We woke up the next morning around 9, and spent two hours arguing/discussing the situation in Tibet. Afterwards, we decided to visit one of the nearby monasteries with a monk from the inn. There were plenty of Chinese restaurants in Yushu, and we took the monk out to lunch to thank him for driving us around. Surprisingly, a picture of President Bush was hung on the wall of the inn. Despite his unpopularity in many parts of the world, Bush is extremely popular among Tibetans. This is because Bush recently met with the Dalai Lama and America is seen as a sort of counter to China.
After lunch, the Monk dropped us off at a small village surrounding the temple. A family was washing prayer flags when we arrived, so I decided to approach them and help out. Unfortunately, no one in the family spoke mandarin, and we didn’t have anyone who could translate at the time. Because of this language barrier, we didn’t have a chance to genuinely bond with the family.
We first entered the historic temple and then toured the surrounding area. Many Tibetans make pilgrimages to the temple and circle the mountain nearby. However, it is important to circle clockwise (we learned this the hard way). The mountain was full of yaks and sheep, and the entire circle took about an hour and a half. As we walked down from the mountain, we found ourselves in a small settlement of mud houses. Luckily, I realized that one of the mud houses also served as a sort of convenience store. In many small Yushu villages the convenience store is very small, and customers select and buy products from the window. However, I walked right through into the house because I didn’t see the window. The vendor spoke very little Chinese, but we started having a friendly conversation communicating nonverbally. As
we became more and more friendly, the vendor sat us in his house and
showed us his collection of rocks and deformed animal skulls.
Touched by the vendor’s hospitality, I wanted to leave something with him as a souvenir of his new foreign friend. However, the only thing I could find in my pocket was a very small passport-sized picture of me. Most
Tibetans hang pictures of religious leaders in their homes, and this
vendor was no exception; except that now he also has a picture of Moshe
Itzhakov on his wall.
The reaction of the vendor is representative of the local mentality in Yushu. Even though the majority of residents are not considered poor, they are very closed off from the rest of the world. Almost no Yushu Tibetan families own their own camera, and most people there would be rather excited to see photographs. Especially photographs coming from/of a foreigner. For example, we went to another temple later that day. This temple is known to attract pilgrims at dusk. The pilgrims start arriving late afternoon, and circle the temple for a few hours. We thought the best way to bond with the locals would be to join them in circling the khora. Naturally, we circled for about an hour and became friendly with almost all of the pilgrims. While sitting down and resting, I showed some of the pilgrims pictures from my lonely planet travel book. We attracted a crowd within a minute or so, and I was surprised at how excited many of the locals were to see pictures. The pictures were of major tourist sites in China, but Tibetans have no sense of other cities in China. For example, most locals had no idea about Beijing or Shanghai. Their unfamiliarity with Beijing or Shanghai was similar to western unfamiliarity with Tajikistan. Overall,
the locals we encountered were very closed off from the outside world,
and maintained a sense of simple innocence in whatever they did.
Later that night, we discovered a shower spa right next door to our hotel. It costs 7 RMB per person, and people who come together are sometimes asked to share a room with two shower heads. Up until that point, I had gone over 80 hours without showering. It goes without saying that the shower was absolutely phenomenal.
Hoping to see more of the surrounding temples and villages, we took a north bound bus the next morning. We didn’t have any concrete plans because our main goal was to stay in a village and better understand Tibetan culture. Thankfully, we met Laozhu as soon as we got on the bus; a friendly Tibetan man who spoke fluent Mandarin. Laozhu lives in a village far north of Yushu and sells caterpillars for a living. He
generally looks for caterpillars in the mountains during May and June,
while he spends the rest of the year trying to sell them. Surprisingly, this means of making a living is rather common in Yushu. We told Laozhu about our plan of living in a village, and he immediately invited us to live in his.
