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Tuesday, 12 April 2016 16:19

Air-thirst and Tsampa, aka Our Adventures on the Tibetan Plateau. NiHao QingHai! Part Two.

Author: Eni

Translated by: Pál Capewell

In our previous post, you read about the unique landscape of the Tibetan Plateau, Tibetan traditional dress styles, and our ever first pass conquered by bike above 4000m. In this post we will share some insights about the locals and their lifestyles - or at least how we understood what we saw.

The Tibetan people of West-QingHai live off of keeping animals, and by that I mean most families keep yaks. This lifestyle is half as remote and nomadic as it sounds: families actually live in army-style blue, white, or black tents equipped with solar panels (funded by the government), both men and women ride motorcycles and they even coordinate the yaks with motorcycles. Around 6 and 7 in the morning, the yaks are released from around the tents. The enormous, fuzzy-haired animals slowly make their way towards the mountains to munch on the scarce grass available. Be that rain, snow, hail, or storm, there they are, munching away. Tough creatures, that’s for sure. Right before dusk, a few men walk or motorbike around them, leading these huge creatures of love back home. We often saw how families unite and take turns herding the animals. Everyone is using slings in leading their own or fellow families‘ yaks. Next to the tents, ropes are secured to the ground and the animals in order to keep them there for night time. Most yaks, especially the older ones, already know their spot, return voluntarily and wait for the rope to be secured around them, then make themselves comfortable.

The locals keep the yaks for their milk, meat and dung. The milk - which tastes sweeter than cow milk - is used for a number of purposes. Mixed with black tea, it can be quite the delicious warm treat; they also use it for making yoghurt and dried quart in most families. Meat is kept in a dried form, as Tibetan families don’t have fridges. You are probably wondering what they use the dung for, huh? It’s for heating purposes, as no bushes or trees survive in this climate. We observed that it is the ladies’ task to handle dung. You wouldn’t believe the hassle one must go through with this procedure! They collect the future heating material from under the animals, then dry it all under the sun. They leave it out for days for it to dry, meanwhile the ladies turn it from one side to another. When deemed dry enough, they scrape it together, put it all in a sack, and it’s ready!

The tents that these nomads live in range in size. We visited a tent of an old couple living on a bare 5-6 sq meters, but also had the fortune of enjoying a cup of tea with a family living under a 30 sq meters tent. Nomadic life meets with modern technology in these tents. In the middle of the tent stands the stove which serves both as a heater and an oven for cooking. The dung filled sacks are always nearby in a corner, so keeping the fire alive isn’t a challenge. There is usually a big ladle with water on the stove. But get this: we saw iPhones in almost every family, and solar power converters! Furnitures are again limited and simple though, we usually sat ourselves on benches or beds as they had no chairs.

There wasn’t much issue regarding the toilets. You just went out, walked a little distance and.... did your thing. It was quite straight-forward during dark, evening hours, but in the morning, under the waking sun, it was rather the inconvenient challenge to find yourself a cozy, private spot. Needless to say the locals didn’t see this as a problem and just did their thing where they pleased, but for us it was a bit more difficult to.... be at ease.

These nomad families marry early in their lives, an average 25 year old male already has two or three children. The kids stay at home and grandparents look after them. These little ones don’t receive much attention so they grow up basically on their own, what a European would call wild. We observed how strange and unseen it was for them to be smiled at or their face caressed - they just didn’t know what it meant or what to do with it. Older kids attend school which is at a “dismissible” 20-30-50km distance from their tents.

The most interesting treat so far, tsampa, was also introduced by the nomads. The ingredients are kept in a beautifully carved wooden box that has three compartments: one for barley-flour, another for crystal sugar, and another for dried quark. The recipe could not be simpler. You take a big mug, pour a little yak butter in, then pour on top a little yak milk/black tea combo. The butter melts, leaving a thick tea-like fluid. You take the barley flour, a little sugar, the quark, then you work it together with two fingers until you get a paste. You roll it into balls, giving a shape of a fist size potato. The taste - surprisingly - is quite pleasant and it fills your tummy fast. We really enjoyed it! Actually we saw these little wooden boxes with the ingredients in households in bigger cities also around the region.

West-QingHai doesn’t have many cities, to say the least. Even cities of respectable sizes are separated by large distances. The streets and passages in smaller towns are extremely dirty and messy, unfortunately, and groups of stray dogs hover over trash piles. Not an uplifting scene. Organized trash removal is unheard of, it is the business of river waters and sewage drainage. We visited a smaller town (Cacagoin) where we saw a public toilet with eight stalls made out of concrete - not one’s first choice but lacking alternatives, we had to use it. Locals are far less bothered by this: they answer nature’s calls next to piles of trash, in the middle of the road, on the patio and so on. (I apologize to those of you who have weaker tummies, but this is part of the adventure too!)

