The Good Earth

Zhongdian, Yunnan Province, China

Farmers, Zhongdian

Without hesitating to shake the granite out of our shoes, we had hopped a local bus from Qiatou and the vistas of Tiger Leaping Gorge to press on north to the very brink of the Yunnan and the frontier it shared with the Tibetan plateau. Zhongdian, or “Shangri-La” as the local had dubiously renamed it for marketing purposes, was as close to Tibet as Team Rauch would get to China’s Wild West. With the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic only weeks away, the Party was reputed to be taking few chances with foreigners wandering into political hot zones. We acknowledged the greater risk for protests in areas like Tibet, which invariably would be followed with a severe government response. Such had already been the case in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, where Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, were at odds with the police over a series of hypodermic syringe stabbings. Given the timing, we opted to leave Lhasa for another visit.

At some point in during an uphill haul though mountain passes; perhaps during a forced stop when our bus overheated, we noticed the temperature begin to drop. At a certain elevation, the terraced corn rows and emerald patchwork of village farms gave way to valleys of scrub grass below a brilliant blue sky. The late afternoon sunlight, no longer filtered through the Yangtze’s mist, had a pitch-perfect clarity, and cast long shadows. And there, ambling along the side of the road, Oliver saw it first. A yak heralded our arrival; its long matted hair, humped withers, and clear-toned mountain bell at its throat.

Songzanlin Monastery

Zhongdian was similar to other Chinese cities of historical significance that we had visited. The new city’s urban sprawl surrounded the Old Town, which itself was a network of cobbled streets connecting the town square with the main temple. Strings of brightly colored prayer flags adorned the town and an enormous golden prayer wheel presided on a hill overlooking the city. To the North, the Songzanlin lamasery, home to 400 monks, was second in size only to Potala in Lhasa. All around the city, small Tibetan farmsteads cultivated millet and livestock (yak, cows, sheep, pigs and chickens). Beyond, the mountains shadowed their golden fields and gravel roads. We slurped on yak hot pot in the brisk evenings and cycled through fields where small children chased after us, shouting “hello!” and “today is Tuesday!” in English.

rooftops and prayer flags

Every night at 6PM sharp, turned out for dancing in the old town square to folk tunes played over a loud speaker, and after watching (and a little partaking) we would retire to our inn where the owner kept a traditional furnace burning in the center of the common room. We took the opportunity to break out Oliver’s long sleeves (no stains yet!), but he still managed to come away with a cold after a few days. On one particular evening, he took turns adopting several of the local grandmothers who came to watch the dancing in the evenings. He situated himself at the center of the dancers in the middle of the square, an ran shrieking in circles, nearly toppling a few who weren’t watching their step, only to barrel through the crowd to fall at the heavy, brightly embroidered skirts of the grandmothers. In this odd way, he charmed the locals, and in a matter of time, he had a cadre of local Tibetan kids sharing with him in the fun. At one point, one of his little pals took a break to squat in the middle of the square and relieve himself of some serious business. Ollie studied both him and the business for a second or two, laughed hysterically, and then nearly vaulted feet first into his pal’s deposit. The grandmothers were less excited to see him on that go around.

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going. – Paul Theroux

Though geographically we were still well within a Chinese province, we might as well have been within the nearby and very arbitrary boundary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Here, smiles were easy to come by, folks laughed a little more, and a well-placed “Tashi delek” (hello in Tibetan) got us a lot farther than “Nihao”. Perhaps in a few months when our trip finds us in Nepal, we’ll give Tibet another run, this time coming from the back door.

Posted from Deqen, Yunnan, China.

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