In May 1938, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sent a research expedition to the Tibetan Plateau. The members of the party were anthropologists, mostly German. In exchange for the resources to complete their fieldwork, the group leaders, among them critics of the regime, agreed to become SS officers. While the team, led by renowned zoologist Ernst Schafer, would carry out anthropological study, as a final kicker Himmler required that the crew search for a lost tribe of pureblood Aryans. Remember, the Nazis believed the Aryan race sprang from a pre-Buddhist Indo-Asian society. The inverted swastika, now synonymous with hate is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for goodness. The group returned abruptly in 1939—with Europe on the brink of all-out war—with some valuable new material, but to everyone’s great surprise failed to locate any pureblood Aryans.
Much of this wayward Nazi theory derived from mystical accounts of a high Himalayan Utopia, an earthen paradise shielded from the rest of the world by soaring snow-capped peeks and, potentially, overprotective gods. One of the major components of said ideology is James Hilton’s mythologically-informed 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon speaks of a place called “Shangri-La.” Shangri-La is a kind of original version of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s village of Macondo. It’s isolated and idyllic, has magical tendencies, and the inhabitants seem to live unearthly spans of life. It’s as close to heaven as you can get on god’s green earth. It’s position high above the horizon, deep within the clouds, adds to its aura of Nirvana. I went there a few days ago.
Shangri-La is not real. Or, at least, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real until 2001, to be exact. In that year, the Chinese town of Zhongdian (中甸), located in the northernmost county of Yunnan province and firmly within the Tibetan Plateau, opted to change it’s name to Shangri-La (香格里拉). The local government claims that Zhongdian is the setting for the (not real) Shangri-La in Hilton’s novel. They also claim, more rationally, that such a name change would be a boon to local tourism. They were right. Changing a Tibetan city’s name to Shangri-La is akin to a down-and-out university in the British countryside changing its name to Hogwarts. It’s probably not illegal, and if you can fool people into belief or at least curiosity, why not?
Shangri-La (香格里拉) is a fairly large city near Yunnan’s border with Tibet and Sichuan. It has a KFC, which is, in my estimation, evidence that a Chinese city has arrived. The existence of KFC in Shangri-La also goes a long way in validating the government’s claims that their city is indeed an earthly paradise. Shangri-La doesn’t feel any different from your average mid-sized city in Yunnan. Lots of hole in the wall restaurants with “C” health ratings. The Chinese FDA rates hygiene on a scale of A, B, or C. A is represented by a grinning ear-to-ear yellow smiley face. B is a green “hmmmm…” face and C is a red, grumbling frown. I have never seen an A. Never. There are hustling tuk-tuk drivers. There’s a bunch of be-dreadlocked foreigners that look lost or in the process of being found (or probably just on drugs). There’s a “Next Station” bubble tea chain, the pre-KFC indicator of imminent arrival of a city in Yunnan.
The current standout aspect of Shangri-La however, is not something the government, or James Hilton, planned. This January a worker, deep in the heart of the ancient city left a blow dryer on. Due to the fact that the ancient city is/was hundreds and hundreds of years old, things escalated quickly. Today, only a few blocks remain of the old town. Walking through Shangri-La’s old city is incredibly bizarre. It feels like ancient Rome, yet the destruction took place only a few months ago. And the cause of destruction was not violent Visigoths, but a hairdryer. Centuries of history reduced to complete rubble in days. A single steel spiral staircase rises up in the middle of a field of bricks and dust.
On our first night in Shangri-La, three friends and I decided we best sample the local nightlife. We headed for the new town. I’d feel cheated if a place that purports itself to be paradise didn’t know how to get down. We first went to your run-of-the-mill Indian-Nepali-Tibetan-Chinese-Chilean fusion spot located down the road from our hostel. The proprietor, a Chilean guy named Ricky, served us the house specialty; yak meat empanadas. Tibetan-chic. As far as I could tell, Ricky, who’s lived in Shangri-La for three years, was the only ex-pat living in the city. After a delectable, eclect-able mix of yak meat empanadas, chicken tikka masala, French fries, and Shangri-La beer that made me feel like I was in Babu Batt’s Dream Café, we headed for the local scene.
We bought some bottles of the local version of baijiu, qingkejiu (青稞酒), at a giant supermarket. This version was made with barley instead of wheat. It was, beyond my expectations of plausibility, even worse than our local Heqing interpretation. The brand we bought came in an inauspicious bottle that looked more like it belonged in the cleaning fluids aisle than anywhere near the “things people consume” aisle. The taste confirmed our suspicions.
