Songs of Shambala

Glimpses of Shangri La on the tourist trail – by Iain Manley


Dusk gently settled over Shangri La. A mist rose off the grasslands, while music started up in the cobbled squares at the centre of the old town, where men and women gathered to dance. Standing in a wide circle, they repeated the same few steps while edging clockwise, like pilgrims circumambulating a shrine. Above them, a five-pronged vajra glowed white on a temple roof, lit by the last beams of sunlight. It was a picture-postcard scene, but the music was arcade-game techno with Tibetan vocals and it gave the traditional dances an atmosphere similar to the outdoor aerobics classes for office workers I had grown accustomed to in Shanghai.

When I first saw the dance circle forming in the old town, close to our hotel, my reaction was jaded. I thought a performance was being put on for Han Chinese tourists, who love folk dances. But as I watched, the circle grew spontaneous and rowdy. The next day we saw dancing at the temple, and the day after that at the government cultural hall. None of it seemed to be for show. Tibetans danced in the old town square as easily as they did in the glow of a vast screen broadcasting utopian commercials that mixed the language of a workers’ paradise with descriptions of another idyll – Shangri La.

In James Hilton’s 1933 novel The Lost Horizon, Shangri La is a utopian valley high in the Himalayas. Simply being there drastically slows down aging, and inhabitants live for hundreds of years in almost total isolation. The valley is ruled over by a monastic order dedicated to the preservation of knowledge. It has collected a vast library, because the founder of the order – a Catholic missionary from Luxembourg – foresees a second world war followed by a dark age that “will cover the whole world in a single pall”.

Hilton’s inspiration for Shangri La was probably Shambala, a mythical Tibetan kingdom that only the enlightened can enter. There are obvious parallels, like the divine army some Tibetans think will issue out of Shambala in 2424, to save the world from a dark age. The mythical utopia was also a European preoccupation when Hilton wrote his novel. In the 1920s, many expeditions set off to find Shambala and failed, as did three separate groups sent out by the Nazis to trace what European occultists thought might be the origins of the Aryan race.

Now a town that had been called Gyalthang by Tibetans and Zhongdian by Chinese had been renamed after a Western fiction about a Himalayn myth, all to appeal to tourists.

When I taught English in Shanghai, I used to ask my students what place in the world they considered most exotic. I explained the meaning of the word, pointing out that the root exo meant outside, and because it corresponded neatly with the Chinese character wai they were quick to understand. I said that many people in the West considered China exotic, but none of my students saw much out of the ordinary in Europe, Australia or the USA. Some chose Egypt, a few others India, but the majority surprised me. Tibet was the most exotic place in the world, they said, and one day they hoped to visit it.


The Tibetan musician had an ascetic’s body. Not a body scarred or withered by privation, but slight and unmuscled – a body little used. He had a wispy beard and shaved hair, affectations matched by a shapeless orange shirt and baggy orange trousers, similar to the robes worn by Vietnamese monks. His studio was down a back street in the old town, in a restored house with sloping white walls. The black borders around its windows were wider at the top, exaggerating the inward tilt.

My partner Claire and I had walked past the house late the night before, and seen a jeep with Beijing license plates parked outside. Projecting something of our lives in South Africa onto Shangri La, we thought it was a holiday house, owned or rented. The next day, when we found ourselves outside it again, taking photographs of a ruin across the street, the musician ushered us inside.

“Is this your house?” I asked, while he held open the curtain hanging across the doorway.

“I live upstairs,” he replied. “I make music down here.”

There were four or five tables set up downstairs, between a bar and a low stage. His collection of CDs and instruments lined the walls of an adjoining room.

“What kind of music?”

“Traditional Tibetan folk. Everybody likes doof-doof-doof now,” he said, wincing and holding his ears, “but I play the pure music of the people.”

“Doof-doof … Like the music in the square?”

“Yes, like that. Tibetan music is Buddhist, spiritual, but that music has no meaning.”

I described a song I had heard over and over again in Shangri-La’s squares. “The vocals sound Tibetan,” I said, “but the lyrics are Chinese.”

“Can you sing it?”

I couldn’t, and tripped staccato over the chorus instead.

The musician nodded. He softly sang it – Qinaide guniang, wo ai ni – but looked bored, and I realised too late the inanity of my question. The song was clichéd. Its chorus meant “Darling girl, I love you”. Other lyrics included “She’s tall, she has black eyes”. It was like I had asked Neil Young for his thoughts on a Justin Bieber song.

“Do you write your own songs?” Claire asked.

Claire’s question enlivened him. He raised his index finger and disappeared into another room, returning a minute later with a notebook, which he flicked through excitedly.

