Along the Map’s Torn Edge

By Iain Manley Aug 29, 2012

Lhagang Monastery, outside Tagong

Part I: Songs of Shambala

Dusk gently settled over Shangri-La. A mist rose off the grassland at the town’s edges, shot through by the day’s last beams of sunlight, while in its handful of squares, music started up and men and women gathered to dance. Standing in a wide circle, they moved through the same few steps but edged slowly clockwise, as if each person was a prayer wheel set spinning by pilgrims circumambulating a shrine.

There was dancing in the cobbled square at the centre of old Shangri-La and dancing below the hilltop temple, at the foot of granite stairs. There was dancing in the new town too, in the wide square presided over by a cultural hall, and by dancing Shangri-La gathered every evening around the traditions that had animated it. It gathered around Tibetan Buddhism and trade, which had passed along the Tea-Horse Trail through its cobbled square. In the square below Shangri-La’s temple, dancers were reminded of the wisdoms that overcame desire, hatred, delusion, pride and envy – the five poisons – by a five-pronged vajra glowing white on the temple’s roof, in the light of a level sun. Shangri-La gathered around its communist institutions too, at the cultural hall, and in all three squares the music was arcade-game techno with Tibetan vocals. It gave the traditional dances an atmosphere similar to Shanghai’s outdoor aerobics classes, where office workers exercised at the end of the day.

Claire and I visited the three squares on separate occasions. When we saw a circle forming in the old town, close to our hotel, my reaction was predictably jaded. I thought a performance was being put on for Han Chinese tourists, who too often saw naivety in folk dances, but while I watched, the circle grew spontaneously and got rowdy. The next day and the day after that we saw dancing at the temple and the cultural hall, and none of it seemed to be for show.

Like all of China’s government buildings, the cultural hall was intimidating. It was nine or ten storeys tall, diminishing the people on its wide, grey square. A stupa on its roof was criss-crossed by mortar lines; still visible through layers of gold paint, they revealed the awkward bulk of the concrete bricks used to make it. Other religious symbols had been appropriated for the cultural hall too, including a dharma wheel flanked by deer and cylinders representing Buddha’s victory over ignorance. Together they were an indication of how the Chinese Communist Party too often interpreted culture: as a series of empty symbols, only useful because they facilitated control.

We sat at the edges of the square, with Han spectators, watching Tibetans and a few tourists join the circle and break off from the circle, in groups of men and women, girls and boys. They danced in the glow of a vast screen broadcasting utopian commercials, with subtitles that mixed the language of a workers’ paradise with descriptions of the Himalayan idyll, Shangri-La.

Dancing in the Shangri-La's old town

In James Hilton’s 1933 novel The Lost Horizon, Shangri-La is a utopian valley high in the Himalaya. Its air drastically slows down aging, and inhabitants live for hundreds of years in almost total isolation. The valley is ruled over by a monastic order dedicated to the preservation of knowledge. It has collected a vast library, because the founder of the order – a Catholic missionary from Luxembourg – foresees a second world war followed by a dark age that “will cover the whole world in a single pall.”

Hilton’s inspiration for Shangri-La was probably Shambala, a mythical Tibetan kingdom that only the enlightened can enter. There are obvious parallels, like the divine army some Tibetans think will issue out of Shambala in 2424, to save the world from a dark age. The mythical utopia was also a European preoccupation when Hilton wrote his novel. In the 1920s, numerous expeditions set off to find Shambala and failed, as did three separate groups sent out by the Nazis in the 1930s, to trace what European occultists thought might be the origin of the Aryan race.

Shangri-La was in fact the name of the county, not the town. It had been called Gyalthang by Tibetans and Zhongdian by Chinese until 2001, when it was renamed to appeal to tourists. The town itself is called Jiantang, which is how an inflexible Mandarin speaker might pronounce Gyalthang, but no local I spoke to ever called it that: for my sake and the sake of other visitors the town was always just Shangri-La.

The renaming of the town was revealing: it was cynical marketing, but it was more than that too, because domestic tourists from China’s eastern metropolises were its primary aim. Gyalthang, a place inhabited largely by Tibetans, had been renamed for Western fiction by the Chinese state, but the fiction’s basis was in Tibetan myth.

