My Shangri-la: Designer Buddhism, Panna Cotta Wars, and Rat Hunts
It’s been 74 years since the British novelist James Hilton published Lost Horizon, his fictional account of a utopian valley in Tibet called “Shangri-la.” Hilton’s tale of a group of westerners, kidnapped by a Tibetan pilot on an airfield in India and flown against their wills to a remote valley in Tibet, is a curious mixture of mad improbability and life-like detail. Isolated, walled in by mountains, Shangri-la is intensely unfamiliar — perhaps, our author heavily suggests, because it isn’t unhappy. Ruled by a lamasery, its inhabitants live to 150, and jazz is outlawed. Vice, like virtue, is practiced in moderation, and radios are as unknown as traffic cops. Which, we wonder, would we miss less?
When I heard that, in 2003, the Chinese government had actually changed the name of a town in Yunnan province from Zhongdian to Shangri-la, however, I felt impelled to get a map of China and have a closer look. And there it was, nestled on the Tibet border and equipped with a small airport and Banyan Tree resort: Xiangilala. An idea had been turned into a place, which is even more intriguing than the other way around.
On my way through Shanghai, I took the time to read Lost Horizon. It’s a potboiler, written by an obviously intelligent man, and like many such works, it exerts a curious, trashy spell on the unconscious. Let me summarize. At the head of the western contingent that lands in Shangri-la is Conway, a strapping but disillusioned Oxford intellectual who speaks fluent Chinese: I imagine him as a young Aldous Huxley contemplating his own future utopian work, Island. With him are a Bible-punching maid, a disreputable American Wall Street operator fleeing justice, and a young English prig, who desperately wants to get out of Shangri-La and back to, well, Welwyn Garden City. Dialogue is peppy. “Dammit, man, what are we chaps going to do?” Conway, though, is quietly impressed. Shangri-la’s plumbing, he discovers with a joyful frisson, has been imported from America and the only inconvenience as far as he can see is that once you’ve entered the golden valley, you can’t leave. It’s an interesting dilemma. Good plumbing, no freedom.
And there are other peculiarities. Shangri-la, it turns out, is not really Tibetan at all. It was founded by a wandering Frenchman called Perrault in the 18th century who lived to an amazing age and founded the monastery’s collection of classical music and world classics. Then we discover that the High Lama himself is a Bronte scholar, a fan of Wuthering Heights, no less. And it soon transpires that he isn’t Tibetan either — he is Perrault!
Despite these preposterous twists and turns, Lost Horizon enjoyed so much success in the 1930′s that it was able to simultaneously inspire a movie, the naming of a presidential compound, and seven Nazis expeditions to Tibet, the most famous being the 1938 Schafer expedition. Quite a feat for a thinking man’s potboiler. But did Shangri-la ever exist? Why has the word remained so persistent a part of the vocabulary of English?
In Wikipedia, we find the following entry: “Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. The story of Shangri-La is based on the concept of Shambhala, a mystical city in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.” In Sanskrit, Shambhala means “place of tranquility.”
The Banyan Tree chain, based in Hong Kong, has rushed into this orgy of marketing with a grisly alacrity. The people behind it hope, obviously, to latch onto the great reservoir of affluent Westerners who are, no doubt, going to be charmed by the very idea of a Himalayan paradise. The cruder side of the real Tibet will be kept at bay, mainly by siting the hotel miles from the main road on a lonely hillside overlooking an equally lonely river. No one can get to you: Well, the Tibetans can’t get to you; the yaks can’t get at you either. But your unconscious can.
That’s the whole point. It’s an austere place, and its appeal is to the mystical grain of self-denial buried so fondly within the average Wall Street hedge-fund man — or, now that the round-eyed Americans are broke, their Chinese counterparts.
It feels like a remote imperial outpost in Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” behind whose impressive walls one might wait for the arrival of greasy little thugs on ponies. Instead, one enjoys the Jacuzzi units in the farmhouses and eats panna cotta on the terrace at sunset with silver spoons while chit-chatting with the international leisure class. The rooms are actually converted farmhouses, painted dark red inside and protected by their own walls and traditional gates. From the upper rooms, you can see the yaks staring at you. No one knows why yaks stare so, but they make one deliciously nervous, walking around in a $400 bathrobe: Perhaps it’s because they look at you as if you owe them money.
One morning I went into Xiangilala. It was a disappointment, of course. A frontier town filled with traffic cops should never enjoy such a name. I waded along the usual Chinese avenues of five-headed lamps looking like a pompous promenade in an English seaside town bordered by a mess of frenzied construction. New hotels were rising everywhere. Nightmarish billboards loomed out of the rain, with the word “Shangri-la,” blazing in both Chinese and Tibetan. The sides of the houses were covered with mysterious rows of graffiti numbers — telephone numbers, it would seem, but for what?
