Mehtok Lahmo goes to “Tibet”: Part 1
Surprise! My name is no longer Roubai it’s now Mehtok Lahmo. Okay not really but that was the Tibetan name I was given on my adventure to “Tibet” aka the Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Apparently that means Flower Fairy/Godess in Tibetan. Let me start off by saying this was a 9 day adventure with no Internet so needless to say I have a lot to write about so I will be splitting this up into at least 2 posts and probably skimming the highlights. This past week the Alliance program went on a trip to Qinghai and Gansu provinces. These are technically part of China (according to China) but they might as well be part of Tibet since some parts were also considered Tibetan Autonomous regions. Tibetans consider it Amdo aka part of Old Tibet, the local government is mostly Tibetan, the people are Tibetan, the primary spoken language is Tibetan, the food is Tibetan, it really feels nothing like you are in China. We went to two provinces: Gansu and Qinghai and 4 locations: Xiahe, Tongren, Gharong Village, and Xining. Keep in mind these are the Chinese names but they’re easier to spell so I’m using them.
After a 17 hour train ride from Beijing our group arrived in Lanzhou. The train ride on the way there was not actually too bad since you basically have a bunch of bunk beds in different compartments so you can actually sleep but if you know me you know how stir crazy I can get so it was still quite a long ride! After arriving in Lanzhou we had a quick lunch and headed to our first location: Xiahe. Xiahe was really incredible!
The hotel we stayed at was modeled after a traditional Tibetan room so that in itself was a great introduction to the culture. The first day of course we didn’t heed advice to “take it slow” and hopped (okay climbed) right up a mountain. I apologize in advance for how much I am inevitably going to talk about mountains and monks but the view was incredible! You could see all the other mountains nearby as well as the entire monastery below us. I’ve been hiking on mountains before but this was just a whole other level of beauty that I don’t think pictures can even do justice.
After our hike we had our first introduction to the tastiest of Tibetan delicacies: YAK. Now I wasn’t even really aware that people actually ate Yak until this trip. Yaks kind of look like a mix between a buffalo and a goat and taste sort of like beef or lamb but really chewy. Now in Tibet EVERYTHING is made out of Yak. This is no exaggeration: for the past 9 days I have pretty much eaten yak dumplings, yak soup, yak off a bone, yak chopped up and spiced, yak milk, yak yogurt, yak tendons (yes you read that right), and who knows what else. I have to say though the Tibetan people use every part of the yak including the fur and the hide to make various products so its a much more admirable way of eating meat than in the US (just my former vegetarian mini sidenote). Ironically enough one of our guides’ nickname was Yak so that got old and confusing really fast. There must be something in the Yak though because Tibetans are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. I think it is in part because their lives are very simple (although monks do use modern technology apparently, we saw a ton with iPhones) so they have few major concerns and can lead very happy lives.
The city we were in for the first couple days-Xiahe is basically a monastery town but we were told not to wander around too much because surprise again apparently monks really like to harvest foreign peoples’ organs for various religious purposes. Luckily nobody’s organs were taken but rather than continue hiking we checked out a market nearby. I managed to pick up a yak/sheep wool scarf that is seriously the softest thing I have ever felt after much bargaining and a bunch of us also picked up prayer beads and Tibetan prayer flags and other various Tibetan souveniers. The second day we were in Xiahe we headed to Labrong Monastery–the main attraction in Xiahe. This is one of the two most important monasteries in one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism (unfortunately I have no idea which).
Labrong Monastery was incredibly cool to learn about. First our guide, Sonam, took us around and explained the basic concepts including explaining about Tibetan medicine since that is one of the main schools of Buddhism taught at this monastery. The monks all have to learn every type of medicine and plants that they can use to make the medicine so it is a lot of work for them. It was really fascinating just to learn about the monks. About 99% of them choose to become monks before they’re even 5 and spend their entire lives studying various aspects of Buddhism. We then took a tour of the rest of the monastery with a monk himself. It was pretty funny because they can’t touch girls and aren’t supposed to smile so the monk kept stopping himself from laughing. I managed to get a picture with him smiling though! He was quite the character. We also got the chance to walk through the main prayer/learning temple and observe the monks praying. It was really enlightening and cool to observe.
After our trip to the monastery we headed to the grasslands a little bit farther away from this town. At first we thought we were just going to have a picnic in the grasslands and hang out with some nomads but surprise again (seriously so many surprises on this trip) it was time to go horseback riding! Now in the US the horseback riding I’ve done was somewhat tame–on a trail in a line, or at least usually with a helmet and a proper saddle. These horses? Nope. We had a blanket with a sort of horn to hold on to and some sort of makeshift reigns (and no helmets). We get on these horses and of course I get one that takes off across the grasslands the second we hop on so I’m yelling at it in English and Chinese even though it obviously only knows Tibetan. Also apparently in Tibet pulling the reins back doesn’t mean stop always. Oops. Anyways after getting my horse under control we enjoyed a really beautiful ride through the grasslands and part of the mountains (I did say I would be talking about mountains a lot).
On our way to our next location, Tongren (which I’ll talk about in another post) we stopped to visit a nomadic village. The Chinese government has been trying to phase out the nomadic lifestyle and has started building permanent villages for these Tibetan nomads who are used to moving around. It’s actually really sad to see because they are so clearly unhappy about their lives and paranoid to voice any sort of opinion against it. The comparison between this and Native Americans in the US gets thrown around a lot but I think it really is fitting. Our time in the nomadic village was short but a good glimpse into the darker side of Tibetan culture and the impact of living in a “Chinese” territory.
Overall, Xiahe was a really cool town and I loved the feel of it. It was really fascinating to learn about the various cultural and religious aspects of life for many of the monks and the Tibetan people who lived near the monastery. On of our guides (the one nicknamed Yak) is from that area so it was also helpful because him and the other guide were so knowledgable. I think I will write about the next two places in another post, so until then as they would say in Tibetan: Deimo!
Just some more pictures: