Shangri-La isn't what it was

By Liz Sly

The Age - Melbourne, 8 December 1999

In the pristine land of Zhongdian, China - of soaring peaks and deep ravines, of swirling mists and trickling streams - the lost paradise of Shangri-La has been found by a government committee. By putting paradise on the map however, there is a danger it will be lost once more.

Conceived by British author James Hilton in the 1933 novel Lost Horizons and immortalised by Frank Capra in the film of the same name, Shangri-La has become synonymous in the English language with a mythical, utopian land.

All that was known for sure was that Hilton placed his Shangri-La somewhere in Tibet, providing a good excuse for a steady stream of explorers to clamber over the Himalayas and look for it. National Geographic sponsored a trek last year that located a possible site.

A year earlier, China had tried to end any debate, declaring that a committee of experts concluded that the remote, impoverished backwater of Yunnan province was, in fact, Shangri-La. Though not technically within the borders of Tibet proper, the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, on the western fringes of the Himalayas and the Southern rim of the Tibetan plateau, forms part of the broader entity of Tibet.

The Chinese are capitalising on it. Shangri-La restaurants, Shangri-La cafes and Shangri-La karaoke bars are proliferating. Shangri-La villages are springing up around the countryside. A Shangri-La airport opened in July in the prefecture's main town, Zhongdian, bringing jumbo jets screeching in to land on top of what was until recently the winter home of an endangered breed of crane.

The influx threatens to wreak havoc with an area that is a unique ecological, biological and geological natural wonder, the home of hundreds of rare and endangered plants and species, including 435 different varieties of rhododendron.