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The Real Shangri-La: From Lijiang to Zhongian

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From Dali, hippie capital of Yunnan, we took a four hour bus ride to Lijiang, now the most popular tourist destination in China. Teeming with thousands of Chinese (and some westerners), the old town, with it's twisty cobblestone lanes and alleys, sans cars, is not without its charms, but


it is very easy to get lost, and there are far too many people, as well restaurants, grossly overcharging for the priviledge of sipping a beer near one of the numerous stone bridges. Naxi women, dressed in immaculately laundered blue regalia, along with a few Tibetans, perform dances on the streets while hustling the tourists to empty their wallets in the thousands of souvenir shops which are everywhere.

Lijiang at Night from our Guest House

It is what I imagine Epcot Center to be like, though I confess that I have never been there. Way too artificial for my tastes. We stayed in a guest house just outside the old city, affiliated with the hostel we loved in Dali. However, the staff was surly and seemed to resent the guests. To top it off, I suspect there were bedbugs in the pillow, as I had hundred of bites on my neck, which didn't go away until after we left two days later.

Zhongian, which was renamed Shangri-la by the Chinese government, was a relief after Lijiang. Much more low key, the old town is smaller, with intricately carved houses of stone and wood, and windows painted in the bright reds and other colors that the Tibetans like so much. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has big plans to turn Shangri-la into another major tourist destination. There is construction going on all over the surrounding new city. Big hotels are sprouting up, and what look to be shopping malls, all being built in faux Tibetan style. In five years, the place might be very different. The Chinese have a way of turning even their minority groups into a commodity to be marketed to flag waving, beanie wearing, Han Chinese tour groups. Part of the problem is that there are just so damned many of them, and they quickly overwhelm whatever other cultures they come into contact with. Couple this with their sense of cultural superiority, and you have the makings of what the Dalai Lama has called, cultural genocide. Shangri-la is really the start of the Tibetan world in China. It is high, over 3000M, and Tibet itself is not very far away. Neither is northwestern Sichuan, which is overwhelming Tibetan as well.

It will be interesting to see, in the years to come, if the influence of American culture wanes, as Chinese culture becomes more ascendant. In some ways, our culture has also overwhelmed others, less because of numbers, and more because of Hollywood and the power of American marketing techniques. In the end, Chinese and American culture may not be all that dissimilar. The Chinese, after all, love to shop, conduct business of all kinds, and they love Mickey. Perhaps the end result will be a weird amalgam of both cultures?

In Shangri-la we found a wonderful guest house. From our room, we could look over to an enormous prayer wheel and a Buddhist temple, especially beautiful at night when they were lit up.


On the way to Shangri-la, we met up with Grace and Dave, who we had seen on a previous bus ride. She is Korean and he is from New Zealand, but they met in China where he taught English while she taught music. She had a thriving career in music in Korea, but felt stifled by the increasing christian religiosity of her country and her family. She apparently was more or less disowned by her relatives when she hooked up with Dave. We ended up spending the better part of a week with them.

I took a Picture of Them and They took a Picture of Us

On our first full day in town, we set out for a major Buddhist temple, Songzanlin, a few miles away. Largely reconstructed after being destroyed by the Red Guards, it looks somewhat like the Potala Palace in Lhasa, though the roof is a bright gold color and huge golden stupas surround the grounds. Inside, enormous Buddhas, looking almost childlike, smile benignly on all who enter.


Here too, Naxi and Tibetan women, in full costumes of cobalt blue and white for the Naxi, and mainly fuchia and elaborate headgear for the Tibetans, pose for pictures. Five Yuan, if you please. After visiting the monastery and the extensive grounds, we wandered through some of the nearby villages and saw many more women dressed in native costumes, though somewhat more threadbare and dirty, clearly not designed to appeal to tourists. There were other villagers as well. Everyone was friendly and seemed to get a kick out of seeing us there.




