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This way to paradise

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Living tradition: A well-preserved building in Shangri-La. Photo: Pallavi Aiyar
Living tradition: A well-preserved building in Shangri-La. Photo: Pallavi Aiyar

As tourism brings in the dollars, Shangri-La is discovering anew the value of its Tibetan heritage.

This is Shangri-La. Given the visceral punch of the area's beauty, this is one marketing ploy that's easy to fall for.

THE air smells good enough to eat, strawberry-fresh to my Beijing-pollution contaminated senses. Jagged, snow-topped peaks climb endlessly skywards, dramatically framing the shaggy, lumpy shapes of yaks sauntering across expansive fields. A gigantic gilt prayer wheel rises up from the town centre and moonfaced monks in fake North Face jackets beam beatifically from atop their bicycles.This is Shangri-La - or so the local government claims and given the visceral punch of the area's beauty, this is one marketing ploy that's easy to fall for. The quest for discovering Shangri-La was first sparked off by a 1933 James Hamilton novel, The Lost Horizons, which described a mountain-top paradise where people lived in harmony, revelling in learning and profound inner peace. The ethnically Tibetan town of Zhongdian in north-western Yunnan province was officially declared to be Shangri-La in 2002 after a wide ranging search for the "true" paradise on earth that saw candidates crop up in Bhutan, and Pakistan's Hunza, not to mention several other towns in Yunnan province itself.Right prioritiesThe name change was intended to lure dollar- and yuan-rich visitors to the once economically backward area as part of a national effort to boost tourism. A spanking new airport, pothole-free highways and a slew of hotels stand testimony to the success of this strategy. Significantly, the tourism boom has led to efforts to preserve the local Tibetan culture, for long neglected or actively suppressed during the Maoist era. In contemporary China, business almost always takes precedence over ideological imperativesThe Songzalin Monastery on the outskirts of the town, which had been virtually razed to the ground during the Cultural Revolution, today houses freshly painted murals and over 800 monks. An entrance ticket costs RMB 30 ($3.75) and gaggles of tourists cover every inch of the temple, lighting huge wads of incense in offering, their faces obscured by the bluish wafting smoke. Living a fantasyAs I drive into the town, colourful Tibetan prayer flags flutter in front of a giant Karaoke bar, reminding me that I am still after all in China. The majority of the tourists here are Han Chinese; many are young, Eastern avatars of Western hippies - hooked on the exotic fantasy that Tibet has always represented. The local government has thus recently mandated that everything in the town must be more Tibetan than ever before. All shop-fronts and hotels have recently been made to trade in Chinese character-signs for new ones that include the Tibetan script.But the use of the Tibetan script is rusty here. Akin to the "Chinglish" in big cities like Beijing that ask bewildered foreign visitors to "slip carefully" in public parks, Shangri-La/ Zhongdian abounds with "Chibetan". Gonpo Tserang, a local tour guide, smiles cynically when telling me of the unintentional satire much of this Chibetan results in. A sign that should have read "Beauty Centre" instead proclaims, "Leprosy Centre". Another restaurant that wants to invite potential customers to "Eat Yak Meat Here" ends up menacing them by claiming that "Yak Eats You Here"."Indian connection"She's from India," people point at me in loud whispers. "My uncle is in India." "My brother studied in India." "I love Indian music." "My best friend taught me to cook Indian food." Everywhere I go, ripples of excitement spread. The longing with which the people I meet imbue the word "India" is unusual to me. This is what I imagine Americans must feel like in many parts of the world. While eating lunch at the home a peasant family in Hamugu village, just outside the main town, I am introduced to a boy of six; a novice monk at the Songzalin Monastery. He wants desperately to travel to India. "Can you help me get a passport?" he asks. When I gently explain my inability, he looks disappointed for a second but brightens up a moment later and suggests we watch an "Indian movie". I concur, expecting Bollywood masala and am surprised instead to see an opening shot featuring six Tibetan Buddhist monks in full ceremonial attire blowing mightily into long horns. Slowly it dawns that this is a burnt DVD copy of a homemade film in Dharamsala. We all watch the film for a few minutes in silence. Then the boy's father asks me where I live. "New Delhi," I say. "How far away is that from the capital of India?" he queries back. I explain that Delhi is in fact the capital. There is a stunned pause. Finally he replies, "You mean Dharamsala is not the capital?"Reinventing a townHamugu village is an example of the boon that tourism has been to the area. Until a few years ago the predominant source of livelihood here was logging. Even today entire hillsides are bare; scarred testaments to the now-banned timber industry. The greater Shangri-La area is one of the world's 34 biodiversity hotspots according to Conservation International. In the past, much of it was threatened by human "development".Today Shangri-La is a model of eco-tourism. Formerly-poor villagers have come up with their own green growth solutions, becoming richer in the process. In Hamugu village, 39 families bundled their savings to build a lodge for tourists drawn by the region's wetlands. Villagers invite visitors to their homes for simple home-cooked meals - perhaps a little too simple, as I found out after a lunch of Tibetan butter tea and freshly made bread and nothing else.A local Indian/ Tibetan restaurant owner, Lopsang Tenzin, tells me: "When I first came to Zhongdian in 1998, the old style Tibetan buildings were all crumbling and stinking and the new buildings looked just like public toilets with their white tiles. Look at this beautiful town now. Tourism has taught the local people here the value of preservation and how to develop some areas but leave others untouched to nature."My ethnic Han driver, Mr. Zhao, is not entirely satisfied though. "We don't have a single McDonald's or KFC here," he grumbles.PALLAVI AIYAR


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