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Sichuan: the Peoples of the High Country

Posted by on Sep 8, 06:44 PM
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Tibetan Characters

…to sneak through checkpoints in this harshly cold, high-altitude climate at 3am, the experience promised to be far from fun.

While in Huaxia I read on my friend Jamin’s blog that the Tibetan autonomous prefectures of western Sichuan had been closed for the month of July to foreigners Prayer flagsin order to prevent photography or video leaks of Tibetan political activity to the Western media and the internet. There was a possibility that these areas would reopen in August. I was scheduled to ride into them on August 1st. Needless to say, sneaking through one police checkpoint had been enough, and if I would be forced to sneak through checkpoints in this harshly cold, high-altitude climate at 3am, the experience promised to be far from fun.

Seeing no alternative other than making a drastic alteration in my plans and skipping Sichuan altogether, I set off into the cool, overcast weather through the grass-green hills that were speckled with grazing yaks on a small, but paved, provincial road and went over a 4,700-meter pass, the first of several,. in the thin Tibetan thingair Later in the day I stopped in a village and was immediately surrounded by scruffy, hard-lived looking Tibetans who stared with intense curiosity at me, yet they made no attempt at communication, as if I had just descended from a flying saucer. I ignored them and they followed me from shop to shop as I hopelessly searched for some bread. Finally, slightly uncomfortable and annoyed by this treatment, I stared each one of them into the eyes to see what would happen, then waved and yelled “HELLO!” A few chuckled and everyone kept on staring. I left the village. I suspect that these places not only never see tourists, they never see visitors at all!

Very few habitations outside of the cities (which themselves are few and far between) in Qinghai and rural Sichuan have electricity or plumbing.

Toward evening I camped near a stream and a small Tibetan family’s home, to the infinite pleasure of the children (the oldest of whom would only grunt in response to my queries in Mandarin) who helped me to set up camp and tried to ride my bike Baimaaround in spite of being far too short for it. I visited with the family well into the evening. In the morning the wind was blowing an icy rain over my tent.

I waited all day for it to end, most of which I spent reading in the little home of the family, who fastidiously kept my paper cup topped up with yaks’ milk tea as they churned butter with an electric machine powered by batteries that had in turn been charged by their solar panel. Very few habitations outside of the cities (which themselves are few and far between) in Qinghai and rural Sichuan have electricity or plumbing.

…would not look away no matter how long I stared directly into their eyes…

The weather was overcast the next morning but had improved considerably, so I set off after breakfast with my neighbors, who were conducting some sort of Manbusiness deal with some weathered-looking fellows. In Darlag, a small town full of monks, rough-looking yak herders and Chinese police, I was loudly HELLO!ed so many times and stared at so much I really became quite discomposed. I was followed around by a pack of dirty-faced little boys who all kept their eyes on me but never said a thing, and would not look away no matter how long I stared directly into their eyes as I tried to eat my lunch. The owner of the little restaurant unsuccessfully tried to chase them away a few times.

Young LadiesAs I pedaled along in the afternoon Tibetans on motorbikes would follow me or ride alongside to stare at the strange extraterrestrial that I had become, and a minority would wave and smile without my initial instigation to friendly contact. I could not help but compare this behavior to India, where a foreign cyclist will get more uncouth attention than he or she can typically digest. The Chinese, though they sometimes stare for a few seconds, have much more delicacy and propensity for friendly interaction.

Mate
bq. …a stew of yak organs and noodles with steamed mantu rolls to soak up the gravy.

I camped at a hospitable Chinese workers’ camp that night, and when I awoke from a deep sleep my tent was covered in a layer of ice! However, the day turned out to be a fine one, even warm, and the mountains began to have more green shrubbery at their bases rather than just grass. In the town of Banma I decided on a dormitory room so that I could easily wash my clothes, but there was no shower so SichuanI did my best under the circumstances by pouring hot tea from a large vacuum bottle into a plastic basin in the bathroom and mixed it down with cold water, then doused myself. Too late: I had become so used to bathrooms in China having a drain in the floor that I forgot to check whether this one had a drain! The good staff of the Tibetan guesthouse would not let me help cleanup the huge puddle that had seeped under the doorway into the hall.

The next road was unpaved for about 100 kilometers and I climbed up and up into threatening weather over a high pass and regrettably turned down the offers of a few friendly nomads to come visit them in their tents. I was far above them when the sky opened and drenched me in freezing rain. The slushy mud splattered my legs as I descended the other side, desperate to keep my hands warm enough to operate the brakes. I took the first invite that presented itself and quickly found myself in front of a stove and surrounded by a handsome family of nomadic herders. They would not hear of me riding any further that day, drenched as I was, "Where are you going?"and I entertained them with my camera as the yaks’ milk tea warmed my bones. That night the lovely daughter served us the feast that the women had prepared during the day: a stew of yak organs and noodles with steamed mantu rolls to soak up the gravy. We had the traditional tsampa for breakfast, a mixture of hot water, yak butter and barley flour that is, well, predictably bland and not popular with non-Tibetans, but a healthy way to start the day all the same.

MonasteryI was on my way to visit the Seda Buddhist Institute, a complex of monasteries and temples in the mountains of Sichuan that is, so I have heard, now the largest Tibetan monastic community in China. My anxiety about the closure of this prefecture was calmed when I received word from Jamin that the police had told him that now all of western Sichuan was open to foreigners. However I was warned that there could still be small areas that the police would not let me pass through.

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