Shangri La! What romantic images that conjures up. In fact it’s all a cynical marketing ploy dreamed up in 1998 by the Chinese government to attract tourists to the Tibetan prefecture of Gyalthang, which was annexed by China following its ‘liberation’ of Tibet in 1959. James Hilton invented the concept of Shangri La in his famous fiction, Lost Horizon.
And here we are. It is rather a disappointment after all the hype. It is a sprawling town set on a flood plain amidst soaring jagged peaks, with a tiny bit of snow. There is even a ski lift nearby, which only westerners use. As we drive in we are horrified by imposing grey monumental buildings – the hospital and government buildings we are told – plus tower blocks of new flats, which look out of place in this rural setting. Later we learn that all this farmland was expropriated from the peasants for a pittance by a ruthless Tibetan businessman, who controls all tourism, hotels and commerce in the city. Of course he has sold it on for a huge profit – this is the story of modern China.
Last year 90% of the ‘old town’, built by the Chinese as part of its creation myth, was destroyed by an accidental fire (the Han Chinese woman is languishing in jail for 20 years for her carelessness). Our hotel, the Arro Khampa, is situated in one of the only parts unscathed. Around us are the inevitable tourist shops, selling fake Tibetan knick-knacks (mostly made in Nepal) – prayer wheels, turquoise everything, swords, traditional costume and yak paraphernalia – plus shops selling all-weather hiking gear: lots of North Face, until we look closely and realise it is all fake. Still, Ross needs a new rucksack and gets one for £13!
In the huge square, where the Chinese tour buses disgorge their cargo daily (90% of the 15 million who go to Lijiang come here), sits the Army Museum for the Liberation of Tibet – ironically built right in front of an old temple. Each night Tibetans come here to dance spontaneously, and also in a large square in the New Town where we saw them in their hundreds. It’s one of the few pleasures they have left.
Last year the government introduced a new law enforcing all rural children to go to boarding schools from second grade with the result they only see their parents for four weeks a year. This is the modern method of re-education. Sinister stories abound about local corruption in the mining sector, where mountains are being eviscerated using toxic chemicals and the farmers’ flocks and water supplies are being poisoned. Tibetan community leaders protesting against this have been thrown into jail.
And this is in China, not Tibet proper, where apparently things are much worse: Lhasa is virtually a police state with road blocks and checks everywhere. In Shangri La, Tibetans from the regions are being penalised by having their businesses closed – 25 bars are shut, for fear of drunken anti-government songs and activity. Some of the aspiring businessmen had taken 30 year leases on these properties, only to be ruined.
We have supper on the first night with two English women, Ashleigh and Angie, whom we met briefly in Lijiang. They are enterprising travellers, and have just walked part of the gorge; now they are setting off for a five-day trek, sleeping in villages. They had to twist Audley Travel’s arm to sort this out for them; we swapped notes about our mutual dissatisfaction with being able to get British travel agents to understand the meaning of the words ‘off the beaten track’. I am not sure I envy them this one though, not with my current legs and back pain!
We reach in Shangri La via the Tiger Leaping Gorge: another excuse for mass tourism. The legend has it that a tiger leapt the 30m span while being chased by hunters and the ‘attraction’ grew in its wake. There are 300 steps down (and up!), walkways and handrails, a carved stone tiger, palanquins for the faint-hearted (not me this time!) and thousands of selfie-taking Chinese.
Before that we had stopped at another people processing place: the first bend of the Yangtze River. Here you have to climb up a high tower to see a bend in the river. Even the loos are mass-market, 1RMB entrance and then cubicles with no doors (better than the loo up the Cang Shan mountains which was just an open trench, no cubicles at all. Luckily I was alone!). Not so here, but I manage to find an unobtrusive corner. One of Ross’s colleagues later tells us that the answer is to unfurl your umbrella and place it strategically in front of you! Despite the public display of natural bodily functions, all the loos I have encountered in China have been clean so far.
At Tiger Leaping Gorge, we meet our Tibetan guide. His story is quite extraordinary. He was born to a moderately wealthy Tibetan farming family who had 20 horses, which they used for trading. In the 1959 rebellion two of his uncles were killed in Lhasa, and two others escaped with the Dalai Lama to Dharamsala. As a result all his family properties were confiscated and they were made destitute. His grandfather died in prison, his grandmother went mad with grief and also died shortly after.
The 14 year-old felt he had little option but trek over the mountains and join his uncle in India, where he met and was educated by the Dalai Lama. After he finished university in Bangalore, he decided to return home to look after his mother. Of course he had no papers and was immediately thrown into a variety of prisons for several months to investigate whether he was a spy or not.
Somehow he managed to rebuild a life for himself, get married and get a job as a guide. But he says that it is a tough life as there is so much competition for these jobs, which used to be good, from outside firms coming in and undercutting the market. I suspect also that the razing of Shangri La has resulted in fewer international tourists: the Chinese ones come mainly to see the Holy Meili Mountain (6740m), Yunnan’s highest peak and a day trip away from Shangri La (the Chinese love snow, it’s such a novelty) and the Ganden Sumtseling monastery, the largest in Yunnan, with around 700 monks (200 have escaped to India).
The monastery was largely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and the only remaining old hall was completely rebuilt by the Chinese government two years ago, being deemed ‘unsafe’. Of the revenues from this site (another of those mass tourism machines, with electronic turnstiles and a special bus to take you to the monastery from the car park) 60% goes to local government, 30% to the monastery and 10% to the workers.
The largest hall is packed with monks, sitting in long rows, most looking bored, the younger ones chatting away, while the very youngest, about 7, plays with a toy car. The Chinese tourists seem very devout, as they walk clockwise round, giving votive offerings. The Tibetans prostrate themselves just like the Bhutanese do. In fact it is is the same form of Buddhism as in Bhutan and we saw many photos of the controversial Panchen Lama, chosen by the Chinese authorities over the Dalai Lama’s choice.
Still desperately seeking respite from the crowds, we leave for our much-anticipated hike into the countryside. The landscape is scrubby and dull – a few cross-breed (with yak) cows here and there, farmsteads, mostly rebuilt, as apparently it’s essential to keep up with the Joneses here and renovate every 10 years or so. So the houses all have new tin roofs, save for the wooden tiles in the middle to let the smoke out from the traditional central fireplace, brand new large wooden windows (not good in the winter as they let in the cold) and some have great big glass conservatories to keep the house warm in winter, but transforming it into a furnace in the summer months.
We are disappointed with the wild flowers too – had hoped to see banks of rhododendrons and azaleas (we saw a few clumps on the way up, full of selfie-taking Chinese) – but all we can see is some euphorbia, hawthorn just coming into bloom, and what we think is crab apple in the hedgerows. My back has now given up, the strain of the 300 steps the previous day at altitude must be adding to its stress, so we manage to get the driver to pick me up while Ross and the guide complete the walk. Ross later tells me it ends in a building site – where they are constructing the new railway to Lhasa. We both agree that for an ‘off-the-beaten-track hike’ as billed, it is remarkably dull, with the main road in sight most of the time.
Having lunched off the Chinese staple of oreos, moon cake and apple, we decide to stay in and have a traditional yak hot pot . I am keeping count of how many ways we can eat yak – check the gallery for more ‘delicious’ yak recipes! We hope that our last day in Shangri La will be more adventurous.