The austere serenity of Shangri-La. Its forsaken courts and pale pavilions shimmered in repose from which all the fret of existence had ebbed away, leaving a hush as if moments hardly dared to pass.Lost Horizon, James Hilton
Shangri-la. I knew the word as a hotel brand, a fictional place, a mystical concept that means earthly paradise.
It’s also an actual locale, a county snugly resting on the high plateaus and ridges of Yunnan province in southwest China, over 3000 meters above sea level. 香格里拉, Shangri-la county, home to Tibetans. A place which claims to be the inspiration for the James Hilton 1933 novel (that first coined the word).
On the drive there, my nose pressed up against the window, drifting in and out of sleep, fertile plains streaked past, with snow-capped peaks dipping in and out of view. When I jerked awake, the van was moving through an endless maze of tunnels — darkness, then quick glimpses of marvels of engineering: soaring bridges and cross-crossing highways, all concrete colossuses penetrating the bellies of mountains. This was China, even in its most distant, impoverished regions.
When we finally disembarked on a dusty street in front of our inn, the roads were empty and the sun hot and yellow. I felt itchy but cold, the temperature dropping due to our elevation. Beside the inn was an costume rental shop, featuring various Han Chinese-looking models dressed up in colorful Tibetan garb.
We had originally planned to wander around swathed in coats and hats and umbrellas. But the inn told us our package included a free costume makeover.
In hindsight, I’d never have paid for a costume rental in this weather. But when the inn manager said it, I felt a thrill licking my brain.
We picked a blue garb and the Tibetan lady began dressing me up, layer by layer. Then she tightened the belt like a corset, brushed my nose and cheeks with a red blush, painted tiny white clouds, sprinkled little pieces of glitter, braided my short hair, and topped it all off with a gorgeous hairpiece draping over my forehead.
By the end of the experiment, I stared into the mirror and blinked.
Behind us, my mom was gasping. “I didn’t know you could look like this!” She flitted over, gawking. “You look like someone else completely, darling!”
Then we traipsed over to Shangri-la in Songzanlin monastery, the blue sky, the clouds, the dust, the yellow steps all feeling anew — a movie backdrop to a character I was now embodying.