“This is my book of lyrics,” he said. “It’s written in Tibetan.”

Sanskritic hooks and long, looping tails hung like fresh noodles off arrow-straight lines ruled across the page. I had last seen Tibetan handwriting in India, where Claire and I taught English to refugees. In Shangri La mantras were painted on rocks and stamped on prayer flags, but functional uses of the Tibetan script were rare. The musician spoke Mandarin too, with the received accent of a CCTV newsreader, but he also took pride in his native Tibetan script.

We stood chatting in the small courtyard of the house. His name was Cai Rangdan, he said, and he was originally from Gansu.

Cai Rangdan told us a rock musician from Beijing called Dou Wei was in town. Dou Wei had been the lead singer of Black Panther, a sort of Chinese Def Leppard. He was one of China’s first rock stars, but like his contemporary Cui Jian he had explored a variety of genres since the 80s, when China had let in almost half a century of foreign music all at once. It was Dou Wei’s jeep we had seen outside the house. The musician said we should come back later, because they were going to jam together.

When we made our way back to the studio that evening, after yak hotpot, the door was closed, its curtains drawn. We entered hesitantly, to find Cai Rangdan kneeling on a cushion on the low stage, ringing finger cymbals to a rhythm set by Dou Wei, who was ponderously thumping a handheld frame drum. A handful of students were sitting at a table below the stage, watching in silent rapture, and a woman whom I took to be Dou Wei’s girlfriend or wife was at a table off to one side.

After the first song, Dou Wei stood up, went over to the collection of instruments in the next room and came back clutching a seven-stringed Tibetan lute. He plucked at it haphazardly, starting off whenever the mood struck him. Cai Rangdan exchanged the finger cymbals for a skull drum and slapped its sides at random. He sung in snatches too, without paying much attention to Dou Wei, before switching to a singing bowl. Chime-buzz, pluck pluck-slap, pluck pluck-slap, slap chime-buzz it went, in curious, discordant circles, but the atmosphere remained reverent throughout, as if we were party to a ritual that might bring forth Tibet’s fickle muse.

By now Dou Wei was muttering darkly at the lute. “I can’t play it,” he said, but when he stomped off to the next room to put the instrument back, he sat down and picked out a tune. Its sound was muffled by the thick stone wall, but when he heard it Cai Rangdan picked up a drum tapered at both ends like a handrolled cigar and knocked out a beat. Although the lute was distant and the drum nearby, the two men were at last playing in time. A young Tibetan woman standing hidden in the shadows of the doorway started to sing. Her raw, resonant voice filled up the room with ululating notes; they conjured an image of nomadic people singing in the thin air on the roof of the world. At the end of the song I saw her fold over with exhaustion, as if the muse that possessed her had suddenly left.

Dou Wei experimented with one or two more instruments, but it wasn’t long before both men left the stage. The moment had passed. I couldn’t be sure of its spontaneity, or know why the singer had been confined to the shadows, but it was the sort of moment I travel for all the same. If I had been told that to get to Shangri La my bus would break down in the rain, that the altitude would make me sick, that my hotel would have bedbugs and the police would take an interest in my endless questions about Tibet, and that in exchange for every possible discomfort I would get these three or four minutes of song, I would still have made my way there.

After Shangri La, Claire and I travelled on for ten days along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, a cultural frontier that separates China from Tibet. We took Chinese medicine made from the roots of an Arctic shrub for altitude sickness, and at elevations of 4,000 metres and above we felt short of breath but otherwise well. The roads were dirt tracks for long stretches, so narrow in places that looking out of the window of our bus I saw nothing but yawning, hundred-metre-long drops. We ate lunch with nomads in the hills, and drank beer with migrant workers in the towns. In Litang we were disappointed by dirty hotsprings and tourists flocking like vultures to sky burials. It wasn’t until we made our way on foot to a monastery near Tagong in Western Sichuan that we felt like our journey was in some way complete.

The gold roof of the monastery glinted far in the distance at the foot of a single, snow-capped peak. To reach it we had to pass carefully through an icy river and herds of temperamental yaks. As we made our way to the entrance I prepared myself to arrive for a few moments at Shangri La, which in the words of the Dalai Lama “is not a physical place that we can actually find,” but exists only in our minds.

Iain Manley is the founder of VoiceMap, a publishing tool for location-aware audio walks, and the author of Tales of Old Singapore

A version of this story first appeared on Iain and Claire’s dormant travelogue, Old World Wandering

Editor's note: Cai Rangdan recorded an album called Shangri La, which is hard to track down but really amazing