In this episode, we escape to the mountains of the Tibetan Highlands, which lie at the intersection of the Sichuan and Yunan provinces in China, in search of Shangri-La.
Shivaji Das talks about the stunning natural beauty in this remote place, and we also discuss the cultural clashes in the region and the people he met along the way. We talk about complicated histories, and how our view of a place is shaped by who we are and our perspective on the world — and also how others see us.
Shivaji Das is an award-winning Indian writer, traveler, international speaker, and photographer, now based in Singapore.
His books include Angels by the Murky River: Travels off the Beaten Path; Journeys with the Caterpillar: Traveling through the islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia; and today we’re talking about The Other Shangri-La: Journeys through the Sino-Tibetan Frontier in Sichuan.
- The attraction of remote and unusual places
- The origins of Shangri-La
- Some of the historical, religious, and cultural issues that make the Tibetan plains a complicated area
- The architecture, people, and food of the area
- The value of traveling as a multi-cultural partnership
- Recommended travel books
You can find Shivaji Das at ShivajiDas.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Welcome to the show, Shivaji.
Shivaji Das: Thank you, Jo. Thanks for having me on the show.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s great to have you here. So you’ve written about some really fascinating places.
What draws you to travel, especially in these more remote areas?
Shivaji Das: As a child, I was rather into work and I hated traveling. I must say, not as a child, until I was fairly grown-up, until I was in my early 20s, I hated traveling and I hated travelers.
Whenever someone like relatives or other friends of my family would come to our house, I’d be like, why are they coming to our house? Don’t they have other better things to do?
It was rather late in my life, in my mid-20s that I really started traveling for the purpose of leisure. And once I did that, and I was forced into traveling when I was working in the United States and I had nothing to do over the weekends, I would take buses, Greyhound buses, and all that to neighboring towns or cities.
That’s when I began talking to strangers, I got to know about their stories, old people who have lost their kids in the Iraq war, immigrants who were traveling with large families, and even very muscular bullies who would surprisingly offer their bag of chips to me and all of these encounters got me fascinated with travel.
Since then, since my mid-20s, I have always looked forward to any opportunity to pack my bag and go to the airport or to the nearest jetty.
Jo Frances Penn: Why do you choose the places that you choose? Because you’ve written books about islands in Indonesia, and we’re talking about this area that is quite different today and you have traveled off the beaten path. I do a lot of trips where I might go to a bigger city, whereas you tend to get off the beaten track.
Why do you go to these remote places?
Shivaji Das: I do go to remote places, but more than that, I go to more traditional travel destinations as well, but it’s just that I don’t necessarily write about them as much, I guess that’s what happens. But I’ve been, I think, almost 10 times to Bali. I have been there a few times to Switzerland and to New York City, Hong Kong, and so on.
What especially I look for, for my long-ish travels, the longer trips that I take, which are a month or longer than that, are these places which somewhat tend to be less familiar to a greater number of people, but still what I’ve looked for are places which have a combination of nature, different cultures and some level of historical complexity because after all, what I really treasure are the interactions with people.
When I get to meet people from various backgrounds with different complicated histories, that’s what I find the most fascinating.
Inevitably they tend to be somehow mountainous places where isolated valleys tend to result in somewhat isolated settlements, which have their conflicts and which have their unique ways of developing and forming over time with their own cultures and so on. That’s what has drawn me to the remote islands of Indonesia to places in the Tibetan Highlands to the Northeastern parts of India and so on.
Jo Frances Penn: Fascinating. So let’s get into The Other Shangri-La.
In case people don’t know, what is the myth of Shangri-La and how does it relate to that region?
Shivaji Das: It’s very interesting that it was all based on the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. It became a best seller in the early 20th century. And yet Hilton had never been to the places where he thought was Shangri-La.
