Thursday, 14 May 2009

Tibetan Adventure in West Sichuan (1994)

Like Lake Louise Overrun by Tibetans
by
Chris Harry


In Southwestern China's Sichuan province there is an exciting and beautiful place inhabited by the Tibetan minority called Jiuzhaigou or “Nine Village Gully” in Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Located in Northwestern Sichuan, this region is almost unknown (in 1993) to western tourists, but it is famous throughout China for its exceptional scenery.
Aba Prefecture is accessed by long-distance buses which depart from the provincial capital, Chengdu and travel along muddy, and often treacherous mountain roads. Contiguous to what the Chinese call Xizang or what we know as Tibet, the prefecture represents the part of the eastern fringe of the traditional land inhabited by the Zang or Tibetan people who occupy approximately one-quarter of China's territory, including most of Tibet and parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Ningxia, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces, despite representing only about one-third of a percent of China's population.
The local landscape of this region varies from sweeping grasslands to coniferous and mixed deciduous forests and mountains. The forests in Aba prefecture are dotted with sapphire blue ponds and lakes and a seemingly boundless profusion of pristine creeks, rivers, and waterfalls. Fantastic karst formations make the scenery otherworldly while trees grow right in the middle of waterfalls and rivers and brilliant lime green spruce trees shoot up from the banks of rushing water that is so transparent it is almost invisible in places.
At a distance, the striking allure of the aquamarine-tinted water is accentuated by naturally formed rock structures which divide rivers and streams into small pools so smooth and round that at first they appear entirely man-made, and it is as if this bizarre landscape is just some elaborate hoax. In Huang Long (Yellow Dragon) national park, however, there is no artifice, just stunningly beautiful forests of pine, spruce, and birch with a labyrinthine network of crisscrossing mountain streams, creeks, and ponds running through them.
Something else that runs, or at least plods through these forests is the Giant Panda, also known as Xiongmao, literally "Bear Cat" in Chinese. A symbol of the World Wildlife Federation, it is considered so precious in China that the government has instituted the death penalty for any poachers caught killing a Panda. Should this national treasure ever become extinct, the Chinese government would consider it a great shame to have to live down in the international community. Not surprisingly, this sense of face, so ingrained in Chinese culture, is also something, which, in great measure, informs central government policy toward Tibetans throughout China.
Spending an afternoon in Huang Long (Yellow Dragon) national park was a breather from the crowded, muggy streets of Chongqing, a city of over 30 million souls where I had been living known as one of the "three ovens of the Yangzi river" with temperatures that hover around forty degrees Celsius from July to September.
A common game for foreigners travelling in China to play, especially when travelling by rail, is to try to find a section of scenery without any people in it. This is usually almost impossible to do further east in China, but, in Aba prefecture, there were many stretches of land without so much as a hint of humanity. Amazing, I thought, this really is a bit like the Canada that exists beyond Toronto and the shores of crowded Lake Ontario.
Along our ten-day journey, my wife and I visited Lama temples, walked through beautiful forests, rode horseback on the grasslands, and had a chance to learn much about the proud yet rugged Tibetan nomads and farmers of this region. All in all, the trip was quite an eye-opener and it definitely surpassed my expectations.
To be honest, my motive for coming to this adventurous tourist spot was not to get up-close to seemingly ‘magically enchanting’ Tibetans in China, even though this is considered the chic thing to do for many western backpackers in China. At the time, I had been living in China for over a year as an English teacher and was already really starting to miss my 'home and native land'. So what, you may ask, does a longing for Canada have to do with visiting a Tibetan Prefecture in the heart of the Middle Kingdom? Well, many photos I had seen of the natural scenery in Jiuzhaigou looked to me to be almost indistinguishable from the coniferous forests, snow-capped mountains, and clear blue lakes of Western Canada. After travelling there and seeing this landscape myself, I took several photographs which could easily been of Banff, Alberta. If someone asked me to describe the place I said it was just like Lake Louise overrun by Tibetans.
Of course, having studied Chinese history in university, this trip also made me consider the common western view of the supposed annexation of Tibet by Communist forces in 1959. In fact, I often balked at some of the western tourists I met in China who seemed to dislike the Chinese or Han majority of the population of China and only seemed interested in travelling to backward and poor minority areas. In university, I had studied about the long and glorious five-thousand-year history of the Han Chinese, who since 1949, have tried to bring modernisation, science, and development to all of China's 56 ethnic groups. I had also felt that most theocratic societies were backward, and I knew that the supposed "invading communists" had smashed an oppressive slave society which was perpetuated by the Dalai Lama and other members of a religious oligarchy wherein ninety percent of the population was born into slavery. I also knew that Tibetans and Chinese have existed together, had alliances, intermarried, and fought wars against each other for thousands of years, along with many other peoples, in one loosely-joined political entity called China.
