Along the Perilous Sichuan-Tibet Highway There is Music in Shangri-la

By Iain Manley

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 where 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.

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-laThe 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 gÅ«niang, wÇ’ 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-laWe 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, slapchime-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 miànbāochÄ“ 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.

*This story is part one of a four part series that explores the journey of Iain Manley and Claire van den Heever of Old World Wandering as they travel through eastern Tibet.

About the Writer:
Iain Manley is currently making his way from Shanghai to Cape Town overland, and reinventing the literary travelogue along the way. He has written about subjects as diverse as the internationalisation of China’s currency and the link between travel and nostalgia. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium peddlers of old Singapore, was published in 2010.

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