Saturday, April 28, 2012


I was supposed to be in Xinjiang by now, up on the high steps of China’s northwestern frontier. I was supposed to be sitting on wool carpets in the earthen houses of the Tarmin Basin, discussing- in Turkish or English, but certainly not Mandarin- the racist policies of the Chinese Communist Party. My company was to be Uighurs. Turkic Muslim’s who, during the lulls in conversation, would look longingly towards the western horizon and the independent central Asian states that lay just beyond. Remembering their two brief stints of independence and still nurturing a shadow of a hope.

 But when I look out my window I don’t see the bleak expanse of the Gobi Desert. When I walk down the street I don’t see the Caucasian Muslims, whose culture, history and politics I spent my last 4 months of college engrossed in. I see a sea of grey, red and glass apartment buildings backed by pale blue skies and rugged snow capped peaks. I see tour buses loaded with Han sightseers decked out in the latest outdoors gear. I see Tibetan women selling homemade Yak yogurt and cheese. I see Shangri-La, and it has sucked me in.

When I got off the overnight bus from Kunming 3 weeks ago and made my way over to Kailah’s apartment in the Eastern Tibetan Training Institute (ETTI) building, I was only planning on staying for 2 nights. If I was going to get up to Xinjiang, and see everything that I wanted to along the way, there was no time to dilly-dally, even if it my host was a fellow Beloiter. But 2 nights turned into 5, and after a bike ride around the base of 15,000ft granite peaks, a morning of teaching the pronunciation of landscape adjectives to 16 Tibetan teenagers, discovering 20-cent Yak dumplings, AND Kailah’s generous invitation to stay, I decided that Xinjiang could wait. This city is just too interesting.

The City

 Despite the sense of ancient mysticism that the name invokes, Shangri-La has only existed for about 10 years. Before that it was Zhongdian, a one yak, backwater town sitting in a 10,000ft high valley on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Its metamorphosis into the tourist behemoth that it has become began when some savvy government officials received permission from Beijing to change the town’s name. By agreeing to also use the name Shangri-La for the entire county, these officials appeased their competing neighbors and won the official right to the mantel of the mythological Buddhist kingdom. A kingdom which legend describes as an esoteric and enlightened place; a place where jade palaces are said to float above a hidden valley at the base of a crystal mountain.

To legitimize this new title, ‘experts’ where brought in to verify that Zhongdian was in fact the basis for the mythical Buddhist paradise that James Hilton popularized in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The fact that Lost Horizon was a work of fiction, and that Hilton had never actually made it to China, hasn’t deterred 3 million Chinese tourists from descending on the city’s old town and monasteries every year.

Despite the huge growth the city has experienced as it tries to keep up with the exploding tourist industry, it remains relatively small. With 130,000 residents it is barely more than a village by Chinese standards, but that’s the best part of it. That, and that there’s almost no pollution. I didn’t think you could find either of those things in China anymore.

 The School

 Since the Chinese government doesn’t allow any foreign NGOs to operate within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (Tibet as we see it on a political map), Shangri-La has become something of a Mecca for NGOs that target Tibetans. It sits at the far northwestern corner of Yunnan, next to Tibet, has a population that is roughly 40% Tibetan, and is easily accessible by bus and plane.

Within the relatively large community of NGOs and civil society organizations in Shangri-La, ETTI enjoys something of a crown jewel status. It is funded by USAID and AusAID, and was written up in National Geographic and featured on the popular Australian T.V. show, Foreign Correspondent.

 ETTI’s mission is to train Tibetan youth in the skills that they need to take advantage of the regions surging tourism market. As it stands, skilled migrants take the majority of high paying hospitality work, while local minorities, the area’s main attraction, are left working menial labor jobs with no real stake in the presentation or future of their culture.

 ETTI provides its student’s with the skills necessary to succeed in the industry through several intensive training programs, all free of charge. They have also achieved a very respectable 95% employment-on-graduation rate for the students of their flagship Youth Pre-Employment Training (YPET) course. But, despite its relative success and fame, ETTI is still plagued by the same scourge as almost every other NGO; a lack of funding.

The first week I was here in the ETTI compound I did some projects write-ups and edits to try and regain some sense of the productivity and usefulness that I have been missing since I left India. It went well, so I figured that when I decided to stay for the rest of the month it wouldn’t be much of an issue to get a small living stipend in exchange for my office work and for helping teach English classes. It was. Even my third and final offer of 500 yuan (roughly $76) for a month of full-time work was beyond ETTI’s budget.

Still, I wanted to stay and help. The only thing was that I couldn’t justify doing so without having some sort of income. So I went to old town.

