Head to Shangri-La for lunch with a side of ecotourism

Culture | by Amber Mizerak
Posted: May 3rd, 2012 | Updated: May 7th, 2012 | Comments
Tara Cafe and Gallery Photo We're big fans of holding onto what's left of the old in this rapidly developing country, so we are doing a series on cultural and architectural renovation. In this first installment, we'll take you to northern Yunnan on a journey fueled by an adventurous spirit, a passion for preservation and a well-trained palate.>>> In northern Yunnan you'll find a little town called Shangri-La (or Gyalthang in Tibetan). You may have come across it here on the China Travel Blog, heard of the hotel chain or read Yunnan, then maybe the thought of indulging in a tasty and traditional meal in an authentic ancient Tibetan-Naxi building might help to change your mind. If that sounds right up your street, then when you arrive in Shangri-La you'll want to find Uttara Sarkar Crees and her restaurant, Tara Gallery Café & Restaurant. Located in the oldest part of Shangri-La, Dukezong Ancient Town (Dúkèzōng Gǔchéng, 独克宗古城), this lovingly restored old inn faces onto a cobblestone street that formed part of  the Tea Horse Road, an ancient trail that linked India and Tibet to the Han Chinese heartland for thousands of years. A beautiful restaurant and gallery space and soon-to-be movie set, Tara Gallery Café was born of Uttara's passion for preserving the local architecture and culture of this historic and beautiful locale. We caught up with Uttara to find out more....

Uttara's story

Uttara was born in Uganda and lived in Kenya and Sudan as child later moving to eastern India. She first fell in love with Shangri-La in 1989 during a visit with her boyfriend, a local who'd gotten special permission to return to the area. She returned again in 1995-96 to start a joint venture hotel and a third visit resulted in her establishing a small ecotravel business there. Fast forward 15 years and Uttara is an ecotourism planner who dedicates her time to building awareness and developing and implementing site specific preservation projects around China. Indoor Tara Cafe and artwork

Preserving the past

The structure that now houses Tara Gallery Café was once a trading house and belonged to a Tibetan landlord in the 1950s. It was in bad shape when Uttara found it, and one of the rammed earth walls was in need of extensive repairs. Uttara begged the owners, one of the four big trading families in Shangri-La, not to tear down the battered old building and use the beautiful old beams for firewood. She successfully persuaded them to let her rent it on a long term basis. Her vision (one she hopes will inspire others) was to save the existing structure, give it a makeover and preserve it as a center of culture. Uttara wanted to prove that renovation can preserve the original architectural and cultural elements while remaining authentic, attractive and sustainable. After six months of dismantling wooden pillars, panels and floor boards, cleaning and repairing them and putting them back into their original places, she pulled it off. With a little help from friends to insulate the structure, Tara Café and Gallery opened for business in Spring 2009. [callout title=Dukezong Ancient Town]Situated in the south of today's Shangri-La, Dukezong is one of the oldest and largest Tibetan towns in China, its origins dating back to the 7th century. Originally consisting of 63 households, it was a multicultural business center where trade flourished with neighboring regions and extended throughout Tibet, Southern Yunnan, Burma and India. With 68 different handicrafts practiced there and Naxi, Bai and Shanxi meeting halls, it became an important staging point for caravans on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. It was also an important starting point for pilgrimages to sacred Mount Kawakarpo, the second most important mountain and the southern most outpost of Kham culture. Surrounding Tara Gallery & Cafe are a host of historic buildings, each with its own unique tale to tell: Number 73 was a special inn for caravan traders built in the Qing dynasty; Number 107 and 108 were home to a famous businessman in the old town; Diansaika house was originally used to control the market and settle trading disputes 24-hours a day. It was also home to the town fire alarm and stored official archives. Building Number 49 was the Tibetan Go (Tibetan Chess) house; Number 16 "Xiajugangda" served as the stage coach station and is now an artist's studio; Number 66 is one of the finest examples of Shangri-La's typical architecture and combines Tibetan and Han building styles with wooden beams covered in Sanskrit and frescoes; Building 74 displays elements of Han, Tibetan, Bai and Naxi building techniques and was originally owned by Chen Yannian, another famous businessman. The Abu Family home, near the entry to Dukezong is another example of a fine old residence.[/callout]Uttara wanted to keep as many of the original features as possible intact: "We kept the ancient rammed earth walls exposed to showcase its beauty and durability and the ancient kitchen is renovated exactly as it was but with a new cast iron fireplace and new roof to match the old. Upstairs there is a wonderful chamber room with the ancient bed, rumored to be that of the mistress, in a recessed alcove. The roof was repaired with special layers of waterproofing and the original shingles were cleaned and returned to their places." In addition to the Naxi-Tibetan architectural and cultural heritage on display, Tara Café is also a place where guests can come to understand and appreciate art. The name Tara comes from Tārā, the Tibetan Buddhist goddess of compassion who also supports and inspires creativity and exhibitions of ancient and modern art relating to local and regional life and the environment are regularly featured in an effort to "convey the essence of Shangri-La." The cafe was also recently featured in a films by Hong Kong and Kunming artists.

Tastes of Tibet & the Tea Horse Road

The Tara Gallery Café menu is prepared by a Tibetan chef who attended the best culinary school in Chengdu and is known for his creative local Tibetan, Yunnan and Sichuan fare. Uttara also incorporates her own Indian heritage by including some of her mother and sister's homemade recipes. It's a mouthwatering menu that has already drawn the attention of magazines and gourmands who have lauded its cucumber and three veggie salad, eggplant mousse, Tibetan dumplingsArak (local barley liquor), Tsampa (roasted barely cake) and steamed bread. It is healthy, personally crafted cuisine that contains flavors from both local and distant lands connected in the past and the present by the trading caravans of old. Other noteworthy dishes include the flavorful gyal thang hot pot, a local Tibetan dish with ham, vegetables, noodles, homemade smoked pork ribs and yak meat. It's usually served at new year, wedding or birthday celebrations, but is a healthy option that is too good to just enjoy intermittently. Tara Gallery Café is open from April through mid-November and understandably closes for the winter—this past year temperatures reached -20 degrees Celsius in January and February. But with the arrival of warmer weather, the rhododendrons, azaleas and wild flowers begin to bloom and are soon followed by the blue poppies, peach blossom and Zhongdian lilies, transforming the once frosty surroundings into one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world. These same colorful blooms would have heralded the arrival of spring to the men and mules who couriered their tea through this region in times gone by, and like those flowers, Dukezong's ancient inn remains for for today's travelers to enjoy. Shangri-la yunnan, restaurant, hostoric building

Tara Gallery Café & Restaurant House No. 29 Dienlakha Jinlong Street Shangri-La Dukezong Old Town (86 887) 822 6128

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