Vanishing Shangri-La (2)

Harmony is under strain in Yunnan’s earthly utopia, where locals, government and business clash over the region’s future. Liu Jianqiang concludes his report from south-west China.

The Tibetans of Yubeng are in dire need of a reliable electricity supply and a road. This is a cold and mountainous place. Without electricity, they must rely on firewood for heating and cooking. Without a road, there’s no way to bring in building materials, so homes are made entirely of wood and illegal logging is common.

According to Aqinbu, a local innkeeper, it is also hard to maintain a steady supply of food. No electricity means no refrigeration, and so he doesn’t buy in bulk. Instead, he walks down to the county town once every few days to buy food. Aqinbu is used to the mountain path and manages the journey much more quickly than the tourists, but a return trip still takes a full day.

The villagers are unhappy that the local government still hasn’t provided them with basic infrastructure. Deputy director of the national park management bureau said his office wants to maintain a balance between development and conservation. Bringing in power lines from outside the mountains would destroy forests, so they think a small-scale hydropower plant would be more suitable – it wouldn’t damage the environment on a large-scale, but would solve the power problem. As for the road, they don’t think it’s a good idea because it would damage the scenery. “It would be a scar on the face of the Meili Snow Mountains,” the official said, adding that a road would result in an uncontrollable flood of tourists.

He has another proposal: build a cableway instead of a road, somewhere it won’t spoil the view too much. A cableway could carry people, as well as bringing in goods and taking rubbish away.

These are just ideas, however. The management bureau wants to solve local problems, but as explained in the first part of this article, it has limited powers. Moreover, the county government isn’t keen to invest: the scenic area is managed by a tourism company appointed by the prefecture, which – as far as the county government is concerned – is responsible for infrastructure there. But the tourism company only wants to make a profit, and says infrastructure isn’t their job. As far as Yubeng residents can see, the only infrastructure the government provides is the office that collects entrance fees and of course, they don’t see any of that income.

On the other side of the mountain, the villagers of Mingyong and the tourism company are locked in an even worse row over visitor-generated income. The world-famous Mingyong glacier is named after the village. The glacier flows down from the peak of Khawakarpo to the forests near the village, at an altitude of 2,700 metres. This is a rare and majestic low-latitude, low-altitude monsoon maritime glacier. But the signs that it is retreating are clear. Dazhaxi, a villager and employee at the tourism company’s Mingyong management station told me that the glacier is 11 kilometres long – one kilometre shorter than it was a decade ago. It is hard to say for sure why it is melting, but climate change is commonly thought to be the cause.

Like Yubeng, the glacier is a major tourist attraction. The village itself is Tibetan, with over 300 people living in 51 households – all of which lead tourists on horse rides up the mountain. Over the last couple of years, average annual income has been 70,000 to 80,000 yuan (US$10,900 to US$12,500) per household. But lately tourist numbers and income have dropped off sharply thanks to road works on the route between Shangri-la airport and Deqin, which have pushed the journey time to 10 hours.

This has exacerbated tension between the tourism company and the Tibetan locals, already unhappy because they see nothing of the income from ticket sales (5% of the 80-yuan fee goes to the local government; nothing is passed on to the villagers). With income from horse rides down, the villagers are even more disgruntled and, in the past few months, there have been frequent disputes between locals and tourists.

If the tourists take a horse up the mountain, the villagers still have an income. But if they prefer to make the two or three hour climb to the glacier by foot, the villagers don’t get a penny. And so the locals started to block the route: if you want to take a horse up and pay your 105 yuan, they told visitors, you are welcome. Otherwise, you have to pay a 10-yuan mountain entrance fee.

The visitors on foot got annoyed – having already paid 80 yuan for park entry, they didn’t see why they should hand over any more. And so the arguments started. Neither villagers nor tourists were satisfied. Ten yuan isn’t a lot, but the tourists saw it as an unreasonable demand and there was a constant stream of complaints. The local government intervened and recently forced a halt to the collection of the extra fee. But this didn’t convince the locals: you’ve taken our money, why should we lose out?

