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Archive → September, 2011

Shangrila Tourism Conference and Tea Road Fieldwork

Green meadows, blue sky and the vibrant flowers of late summer in Shangrila. In the background is the very imposing Ganden Sumtseling Lamasery (Songzanlinsi in Chinese).

“If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without”, James Hilton, Lost Horizon, 1933. 

From 9th to 11th August 2011 I attended the First Shangri-lasia Tourism International Forum (第一届香格里拉亚洲旅游论坛) in Shangrila, Yunnan Province, China. Shangrila is the prefectural seat of Diqing (Dêqên) Prefecture (迪庆州).  Diqing is an Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture in northwest Yunnan on the border of the Kham region of Tibet. Historically it falls within the Tibetan cultural zone and was an important transit point along the ancient trading networks between Tibet and southwest China. The conference was organised by the International Tourism Studies Association (ITSA), ‘the first China-based global academic association on tourism research’. You can see where Shangrila is located on Google Maps here. With an area of just over 11,000 square kilometres and a registered population of about 130,000 (this figure does not include migrants and the transitory population), Shangrila has plenty of room and there is indeed a distinct feeling of ‘space’ with imposing mountains, wide blue skies, and even the Tibetan houses are gigantic by anyone’s standard. Like some other hot tourist destinations in Yunnan, notably Lijiang (see my introduction to Lijiang and Shuhe), Shangrila has entered a period of rapid development. The Prefectural Governor told us in his welcoming address at the conference that in a few short years they are expecting an annual influx of one million visitors. Good for business most certainly. But will it be good for Shangrila? For its ecology? For its diverse cultures? For improving the life choices and living standards of ordinary people? Shangrila thus faces many challenges and difficult choices as it seeks to become the ‘next big thing’ on both domestic and international tourist circuits and concomitantly maintain the ecology and lifestyles which we associate with the name ‘Shangrila’. There is a very good article by Liu Jianqiang of ‘ChinaDialogue’ (an organisation devoted to discussing China’s environmental issues) on ‘Vanishing Shangrila’ which discusses some of the issues I raise here.

The old town of Shangrila (Zhongdian) is now a major tourist attraction and has undergone quite a bit of expansion which makes it hard to work out where the 'old' ends and the 'new' begins. It has not yet become as overly commercialised and busy as the old town of Lijiang (Dayan).

Just a quick note on the significance of ‘Shangrila’ for upon hearing of its terrestrial existence many readers may be about to pack their bags and get to the nearest airport (indeed, as I explain below, places like Shangrila are attracting people looking for a lifestyle change). ‘Shangrila’ first came into the English language via the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, which several years later was produced as film of the same name. Both book and film were well received and hit a particular chord amongst the predominantly Western audience. Remember at this time that Europe was just on the verge of being once again plunged into bloody warfare on a scale unforeseen in human history, another nail in the coffin for so-called ‘Western civilisation’. Bearing this in mind Hilton used the term ‘Shangrila’ to refer to a utopian paradise where people were guided by wisdom, where the locals (we assume they are Tibetan although we don’t really get too close) live a simple and pure existence in harmony with nature (what in Chinese is known as a ‘peach orchard beyond this mundane world’ (世外桃源)). By my reading ‘Shangrila’ as depicted in the novel and film, and later within Western popular culture, is full of the standard Orientalist tropes and sits alongside a modernist fancy for finding the cure for a materialist and decadent West in the spiritual wisdom of the East (a theme that also became popular in the ‘Asian Values’ debate of the 1990s). If you take careful note of the main plot of the film it concerns the transfer of the corpus of knowledge of human civilisation from one European custodian to another (without any consultation with the indigenous people who seem to exist in a state of blissful subservience). How exactly ‘Xianggelila‘ (Chinese for ‘Shangrila’) is understood within Chinese, given that it has only become more widespread in recent years, remains to be thoroughly investigated (an interesting postgraduate research topic). Prior to 2001 Shangrila was officially known as ‘Zhongdian’ ( 中甸) (and many of the locals still refer to it as such). But in accordance with government plans to develop cultural tourism it was decided to rename ‘Zhongdian’ as ‘Shangrila’. This renaming of places so as to bolster to prospects of tourism has become something of a trend in China, and indeed along the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ there are a few examples with ‘Puer’ undergoing a similar name-shift in 2007 (you can read about the Puer case here and here). This is not to suggest that Shangrila is not worthy of this title as an ‘earthly paradise’. Indeed, Shangrila is one of the most beautiful places in China with majestic mountains, rich alpine forests, meadows and lakes, and is inhabited by a mixture of Tibetan, Lisu, Han, Naxi, Bai, Yi and several other ethnic minority groups, all of whom seem to live in relatively harmony (there seems to be little in the way of serious ethnic tension, at least when compared to other parts of Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai and Xinjiang). Tibetans make up about 33% of the total population, followed by Lisu at 27%. At approximately 11 persons per square kilometre there is plenty of space for both ‘man’ [sic] and ‘nature’. I will have more to say about Shangrila as both a place and an idea below, after a brief report on the conference.

