Mehtok Lahmo goes to “Tibet”: Part 2
Anddd we’re back. This post will probably be even longer than the last since I have a lot to say and am going to fit it in just this post. Here we goo:
Our next stop was Tongren, a slightly larger Tibetan area that could probably be considered a city, but it was more like a huge mountain town. Our main excursions in Tongren were a visit to a senior high school (the equivalent of grades 10-12) and a Tongka painting school.
The senior high school was a really cool experience. It’s a normal school (normal for China meaning a boarding school and students take 9-10 classes a day from 8 am to 9 pm…with a 2 hour lunch break and curfew at 10 pm) but there is a program within the school started by a South African woman to teach English. We had the opportunity to sit in on an English class of 2nd year students and help them practice their English. I absolutely loved this because the students were so friendly and so excited to have us there. In my group we chatted about everything from favorite subjects to family (in rural areas/in minority populations the One Child Policy has many exceptions so most of these kids had several siblings). It was really cool to get to talk to Tibetan children and hear their perspectives. We were forbidden from talking about politics (no I’m not kidding) but even just from their statements about how they prefer Tibetan and English class to Chinese and politics class you could hear their perspectives in some way.
In Tongren we also visited a Tongka school. Tongren is considered the art capital of Qinghai and Tibetan Buddhism. Tongka painting is basically a form of religious art that is supposed to directly visualize and represent the religious texts. I actually didn’t learn too much form the monks we spoke to but later on in the trip (jumping around a bit here) we spoke with a Canadian woman who had relocated to India and then Tibet and studied Tongka painting under a Lama in India. It was really fascinating to hear it explained because it is so intricate of an art.
There are tons of rituals and customs that must be fulfilled for it to be legitimate. It was also interesting to hear the two sides of it, because after we spoke to the foreign woman doing Tongka our tour guide started ranting to me about how it was desecrating the historical culture of Tongka painting by modernizing it. More than anything Tibetan Buddhism seems to revolve around the importance of culture and understanding.
In Tongren I also had a bit of a mishap when I took a nice little fall down the side of the mountain. Several of us decided we wanted to go on another mountain hike so our guide Yak decided to take us. Now our guide’s nickname was not arbitrary it was because he used to care for the yaks in his village so he was so in tune with them people called him Yak. Our guide (and several of our group members who like to skip up mountains) decided to use this yak sense to have us clamber up the mountain by grabbing onto dead trees, pieces of dirt and grass, and run through a forest of thornbushes.
Needless to say it was not an easy hike but it was a beautiful view when we finally reached the abandoned house at the top of the mountain. It was when we were coming down that I had a little mishap and went falling over a small ridge into a pile of wetland mud. So that was fun. After that my leg was in a lot of pain the rest of the trip (combined with another fall on my other leg later in the trip) so this was the last hike for me but that does not mean I am done talking about mountains!
The next day we headed out of Tongren to go to our third destination: Gharong Village. This might have been my favorite activity of the entire trip despite the fact that…it was Yom Kippur! It definitely would have been 10x more enjoyable if I hadn’t been fasting/unable to drink water all day and had a non-injured leg but that in itself was quite the experience to try and explain to a Tibetan host mother who spoke zero English or Chinese. Luckily our guide had informed her ahead of time that me and another Jewish student wouldn’t be eating/drinking that day since it was a holiday, so hopefully she wasn’t too offended. When we were in the village we first settled in with our host families. The four other students with me had quite an experience trying to communicate. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a situation where it was so hard to communicate because not only do you not speak the language but the cultural norms and gestures are not the same. By the end of our time in the village I had certainly learned a lot more Tibetan (especially jiatong: drink tea! and gancuo: eat bread!).
In the village they were in the process of building a monastery for the village. We were incredibly lucky and helped out for part of the day. I spent a little time helping paint the inside of the monastery but also spent a large majority of my time outside laying stones in the sidewalk aka in “cement” made out of dirt and yak fertilizer. Yes, you read that right. It was really incredible though because these villagers have none of the modern technology we’re used to using in the United States (for example they carry probably 50 lbs of stones on their backs in just a bamboo basket) and yet they are so happy to do it.They were especially happy to have us there and kept asking us our names (mostly because this was the extent of our knowledge of the Tibetan language). I really enjoyed helping out at the village because we got to just interact with the Tibetans at a very basic level and they were clearly so happy to have us there despite our inability to communicate fully.
The time in Tongren at the school and in Gharong Village was definitely my favorite just because of all the time we were able to spend interacting with the local Tibetan people. The life was so simple and yet incredible to experience a small glimpse of it. In the last part of our trip we headed from Gharong Village to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province.
On our way to Xining we stopped at the Panchen Lama’s birthplace. The Lamas are chosen at a young age through a series of tests to determine that they are in fact the reincarnation of the previous Lama. Because of the delicate situation between China and Tibet though, there has been a lot of problems with the most recent one, who was kidnapped by the government and nobody currently knows where he is. The birthplace itself was rather ordinary but it was really cool to see how holy of a place it was considered.
Once we got to Xining we met with an NGO that works a lot with uniting different organizations in China and Tibet to work on eco tourism, earthquake relief, and education. It was pretty cool to hear about it because NGOs are incredibly rare in China due to the government requirements that they be linked with a government organization. While in Xining we also met with the Canadian Tongka painter I talked about earlier. On our second to last day we also took a trip to Qinghai Lake which is the biggest freshwater lake in China. You aren’t actually allowed to swim in the lake because it’s really religious and they “bury” (aka drop) a bunch of bodies in the lake. Surprisingly enough this doesn’t hurt the water at all it was a beautiful color of blue. While there we took a nice leisurely 12-15 mile bike ride around the lake. We didn’t go all the way around because I think the lake is something like 60 miles around, but it was mostly flat so it really was a nice bike ride.
I think the time in this city really explains the difference in Tibetan villages and the rest of China. In Xining, everyone spoke Chinese, the signs and food were all in Chinese again. In the Tibetan villages they still are for all intents and purposes still Tibetan. They have absorbed so little Chinese culture it feels like an entirely different country. It’s very easy to simply say that there is a problem between Tibet and China but it’s a totally different situation to actually encounter the people who make up the situation. Overall the trip was an incredibly fascinating glimpse into the lives of a different ethnic group in China and a culture so far removed from American and even Chinese culture.
Extra pictures again: