China’s new re­li­gious pil­grims

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - JEREMY EC­CLES

Dur­ing two re­cent tours through western China I’ve been able to ob­serve the im­men­sity of do­mes­tic tourism as the coun­try’s en­riched mid­dle classes are freed to visit the leg­endary sites of their cul­ture.

On my visit to Xian, for ex­am­ple, it proved al­most im­pos­si­ble to view the Ter­ra­cotta War­riors due to the press of peo­ple, all with click­ing cam­eras. And the glo­ri­ous Mo­gao Caves at Dun­huang now have a vir­tual view­ing in­fra­struc­ture de­signed to sub­sti­tute for ac­tual time in the caves, which is now re­stricted to pre­serve the an­cient Bud­dhist mu­rals.

But it’s in the eth­nic mi­nor­ity ar­eas of Yun­nan and Ti­bet where I found the most in­trigu­ing de­vel­op­ment, sur­pris­ingly be­ing en­cour­aged by the com­mu­nist state.

It is Bud­dhist tourism, and par­tic­u­larly in the province of Yun­nan, where the Bai, Dai, Tai, Naxi and Ti­betan tribal peo­ples are en­cour­aged to be as eth­nic as they can for the delec­ta­tion of Han Chi­nese vis­it­ing from the coun­try’s east.

The city of Li­jiang in Yun­nan had the mis­for­tune to be struck by a mas­sive earth­quake in 1996 and re­built mu­se­ums of Dongba cul­ture of­fer demon­stra­tions by ex­ot­i­cally ca­parisoned shamans of its unique pic­togram cal­lig­ra­phy. At night, a band of an­cients plays Naxi mu­sic in equally colour­ful out­fits; and the his­tory of the so­called Tea Horse Trade is played out on ev­ery old bridge by mounted ac­tors to re­mind tourists that, his­tor­i­cally, ex­chang­ing Chi­nese tea for Ti­betan horses was es­sen­tial to al­low the Ti­betan diet to be di­gested, while China had great need of the right horses to fight off bet­ter-mounted in­vaders from the Steppes.

A lit­tle fur­ther south, out­side the Dai mar­ket town of Meng­hai, the Mother and Son Pagoda was packed for cer­e­monies, with women and chil­dren dressed to the nines and monks in robes of deep­en­ing shades from saf­fron to deep ma­roon. The pagoda is famed for its el­e­gant Oc­tag­o­nal Pav­il­ion, metic­u­lously crafted in wood and re­flect­ing the pu­rity of the lo­cal Hi­nayana Bud­dhism. But this isn’t ap­par­ently go­ing to be enough for the pre­dicted in­va­sion of pil­grims from the east.

Nearby, a vast con­crete pagoda is un­der con­struc­tion, likely to end up match­ing the overdec­o­rated tem­ple com­plex in the city of Dali where au­thor­i­ties have felt it nec­es­sary to “en­hance” the beau­ti­fully sim­ple trin­ity of ninth-cen­tury pago­das built when Dali was cap­i­tal of the pow­er­ful Nanzhao em­pire. The tourists now in­vest in Bud­dhist rib­bons, joss-sticks and prayers in im­pres­sive num­bers to jus­tify their jour­ney, and per­haps gain some merit in the post-com­mu­nist scheme of things.

In the far north of Yun­nan, the unim­pres­sive town of Zhong­dian sud­denly be­came Shangri-La in 2003 as all this eth­nic tourism was pro­jected. This pseudo-Chi­nese name comes, of course, from James Hil­ton’s 1930s novel Lost Hori­zon, in which a group from a hi­jacked plane find them­selves in a lamasery of that name af­ter their plane crashes. The town does ac­tu­ally have a fine Ti­betan lamasery dat­ing from 1679 when Ti­betan Bud­dhism was all the fash­ion in Pek­ing. It didn’t find favour, though, with the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, which dam­aged it ex­ten­sively in 1959, caus­ing it to re­main closed through the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, re­open­ing in the 1980s.

But how re­li­gious are to­day’s 600 monks, and how much are they a part of the tourist in­fra­struc­ture? This ques­tion also has to be asked of the many monas­ter­ies in Ti­bet. Most are re­stored af­ter the dou­ble de­pra­da­tions of the 1950s Chi­nese in­va­sion and the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, re­dec­o­rated in the ex­tra­or­di­nary Tantric style favoured in that coun­try.

Cer­tainly the Ti­betans, at the end of the har­vest and the be­gin­ning of the au­tum­nal pil­grim­age sea­son, show their undi­min­ished faith in their ded­i­ca­tion to cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the Barkhor, turn­ing prayer-wheels, pros­trat­ing them­selves the ap­pro­pri­ate num­ber of times, do­nat­ing vats of yak but­ter to feed the can­dles, and plac­ing money in the strangest of places, such as the folds of a sculp­tured Bod­hisattva’s bro­cade or the ex­iled Dalai Lama’s bath.

Clearly this tidy-up of the tem­ples and gen­uine lo­cal re­li­gios­ity should be a win­ner with Bud­dhist tourism from the east. Al­ready some seem to be tak­ing it very se­ri­ously, such as the man us­ing a Fit­bit to count his pros­tra­tions and the women hir­ing ex­otic cos­tumes to have their pho­tos taken in front of the Jokhang Tem­ple or the Dalai Lama’s Sum­mer Palace. • dis­tan­tho­ri­zons.co.uk

Tourists with cam­eras at the ready at Shangri-La in far north Yun­nan

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