As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Beijing Olympic torch relay is over. The global protesting pack have furled their Free Tibet! banners and moved onto the next issue. "Look at that, July already. Let’s see… Oh yes, July is the G8 summit. I’ve heard Hokkaido has some fab hot springs and I do love sushi. Shall we?" No, I’m sure it’s not like that at all really.
Here in China, the relay show goes on. The torch is still weeks away from Beijing and burning with Olympic passion as I am, I was thrilled to discover recentlyish that the relay would pass through Shangrila/Zhongdian/Gyalthang/Xamgyi'nyila (current name/old name still commonly used/Tibetan name/confusing name apparently only ever used by the The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games) while I was there.
Whatever you want to call the place, it’s a relaxed town set in a stunning landscape and is still relatively unmolested by the "improving" hand of the local tourism bureau. After the tacky neon horrors and baseball capped Chinese tour groups swarming around the once lovely old town of Lijiang a few hours south, Zhongdian (since that’s what it’s called locally) was a downbeat respite.
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Yunnan province near the Tibet border, the landscape is painted with the same vivid palette as its neighbour. Bright azure skies, intensely green grass and bleached white clouds are ornamented with dazzling gold topped temples and fluttering multicoloured prayer flags, while the local Tibetan women sport lurid pink woollen headdresses and traditional striped aprons over long black skirts. After the soft focus haze of Beijing the colours seem a whole lot sharper. Not in my poor snaps though as you can see.
Jietang Songlin Tibetan Monastery, just outside Zhondgian
As everywhere in China, Communist Party red makes frequent appearances about the place too. The town was festooned with red and white banners welcoming the torch and expressing solidarity with earthquake-hit Sichuan Province next door.
Khaki was big too. PLA choppers made that disquieting Platoonesque sound over the town the night before the relay and I counted around 50 army lorries parked up in just one spot.
About one third of the local population is Tibetan, but they weren’t the only security targets. The Public Security Bureau did the rounds of the hotels and guesthouse the day before, collecting foreigners’ passports for scrutiny. Obviously they were looking out for something more than unfortunate mug shots as mine was returned with no questions asked a couple of hours later.
The government was taking no chances, with snipers on the rooftops, residents forbidden to watch from their balconies and soldiers lining the streets. Anyone who tried to disturb the spectacle would have been nabbed within seconds and what’s the point in demonstrating if nobody sees you? All that prison gruel and "patriotic re-education" for nothing.
Anyway, both the Tibetans and the Chinese were having a great time despite the drizzle, waving Chinese flags and shouting "Zhongguo jia you! Aoyun, jia you!" Roughly, Go China! Go Olympics! Or as it was translated on t-shirts on sale at every street corner, Encouragement China! A nice change from all the I Love China Even More! t-shirts that have appeared since the Sichuan earthquake.
Before you hit reply and start berating me for being naïve and blind to the plight of the silenced Tibetans, let me direct you back to paragraph two, sentence one. The Chinese leg of the torch relay is a show of ethnic harmony. China is being treated to daily televised doses of the country’s 50 odd ethnic minorities dancing and singing with joy as the Olympic flame passes through their communities. Hell, they even found a few dozen smiling Tibetans to trot a few metres with the torch in Lhasa a couple of weeks ago. Here they are waving at the security guys and empty streets on CCTV9.
The relay is back on safe ground now, after passing through the separatist hotspot of the vast Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and I’m sharpening my elbows for some vigorous jostling on Beijing’s streets the day before the Games open on lucky 08/08/08. I have a feeling the Beijing relay will be as close as I ever want to get to mass hysteria.