Despite his fluency in mandarin, Laozhu is in no way assimilated or “Chinanized.” On the contrary, from his physical appearance to his lifestyle, Laozhu is very Tibetan. He has a Tibetan-style knife braided into his hair, and he is rather open about his respect and devotion to the Dalai Lama. (It is illegal to openly support the Dalai Lama in China).
Even though Laozhu’s village is only a 4 hour drive from Yushu, it took us over 7 hours to get there. Why did it take us so long? Lunch.
Because the area is so undeveloped, we had to drive an hour past the village to find restaurants. Interestingly, the rest area was filled with Tibetans playing pool. Moreover, we saw several pool tables at every rest area in Yushu.
There is only one highway in the Yushu area, and Laozhu told us his village was right off of the highway. In reality, we drove 2 hours on a gravel road that was off the highway until we finally arrived at the village. After seeing how remote the village actually was, I asked Laozhu about where we would get our drinking water. Laozhu pointed to the river surrounding us. At this point, I was both nervous and excited. Even
though I was thrilled to be experiencing Tibetan life, I had very real
concerns about how my stomach would handle the food and water there. Also,
it’s important to be aware that foreigners are not generally allowed to
socialize with Tibetans unless there is a tour guide present. However, since we were technically not in Tibet, that rule didn’t apply. To say the least, living with a Tibetan family is an incredible opportunity that few foreigners experience.
After we pulled into the village, people began getting off the bus and unloading their things. People
in Yushu generally load their belongings on the top of the bus, and
later climb up and throw them down whenever they want to get off. The entire process is rather chaotic. Imagine bags of flour and clothes all being thrown off a bus without any semblance order at all. Wanting to make a good impression, I offered to help unload the bus. Someone threw me 2 huge bags that left my entire upper body brown and full of dust. It was at this point that I decided to watch from the side instead of directly helping. Shortly after, I saw someone try to unload a wooden desk. Instead of slowly moving it down, the man just threw it to the ground. Naturally, the desk broke and the drawers came flying out. As one can tell, Tibetan culture is very laid back, as people focus on the spiritual more than the physical world.
We finally arrived at Laozhu’s home, and I was very surprised at how nice everything looked. Unlike
some of the other villages that I visited, Laozhu’s home seemed rather
clean and his family did a very nice job of decorating. Also, Laozhu has a rather nice TV set, as well as a subwoofer and CD player. Laozhu has two daughters, one is 18 while the other is 10. He also lives with his brother, who is a monk. Besides Laozhu, no one in the family speaks any Mandarin. This
made communication rather challenging, as we learned to rely on our
hand gestures and facial expressions for pretty much everything.
Hungry after the long bus ride, Laozhu immediately offered us Tibetan snacks before he ate himself. Before the meal, we were first served a glass of tea that was salted for taste. The meal was an interesting combination of vegetable oil, yak butter, and flour. Each of us was given a bowl that was filled with those three, and then each of us would mix it ourselves with our hands. Even though it caused a mess because flour was flying across the living room, I actually enjoyed helping make my food. After we mixed for about 20 minutes, the combination turned into a dough-like substance. I assumed we would now put the dough in the oven, but Tibetans eat the dough raw. This is called Zangba and is one of the most common foods in Tibet.
Wanting to be even more hospitable, our host placed several cubes of yak butter into our tea cups. At this point, I could almost feel my body slow down from all the butter and flour. After our snack, Laozhu and his brother took us around the village in Laozhu’s car. It
turns out that the village is home to about 4,000 Tibetans, and that
the Chinese government used to send workers there to dig up gold.
We then arrived at a hot spring, and Laozhu explained to us that he would come here to shower. Although
most Yushu Tibetans don’t have an understanding of showers, Laozhu said
that he showers in the cities once or twice a year before holidays. Because I was coming down with a cold, I didn’t hesitate to bathe myself in the hot spring. While we were bathing, I asked Laozhu if he had ever been to Lhasa (the capital of Tibet). Laozhu explained that he had been 11 times, and that he had walked each time. He
went on to explain that it usually takes him a year to walk there, and
that he brings no money but simply stays in villages that he passes by. While Laozhu’s awesome faith and devotion seem unique, he is a rather typical Tibetan. In fact, what separates Laozhu from most Tibetans is that he has mastered Mandarin as well as different Tibetan dialects.
