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Life in Shangri-La

Photographer: Hwee Young How


Formerly known as Zhongdian (Gyalthang in Tibetan), the county was officially renamed Shangri-La in 2001 in a bid by the local government to attract tourism. Meaning the 'Sun and Moon in heart' in the Tibetan language, the word Shangri-La refers to a fictional land described in the 1933 book 'Lost Horizon' by British author James Hilton which evokes an imagery of a paradise of mystical beauty.


At an altitude of 3,300 m, the alpine plateau is located in the far north of China’s Yunan province in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture bordering between Tibet and Sichuan province. Most of its inhabitants are ethnic Tibetans but there has been a rapid influx of Han Chinese living and working in the area as the tourism industry boomed over the years.


The thriving tourism industry has attracted many enterprising ethnic Tibetans to open rustic lodges and tour agencies in the ‘old town’ of Dukezong, while most others depend on farming, livestock rearing and logging for subsistence in more rural areas. Many have their own land and houses and praise the local government for subsidies on provisions such as solar power panels and running water.


The Chinese government has tightened security in most Tibetan inhabited areas this year to contain rising tension after an escalation of self-immolations by monks, nuns and ethnic Tibetans, especially in the western regions of Sichuan province just bordering Shangri-La. Residents said there has been an increased presence of Chinese military personnel and vehicles in the area during the height of tensions in the Tibetan New year in February and a riot anniversary in March. There is however scant military presence currently in Shangri-La as the tourist county prepares for their annual tourist season starting in May, seemingly to maintain a facade of peace and tranquility that befits the name of the place.


While many Tibetans in China criticize the government for religious suppression and erosion of the Tibetan culture by the influx of Han Chinese, the ethnic Tibetans of Shangri-La have seemingly reached an entente with the local authorities in a flourishing local economy, where peace seems to be maintained as long as they do not address sensitive topics.