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Paradise Found: A Chinese Town Stakes Its Claim


XIANGGELILA, China — The people of this mountain town live in paradise. They know this because the Chinese government has told them so.

It's not a paradise of the Communist, workers-of-the-world variety. Rather, local officials insist that this area, high up on the Tibetan plateau, is none other than Shangri-La, land of myth and beauty, source of the fountain of youth. It's the heaven on Earth described by James Hilton in his classic novel "Lost Horizon" and immortalized by Frank Capra in the movie of the same name.

Local authorities now have the title to prove it. Last month, this town's name was formally changed from Zhongdian to "Xiang-ge-li-la," the Chinese transliteration of Shangri-La. The switch was approved by China's top leaders, whose decision laid to rest a bitter spat over which town would be allowed to bill itself as the "real" utopia of Hilton's novel and, as a result, watch the tourists roll in.

Several hamlets around here vied for the honor. Zhongdian marshaled scholars who argued that it most closely resembled the Eden that Hilton described, a wind-swept Himalayan valley with a lamasery set high on a ledge and a colossal, mysterious mountain towering over monks and residents alike.

"The book refers to certain identifying characteristics," said He Zhenwen, a cabby used to rattling off the criteria to skeptical visitors. "There are Tibetans there. And Buddhists. And a river that forks into three branches. We have all of that. So it's pretty incontrovertible that we're the real McCoy."

Incontrovertible, no--"Lost Horizon" doesn't actually mention a river with three forks. But possible? Yes.

In Hilton's jolly romp of a book published in 1933, three Britons and a fugitive American stumble into Shangri-La after their plane gets hijacked out of India and crash-lands somewhere on the Tibetan plateau.

The group gets taken in by the monastery, which, it turns out, is presided over by a 200-year-old Catholic priest who has figured out how to slow the aging process through a combination of "drug-taking and deep-breathing exercises," Hilton wrote.

The inmates of the monastery spend their ever-expanding time learning new languages, playing Chopin on the piano, thinking deep thoughts and soaking in green porcelain bathtubs shipped in from Akron, Ohio.

The book doesn't specify exactly where this enchanted sanctuary is. Capra chose the Ojai area to double as paradise in his 1937 Oscar-winning film.

For many years after "Lost Horizon" was published, the only Shangri-La most people knew was the U.S. presidential retreat, which Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed Shangri-La after Hilton's fictitious wonderland. (It later became Camp David under President Eisenhower, who thought the name Shangri-La was "just a little too fancy for a Kansas farm boy.")

Hilton, however, was known to have based his vision of paradise on the real-life writings of Joseph Rock, an eccentric Austrian American botanist who explored western China and Tibet during the 1920s and '30s and recorded his experiences in National Geographic.

Several years ago, an area resident familiar with "Lost Horizon" told officials that this region was the inspiration for Shangri-La. Quick to smell a marketing opportunity, the officials leaped into action.

Zhongdian set the pace. Local Communist cadres dubbed their town's new airport Shangri-La Airport. They jump-started construction on four-star hotels. They convened a conference on the identification of Zhongdian as the utopia in Hilton's novel, and they published coffee-table books such as "Shangri-La: A Fascinating Land," which grandly claims that at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, 1997, Shangri-La "was discovered here." No further explanation is given.

The rival town of Deqin struggled to keep up. It, too, began building tourist venues. But it has no airport to compete with Zhongdian's easy access. Travelers who want to visit Deqin--which boasts better scenery, with jagged, snow-covered peaks stretching for miles--must fly to Zhongdian first, then board a bus for a sometimes perilous six-hour ride.

Other contenders barely raised a blip on the radar. One sad case was the bucolic town of Daocheng, which sits on the Tibetan plateau but is technically part of China's Sichuan province, across from Tibet proper. (Zhongdian and Deqin lie in China's Yunnan province, which also borders Tibet.)

"Zhongdian has an airport and a highway," Gao Tianfu, Daocheng's party secretary, told a Chinese newspaper. "What do I have? A horse, a lantern and a tent."

The jockeying for official status as Shangri-La continued until late last year, when a delegation of Zhongdian officials journeyed to Beijing to make their case--in secret, some say.

In December, the State Council, China's Cabinet, declared Zhongdian the winner. The town threw a party last month to celebrate its victory; banners festooned around the city exhorted residents to "warmly celebrate Zhongdian's name change to Shangri-La."

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