Saturday, April 28, 2012

Shangri-La



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.

2 comments:

  1. Great post!! I will miss you too.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post! Never made it to the Raven when I was there, alt hough I did hear a lot about it. SGL certainly has a way of getting under one's skin, and I'd like to go back! (from Kailah's mom)

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