The new Shangri-la

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Saturday, January 10, 2009

An interesting article looking at developments in tourism and Tibetan buddhism in Zhongdian . . .

Turning paradise into profits

The town of Shangri-la was called Zhongdian until 2001, when it made a bid to boost tourism by changing its name to the idyllic location of James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. (Because Hilton never actually visited this part of the world, the field is pretty open.)

Much of the population here is Buddhist and ethnically Tibetan. During the Cultural Revolution, the government tried to wipe out both religion and Tibetan culture. Now, it's busy restoring both.

Buildings in central Shangri-la have ornate Tibetan flourishes, although a close look often reveals that the decoration is a fašade. Many people, especially older women, wear vividly colored traditional clothing.

A local official explains there's a slogan: "Take off your suit and put on Tibetan clothes" (oddly echoing the adages of Mao's Little Red Book, the notorious bible of the Cultural Revolution).

Tour buses bring visitors to the Xiagei Cultural Eco-tourism Village, where they can see Tibetans making (and, of course, selling) such traditional crafts as yak combs and incense. The site includes a library, where sacred Buddhist texts are stored and monks can print additional copies from wooden plates.

On a knoll overlooking the old town of Shangri-la is a temple with what is billed as the world's largest prayer wheel. It looms above a courtyard with a modest statue commemorating Mao's Long March.

The government built a Buddhist college at the edge of Shangri-la four years ago. It subsidizes student fees. The curriculum includes Tibetan grammar, Buddhist logic, simple English and computers.

"Now, we are revitalizing Buddhism in this area," says the abbot of the Gedan Songzanlin Monastery in Shangri-la. Interrupted to meet visiting journalists in the midst of weeks of meditation, he wasn't about to be drawn into criticism of Chinese policies.

"We always have patriotic education here," he says. "We love the government, and we love Buddha."

Critics scoff that China's sudden interest in fostering Buddhism and Tibetan culture is just a ploy to create tourist attractions.

Certainly, there seems to be little change in the Chinese government's jaundiced view of the Dalai Lama and his quest for autonomy for Tibet. Part of the dispute that rarely gets covered here is the Dalai Lama's insistence that an autonomous Tibet should include parts of Yunnan and other Chinese provinces that have large Tibetan populations.

Rural area counts on pots, skis

The roots of the Communist Party lie in an idealized peasant revolution, but government policies for decades have favored cities over the countryside.

Now, rural areas are finally getting a rush of tax breaks and investment. In restive regions with a high proportion of ethnic minorities, one goal is clearly to use economic development to undercut pressure for political change.

The Shangri-la ski resort - claimed to offer skiing in the world's closest spot to the Equator - opened a couple of years ago. An egg-incubating center, started in 2003, hatches chicks from a prized local variety, which farmers raise for market.

Nixi Village is trying to turn its distinctive black pottery, which households used to make for their own use, into a business.

Dang Zeng Picu began learning to make pots, shaped by hand rather than a wheel, when he was 5. "It's a traditional skill here with a history of 3,000 years," he boasts.

"Seven generations of my family have done this pottery-making." They'd be stunned to see the change in scale. Dang helps run a factory operation, founded with government help in 2005, that has more than two dozen workers and contracts out to farmers.

Lost in translation

"Can I practice English with you?"

Sometimes, the question is the lead-in to a sales pitch or minor scam. But in a bar in Shangri-la, where a few of us were having drinks, the young woman sounded irresistibly sincere.

She called herself Susan in English. She explained that she is a member of the Muslim minority, lives in a town on the Burmese border and works in a park. She is saving money to buy a house.

Here's the drive that characterizes so many young Chinese. She never has had a chance to go to an English-speaking country, so she uses Internet connections to practice talking. She picked up some real colloquial expressions.

When she learned she was sitting with journalists, including someone from world-famous CNN, she exclaimed, "I'm a lucky dog."

I e-mailed Susan after I got back. But I haven't heard from her. Maybe she's too busy.

The Chinese government just stepped up its monitoring of Internet traffic. Maybe she's too scared.

From a distance, I can't tell if Susan is wrapped up in her ambitions to profit from China's growing tourist industry or stymied by the government's heavy hand. That, on a very small scale, is the challenge America faces in trying to figure out how to deal with China.
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