Just your normal Shangri-la
It’s been a while since we had any good news at all – the Lhasa riots, the Sichuan earthquake, and then the broad global economic malaise and, now as we begin the new year, the Haitian tragedy - all these events setting the tone for what has been two woeful years of tumult, uncertainty, tragedy.
In Gyalthang (Shangri-la), it was no different for the local tourism community as visitor arrivals dwindled to the precious few who chose to travel independently and on extremely tight budgets. In times of uncertainty, the first expense that takes a hit almost universally is the vacation. Small entrepreneurs in Gyalthang who focused without heed in the Old Town or “Dokher Dzong” by bidding rents up into the sky hoping for thousands of visitors came in for a major reality check. A shakeout takes place in Dokher Dzong even as we speak as rents retreat and tenants (many of them from afar who contributed to the speculation) pack their bags to “return home.”
Despite this depressed sentiment among small entrepreneurs, Gyalthang’s government sponsored development continued unabated. Part of the funding came from massive stimulatory policies in China and came in the form of investment in Gyalthang’s infrastructure, fixed assets. The local airport keeps getting bigger by the quarter and was expanded for the upteenth time in the summer of 2009. Village communities who live adjacent to the airport have moved homes for a record third time in five years to make way for the expansion. With the compensation they’ve received for their land, village families have gone on to build ever more grander houses than their neighbors. Where else does a family have the luxury and the time to build and then move into three new homes in five years. Only in Gyalthang, only in Shangri-la. Isn’t it supposed to be one dream house per lifetime ?
There’s certainly a huge disconnect here in Gyalthang and it’s not just locals but also discriminating visitors who are noticing and pointing it out. Development is coming fast and with few controls. At this break neck speed, Gyalthang may suffer in the long term. By giving it this new name “Shangri-la” aren’t you digging your own grave, some visitors warn.
However, with the shakeout taking place in the Dokher Dzong and the long due contradictions that are now frequently flaring up in the project zones, it gives us on the ground an opportunity to rethink and weigh the consequences of uncontrolled, and what is mostly externally induced, development. Local communities, local economies can grow stronger only if development takes place in a more sustainable manner with an overarchieving local vision and a strategy that takes into account the long term health of local communities and the integrity of their local eco systems. Local communities, especially government, must take charge and help steer and define development with this overarching vision. It’s still very early in Gyalthang and with these warning signals getting louder every day for all to notice, we as key stakeholders must take the opportunity to act now and position ourselves for the long term.
With the trickling of visitor traffic and retreat in property rents, Dokher Dzong has surprisingly gotten much more saner over the last few quarters. Gradually, we are beginning to see more on offer in terms of content – quality goods and services, local arts and crafts gradually making their way into Dokher Dzong, and who better to take the initiative than local individuals and residents who have a stake in the local community and are committed to providing excellence for the long term. Gyalthang’s heritage as an important cultural hub along the ancient tea route can be further restored by the emergence of this class of individual in our communities.
As the global economies stabilize, we want to welcome our valued visitors and want them to know that Gyalthang will live up to your search for Shangr-la. Whether you are in the Old Town or some rural village, Khampa’s guides will always be there to transport you to the centuries-old ethos our highland communities and their intimate proximity to nature.