The whole idea of Shangri-La is this idyllic place where everyone lives a long time and everyone is healthy and everyone is happy and they look good and they talk good and all that. So it’s like the utopia in our human imagination. And as I was mentioning, he had never been to this place.
He had loosely based his novel on the actual travels of Joseph Rock, the famous ‘National Geographic’ traveler. And he had been to this part of the Tibetan Highlands, which lies at the intersection with Sichuan as well as with Yunan province in China. And James Hilton’s novel is based on that.
There is no exact place called Shangri-La as such, but what has happened is that many towns in this region, whether it be small towns in Yunan or Sichuan, or even in Tibet, all the way to even parts of India and Pakistan, they have been trying to declare their towns as the original Shangri-La.
So you have maybe five or six claimants, and some towns have actually even changed their name to Shangri-La so that they can get some tourists coming in. But the reality is that there is perhaps no such place as a physical place.
Of course, there could be mental spaces which are Shangri-La, and that’s the whole fascination that people have been hunting for this Shangri-La ever since human civilization, just that the name Shangri-La has been given in the 1930s.
Jo Frances Penn: And it’s so interesting because I know you travel so much and we both do, and it happens that you go to places seeking something, but you have to find it within yourself. Even if you’re in somewhere that other people call paradise or utopia, that’s not the same for everyone.
Shivaji Das: Yes. It’s true. And particularly in this journey which we took, there was one particular place that had a strong claim to being Shangri-La. And the town management had tried a few times to rename their town as Shangri-La. And it’s a very beautiful area, the YaDing reserve as it is otherwise known, with beautiful mountains and valleys.
There were the autumn colors when we traveled there, so there was a big, a huge crowd of Chinese domestic tourists who had visited there. And there was a big traffic jam when we were trying to get out of this Shangri-La. And I thought in my mind that just the place over the traffic jam is actually the real Shangri-La.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, that’s true. Often these places that become so famous are packed with tourists. Although, of course, we’re recording this in pandemic times, so there’s probably no one there right now! But you mentioned there the mountains and the autumn colors:
What is the landscape like? And how does that make it a challenging area to visit?
Shivaji Das: This is the point where you could consider the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau, which is the roof of the world, to either begin or to end depending on your perspective. So it’s the place where the plains meet the highlands of Tibet-Qinghai.
Therefore, you have several mountains which are 7,000 meters high and actually, you have many high valleys in between, you have deep gorges and so on. And many parts of this area, they have some unique claims. So there is this town called Litang, which is claimant to the title of the highest town in the world at an altitude of about 4,500 meters.
You have Daocheng, which is considered the highest airport in the world at about 4,800 meters. And then you have Sertar, which has the Larung Gar Monastery, which is considered the highest as well as the largest monastery in the world, as well as the highest illegal settlement or slum in the world. So you can imagine the kind of landscape there is.
So you have very rugged conditions. The road naturally is going to be very dangerous. You have many accidents that happen here, so much so that drivers in this part of the world don’t consider themselves men unless they have traveled once to the Sichuan Tibet Highway.
And what also happens is that this has resulted in very unique historical developments in this region. And the fascinating thing is that it’s, at once, very beautiful, on the other hand, also it seems like quite a dangerous place to travel to.
Jo Frances Penn: And you mentioned all these really high places and the roof of the world. Is altitude sickness an issue? Did you have to go up slowly?
Shivaji Das: I had prepared myself as much as I could. I live in Singapore, which is at sea level, the highest place is 300 meters high. We are talking about going to a maximum of almost 6,000 meters, some of the mountains we had gone to. So I had done as much as I could, doing high speed running, climbing stairs and all that.
But there was this especially long trek that we had to take in the highlands of Dugong. And we were going to live with a nomadic settlement and we had stayed there overnight. And actually, I couldn’t sleep very well because it was freezing cold and, with all the preparation still, I was feeling rather cold. And at night I had stepped out to watch the Milky Way, which looked at its most splendid in that kind of an altitude with clear skies.
