser is his reference to this as a middle-age phenomenon. I think it’s especially prevalent among the young, especially the college-aged who are easily seduced by New Age promises that they can “change their lives” if only they take ginseng and read Buddhist poetry. I want to believe that most middle-agers (like me) know full well that Shangri-La can only be attained within oneself, and never by arriving at a specific place. And even then, it will be far from perfect.

Yaks graze alongside a Zhongdian road

I loved Zhongdian in some ways, and loved it less so in other ways. There’s very little to do there aside from visiting the gorgeous monastery and hiking around, and there is construction going on everywhere as entrepreneurs race to cash in on the village’s name. There’s also some terrible poverty, and very little that will live up to most people’s vision of Shangri-La. But if you can, I urge you to go there, at least for a couple of days. The food was superb (even though I couldn’t get used to Yak butter tea, which reminded me of warm melted homemade cheese) and the scenery stunning, and it is a slice of life you won’t see in many other places.

The real, uncommercialized Zhongdian is obviously fast disappearing. Get there while you can, before the entire village becomes another Old Lijiang — beautiful but totally commercialized and geared to the souvenir-hungry tourist. While it was not my favorite place on this trip, it may be the place I will remember and think about the most.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

These are great posts. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.

March 21, 2005 @ 1:27 am | Comment

There was a documentary series called In Search of Myths and Heroes, presented by historian Michael Wood, on BBC television recently. One of the episodes was about Shangri-La, and Wood concluded that the myth derived from a city built into the rock in a remote Tibetan valley which served as a refuge for the country’s rulers in times of crisis. (I’m afraid that I can’t remember the details, and the BBC website avoids giving spoilers for the episode.) There is also a book of the series.

March 21, 2005 @ 5:54 am | Comment

thanks so much for the report. what i’m dying to know is: who is kaisor kuo? and what kind of rock music would this be?

March 21, 2005 @ 7:16 am | Comment

ah, i now found the respective links on your site. the spelling of kaiser/kaisor/kaizor seems variable. ๐Ÿ™‚

March 21, 2005 @ 8:18 am | Comment

itha, Kaisor started a popular band some years ago in Beijing, Tang Dynasty. I know he has since started another band, but am not sure of the name. His own blog is linked in my lefthand sidebar, under Pearls of Asia.

March 21, 2005 @ 9:11 am | Comment

yep, got it. taa!

March 21, 2005 @ 10:45 am | Comment

I ducked into this comments thread to recommend Kaiser Kuo, but I see someone else already has.

He’s an Asian-American writer and metal guitarist, and has for some years now been one of my very favorite western writers in China.

You can currently find him in That’s Beijing or the link someone already posted.Thoughtful, insightful, funny, intelligent, personable – you’re sure to enjoy his musings.

March 21, 2005 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

The new band is called ‘Chunqiu’ – “Spring & Autumn.” They rock so hard, they’ll melt your face off.

March 24, 2005 @ 12:37 am | Comment

Wow, all this nice stuff about lil’ old me. Yeah, I spewed a fair bit o’ bile about that insufferably lame New Age crap and Shangri-La in that interview — an interview which took place, ironically, in Lijiang (where my band was playing at the Snow Mountain Music Festival) right across the creek from some cafe owned by Zhu Zheqin, a.k.a. Dadawa, a Han singer who’s capitalized on an ersatz Tibetan identity to sling lame music to the gullible, spiritually thirsty masses. Not everything I said managed to get transcribed accurately, I fear. I have a pretty clear recollection of what I said; the quoted paragraph above doesn’t quite sound like me at all, though the sentiments were mine. Mystic eastern philosophy, I would have said, and not “east philosopy.” And the phrase “Yet, it’s an illusion” would never have escaped my lips. Brahm — a nice guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of the labyrinthine workings of Zhongnanhai politics — made a documentary of this Shangri-La thing in which I appear as the cynical, foul-mouthed nay-sayer. It’s a role I was born to. I think at one point I went off on “horoscope housewives who fall prostrate at anything that smacks of high Himalayan hocus-pocus,” or so someone told me.

My name’s spelled Kaiser. The whole “Kaizor” confusion arises only because that’s the user name I picked for my silly Live Journal, which isn’t really worth reading as it’s mostly mundane details about my life if that. Kaizor was a nickname some stoner friends gave me in college. The proper name is Kaiser, and it’s my real given name on my birth certificate and all. Spelled like the roll or the unpleasant aggressor with the spiked helm in the Great War, or the West Coast HMO, or the aluminum company. Richard, when you get a chance, could you fix that on your link to the left? Thanks!

March 24, 2005 @ 10:27 am | Comment

Thanks for the great comment, Kaiser. I’ll make the correction right now.

March 24, 2005 @ 10:44 am | Comment

Hi there, Kaiser and I attended the same grad school. If anyone knows how to get hold of him, pls let me know!! Thanks a lot, vera

April 11, 2006 @ 11:19 pm | Comment

Hi, Vera. I am your long lost friend, George. I am now living in Shanghai. How is everything? Living in the US or Germany. I am currently in Prague for a meeting. Email:

July 1, 2006 @ 8:24 am | Comment

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