Of all the views of our journey, the Tibetan Plateau was the one to transfixed me. For the first time, I felt myself truly and totally riding the journey. I never tired of looking out the window at the seemingly endless green plain and huge blue above. My thoughts remained present in the landscape, thinking only in wonder of the naturally treeless land rolling by like an ocean and contemplating the life that might be happening inside the intermittent white tents…
We (now joined by Jarmo, perhaps the first Polish-Sichuan chef ever!) were hitch-hiking through the accessible regions of Amdo Tibet. This is not to be mistaken with the Tibetan Province – closed to foreigners unless you’ve the budget to fork out big for a guide who’s guaranteed to make sure you don’t see too much! There are, in fact, places where Tibetan culture exists that have no access restrictions and nomadic life may even be better persevered than within the Tibetan Province. Inspired by this blog, we chose to take a route between Chengdu to Xining to learn something for ourselves about this ancient civilisation.
What we did not anticipate was that we’d be sharing the route with hundreds of Chinese tourists in *drum roll* the holiday period! This is not a season we’d recommend….
So, how does the Chinese tourism industry work? Like many things in China (labelled clothing, iPhones), the attraction people are flocking to see are often fake. The excitement you have on seeing a sign reading “ancient city” is soon shattered when you arrive to realise it is a shiny reconstruction dating back a whole 5 years… Antiquity at its finest! It’s not uncommon to find an “ancient city” still under construction! Most Chinese “ancient cities” are essentially super clean shopping strips with old-style Chinese architecture. Occasionally the remake is interesting, like a rebuilt castle that ruled over an ethic minority kingdom centuries before… But usually it’s sickeningly tacky. On one hand, you can see it as a positive revival of the lost history and traditions destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. But on the other, your gut tells you the new faith in commercialism and love of material goods are the main motivation behind this old-style revival…
We were feeling rather cheated upon finding our first ‘Tibetan’ towns full of souvenir shops selling panda jackets and pashmina scarves, ‘Tibetan’ restaurants serving dishes of the Hui minority and temples with entrance fees. Not to mention that it was close to impossible to find an affordable place to sleep, as all the hotel prices were sky-high, even for places with no shower! We struggled to find any rooms below 150RMB, crazy as in ‘normal’ Chinese towns it’s easy to find rooms less under 60RMB (much cleaner and better equipped too!) Our attempts to get off the main tourist route seemed futile. We took smaller roads in hope of seeing some reality, only to be turned back by police unless we were willing to pay to see the ‘first bend in the Yellow River’. We were starting to feel disheartened. Everywhere people saw us as walking wallets. And we weren’t learning anything about the people of this striking landscape.
Then a bout of food poisoning lead to a chance meeting…
Jurek and Jarmo were off climbing mountains and I was lazing in our room, recovering from a night attack by a dish that didn’t agree with me. Or was it altitude sickness? After all, we were already 3200m a.s.l. already. Bored and finally hungry, I ventured out to the street. Fruit. That would bring me healing. I headed for the fruit shop. I must have looked quite out of it, for a girl near the watermelons asked, “Hi! Can I help you?” It took me a second to realize how miraculous this was. Here I am, in a village off the main road in a minority region and the Tibetan shop girl is speaking to me in perfect English!!! I hadn’t heard such good English since entering the country!
This fruit shop girl turned out to be the playful, smart, pocket-sized and all-round-amazing: Kenjutse. She had just completed her English studies at university in Beijing – an achievement in its own right for someone belonging to an ethic minority in the racially discriminatory Chinese system – and had secured a teaching position back in the city – again, almost unheard of for ‘a minority girl from a village’ (as China would see it). But on top of that, Kenjutse had been offered a place to continue her studies in the USA next year! As we learnt more about life in Amdo Tibet, I realised just how remarkable this young woman is and how lucky we’d been to meet her. Kenjutse had returned from Beijing that very morning and was back in her home town to spend time with her father and help-out her sister in the co-owned fruit shop (the business that’s helped fund her studies). Our chance meeting was a work of fate that allowed Kenjutse to open the door for us to the ‘real’ Tibet.
