Tourism saved the place. The Tibetan farmhouses were suddenly rediscovered as unique, endemic architecture that could turn a profit. Redevelopment began immediately. Water and sewer lines were buried beneath the crooked lanes. Electricity and the Internet were snaked in. The old homes were rebuilt and turned into fancy shops. New shops were constructed in the same style but with baroque facades—ornately carved dragons and swans and tigers—to attract Chinese tourists. Which they did: More than three million tourists, almost 90 percent of them Chinese, visited Shangri-La last year.
Take for instance the woman in black leather pants who steps out of a Hummer in the parking lot of the Sumtseling Monastery, hands off her little purse, and climbs up on a wildly decorated yak tended by an elaborately costumed Tibetan, sword and all. Her friends snap photos. She could as easily be a tourist mounting a horse in Deadwood, South Dakota, or standing beside a buffalo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Just as Native American culture has been commodified in the American West, Tibetan culture has been commercialized in China's west. In the old town, high-end shops selling faux Tibetan jewelry, knives, and furs—the spotted cat skins are actually dyed dog hides—have replaced the chickens and pigs that once inhabited the ground floors of Shangri-La's homes.
At the giant prayer wheel the tourists and monks have tired of the gilded merry-go-round and are leaving, when an elderly Buddhist woman arrives. She's wearing a traditional wool apron, but it is filthy, as if she'd walked a great distance and performed many prostrations along her pilgrimage. A fuchsia head scarf is plaited into her graying braids. She is thumbing through 108 prayer beads while repeating in a humming whisper the holy mantra om mani padme hum, a prayer for compassion and enlightenment.
The old woman grabs the rail of the giant spindle and, throwing her full weight into this act of devotion, keeps the wheel turning.
Unlike other places with mythically resonant names, such as Timbuktu or Machu Picchu, Shangri-La never actually existed until now. The name comes from James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, a tale of plane-crash survivors who find their way to a utopian lamasery called Shangri-La in the wastelands of Tibet. In the book the lamasery, founded in the 18th century by a Catholic missionary named Perrault and now administered by a high lama, sits at the base of a mountain called Karakal, a fulgent pyramid of snow and rock. Home to more than 50 monks from nations around the world, all deep in spiritual studies, the lamasery is a grand repository of humanity's wisdom, embracing the best of both East and West. Midway through the novel readers discover that the high lama is actually Perrault himself. He's more than 200 years old, having been well preserved by serious study, the immersional serenity of Shangri-La, and isolation from a modern world mindlessly drifting toward holocaust.