The ‘Other’ Shangri-La review: Magic mountains

A journey through ‘new’ Tibet, a place of incredible beauty, also considers myths, legends and ties with China

Updated - February 21, 2021 08:04 am IST

Published - February 20, 2021 04:14 pm IST

In 2020, we should have celebrated the 70th anniversary of India-China’s diplomatic relations, instead it will be remembered for the skirmishes in the Himalayas. Though bilateral ties have been overshadowed by the crisis, there is a whole new world to explore as far as China is concerned, and Shivaji Das takes readers on a journey to the western Sichuan region and the Tibetan highlands in his travelogue, The ‘Other’ Shangri La .

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Like a dream

It is a fascinating account of the incredible beauty and culture of the region where the Tibetan plateau merges into China and also the myths and legends of Tibet. The author takes the reader into a dream-like tour of Tibet’s magical mountain peaks and the beauty of its people. He blends simple history, well known anecdotes and personal experience to bring to life Tibet as well as Tibetan-Chinese daily exchanges to the reader without over burdening it with politics.

Das describes Tibet’s famed monasteries and their legends. At Chonggu Gompa, also known as ‘Bandit Monastery’, he and his wife meet a group of monks who are sunbathing, dropping no hint of a boisterous past. The monastery has a reputation of being an abode of notorious criminals who despite being career-monks terrorised neighbouring areas. It is now known for ‘miracles’ and “sometimes the face of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of great wisdom, suddenly appears in these mountains.”

Equally interesting is the introduction to Tibet’s famous peaks like Jambeyang which at 5,958 metres is one of the tallest peaks in the world. But it is the appearance of the mountain that the author presents in an evocative manner — “A sharp pointed beauty, looking like a magician’s wand hidden behind a white handkerchief.”

Then and now

Writings on Tibet and western Sichuan are rare and the last time we read such an evocative narrative was perhaps Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake (1983) where he introduced the natural splendour of Tibet as well as the bureaucratic machinery of China. The book by Das is an easier read in comparison which shows that despite the decades in between, the other-worldly beauty of Tibet remains unspoilt.

However, there are significant differences between then and now. In Das’s narrative, Tibet is infrastructurally better placed. He writes about his visit to Daocheng which at 4,411 metres is one of the highest airports in the world. The airport is used for faster travel to Sichuan which is well known for its cuisine all over the world.

The accounts of Sichuan are different from Tibet but show the connection between mainland China and the Tibetan Autonomous Region. While Sichuan is brimming with its spice and western influence, Tibet has played a key role in drawing tourism to the region as showcased by the vast presence of the famous caterpillar fungus in airport shops which are consumed in great quantity these days across China.

The section on Sertar in Tibet, one of the greatest and surreal cities known for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, is perhaps the high point of the book. The author and his Singapore-based Chinese wife, Lobo, also experienced the playful side of the inhabitants. One evening, a bunch of young Tibetans, who had had too much to drink, saw the author and “pounced” on him — all for a photograph with an Indian. Lobo was temporarily worried.

The book reminds us that people-to-people exchanges can still salvage relations between the two Asian giants.

The ‘Other’ Shangri-La ; Shivaji Das, Konark Publishers, ₹299.

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