Gyelthang by Adam Lilienthal

Shangrila is a city in China’s Yunnan Province, east of the Tibetan border. Originally called Zhongdian, and in Tibetan still called Gyelthang, the city was a travel destination for my then girlfriend, now my wife, and myself in the spring of 2013. The paradise that was James Hilton’s Shangri-La was surely the inspiration for the name change in 2001, though the desired effect on the tourist market remains questionable.

I got scorched because I hadn’t respected the altitude, molting from the bridge of my nose and cheeks, the skin beneath revealed red as the raw yak meat placed on the table before us at the local hot pot along with white carrots, mountain cabbage, and black tea thick with yak butter. The proprietor smiling a broad and weathered face, cheekbones chiseled high, irises black like the hearts of anemones growing across the surrounding grassy plain, and uttering an unrelenting rush of anecdotal local lore while we breathed in deep the broth’s intoxicating bouquet.

We walked the old uneven stone streets and ran fingers through the beaded wares of smiling vendors. We took photos of the beautiful wooden buildings and in the public square joined a largely attended dance while loudspeakers played songs even we could tell were flush with heart-heavy nostalgia. On the outskirts of town we breathed evenly and looked west toward Tibet, meditating on the circumstances that had brought us halfway around the world to this place at this moment.

In the evening we trekked up expansive stone stairs leading up from the plaza amid long loops of triangular prayer flags in every frayed and faded swatch of the sleeping horizon to Songzanlin Monastery where we lit incense and bowed at the folded feet of a great golden blue-eyed Buddha. With an excited crowd of young and old we gathered under the drifting smoke to spin like medieval laborers a Sanskrit-impressed prayer wheel as large as a Midwestern grain silo three full revolutions before falling off out of breath, our eyes closed in the collective hope of good fortune.

We came home and were married and less than one year later I read that a fire swept through Shangrila’s old town destroying much of the original architecture. For a moment I thought I might hide the information from my wife, bury or even erase it somehow, but it rightly belonged to her too, and after I showed her we sat in silence for some time, desperately salvaging memories, guarding them like rare treasure. As my wife walked quietly to the window I wondered what had been lost, not realizing until later that absolutely everything had been. Long before the fire it was lost, before we even left China again for the States, before the city had changed its name to attract more tourists, and long before all notions of paradise had solidified in the modern psyche. I followed to the window and embraced her. A shiver ran through her body. Then it ran through mine. We began to sob together, softly, easily, like in prelude to some inescapable ecstasy.

BIO: ADAM LILIENTHAL’s short fiction has appeared in Art Times, Red Wheelbarrow, R-KV-R-Y, Transcendent Visions, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and Pacific Review. He is a psychology graduate of DeSales University.