In Search of Shangri-La

GO FEEDBACK: A townland in southwest China has changed its name from Zhongdiàn to Shangri-La. A shameless marketing ploy? Certainly. Is it working? Absolutely, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN.

SHANGRI-LA. The name rolls around your tongue like a ripe plum. A fabled destination, described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, it has been luring travellers to the mountains for almost eight decades.


Some claimed it was located in the KunLun Mountains in Tibet; others touted the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. Then in 2001 a small town in China’s southwest Yúnnán Provence elbowed aside its contenders and changed its name from Zhongdiàn. Shangri-La, it claimed, was found and it re-named its townland accordingly.


A shameless marketing ploy? Certainly. Is it working? Absolutely.

“The Famous Dr Ho” pictured outside his herbal medicine clinic in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Photographer: Will Chin

That Hilton never visited China is irrelevant. It’s believed that he was greatly influenced by the writings of the Austrian-American eccentric scholar, botanist and adventurer Dr Joseph Rock, who lived in southwest China for 27 years and extensively published the findings of his expeditions in National Geographic.


Rock was based in Yúnnán Provence on the outskirts of Lijiang, a town which is now a Unesco site and approximately 170kms from the alleged fabled valley.


I decided to explore this region of China, inhabited by some 25 ethnic minority groups, catalogued by Rock and, if we’re to believe the stories, mythologised by Hilton.


I arrived in Lijiang on a cold January morning. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towered above the old town’s cobbled lane-ways, which were intersected by canals, arced by stone crescent bridges and canopied by slate-tiled roofs.


It was achingly perfect, until the sun rose and the town chirped into life. Every building was transformed into a shop-front for tourist trinkets. Naxi women, from the local minority group, arrived in traditional garb. Their men, wearing fur capes, wheeled ponies into the centre square for photo opportunities. Excited tourists swarmed the lanes and cameras clicked at breakneck speed.


Escaping the fray I hopped on a mini-bus to the unspoiled village of Báisha, which is located in the folds of the Jade Dragon Mountains.

Róisín overlooking the Yangtze River, which runs through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Photographer: Will Chin

I ambled slowly, over-taking pecking hens and old folk playing mahjong, a traditional Chinese game, before reaching the doorway I had been searching for.


As I hovered at the threshold, a figure peered from behind a desk, bundled in layers, topped by a worn blue pharmacist’s coat. “Welcome, welcome. I am The Most Admired Man.” Rheumy eyes watered above a shredded grey goatee. I stepped forward, hand extended, “Dr Ho, I presume.”


“Ah, you’ve heard of me,” he nodded as he ushered me into his small herbal medicine clinic, walls cluttered with cuttings from travel magazines and scientific journals lauding “The Famous Dr Ho” in circus-style declamations.

The Taoist shaman, who studied with the legendary Rock, was first catapulted to fame by the British writer Bruce Chatwin when he passed this way in 1986. A humble man, his life has changed little for all the attention.


Pre-empting my questions he handed me bundles of e-mails from students, patients and journalists from all over the world. These included offers to translate his biography; pleas from agents to “package” herbal study programmes; and correspondence from patients he had successfully treated in his mountain clinic.


More tourists arrived as I flicked through the pile and he performed like a pro in front of the cameras. “Look at me,” he smiled. “I’m 88 years old. My skin is that of a baby.” He pulled at his cuff to show off a white wrist. His secret to health? “Don’t worry, be happy.”


Armed with his advice I climbed aboard a bus heading to Qiaotao. From there I aimed to hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze River flows between Haba Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, before following the road a further 50km to the fabled destination.

Hiking along the gorge’s upper trail I passed through Naxi villages, terraced farmland, under waterfalls and along the cliff face with beautiful views of the canyon that rises 2,000m.


Traders dotted the path peddling oranges and donkeys for the weary. For all that, it was a peaceful trek with lovely views that got even better on the second day when the trail levelled and mist drifted through the gorge like a scene from a traditional Chinese painting.


Returning to the lower road, I made my way back to Qiaotao to catch the last bus to Shangri-La, which is located close to the Tibetan border at an altitude of 3,200m.

Naxi women from the local minority group flood Lijiang’s central square where they join in traditional dancing. Photographer: Will Chin

The bus was crowded with travellers from Lijiang. We gained ground slowly and the chatter was relaxed. Then, at a sharp bend, the bus stumbled. Passengers fluttered like birds before a flight.


The driver yelled into his phone and words criss-crossed the bus: the upper passes were blocked with snow. Shangri-La could not be reached. Heads shook slowly as the bus laboured through a painful u-turn.


Shangri-La’s inaccessibility has always been its greatest allure. It hovers on the edge of fantasy and belief – both mythical and potentially attainable. For the wanderer it represents a place so beautiful that there’s no turning back and no going onward.


Whether Shangri-La (or Zhongdiàn) is in fact the end of the road, or a ploy to net the checklist tourist, remains a mystery. The facts dissolve when stirred into a good story.


Get there


Airlines which fly from Dublin to Beijing include,,,, and There are flights from Beijing to Lijiang Airport. See for discount offers on local airlines.


Article originally published by The Irish Times