Zhongdian = Shangri La, by government edict

I’ve talked about China’s campaign to position the sleepy Yunnan town of Zhongdian as Shangri La in an earlier post (which you can check out for my stunning photos and cutting-edge analysis). From a marketing/PR perspective, it’s a textbook example of repackaging. Slap a new name on a city, get the marketing machine rolling and, voila, you’ve got James Hilton fans flying over in droves, convinced they can live their cherished fantasy of finding the Lost Horizon that Hilton described nestled in the foothills of Tibet. The Guardian today has an insightful article on what a coup this is.

Flashing red neon tubes light up the way to the karaoke bar in Shangri-la’s Paradise hotel, where guests are invited to buy the company of hostesses: 100 yuan (ร‚ยฃ7) to sing for an hour, 200 yuan for a shared dance.

Five minutes further on is the Shangri-la “Old Town”, built from scratch in the past two years. The elegantly carved wooden buildings are already full of trinket sellers offering fluffy yaks, prayer beads and ceremonial daggers, while black-market hawkers walk the cobbled streets touting fake Rolex watches and Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Article continues
It is probably not what James Hilton had in mind when he dreamed up Shangri-la in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. But, in one of the most audacious rebranding exercises in history, this scruffy but spectacularly located Himalayan town has been renamed after the British author’s fictional utopia and designated a tourist paradise by order of the Chinese government.

The transformation of this once remote community into a sightseeing hub is part of a new phase of China’s economic expansion, which is taking the modernisation drive into some of the most remote places on earth, reducing poverty but ruining the environment…..

[C]onservationists face a losing battle against the 100 tour operators, hotel chains and travel agents in Shangri-la that are keen to grab a slice of the 50bn yuan budget allocated by Beijing to develop tourism in Shangri-la in the next decade. “Overall tourism is good. If we didn’t have this, we would rely on logging or mining, which are more destructive,” said Ziren Pingcuo, a Tibetan photographer and environmental activist. “But it is hurting the ecology, it is ruining the atmosphere of sacred places, and not enough of the benefits are passed on to local people.”

It is the same story across China’s least developed – and most beautiful – regions, which are now opening up to foreign visitors and domestic tourists from the wealthy eastern seaboard. In the past five years, the number of domestic tourist visits has increased from 744 million to 1.2 billion.

The rural landscape of Shangri-la remains bucolic, but the town is anything but an idyll. In one restaurant beggars enter to ask for money. A group of soldiers, reluctant to interrupt a drinking game that has one of them throwing up beside the table, shoos them away. “Don’t bother us. Go and ask the foreigner for money.” The closer you get to Shangri-la, the further it seems from utopia.

Zhongdian was interesting. Utopia it is surely not. I had planned to stay there three days, but cut it down to two. That’s more than enough time to see the temple and the yaks. If you go there looking for Lost Horizon, trust me, you’re in the wrong place.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

I’ve never been to Zhongdian, but based on this information, it seems like a good analogy would be to visit today’s English city of Nottingham to experience what Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest was like.

(Nottingham ain’t all bad, but just think of a typical, mostly dull, English midlands city whose days as an industrial town are mostly over. It ain’t Sherwood Forest anymore – and for that matter, neither is Sherwood Forest, a vestige of which does still exist.)

June 2, 2006 @ 4:04 am | Comment

As someone who lived in Nottingham during my last 6 years in the UK (and still having a son and home there), I have to grudgingly agree with Ivan.

If you want real Robin Hood kitsch, visit “The Tales of Robin Hood” a kitsch “living experience” of merrie medieval England.

Having said that, I’d recommend a few authentic ancient Nottingham pubs worth a visit: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, built into the sandstone cliff of Nottingham Castle, the Royal Children, and the New Inn, which can boast Lord Byron and D. H. Lawrence among its erstwhile tipplers.

June 2, 2006 @ 4:27 am | Comment

Well to be fair to Nottingham, Alan Sillitoe rocks!

Slightly off topic, my favourite “medieval kitsch” site in England is the York Dungeon. It’s full of wax figurines undergoing various kinds of torture, and when you press a button you can hear them scream. I went there once with a terrible hangover and somehow that made the experience even better. ๐Ÿ™‚

June 2, 2006 @ 4:54 am | Comment

There was a great article in China Daily (Clues to Shangri-La) about the possible contenders for the”real” Shangri-La title. Interestingly, Zhongdian wasn’t even among the contenders.

[You might be surprised that any article in China Daily could be described as great, but this one was. I wrote it.]

June 2, 2006 @ 5:13 am | Comment

Here’s that link again:


June 2, 2006 @ 5:15 am | Comment

That really is a fine article, Zhuanjia. Interesting, the name they’re using – Xianggelila. When i was there, i saw several iterations of this in English, such as Xiangabala. I assume when they market it to the West they’ll stick with Shangri-La.

June 2, 2006 @ 5:32 am | Comment

I once was trapped there for an entier week due to heavy rainfalls and landslides which had blocked all the roads. Can get quite boring there if you not suddenly discover your deep affection to budhism and a heavy desire for yak-butter tea.
Although they had nice place there were you could rent roler-scates, listen to pop-techno and drive in circles.

June 2, 2006 @ 6:51 am | Comment

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