We met for breakfast the next morning. Kenjutse arranged for her brother to take us to the nearby, and somewhat famed, Langmusi. We had been considering bypassing this tourist town, fed up with such places. But with Kenjutse as our guide, the secrets of the well-trodden Tiger Gorge monastery were brought to life. Kenjutse knew all the springs flowing into the gorge and the healing properties of the water. We drank greedily – clean water in China doesn’t usually exist. “This one’s good for your eyes.” she said splashing the water to her face.
She took us into the meditation caves and showed us the special rocks to touch for blessing. It was only after she showed us with her own hands that the smooth spots stood out against the rough walls, polished by touch of how many hands, how many years? I thought she might be half crazy when she pointed out a small hole in the cave and explained we should crawl into it. “My father always told me when I was little that if you’ve done something bad, you’ll get stuck and won’t come out. Let’s see!”And with that, her head disappeared into the hole. She reappeared laughing. On her encouragement, I wiggled in after her. Not the fondest of tight spaces, especially under hundreds of tonnes of rock (!), I managed to fight my way through. Even Jarmo made it, though several heads taller than Kenjutsa.
We continued further up the gorge track. By now, we had the place to ourselves. “Most tourists don’t like walking far.” laughed Kenjutse. The gorge opened out into a small field, were some nomadic people were camped with their horses. Many Tibetans make a little income leading Chinese tourists on horse rides (or rather, letting the tourists pose for photos on their horses!) We found a grassy patch and feasted on fruits in the sun.
We headed back to Hong Xing for a rest in the local’s favourite tea house. “All these places claim to be Tibetan. But they’re nothing like our actually culture.” Kenjutse explained. “This place is run by (Han) Chinese. They and other minorities move here to make business off the tourism, and what’s left for us?” She told us about the time she was travelling in Yunnan and the authorities stopped her because she’s from a minority ethnicity. The positive racism we were experiencing with our white skin, is working directly against the ethnic minority groups in the country. Kenjutse told us about her cousin, “I’m worried about him. He didn’t pass his high school because his Mandarin isn’t good. Now he can’t get into any colleges. I worry about what he’ll do in the future.” Mandarin is often a second or third language for people of ethnic minorities, and in second-rate schools, difficult to learn. However, without Mandarin, future prospects are limited in China.
We walked down to Kenjutse’s old high school. A Tibetan school, though all the classes are still given in Mandarin and no religion is taught – we left a bit confused about what actually makes it a “Tibetan” school. We peek into one of the dorm rooms. The children whose families live on the land must board at school to attend classes. 12 adolescent girls sleep in the one room! I marvel at the number of toothbrushes neatly arranged together.
The bell rang and children appeared. Surprised, shy, yet oh-so-curious about these strange white-skinned visitors! Kenjutse introduced us to a few of the students she’s been tutoring in English. They are keen to practice, despite their shyness. We take over a classroom and play some English language games. There is much excitement! I’m amazed that coming out of these very same overcrowded classrooms, Kenjutse is now bound for studies in America – what an inspiration for these students!
We wave goodbye to the crowd of students that we’d gathered and hopped into the brother’s car to drive to their auntie’s nearby village. “Time for you to try REAL Tibetan food,” smiles Kenjutse. “You won’t find this in a restaurant!” We are seated in a small bare room with an iron stove in the centre. A box near the stove contains dried yak dung, that is fed into the fire intermittently. Living at an altitude above the treeline, Tibetans have to use what they have. We had seen the pats of dung being dried in the villages in preparation for the long winter ahead. Seeing the use of yak dung as fuel, you begin to realise how nothing is wasted in this culture. In a landscape of such scares resources, everything finds a use. You begin to realise how sustainable relationships between people and the environment are possible. That there are still people on this planet who can teach us how to get this relationship back.
