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Travel & Holiday

Not so mythical Shangri-La

Zhongdian in China, renamed Shangri-La, is a place of natural beauty, LED screens and Sony
The Straits Times - July 12, 2011
By: Nicholas Yong
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Not so mythical Shangri-La

On a grassy plain dotted with yak and cow dung, in the shadow of 3m-high wooden racks used for drying crops, women in ethnic costumes and pink headgear huddle on stools beneath umbrellas in the dim light.

Over and over again, they utter a long high-pitched wail in a Tibetan dialect, beseeching the rain god for showers of blessing for the harvest.

The pitter-patter of a light drizzle on their umbrellas that started miraculously on the second day of their prayers gives them an extra incentive to keep going.

As they chant, other women cook or burn incense while little children run around.

The women are facing the 17th-century Songtsam Monastery, currently being restored, its magnificent layout spoiled by the presence of a large industrial crane. Behind them stands the 75-room luxury Songtsam Retreat, where I am staying.

The rain-making ritual is due to the fact that despite it being the rainy season, there had been no showers in Shangri-La, in the north-west province of Yunnan.

This is the third and final day of prayers for rain. The light but constant drizzle has not stopped since, bringing the temperature down to 8 to 15 deg C.

When I leave two days later, it is still raining. 'Looks like the prayers are really working,' I say in Mandarin to my guide Pi Chu, a 22-year-old ethnic Tibetan, as the incense smoke makes my eyes water.

He responds drily: 'Well, it is the rainy season, after all.'

This is the city formerly known as Zhongdian, seat of the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Like the mythical Shangri-La of the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, it is surrounded by mountains that are capped by snow in winter.

Located 3,200m above sea level, it is also the gateway to the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Later that night, I am seated in Khampa Nomad Impression, a bar in the old town of Dukezong that plays a sort of Tibetan techno. Dukezong, first built in the seventh century, was once a key stop on the centuries-old Chamagudao (Tea Horse Road), along which Tibet and China traded tea for horses.

Revellers get down on the dance floor with coordinated movements as they shuffle clockwise in a circle, much like retirees line-dancing at your local void deck.

A four-man Tibetan band in traditional costume then sings lustily on stage, after which the bar owner and members of the audience garland them with colourful scarves.

'The one who gets the most scarves has the biggest bonus,' jokes managing director of Roxy-Pacific Holdings Chris Teo, 50, with a laugh.

The Singaporean's family co-owns the three-year-old Songtsam Retreat. Other luxury hotels such as Sheraton and aptly, Shangri-La, are also being built in the Chinese county.

Touching dirt and good lodging

While it evokes romantic visions, Shangri-La gained its current moniker in 2001 for the most prosaic of reasons - to attract more tourists. That was when Zhongdian officially won the right to name itself after the utopia of Lost Horizon, despite competition from other counties in Yunnan and Sichuan.

The name has certainly drawn Singaporeans such as Mr Gordon Ng, 38, who works in the marketing line and was on an eight-day family vacation in China. 'The romantic appeal of the novel and the movie, the yak meat, the butter tea, the thin air - I had to see it for myself,' he says.

But Shangri-La, with a population of 130,000, is not quite an untouched utopia, as he quickly found out. 'I thought it was going to be an outback town with some modern amenities, so I was quite taken aback to see huge LED screens and consumer brands like Giordano,' he adds.

In a land that still carries out sky and water burials - where corpses are fed to vultures or fishes in a Tibetan Buddhist ritual - solar-powered street lamps and commercial brands such as Nokia and Sony are very much in evidence.

Construction and demolition are taking place at a furious pace, as seen by the piles of debris and cement everywhere.

But natural scenery is Shangri-La's strongest pull. For example, the 1,300 sq km Pudacuo National Park, home to almost 100 endangered species such as the black-necked crane and red panda, is one of the country's top national parks.

But it is there that I suffer a pounding headache, the delayed effects of altitude sickness. The highest point in the park is more than 4,000m above sea level.

As a curative, my guide recommends a steaming cup of butter tea, a heady mix of yak butter, salt and tea that is definitely an acquired taste. He says Tibetan nomads drink up to 40 cups a day.

I nod politely, all the while thinking that I would rather suffer a stroke than taste the tea again. Instead, I suck on a can of oxygen, bringing some much needed relief to my head and lungs.

You can also take a dip at Tianshengqiao Hot Spring Resort, where the Shudugang River flows through an underground cavity and forms a natural limestone bridge.

For a culture so steeped in religion, it is fitting that the 15m-high Fortunate Victory Prayer Wheel in Dukezong, built in 2002, is the largest in the region. The wheel depicts the 56 ethnic groups of China working together.

But religion and culture have been very much commodified in Shangri-La. In the square just beneath the prayer wheel, touts hawk Tibetan costumes for rent at 10 yuan (S$2) each. Prayer beads, tiny prayer wheels and other paraphernalia are also on sale at numerous shops.

On the business front, Singapore has made its mark in Shangri-La, with luxury resorts Songtsam Retreat, Angsana and Banyan Tree all present.

Singaporean Joseph Keh, 41, has been running The Compass Lodge and Cafe, a guesthouse and cafe there, for the past six years.

Business is certainly booming, he says, but competition has intensified in recent years, with more guesthouses popping up. He adds: 'Singaporeans who come here don't want the conventional kind of tour, but are looking for adventure. They want a more authentic experience and to touch the dirt, but still want good lodging.'

I could not help wondering: How much of Shangri-La can truly remain authentic?

Just like the prayer wheels scattered throughout the county, the wheels of development are turning slowly but relentlessly. Whether Shangri-La's karma will increase as a result remains to be seen.

Getting there

There are no direct flights to Shangri-La from Singapore. You can get there via Kunming, a four-hour flight away. SilkAir flies to Kunming three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

A flight to Shangri-La from Kunming, via carriers such as China Eastern, takes about an hour.

5 things to do

1 Beware of altitude sickness due to the rarefied oxygen levels. Minor symptoms include fatigue, dizziness and nausea. Drinking plenty of water and taking medication can help.

2 Bring sufficient warm clothing and an umbrella. Depending on the season, temperatures can fluctuate wildly from blazing hot to freezing cold.

3 Have a traditional Tibetan lunch at a local's house. Dishes include buns, cheese, tsampa (roasted barley flour) and homemade cured pork.

4 Check out the annual horse-racing festival from June 6 to 9, which draws players and performers from all over the region.

5 Sample yak butter tea, a Tibetan hot pot and yak meat. But be warned, not everyone will like these.

2 don'ts

1 Don't exert yourself too much on your first day in Shangri-La. Altitude sickness can hit anyone regardless of fitness levels, and severe cases have even resulted in death.

2 Don't take too much barley wine (above) as it has 40 per cent alcohol, but consume it in moderation.



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