Saturday, May 14, 2005

“The Wild, Wild West Of Yunnan and Sichuan”
Southwest China

Greetings From Tibet-

We've made our way up to the fabled town of Shangri-La, known as Zhongdian on Chinese Maps. We're at over 10,000 feet on the Tibetan Plateau and surrounded by wide open space, a yawning blue sky, and a crescent of snow-capped mountains.

This is a strange place. Where the old world meets the new world. Where the Chinese communist government and pressure to build new roads and new hotels clashes with the ancient way of the Tibetans. A collision of cultures and centuries. Part of the town is ugly and concrete and windswept but just a few steps outside of town and one runs into old Tibetan women in ancient dress and monks in burgundy robes.

We took a bus for 10 cents up to one of the largest Buddhist monasteries of Southwest China yesterday, climbing up the foothills to an even higher altitude. I was suffering from a bit of altitude sickness stumbling my way along the path and bumbling about with my camera unable to think straight or form complete sentences. Having altitude sickness is a little bit like being drunk...only without all the happy side effects.

We came to a large gompa built to represent the 13 steps to enlightenment and watched a Khampa Tibetan man carving Tibetan prayers into a slab of stone. The Tibetans here are called "Khampa," the famed warriors of East Tibet. The men are gifted horsemen and wear daggers on their belts. They are the ones who fought a fierce battle against the Chinese when the communist govt. took over Tibet. It is the Khampas who some other Tibetans fear for their fierce natures and physical build. The men and women are taller than other Chinese and have broad shoulders and thick black hair the color of ravens.

We walked beneath strands of shredded prayer flags fluttering in the mountain wind sending prayers off into the heavens on the backs of "wind horses," messengers of the sky.

A group of eight older Tibetan woman sat along a log chattering away as women do. They wore bright pink headscarves, long robes, and giant chunks of silver and turquoise jewelry. One of them motioned to mother and I and our Austrian friend to sit with them and share their space. I shared a bag of BBQ potato chips with the row of women, each of them cupping their hands and thanking us in Tibetan. Their faces were dark and handsome and deeply wrinkled from their years in the mountains. Their hands thick and strong. I wondered how many children they had seen born and how many children and grandchildren they'd raised....the countless baskets of wood they'd carried through the hills, the bread they'd made, and the loved ones they'd seen die through their lifetimes. They were completely beautiful.

Mother and I stood up to try to speak a couple of words to them in Tibetan. We started with "We are from America." Apparently, our pronunciation was a bit off because the women stayed silent and looked rather blank.

We tried again and this time two of the women winced painfully as if we'd just sung a Celine Dion song off key.

At last, they motioned it was time to go. Two of the women lifted our backpacks onto our backs as if they were full of feathers. We walked along the road with them until they headed in another direction towards their village.

The monastery's golden-leafed roof glimmered in the afternoon light and a cool breeze made the windchimes echo through the sky above us. We walked through the halls, the walls painted vividly with Buddhist deities in vibrant golds, blues, reds, and greens.

We lit incense and made prayers at one of the altars. A couple of monks noticed I couldn't stop sneezing from the dust and wind._The youngest one_pulled out a small glass jar and tapped a brown powder onto his thumbnail motioning me to take some and snort it through my nose.

Of course, curiosity overcame me and I tried it. It hit me hard with a sharp, pleasant strike to the right nasal cavity. "Hun hao!" I said with delight. "Very good!" He poured more onto my thumbnail, making sure to keep me from taking too much. It couldn't be_THAT illegal if a monk was offering it to me, right? _I snorted it again begging mom to try some, too. She'd already learned her lesson when she tried the last anonymous herb on our trek. She wasn't about to snort some strange looking powder up her nose.

A chinese woman told me later that it was tobacco home-grown by the monks. How they get the tobacco into such a tiny little bottle is a mystery to me.

We're headed to the North from here, deeper into the heart of East Tibet with a group of four other travelers (from Austria, U.K., and the Netherlands) and an English-speaking Chinese driver. We'll be throwing all of our bags onto the roof of the 4-wheel drive vehicle and cramming ourselves into the back.

We hope to drive through the mountains up to 15,000 feet and through the Tibetan grasslands where nomadic Tibetans will be camped with their mastiffe guard dogs.

From there, we'll head to Chengdu.

Adieu to you all,

Cheers, Rachel and her mum