The Next Shangri-La

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu

The City of Dali is a traveler's Dream: a taste of old china in an idyllic setting. But is it destined to be ruined by tourism?

For the past two decades, the Old City of Dali in China's southwestern province of Yunnan--a picturesque burg with a temperate climate and auspicious feng shui--has been a destination for Western travelers and Chinese urbanites looking to escape the country's industrial grind. Starting in the 1990s, cultural elites migrated to Dali in hopes of its being the next Shangri-La, that fictional utopian valley hidden deep in the Himalayas in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

"Dali isn't your average little city," says painter Han Xiangning, who made Dali his home after living for four decades in New York. Han's residence--a minimalist white compound with its own private lagoon--moonlights as an art gallery. Because Dali is a bit of an ethnic melting pot, Han likens it to a "mini-New York City," albeit one perched on the banks of the idyllic Erhai Lake and framed by the snowcapped Cang mountains.

Part of the area's charm derives from its graceful buildings with upturned roof gables evocative of Thai temples. The architecture enchanted American gallery owners Brian and Jeanee Linden, who opened a 14-room guesthouse and cultural center in a lovingly restored historic courtyard mansion about 11 miles outside the Old City. …