The next day we set off on a bike ride with Grace and Dave. Having only a poor map and little helpful information, we had no idea which way to go. We headed East with no particular destination, but in the thin air of Zhongian, some of the hills were difficult to negotiate. Nanette and I had good bikes, but Dave and Grace were on a tandem with no gears, Grace never having learning to ride a bike growing up in Korea. After an hour or two in the hot sun, we noticed a small dirt track leading to a village further in the mountains. We headed there, eager to get away from the tourist buses plying the main highway. As we rode down the rutted and potholed road, Tibetan women and children would shout out Ni Hao, and sometimes Tashi Delek(hello in Tibetan) We got to what was obviously a poor village, though the houses looked more solid than many of the new buildings they put up in the cities. Pigs, chickens and cows meandered on the road, and I think we saw less than two cars for the rest of the day. After another hour, we ended up near a tiny store, just in time to replenish our dwindling water supply. A few locals came out to observe, curious about what foreigners on bikes were doing there.


We headed for a house with a bright red roof on a nearby hill, which we arbitrarily made our destination. However en route, a group of Tibetan women stopped us and asked where we were going.


" We have no idea," Grace said in Mandarin, and they invited us to visit the lamasary on top of the hill, not far from the red house. We thought that's where they were going, but as it turned out, they soon split off from us to go to another part of the village. They pointed the way, and we continued walking and riding up.

Eventually we got there. The lamasary building looked old, and rather decrepit, but the view of the green valley below, the surrounding mountains, and the tattered prayer flags blowing from the tops of nearby chortens, was sublime.


The dozen or so monks in residence soon came out to greet us. "Chu la ma"?, they said. Did you eat? We replied, "chu la, bao la". Yes we ate. We're full. Oh they said, "at least come and have tea.". Nanette and I might not have understood all of this, but Grace's Chinese was better than ours. They showed us around the temple, which was very dark inside, much like those I had seen in India and Nepal, and then took us upstairs to what was obviously the most comfortable sitting room. There they first gave us green tea, Chinese style, then yak butter tea, along with Yak cheese and tsampa. Tsampa is powered barley, usually rolled into balls moistened with butter tea. I didn't realize at first that it was what I had tasted in Nepal, but to be polite I took a small piece and ate it as the monks instructed. It tasted vaguely like peanuts.


The monks were mostly older teenagers and some in their 20's. They were big fellows, tall, broad, and even little fat. They were laughing and attempting to talk to us in Chinese, obviously enjoying our presence. Once again Grace came to the rescue, though she didn't understand a lot of what they said. After a while, it came time to leave, and somewhat reluctantly we said our goodbyes. Biking down the hill from the temple, we stopped for picture taking of the unspoiled scene. Here was one place where the tour buses had yet to discover.

It would have been a perfect day, were it not for the car that happened to be parked in my way as I pedaled furiously back into town. Not looking where I was going, or rather not being able to see over the large brim of my hat, I ran straight into it, bouncing off the bumper. My third bike accident in the last several months. Luckily though, other than giving my quads a good bang and knocking the wind out of me, this one was not as bad as the last.

We stopped just outside the old town to have dinner at the Puppet Restaurant, offering, Chinese, Indian, Naxi, Tibetan, Japanese, western food, and God knows what else. It looked to be frequented mainly by Tibetans and was less touristy, so we decided to give it a try. Though the momos were not outstanding, the Naxii meat pies and Indian food was delicious. Our waitress and proprietess was a beautiful Naxi woman who spent 6 months in Kathmandu studying English, which helped to explain the wall hanging of Bodinath, as well as her nearly flawless accent. We asked her several questions about the Naxi culture. Pronouced, Nashi, they are one of the last matrilinear cultures in the world. The women choose to have children with whatever man they like, usually without bothering to be married. They stay with the man as long as they wish, but usually, the children are raised only by the women in the family. The men have no responsibility, but also no parental rights . Often the women choose to have a succession of boyfriends, and there is no stigma attached to this whatsoever. The women own and run the family businesses, and, of course, female children are highly valued, so very different than traditional Chinese culture. Depending on the position of their parents within Chinese society, they might however still be bound by the one child policy.

Wow, I might suggest to my feminist daughters, that they become Naxi.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:46 Archived in China

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Very interesting about the Naxi. Do you think their culture will survive? Also, beautiful photos, especially of the old and young people (children).

by Natalie Nussbaum

Is it too late for me to become a Naxi (not to be confused with the party)?

by mari

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