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Chinese Battle Over Shangri-La

May 9, 1998

DEQIN, China (AP) _ Just beneath the snowcapped peaks that rim Tibet, across towering Buddhist monasteries and imposing gorges cut by mighty rivers, bureaucrats are battling over paradise.

In this unseemly row, two impoverished Chinese counties have marshaled obscure travel accounts and esoteric scholarly findings to lay claim to the birthplace of Shangri-La _ the heaven on earth that James Hilton described in his pacifist novel ``Lost Horizon.″

At stake in this fight of fact chasing fiction are not only bragging rights but millions of dollars in hoped-for tourism revenues.

Despite efforts by leaders in southwestern Yunnan province to impose a compromise by letting both sides claim Shangri-La, the ill will between neighboring Deqin and Zhongdian counties burns.

``Right from the start when Zhongdian brought up this idea of Shangri-La, we objected,″ says Songji Zhaxi, a Deqin government spokesman.

Rongba Zhaxi, vice secretary of Deqin’s Communist Party apparatus, adds: ``Shangri-La doesn’t exist, but it has its historical origins. And they are definitely here. Where else can it be?″

Animosity isn’t what Hilton had in mind when he wrote his utopian vision. In his Shangri-La, harmony suffused the rich valley of Blue Moon isolated by majestic Mount Karakal. It was a land of life without struggle, of free love and flush toilets.

Yet the British author never traveled to the region and left few clues about his inspiration. Among the scant hints: The book places Shangri-La in Tibet but Chinese and a few European wanderers lived there, too.

The quarreling counties lie on the frontier of Tibetan and Chinese civilizations. An ancient trade route that sent tea, horses and salt between Tibet and China crossed Deqin and Zhongdian beneath the 18,000-foot-plus peaks that mark the Tibetan plateau’s eastern descent to the Chinese lowlands.

Khampas _ the eastern Tibetans famed as traders, horsemen and, in tough times, bandits _ still yoke yaks to plow steep hillsides. Maroon-walled Buddhist monasteries rise fortress-like from arid valleys. The upper reaches of the Yangtze and Mekong rivers gush through deep gorges.

Details of the region could have been known to Hilton from Joseph Rock, an American explorer who documented its beauties in a series of National Geographic articles in the 1920s and ’30s.

Deqin and Zhongdian officials each cite Rock to buttress their claims.

Some parallels are striking. Locals call the 22,200-foot Crown Prince Snowy Mountain that dominates Deqin’s western rim ``Khawakar″ _ close to Hilton’s Karakal.

A Catholic Church down the road from Deqin’s county seat housed not only French missionaries but also flush toilets, a crucial amenity in Shangri-La _ and ``the only ones in the area,″ says Rongba, the Deqin party official.

Zhongdian’s champions counter by ticking off features of Shangri-La that Deqin lacks but they have _ grasslands, a lake and a gold mine, although they are evasive about the latter’s location.

From there, fancy reigns. Both sides cite plane crashes, like the one in the novel, as evidence, even though the wrecks occurred during World War II, long after the 1933 publication of ``Lost Horizon.″

``Of course you can’t say there’s one place that’s Shangri-La. That’s from a novel,″ said Zhongdian’s county chief, Abei, who like many ethnic Tibetans uses only one name. ``You have to consider the big picture.″

Shangri-La mania set in when the local economies went bust. The logging industry, the main livelihood, was pared back two years ago because of overcutting and, in Deqin’s case, because environmentalists discovered its forests sheltered rare snub-nosed monkeys.

Tourism dominates development plans to raise incomes, which for local Tibetan farmers hover around $100 a year. China’s national tourism authority has called ``the building of Shangri-La″ a priority. But both counties insist they’re not trying to capitalize on paradise.

``Shangri-La is not an advertisement,″ says Sun Jiong, a vice party secretary in Zhongdian who was sent from the provincial capital, Kunming, to promote tourism. ``What we want to do is turn Zhongdian into mankind’s last piece of pure land, a lost paradise, for the next century.″

Zhongdian already boasts five three-star hotels along its graceless streets plied by mini-skirted prostitutes and beggar monks in soiled robes. Tourism more than quadrupled last year and is projected to grow steadily. An airport, set to open by June 1999, will provide direct access from Kunming.

Meanwhile, the best route into Deqin _ a dirt logging road that crosses a 14,000-foot pass _ remains impassable for days at a time after winter snows. Adding to the town’s gritty world’s-end aura, its top hotel has a pool table in the lobby. Moonshine is popular.

``Let’s just say in Zhongdian they are more sophisticated. We are more traditional,″ says Rongba, the Deqin party official.

But Rongba, like Sun, joined the county government with a mission to develop tourism and he, too, has dreams.

``We are going to fix the road, build better hotels,″ he says. ``We’re thinking of building a ski resort.″