That night I wandered through the old town. There was a Zhang tribal dance going on in one of the squares with dozens of Zhang women in bright headdresses doing a kind of circular Morris dance accompanied by some great, galloping, white hippy girls in outlandish frocks. The news has gotten out. Shangri-la exists, and you can be a terpsichoric hippy there. No one minds.
Back in 1995, before the mania to become Shangri-la set in, Zhongdian drew a mere 4,336 visitors. One understands immediately that, in only five years, a beady-eyed government in Beijing allied with investors in Hong Kong has turned this place into a cash-crunching fantasy machine. It’s a perfect example of why tourism has such a bad reputation among people who profess not to be tourists, which is to say virtually everybody. It has no real reason for happening other than a crude grasping for dollars; it assumes that branding is omnipotent; it takes us all for idiots. Moreover, it succeeds in all three assumptions.
But back to the Banyan Tree. The design is meticulously Tibetan and Buddhist-feeling. Spare, flowing water, pebbles: the international language of designer Buddhism. In the resort’s common areas, though, you sometimes see well-off couples from around the world padding about with wind-spiked hair, gasping in the high altitude, and complaining about the food. This is not so Buddhist.
There were a few furious scenes at dinner. One night, a South African guy stood up from his table and screamed in exasperation, “This isn’t it a bloody panna cotta, man, it’s a bad bloody chocolate pudding!”
“It is panna cotta,” the waiter said with seething aggression.
“It is not panna cotta.”
They almost came to blows.
“It’s chocolate bloody pudding.”
“Panna cotta!” the waiter cried, emotionally.
Now, I couldn’t imagine Hilton writing that dialogue in his Shangri-la, but then we are not told if the 200-year monks ever sampled panna cotta. Yet the resort did remind me of the novel all the same. It does feel a little like a utopian project. Those yaks: they’re just so perfect.
But is utopia ever content? The staffers are drawn from every part of Asia, and as I was sipping a beer on the terrace, looking out over patches of snow and yet more grazing yaks, a staffer from Malaysia confessed to me that everyone hated working there, that the bosses were ruthless penny-pinchers, and that the Thais and the Indonesians couldn’t stand this so-called Shangri-la. I asked the spa staff, in Thai (for secrecy’s sake) what they thought of the Chinese. “Chinese big barbarian pigs,” they said sadly, shaking their heads. “We not happy.”
Syncretism is always a hard thing to pull off, but here it has almost become something you have to decode for your own sanity. The prices are exorbitant and you are surrounded by one of the poorest regions on earth. Normally, this is not a deathly factor, per se, and it can sometimes be cannily explained away. But not here, somehow. You are paying, essentially, for a beautiful setting and a beautiful farmhouse, and the mish-mosh restaurant food designed to please the mythical “western palate” makes one yearn for some rancid butter tea and bershom made with Tibetan wild mushrooms.
But there are some mystical oddities all the same. They say that, at harvest time, the place swarms with rats and gerbils. They are apparently uncontrollable, just a fact of life in a rural environment. It was my driver, La, who explained this as we sat one night in his house, three miles from the Banyan Tree, drinking his “Zhang wine,” brewed with ancient herbs in rooms colored with home-made frescoes reminiscent of LSD trips. We were so drunk that we had laid out on your backs in the middle of the room, surrounded by smoking, yak-butter candles. “The gerbils,” La cried. “The giant rats. Everywhere! The Banyan Tree is doomed!”
After leaving the resort, as it happened, we drove many days to Litang in Sichuan. On a lonely stretch of road, not far from the desolate town of Daocheng, La suddenly slammed on the brakes. Without saying a word, he slipped out of the Jeep and unsheathed his SOG Survival knife. A few feet away, what looked like a giant rodent stood gnawing a piece of brightly colored fabric — a torn prayer flag. La sprang after it, and it shot away across the snow-spotted tundra. I could only watch helplessly as some mysterious drama played itself out between man and rodent. La ran at a furious pace right out to the horizon, then disappeared.
I read later that parts of China have been overrun by an outsize rodent species, Rhombomys opimus. Better known as Great Gerbils, these creatures can grow to be 16 inches long and have nibbled away more than 11 million acres of Chinese grassland. Perhaps that’s why La was so motivated to subdue the offending animal. Or perhaps it was the insult to the prayer flag. Or perhaps a Great Gerbil is a ready meal. Finally, La came back empty-handed, sighed, turned on the ignition, and then touched his lips with his fingers. He shook his head and then pointed, mysteriously, to one of the runic tattoos needled into his neck. “Banyan Tree,” he said darkly, and I had no idea what he meant.
There are worse places to stay in Shangri-la, of course; the Red Army Shining Star motel, for example, or the Pacific Rim. You could even end, God help you, in the Gyalthang Dzong, described as lying “in a vast grassland of alpine flora dotted with cattle of yak.”
True, these places won’t run your credit rating. But the Banyan at least makes us feel like life is not entirely cheap and disposable. It lets us breathe the rarified air of our own myths. The rooms are pretty good, too.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook