China: Heaven can wait

By Mark Fryer

Welcome, says the note in the hotel room, to the place "designated as the official Shangri-La by the Chinese Government".

The centre of this officially specified heaven on earth is the town of Zhongdian in Yunnan, southwestern China, also known as Gyalthang to its many Tibetan residents and, since 2002, as Xianggelila/Shangri-La - "but that's only for tourists", confides one of the locals, unnecessarily.

This is rebranding and it's serious business. The area's claim to be the real-life inspiration for Shangri-La - the land where all is peaceful and good in the novel Lost Horizon and film of the same name - was won only after stiff competition from other parts of China.

The prize was tourists, from abroad and from the country's more prosperous eastern regions.

So now there's a new international airport with "Shangri-La" in giant letters across the facade. And visitors can stroll in Zhongdian's "old town", where they've knocked down the old (but too new-looking) buildings and are busy erecting new (but old-looking) replacements.

And the tourists have poured in, so quickly there are worries about how much the environment can stand.

Whether this branding matters depends on what you're after. Anyone expecting blissful serenity will be disappointed - calling it Shangri-La hasn't stopped residents from hoicking on the footpaths, alerted drivers to the existence of road rules or made the drains smell any sweeter.

But if you're happy to dismiss the marketing and settle for scenery, local colour and a window into a country that's changing as you watch, you could do a lot worse.

On the scenery front, the area confounds the Chinese stereotypes: all those teeming cities and smoggy skies. This corner of Yunnan, bordering on Tibet to the north and Myanmar to the west, is all wide open spaces with mountains of over 6700m, glaciers, cultivated terraces clinging to impossible slopes, broad grasslands populated mostly by wandering yaks and - outside the towns - far too few people to muster a decent team.

Between the mountains, some of Asia's biggest rivers have carved spectacular ravines, most famously at Tiger Leaping Gorge on the drive north from Lijiang to Zhongdian, where the Yangtse squeezes through a narrow crack, a vertiginous 3700m below the peaks on each side.

For serious plant-lovers, the promise of heaven on earth is not too big a stretch. The steep terrain makes for extravagant botanical variety, and even if you don't know your rhododendrons from your azaleas, the flower-covered hillsides are still spectacular.

In the midst of this scenic reverie, at times you can't help observing an extraordinary talent for taking places of great beauty and, well, buggering them up. At Dechin village, one side of the road looks out on a sublime mountainscape, a long line of forested slopes and white peaks, framed by prayer flags. Sublime, that is, if you ignore the stench of the open sewer along the edge of the road.

And while the Yangtze squeezing through Tiger Leaping Gorge is undeniably spectacular, you can't help wondering what it was like before the bus parking lot, the souvenir stalls, the children in ethnic clothing charging for photographs and the porters carrying tourists up and down the cliffside.

But away from the certified attractions, there is - for now - emptiness to spare. For long stretches of the drive north from Zhongdian to the mountains, the main signs of human activity are a few yak-herders' huts, groups of "fungus" (mushroom) gatherers in the forest and the occasional farmer putt-putting along the highway in his combination rotary hoe/tractor/pickup truck.

The further north you go, the more Tibetan it looks: scattered two-storey houses, animals on the ground floor, the family above, the roof supported by elaborately carved rafters. All topped, inevitably, by a satellite dish. "One hundred channels," says our driver.

The Tibetan presence is the most obvious sign that this is one of China's most culturally diverse areas. By some estimates, almost half of Yunnan's people are from two dozen minority groups, each with its own customs, language and traditional dress.

It's also a Buddhist stronghold, and prayer flags and stupas - dome-shaped monuments - mark many hilltops.

At breakfast one morning we share the dining-room with a group of monks - sneakers showing under their crimson-and-gold robes - taking a break from an arduous pilgrimage to sacred mountain caves.

Zhongdian's elaborately gilded Ganden Sumtsaling monastery, a five-storey giant built over 300 years ago and home to 600 monks, is just the biggest of the many monasteries where visitors can take in the ornate architecture and hear the sounds of chanting, cymbals and the monks' bugle-like horns, all amid the pervasive stale-popcorn smell of the yak-butter lamps.

Vague notions of Buddhism as a cuddly religion may be challenged by the lurid depictions of ordeals awaiting sinners in the afterlife.

Whether Buddhism's prominence is a genuine expression of religious freedom is difficult for a casual visitor to tell. The don't-mention-the-war response to questions about what happened to these places during the Cultural Revolution suggests freedom has its limits.

The slightly contrived feel continues in the more picturesque towns. Lijiang's old town is charming, with its cobbled streets, arched bridges and canals, but it's unashamedly a tourist spot, where the biggest challenge can be taking a picture without the frame including another tourist taking a snap back at you.

And while the intricately carved shops of Zhongdian's "old" - but rather new - town are intriguing, it doesn't take long to notice that most appear to be selling things that old Zhongdian-ites may not have had much call for: pashmina shawls, akubra-style hats (a bargain at $5, but a little rain and your head will smell like a dead horse), yak-tail dusters and "Tibetan" souvenirs.

Perhaps it's just the universal tourist's lament: someone else got here first. Better not to worry too much about "authenticity" and find your pleasures where you can: the Zhongdian shop selling sumptuous carpets (made from New Zealand wool, says the label); the sign in Lijiang advertising the "one meter sunshine camel bell shop" (closed, its contents remain a mystery); black tea on sale compressed into rock-hard discs, some the size of car wheels; villages high in the mountains growing olives and pomegranates; and the barley harvest spread out to dry on the rooftops.

Or in Zhongdian of an evening you can watch the locals dancing. Everyone from tiny children to businessmen in white shirts to old women in traditional clothing turns out at dusk and for an hour or so they orbit the town square in a display of synchronised grace, accompanied by some very loud Chinese folk-techno-funk.

The food's good, too. At Zhongdian's Potala Log Cabin restaurant, $20 will buy a banquet for two. Easiest taste to acquire: the momo (dumplings stuffed with spiced, minced yak). Most difficult: butter tea (black tea, butter, salt, churned to a froth). Feel free to take the last cup. No, I insist.

When it comes to accommodation, paradise on earth is geared up for travellers on every kind of budget. At the top end - literally, it's 3200m up a mountain - the Banyan Tree's Ringha resort puts me up in a room that I pace out at 130 sq m. It has to be that big to accommodate the five air-conditioning units and enough furniture to stock a modest antique shop. If that's a squeeze, they have really big rooms too.

At the other end of the scale, the main decor features in my considerably smaller room in Dechin village are some ominous bare wires protruding from the wall, a door that looks to have been kicked in by the last occupant and a sign that, among many other warnings, informs me: "It is forbidden to prostitute, whoring, gambling, traffic in narcotics, spread pornographic articles, abduct and sell women and children, illegal activities, etc." From the look of the room, these are not theoretical propositions.

And, in just the right place between those two extremes, there's Zhongdian's Songtsam Hotel, a cosy converted old house where, when you give your order to the waitress in the third-floor dining room, she shouts it out to the ground-floor kitchen and a few minutes later a cook climbs a ladder to deliver your food through the window.

Up on the hotel's rooftop terrace, watching the sun set on the monastery next door, and the stars rise over the mountains, it's almost enough to make you believe in marketing.

* Mark Fryer travelled to China courtesy of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.

Checklist

Shangri-La

Before you go

Visitors to China need a visa: $75 by mail for a single entry, more if you plan to leave and re-enter the country. Take Chinese currency and travellers' cheques - money machines can be few and far between.

Getting there

Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) flies direct to Singapore 12 times a week from Auckland, daily from Christchurch. SilkAir flies from Singapore to Kunming, about four hours, three times a week. From Kunming it's a short hop of less than an hour to places such as Lijiang or Zhongdian.

Getting around

Train lines are sparse in this part of the country, so most travel is likely to be by road, bus if you're going it alone, car if you're with an organised tour. The 4WDs used by many tour groups aren't an affectation; some of the main roads are good, but off the beaten track can mean exactly that.

What it costs

World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.com, 0800 350 354) runs a variety of trips in China and is offering 10 per cent off all departures in June. The 15-day Yunnan-Meili trek, departing from Kunming between May and December, costs $3390 a person. Flights between Auckland and Kunming will add $1700-$2000, taxes included.

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