So naturally, I hadn’t slept well. And the next day, when we are checking back to the town of Dugong, that whole eight hours of walking felt like a nightmare. And I had to actually lie down and take some rest.
And the dangerous thing was there were some wild dogs and some nomads’ dogs as well. Tibetan dogs are one of the most ferocious. When I woke up, I saw one just staring at me within 10 meters away. So that was an experience with the altitude sickness that you mentioned.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s so funny to me that you started off saying you never wanted to travel and here you are sleeping on this road with these wild dogs!
You mentioned complicated histories that you were drawn to these regions, and of course, this is a region that is incredibly fraught with tension and I know enough to know that it’s very difficult as to whether to call a place Tibet or China.
What are some of the historical, religious, and cultural issues that make it such a complicated area?
Shivaji Das: That has been one of the difficulties of writing that book. I had to make a disclaimer as well at the beginning that the terms that I use, whether it’s Tibet or Sichuan or China, are not to be taken as my political stance in this matter as such.
This is not exactly part of the Tibetan province, although it’s definitely a land between Tibet province and Sichuan. And most of the people in this region happen to be Tibetan. And the benefit of going here as a traveler was that in Tibet, you are only allowed to go as part of a tour group, but when we were traveling there in 2017, it was not a necessary thing. So we could pretty much travel on our own.
But this place also from time to time has been a hotbed of protests by Tibetans against the Han government at the center or the Chinese government rule at the center.
And you have had self-immolations, you have seen demonstrations, protest speeches during cultural festivals, and so on. There is a bit of this edginess whenever you go through this part. And what we also know now is that many of the places we visited such as Larung Gar, for instance, travelers, especially foreign travelers, are no longer allowed to visit those spaces.
In a way, we were one of the last ones, last foreigners at least at this point of time, who could visit some of these spaces, and access has been since barred because of the political situation there. And even though people didn’t explicitly mention these tensions to us because they would have taken great political risks or some other risks if they actually came out very openly, but there are many indirect references to the tension and the cultural domination which was happening, access to land, and so on.
And overall, the issue with the Dalai Lama. And they thought that the way Dalai Lama has been treated, especially the Tibetans thought the way Dalai Lama was being treated was kind of an insult to the entire Tibetan race.
So much so that in many towns, when they got to know that I was an Indian by origin, people would gather around me, they would get their children to come and touch me and get blessings from me because they said, ‘Oh, he’s coming from India, and they are the people who have sheltered Dalai Lama. So just touch him because we can’t visit him, but at least he, on certain occasions, may be able to visit this person.’ So just get blessings for them. So such were the things that we encountered during our trip.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s really sad. The Dalai Lama does live in the north of India. That’s correct?
Shivaji Das: In Dharamshala, yes.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes. So I can see how people might feel that. And, wow, that’s incredible.
Could you see the differences between the Tibetan areas and the Chinese areas? For example, you mentioned the city of Chengdu, and what are the distinctive characteristics? Could you see it in the architecture and the way people act religiously and things like that? Is it really obvious what the differences are?
Shivaji Das: Obviously, there are physical differences, which is the number one differentiator. Tibetans typically have broader shoulders, whether be it skin color and general ruggedness to their looks. Whereas the Han Chinese look slightly different in that sense. So the physicality, as well as the fashion sense is very different.
Tibetans like to have big amulets and lots of beads around their necks and so on, they like to wear big hats, they have this rugged Western look about them, which the Han don’t correspond to.
But in terms of settlements, it’s not very obvious, in the towns, for example, the town, the one I mentioned, the highest town in the world, more than, I would say almost half of the population is now Han over subsequent waves of migration in the last 20, 30 years.
It’s hard for many of these cities to retain their original Tibetan character. And in fact, some of the people that we met along the way, we asked them about Lhasa, which is the capital of Tibetan province, they said, ‘Oh, we don’t like Lhasa because Lhasa is just like any other Chinese town. It’s not a Tibetan town anymore.’ But these places that we visited still had their Tibetan character.
