Tibet – Truly
Gyalthang is the name of Shangri-la in the Tibetan language, and such it is. It occurred to me sometime on Tuesday (or whatever day it actually was) that I couldn’t understand anything the people around me were saying because they weren’t speaking Chinese, they were speaking Tibetan.
Tenzin picked us up in the morning, with his cousin driving, for our trip into the countryside. It was a beautiful day, yaks, cows, horses and pigs all wandering around in the fields and on the streets. This is the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve seen pigs in the streets loose.
Tenzin invited us to experience his culture and wanted to show us his home, meet his family and share some traditional food. Tibetan houses are huge, graceful structures, built on two floors, mud covered, painted and carved. Traditionally, the animals lived on the first floor and the family the second, thus the large size of the houses. Tenzin’s family home is over 100 years old, originally having been built by his great grandfather.
We drove out into the countryside on rough roads built by the villagers in the surrounding areas. The villages all sit in a vast flat plain surrounded by 4000+ meter peaks. The fields are cultivated for animal food, primarily, and small family gardens. Here the plowing is done with teams of yaks and humans, and some with teams of a tractor and a human. Right now it’s not quite spring here so everything is still brown.
After stopping at a market to buy some vegetables for lunch – all of which are imported from Lijiang or Dali because it is too cold here to grow most veggies – we continued on to Tenzin’s village. It must have been a while since he had been home. As we turned into the alley leading to his house he gasped: “What happened to my house?! Where are my parents?” The huge house and courtyard were a ruin of mud walls, with all the wooden components removed.
It turned out that his brother had decided to rebuild the house bigger and better, and tore down what could be used to acquire resources for the new house. The family is living in a small wing that still has a roof, a dark wooden room with a cozy woodstove and all the basic amenities. Tenzin’s shock and grief were palpable and I really felt for him at the moment when he looked at the wreck of his home.
Inside the remnants we found very warm special hospitality. A breakfast of homemade things: flatbread, yak cheese, sautéed potatoes, yak butter tea and sweetened yak milk, were waiting for us, along with both of Tenzin’s parents, one of his brothers and his 5 year old niece. We toasted by the warm woodstove, drank the tea and tasted the good things MaMa cooked for us. Sitting on low couches covered with lovely carpets – the beds where the parents sleep at night.
MaMa and I made a wonderful connection even though we could not speak a single word in common. However, the “namaste” gesture is common to us all. I presented a doll to Tenzin’s niece. As I was rummaging around in my pack for it, she somehow knew, and her hopeful gesture said all. She was one happy little girl with her new dolly from USA. Hugs and pictures, and good bye for now. We will return for lunch later.
We then travelled to the stupa which guards the village. On route, we asked Tenzin where to relieve ourselves as the villagers still do not have plumbing. He took us to the most beautiful open air “toilet.” The view here dwarfed the view from the open air toilet at Half-way Guest House at Tiger Leaping Gorge (more on that soon).
The stupa was built by the villagers.
Returning for lunch, MaMa cooked us wild mushrooms, eggs and tomatoes, greens to serve over her steamed rice. She also cooked up pork ribs and their delicate treat – cured fat back. She brought out a jar of very hot chilies to season things with. All this on top of her marvelous wood stove.
More butter tea, and watermelon we bought at the market. MaMa invited me to stay and sleep overnight with her family. Tenzin explained our schedule. The family all teased their youngest son. Easy to tell, even it we did not understand the words. It was so hard to leave when it was time to go.
But the families work very hard out here, and do not have the time to spend socializing. Brought me to thinking about how we live. We live in such a fast pace at home. There is benefit in slowing down and living more simply. At the same time, these people work very, very hard and it shows. Both Julia and I are older than both of Tenzin’s parents, but we look younger. They were landlords before the cultural revolution and suffered terribly. Now Tenzin’s father is a “nomad” a herder of animals. Very soon he will leave the family home with his flocks of yaks and horses and pigs and move up to the high meadows to graze. He will spend the entire summer there, with the family visiting once a month or so to pick up the cheese and butter he has made and to bring him vegetables.
We finished the day with a swim in a hot spring. The spring rises out of a river which has cut a huge natural bridge in a limestone outcrop. The view from the swimming pools is spectacular.
On Wednesday the adventure continues. After a trip up Shika Snow Mountain (4500+ meters), which lived up to its name by producing a freezing snow, sleet and rain squall when we reached the walkways at the summit, we returned to the Grasslands Tibetan Village to see what a house that is not in ruins looks like. We stopped at a beautiful older home. The woman of the house built us a fire in her hearth and made us butter tea and biscuits. She shared a drier version of yak cheese and Tenzin taught us how to make barley powder munchies, a mixture of butter tea, yak cheese, sugar and barley powder kneaded together and then eaten in small balls or cylinders. Yummy!
The first floor is a nice barn for animals. The second floor is the living quarters, mostly a great room with the hearth in the middle. Third floor is storage of fodder and animal food. Bright pictures adorn the walls and a wonderful weaving surrounds the central pole, so large I could not wrap my arms around it. On older relative is a monk and lives in the house in prayer and meditation. We looked into the family prayer room, a big room decorated in thankas and carvings and candles and offerings of all kinds. Breathtaking!
Then we went to the monastery.
Sonzanlin is the largest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, and houses over 800 monks. Because of its construction and size, it is sometimes called the Little Potala. Photography is not permitted in the sanctuaries, but they were inspiring. Tenzin spent a few hours giving us a basic introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, using the many exquisite paintings and sculptures to exemplify. We each received a blessing and prayer beads from a monk who sits in prayer in the great hall. We have not achieved enlightenment, but we have a great deal of useful information to help us on the way, should we want to go.
We finished the cold, rainy day with a western dinner in the old town. I bought a yak-tail fan; Julia a mandala painting. It will be very hard to leave Gyalthang in the morning. . .