“Do you know why it’s called Shangri-La?” the driver asked.
I was in the back of a car with my travel partner, Reid, coasting through China’s Yunnan Province. It was early evening now, and the sun was playing hide-and-seek, darting behind hills and reemerging in the valleys and plains. Our car was the only one in sight on the 2-lane road surrounded by verdant fields. The topic of conversation had turned to our destination.
“To attract tourists?” Reid offered. The driver seemed genuinely confused and responded without irony: “Oh, no! It is called Shangri-La because it is the most beautiful place in the world. There are flowers and lakes and hills. When people visit, they want to stay forever!”
Reid and I exchanged glances. The mythical “Shangri-La” is a popular embodiment of an archetypal paradise. Since its creation in the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton, it has pervaded the modern psyche and spawned countless pop culture references.
“When was it named Shangri-La?” I asked.
“And what was it called before then?”
The very recent name change did little to abate my cynicism, but the conversation lulled and my gaze returned to the fields. I watched the sky’s blue hues transform into orange and pink and purple, then finally collapse into darkness.
We arrived at the Songtsam Hotel exhaused from our day’s adventures in neighboring Lijiang and the long drive. With an early and full day ahead of us, we decided to stay low key for the evening and get a good night’s rest. Instead of venturing into the adjacent town, we had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.
We were given two menus, which I assumed to be a dinner menu and a drinks menu. I browsed the dinner menu and found a healthy mix of Chinese, Tibetan, and International cuisine. I made a mental note of a few intriguing options, then turned to the second menu.
There are nine things I love in this world, and numbers one through five are mushrooms. This was a mushrooms menu. Matsutake. King bolete. Caesar’s amanita. Many I had never before chanced to taste. I ended up splurging on the dinner, sampling a variety of luscious morsels.
An entire menu just for mushrooms! What a hotel! I was still in awe of my luck as my head reached the pillow and I sank into a contented slumber.
The next day was packed with planned attractions. It was exhausting, but we returned in the evening determined to see the town. We meandered, pausing to take pictures and stopping by the small shops. At some point we realized we were hungry. Considering the previous night’s delights, part of me wished we were back at the lodge, but my inner adventurer could not tolerate eating at a hotel, of all places, for two nights in a row in a foreign country. We hadn’t paid note to the eateries we’d passed, nor had we researched in advance where to eat, so we simply walked into the first restaurant we saw.
We sat down. We were given two menus.
Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that the hotel’s enthusiasm for mushrooms was anything other than a quirk. Yet here I was, at a nondescript town restaurant, reliving the wonder. Dinner. Mushrooms.
Yunnan Province, as it turns out, is one of the world’s major exporters of wild mushrooms. But nowhere else in Yunnan—or the rest of the world—had I so truly satisfied my rapacious desire for mushrooms.
I had found my Shangri-La.