For Rural Tibetans, the Future Is in Town

Jian Hong Mei, a 19-yea-old Tibetan farmer, was selected for a vocational program that teaches English and skills for the tourism industry. She now works at a guest house in Shangri-la, a tourist town in the Yunnan province. Video by Jill Drew/The Washington Post, Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 20, 2008

GEZA, China -- Her elder sister is the first to rise, bringing in wood to light the cooking fire and setting water to boil for yak butter tea. Her mother is next, grabbing clumps of freshly picked dandelion greens from a metal tub to mix with barley powder and water to feed the pigs.

Jian Hongmei pulls her blanket tight, trying for a few more minutes of sleep before acknowledging the new day, which opens as so many others have in her 19 years in this Tibetan mountain village.

But today is different. For the past month, Jian has been working in a new job at a small hotel about two hours away by bus. She's cleaning guest rooms and hustling for customers, making more money than the four adult farmers in her family put together. Today is her first visit back.

"I've lived here long enough," Jian says later, as she walks beside a brilliant-green barley field, stopping a few times to pick yellow blossoms from wild medicinal plants that she used to spend hours gathering to sell at market. "I want to see other places and do other things. Here, nothing changes."

Tibetans, traditionally nomadic herders and farmers, are increasingly being lured into a commercial world, a place where Chinese and English language skills are prerequisites for success and ethnic identity is something to be marketed to tourists. Many young Tibetans like Jian jump at the chance to escape harsh farm work on mountain plateaus, but the opportunity means leaving behind a way of life that has defined one of the most romanticized cultures in the world.

Tibetan identity is a white-hot global issue after protests in March, the most extensive uprising against Chinese rule of the Himalayan region in nearly 20 years. Tibetans marched for religious freedom, economic opportunity and cultural autonomy before Chinese police crushed the demonstrations and angry Tibetans started a deadly riot. Police arrested hundreds, closing off the monasteries at the heart of the protests from the public and banning foreign journalists from most Tibetan areas.

The international condemnation that accompanied China's crackdown faded in the aftermath of the earthquake in neighboring Sichuan province last month that killed more than 60,000 people. But attention is returning to Tibet. The Olympic torch, making its way to Beijing for the Aug. 8 start of the Summer Games, is scheduled to run through the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa this weekend.

There were no protests near Geza, a village of 42 Tibetan families in the northwestern corner of Yunnan province. Locals say relations between the Tibetans and ethnic Han Chinese are more subtle than in the Tibet Autonomous Region, on Yunnan's northern border.

Rather than suppressing Tibetan culture, locals say, officials work to profit from it. The region's economy is centered in the town where Jian now works, which was once known as Zhongdian but has been renamed Shangri-La, after the lost utopia of the 1933 James Hilton novel "Lost Horizon," to appeal to the tourist trade.

The government has mandated that all Shangri-La street signs be written in Tibetan, Chinese and English. Most new buildings along major thoroughfares must use Tibetan-style architecture. Cobblestone streets lined with local handicraft shops and Tibetan restaurants define the city's old town section. Yaks graze on open plains next to the runway at Shangri-La's airport.

Whether such development is destroying Tibetan culture or preserving it is a topic of debate. But the economic successes in Shangri-La have served to keep political and religious tensions low, unlike in Lhasa, where local Tibetans have not been fully integrated into the economy.

The government still makes its presence felt in Shangri-La. Ten truckloads of armed police recruits arrived a few days after the March 14 riot in Lhasa. Now, they train most days near a downtown park, wielding batons and plastic riot shields in a show of force. Police have erected a roadblock and require passengers to register before traveling from Shangri-La to Geza and other Tibetan villages.

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