Buildings are nicely decorated, columns and beams are painted of all colors, the bars on shop windows carry Tibetan motifs. Many buildings and large gates also carry religious themed flags.  

It is worth to mention their approach to transport as well. Promise you it’s worth it. We can confidently say Turkey and Kirghizistan trained us well, but I must add: they did not train us well enough. The Chinese motorcycle, tricycle, bicycle, whatevercycle array is so shocking it’s hard to believe and accept it’s from, and on, Planet Earth. Walking around the town feels like a computer game where one must jump around whatevercycles, watch out cars and avoid them to stay alive. If they hit you, game over. Most drivers have their own way of comprehending and implementing traffic rules, by their own concept of standard and safety. We lose this driving game as badly as a Chinese driver would in Hungary. Here every driver thinks that they enjoy priority over everyone else, regardless of the scenario and the people involved. Red traffic lights bother them as little as the pedestrian filled crossings (thus not at all), and small left curves into the opposite lanes, quick selfies in the middle of the road, comfy catch-up sessions over the phone (again in the middle of the road) or an express pedicure are all the norm. Usually drivers who follow the least of the rules have the loudest honks, honking away at the people who actually try to follow the rules (that would be us). I’m not going to even try to deny it - we were utterly clueless most of the time.

Near every town stands a Buddhist monastery. They are usually situated 5-10km away from the towns. Most are built at the foot of a hill, in tight valleys, far from the busy roads. Concrete roads lead to the monasteries, with no admission fee. We had the fortune of visiting a little gem of a monastery, near the town of Zhiduo. Those days we enjoyed the warm hospitality of Tashi, but more on that later.

We were led and guided around the temple by Shampa Gyancen, the most senior monk in the monastery. It was built on a smaller village-sized area, and expanded gradually. Monks do not live together, but all have their own houses. Very simple and humble at houses though, I must say. The monastery consisted of numerous buildings. We visited the Guards of Dharma Temple, the four storey high major temple where a 30m tall Buddha statue arose. This gold and diamond decorated statue, which also made its way into the Guinness Records, is in a lotus sitting position. All four floors of this temple are crowded by altars, almost bending under the gifts and sacrifices, and the setting is made even more spiritual by the countless candles and incense sticks. Pictures of reincarnated lamas and monks were lightly visible in the dim lit passages. The walls were decorated by Buddhist motifs. With the guidance from Monk Shampa, we were passing through the buildings strictly in clockwise manner. We were informed that food for the Passed Souls are contained in a large, tortoise shaped containers in every temple and monastery. It had a unique smell, my guess was barley, being burnt in those containers.

Tashi kept translating from Tibetan to English non-stop. He didn’t seem tired the least bit, even when we returned to Monk Shampa’s house and picked his brain on Buddhism, teaching and his everyday life. So who is Tashi?

One cold evening, as fortune would have it, we met Tashi back in Zhidou. The twenty-three year old Tibetan boy got his English degree in a Chinese university. He studied in Texas for two years,  then worked in London for a short time at a Chinese agency. Currently he teaches English for the nineteenth reincarnation of the QingHai Lama, a nine year old boy. Tashi has a reliable family background, as his father is a police chief - which is quite an important aspect in this problematic region.

The Tibetan Plateau exceeded our expectations both. We met with and experienced so many new things! After the Muslim countries we visited, on this plateau we were immersed in Buddhism, and all its tastes, faces, and customs. When things were turning too good, we got some heavy rain or snow in our necks, but it couldn’t deter us - be that under a poncho next to the road, locked in tents, or rolling downwards from a mountain on our bikes. Once when we were in the town of Yushu, a police family with a nine year old girl took us in for the night when were inquiring about a good place to sleep. That was quite the surprise, after all the negative stories we heard about Chinese police. We had delicious meals and they even gave us a tour of the city! Wait, that’s not totally accurate. Balazs took us, actually, as the husband lent us his minibus and the mother didn’t drive. On our way from the pilgrim site, the mother requested to pick up a few people, so Balazs felt exactly like the old days back home: he used to be a minibus driver before we embarked on this adventure.

We left Yushu to the nearby Sichuan Provice. Our tiny team expanded for a few days and... but let’s leave that for the next blogpost.