Shangri-La. China

I bet you’ve probably heard this refrain a thousand times before on your travels – that you should have been here 5, 10, 20 years ago.

And the person telling you that would then reminisce about how the place used to be before the backpacker hordes arrived, before the charming little cafe around the corner was taken over by Mcdonald’s, and before the unspoiled beaches were taken over by international hotel chains.

The first McDonald’s store in Vietnam

But to me, such whinging always sounds a tad selfish.

Who are we, mere travellers, to begrudge a community their tourist dollars and the developments (and maybe annoyances) which come with it?

I mean, entire communities/cities/countries have benefitted from tourism receipts and improved their lots in life.

Horse-drawn carriages for tourists in Bukittinggi, Indonesia

That’s not to say that tourism is entirely positive.

There’s a whole host of problems related to tourism – traffic snarls, uneven development, child sex, and the list goes on – but I won’t dwell on that in this article.

However, there are indeed some places where you should have been 5, 10, 20 years ago.

Because they’ve changed beyond recognition, whether it’s by choice or not.

Take Christchurch in New Zealand, for instance.


In 2009, I spent about three days exploring the city, which is said to be the most English city outside of England.

We strolled along the Avon River, watching the punters move their narrow wooden boats through the city.

Avon River, Christchurch

We also admired the many gothic buildings in the city, one of which was the Christchurch Cathedral.

We climbed the 133 steps to the top of the Cathedral’s bell tower, where we had a panoramic view of the city centre.

Christchurch Cathedral

But such views can no longer be had.

Or rather, even if we could still climb to the top of the tower, the view would still look different, for the February 2011 earthquake had severely damaged the Cathedral and caused widespread damage across the city.

View from the bell tower of Christchurch Cathedral

I’ve not been back to the city since, but according to media reports, many heritage buildings have been damaged and subsequently torn down.

Demolition works, too, have started on the Christchurch Cathedral.

Interior of the Christchurch Cathedral

Will Christchurch emerge stronger and better after the rebuilding of the city?

Well, I certainly hope so.

But one thing’s for sure.

It’s gonna look different.

My friends and I in a restaurant which was destroyed in the earthquake

Another city’s that’s gonna look really different is Shangri-La in China.

I was there in 2011, and we had fun exploring the old town.

Old Town, Shangri-La

I mean, it was getting touristy and there were endless shophouses catering to the tourist trade – from cafes to travel agents to those selling tourist trinkets.

But it’s still far from turning into a mini-Lijiang, and just a short walk away from the tourist stretch, there were charming side streets to explore.


Golden Temple, Shangri-La

But if you’ve ever thought of visiting this city though, you’ve missed your chance.

Well, sort of.

Old Town in Shangri-La

A significant part of the old town was burned down this January, consumed by a blaze that lasted 10 hours and destroyed nearly 250 houses.

But changes don’t have to take place immediately.

Some places were altered over a much longer period of time.

Three Gorges

The Three Gorges Dam, for instance, has irreversibly changed the face of the Three Gorges.

Many settlements and archaeological sites were submerged gradually by the rising waters caused by the dam.

Steps leading down to a town which has been submerged

Signs showing the water level

The steep cliffs along the Three Gorges are also said to look less majestic now that the waters have risen more than 100 metres.

And guess what, as I was cruising down the Three Gorges, a fellow passenger on the ferry I was on turned to me and said, “we should have been here years ago.”

Three Gorges Dam

So where have you been that’s no longer in existence or has changed beyond recognition?