In 1933 a plane crashed in the Tibetan wilderness. Three English and one American were on board. The pilot did not survive. The passengers were befriended by a local monk and taken to a mysterious monastery in a beautiful valley - it was the paradise of Shangri-La. Or so the Chinese government tells us. In fact this in the plot of a fictional novel by American author, James Hilton. It's called Lost Horizon. It's unbelievably and surprisingly described as an account of a true story in China. But we're pretty sure he made it all up, as novelists tend to do.
In 1995, after deforestation was banned in the area around a small logging town called Zhongdian, the government, desperately seeking a new economic focus, renamed the town Shangri-La in an attempt to boost tourism. Despite the phoney pretext Shangri-La was one of our favourite towns in china. It was a lot less busy than Dali and Lijiang and its central "old town" was full of pretty temples and interesting restaurants.
The town is the highest place we've stayed. It's at 3,300m above sea level and you could really feel it. We were both gasping for breath after the smallest flight of stairs! The town is in a beautiful valley full of idyllic alpine meadows with grazing yaks and a profusion of wild flowers. This was exactly the type of environment George would have spent much of his time exploring. We enjoyed exploring it (very slowly) by bike and on foot.
After several failed attempts, we eventually found the rather neglected Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Gardens. Apart for construction workers who appeared to be building a fancy hotel in the middle of the gardens, we think we were the first visitors for a very long time. Amongst the mud and rubble there were some beautiful plants including amazing lady's slipper orchids and a bright pink primula that looked like many that George discovered - though we're no plant experts. They had a photo of one of George's plants on the wall, the "Rodoleia Forrestii". We were very proud.
We were also delighted to find two samples of George's plants on the wall of the local museum. The museum was one of the most bizarre we've ever visited. It was free to go inside (again, we were the only visitors) and the only exhibit that was open (despite tantalising interestingly-named exhibition halls that were all locked) was about traditional Tibetan medicine. They were beautiful but disturbing coloured drawings detailing symptoms and treatments of a great variety of ailments (mainly focused around penises!). We eventually realised that the whole exhibition was a front for a traditional Chinese medicine shop.
It may not have been paradise but Shangri-La was a great place to spend most of our last week in China. There was just one final stop in the city of Chengdu, before heading back to London and a big dose of reality.