National Geographic : 2009 May
• crank arm in place, compact uorescent light- bulbs dangling around the house burst to life. e metal cable, it turns out, extends to a creek 400 yards from the farmhouse. ere it attaches to a trough carved from a log. Turning the crank pulls the cable, which li s the trough, sending a ow of creek water into a large wooden cask. Plugged into the base of the cask is a blue plastic pipe that carries water down to a Chinese-made micro-hydropower generator the size of a ve- gallon drum. Dinner is served. Rice with assorted dishes--- pork fat in garlic sauce, yak meat with peppers, fried vegetables, glasses of homemade, throat- scalding barley wine, apples for dessert. And then the patriarch opens a carved cabinet door and clicks the remote. ere s a soccer match on TV he doesn t want to miss. e women of the household are up for hours before dawn, hauling water and wood, milking and feeding the animals. The young mother pours us yak butter tea. Her name is Snaw. She is wearing a black baseball cap embroidered with a skull and crossbones, a tattered purple sweater through which you can see her bony body, a thin, fake-fur scarf, tight jeans, and green Chinese army sneakers. Her baby in one arm, she is simultaneously breast-feeding, load- ing rewood into the stove, checking the rice, stirring the yak butter tea, tossing potato peels over the railing to the pigs, washing dishes, sort- ing peppers, and talking. Snaw is 17. Her baby is three months old and has some indiscernible medical problem. She says her dream is to leave this place---the Shangri-La of my imagination---and go to the real town of Shangri-La. She s heard that women her age go to school there and on Saturday go shopping, walking arm in arm along the mall. have already come true. Yang Jifang, a tall, striking 22-year- old Naxi woman, graduated from the Eastern Tibet Training Institute (ETTI) in downtown Shangri-La. There she learned English and computer skills; she now works as a guide at the Khampa Caravan, an adventure-travel rm. She has her own apartment and goes back to her rural village every month, bringing money and medicine to her parents. "Life for my parents in the village is very hard," she says. "There is no business, just farming." e training institute was founded in 2004 by Ben Hillman, a professor at the Australian National University who specializes in devel- opment in western China. e institute hosts an intensive 16-week, live-in, fully funded vocational school designed to help students from rural areas bridge the gap to urban job opportunities. "Culture is something that s constantly evolv- ing," says Hillman, who warns me not to apply a Western sense of authenticity to the modern Shangri-La. We re sitting at the Raven café in the old town, listening to Dylan and drinking Dali beer. e Raven, a rebuilt cobbler s shop, is the kind of funky co ee bar you nd in Kathmandu--- carrot cake on the menu, a poster of John Coltrane on the wall. Owned by a Seattleite and a Londoner, it s operated by two independent Tibetan women. "Economic development can rekindle interest in cultural heritage, which is inevitably rein- terpreted," Hillman says. "I don t think we can judge that without reverting to some kind of elitism, where wealthy and fortunate people who can travel to remote parts of this planet want to keep things locked in a cultural zoo." The real challenge for Shangri-La s ethnic minorities, Hillman says, is to develop skills for the modern world. " ey are traditionally agropastoralists, experts at subsistence farming--- growing barley, raising yaks and pigs. But these aren t the skills that most youth need today." His students hail from disparate ethnicities--- Tibetan, Bai, Lisu, Naxi, Han, Yi---but most come from dirt-poor farming households. All Just as Native American culture has been commodified in the American West, Tibetan culture has been commercialized in China's west.