When I taught English in Shanghai, I used to ask my students what place in the world they considered most exotic. I had talked them through the meaning of the word, pointing out that the root exo meant outside, and because it corresponded neatly with a Chinese character, they were quick to understand. I said that many people in the West considered China exotic, but none of my students saw much out of the ordinary in Europe, Australia or the USA. Some chose Egypt, a few others India, but the majority always surprised me: they said Tibet was the most exotic place in the world, and one day they hoped to visit it.

A traditional doorway in Shangri-La

The musician from Gansu had an ascetic’s body. It was not a body scarred or withered by privation, but it was slight and unmuscled: a body little used. He had cultivated a wispy beard and wore his hair shaved, affectations he completed with a shapeless orange shirt and baggy orange trousers, similar to the outfits worn by Vietnamese monks. The musician’s studio was down a street in the old town, in a restored house with sloping white walls. Black borders around its windows got wider from the top, and their shape – like triangles with their tips lopped off – exaggerated the walls’ inward tilt.

Claire and I had walked past the house at night and seen a four-wheel drive vehicle with Beijing license plates parked outside. Projecting something of our lives in South Africa onto Shangri-La, we imagined the house being used for holidays by people who either owned or rented it. A day later, when we found ourselves outside it again, taking photographs of a ruin across the street, the musician ushered us inside.

“Is this your house?” I asked, while he held open the curtain hanging across the doorway.
“I live upstairs,” he replied. “I make music down here.” There were four or five tables set up downstairs, between a bar and a low stage. His instrument and CD collections lined the walls of an adjoining room.
“What kind of music?”
“Traditional Tibetan folk. Everybody likes doof-doof-doof now,” he said, wincing and holding his ears, “but I play the pure music of the people.”
Doof-doof…Like the music in the square?”
“Yes, like that. Tibetan music is Buddhist, spiritual, but that music has no meaning.”
I described a song I had heard over and over again in Shangri-La’s squares. “The vocals sound Tibetan,” I said, “but the lyrics are Chinese.”
“Can you sing it?”
I couldn’t, and tripped staccato over the chorus instead.
The musician nodded. He softly sang it – “Qíngàide gūniang, wǒ ài nǐ” – but looked bored, and too late I realised the inanity of my question. The song was clichéd. Its chorus meant ‘Darling girl, I love you’; other lyrics included ‘She’s tall, she has black eyes,’ and my question was not unlike asking Neil Young for his thoughts on a Justin Bieber song.
“Do you write your own songs?” Claire asked.
The musician had led us into a small courtyard. He spoke quietly, with unusual calm, but Claire’s question enlivened him; he dashed back inside with his index finger raised, returning a minute later with a notebook, which he flicked through excitedly. “This is my book of lyrics,” he said. “It’s written in Tibetan.”

Sanskritic hooks and long, looping tails hung like fresh noodles off lines ruled arrow-straight across the width of the page. I had last seen Tibetan handwriting in India, where Claire and I taught English to refugees. In Shangri-La mantras were painted on rocks and stamped on prayer flags, but functional uses of the Tibetan script were rare. A Tibetan friend in Shanghai could write her name, hello and one or two other words in Tibetan. She had come to the city from a remote village in Yunnan, but was literate in standard Chinese characters only, because her education and her mother tongue were worlds apart. The musician took pride in his careful handwriting. He had worked at it, but he spoke Mandarin well too, with the received accent of a CCTV newsreader.

We stood chatting in the courtyard for a while longer. Neither of us were asked to repeat the tired story of where we were from and how we had learnt to speak Chinese. The musician wasn’t interested, because traditional music was his narrow, all-abiding focus. He told us a musician from Beijing named Dou Wei was in town. Dou Wei had been the lead singer of Black Panther, a sort of Chinese Def Leppard. He was one of China’s first rock stars, but like his contemporary Cui Jian he had gone on to explore a variety of genres, working through the confusion of the 1980s – when China had let in almost half a century of foreign music all at once – in the course of his career. It was probably Dou Wei’s four-wheel drive we had seen outside the house, and the musician from Gansu said we should come back later on, because he and Dou Wei were going to jam together.

An old town street in Shangri-La, with the temple overhead

We made our way back to the studio after a yak hotpot, prepared by a Bai woman who mothered us while we ate, fussing over our soup and making sure we knew how well yak meat thickened the blood. The studio’s door was closed, its curtains drawn. We entered hesitantly, to find the musician from Gansu kneeling on the low stage, ringing finger cymbals to a rhythm set by Dou Wei, who was ponderously thumping a handheld frame drum.

