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From Lhasa to Shangri La: the Touristification of Tibet

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Two years ago, the trinket-filled alleys around Jokhang monastery and Barkhor street in Lhasa were filled with noise as Tibetans rose up in part political protest, part ethnic riot. Today, the noise is only the steady buzz of tourism in those colourful streets, the centre of Tibet and high on every traveler's hitlist.

Tourism - a pillar industry in Tibet, and a tenth of its GDP - plunged after the riots of March 2008. A blanket travel ban fell, lifted only in May - when the Sichuan earthquake struck a further blow to tourism. Figures that year for number of visitors, and the revenue they brought, were slashed in half. But in 2009, despite travel bans over the fifty year anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the ledger was on the rebound: over 5 million tourists, including a record-breaking 1.37 million in August alone.

These are the two vying narratives of Tibet in the West: oppression and sight-seeing; protesting and point-and-shoot. And however much noise is made about the first, it's the second narrative which is winning. The Potala Palace in Lhasa is no longer the rallying point - as it was in 1959 - for Tibetans angry at inequality and dilution of their culture, but the meeting point for tour groups from every corner of the world (the majority Chinese, who share with Westerners a concept of 'Tibet chic').

If Lhasa is the hub, then this touristification of Tibet is spreading outwards to the four Chinese provinces - Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan - outside of political Tibet, but with large Tibetan populations, and which comprise the historical Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham. It was over my own travels across this 'greater Tibet' - often seen as a more authentic Tibetan culture than you find in Lhasa - that I saw the slow swallowing up of Tibet in the tourist's Shangri La that Beijing wanted me to see.

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It's a four hour bus ride from the Tibetan school where I taught in the summer of 2007 to Kumbum monastery, just south of Xining, capital of Qinghai province. On the road, a small TV at the front of the bus plays music videos on loop: smiling Tibetans in ethnic dress, dancing and singing on the grasslands. Caricatures of themselves: the usual fare.

Kumbum (or Ta'er Si, in Chinese) was where the founder of the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect of Tibetan Buddhism was born in 1357, and the monastery itself has a history of over four hundred years. But when you disembark next to a row of giant tour-buses, buy your entrance ticket (£4) at the booth, and jostle through crowds up to the nearest temple (just past the sign that identifies a building as "KUMBUM OLD MONK'S HOME"), today's Kumbum, from this perspective, is as 'for show' as those music videos.

The impact on the resident monks is less Kodak-worthy. I struck up a conversation with one young monk hawking prayer beads, new trainers poking from beneath his robes. He told me this was his first year there - a compulsory year of selling trinkets before he would be admitted into formal training. Did tourists like me disturb monks, during ceremonies for instance? Of course they did, but he was happy that foreigners were coming to see Tibet: they could tell about it back home. And how much of the tourist cash went back into the monastery? About half, he thought.

A Tibetan friend from the same region raises another concern. As tourists roll into Kumbum, more and more tour guides go to settle there. Most are Chinese, female, and pretty - the kind who are best at their trade. That's a temptation which he has seen one young monk after another give into: not healthy for a Buddhist environment. (My friend and the monk I met, for obvious reasons, remain anonymous. Unattributed sources come with the territory of writing about Tibet: as, no doubt, does fending off accusations of being a Kapuscinski.)

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In that tourist-boom summer of 2009, tucked in the North-West corner of southerly Yunnan province, I was back in that other Tibet: the one built for foreigners like myself to see. The town I was in had been called Zhongdian up until 2001, when it's name changed to ... Shangri La.

Shangri La (or 'Xianggelila') is nestled at 3000m. Hills rise up around it, peppered with multi-coloured prayer flags fluttering madly in the strong wind. To one side, a wide grasslands stretches out for the yaks to graze on. To the other, you take a winding road to the town's monastery, screened out of sight by high peaks. All in all, it's a location that takes your breath away, if the altitude hasn't already.

But on street level, heaven on earth is uninspiring. As tourist money rolled in, luxury hotels - the Shangri La hotel chain can be seen all over China - sprouted up, and Han Chinese businessmen moved in to sell Tibetan souvenirs. The pressure to buy expensive, fake goods in the 'old town' is crushing. The monastery entrance is a row of subway-style turnstiles, which go 'beep' as you insert your ticket. And in this torrent of tourism, local culture steadily erodes. One long-time resident - a teacher of Tibetan language - complained of other locals' money-grubbing attitude: "their eyes are only on the commerce, they cannot see they are losing their culture".

On the journey up - before my anticipation was deflated so flaccidly - I had been reading Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton which coined the term 'Shangri La'. "You will not find Shangri-La," we are told mysteriously, "marked on any map." But now there are locations in Bhutan and northern Pakistan which have also taken the name. All claim to be the 'true' Shangri La - and do well from it.

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From Shangri La (where do you go from paradise?) I travelled to the smaller Tibetan town of Tagong, in Western Sichuan. Tagong is ten hours by bus from Sichuan's capital of Chengdu, on a road which after a few hours takes off, like a plane, as you hit the Eastern end of the Tibetan plateau. This is Khampa country - nomadic Tibetans (as opposed to the famers of Amdo, where Kumbum is located) who wear cowboy hats with yak horn designs, and carry long knives at their belts.

In short, Tagong has all the stunning natural beauty of Shangri La, but with the charm of a frontier town and fewer tourists. Only that's about to change.

I had been here two summers before. At that time, my friends and I had no sooner gotten off our bus, than we were approached by a friendly, if long-faced, Tibetan who invited us for tea. Of course, he owned a business - the 'Khampa Cultural Centre' - and the yak butter tea came at a tourist price. His name was Yundun, and while he handed out pamphlets offering horse rides into the grasslands (or you can stay overnight in a nomad's tent, for more), he complained about the very touristification of Tagong that he was ostensibly part of.

The Chinese government, Yundun told us in his quiet-mannered English, pumps money openly only into those Tibetan towns with tourist appeal - like Tagong, with its undulating grasslands behind a refurbished monastery - while others stagnate. And for those chosen few towns, their luck comes at a price: local nomads, attracted by the material prospects of tourist money, become sedentary - in Yundun's mind losing a more fulfilling nomadic life. He illustrated this with a curious metaphor: taking a matchbox, he balanced it on its shorter side, and said "now it is higher, but at the top there is nothing".

Now I was back in Tagong after two years, and on the surface, not much had changed. The Khampa Cultural Centre had in fact been run out of business during the lull in tourism after the Sichuan earthquake. But down the street, a large hotel was under construction, with Chinese shinzi - lion statues, hardly an authentic Tibetan motif - already in place outside it. Meanwhile, the dirt track into town was being dug up, a fresh concrete road put in behind it.

On my horseride in the grasslands that afternoon (still £10), I stopped to ask a nomadic Tibetan kid if I could take his picture. He laughed and posed for me, wallowing in the attention. Then his mother said a sharp word to him in Tibetan - and his hands suddenly stretched out for a modeling fee. As I handed him a note, I wondered: will I recognise this town in ten years? In five?

Alec Ash blogs on Chinese student life at Six, or you can follow his Twitter

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