A clash of cultures in Sichuan: torn between tourism and tradition

The Tibetan people of China's Sichuan region face a dilemma: to protect their ancient lifestyle, or to allow their land to be developed so they can attract tourists
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The Independent Online

It's raining and misty in Wogu, a village in the south-western Chinese province of Sichuan, and the only sound you can hear are the Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind alongside elegant houses perched on the hills, the foothills of the western Himalayas.

This hidden valley is an area of amazing beauty but there is trouble in paradise. Since 1998, the local people have not been allowed to grow crops commercially because of reforestation, so they have needed some way of earning money beyond local government subsidies.

Now, at a meeting beneath a canopy of prayer flags, the villagers are debating whether to allow a tarmac road to be built here which will allow tourists access to Wogu, or whether to preserve their home.

Chinese people have more money in their pockets and they are spending it on travelling for leisure, turning tourism into a £180bn industry.

During the country's three, annual, week-long holidays, the so-called Golden Weeks around national day, international labour day and spring festival, 200 million Chinese people went travelling. By 2015, China is expected to be the world's second-biggest tourist economy.

One of the biggest challenges China faces is weighing the wishes of these millions of tourists, who are keen to visit some of the country's most beautiful spots, against the needs of the local community, who need sustainable tourism if their traditions and livelihoods are not to be destroyed.

In Wogu, the local men arrive on motorbikes and tractors, proceedings are photographed with Motorola phones, and Snow beer and maotai liquor from plastic fuel canisters are the tipples of choice.

Wearing traditional costumes in this Aba Tibetan region, which include red headwear lined with white fur, which look slightly like Santa Claus hats, women watch from the sidelines, preferring yak butter tea to liquor, while children rev up the motorbikes and watch the foreigners, hugging their elders around the neck.

The traditional is evident in the Tibetan reds and yellows of the clothes, the harsh tobacco smoked in old-fashioned pipes, the peanuts shelled and eaten during the conversation, the knives the men wear on their hips or across their chests. The red flag of China flaps among the prayer flags - this is a diverse area.

Baijie Shujie, an incredibly hospitable Tibetan who is also the local Communist Party official, is keen to attract tourists to the comfortable lodge he has built for hikers to rest in as they walk along the valley.

Later that day, Tibetan music carries across the Zhongzhagou valley to Baijie Shuji's house. Despite the din from the local dance, there is a real peace that feels a million miles away from the burgeoning China of the east coast. But change is coming to Wogu. It looks like the road is going to be built. People have to live.

There is a lot to protect from mass tourism - there are more than 300 animal species in these hills, including black bears, golden monkeys, pit vipers and Tibetan cobras. In the higher areas, there are Tibetan lynx, snow leopards, Bharal or blue sheep and Tibetan antelope.

One of the great natural wonders of the world, Jiuzhaigou is about 450 kilometres north of the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu, and it's a holy valley to the Tibetans. According to the legend, a mountain deity named Dago fell in love with the goddess Semo, and he gave her a mirror made of wind and cloud. However, the devil appeared and the goddess dropped the mirror, which broke into many pieces and fell to earth as 108 lakes.

The features in the valley have wonderful names - Double-Dragon Lake, Tiger Lake or Rhinoceros Lake, many of them dreamy azure pools, served by beautiful waterfalls such as Shuzheng Waterfall or Nuorilang Waterfall.

While the valley is beautiful, it has witnessed a lot of development since 1978 and Jiuzhaigou has just been designated the most popular tourist destination in China for young travellers.

With about three million visitors a year visiting the park, the challenge is to balance tourism and the needs of the local community and the environment.

Some development has been sensitive and aimed at preserving the area. You walk through the stunning forest along the valley on boardwalks laid to allow people to walk without damaging the earth. No private cars are permitted and there are programmes to try and develop the conservation side of the park.

On the other hand, the town of Jiuzhaigou, which serves the park, stands in sharp contrast to the peace of the valley park. Dozens of enormous modern hotels line the streets, emblazoned with monstrous Tibetan kitsch, including giant prayer wheels and massive swastikas, an ancient symbol of peace brutally reversed by the Nazis.

