Focus: Towards the City! Towards the Country! Tourism in the Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley

View across Mirui road
View across Mirui road | © standardarchitecture, Photo: Chen Shu

As the Chinese middle class are escaping their hectic urban lives to discover the remote regions of their country, China’s last natural refuges are becoming the target of commercial schemes. But there are alternatives.

Theme parks for tourists?

In 2006 Nyingchi Airport opened up about 155 miles (250 km) east of Lhasa, ushering in a new age of tourism in the Yarlung Tsangpo River valley in the autonomous region of Tibet. So now it takes only two hours to fly from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China, to Nyingchi, and there are flights every day. The rationale behind this new connection is clear: to rapidly develop the region into a popular tourist destination. And there are good reasons a-plenty to visit the Yarlung River: the peach blossom season in March and April, for example, and later in the year hikes through the pristine canyons, white-water rafting and mountain climbing. The Yarlung River has its source in western Tibet, whence it flows eastward across the southern part of the province from the high Tibetan plateau across the Nyingchi district and then through the longest and deepest gorge in the world, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. After a sharp bend towards the southwest, the river leaves China to become the Brahmaputra, which then flows through India and Bangladesh.

In 2012 the local government decided to build a total of 22 “typical Swiss-style tourist villages” with the aid of funds from the province of Guangdong, according to a communiqué from the local party secretary, which should shake the region out of its deep sleep. The American theme park and hotel developers called in to handle the job have announced their intention of capitalizing on the scenic natural beauty of the area, though building in Tibetan style and using local materials. If the ruling party has its way, 400 million yuan is to be invested in the project by 2015. The 22 tourist villages are to be isolated from the existing network of villages and to serve exclusively for purposes of mass tourism. Shopping malls designed in pseudo-Tibetan style with shops, restaurants and services are supposed to draw throngs of holidaymakers to this region hitherto unspoiled by mass tourism.

And yet besides these rather dubious mega-projects, other, smaller-scale projects have emerged in recent years that draw on local traditions, though without copying them. In contrast to the mega-projects, these alternative schemes seek to improve the infrastructure for local communities by putting up unobtrusive individual buildings, which will also foster individual tourism.

  • Modell des Yarlong Tsangpo Bootsanlegers © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Modell des Yarlong Tsangpo Bootsanlegers
  • Das Bootsanleger hat die Form einer Rampe © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Das Bootsanleger hat die Form einer Rampe
  • Der Yarlong Tsangpo Bootsanleger © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Der Yarlong Tsangpo Bootsanleger
  • Lounge © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Lounge
  • Platzgestaltung um den Maulbeerbaum nahe des Dorfes Jiala © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Platzgestaltung um den Maulbeerbaum nahe des Dorfes Jiala
  • Touristen besichtigen den Maulbeerbaum © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Touristen besichtigen den Maulbeerbaum
  • Der Platz vor der Berglandschaft © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Der Platz vor der Berglandschaft
  • Besucherzentrum in Paizhen © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Besucherzentrum in Paizhen
  • Westliche Zugangsrampe © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Westliche Zugangsrampe
  • Betontreppe zwischen gemauerten Steinwänden © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Betontreppe zwischen gemauerten Steinwänden
  • Zentraler Informationsraum © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Zentraler Informationsraum

The search for alternatives

For some years now, standardarchitecture, a new firm based in Beijing, have been working in the region building infrastructures to serve not only tourism, but also and above all the local population. Their first projects were completed back in 2008: a landing pier on the Yarlung River near the town of Paizhen (派镇), a visitor centre at the same spot, and a square around an ancient mulberry tree nearby. The little pier is fitted out with facilities where passengers can buy tickets for a boat ride or hang out when traffic on the river is held up by bad weather. They can even spend the night there. Like a ramp, the building rises up along the bank and looks out on the river below. Depending on the water level, boats can be moored at various heights on the ramp. The architects used local stone and wood for the interior decoration, which was executed by local craftsmen according to their traditional methods.