Shangrila is home to the Ganden Sumtseling Lamesary (Songzanlinsi in Chinese). It is the largest lamasery in Yunnan and an important place of worship and scholarship in the Yellow Hat Sect. It too has now become a major tourist attraction. Some lamas I spoke to said it is no longer a good place for training due to the large numbers of tourists.

The obligatory dancing with the locals in the old town square ('old' or 'new'?). On my way out to Hamagu (see below) I saw truckloads of village women dressed in their costumes no doubt on their way to perform the public dancing routine.I suspect that the villages nearby take turns.

The theme for the conference was ‘New Horizons for the Future of Tourism’ and there were indeed many papers addressing this topic. Presenters came from many corners of the world, including a great paper on the Kokoda Track (very important for Australians),  but it is fair to say that the vast majority focused on China, which was great for me as I had so much exposure to many different aspects of tourism and tourism development in the Middle Kingdom. There were too many good papers for me to go through them all. The opening keynote by Professor Alastair M. Morrison, President of ITSA, is worthy of note as it took a critical look at tourism development in China and presented a number of policy options to avoid the many problems that are arising as a result of rapid development and the sheer scale of things in China. Alastair summed up his approach under the title of ‘China’s ‘new’ tourism’ by which he means that tourism is developing so fast that is lacks sufficient planning and, in terms of marketing which his particular area of expertise, is loaded with cliches. Some of the key concerns he raised, which I have also noted in my fieldwork and reading of the literature, include purporting to be an ecotourism destination without really being true to the fundamental concepts of ecotourism and sustainability; talking about tourism at great length without really understanding the principles; and the tourism ‘trojan horse’ in which real estate developers use the guise of tourism real estate to sell property. I sincerely hope Alistair and ITSA can have some positive impact on tourism policy formation and implementation in China and will stay closely tuned. My own paper, by the way, was on the possibility of developing international standard hiking trails along the ‘ancient tea road’ in Shangrila. This served as a hypothetical entry into a discussion about the rise of adventure tourism in China and the emergence of the ‘donkey friends’. The paper will be published hopefully in 2012.

The last day of the conference was devoted to visits to Ganden Sumtseling Lamasery and Pudacuo National Park (普达措国家公园). The latter is one of China's most awarded tourist attractions in the 'national park' categoy. In China a 'national park' has as its primary objective the development of tourism, quite different to the emphasis on conservation that we associate with the term in Australia. Pudacuo is one of the better examples in China of finding a balance between tourism and conservation.

Two young women from Hamugu Village who kindly directed in the direction of the elusive remnant road.

In the short amount of time at my disposal (like many conferences that take place in the northern hemisphere the teaching commitments of those of us in the antipodes are often overlooked!) I took the recommendation from colleagues to examine some remnant road near the Tibetan Village of Hamugu (哈木谷). Due to its strategic location Hamugu is regarded as an important staging post on the ancient tea road. Hamugu is approximately ten kilometres from the old town, at the foot of Shika Snow Mountain (石卡雪山) (which for the convenience of tourists has a cable car all the way to one of the peaks, apparently the locals are able to use the cable car free of charge on important festivals days). The village is also adjacent to Napa Lake (纳帕海), a seasonal wetland that is now the site of much tourist activity, especially horse riding, and hence an important sideline activity for local villagers.  According to some sources, Hamugu was one of the first village communities in China to develop community based ecotourism. It could possibly be a good site for future fieldwork and I’m currently looking for somewhere to conduct a community based ecotourism project (which I hope will be part of a comparative project with a colleague in Taiwan who I met at the conference). Due to time constraints I wasn’t able to meet with anyone from the village in any official capacity (for which my liver and lungs were very grateful!), I simply hopped into a cab in the old town and said ‘take me to Hamugu!’. Once arriving in Hamugu I had a vague idea that I needed to climb up a nearby gorge and I asked two lovely village lasses for directions. Unfortunately they didn’t seem to sure where this ‘remnant tea road’ was, and suggested I make my way to the first major meadow on the mountain and ask one of the herders. Okay, sounded like a plan …

A typical wooden hut found on the high altitude meadows across northwest Yunnan and beyond. They serve as basic lodging for the locals during the summer months while their herds of yaks and cows are grazing.

Using a tea churn to make yak butter tea. Yak butter tea is typically salty and oily.

I managed to find the first meadow after climbing up and out of the gorge. Shangrila was really strutting its stuff, there were plenty of flowers in bloom attracting birds, bees and butterflies galore (although unfortunately the rhododendrons had just finished flowering). Upon arriving at the meadow I headed for the first wooden hut (小木屋), clearly there was someone inside as I could discern smoke rising from the chimney. As I approached I was greeted by a Tibetan woman and her young granddaughter (thankfully the ferocious looking Tibetan guard dog was chained to a nearby post). During the summer months the locals bring up their yaks and cows to the meadows to graze. It seems common practice for someone more elderly to take on the task of caring for the livestock and producing yak butter (suyou 酥油) and cow cheese (naizha 奶渣) during the grazing months, whilst the younger members of the family go about their business ‘down on the plain’ (farming and/or engaging in sideline activities such as tourism (horse riding in this case) and transportation). After a warm greeting, and being somewhat incredulous at seeing a lone foreigner ambling across the grass towards her, she invited me inside to enjoy some Tibetan tea (suyoucha 酥油茶) (in which the yak butter is a crucial ingredient) and tsampa (zanba 糌粑) (roasted barley flower which is mixed with some tea and kneaded into a dough and then consumed, along with more tea of course). We had a good chat about life in Hamugu including the impact of tourism on the community. For me it was the highlight of the trip, sitting there at about 3,500 metres in a simple wooden hut with such a generous local. Admittedly communication was not so straight-forward as I have virtually no Tibetan and her Mandarin was rather rudimentary, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. I asked her the way to the remnant road and she pointed vaguely in one direction. As it turned out I took the wrong path, but not to worry for as I was descending back into the Zhongdian plain I met a young chap from another nearby village. He was on his way down from a different meadow where his mother was looking after their family herd. His beautiful grey horse was piled with fresh yak butter ready for personal consumption and the market. I got talking to him and learned quite a bit more about economic and social life for villagers on the edge of Napa Lake. He knew about the remnant road and had taken both Chinese and foreign guests to visit it previously. He invited me to his house for more tea and tsampa and I promised to return, hopefully, later in the year or in 2012 to take up his offer to be my guide. All’s well that ends well.

Freshly made yak butter (suyou), an indispensible item in daily Tibetan life.

Madam Cheng at the door to her Tibetan style house in a village outside the county town. Tibetan houses in Shangrila are very large even by the 'McMansion' standards of Australia.

Whilst in Shangrila, apart from meeting many wonderful folks at the conference, I also had the good fortune to meet Madam Cheng. Madam Cheng is a semi-retired woman from Beijing/Hong Kong who having fallen under the spell of Shangrila has become a devout follower of Tibetan Buddhism (Zangchuan fojiao 藏传佛教). Along with one of her close friends she has built a Tibetan style house in a village just outside the county town. I’m quite interested in this phenomenon of the ‘mountain changers’, that is, those persons either from the eastern parts of China or from abroad who leave behind the hectic, crowded and polluted lifestyles of the city to find a change of pace and environment in the more idyllic parts of western China. This is something like the phenomenon of the ‘sea changers’ (or ‘tree  changers’) in the Australian context (that is, urbanites leaving the city to live in small rural communities on the coast or inland). Of course the term ‘sea change’ has a much longer heritage and can be traced all the way back to William Shakespeare. But in both cases it refers to the notion of a transformation, and in the demographic context of both a physical movement of a household (either permanently or for a prolonged period of time) and a ‘spiritual’ transformation. Another great postgraduate research project. Madam Cheng was kind enough to invite me to her house and whilst there I also was fortunate to meet Thangka Master Lobsang Khedup who heads up the Thangka Art Academy in the old town. I learnt a lot from him about the art of the Thangka and also of the complex nature of Tibetan religious practice. Although time was short I found my time in Shangrila very productive and hope to return in 2012 for a more extended period. Tashi delek བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས 扎西德勒!

With Madam Cheng and Master Lobsang Khedup.