We settled on a tiny second floor bar/club/lounge. We climbed the rickety steps and sat down at a table next to the dance floor. The dance floor stood in the center of the place. About 10 tables and couches flanked the front and left side. The bar was on the right. The spot was so smoky I couldn’t open my eyes without crying, like I was trapped in a room full of onion choppers. I lit up a cigarette.
The lights were bright. On the stage were two 20-something guys in traditional Tibetan dress singing folk songs. Some people sang along halfheartedly. Generally, people just walked across the stage to and from the bar without regard. About 15 minutes after we arrived, the music cut, the (presumably) Tibetan guys vacated, and intense thumping base started emanating from all corners of the club. The strobes hit “bad news for an epileptic, and incredibly annoying for anyone” level. The first song: a bassed-out bilingual version of “Happy Birthday,” sung by what sounded like a teenage Chinese girl. Boom Boom Boom. I looked around and realized the average age was probably 18 or 19. There were definitely some older people (my age, that is), but if you’re talking simple random sample, the crowd was probably on average post-’93. I felt like I was in an Abercrombie and Fitch: surrounded by darkness, loudness, suffocating stench, (this time smoke instead of Fierce cologne) and teenagers.
Chinese bars/clubs are weird. Weird in the sense that I’m used to American nightlife and Chinese bars/clubs aren’t like them. When travelling outside major urban centers, you are inevitably going to see some wacky shit.
A few years ago, I went with some friends to Hangzhou, a short train ride from Shanghai. After some sightseeing we went to a club (glorified bar) downtown. Upon entrance we were rushed to a table and given a bunch of free drink cards. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Yunnan. I won’t say it happened a lot in Shanghai, but I won’t say it didn’t happen a lot. We were three: an Italian girl, a Saudi guy, and myself.
Anyways, you get free drinks, you get drunk. I was suitably inebriated by one or two a.m. when shit started to get out of hand. The bar started playing some hyper-paced, high-pitched English songs (sung by Chinese people of course). Happy Birthday was definitely among them. The strobe lights picked up. Five or six people dressed as giant animals appeared out of nowhere (a rabbit, a cow, a dog among others). They began dancing a meticulously choreographed program and pumping their fists/paws violently to the beat. Everyone in the crowd clapped along with unbridled passion. After a few moments they dispersed throughout the club, dancing their way between tables as the beat boom boomed and creeping the living shit out of no one except me. They ran back on stage and danced for another minute. When they finished, there was raucous applause. I wondered if I’d be allowed to go back to earth at that point. Immediately after they finished, the bar turned the lights on and everyone left. I took my thumb out of my mouth and opened my eyes.
The bar in Shangri-La was not quite on this level of flat-out lunacy, but it was just different. You get used to a certain type of procedure. A club or bar looks like certain things. Dancing, for one (or at least what American college students like to believe is dancing). There wasn’t much of that going on. There was one guy who would come up behind people and hug them and wiggle around a little bit. He probably would have gotten bounced in the US, but everyone kind of just brushed him off as funny. But dancing, not really. It seemed like more of a place to hang out and chain smoke than an avenue for casual encounters. And that was okay.
You get used to certain things. You get programmed. You see the weird in the different but not in the everyday. Last night, a bit further up the road from Shangri-La, we stayed in a mountainside hostel called “The Feeling of Youth.” Feeling of Youth lies many thousands of meters up in the air, bounded by whitecaps as far as the eye can see. It was cold. That high-altitude, thin cold that creeps under your jacket and goes directly to the bone. I had to use the bathroom. I walked downstairs. There were three options: Two squat toilets without doors and a pristine looking commode with a door that actually locked. I went for the commode, obviously. I sat down and my body went ice cold. I got up, opened the door, and went to the neighboring squat toilet. It felt right, even comfortable.
Did I receive a divine message during my time in Shangri-La? No, because Shangri-La is a fake place. Did I find the pureblood Aryans? I don’t think so, but there was a blond-haired, blue-eyed European couple staying at the hostel. However, when I made the symbolic switch from the commode to the squat, something certainly happened within me, literally and figuratively. I think I realized that I’m beginning to de-exotify my situation here. What appears abnormal and strange is starting to become my everyday, not just in action, but in thought as well. I’m not abandoning my former, American self. I don’t want to do that, not ever. I like my American self. But, what I’m talking about isn’t voluntary. It’s just happening. At first, I had to get used to chopsticks, not showering for a week, brutal baijiu sessions, and drivers that round hairpin turns over 10,000 foot cliffs while smoking a cigarette and screaming into their cell phone. Now, it’s just life, I guess. Maybe it took a freezing cold toilet seat for me to put it all together. I came, I saw, I used a squat toilet on my own free will. That was my Shangri-La.