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Analysis: No Room For Shangri-La In China

Modern China - the country that never sleeps.
by William M. Reilly
UPI U.N. Correspondent
Kangding, China (UPI) Sep 07, 2006
What one generally regards as modern China and its pollution-belching factories dotting the landscape hardly seems to have room for the nostalgic notion of a Shangri-la. Do not forget the ancient and the future reside side-by-side in China. In Beijing and eastern China in general it is not uncommon to go for days without seeing the sun in many urban areas.

It is usually veiled by smog; sometimes at midday it may be strong enough to briefly break through and shadows may be cast.

To follow the sun one goes west.

If Shangri-la exists, and some tourist officials in parts of southwest China would like people to believe it does and can be found in their region, the road to it must start when one exits the 2.5-mile long Erlangshan Tunnel in China's "Land of Abundance," Sichuan Province.

When heading west by road, the tunnel pretty well marks the start of Tibetan Buddhist territory.

Tibet traditionally took up a large swath of what is now the southwestern part of the People's Republic of China. What is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region is a province of China, while the other traditional provinces of Tibet became part of four adjacent provinces of China, some of which are incorporated into "autonomous" sub-regions.

I followed the route west to Kangding, a pleasant, small city squeezed at the bottom of a V-shaped green valley either side of a roaring white-water river. It's at the confluence of the Zheduo and Yala rivers. It is also where Chinese and Tibetans meet, and has been for eons. It is at an altitude of about 8,000 feet, with a peak, Mt. Paoma, looming another 1,000 feet above it.

Traffic on the main street goes one way on each side of the small river, crossed by several white stone footbridges. Five- or six-story concrete buildings with modern shops on the ground floor line the thoroughfare.

It is a mix of modern Chinese and ancient Tibetan dress. Men, called Khampas, wear cowboy hats. Yi Muslims wear skull caps. Women galore wear traditional Tibetan dress, but don't be surprised when they whip out a mobile phone.

This enchanting center, long a trading post between the two cultures, has a charm within -- excluding the mountainous backdrop -- that can best be seen in the mornings and again in the evenings.

Tai Chi exercises and choreographed movements with large flags are practiced to gentle music wafting across the town square in city center, hard by the river, in the morning.

In the evening, as daylight fades early because of the steep mountainsides, more upbeat music drifts across the plaza as hundreds of mostly older women and a healthy show of men perform steps like a local line-dance as they go around in a huge circle. Several young adults and even some children take part in the graceful whirl, stepping lightly as they motion with hands and arms. Tibetans and Chinese participate.

It is quite a sight, the happy throng dancing, the rapids roaring, the mountains looming above.

Farmers bring fruits in tall baskets on their backs, aiming to sell some refreshment to the dancers and their observers.

Near this mountain city with a moderate climate it is but a short jaunt to see glaciers, grasslands and relax in hot springs.

Is this Shangri-la?

It may be to the locals, numbering somewhat over 100,000, counting outlying areas, and those who want to hype it for tourists.

There are Buddhist temples, a school for executing Tibetan thangkas -- paintings on cloth depicting stories -- and even monasteries nearby. There are churches dating way back into the last century.

There's a French-founded Catholic Church on the main street, but the sanctuary is three flights up, from an alley entrance. A Catholic priest, who chatted with me in slacks and sport shirt, telling me he has three other churches he also serves, later donned vestments to say 10 a.m. mass for a congregation of about 20, mostly women. There was room for maybe 200 in the nave of the church. While it has arched windows, there is no stained glass to fill them. Just clear glass.

A storefront disguises the base of the not-too-grand church on the main street, along the river. The entrance is from an alley. It has a rectory, community center and the church proper.

A visiting churchgoer could pass it by if they don't step back a bit to see the blue cone-shaped spires of the house of worship. A small old, fundamentalist Protestant Church, that could hold perhaps 50 faithful, is squeezed in along a side street, a few blocks away, on the opposite river bank. A stove sits in the middle of where congregants sit in the small, dingy room with bare light bulb. A beautiful, recently done-up mosque also graces the town.

So storied is this place there is a song dedicated to it and its mountain peak, Mt. Paoma: the Kangding Love Song, beckoning domestic tourists from all corners of China. Mt. Gongga, at 24,784 feet, towering in the distance and claimed by Kangding, is regarded a sister to Mt. Everest, and is the highest mountain in Sichuan.

This is a gateway to the Chinese Ganzi Autonomous Region of Sichuan. Several miles up the road the highway splits into the major northern and southern land routes into Tibet from the east.

While Kangding is accessible from the east by the wending highway around, over and through layers of mountains, livestock often vying for right of way, if a traveler would rather pass on adventure, an airport is supposed to open in 2008.

(Editor's note: UPI sent U.N. Correspondent William M. Reilly to China earlier this summer. As a guest of the State Council Information Office he toured Tibetan regions of the nation, including Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and areas of adjacent Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. He also traveled on the new Qinghai-Tibet railway. This is the second in a series of his reports.)

Source: United Press International

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