That same year they designed a square around a 1,300-year-old mulberry tree. This age-old tree outside the little village of Jiala in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon now stands on a newly-laid gravel surface, with large coarsely hewn stones around it to sit on. The local population really took notice of the tree in its new setting and began adorning it with prayer flags. This custom harks back to the story of Princess Wencheng (文成公主), who, more than a thousand years ago, is said to have gazed up from here at the gigantic backdrop of the well over 7,000-metre-high mountain peaks and whose name still draws many tourists here nowadays. During the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century AD, the Chinese emperor’s daughter set out for Lhasa to marry the Tibetan King Gampo. She is said to have brought with her to Tibet not only the mulberry trees needed for silk production, but also Buddhism, which is why she is venerated to this day as a bodhisattva called “White Tara”.

  • Zentraler Innenhof des Niyang Besucherzentrums © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Zentraler Innenhof des Niyang Besucherzentrums
  • Blick in den zentralen Innenhof © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Blick in den zentralen Innenhof
  • Blick über die Mirui Straße © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Blick über die Mirui Straße
  • Das Yarlong-Schlucht-Kunstzentrum © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Das Yarlong-Schlucht-Kunstzentrum
  • Die Ausstellungsebene des Kunstzentrums © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Die Ausstellungsebene des Kunstzentrums
  • Innenansicht des Kunstzentrums © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Innenansicht des Kunstzentrums
  • Niangou Terminal in Zusammenarbeit mit Embaixada © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Niangou Terminal in Zusammenarbeit mit Embaixada
  • Schlafsäle für Mitarbeiter des  Niangou Terminals © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Schlafsäle für Mitarbeiter des Niangou Terminals
  • Niangou Terminal II befindet sich noch im Bau © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Niangou Terminal II befindet sich noch im Bau
  • Niangou Terminal II befindet sich noch im Bau © standardarchitects, Foto: Chen Shu
    Niangou Terminal II befindet sich noch im Bau
  • Innenansicht des Gega Spa (Entwurf) © standardarchitects
    Innenansicht des Gega Spa (Entwurf)

Integrated infrastructure for tourists and locals

Also in 2008 the architects completed a visitor centre in Paizhen. On their way into the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, hikers can stop here and learn a bit about the region and about Namcha Barwa, a 7,782-metre (25,531-foot) mountain situated not far away at the Great Bend in the Yarlung Tsangpo River. With its massive walls of locally quarried stone, the visitor centre blends right into the landscape and the immediate surroundings. And yet this new infrastructure is not just an information centre, it also holds an Internet bar and an infirmary for travellers as well as a separate room reserved for tour guides, and also such vital facilities as a cistern, a central power distributor and conference rooms for local residents.

Three years later, the architects at standardarchitecture again completed several small buildings commissioned by the Tibetan Tourist Holding, including the Niyang River Visitor Centre, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon Art Centre and a facility for the shipping authorities. The latter edifice zigzags high up on a hillside for several hundred yards and likewise blends into the landscape thanks to the use of local stone. The Chinese architects worked together with colleagues from Enbaixada, Portugal, though the layman will discern no signs of that collaboration in the architectural style. The Art Centre over in Paizhen consists of a two-storey polygonal structure containing pavilions, offices, a restaurant, a large toilet facility, exhibition areas and a coach station. Additional projects are in the works, including an observation deck above the river and a small spa.

As standardarchitecture’s projects go to show, tourist infrastructure can be adapted to the surroundings without discrediting the authenticity of the local culture by trying to copy traditional folklore. Even in Tibet, whose native architectural culture is endangered by a levelling urbanization policy and which – even more than in other traditional regions – is generally perceived through the prism of this native culture, development and renewal are inevitable. Only time will tell, however, whether the theme park-style “Swiss Tourist Village”, clearly motivated “from above” by party political interests, will prevail as the reigning developmental paradigm or whether infrastructure for visitors and natives alike can be developed through appropriate town and country planning efforts carried out at a local level. Naturally, the latter is the more desirable model in order to preserve one of the last remaining natural wonders for future generations, whilst enabling the local population to further develop their culture in a contemporary form. After all, a purely commercial exploitation of culture rapidly becomes nothing but a hollow backdrop serving outside economic interests.