Now, when it comes to Chengdu, of course, it’s a much larger city and it has a big Tibetan population as well. And there is a specific quarter, a Tibetan quarter where you find the things Tibetans usually love. Those shops which sell these beads, which sell these idols, the big Buddha…Tibetans make them, Tibetan restaurants and so on. So there is a big settlement in Chengdu itself which is very Tibetan.
But one of the things that has happened over time and which some Tibetans complain about is that there has been increasing sinification of sorts of the Tibetan culture because you have this giant population of Hans who are churning out cultural assets with such velocity and the much smaller Tibetan population culture, they keep up with that, whether it’s music, whether it’s films, whether it’s language in schools.
So there is this creeping sinification of Tibetan culture, which has been happening and some are resentful of that. But there’s also the opposite trend that the Hans have been considering Tibetans with a certain cool, they are kind of chic to have so many new brands in China. They’re lecturing in Tibetan script, Tibetan music, and Tibetan looks are also becoming popular, of course, in a much smaller scale.
There is this diverse trend as well, and particularly strong for Tibetan Buddhism, which is becoming a big hit with the Hans people in southeast of China, includes Fujian. And a lot of the monasteries that we visited are now being resurrected or they are being repaired, not by government funds, but with these private funds from the Southeastern parts of China.
So in a way, Tibetan Buddhism has got this boost from this wealth from Han Chinese who are in the Southeast part of the country.
Jo Frances Penn: Wow. That’s really interesting. You mentioned monasteries there. Those of us who have not been to the area have the ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ film in mind and the monastery up in the mountains. And that’s the only image I have in my head as what would be Tibetan architecture. I just love architecture. Is there anything you particularly remember?
Were there any particularly beautiful buildings?
Shivaji Das: They all follow a certain standard, which is the pagoda structure, which some say has come from Nepal, and then it was passed on to Tibet. So you have this pagoda structure and essentially what causes the difference from one monastery to another is the history and reputation.
The monastery in Derge, for instance, has one of the largest libraries of hand-printed books and scrolls, which is there. There are myths associated with certain idols. Like the one in Tawang was the place where the Chinese princess was bringing an idol of a Buddha to Lhasa. She dropped that idol. So there is a monastery there.
These histories associated with monasteries, their scale and certain specific aspects which make them unique from one to other, not so much the architectural differences between them.
But going to any monastery, it’s still a fascinating experience. When we went to some of these monasteries, we could watch the monks debating to pass the examinations, which they have to go through from time to time. And watching a Tibetan debate is quite unique because the way the debate is when you make a point to jump on one leg and then clap your hand.
That style is very unique. And when you make a mistake all the other monks are kind of laughing. It was quite an experience to go to some of these monasteries as well.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s really interesting.
Was there anything that really surprised you or made you go, ‘wow, that’s just very different?’
Shivaji Das: Of course, there is the natural aspect, Yading Valley, which is a claimant to being one of the Shangri-Las, the whole beauty of that valley in terms of having these three peaks which are 6,500 meters high facing each other.
Then you have a beautiful orange grassland and all the fall colors. So that’s one of the most beautiful, natural landscapes that I had visited. But some of the traditions and culture are also quite unique. And for instance, these practice of sky burials, which the Tibetans deal with their dead bodies by feeding them to vultures.
And one step further, they would first offer the dead bodies to the vultures and once the vultures have consumed the easier parts of the body, they will chop up the flesh into smaller chunks and the bones into smaller chunks so that it’s easy for the vulture to eat it. And it makes perfect sense at that altitude because you don’t have big trees to burn the bodies, you don’t have enough soil to bury the dead, but it’s a very unique way of dealing with the dead.
The whole myths and traditions and rituals that Tibetans have built around the culture of death or around dead people, something similar to Egypt in ancient times, is something very unique and I found quite fascinating.