Andrew Scanlon is a young Irish geologist who is employed as a park ranger at Jiuzhaigou and two other national parks under a German-funded development scheme. A committed conservationist and passionate about the area, Scanlon is nevertheless realistic about what needs to be done if the area is to survive as a natural wonder while encouraging tourism.

"You need a central point like Jiuzhaigou for the eco-tourism to work," he says. "Backpacking is not eco-tourism. The Chinese have the capacity to do a good thing on a massive scale, if they cooperate with the locals and do it properly, this could be a wild but well-managed area with biodiversity."

The park is packed with tour groups. A tour guide waving a flag yells "pengyoumen [friends]" through a megaphone and the tourists storm the shuttle bus. On board, a guide wearing dark purple Tibetan robes conducts proceedings. One passenger spends the entire journey on the mobile phone discussing the cost of some commodity. He is wearing a Decathlon hiker's hat, Merrell shoes, and a Timberland shirt and occasionally sucks from a portable oxygen container.

There is huge Tibetan-style construction going on, houses covered with the ubiquitous swastikas. The Taiwanese pop music is incredibly loud in the bus, making it difficult to enjoy some of the most remarkable sights in the world.

Li Shaojian, one of the directors of the Jiuzhaigou national park, says tourism has been developing at a rapid pace since 1984, when things started to open up. "We had the road in 1997 and the airport in 2003 and now we're seeing direct flights from Beijing and Shanghai," Li says. "We are looking at sustainable development of the park, other activities other than just visiting the park, such as things to do at night and improving service to make things work better."

He wants to develop the international side of the tourism business here. "The park is a window for people to see China, not just a nature reserve," Li says. "You know, 80 per cent of foreign tourists who come to China have a university degree or higher. We're very interested in this."

Driving along hair-raising dirt tracks in this natural park area, Scanlon explains how part of his job is to manage paradise. He says: "The master-plan is the development of eco-tourism, which includes training staff, and introducing systems such as building routes like you see in Switzerland in the Alps, with standardised route-signing.

"People here in the valley have no access to tourism but have to conserve the environment so they want to develop. We're looking at high-end tourism, rich Chinese from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as Europe and America, to a lesser extent," Scanlon adds.

At a ceremony at a temple known in Tibetan as the Zarusi, older people in traditional dress and shiny new trainers mingle with young people wearing small tokens of their Tibetan heritage - a tiger skin, a shawl - with high heels, as they walk past the prayer wheels, spinning them around and looking for blessing. Benbo, the sect of Buddhism followed in the area, is an active, participative kind of religion. The temple was burned down during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, but rebuilt following the opening up of China by the Ministry of Tourism.

Inside the temples the monks incant in deep tones to ensure that there will be good harvest. This is the 15th day of the Agricultural Year and it's the most auspicious time to carry out such a ceremony.

The monks make a circle, banging sticks, while the Han teenagers, children of rightists and intellectuals forced into exile in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution, or simply the children of people seeking their fortune out west, take pictures of each other and ignore the backdrop.

This region is in some ways a testing ground for Han-Tibetan relations. This is a long way from Lhasa, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which was annexed by China in 1951, where there is resentment to intrusion by the Han Chinese who are the dominant ethnic group in China and whose numbers are growing in all parts of the country.

Sichuan is China and the two cultures have interacted here for thousands of years, not always peacefully. The local plain-clothes Public Security Bureau officer is unhappy about the presence of Westerners at the event. However, Tibetans and Han Chinese seem indifferent to each other.

The region's tourist potential has been truly opened up by a new airport, but not everyone is happy about it. At one point we pick up two middle-aged women hitch-hiking back from the airport to historic Songpan, an ancient town rich with Tibetan and Han Chinese cultural artefacts.

The two women wear vivid red headdresses and beautiful purple and black robes, with their hair tightly braided and dyed black. The women say their land was requisitioned to make way for the runway, and they received no compensation. They had gone to the airport to protest. The men have gone to complain to the regional government about it, but nothing has been done, they say.

As we drive along, one of the women starts to sing a traditional Tibetan song, a sad, haunting melody that is sung to punctuate work in the fields. The rhythm helps concentrate the mind.

In Songpan itself, there are even more women gathered to petition at the local authorities about the way they have been treated on the airport issue. While the Tibetans and other local minorities have benefited, and stand to benefit, from tourism, there are still many unresolved tensions about development in paradise.