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Tourists Overwhelm China's 'Shangri-La'
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Tourists Overwhelm China's 'Shangri-La'



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Shangri-La was described as paradise on Earth, set in a mystical Tibetan garden spot. The only problem with Shangri-La is that it never existed outside the imagination, but with the go-go capitalists' spirit alive and well in China, some Chinese entrepreneurs have recreated Shangri-La, at least a profit making version of it.

When NPR's Louisa Lim paid a visit to the town, she discovered some differences between the Chinese Shangri-La and the one in the movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lost Horizon")

Mr. H.B. WARNER (Actor): (As Chang) Welcome to Shangri-la. You see we are sheltered by mountains on every side. The streams flowing, for which we are very grateful.

LOUISA LIM: Shangri-La, who's long existed in popular culture inspired by a 1933 novel James Hilton, it originally referred to an unspoiled mythical valley of long life, high culture and advanced plumbing. Yet, Shangri-La now exists as a real place on a map. It's a town in northwestern Yunnan province in China, which has been rechristened Shangri-La or Xianggelila. And I'm standing in its bustling streets surrounded by vendors trying to sell me Tibetan trinkets, yak skulls and hiking gear. I feel about as far as possible from that mythical paradise.

Mr. EMMANUEL VIABEL(ph): Yeah. I think it's too new and there are too much shopping center.

Ms. VANESSA PRODINGTON(ph): But I think it's different than what I initially expected. You think Shangri-La is just bare, natural, but when we get to this city Shangri-La…

(Soundbite of music)

Tourists Emmanuel Viabel and Vanessa Prodington watching the nightly ritual of dancing in the old town square. The tourist rush has revitalized this area's traditions. Indeed, even the old town itself is a triumph of reinvention, having been largely demolished and rebuilt in traditional style as part of the repackaging strategy. Director of tourism Awa(ph) sounds more like a salesman.

AWA (Director of Tourism): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: We want to promote and build on the Shangri-La brand, he says, this even though tourism has increased 700-fold in the last decade.

He quotes figures showing how incomes have shot up exponentially. But not all of the town's 50,000 residents are happy.

Mr. ABU WANGDUI (Resident, Shangri-La): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Get out. Please, get out. Seventy-seven-year-old Abu Wangdui pleads as tourists crowd through the gates of his 400-year-old wooden house.

Mr. WANGDUI: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: There are too many visitors nowadays, he says. I used to welcome them, but now I'm fed up. And my old house can't take it either.

Right here now I can see an example of the pressure of tourism on this small town. We're actually in a traffic jam on the way to go to the 300-year-old Buddhist monastery, the Songzanlin Temple. And we're crawling behind a whole line of taxis, buses and tour buses. Last year there were 3.3 million visitors to this small town. And this year, they're expecting a 20 percent increase on that number.

Mr. WANGDUI: The Gedan Songzanlin Monastery is located in the north hillside of Gedan. In fact, in Tibetan we call them Gelta(ph)…

LIM: So here in the corner of one of the temples there's another example of just how much tourism has impinged on religious life here. Just opposite of some of the altars there's a small souvenir shop, which is staffed by monks selling necklaces and bracelets. And I've been - I've just talking to Lebi(ph) and Pashi Delai(ph), two of the monks who are working here. And they say that all the objects they are selling are for religious use and what they're doing is for the good of the temple.

However, to be involved in this type of financial transactions day in and day out seems far from the type of spiritual life that many of the monks may have been seeking when they came here.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking in foreign language)

Mr. WANGDUI: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The tourists do influence the amount of time we spent studying. A monk called Wanzha tells me, as he pounds on yak butter to make altar decorations.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking in foreign language)

LIM: Nearby, young monks debate theological points. New temples are being built, showing the upside of tourism. But local photographer Zeren Pingcuo complains the benefits of the boom aren't being shared equally. He says outsiders are cashing in, while a lack of education means few Tibetans are getting rich.

Mr. ZEREN PINGCUO (Local photographer): (Through Translator) Now, it's very different from the Shangri-La in the book. Before, we lived in harmony as we had equal wealth. Our traditional culture was well preserved. Now, there are lots of sharp conflicts of interest.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking in foreign language)

LIM: The area's culture is under threat from tourism, he warns, as well as its fragile ecosystem. The outside world has intruded on Shangri-La, and this clip from the 1937 film now sounds scarily prophetic.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lost Horizon")

Ms. JANE WYATT (Actress): (As Sondra Bizet) I've never seen the outside world, but I understand there are millions and millions of people who are supposed to be mean and greedy. And I just know that secretly, they're all hoping to find a garden spot where there's peace, security, where there's beauty and comfort, where they wouldn't have to be mean and greedy. Oh, I just wish the whole world might come to this valley.

Mr. RONALD COLMAN (Actor): (As Robert Conway) There wouldn't be a garden spot for long.

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shangri-La.

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