Jo Frances Penn: That is fascinating. I have read about those sky burials. I read that there is a tower of silence even in the middle of Mumbai where the Zoroastrians, I think, put their bodies out, but there aren’t enough vultures left.
Shivaji Das: Yes, they have to import the vultures there now.
Jo Frances Penn: And as you say, it makes logical sense. And yet, certainly to a British mind, any Western mind, it would be, chopping up bodies, that’s kind of crazy, and feeding them to the vultures. That’s really interesting.
The other thing, you travel with your wife, who is Chinese and acted as a translator, and you are Indian, obviously.
How did your varied backgrounds help or sometimes hinder, perhaps, your interactions?
Shivaji Das: This is an interesting question. My perspective on this is that overall it’s been more beneficial for us to travel together. On the negative side, of course, when you travel alone in this world, typically if you are an Indian, traveling in this world, the Tibetans tend to trust you a lot more.
The other experiences that I mentioned that they were surrounding me, they were trying to touch me and get my blessings just because I happened to be an Indian. So there could have been a bit of suspicion among the Tibetans just because I was traveling around with a Chinese woman, no matter what her citizenship was, she is actually a Singaporean.
But on the positive side, I think a big benefit that we got was the benefit of language because most of the people that we met, they could speak Mandarin. My Mandarin is relatively more basic. I couldn’t get into the nuances of the culture as well as my wife could. So our conversations with the locals were far richer because of this benefit of language.
The other big benefit that I see is that when we traveled together, we get to interact with a lot more women and that is something I’ve seen in other travel books as well. The characters are usually men, but in my case, I’m able to converse with a lot more women and to also get to know a lot more about women’s lives and women’s situation in these areas just because, one, I’m traveling with my wife and also sometimes she is on her own and she talks to other women by herself, and then later she tells me what has happened. So I think that’s the big benefit that I get by traveling together with her.
And finally, the other benefit is that there is a general curiosity about us when we travel together. People see these two people from different races. So they are naturally curious and they come to us and they share more about us, which again, I find one of the benefits of traveling together with a person from a different race as mine.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, it is interesting, isn’t it? My husband is a New Zealander, which isn’t that different, but he’s also Jewish, and I’m not Jewish and I’m British. And so even though we might look the same, we have quite different cultural backgrounds and a cross-cultural marriage I find is a really interesting way to get to know someone else’s culture.
In many ways, we’re both travelers and I feel like it’s almost the way that the world is going to change is by people intermingling in this way and proving that it’s possible. What do you think?
Shivaji Das: I completely think so. In fact, we have been surprised that just in this small city of Singapore, among our friends’ circle, we have five couples who are just like us as in one of them has come from China, one of them has come from India, they have got together here and they have been together for almost a decade or so.
But if I can just add on to this point, it’s also sometimes interesting how you get to understand yourself in such situations. And both myself and my wife, we tend to think of ourselves as citizens of the world. I am not a nationalistic person, I don’t have any religion.
I think the same goes for my wife as well, she also doesn’t have any religion or any nationalistic instincts. But when we were traveling, we had these small arguments over food or cultural achievements.
And I was saying, Indian food is much better than Chinese food. She was saying, oh no, it’s the other way. And then it went all the way to performance in Olympics and so on.
So it was quite interesting for both of us that two of us who think that we don’t have any such cultural baggage and all that still do have some of these left behind and some strong traces, which tend to appear when we have put into some kind of a conflict. I don’t know whether you have experienced the same in some cases as well.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, absolutely. These things definitely happen. But maybe, again, being British and having such strong ties to India, I’m with you on the Indian food. I love Indian food!
Shivaji Das: It’s actually the other way besides this trip. When we are at home, my wife tends to cook Indian food and I tend to cook Chinese food.
Jo Frances Penn: That is brilliant. On food, the word Sichuan to me, the only thing that comes to mind food-wise is the pepper that’s the famous thing about the area.
