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Tibetans At Ease

Tibetans At Ease

The Tibetans Of Yunan Province


By Jim Goodman

Zhongdian is a long way from Lhasa. Though the county lies on the south easternmost corner of the Tibetan Plateau, it is outside Tibet proper, within the province of Yunnan. Historically, the Tibetans of Zhongdian have had strong links to the south, with Naxi and Han Chinese. In the past, Chinese soldiers protected Zhongdian from robber bands of Tibetans from the rugged mountains further north. Nowadays there is no heavy military presence in the area, or large-scale immigration of non-Tibetans. Most of the Han here have resided in the county for generations, as have the local Naxi. Han-Tibetan marriages are not uncommon and each community attends the festivals of the other. Tibetans man the important posts in Zhongdian's government and in recent years the monasteries have been restored and are fully active again. Sited so distant from the political troubles of Central Tibet, blessed with fertile land and vast grazing areas, with a track record of ethnic harmony, Zhongdian County may well house the most contented Tibetans of them all.

The road from Lijiang runs along the Upper Yangtze, then follows a tributary stream, passes Naxi villages perched above neat rows of terraces, passes Yi log cabins higher up in the pine forests, then opens up onto the Tibetan Plateau. The landscape takes on a whole new appearance: rolling highland plains, bordered by snow-capped mountains. Burly yaks and cattle graze in the fields, great swaths of which are dotted with azaleas in late spring, while after the flowers have fallen the stems and leaves in September turn a bright red. Houses are wide, two-story buildings of rammed earth and timber, with whitewashed walls and painted gates and windows. Rocks hold down the roofs. Prayer flags flutter from mounds of inscribed stones. And huge drying racks stand surreally empty, most of the year anyway, in the gardens and fields.

Several buses a day journey to Zhongdian, but except for logging trucks, few other vehicles traverse this highway. Village Tibetans pile into tractor trailers for the trip to town, or walk, leading their yaks, cattle and ponies ahead. Some of the men, in fur-flapped silk hats and colourful wool and leather boots, might be riding horses, since every village male fancies himself an equestrian. The ultimate destination of all this traffic is the marketplace of Zhongdian, a small but interesting town basking in the bright sun and fresh air at 11,500 feet.

The old town is an area of winding stone lanes, traditional architecture and a few open yards full of drying racks. The new town is basically two long streets, the buildings mostly cement, though the bigger ones are in the Tibetan palatial style, with tall red columns, sloping roofs and brightly painted, carved eaves. The central market is in this part, next to the bus station, and in good weather bustling daily. Besides assorted snacks, tools, pots, pans and common foodstuffs, one can find such local specialities as lumps of yak cheese, skins and furs, yak tail dusters, woollen saddle carpets, daggers of various sizes and sheaths, as well as a staggering array of rare herbs and wild animal parts used for medicine.

The main lure for visitors is the monastery village of Songzhanlin, three miles north of the town. Creamy white, box-like houses seem to stand on top of each other as they sprawl across a horizontal hillock. Seven separate villages have erected monasteries here, while the grandest of them all, on the highest level of the hill, services the county as a whole. First constructed in 1679 this monastery, like everything in China religious and within reach, suffered Red Guard depredations. But the Deng regime reversed policy on Yunnan's minorities and paid for the building's complete reconstruction. Currently the monastery houses fifty monks, including one Living Buddha (reincarnated high lama), with over 500 residing in the others.

Monks rise at seven and work until three. As the monasteries can only provide tea, they depend on their families for their food. They hold one-hour prayer sessions daily, punctuated by the music of alpine horns, drums and cymbals, in lavishly decorated halls, with long silk banners and religious paintings suspended over their heads. Just before sunset, in the main courtyard, one might catch them at an old, traditional monastic activity – debating Buddhist doctrine in groups of two to four. One will stand while expounding and when he thinks he has scored a point he will whirl and slam his left palm with his right fist curled around his rosary.

Other monasteries in the county are smaller and home to but a few caretaker monks, who anyway winter in Songzhanlin. Baijisi (White Chicken Temple) sits on a hill in back of Zhongdian's old town. It was renovated in 1993. The Living Buddha supervised and helped out with the carpentry. The front walls of the main hall now boast paintings of Tibetan deities, fierce and benevolent, in size and quality equal to Songzhanlin's. East of Zhongdian lies Dabao Temple, above the village, in a pleasant grove of tall pine trees festooned with prayer flags.

Tibetans themselves, though, are Zhongdian's greatest attraction. They have their own costume, different from Central Tibet's. The women wear a long, side-fastened tunic over trousers, a white apron in front and a pleated half-skirt in back. In colder weather they wear woollen coats or capes. In all seasons they braid their hair and wrap it in head scarves or under a cap with wool fringe that frames their faces. Men wear a floppy woollen coat, high boots, a wide leather belt with lots of little studs and pockets, a dagger dangling on the side, plus cowboy hats or fur caps.

They have their own dialect, and travellers trying out what they picked up from Tibetans in Lhasa or Nepal will draw a blank. They have been exposed to foreigners only since early 1993, yet their reaction has been quite positive. They certainly find us as unusual-looking as we find them. In mutual gawking sessions the village woman can out-stare any Lonely Planeteer. But on the whole the Tibetans are quite approachable, good-humoured, friendly and a mite flattered by all the attention. A very clannish people, they usually move around in small groups, and we see perhaps seven to ten going off shopping together, or a quartet of girls, arms around one another, bending over a market stall.