We are handed a bowl and a handful of barley flour. The steel kettle is taken off the stove and hot milk-butter tea is poured in with the flour. Kenjutse shows us how to work the flour and tea together until they form a dough. It’s harder than it looks and the family laugh at the mess I’m making. Add a generous spoon of sugar and – Voila! Samba: Tibet’s favourite snack, meal, anytime food. Auntie also offers us gensen, a specialty item, usually served during festivals and weddings. Both items are quite strange, in texture and flavour. I’m concerned about how my still recovering stomach might receive them. But the samba is good food to play with! Pulling off bits of dough and rolling them around in your fingers. I come to understand why Tibetan food isn’t served in restaurants!
Kenjutse takes us on a tour through the house. “The design is inspired by traditional Tibetan houses.” Kenjutse tells us proudly. “There aren’t any traditional houses left.” We are taken into a room that seems to hold the secrets of Tibet. The walls are lined with carefully packed shelves. “Here is the traditional tent used in the winter.” Shows Kenjutse. It’s black and woven of yak’s wool. The same animal provides these people with the milk for their tea, meat for their strength, fuel for their fire, tents to shelter them. What a relationship! (I am reminded of Sabu Island in eastern Indonesia, where the Lontar Palm tree gives the people a sugar sap to survive on when there is no food during the dry season, as well as the building material for their houses, hats and musical instruments.) In the centre of the roof, above another stove, is a raised window, letting light fall in as if in a church. “The stove is that used traditionally in Tibet. Auntie made it herself out of clay.” We see it wasn’t always the enclosed iron stoves, introduced later by the Chinese. The shelves lining the walls contain supplies for the winter. Dried meats and enough barley for 4 years, we’re told.
In the corner of the room is the shrine. Quilts hang depicting the life of Buddha. Candles handmade of bees-wax flicker. Mantra chanting plays softly from a cd-player. Auntie pulls out her traditional winter coats for us to try on. We decide that one person mustn’t ever leave the house in the winter, as they need to be free to help the others in and out of their coats!
Outside I’m shown a field growing a crop that will be dried and fed to the yaks over winter. I point to the storage in the roof space, above the house. The family explain the flapping prayer flags are there to give a mantra every time the wind blows.
This was a short visit to Auntie, but the connection ran deep. These people had opened their home to us and showed us what they were most proud of. Things like sense of humour sometimes prevail against language barriers. We hugged goodbyes at the gate and got back into the car. The image of the Auntie and her family standing waving from the gate for the entire 5 minutes until our car was out of sight is one I can’t shake.
We drove to met Kenjutse’s father. Though now in his 60s, he still keeps a herd of yaks on his own. “My mother died when I was 7.” Kenjutse told us. At the time, the nearest hospital was too far away for the family to travel to get her the medical help her mother had needed. “I’m so proud of my father for the way he raised me on his own.”
We were invited to stay in the tent of Kenjutse’s brother. He and his family still live in the nomadic tradition during the summer months. “It’s a bit of a walk to the tent.” Kenjutse had warned us. “No problem!” we’d said. We drove on the bitumen to the turn off, then bumped along a dirt road, till it became grass. It was dark when we stopped at the bottom of a hill. Out into the cold of the night I pulled on my woollen jumper and beanie. We were 3500m above sea level and with the sun gone, the chill set in. Kenjutse’s sister in-law and young niece met us on horseback and we loaded our food and things into the saddlebags.
A few torches between us and we were off. Up, up and up! In the dark it felt we were heading for the top of the world. The small 9 year-old niece kept tripping on her little legs, but she’d just crack up laughing and continue running. At this altitude we were out of breath regularly, you could feel how thin the air was. On rest stops, we looked back to the darkness we’d overcome. The tiny headlights on the distant road, far below. She hadn’t been kidding about the walk! “Why do you keep your tent so far away?!” We laughed. Finally, we started to hear the sounds of the sheep, carefully locked into their pen for the night. We had arrived!
The solar-charged battery was brought in and the tent was lit up. Kenjutse’s sister in-law poured us bowls of salty milk-tea to warm us up. Jarmo began to pull out the ingredients for the dinner he’s promised to cook. Hungarian lecho was on the menu, which seemed like a historically fitting choice, as the Hungarian people had originated from not far from here before moving to Europe centuries ago. Usually lecho would contain spicy sausage and pork meat, but tonight we would be substituting with yak meat – Tibetan fusion! “How many yaks do you kill per year?” I ask Kenjutse to translate to her brother for me. “One.” the answer. One yak killed at the start of winter is enough to last a family for the whole year! Incredible. We surely can’t argue against the eating of meat when carefully rationed like this, especially in a place where vegetables can be grown in only a brief few months of the year.
As the lecho boiled and thickened, we venture outside. The night sky above was the clearest I’ve ever seen. The layers of the galaxy to finish off all that we’d seen in the day. Sitting at the top of the world in an ancient and beautiful culture. Life is amazing!
The letcho was a hit with Kenjutse’s brother. But his wife didn’t eat it as she suffers from a chesty cough that’s aggravated by spicy foods and pepper. This woman, who can’t be much over 30 years, was having awful coughing fits, rattling her to her bones. Kenjutse says she’s been having them constantly for the last 3 years. The local doctors don’t know what’s wrong and she should really get to Chengdu to see a specialist. But the journey is far and the doctors expensive. But I can’t get this awful cough out of my mind.
The wife made up beds for us next to the stove. Jarmo and Jurek bunked in together, and Kenjutse and I snuggled in under the yak woollen blanket – the yaks even giving sleep to these people. I fell asleep listen to the horses grazing quietly outside.
I woke not long after dawn, eager to see where we were in the daylight. The wife was already up and bring the stove fire back to life. Outside the sun was yet to poke itself above the hill, and the great shadow of our hill stretched out on the endless grass plain below. The brother, already on horseback, opened the sheep-pen to begin their daily roaming and feeding. His wife positioned herself for the daily ritual of milking the yaks – there would be no tea till there was milk.
Feeling completely alive, we decided we should finish last nights trek by climbing all the way up to the top of the hill. Again it wasn’t easy, and this time we were taking off layers of clothing as the sun rose higher in the sky. But at the top, we felt we could contemplate everything. GPS told us we were now 3900m above sea level – no wonder it had felt intense the night before! We could see a village to the other side of the hill. At first I thought Kenjutse was confusing meaning of the word “sea”, as she looked out to the grasslands. But then I understood it was the perfect word to describe the view.
After what felt like hours, we decided it was time to come back to earth. On our descent we noticed Kenjutse’s brother on horseback far across on a neighbouring hill. “He’s fixing a fence.” told Kenjutse. He looked like he was born on a horse, as he galloped down the hill, racing us back to the tent. In the tent, we finished the left over lecho, but Kenjutse and her family prefered their samba.
Unfortunately, we had to keep moving on. We’d book a train ticket that we had to make. Kenjutse’s brother drove us back into Hong Xing, where it had all began. We reluctantly gathered our backpacks together. Kenjutse and another two nieces, who’d become fond of us, walked us to the edge of town to start our hitching. “Come with us?” Jarmo asked Kenjutse. She was one of us now. Obviously torn, she said she must stay to spend time with her father before returning to Beijing. We were all sorry, when a car stopped quickly and we had to say our hurried goodbyes.
Though, from a small, forgotten village in a remote part of China, Kenjutse is a citizen of the world. She told me that she hopes to study creative writing in America so she can spread the stories of her people. I will be forever grateful to Kenjutse and her family for sharing their culture with us. This short 24 hours with her might be the most special of our whole trip. It seemed to be magical that we met and I look forward to the magic bringing us back together again soon.