What is the cuisine of the area and what are some interesting things that you might eat or drink in that area?
Shivaji Das: I think that’s an interesting question, but I may not be the right person to answer that because I’m a vegetarian by choice. And that gets me exposed to only a very small percentage of the entire cuisine that is available in that part. But what you said is very true.
In Sichuan, there is a complete monopoly of Sichuan pepper and whether you are having breakfast, lunch, whether you’re having dessert, or whether you’re having the main course or starter, you will end up with Sichuan pepper. And it’s a spice which is very dominating.
It will dominate everything else that you put in the food. So whether you’re having cauliflower or potato or noodles, everything tastes like Sichuan pepper, which is fine if you’re having one meal of Sichuan dish or one Sichuan meal once in a month or once a year. But when we were traveling for more than a month, I was having this every meal for three times a day for almost a month.
Beyond the arguments we had, coming back to the previous question, was actually over food. I was getting quite stressed with this monopoly and this complete abuse of power of Sichuan pepper! And I was really looking forward to other options.
Now, the other cuisine which is there is, of course, Tibetan cuisine, which happens to be quite unique because when you live with the nomads, when you are in the highlands, there is not much vegetation there. So it tends to be heavy on millets and tsampa, as they call it, which is essentially a lump of flour and you mix it with some water and with some butter and cheese and you just swallow it on the whole. So it’s quite bland. It has a limited range.
But, over time, when I was getting really bored of Sichuan cuisine, I was really looking forward to Tibetan food. And that’s when I discovered that it’s actually not as monotonous. It should have a better reputation in the world because there is Tibetan capsicum, fried rice with butter, which is very good. There are these Tibetan dumplings, which can be quite interesting.
There is, of course, the Tibetan tea, the salted butter tea, which is very unique as well. Then you have the milk tea as well. And then there are some unique desserts, which are some of these caramelized figs and so on, which I found was quite unique.
And there’s this special dessert, which is a caramelized fig, every fig that you eat is supposed to increase your expected life by one more day. I just had one of those. I wish I was living there for a bit longer, but I had a chance to only have one, so one extra day.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s a really good marketing ploy by the fig people! That’s really interesting because, again, I wouldn’t have associated figs with an area so high up in the mountains.
Shivaji Das: It mainly comes from trading. The Tibetans produce butter, they produce cheese, and then they trade with salt, figs, tea, and all those things from other parts of China. So it’s not a product of the region, but it’s like a dried fruit so it’s easier to store and easier to prepare whenever you feel like it.
Jo Frances Penn: As this is the Books and Travel show, apart from your own books, which are fantastic, what are a few books that you recommend either about that area or just travel books that you love?
Shivaji Das: I would say one of the writers who have written about Tibet and kind of similar in scope, I would say, is my Ma Jian who lives in U.K. He is one of the descendants now residing in the United Kingdom. His book, The Red Dust has had a big influence on me. It’s very different from traditional or typical Chinese literature.
It’s very gritty. I was fortunate enough that Ma Jian actually recommended and endorsed my book in the blog that he does and I was very happy when he agreed to do that.
Apart from Red Dust, which I strongly recommend, I would also recommend books by the famous Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, his books on Africa and Iran and Ethiopia, Imperium, and so on are highly recommended from my side.
And also, V.S. Naipaul’s earlier travel work, especially his travels in India and Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Among the Believers is something I would recommend as well.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. This is the problem with the show, I ended up with such a big reading list! But that’s great.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Shivaji Das: People can look me up on my website, shivajidas.com. My books are all available either as ebook or as a physical book in many countries, I believe over 20 or more countries. Amazon is definitely a good place to look for as well as Book Depository for both the e-book version as well as the physical version, and in any big bookshops in the major cities of the world, they are available.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Shivaji. That was great.
Shivaji Das: Thank you so much, Jo, and have a good day ahead.