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The New Shangri-la

And I've never been anywhere else that feels at once so fragile and so resilient. I first traveled to Lijiang in 1994, and since then I've been back twice. Both times, the city I revisited had gone through massive changes. In 1997, Lijiang was still recovering from the earthquake of 1996, which killed 309 people and caused extensive damage to the beautiful old section of town. It was a shattering natural disaster--but one with an unexpected silver lining.

"In a way, it brought good things," said A Hui, a tourism board official and entrepreneur whom I met on my last visit. "A lot of places in China donated relief money, which helped spark development. But a more important effect was that Lijiang was in the news all the time. It was a type of publicity."

Though I had been in China for five years, this was the first time I'd heard an earthquake described as good PR. Yet the evidence is undeniable: over the past half-decade, Lijiang has established itself as a major tourist destination, and the city of 330,000 draws more than 3 million visitors a year. The Old Town, where snowmelt-fed canals wind between ancient houses of stone and tile, has been spruced up and is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the part of Lijiang that tourists come to see--but they visit in such numbers that modern districts of hotels and restaurants have sprawled out from the core of the Old Town. The last time I'd been to Lijiang, there was no Shangri-La Road--no Guanfang Bowling Center, no China Unicom, no Huaqingge Sauna & Foot Massage Center. Even the scenery is changing, including Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where a chunk of the southern slope has been carved out for a new golf course. One foreign adviser told me proudly that it would be the longest golf course in the world: here in the thin Himalayan air, some of the par-fives will stretch for nearly half a mile.

Being neither a golfer nor a bowler, I took what seemed to be the next best alternative on Shangri-La Road--the foot massage. The young masseur was also an outsider; he had come from Henan province in the interior, hoping to make his fortune in Lijiang. He was working the night shift, earning $40 a month. "It's easier to get a job here than in Henan," he said. "And the weather is better. There are a lot of people here from other parts of China."

His words echoed in part the predictions of another book set in these parts, Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart. A Russian ŽmigrŽ, Goullart settled in Lijiang in the 1940's and worked as an official in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. His nonfiction book, published in 1955, is a study of the Naxi, the ethnic group native to Lijiang. Originally of Tibetan descent, the Naxi settled in Yunnan as early as the 10th century and developed their own language and culture. Because Lijiang stood at a natural crossroads of highland trade, the Naxi served as intermediaries among the region's ethnic groups: Tibetans, Burmese, Chinese, Bai, and others. And although the Naxi's livelihood depended on contact with outsiders, the Naxi were nevertheless careful to regulate these interactions. Goullart describes how the Nationalist government tried to build a modern road leading to Lijiang, only to have its construction halted by locals who feared cultural destruction. "The Naxi did not want too much of Western civilization just yet," he wrote in Forgotten Kingdom. "They said that the highway would bring much more trouble than benefit into their peaceful land. The little town would be swamped by hordes of Chinese crooks and loafers, in the guise of small traders. . . . Native business and industry would be ruined by keen competition and home life disrupted by evil influences."

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