A handful of students were sitting at the table beside us in silent rapture. A woman who I took to be Dou Wei’s girlfriend or wife moved between the stage and a table off to one side, as did two young Tibetan women. There was a waitress, who had taken our whispered order for beer, and that was the sum of us, the people in the room.

After the first song, Dou Wei stood up, went over to the collection of instruments in the next room and came back clutching something new: a seven-stringed Tibetan lute. He plucked at it haphazardly, starting off whenever the mood struck him. The musician from Gansu exchanged the finger cymbals for a skull drum and slapped its sides at random. He sung in snatches too, without paying very much attention to Dou Wei, or dutifully cleared the air with a singing bowl. Its chime and cicada buzz bookended the whole cacophony: chime-buzz, pluck pluck-slap, pluck pluck-slap, slap chime-buzz it went, in curious, discordant circles, but the atmosphere remained reverent throughout, as if we were party to a ritual that might bring forth Tibet’s fickle muse.

Dou Wei was by now muttering darkly at the lute. “I can’t play it,” he said, but once he had stomped off to the next room, to put the instrument back, he sat down and picked out a tune. Its sound was muffled by the thick stone wall, but when he heard it the musician from Gansu selected a drum tapered at both ends like a handrolled cigar and started to knock out a beat. Although the lute was distant and the drum nearby, the two men were at last playing in time. A young woman standing just visible in the doorway opened her mouth wide in the shadows and for the first time started to sing. She had a raw, resonant voice that filled up the room entirely and must have burst out of it too, into Shangri-La’s unlit streets. When she held a note, I heard ululating at the far end of my capacity to listen, invented by a nomadic people singing in the thin air on the roof of the world. The girl was behind me and because I had swivelled round I saw her fold over with exhaustion at the end of the song, as if the muse that possessed her had suddenly left.

Dou Wei experimented with one or two more instruments, and the musician from Gansu stayed in position, kneeling on a cushion, immobile below the waist, but it wasn’t long before both men left the stage. The moment had passed. I couldn’t be sure of its spontaneity, or know why the singer had been confined to the shadows, but it was the sort of moment I travel for all the same. If I had been told in advance that my bus would break down in the rain and the altitude would make me sick, that my hotel would have bedbugs and the police would take an interest in me with my endless questions about Tibet, and that in exchange for every possible discomfort I would get these three or four minutes of song, I would still have made my way here and continued on, travelling for ten days along the frontier that separates China from Tibet.

As it was, Claire and I didn’t get sick. We took Chinese medicine made from the roots of an Arctic shrub for the duration of our journey along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and at elevations of 4,000 metres and above we felt short of breath but otherwise well. The roads were dirt tracks for long stretches, and where they were being worked on there were long delays and detours and billowing dust. In places they were so narrow that looking out from my window in a claustrophobic miànbāochē I saw nothing but ravines at the bottom of yawning, hundred-metre-long drops, but Tibetan-owned guest houses and restaurants serving Sichuan’s málà cuisine made it easy to forget my aches and apprehensions at the end of each day. We ate lunch with nomads in the hills around Shangri-La and drank beer with migrant workers in Xiangcheng, where the government was putting down a strike. We were disappointed by dirty hotsprings and tourists flocking like vultures to sky burials in Litang, and it wasn’t until we made our way on foot to a monastery near Tagong that we felt like our journey was in some way complete. Its gold roof glinted far in the distance at the foot of a single, snow-capped peak and to reach it we’d passed carefully through an icy river and herds of temperamental yaks. It was in making my way to the monastery that I prepared myself to arrive for a few moments at Shangri-La, which in the words of the Dalai Lama “is not a physical place that we can actually find,” but exists only in our minds.

Part II: The Mzo Trail

Mzo drag timber, cutting a trail through the hills outside Shangri-La

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is a 2,412 kilometre stretch of China’s National Highway 318. It starts in Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, at an altitude of 370 metres, and climbs up over a series of mountain passes almost 5,000 metres high to arrive tired and weather-beaten at Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama had his capital until 1959. National Highway 318 carries on from Lhasa all the way to the border of Nepal, but it crosses its most controversial frontier much earlier, a little over one thousand kilometres west of Chengdu, at the boundary between Sichuan and Tibet.