After journeying to Aba Prefecture, however, I also truly began to appreciate that the long history of Tibet, its uncommon landscape, and its rich and unique culture had all contributed to a very distinctive identity and an unquestioning faith in the traditional and religious beliefs forged among the people of this region.
Jiuzhaigou in Aba prefecture is a world apart from the Chinese areas in Sichuan. During my travels there, I felt as though I was experiencing a completely different culture, and that the people of this region were slow to adopt Chinese or modern ways. While trying not to pass judgement, it seemed that the people here put a greater emphasis on spirituality than on personal hygiene and gentility. Many adults and children often bore a fierce countenance and you got the feeling that many of them were sizing you up, and, at least on our trip, that they always seemed to be testing your nerve. It quickly became apparent that the twenty or so Chinese and myself on our tour had more in common than these domestic tourists had with their local fellow countryman.
The locals' isolation, and lack of exposure to the outside world, was also made clear to me when they kept asking if I was a foreigner, indicating that they weren't really sure. It also seemed perfectly mundane to them to be speaking Chinese to a foreigner, even if they knew I was one. Anyway, it wasn't their first language either. Some of the locals even referred to my wife, who was born in the very same province, as “China girl”.
Naturally, as is so often the case in China, once you think know a little about the country, something entirely unexpected happens straight of the blue which summarily blasts a gaping hole in the clever theory you’ve just developed about a particular aspect of this marvellously surprising land. In this case, it was a local Tibetan woman in her fifties who suddenly appeared running down out of the tall grass toward us from the hillside to sell postcards. Amazingly, even though she presumably had little or no education, she began belting out her slogans in crystal clear, standard Mandarin with an accent more standard than the majority of the ethnic Chinese population living in the same province or the same general region for that matter!
The Tibetans here, like all of the other non-Chinese peoples I met in China, often react to westerners in a noticeably different manner than the Han Chinese with their seemingly insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging worldviews.
Many of the local entrepreneurs plying the tourist routes here often adopted strong-arm sales tactics and jacked up prices even after bargaining over a price. All of the people here seemed tough as nails and most of them were closer in size and height to the average westerner than many ethnic Chinese, except that almost none of them were overweight and tended to be lean and muscular. The Tibetan herdsmen have a rugged, handsome quality as they ride on their steeds wearing clothing and hats, not unlike the gauchos of the Americas. One major difference is that they carry foot-long knives at their waist instead of guns.
In spite of their size, demeanour, and weaponry, however, I learned from experience that standing your ground was the best way to avoid getting totally ripped off. In this remote area, there was no question of the fact that they were in charge and the tourists coming from other parts of the country were keen to avoid any sort of conflict with them.
On several occasions, disputes arose between locals and tourists when bargaining for souvenirs or the fee for horseback rides. At one stop, a group of herdsmen tried to force us to ride on horseback, but since my wife and I were keen to go for a gallop on the plains we didn't have to be coerced. One rider said it would cost us four yuan (about 57 cents Canadian) for the two of us to take a horse for a ride. After we finished, the horse owner changed the price to ten yuan, so we refused to pay him extra as a matter of principle. As we sat on the back of the horse, a crowd of riders encircled us and began conferring with one another in Tibetan, many of them unnervingly large and adorned with their Dalai Lama badges, ostensibly banned in China. As I prepared to dismount, one of the riders grabbed hold of my leg to try and stop me. Here I was stuck in a conflict between my feisty yet diminutive Sichuanese wife and several large and unhappy Tibetans. Clearly without thinking, I brushed his arm aside and jumped down. After arguing with us for a few minutes he simply said he didn't want our lousy four yuan. It was soon apparent our welcome was wearing thin, so we were happy to get back on the bus and move on. Once the bus started moving again, several young men came running after us laughing, shouting, making faces and obscene hand gestures at my wife and I. At one point, several young boys jumped up and stood on the back of the bus for several seconds before we got back on the dusty trail.
Traditionally, the local diet is extremely plain and primarily consists of mutton or yak, an alcoholic beverage made from barley, butter tea made from goat's milk, and barley. One day I tried some local fare at a roadside tent restaurant offering bowls of stew, butter tea, and other meat dishes made from various goat and yak innards. I thought that I should be open-minded about every aspect of their culture and taste some of these dishes even though the butter tea I had a few days earlier should have given me an inkling of what to expect. This is one case where I wished I had trusted my 'gut instincts'. On the other hand, I ate some tasty roasted yak roast in a place called Songpan and I practically lived on dried yak jerky, a savoury snack that you can eat just like chips.
Incidentally, while I was in another restaurant in Songpan, a young Tibetan boy came right over and swiped my bottle of beer as soon as I got up from the table to head for the washroom. He confidently and brazenly took it straight to a very large and tough looking Tibetan fellow sitting together with two friends just a few tables away. That was one incidence in which I thought better of pushing my luck by trying to retrieve it.
