As the Tea Horse Road approaches Shangri-La, it enters ethnic Tibetan land, and the first striking evidence is the style of house.
As the Tea Horse Road approaches Shangri-La, it enters ethnic Tibetan land, and the first striking evidence is the style of house. Tibetan houses are among the most distinctive on the planet, and even though there are regional variations, what they have in common is that they are built like forts—massive structures that seem to grow out of the earth. Two and even three storeys high, trapezoidal in shape as the metre-thick walls slope inwards, flat-roofed, they look strong enough to withstand anything from severe winter storms to earthquakes. And indeed those are two good reasons for the way these huge buildings are. Local materials are always used, and here in northern Yunnan the style is walls of rammed earth (adobe, in other words) with horizontal and vertical timbers. At this altitude, over 3,000m, life in winter revolves indoors around the heavy-duty stove, and the thick walls retain the heat. Livestock and produce typically occupy the ground floor, and the animals’ extra heat percolates upward. Building massively is also a solution for absorbing seismic tremors. Constructing and renovating, however, demands communal effort, and in the farming communities you’ll see a dozen or more villagers working together on one house at a time. Then, with the main structure complete, the decorative timber work under the eaves and around windows and doors goes in—beautifully carved and brightly painted.