The Bar

The first place I checked at was a guesthouse run by one of Kailah’s friends. Xiao Chun was very nice, but working 12 hours a day cleaning toilets and floors in a dark restaurant for $80 a month wasn’t quite worth staying for. I thanked her and moved on.

Next I did a trial night as a kitchen assistant at one of the nicer of the Tibetan restaurants that clutter the cobble stone back alleys of old town. They liked me and wanted me to stay, and I would have -working in an all-Mandarin kitchen would have been great for my Chinese- but the next morning I heard back from Jason at The Raven.

 The Raven had always been my first choice; this cozy, candle lit bar, with its packed earth walls, uneven wood floor, and timbered ceiling is THE cool, smoky, local bar. Jason, who, in his leather biking jacket and old Dr. Martin boots could easily win an Iggy Pop look-alike contest, originally came from London and has spent the last ten years running The Raven and a tour company. The tour company, as Jason puts it, is a necessity. It pays for the remarkable amounts of alcohol that he drinks with his posse of western academics, Tibetan tour guides and nomads during the six nights a week the Raven is open. After hanging out there on one of my first nights in town, I remember thinking it would be an dream place to work.

And on that morning after working as a kitchen assistant, that dream came true. I called the very nice, and very stylish, French/Chinese couple that run the Tibetan restaurant, told them I had found another job, then went down to The Raven at 6:30pm for my first shift.

 That was 2 weeks ago, and though my liver and circadian rhythm may not feel the same way, I think this may be the best job I have ever had. I get paid to ply iPhone toting Chinese tourists and grungy foreign hippies with booze and chat with them until 4am.

 And everyone comes to The Raven. Last night at 11pm, going clockwise around the room, there was a group of American college students on an SIT program, a Harvard-trained Tibetan professor, who was talking about the research grant he got to study the morphology of ogre folktales on the plateau, a group of 20-something trust fund endowed Hans, throwing shot glasses full of 3% alcohol beer into their red, perspiring faces, and the Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, who sipped at a Coke while he told me about the month he had spent investigating Apple’s Chinese supply chain.

Leaving this utopia in two weeks for the long, desolate road to Xinjiang is not going to be easy.  

Paradise and Shangri-La

Stumbling the 4km back home after last call each night takes me through the deserted cobbled streets of old town and across the asphalt border into the sprawl of modern Shangri-La. The only people I pass on my way through the center of new town are taxi drivers slurping noodles, loitering police and drunken revelers stumbling out of karaoke bars.

 Turning off Shambala Ave. onto Kailah’s road is like stepping into Enter the Void; the entire block is filled with hotels whose 5 floors blaze with flashing neon tubes and 10ft tall back-lit Chinese characters. The inebriated excitement of the men scurrying into the marble entrances, along with the heavy make-up of the women sitting in the lobby, make me fairly certain that these hotels offer hourly rates. I don’t think the western ‘experts’ saw this when they came.
Each night, after quietly shutting the apartment door, drinking a liter of water and slipping in to bed, I feel the same way. Though it is far more multifaceted than Hilton’s description, and there are no floating jade palaces or crystal mountains, for many people, from the Tibetan nomads studying at ETTI to the exhilarated Han tourists in the neon-lit hotels, and maybe even for me, Shangri-La does seem like something close to paradise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The In-Between

From my seat on an over-turned flowerpot atop this half demolished building, I can see all of Kunming. The surging crest of the steel and glass waves of modernity that silhouette themselves with light against the mountains to the north; the villages, markets and dilapidated apartment buildings that ooze out in organic, meandering lines across the flood plains.

This rooftop is the first real island of quiet that I have found since touching down in Yunnan two weeks ago. The first real peace.

It has been more than 4 years since I was last in China. A lot has changed. I’m no longer a bumbling Beloit College junior looking for my first experiential impressions of the Middle Kingdom. Impressions that I could superimpose on the dozens of hours of academic research and writing I had done on this ‘communist’ juggernaut. I’m still searching for insight, but this time it is of a different sort. The kind that is not chained to a grade or a desperate search for validation and legitimacy.

China has changed too. Things are more expensive. People are a little less impressed by tall, balding foreigners mumbling at them in Mandarin. Things seem to be moving faster and with more confidence. Like me, the country seems a little more self-assured. A little more aware.

Up here, on the rubble-strewn roof, the wail of this New York City-sized metropolis has become a distant hum. It feels like the city’s screams for attention are, for the moment, directed at one less person. Even 5 days ago, when I was 15,000ft up on a glaciated peak, it didn’t feel like this. This dark space. This in-between. Alone and forgotten.

Though aged and decrepit, the husks that litter the city’s southern flats are anything but empty. The hodgepodge of added balconies, clotheslines and window dressings give testament to the living force that is the thousands of human lives that grow and move within their walls. It is the people in these hives- with all of their creativity, love, hate and, more than anything else, ambition- that drive this country forward.

It was that intense ambition that forged the city to the north. The steel and glass that, despite its technical and aesthetic advancements, still has the same feeling of transience that bleeds from the fissures running through the broken-down apartment blocks.

All the buildings that I see in both directions are shells, not homes, impermanent and disposable. A means to an end. One more stepping-stone along the way to an unseen bank.

That chaotic, messy, little-understood ambition is a motive force alone. A river that is racing downhill but hasn’t yet found a sea.

I couldn’t see any of this from the streets; it’s all too close down there. I saw the rush and felt the drive, and couldn’t help but be swept up in the hustle and bustle, but it’s like trying to see where that river is heading while getting half-drowned in its torrent. I had to get away from it first. To step back and separate. To pull myself free so that I could glimpse it in its entirety. It’s now that I see that the seething mass of humanity, the one that seemed to be racing in a million directions, all seems to be moving the same way.

The half demolished sanctuary under my feet shares the same ephemeral quality as all the other buildings around it, only in a more immediate sense; in a few months it will look just like all the other bare, rubble strewn patches blotched across this provincial capital that I biked past to get here.

But for now it sits in the shadow of the city. A dark patch that, for the time being, is of no real use to anyone but me. An acre at most, visible only by the reflected light of the city and the almost extinguished memory of what it once was. The building is checked often enough to keep out the vagrants, but this skeleton is no longer important enough to anyone to station a full-time watchman.

Stepping out of the torrent of China seems to only be possible so close to its beating heart. Only here, in the ambiguity of its masses, are things moving and changing fast enough that there are pockets of peace. Places that have outlived their use and not yet been reconstituted into the ameba of modern, urban China.

No one was with us at 15,000ft on Mt. Haba –me, the 25-year-old British baker and the 24-year-old American musician who had, after a 15 minutes conversation in a cafĂ© 10 days ago, agreed to let me come on their ascent – but up there we were on a well-used trail at the end of an active conduit of tourism; we were supposed to be there. Kunming’s many parks are filled with enormous trees and beautiful flowers, but they are all planted in neat rows. The only thing wild and unchecked in this city seems to be the fanatical drive of its residents.

Only on the remains of this cell that has out-lived its purpose to the organism does the specter of meaninglessness scare away enough traffic for quiet to pervade. For an island, however impermanent, to exist that allows space for the questions of why and where. Where does this force lead? And why is there such a perceived imperative in the Chinese psyche for them to throw themselves into the surge?

I have read a great many books and articles over the last 6 years written by experts and China watchers who have tried to answer this, and maybe some of them will end up being right. But from my vantage point on this fractured flowerpot, it seems that the people in this flood are the only ones who can truly answer those questions. And that they haven’t yet.

Until enough of them can extricate themselves from the flood for long enough to really ask what it is they are working towards, their collective howl will answer ‘just a little bit more!’ Until that changes, and not just here in China, the result will continue to be blind, reckless, unchecked and unsustainable growth, for its own sake.

In a few months, maybe less, the short life cycle of this already half-destroyed apartment building will come to its end and a new edifice will replace it. The lives and stories that made it more than just the sum of its parts, more than just a mass of rebar, concrete, aluminum and glass, have moved on, and what remains will be reduced to filler to be dumped into the fresh foundations of new buildings. New fabrications that will undoubtedly be equally short lived.

I rise from my seat and let my eyes rest, one last time, on the hazy line that is the northern shore of the lake, floating at the southern horizon. My eyes trace the line of a highway from the waters edge up through the heart of the city, watching it twist through the forest of 70-story mirrors, then finally disappearing into the darkness of the northern foothills.

After picking my way down the steps and past the chunks of concrete littering the hallway, I retrieve my borrowed bike from behind a graffiti-etched wall. Through an empty window frame I see a different view; the sun, sunk below the steel arc of a massive Ferris wheel, as it slowly traces its endless circles into the orange sky.

Peddling away from that dark island and through the small alleys, lined with garbage and rubble, onto cleaner avenues, which in turn merge into broader boulevards, the noise of the city rises in volume and becomes more accusatory. More demanding. The pull of the city becomes stronger and stronger, until I finally reach the highway and swing the bike into the crowded, motley stream of commuters moving north, coming back from work to their temporary homes.