A hardscrabble life in the Himalayan foothills is touched by the stunning scenery and colorful people.
11.06.2007 - 17.06.2007 12 °C
Wandering around the Zhongdian bus station one early morning we saw a well-adapted, if not modern Tibetan monk.
He was wearing traditional red robes overlaid with a bright yellow Columbia outdoor jacket and a cowboy hat.
Lama-boy? Or was he a Cow-ma?
His attire spoke to the spirit of eastern Tibet, the area of western Yunnan and Sichuan that's not officially part of China's most mountainous provence, but is in spirit and culture.
It's a hardscrabble life in the Himalaya foothills, where summer temperatures dip below 50-degrees and the altitude is higher than America's Sierras.
The Tibetans out there have a tough edge with their long hair and beards, practical garb and mannerisms, and free-spirited attitude. I know who I'd place my bets on in a wrestling match with a Han Chinese.
Yaks drag wooden beams, that will be used for construction, up a hillside in Zhongdian pastureland.
In one town, Litang, the town scene was motorcycling. Men with their babe Tibetan women riding the back raced up and down Main Street with colorful mud guards covering their back wheels.
Other characters roamed Litang: ruffian children with snot dripping from their noses, monks begging at restaurant tables, old women turning prayer wheels, and businessmen turning a profit selling dead caterpillars for eating.
The Tibetan frontier towns are mostly a collection of low-slung shops selling needed wares, while hamlets nestled in valleys or alongside cliffs eek out a living off yak herds and wheat.
The food is basic. Soda bread, yak meat, sour-tasting cheese, and to drink, salty yak-butter tea. We drank it happily in a shack in yak pastureland where, on a hike one day, our Tibetan guide had taken us to eat and meet his family.
For the record, though, yak-butter tastes a lot better when spiked with hard-grain alcohol.
We had trouble keeping the pace set by our chain-smoking Tibetan guide on a hike through Zhongdain pastureland.
We also encountered for the first time in China an awareness of the environment amoung certain people, though suspect that much of the American outdoor gear is worn out of necessity and comfort, when affordable.
Anyone familiar with lefty communities in America would feel at home here, too. Patterns and symbols on tablecloths, wall hangings, and doors are vintage Berkeley cafe, while the prevalence of wood is reminiscent of an aging hippy's backwoods cabin.
The Tibetans might not know it, but they have a bond with the American left in style and spirit. If you can imagine, think hippy-Texan.
Old Tibetan women picnic on a hillside underneath a tangle of prayer flags.
We traveled the backroads in rickety buses for days, bumping along dirt roads over mountain passes that exceeded 15,000-feet (the highest mountain in the continental U.S. is Mt. Whitney at 14,000-feet).
It takes two full days to travel 100-miles. The views were spectacular with knife-sharp peaks covered in snow, hillsides dotted with yaks, and boxy Tibetan homes with roof shingles held down by rocks.
As the scenery changed, so did the housing construction and design. First wood, then plaster walls, then rocks. Each kind had a different highly-stylized window.
Sitting for days on end, I thought I would get bedsores and I was aching to walk the landscape. It was then I pronounced that I would bike those "foothills" one day, before gasping for air at the combined impact of high altitude and cigarette smoke clouding the bus. Guess something was going to my head.
The Village Connivers
If our heads were in the clouds from Tibet-philia, here was a grounding moment.
Mid-afternoon one day we reached Xiangcheng, a small town halfway between nowhere and nowhere.
The most ambitous people in town had banded together in a scam to strip Western tourists of their cash and travel plans. It involved the bus ticket office clerk, the nearby gold-toothed guest house operator, and possibly a taxi driver in a white minibus.
The ticket office clerk refused to sell us bus tickets to the next town, or even to say exactly when the bus departed. Meanwhile, the guest house operator was haggling us to take a room. And the taxi driver kept coming around offering to drive us to the next town for $60, no negotiating.
The confusion went round and round for an entire evening and into the next morning, when after being refused bus tickets yet again we finally took the taxi driver up on his offer with three fellow Westerners.
It was sobering to realize that the only way between nowhere, and the nowhere further down the road were paper tickets in the hands of village connivers.
The Spirit of China
The spirit of China is beginning to seep in me in subtle ways.
I noticed this the other day when it suddenly dawned on me how much it made sense to get rice at the end of a meal. I had been confused and somewhat annoyed by this practice for some time, and attributed it to China's perpetually bad service culture.
But here's the deal. When eating out, you want to consume the good stuff first and top off with rice. Rice is the tummy-filler in China, not a palate accompanyment.
Also, I now prefer the squat toilets, especially in public places. I will never, ever warm to the stench, or the abhorrent plumbing systems here, or doing my business in front of others, as is common at pit toilets in the countryside.
But I see now that squatting has its advantages in dirty, public places. "Western" toilets be gone!
Here's the kicker. Today at lunch, I spat my chicken bones on the table. Just like that. There was no personal plate, as we eat out of the same bowls in the middle of the table.
So I did what the Chinese do, no second thoughts about it. I dropped my head, and dropped my bones.