Chengdu was established almost 2,500 years ago by the ninth king of Shu. An independent state influenced to a limited extent by the culture flourishing to its northeast, along the Yellow River, Shu nevertheless remained a place apart until 316 BCE, when it was conquered by Qin. Almost one hundred years later, when Qin went on to extend its control over the whole of China, it was the conquest of Shu that gave it an edge. The Sichuan Basin was not only one of China’s most fertile – and today most populous – regions, but also a grain basket safely cut off from the rest of the country by mountain ranges at every side but its east, where Southeast Asian jungle and rolling hills presented a similarly forbidding obstacle.

The people of Shu assimilated quickly. Their leaders were executed or exiled and Qin moved tens of thousands of its own people into Sichuan, defining the westernmost limit of Chinese civilisation as it did. Sichuan’s geography on the other hand remained an obstacle more than 2,000 years later, in 1937, when Chiang Kai Shek retreated to the province after losing most of the rest of China to the Japanese, and it is in Sichuan that the country’s Han majority still rubs up against the edges of the Tibetan Plateau, along a fault line straddled by National Highway 318.

Western Sichuan has gone by a number of names. It was originally called Chushi Gangdruk – Four Rivers, Six Ranges – because the Yalong, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze Rivers pass in parallel between six watersheds on their way out of the region, down from Tibet. It was called Xikang by the Republic of China – a name it kept until 1965, when it was incorporated into Sichuan – but perhaps the name that makes the most sense is Kham, because the majority of the region’s people call themselves Khampas.

Kham was a part of the Tibetan Empire that at its peak extended north into Tajikistan, south as far as the Bay of Bengal and east right up to the walls of the Tang Dynasty’s capital, Chang’an, which it took in 763 but could only hold for fifteen days. When the empire fell apart less than one hundred years later, Kham broke down into a collection of fiefdoms only loosely connected to Lhasa. The region was only incorporated into China in 1728, almost a thousand years later, after Tibetan leaders pledged allegiance to the Kangxi Emperor in exchange for military assistance. In 1717, Mongolian invaders had captured Lhasa, where they looted and executed members of the Bon and Nyingma religious orders. When Qing Dynasty troops took the city three years later, they were hailed as liberators.

Climate separates the Khampas living in Sichuan’s western valleys not just from their cousins on the plateau but from each other, and because each valley has its own microclimate, affecting its access to building materials, water and transport, the region’s languages are as various as its architecture. This independence has bred warriors along with bandits, and the Khampa are still regarded as Tibet’s most fearsome soldiers. The men traditionally carry knives half-a-metre long in ornamental sheaths; women’s are shorter and hang from their belts beside a sewing kit. Khampa men are tall for Tibetans and wear their hair long; they are also consummate horsemen and were still fighting on horseback in the 1960s, when they were armed by the CIA for a guerrilla war. In 1956, they were among the first Tibetans to rebel against the Chinese Communist Party. They were the last to surrender too, in 1974, after a protracted resistance fought out of Nepal’s Mustang Valley, and Chinese rule still weighs most heavily on the Khampa. Of the 49 confirmed Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 – that is, drunk and doused themselves in petrol, before burning to death – 28 were from a single prefecture in Kham.

A monk at the entrance to Bsampeling Monastery in Xiangcheng

Tsepak had been a refugee in India. He learnt to speak English where Claire and I first taught it: in McLeod Ganj, the seat of Tibet’s Government in Exile. Refugee was the word used to describe the men and women – or, in the majority of cases, teenage boys and girls – who made their way on foot over the mountain passes separating China from India and Nepal during the winter,  when there were fewer guards. Almost every Tibetan in McLeod Ganj relied on some sort of stipend and for many it was just a halfway house: they were moving on, to Delhi, Germany, the US or somewhere else, where they had an uncle, a sister or just a friend willing to help them find their feet. The treacherous journey out and the overwhelming desire to make a new life: it was the story of refugees everywhere, but in Tsepak’s case it didn’t entirely fit. After all, why had he come back?

We met him at a simple Tibetan restaurant on the outskirts of Shangri-La’s old town. It served boiled yak meat on the bone, millet bread and noodle soup, which wasn’t much to choose between. Tsepak came over to help us order all the same. I don’t remember if we spoke Chinese or English initially, because choosing a language was awkward for Claire and I. Not every Tibetan spoke Chinese well and assuming they did – or even wanted to – was a mild insult; their English on the other hand was generally much worse, but Tsepak was an exception. He spoke the language fluently, with an Indian accent that gave him away.