In Jiuzhaigou, each large family unit had its own small mansion made of good quality pine and decorated with brightly coloured motifs and traditional Chinese style curved-tile roofing. In another area, beyond the grasslands and back into the hilly forest land, we came across a third type of Tibetan dwelling which was larger than the pine houses further east toward Chengdu. They were made of brick and stone with large painted motifs and many small, intricately designed windows, similar in shape to those on the façade of the Potala palace in Lhasa.
On the grasslands, you can see nomadic Tibetan herdsmen tending their grazing yak and sheep herds and living in yurts. They, like most Tibetans, are devout followers of Tibetan or Lamaist Buddhism, and we came across Lamaist temples in every village we visited. We also passed by many sacred sites, usually along hillsides, which were adorned with dozens or hundreds of long, tapering flags, called ‘jingfan’ or ‘sutra streamer’ in Chinese. These flags are actually cloth scrolls used to communicate written requests for divine assistance from Lamas and deities. The locals believe, that when the wind blows these rows of triangular-shaped banners once, it is a sign that the Dalai Lama has come to visit them in spirit. Their belief is so strong that, even to this day, families will often go to the temple to pray rather than send family members who fall ill to the hospital. At the Lama temples, rows of brass prayer wheels covered in Tibetan script were constantly being turned by devotees while they chanted sutras as a means of accumulating Karma or brownie-points for the next life.
Another, more macabre custom among Tibetans and Mongolian Lamaists, is the unique funerary custom known in Chinese as "Tian Zang" or "Heavenly burial". One person in every village is employed to chop up the bodies of the deceased into small pieces and to crack open the bones to expose the marrow atop a designated hill. Then, incense is used to inform carrion-eating hawks and vultures to come and devour the flesh. Lamaists believe that if a person's body is entirely consumed, this indicates that he/she was a good person and thus will rise to heaven. If their flesh is not entirely devoured, however, then it indicates the person is evil and will sink to hell. Our Tibetan guide told us that the birds seem to find human female flesh more palatable.
We were also told that, despite their ragged appearance, the people in this area did have substantial savings. As their lifestyle is simple and self-sufficient, their living expenses are almost nil. Thus, they are able to save almost all of the money they make from tourism. In reverence to the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama, held up as demi-god and god respectively, it seems that each of the local families give the equivalent of about one thousand or more U.S dollars in Chinese currency to Lamaist leaders in Lhasa. They willingly do this, despite living in one of the poorest regions of a developing country.
While the Dalai Lama is making a big splash as an international jetsetter, his fellow Tibetans, who are living a spartan lifestyle in China's outback, would literally pay in gold just to kiss his feet. In fact, many devout lamaists, who make lengthy soujourns to Lhasa to present offerings to the Lamas, also travel such long distances to touch the Panchen Lama (the Dalai's traditional arch-rival) in hopes of blessing, good fortune, or miracles. Legend has it that Panchen Erdani's hand had once became swollen because of the throngs of pilgrims touching and kissing it.
Only the brightest boy from each family is chosen to enter the priesthood and become educated there. After seventeen years in the temple he may continue as a Lama or rejoin society at large. All of the Lamas we met on our travels were much cleaner, and appeared to be more graceful and cultured than the rest of the populace. On one occasion, however, two or three young monks began shouting out excitedly upon seeing my wife. One young monk exclaimed that if she married him he had more than enough savings to take care of her. Whether or not this was just a cheeky joke, and in spite of the fact that I found it to be less amusing than the rest of our tour group, it certainly did not match my stereotype of a solemn monk who had taken a vow of celibacy.
Although this place was far from being a paradise, I wouldn't have changed anything about our sojourn. Even the simple act of avoiding bumping my head on the ceiling of the bus as we bobbed up and down two or three feet in the air in tandem with the kinks in the trail added to the authenticity of the journey. Not to mention the fact that our bus narrowly brushed past oncoming vehicles and barely avoided hurtling down gaping precipices along twists and turns of the winding mountain roads. Along the way, we often had to stop to allow flocks of sheep to pass by. We also had to make washroom stops in the middle of nowhere along the vast plains, making rolls of toilet paper essential carry-on gear. Everyone did his or her best to find the odd shrub or metre-high pine for privacy. There was nary a dull moment on this trip!
One night in Jiuzhaigou we had goat meat which was prepared by roasting the entire animal on a spit over an open fire. The offering marked a special event, a kind of party held for honoured guests or special occasions where everyone gathered around the fire and sat on log benches while we each took turns singing and dancing. All of the members of our tour group got right into the thick of things and started belting out well-rehearsed Chinese folk songs and pop tunes. Our Tibetan hosts also seemed eager to unwind and they performed Tibetan dances and sang Tibetan folk songs for us.
At one point during the trip, while the bus bumped and ambled along the road, I noticed several hawks circling low in the sky over us and I pondered the fate of a fellow soul.