by Jim Goodman
|Shangrila's old town, before the fire
|butchering a yak in the old town, 1993
This was the first time local Tibetans had met Westerners and the encounters were always so friendly I began to think of Zhongdian as Hello City, after the word I heard a hundred times a day. On return visits over the next few years I learned some of the local dialect, enabling me to arouse curiosity in the monasteries and invitations to stay overnight in the villages. Tibetans there were just as curious about me as I was about them. With a combination of Chinese and Tibetan, we talked about my experiences in Nepal and with other peoples in the area, even the Akha I worked with in Thailand.
|Tibetan girl near Napahai
Further north, in Diqing County, the land is much more rugged, dominated by steep mountains, with much less flat farming land. Here a single family can harvest its field unaided in less than a day. People are more dependent on animal husbandry and live in smaller, less-endowed houses. In the past, whenever particularly hard times or animal epidemics hit the Tibetans here they formed armed parties that raided the plains of Zhongdian.
Chinese administration in this corner of the southwest did not commence until the Ming Dynasty. Initially it was not direct, either, but through the Mu family rulers of Lijiang until the early 18th century. Thus, Naxi soldiers defended Zhongdian’s Tibetans from their wilder cousins from further north. Some of
|Tibetan man in popular fur hat
Besides its agriculture Zhongdian was also an important post on the ancient Tea and Horses Road that ran from southern Yunnan all the way to Lhasa. Tibetan ponies were prized by other communities in Yunnan’s mountains, but also by the Song Dynasty armies, who faced threats from mounted warriors on the northern frontier. Pu’er tea from Yunnan was popular in Lhasa. The traditional caravan route became suddenly important strategically during the Sino-Japanese War, when supplies from India went by caravan from Kalimpong, next to Sikkim, through eastern Tibet, then Zhongdian, Lijiang and Xiaguan.
Some Tibetan merchants from Zhongdian moved to Lijiang during the war, putting up in houses near Dayan’s Old Stone Bridge. They helped defend the city against an attack by a brigand gang from Heqing. But when the war ended so did the lucrative caravan trade and the Tibetans returned to Zhongdian.
The old town didn’t have its own market, for residents only had to walk a few blocks to the central open-air market in the city. Even the new town looked fairly quaint in the early 90s. Most of the buildings were single story, the tallest being those government offices with Tibetan-style facades. Restaurants were small and had names like The State Guest House Trade Union Dining Room and Apart From The State Guest House Dining Room. Shops along the main street included several, since relocated, catering to the local Tibetans, selling bolts of wool and brocaded silk, fur hats, wool carpets in Han or Tibetan designs, and clothing in both the local and Lhasa styles.
|selling yak cheese in Zhongdian's old market
Other than a few small shops offering barley spirits, the town didn’t offer any nightlife and mostly closed up after 8 p.m. When the nights were warm enough, some of the old town residents, especially the youth, gathered in the old town’s central square for an hour or so of ring dances. This changed during the early summer, when it was mushroom season and villagers brought in their haul for sale in markets that stayed open, along with refreshment stalls, until past midnight.
|temple mural--Tibetans welcome Long March soldiers
From the old town it was about an hour’s pleasant walk or more to Songzhanlin and the biggest monastery in the prefecture, dating from the 17th century. Or one could rent a bicycle, though the pebbly roads made it difficult to pedal. I wandered freely throughout the monastery, alone or accompanied, often stopped by monks who wanted a chat with a foreigner or wanted me to photograph them, even when they were doing their recitations or performing a ritual. This was the pre-digital camera era and I was not able to show then the results. But they were more interested in the camera itself and wanted to look through it, especially when I attached the telephoto lens. And after the session concluded they invited me to have buttered tea with them.
|Songzhanlin in the early 90a
Never mind. The purpose of the Shangrila hype wasn’t to prove anything, but to give the county a shining, exotic tourist image. Other places in the Himalaya region made the same claim, such as Bhutan towards the end of the century, but not so vociferously. In 2001 the city officially changed its name from Zhongdian to Shangrila, which comes out in the Chinese pinyin form as Shangelila. But the old town had already been altering its look and its character since Zhongdian got its airport in 1996. Flights from Kunming rose, in season, from three or four per week, depending on weather and demand, to several per day at the summer peak.
|early 90s view of Shangrila plain
Old town businesses began calling the place Dukezong, a name I hadn’t heard in the 90s. Tibetans I spoke with then referred to it as Jèdâw, the last syllable nasalized, and used that word when they sang songs about it. It sounded like a corruption of the Chinese name Zhongdian, or perhaps of the original Tibetan name of the town--Gyalthang. At any rate, on my last visits in 2008 it was clear that Dukezong was something quite different from the Jèdâw I had known. No evidence of
|drawing water at the village well
Back in the old town for a last stroll, my happy experience in the Napahai villages
|a happy mood at harvest time
|the northeast corner of Napahai
for more on Yunnan's Tibetans, see my s-book Living in Shangrila