After dinner, we talked about McLeod Ganj. Tsepak had an uncle in the town who had taken him in; he said had returned easily, because unlike many Tibetan he had Chinese ID. Shangri-La was a long way from the influence of the Dalai Lama – from both Lhasa and McLeod Ganj – but Tsepak didn’t want to talk about why he had gone into exile. He was ambitious, a businessman. “I have my own tour company,” he told us, before asking if we wanted his help.
“We’d like to get out of town,” Claire replied. “Do you know where we could go?”
“I can take you to visit some nomadic families if you like.”
“Are there still nomads around Shangri-La?”
“Yes, but not everybody knows where to find them. Do you like walking?”
“We love it.”
“Good, because it’s a long walk: five, six hours. Some of the hills are difficult. Is that okay?”
“That’s fine, but I’m not sure we can afford it. How much do you charge for the day?”
“Normally, $200. But for you… you were teachers in India. Give me RMB250, plus RMB100 for the taxi.”
“Okay, thanks. We’ll think about it. Can we call you tomorrow?”
“Sure, or you can just ask in the town for Little Tsepak. Everybody knows me.”

Two days later, we met Little Tsepak at first light. Shangri-La’s climate was not particularly severe, but the town was icy at night. It took time each morning to shake itself warm and awake, and the taxi driver Tsepak hailed was wearing a wool hat and leather gloves.

Shangri-La's valley at dawn

We emerged from the new town on a road skirting a seasonal lake. Low peaks encircled Shangri-La county completely, but the grassland in between was perfectly flat and, like a drink spilt on a billiard table, the lake was a latticework of shallow streams that came together in places to form deeper pools. At its edges, yaks and mzo grazed in dawn’s long shadows; the village homes behind them with white walls and dark brown roofs were reduced to impressionist smudges by hanging smoke. On the high plateau, roofs were uniformly flat, but in Shangri-La’s fertile valley they sloped gently at each side.

The taxi stopped at the foot of hills covered with coniferous forest. They rolled steadily up to a craggy peak that must normally have been snow-capped, but now in late summer was starkly bare. Tsepak led the way.

Instead of cremating their dead, Tibetans chop them up to feed to vultures. Wood is too scarce for pyres, but Shangri-La was thickly forested and while we started our climb Tsepak explained how loggers had cleared our trail, leaving a deep rut gouged out of its middle. They fastened two mzo to the trunks of tall trees and whipped the animals – a cross between yaks and lowland cattle perfectly suited to Shangri-La’s altitude – down to the road. “Us Tibetans say ‘If you love mzo, don’t sell them to loggers’,” he went on, and after that I could almost hear the bellows of suffering cattle echo off the contours of this strange erosion.

Tsepak was wearing a down jacket, a scarf and a wool hat. I was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, and because the climb was steep and the sun rising, I soon started to sweat. Tsepak didn’t: he kept the down jacket on for hours; when he took it off, he revealed a thick but bone-dry shirt. He was a tall and well-built – a typical Khampa – and the jacket only broadened his shoulders and puffed out his chest, exaggerating his size. After a while he swaggered out ahead of us, singing with his arms spread out theatrically.

“I’ve led a millionaire from Australia up here,” he told Claire and I when we stopped to pack away our sweatshirts. A list of Tsepak’s other achievements soon followed: he’d made a documentary about the mzo trail; he was regularly hired by wealthy white tourists; he was supporting a village school not far from Shangri-La; he spoke Hindi, and when he learnt that Claire and I had spent a year in India, he held this over us, chatting meaningfully in the language long after we told him we couldn’t understand it.

After two or three hours, we stopped climbing and followed a stream through alpine pastures filled with mzo. Every animal wore a heavy brass bell that the wind was strong enough to rattle; with the murmuring grass they made a sort of music that rose and fell with the breeze. In a field fringed with purple flowers, Tsepak stopped to let us to catch up. “Pick up a stone,” he said, showing me the two already wrapped up in his fists. “There are dogs here. Normally they’re chained up, but if they aren’t, they’ll attack you.”

