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Picture a jumble of bright white buildings, painted in long colourful bands of a deep burgundy and yellow, white and black dots arranged in neat lines. The windows are covered in cloths of a vibrant yellow while black and white tapestries with complicated geometric symbols adorn the facades. Golden roofs in the typical East-Asian hip-and-gable style glitter in the sun. The buildings match each other like a well thought-out painting, the lines and dots, patterns and colours flowing together in perfect harmony.
In front of Songzanlin Monastery, also known as Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, a lake stretches out. The lake, home to flocks of ducks floating lazily across the water, is framed by dark green reeds and a winding walking path, which the monks in their red robes as well as visitors often use for their afternoon strolls. Songzanlin Monastery is nestled between the rolling green and gold hills around Shangri-la in China’s Yunnan Province, an important stop for many travellers heading into Tibet and a region that has a very Himalayan feel to it. Far away from China’s polluted eastern coast, here, puffy cumulus clouds move fast across the deep blue sky. The air is crisp and clear and the occasional cold gust of wind reminds visitors that they are at over 3000 meters above sea level.
The name Shangri-la is a reference to the mountain valley in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, basically a mythical, utopian paradise in the Himalayas and a happy, carefree place isolated from the rest of the world. As it happens, while the name might still be fitting for the beautiful landscape and what is left of the Tibetan architecture, the Shangri-la seen today has very little similarity to Hilton’s imagined paradise.
Not too long ago, Shangri-la was known as Zhongdian, a quiet, mainly Tibetan town that barely attracted any visitors to this remote region. Then, in 2001, it was renamed to make it a destination fit for mass-tourism. The old town was completely reconstructed, the monastery renovated, a new temple was built, countless hotels, restaurants and an airport opened and it was even rumored that the monks at the monastery were hired Han Chinese working 9-5 jobs. Shangri-la was in danger of turning into just another playground for the millions of Chinese tourists escaping from the smoggy, overcrowded cities for some fresh air. It was all tacky gift shops, fake outdoor equipment and staged culture and while the colourful prayer flags still fluttered in the wind, in the end, what was left of Zhongdian was very little authentically Tibetan.
For a while now, I have wanted to write about this, as for someone who celebrates cultural diversity, what is happening there is simply sad to watch. It isn’t exactly fresh news, but the commercialism, paired with the recent Chinese housing development in the area, is disgusting. Not only are whole cities sprouting up out of nowhere, long rows of identical, tall apartment buildings that seem completely out of place in the beautiful, serene Himalayan landscape, but what is left of the traditional architecture and the minority culture somehow gets turned into a Disneyland for Chinese tourists. Once small and quiet towns like Dali, Lijang and later Shangri-la get so incredibly overrun, that anyone who isn’t into this kind of extreme mass-tourism, has stopped going there altogether.
The plan goes further than mass-tourism though. As it is alway the case in the more remote regions of China, the end goal is moving in as many Han Chinese as possible and thus, effectively shutting the minorities up by simply becoming the overwhelming majority. I’ve seen it happening in Yunnan Province with the Tibetan minority, in Gansu Province with the Uygurs and in Inner Mongolia with the Mongolians and the process is visible in any remote area to any visitor who cares to observe. These more remote regions aren’t only supposed to absorb China’s growing population and the excess of people in the huge cities, but the purpose of the resettlement policy is also economic development, the reduction of cultural differences and to solidify control over the border regions. Residents even get moved out of historic towns through forced relocation to make room for tourist infrastructure, such as restaurants and hotels. It is basically forced assimilation and wiping out any culture that doesn’t serve the Chinese love for extreme Disneyland-tourism, or, as the Dalai Lama once put it, “cultural genocide”.
Shangri-la was in danger of becoming a second Lijang, the new mass-tourism destination in the region, but then something happened. Tourism dropped down to basically zero, when in January 2014, two thirds of the old town were wiped out in a huge fire. The inferno destroyed over 250 Tibetan houses, a couple of which had survived for over 600 years. And it seems that with all the cheesy souvenir shops, the kitsch trinkets and the fake Northface jackets gone, Chinese tourists couldn’t come up with another reason to visit. During my five-day visit in June, the place was simply deserted. I experienced my first break from Chinese tourism and got to visit the monastery, the ruins as well as what is left of the old town, the temples and the landscapes with barely seeing another traveller.
My advice is to go there while you can, before Shangri-la reverts back to becoming the next Disneyland of Western China. And because Shangri-la, fake Tibetan tourist attraction or not, is a after all a beautiful place, as always, here are a couple photos: