‘Lost Horizon’ and Tibetan Kitsch

THE MUCH MUSED UPON Shangri-La is no more – if indeed it ever was. The Christian Science Monitor reports on how the town of Zhongdian has transformed from “heaven on earth” to “a high-altitude hell, choked by tour buses and overwhelmed by outsiders.” The community, once steeped in tradition, has now become little more than a shameless tourist trap (via China Digital Times):

“I remember it as a heavenly place,” Tibetan musical entrepreneur and local cultural icon Xuan Ke says of his birthplace. Living simply beneath the eternally snowy peaks of jagged mountains, “the people were very honest, kind-hearted, and rustic,” he says. “Now they have completely changed. The original spirit has disappeared.”

In the 1933 bestseller “Lost Horizon,” by James Hilton, Shangri-La is a secret and idyllic spot near the Himalayas. Many regions have claimed to be the inspiration for the imagined abode of the blessed, but China’s government officially endorsed the town then known as Zhongdian, in Yunnan Province, in 2001.

Ever since, the authorities in this town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau “have tried to build Shangri-La’s tourist brand,” explains Ren Jianhua, deputy director of the region’s tourism office. “We want to present it to the whole world.” […]

That approach has transformed a small village of wooden homes tucked along muddy lanes into a town covering 12 square miles and boasting more than 100 hotels. The so-called “old town” is not old at all: only one house has not been completely torn down and rebuilt in the past few years, residents say. [read full]

While in the rest of the world such cultural fakery is restricted to a street or tourist district, the watering-down of Tibetan culture into pseudo-spiritual kitsch is now pervasive throughout its lands.

Outsider political influence has had a hugely detrimental effect on the local religion, and to adapt the Dalai Lama has made a monumental change to a centuries-old tradition; to thwart any possibility that Beijing would prop up a pro-government successor, the 72-year-old Dalai Lama has said he will designate his successor while he is still alive (JoongAng Daily).

As travelers, are we contributing this mess by even setting foot near Lhasa? Even as we may seek an appreciation of one of the world’s oldest cultures, how do we save it from vanishing amid the crush of a shrinking world?


2 Responses to “‘Lost Horizon’ and Tibetan Kitsch”

  1. 1 Kango Suz December 6, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Do you think that this is because of China’s increasing infulence on the Tibetian culture and the government’s use of Tibet as a tour destination for foreigners?

  2. 2 dailytransit December 7, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Definitely – though I’ve never been, from all that I’ve read China’s new railway to Lhasa has totally shifted the dynamic in Tibet. What was once a spiritual capital is now home to a booming tourist industry – that most certainly has an effect on the local culture, and on quality of life.

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