The first Tibetan mastiff we saw leapt and twisted at the end of a length of rope. The dog was guarding a roughly made home with walls that were nothing but tree trunks stacked seven or eight high and a roof that was just crudely sawn planks. We saw two similar cabins, without the mastiffs, and then, at a third, Tsepak ducked under the doorway and went inside.

Lunch at a herder's cabin outside Shangri-La

On our way up, we had been overtaken by a pretty woman wearing a bright pink headdress. She had been leading a small, lightly burdened horse and together they moved at an impressive clip. Tsepak had spoken to her briefly in Tibetan and we had exchanged a few words in Chinese. Nobody had mentioned lunch, but here she was now, standing beside her father, both of them welcoming us inside with an enthusiastic “Tashi dalek!”

Although everything was made entirely of wood, including the floor, a fire glowed red at the centre of the cabin, where it spilled out of a basic hearth. There was no chimney and smoke went out the same way light came in: through gaps in the roof and walls. After seating us on low, log stools, the woman and her father started to cook, taking tools and ingredients down from the shelves that lined every wall. She churned butter tea in a tube like a bicycle pump; he chopped a cone of yak cheese the size of a beehive into cubes. She poured dough onto a flat pan to make millet bread; he prodded the fire, making space for a saucepan so well used it was completely black.

While they prepared a meal of Tibetan staples that the bustle and growth happening not far away had yet to change, Tsepak played interpreter. The father smiled at us constantly, but spoke no Mandarin. During the summer, he lived here, in the cabin; when winter came, he moved in with his daughter, who had a house in the town. She brought supplies up to him once or twice a week, on her horse, and took the milk, butter and cheese from his herd of mzo back down. They were pastoralists, not nomads, and despite a strong accent, the daughter spoke Mandarin fluently. Her children’s would be better: they were getting a thorough Chinese education in the town, and it was difficult to imagine them wanting a life up here, in the log cabin, milking mzo and making cheese.

Yak or, in this case, mzo butter tea isn’t to everybody’s taste. It is salty, oily and thick, but with a chunk of millet bread it makes better sense. I slurped it up and had a second and then a third cup, with enough of the warm, unfermented cheese to make my stomach hurt. Our hosts ate sparingly, but dished up more and more for us; we had to beg them to stop, at which point they reached for the tsampa and poured us another cup of tea. Tsepak mixed the two, making a doughy ball of barley flour, but after five months without dairy in Southeast Asia I was too full to try it. The father offered me a Double Happiness cigarette and we smoked together, happy that without language we could at least share this simple camaraderie.

A Tibetan lunch: millet bread, unfermented cheese and mzo butter tea

The walk after lunch was mostly downhill. We stayed beside the stream for a while and occasionally passed a herder’s cabin, but saw nobody. Soon, the three of us were looking over the seasonal lake again, making our way back down to the road along a trail so steep and rutted it looked like a wound in the hill’s side. We passed two mzo yoked together with a tree branch, canvas strapping and thick twists of steel that had been stuck through their nostrils and pulled tight, but veered clear of them, because with enough momentum the long tree trunk they were dragging might just as easily have dragged them.

At the bottom of the hill, eight men were heaving the tree trunks onto a truck. Their cries merged with the din of construction around the shell of a new hotel called Shambala Ranch, and somehow in this confusion Claire and I were separated from Tsepak. We were standing beside the lake when he strode up to us closely pursued by an overweight man waving a cigarette.

“This land is private!” the man shouted at us in Chinese, with a strong northeastern accent. “You have to pay to cross it.”
“There are no signs,” I said.
“Signs? What signs? I own this land and you have to pay!”
“Pay for what?” Claire asked.
“For entrance to the village!” he roared, rising up high on his toes.
“What village? This is a road,” Claire shouted back. “Have you paid before?” she asked Tsepak in English.
“Paid for what?” he said, curling his lip in disgust. “This man says he owns this land, but this is a Tibetan village. He calls himself Tashi, but he can’t even speak Tibetan. He’s Chinese.”
Understandably, the man didn’t like being discussed in English. He tried to shout over Tsepak. “You’re a tour guide! A tour guide! They are paying you money and you must pay me.”
Before they can even apply for permission to enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region, foreigners need to hire a licensed guide, but they couldn’t hire Tsepak: he was unlicensed, and had asked us to say we were friends, which is what we did. The man from the northeast didn’t buy it.
“I have powerful connections,” he warned us, jabbing at Claire with his mobile phone. “Pay me or I’ll call them.”
“If you want us to pay you, we’ll need a receipt,” said Claire. “Call the police if you want to.” With that, we started walking away. Tsepak had already called a taxi and it couldn’t arrive too soon.