I took a horse up the mountain, and two hours later reached the glacier. There’s a set of wooden steps to the viewing platform which haven’t been properly maintained. Some of the steps are loose and if you’re not careful, shift dangerously beneath you. The platform itself is littered with rubbish.

Dazhaxi is angry as he talks about it. “The infrastructure’s ageing, but nobody does anything. Nobody repairs the path of wooden planks along the cliff. Nobody does anything about electricity, about water, about mudslides. It’s mostly the government’s doing – they gave the mountains to a company to run, and the company puts profit first. They take the money and leave all the problems, like the rubbish.”

North-east Yunnan is one of China’s most popular tourist areas – Tiger-Leaping Gorge, Yulong Snow Mountain, Lugu Lake, the first bend in the Yangtze, Laojun Mountain, Potatso National Park, they’re all here. But the most majestic, the most biodiverse, and the most culturally rich area is the Meili Snow Mountains. This is partly due to nature’s gifts, and partly due to the protection of the mountains by generations of locals.

Khawakarpo itself is one of the world’s only peaks above 6,000 metres still unclimbed. In 1991, a joint Sino-Japanese team attempted to climb the mountain, despite fierce local opposition. The locals prayed to the mountain to stop the disrespectful encroachers. An avalanche struck, and 17 climbers lost their lives. In 1996, another Japanese team came to try their luck, but locals blocked them at a bridge across the Lancang River. That expedition also ended in failure. After that, the local government took heed of local opinion and, with central government agreement, banned ascent attempts.

The locals have a long tradition of protecting the sacred mountain. Aqinbu said that, 30 years ago, the township government wanted to build a lumber mill in Yubeng, which would have increased local incomes by taking timber from the mountain. But the villager elders strongly opposed the plan, saying they would rather go hungry than harm the mountain.

Dazhaxi of Mingyong said that the mountain has also protected local people: the ecosystem is rich, the climate pleasant, the area has never been affected by war, major natural disasters or infectious disease. The people live in peace and happiness, he said. And, he said, it is the faith of the Tibetans that has protected this virgin forest. “Without that religious culture, the mountains would be bare.”

It’s clear that the local government hasn’t appreciated their contribution, however. After the park ticket office was built, the government took the income, giving no share to the villagers. Investment in infrastructure is nowhere near adequate, particularly in Yubeng, deep in the mountains, where there is no power, road or healthcare. The villagers are forced to live apart from the modern world, diminishing their trust in the government, and harming the sacred mountain.

Rather than investing time and money in projects that protect the environment or boost social development, those in charge of local resources prefer schemes that bring profit – even if they are ecologically damaging.

In August, Yunnan media reported that Deqin county, in the Meili Snow Mountains, had decided to “create 12 man-made lakes to complement the 13 peaks of the Meili Snow Mountains, in order to meet the scenery-viewing needs of tourists and photographers.” The public expressed concerns that the plan would damage the environment.

Several days later, I received a plea from Jiangpo, a village on the kora circuit – the Buddhist pilgrimage route – around the Meili Snow mountains. A local got in touch to say that an iron ore mine in the area was carrying out illicit opencast mining, covering Jiangpo and a dozen other villages with dust. Blasting had caused cracks in walls and foundations, putting the villagers in danger. The company was dumping waste from the mine in the Nancang, causing severe pollution. “Our homeland is in danger, and we need help,” the message said.

The biggest threat to the mountains is the unstoppable “drive to develop”.

Leaving Yubeng after a stay of three days I found myself frequently turning to look back. The higher I climbed, the smaller the village appeared – below the snowy peaks, amid the dense forests, it looked mysterious, beautiful and peaceful, just like the mythical Shangri-La. I couldn’t bear to leave, and found myself feeling deeply anxious. Next time I go, will it still be there?

Liu Jianqiang is the Beijing-based deputy editor of

Homepage image by Liu Jianqiang.

Part one: the long trek to Yubeng village