A village in a grassland in Lunang, a resort town in Nyingchi, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region (ZHENG SHENGRI)
Namjagbarwa, in the east end of the Himalayas, at an altitude of 7,782 meters, is the 15th highest mountain peak in the world located in Tibet Autonomous Region. Scenic Splendor of China, a special issue of the Chinese National Geography magazine, ranked it in first place on the list of China's most beautiful mountain peaks.
In the Tibetan language, the peak means "a spear piecing into the sky." But since it is most often covered by ice and snow and surrounded by clouds and fog, giving the peak a mysterious cloak, it has attained another name: a shy maiden.
At the point where the Yarlung Zangbo River meets Namjagbarwa, it changes its course toward the south and sheds its mild temperament around the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, which has proven a boon for the region. Warm air and water from the Indian Ocean, blocked by the Himalayas elsewhere, are able to flow upstream along the river and the canyon.
At the foot of Namjagbarwa lies a small town named Lunang, which means a place where fairies live. Unlike most of Tibet, known for cold and dry weather, Lunang is blessed with a mild weather pattern and plenty of rainfall, covered with lush vegetation. Its forest coverage is about 80 percent.
As a famous plateau, Tibet has an average altitude of more than 4,000 meters, but the altitude in Lunang is only 3,400 meters. This advantage, combined with other merits, makes it a natural first stop for those who plan to tour Tibet as a transition to a higher part of the plateau.
A rider struggles on the back of an untamed horse during a race (ZHENG SHENGRI)
Nature, tradition and fashion
Ten years ago, Lunang was little known and was still an impoverished and remote area. With locals' average yearly income standing at around 2,000 yuan ($292), most were involved in cattle raising.
But in 2011, Lunang began to receive financial assistance from south China's Guangdong Province and several of its major enterprises as a poverty alleviation aid target. Six years after joint efforts by both Tibet and Guangdong, the international tourism town of Lunang began to take shape. Today, instead of being a rambling town, Lunang is a combination of Tibetan culture, nature and modern fashion.
Chen Keshi, chief designer of Lunang as a tourism town, thought "holy, pure and peaceful" should be the soul of the town and thus it became the final goal of its design and construction.
Lunang's traditional architecture is in the Gongbo Tibetan style, which mainly comes from Nyingchi. Although it looks simpler than old-style Tibetan houses in the region, the new town's architectural style preserves many traditional Tibetan elements, such as the size of the buildings, the pictures on the walls and the color white, which is worshipped by the locals.
"The construction of the town has inherited Tibetan traditional architecture in terms of the overall space design while specific forms keep in line with Tibetan artistic features. With a supplement of modern architectural technology and artistic design, we now have a new type of Tibetan architecture in the town, which still blends well with the surrounding natural environment," said Chen to China Culture Daily.
According to Chen, more than 300 local Tibetan artists participated in the designing of the town, where even hospitals and banks were built in the traditional style. Moreover, the town has to some extent replicated the architectural style of some other regions in Tibet like Lhasa, Nagqu and Xigaze. Thus, tourists are able to appreciate various architectures without having to travel across all of Tibet.
Unique architectural design has attracted a huge number of travelers. Since 2016, Lunang has received more than 1 million visitors. More and more local herders and farmers are beginning to get involved in the tourism business. In 2017, local average incomes jumped to 22,500 yuan ($3,283).
However, what appeals more to some tourists is the fact that the town is also home to Gongbo Tibetans, along with the Lhoba and Monba ethnic groups. Lunang boasts unique cultures and customs that are not found anywhere else in China.
For example, during the Gongbo Pastoral Cultural Tourism Festival, which was first launched in 2017, there is a horse race that is different from common horse races. The horses used in the race are not tamed. It's almost impossible for a rider to climb onto the horse's back by himself, and he must be helped on by others. Riders then have to participate in an archery contest, shooting arrows while riding on wild horses. Another unique event is the whistling arrow contest. Unlike ordinary arrows, these arrows make a piercing sound as they dart toward the target. Before the contest, archers sing the Gongbo archery song along with a chorus while during the contest the chorus carries on the song.
"Clouds floating in the deep blue sky, pastoral songs reverberating in the vast grassland—everything is so pure and pristine. I plan to come back next year to celebrate this festival again," said a visitor from Guangdong Province surnamed Liu. For tourists from outside the region, the experience is very fresh and different.