A minute or two later, a miànbāochē stopped beside us. A group of women and children dressed in a muddle of ragged costumes poured out. A small, dirty boy without pants wore a tall Hmong headdress with cascading silver baubles. It was intended for adult women and was far too big for his head: when he stood still, it fell over his eyes; when the group started pursuing us, calling out for money, it fell off. The children hindered the women’s progress and in our anger Claire and I strode far ahead. When the gap got too wide, the group piled back into the miànbāochē again. Instead of just catching up, they drove ahead to lie in wait.

Tsepak had already fallen back. He would inevitably want to return to the mzo trail, with other, wealthier tourists, and he needed to work something out. Claire and I stopped on a corner fifty metres or so from the group in the miànbāochē and waited. The taxi didn’t come. After ten minutes, we turned around to find Tsepak. He knew the taxi driver’s phone number and without it we were stuck. The miànbāochē started up again in pursuit.

Shangri-La's seasonal lake

It might have gone on like this all afternoon if the taxi hadn’t arrived a few minutes later. The miànbāochē stopped ahead of us and to block our path the villagers again emptied out of it, but by running a gauntlet of small, wizened women and snot-nosed children Claire and I made it into the car. The driver looked highly amused. Tsepak was still in heated negotiations with the man from the northeast behind us, but with some pleading the taxi driver nudged his way through the assembled villagers to fetch him. Tsepak got into the car, but suddenly wanted to pay. He borrowed money from the taxi driver, which we were to reimburse later on. I watched him pass it through the window: ten renminbi per person, or roughly $5 for the three of us. We had never asked for a price.

We drove off. Further down the road, there were two more hotels under construction amongst a handful of stone houses. My best guess was that the man from the northeast had bought land cheaply from the Tibetan villagers with promises of tourism providing an easy living. We exited the village a minute later, at a sign: Beautiful View Minority Village it read, above a picture of Khampas in full costume. It was difficult to decide if it was tragedy or farce.

Part III: Striking Xiangcheng

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10 Responses to “Along the Map’s Torn Edge”

  1. Heather says:

    Your description of the girl singing gave me "goosebumps". I understand exactly what you mean and I love this article. One single sentence: "When she held a note, I heard ululating at the far end of my capacity to listen, invented by a nomadic people singing in the thin air on the roof of the world." is utterly beautiful.

  2. Arun says:

    Did not know they actually named a place Shangri-La.

    For some reason, photographs on this page are not loading and I am getting a 'not-found-error'. Would be keen to see them, especially if there are any outdoor images of the town and the landscapes.

  3. John says:

    What a great story and so typical of travel in China where you can meet the nicest folks on earth and the greediest, all in the same day. We just finished our 3rd long trip in China and our "rule" for this trip was to hire no private transport and pay no admission fees. If you couldn't see it for free, get there by public transport or on foot, then we didn't go. Actually over the course of two months we did pay about 20RMB total in admissions and we hitched 3 or 4 rides to save time. Not to mention that we got a short ride in one of those ubiquitous blue work trucks. Turned out to be the best trip so far!

    Good luck with your adventures!


    • I actually started doing the same thing in both China and in India after my trip to Jiuzhaigou. And I found that the desire to avoid putting money in the government's hands only gets stronger as you travel through minority areas, like Tibet or Xinjiang.

      And to Iain: wonderful read. I'm really looking forward to the third part.

  4. DEK says:

    A wise and wonderful way to travel, and beautifully told.

  5. Geoff@Vicbus says:

    Your travel article is very historical and interesting. I like the pictures too. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Shruti says:

    Amazingly written article. Your post portrays the real view of China. The way you described the place is also great. Tibet is indeed one of the most beautiful places on earth. Thanks for the nice read.

  7. Teresa says:

    Bravo! A compelling story and an inspiring website. I have often asked myself, "Where have all the adventurers gone?" Back in the day they might have stepped away from the pack and headed west in a Conestoga wagon. Today, they do what we do, disappear beyond boundaries, capturing adventures by chance, drawn by what lies around the bend in the road as all freedom seekers do.

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