Zhongdian's Tibetans live in a harsh climate, yet they consider themselves pretty well off. The seasons roll by predictably and the hard work is intermittent. It commences in early spring, when the newly thawed ground must be ploughed, harrowed and sown with barley, the county's staple crop. Once that is done they wait for the rains in May–June. Weeding duties call from time to time, but with the onset of the monsoon begins Zhongdian's most important economic activity – gathering mushrooms. A family of diligent collectors can amass more money at this than they could by selling off their entire barley crop.

The particular mushroom, a large, beige to brown type, is called matsutake by the Japanese, who relish it. The Tibetans don't even eat it, preferring the smaller, darker kinds. But in Japan it's a favourite gourmet delicacy for impressive business lunches. A decade ago Japanese discovered this mushroom grew in abundance in the woods of this county. They organised the business and nowadays refrigerated trucks full of mushrooms leave Zhongdian every summer day for Kunming, where their loads are flown to Japan. Prices vary considerably throughout the season. It may begin at 500 yuan (over $60) per kilogram, but when the state forests are officially opened the price plunges to as low as 80 yuan ($10), which is still considerable by local standards.

It's a job anyone can take up. The only competition comes from bears, which also prize the mushroom and break into a rage at human competition. However, encounters are too rare to frighten off Tibetans from the hunt. The town stays open nearly all night in mushroom season. Restaurants serve late. Roast potato sellers remain in the streets past midnight. Conviviality reigns. And giggles in the dark hint of the day's success.

In September the rains begin to cease, the distant snow peaks reappear, the air has a nip in it, and the fields shimmer with waves of golden barley. Now the people cut their grain and mount it on the great racks that face the southward arc of the sun. By late October or early November it's ready for threshing. Women climb up the racks and kick loose the sheaves. Others below bundle them up and carry them to the threshing ground. There are two ways to knock loose the grain: by flailing, in teams of four, whipping the grain stalks, or by leading in circles over the piles a pony that's pulling across the grain a grooved drum.

Afterwards the barley is winnowed and stored. A portion will be used to make alcohol, the rest ground into flour and consumed. After the harvest the fields are again broken up, but as winter arrives, looking after livestock is the only consistent chore. Women will spin and weave, or knit scarves and sweaters, while men will construct houses and sheds. Even in winter Tibetans keep themselves moderately busy, while their sturdy homes are warmed by a large fireplace, fed by thick dry firewood.

Two floors and an attic make up a Tibetan house in Zhongdian, with a yard and sheds in the front and a wall around the property. The ground level houses the animals – yaks, ponies, goats. The upper level has a small room for the family altar, bedrooms for the family and a large kitchen-living room. Wooden water buckets, butter churns and baskets stand in one corner. From the ceiling hang drying lumps of cheese and meat. The room is comfortable and a six-footer needn't stoop when standing. Guests are ushered to the warmest spot in the house – between the fireplace and the back wall.

They cook with a huge, five-chambered pot, emptying pails of water directly into each opening. Buttered tea is the first thing offered a guest, with refills whenever the host notices the level in the cup smaller. A bowl of dry barley flour comes next, with a spoon to enable you to pop some into your mouth, and then wash it down with the tea. A hunk of yak cheese will likely follow and, if you're especially favoured and they have some on hand, a jigger of powerful home-made barley spirits. Rice, potatoes and occasionally turnips or cabbage, sliced ham or yak meat comprise the usual meal.

Tibetans turn in early and rise before sunrise. First chores are to fetch water and feed the animals, make a breakfast and then go off to the day's task. Occasionally a group will decide to go into town together, to buy rice and other necessities and meet friends and relatives. Tibetans enjoy social life and, being a people without television, entertain each other with social calls. Weddings provide more of that in winter, in addition to the New Year Festival, when lamas perform dances at the monastery.

The greatest event of the year, however, is the Horse Racing Festival, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (usually early June). Tibetans from all over the county and beyond dress up in their best costumes and silver and turquoise jewellery to attend two days of races, riding exhibitions, ethnic dances and Tibetan opera performances. Recently the Yi, Lisu and Naxi minorities from the southern end of the county have been included in the programs, too. Zhongdian for two days swims in colour. By day the markets are full of all kinds of people, while at night Tibetan youths take over the streets, make several ring dances and sing folk songs, call and response style, long past midnight. Their exuberance is so contagious one finds oneself reluctant to push on and...do what? See if there are any happier people down the road?

Getting There

Daily air service to Kunming, the provincial capital, is available from Hong Kong and Bangkok. Thai Air also flies twice weekly from Chiang Mai and Angel Air twice weekly from Chiang Rai. Other flights, once or twice a week, connect Kunming with Vientiane, Yangon and Hanoi, as well as provincial Chinese capitals. Yunnan Airlines operates four flights weekly from Kunming to Zhongdian.

Sleeper coaches, with beds, take around 15 hours from Kunming. Daily bus and minibus service also runs from Dali (9 hours) and Lijiang (6 hours). Travel services in Lijiang will rent out jeeps or vans, with driver, for those who want a leisurely drive, with stops for photography.


Text and photos by Jim Goodman & Pictures From History - © CPA Media