Architecture in Lunang exhibits distinct Tibetan features (ZHENG SHENGRI)
Prospering family inns
Not far from the town of Lunang is a village called Tashigang, whose name is derived from a thousand-year-old story.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Princess Jincheng was sent by Emperor Zhongzong to marry a Tibetan king in 710. The princess spent a good deal of time in Lunang because of its mild weather. But one day, she went to Tashigang, which had no name at that time. Intoxicated by the beautiful scenery, featuring high snow-peaked mountains as a backdrop and low ridges in front as shields, she consulted with those who practiced divination who told her that this was a charmed place. She thus named the village Tashigang, which means good fortune in the Tibetan language.
Today, the spot is bringing fortune to local villagers in new ways. Since Lunang has seen a growth in tourism, the demand for hotels has increased. As a result, family inns in striking traditional Tibetan style have begun sprouting up in villages surrounding the town.
Baden and his wife operate one of these family inns, which they started in 2011. Rooms are decorated in both traditional Tibetan and modern styles so that guests can choose according to their preferences. The family also has yaks and other livestock along with growing a lot of their own vegetables, providing fresh meat and produce for their guests. "Although vegetables grow slowly here, we never spray pesticides or other chemicals. All our food is organic and green," Baden said proudly. Every year, the family inn receives about 1,000 visitors. Guests can also enjoy riding horses, milking cows and picking mushrooms.
The peak season for tourism in Lunang is June through August, with the bulk of the family's income earned during this short period, currently 200,000 yuan ($29,000), which is much higher than the income of traditional herding, which stands at 60,000 yuan ($8,756) a year.
To encourage family hotels, the local government offered villagers subsidies for construction and design and exempted them from business taxes. "This solves a lot of problems. Construction materials to build Tibetan-style houses are very expensive, so at first we encountered some financial difficulties," Baden said. "But the subsidies, low interest-rate loans and tax-exempt policies helped my business a lot. Today, it is going well and keeps expanding."
In order to attract guests from afar, Baden's family inn has posted information on online travel service websites like Ctrip.com. Nowadays, more and more guests are from big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Dhondup's family inn in Lunang (PAN XIAOQIAO)
A visitor from Hainan Province, who only gave his surname Chen, is a frequent guest in the village. He has been to many places around China, but has a special love for Lunang and Tashigang. "I like to walk around the village from this inn to that, appreciating their different styles. And the inns always welcome my visit even though I'm staying in another inn. The pure, austere and friendly atmosphere here makes me feel at ease and comfortable. I feel a kind of peace I rarely find in other places." Chen said Tashigang's pristine quality is a stark contrast to villages that have been overdeveloped for commercial purposes elsewhere.
According to Pasang Tsering, Secretary of the Communist Party of China branch in the village, Tashigang has 68 households, with 52 involved in the family inn business. Half of them are faring very well, but the other half are being marginalized for various reasons. "Today, guests have higher requirements for sanitation, but some family hotels don't even have separate toilets, so they begin to lose guests." For those who are not doing well, they pick mushrooms—especially the famous matsutake mushroom—and sell them to family hotels. In this way, these farmers can earn some extra money, added to their farming and herding incomes.
Dhondup's family inn has just built 14 new rooms since it began in 2008. The original seven rooms were not equipped with separate toilets, and gradually he found that guests did not like to stay in his inn. The newly built house is now installed with modern toilets.
During the peak season, the inn's monthly revenue is about 150,000 yuan ($22,000) and in the low season, the income is half of that. In his early 30s, Dhondup shows his talent for keeping up with the times: He just installed a small bar counter in his Tibetan-style parlor. "In this way, young guests can talk over drinks in my inn, and they have told me it's extraordinary to have such a bar in a traditional Tibetan sitting room."
"Lunang is a small place, with limited space. I think its current stage is its best," said Pasang Tsering. "It's said that in the future a railway will be built here, and I'm a bit worried. I hope Lunang will always be tranquil and pure, because if it's noisy and crowded, it will no longer be itself." He added that most of the older generation of villagers agree. In their opinion, to make use of their traditional living styles to increase local income is welcomed, but there should be a balance between commercial development and the tranquility of life, which is the real charm of Lunang.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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