Review: The ‘Other’ Shangri-La by Shivaji Das
In 1933, British novelist James Hilton wrote about a fictional utopian lamasery in the mountains of Tibet, in his best-selling novel Lost Horizon. Amongst his inspirations were a couple of 19th century French travellers, and Joseph Rock, a National Geographic explorer who went on expeditions to Southwest China and parts of Tibet. Hilton named this mythical place Shangri-La, which subsequently came to mean any imaginary place of paradisiacal proportions. There have been deeper philosophical interpretations of Shangri-La especially from a western perspective, and several claimants to the title. One of these is in Sichuan.
In 2016, writer and avid traveller, Shivaj Das and his wife Yolanda Yoo, or Lobo as she is affectionately called, went on a month-long trip in the Western Sichuan region of China. The travel memoir as a genre is Das’ forte and The ‘Other’ Shangri-La, his fourth book, is a zesty account of their travels in the region. The down-to-earth conversational narrative interspersed with historical facts and observations on the geopolitics of a region that has been fraught with all manner of conflict is laced with Das’ musings that range from the wickedly funny to the metaphysical. The region of Western Sichuan is an overlap of Tibet and China, a contentious space where cultures spar and meld. Das speaks with felicity about the Tibetan Khams, “known for their ruggedness, ferocity, banditry and independent streak” and about the Chinese Hans and their nose for enterprise, “the famed Chinese business spirit”.
The journey begins in the tiny town of Kangding that gave China its most popular love song, famously called the Kangding Love Song, “a national hit in the 1950s and was still strong in the nation’s memory.” Das quips “the town of love was naturally the town of babies. Soon I realised that nowhere else in China - a country of exceptionally low fertility rates - had I seen such a proliferation of babies.” There are witticisms aplenty throughout the book that stem from a keen unbiased mind.
Das and Lobo travel through some of the most spectacular Himalayan sceneries. Yading Reserve with its wallpaperesque beauty that draws the touristy hordes, the three invincible peaks at Lurong Pasture that promise a certain level of spiritual deliverance, and the landscape near Tagong with the beautiful mountain Yala looking over grasslands where yaks graze are just some images of a region full of mountainscapes and valleys. But what makes for truly memorable travel memories for him goes beyond nature images. Das writes: “Within a week of visiting such a place, I would struggle to flashback the pictures in my mind. On the other hand, what I would remember most from any trip would be the interactions with mankind, small favours from strangers, and interesting quips, or even a minor insult.”
The affability of the interactions shines through the anecdotes. He has a special empathy and humour for drivers and fellow passengers that they meet along the road. Likewise for conversations with the locals which form some of the best passages in the book. In the cool chic town of Daocheng, the writer and his wife meet Tibetan sisters Dechen and Diki taking a break from the community dancing in the town square and a lively discussion on marriage customs and the Karmapa controversy ensues. At Tagong, a home-stay experience with a nomad family gives them an opportunity to look at the inner lives of nomads, staying in a tent where humans and yaks huddle together, and where hygiene takes a backseat. “The tent was at once the happiest place on earth and the most miserable too.” The chapter shows how modernization is causing a social upheaval in the lives of nomads in that part of the world.
Each chapter reveals a new place, the socio-economic dynamics that play out even in the smallest of places, and a distinct cultural ethos. Identity is a strong note, whether it is that of the Tibetans or the Hans, or the writer’s own Indian one that leads to certain comical situations. He attracts crowds in many places. There is fascination because he comes from the land that harbours the Dalai Lama. People want to touch him, feel blessed, and get pictures clicked with him. Amongst the various experiences, Das and Lobo also get to witness a sky burial, make an insightful visit to the world’s largest monastery amidst a sea of slum-like dwellings at Larung Gar, and chance upon a local beauty contest at Danba.
The fractious relations between religion and the government is mentioned in several places in the narrative. And yet, China’s attempts to provide better education and healthcare, improve infrastructure, especially evident in the tourism sector, suggests that the government is working hard to smoothen things. Nowhere is it more evident than in the famed Shangri-La where hordes of tourists line up at ticket counters finding organized space to collect picture-memories. Or the giant mechanical contraption of prayer wheels at Sertar, the “world’s first such rolling structure of 100-syllable mantras…” which seems like “that this was another sign of the Government’s attempt to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans and what better way to do it than provide a shortcut to gain merit.” Gaining merit in Buddhism is vital to having a better next life and the path toward enlightenment, and comes from good deeds, thoughts and actions.
To the uninitiated about the region, The ‘Other’ Shangri-La is indeed a very good read, easy on the eye and mind, despite minor blips like the sometimes complex religio-historical passages. There is merit in knowing more about worlds that we know little about, especially in an era of increased armchair travel.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.