Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 9 News List

New Chinese tourist Mecca is finding that success is a burden

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JIAJU, CHINA

The three smiling sirens leaning on a rope-drawn gate would like visitors to forget Shangri-La. Indeed, the large sign just ahead on the steep alpine road proclaims this place to be China's most beautiful village.

This area of Tibetan-speaking hamlets perched stunningly on 3,000m high mountainsides that loom over the town of Danba, has long been a way station on a circuit through the country's southwest, which is home to some of China's most exotic travel destinations.

The sudden rise of a travel industry in Sichuan Province has all the markings of a fairy tale, one complete with a princess and her beautiful sisters, and an errant knight who arrives from far away, changing their lives forever

That was the past, though, distant by eight years. Today, the hillsides here buzz with activity: The felling of trees to build the distinctive Tibetan houses, with their maroon and white trim, which are nowadays put into service as guest lodges, and the smoke-belching, horn-blowing buses carrying tourists who arrive each month in ever greater numbers.

The takeoff has been so pronounced, in fact, that some of the villagers of Danba are wondering whether their success might not one day soon recall another fairy tale, the killing of the goose that laid the golden egg. But that is perhaps to get ahead of the story.

This settlement's break with timeless isolation came in 1998, when an adventurer from Hong Kong drifted through the area, making his way up the rugged slopes that overlook Danba and discovering this village and a remarkable local family.

There were three young women in the household, already known locally as the "three beautiful sisters," including one who had recently won third place in a regional beauty contest. If that didn't get traveler attention, it soon became clear that this was no ordinary family, and no ordinary sisters.

In a region of poor subsistence farmers, where many peasants speak little Chinese and few girls go far in school, the three sisters had been raised by far-sighted parents to speak Mandarin, and they were full of spunk.

"Our father would use a tape recorder to record other people speaking Mandarin, so that we could practice it," said the middle sister, Da Lamu, who is 25. "He was very strict, and made us practice Jiang Zemin's (江澤民) speeches. If we answered him in our native language, he would insist that we speak Chinese."

When the adventurer from Hong Kong lodged in the family's house, an idea was born: This area was so beautiful, and the Tibetan-style houses strung along the steep hillsides so fabulous, the family should turn the house into a hostel.

Neighbors watched skeptically, as Da Lamu's family expanded its pine-beam home, with wooden floors and stunning mountain views through glassless windows. They watched, grudgingly, as travelers began showing up there as paying guests. And then a few years ago, as if a switch had been flipped, they all began converting their homes or building lodges from scratch.

The impact on the lives of people here is beyond dispute, and so far it has been mostly positive. A deeply wrinkled, 95-year-old Tibetan woman named Baibai, who like many people here uses a one-word name, recalled different times when she was growing up.

"We had no shoes to put on our feet and hardly any clothes to wear," she said. "There was very little to eat. It's only in the last 20 years that our lives have gotten better."

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