After bathing in the hot spring, we hiked up a mountain and wound up at a sky burial spot. Sky burial is the method that Tibetans use to dispose of a human corpse after death. Generally, 4 monks take the body to a mountain top and allow vultures to eat the body. They believe that this is part of the circle of life, as it allows the body to serve a natural purpose. Because of this custom, we saw an assortment of body parts scattered across the mountain top.
Our last stop was the local temple, which was rather large and impressed me with the number of monks. However, the temple also had a large number of wild dogs that hung out all around the temple grounds. Laozhu was a little hesitant to enter, but did so after his brother grabbed some rocks to throw at any attacking dogs. The natural scenery was phenomenal and Laozhu was an amazing guide. For example, each time we passed an edible plant, Laozhu made each of us take a bite (this happened close to 10 times).
As dusk approached, we finally returned to Laozhu’s home. On the way back, I noticed that Laozhu had a dog chained directly below his house. This is a popular Tibetan custom, and the dogs are raised to attack anyone who is not part of the household. As we were walking back, I asked Laozhu about the closest bathroom. Surprisingly, Laozhu answered that there wasn’t an official bathroom, but that I could go behind the house. Naturally, it was raining and I had to bring an umbrella and flash light each time I wanted to squat behind his house. I couldn’t understand how a family could have a TV, car, and subwoofers before they had any kind of toilet. Globalization doesn’t spread evenly or predictably. For example, I’ve met people who have a flushing toilet and shower, but would never dream of buying a car. The key is looking at the environment of a particular area. Because of the history and geography of Yushu, the government has little control over its people. Likewise, the people have no expectations from the government, and are accustomed to looking towards the temples for leadership. While
this is not necessarily bad, it often leads to a dichotomy in which
people can become wealthier without raising their standard of living. Simply put, someone may buy a car with an internal dvd player, but still only shower once a year and poop in his own backyard.
While we waited for a sumptuous dinner with
Laozhu’s family, I made a couple of observations that are rather
representative of many Tibetan families. First, Laozhu called his oldest daughter ya tou, which means slave girl. While
the meaning isn’t as bad as the English translation, it is undeniably a
very sexist word which sees the woman as a type of servant. Ironically, many Tibetans expect most of the housework to be done by the oldest daughter.
Secondly, the oven used in Laozhu’s home requires cow dung to function. Someone from the family would use a shovel and place cow dung in the oven every so often. Despite this, there was no foul smell from the cow dung. I suspect the reason for this is that yaks outnumber humans in Yushu.
Thirdly, Besides Laozhu, no one in Laozhu’s family spoke Mandarin or the official Tibetan dialect. They all only spoke their local dialect. Unfortunately, the majority of the television channels were in mandarin, and there was only one Tibetan channel. This Tibetan channel was run by the Chinese government and all the programs were in the Lhasa dialect. Consequently,
Laozhu’s family members were very isolated from the outside world, and
had no idea what was going on anywhere outside of their village.
A nice vegetarian meal was prepared for me and we finally ate. However, our hosts ate raw yak meat. After dinner, we spent a few hours discussing life with Laozhu until we went to bed. Laozhu’s apartment was quite small, and it was decided that his brother would sleep on the floor. We
argued and tried to convince the brother to switch with us, but he
claimed that as a monk he preferred to sleep close to the ground. Before we fell asleep, I gave Laozhu a picture of me with my contact information in the states. I told him that he could contact me if he ever needed help or knew of any Tibetans visiting the states.
The next morning, Laozhu called the bus driver to make sure the bus didn’t leave without us. As we were leaving, Laozhu and his brother carried our luggage to the bus for us. The entire stay was very reflective of Eastern and especially Tibetan hospitality.