June 06, 2020
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Literary Coup

Literary Coup
It is a freezing minus 8 degrees C when I get off the plane at Zhongdian. The sunlight is sharp and the sky a flawless Tibetan blue. This town, in the remote northwest of China's Yunnan province, has been renamed Shangri La by the Chinese authorities. Whether this is indeed the site of the mythical paradise that James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizons, had in mind is highly debatable.

In Hilton's story, the doomed aircraft flies west to east along the Himalayas and crashes 'somewhere in Tibet'; Shangri La, at 12,000 feet on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, is as plausible a candidate as, say, Ladakh. So this claim is something of a marketing coup for the Chinese, even if "Shangri La" is painfully difficult for them to pronounce.

To my relief, my Tibetan guide speaks fluent Hindi, learnt from years at school in Dharamsala. I ask him what he thinks about Tibet's future. He hopes that the "one country two systems" formula, first applied to Hong Kong and now offered to Taiwan, holds the seed of an ultimate resolution, and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

In the meantime, as a reward for walking up 400 steps to the Songzanlin monastery, established by the sixth Dalai Lama, my guide promises me some authentic Indian 'masala chai'. True to his promise, I am taken to a picturesque house and asked to ring the bell. To my delightful surprise, the door is opened by an elegant Bengali lady, an ecologist who has been living in Shangri La for the past nine years. Her work has covered the environmentally-sensitive local areas as well as the grasslands and plateaus of distant Qinghai province. Truly, our diaspora is not only talented but also pioneering! And the tea was excellent.

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