Uttara Sarkar Crees was born in India and has spent her life managing ecotourism projects in the Himalayan region. Now, she runs the Gyalthang Dzong ecotourism hotel in Zhongdian, which the Chinese government officially calls Shangri-La County.
It feels like one vast natural reserve of snow-crested mountain ranges dotted with Tibetan, Naxi and other ethnic villages. The mountains are treasure troves of wild flowers, including some alpine species that are gradually disappearing from other parts of the Earth.
Ecotourism aims to sustain culture and environmental aspects of a region, something which is badly needed in China, where good tourism is seen as vast numbers of people led by a flag-carrying guide. The very things guests come to see will be gone in five to 10 years, says Uttara. People throw their cola bottles and instant noodle packages out of bus windows. Some tourists barge into local homes without respect, buying everything they see.
But can ecotourism really set patterns of sustainable development to protect a place like Shangri-La? It takes a lot of work, said Uttara. We try to educate all people in contact with us in rubbish management. We are teaching values: protect what you have. Tourism institutions should also educate people about good tourism. Here, we talked with the local tourism department about the problems of plastic bags polluting the valley. They now fine anybody caught carrying plastic bags.
She added that major efforts are now being made to redecorate buildings in a Tibetan style. Virtually every city in China is alike; faceless buildings covered with tiles and blue glass. But in Shangri-La County, the government is busy chipping away the tiles, creating a real revolution in city planning and aesthetics.
Ecotourism should bring income for local communities, allowing them to conserve the environment and sustain their lifestyle, said Uttara. They have to protect the area because it is their own land, their sacred mountain and lake where they pray. But there is talk of one developer taking over 50 sq km to set up an entertainment park.
There are hundreds of entertainment parks all over China. Why put another one here? Our uniqueness is we are one of only 200 high-biodiversity zones in the world.
In China, it is easy for developers to pay local officials to approve plans, allowing for the destruction of the environment and culture. Uttara adopts Tibetan folklore, teaching villagers to fight by telling a story about two frogs in a bowl of yak's cream. One frog gives up and dies. The second keeps jumping, and churns the cream into butter, and is able to get out. All of us who believe in sustainable ecotourism must keep fighting against big forces, she said.
Surrounding the hotel are two protector mountains, from where it is believed luck flows. Before the hotel was built, Uttara organised an ancient pagoda to be rebuilt. Every year, the staff of our hotel print prayer flags. They are hung between the mountains. The energy flows between.
Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing. This is the fourth of a bi-weekly series tracing the alternative cultural movement in western China.