Yaks, Pats And Daredevils


Yaks, pats and daredevils

Where is the real Tibet? A trek into the countryside...

7.00am. The sky is still dark though it’s midsummer. We are on Beijing time here: the ‘unity of the motherland’ will have nothing to do with different time zones, however illogical the consequences. A bone-rattler of a hired jeep arrives. Five of us are set for a trip into the countryside, where 86 per cent of Tibetans live.

Our destination is Tsurphu, 70 kilometres and about three hours’ bumpy ride north-west of Lhasa. The driver is a tousle-haired Tibetan who looks as if he should still be in bed. We soon leave behind the wide streets of Lhasa and hit a stone-slab road. There were no roads in Tibet at the time of the invasion and so road-building was the first development imperative for the Chinese. Tibetan forced labour was used, though Chinese sources say that many of their own people died too, unused as they were to working at such high altitudes.

We are heading in the direction of Yangbachen, driving through a fertile plain filled with high-growing wheat. Before 1950 Tibet was self-sufficient in food and barley was the staple. Then the Chinese ordered that 80 per cent of arable land be planted with wheat instead of barley. It was a disaster: the altitude and climate were far better suited to barley than wheat. The combination of crop failure and the export of grain and meat to China resulted in Tibet’s first-ever famine.

Today large-scale plans to develop Tibet’s agriculture have sparked off international controversy. In 1989 a major UN irrigation project in the Lhasa Valley benefited not Tibetan farmers but the 130,000 Chinese settlers who moved into the area to take advantage of it. Critics claim the proposed $9-million Panam Rural Integrated Development Project, funded by the European Community, will also benefit Chinese rather than Tibetans. Hard lobbying for a change of emphasis by the London-based Tibet Support Group and others earlier this year has led European Commissioners to pause for time to ‘reflect’. The Chinese are now threatening to back out of the scheme altogether.

Illegal image: the Chinese have prohibited the sale of images of the Dalai Lama like the one this farmer wears around his neck.

We cross a river over a rickety wooden bridge. The road becomes a rough, winding track – and too great a challenge for the piece of rubber that’s holding the jeep’s rear doors together. As we climb higher the air gets thinner and the vegetation seems violently green in the bright sunlight. The sky is the deepest of blues behind the rich mauve and golden brown of the mountains. Every now and again a snow-capped peak appears, like a sudden blessing.

Wild creatures appear. A hare here. An eagle there. Little finch-like birds with orange feathers that reveal themselves brightly in flight. A generation ago Tibetan children were ordered to kill creatures – birds, mice, rabbits, rats, insects – as part of a China-wide campaign against crop-eating ‘pests’. This played havoc with the balance of nature and also ran contrary to Buddhist teaching which is against taking life in any form. Thankfully the birds have come back.

People are few and far between up here. Most are semi-nomadic, cultivating their plots of land but also travelling with their animals in search of pasture when they need to. Life looks as if it has not changed in thousands of years. There are no electricity cables, no paved roads, schools or clinics. Life seems to continue untouched by the Chinese occupation.

Looks are deceptive. The Chinese may not yet live in the countryside in any large numbers, but they are still in control. Communist collectivization may have failed – there was a rural rebellion in 1969 – but the authorities still tell the farmers what to grow.

We’ve reached the end of the track and the monastery of Tsurphu. It looks, well, like something out of an NI Calendar – a walled city nestling in the mountains in the early morning light, juniper-incense smoke wafting over its turrets.

We climb out of the jeep. There are monks crouching by the walls and we head vaguely in their direction, fortunately discovering just in time that they are not engaged in a meditation on stones, but rather answering the call of nature. We head swiftly in the opposite direction, to be followed equally swiftly by a flock of sparrow-like child monks, full of early-morning playfulness.

We set off to walk over to the other side of the mountain and come upon a river, whose banks are soft, mossy and covered in tiny blue flowers. A small boy appears out of nowhere and shows us where to cross. He has a sweet unassuming face and flowers behind his ears. He comes from a nearby farm where we meet his mother and a younger child who is engrossed in a game with a yak pat. As we leave and carry on up the mountain a third child appears.

I wonder: is this child one too many in Chinese eyes? Not in Tibetan eyes, for sure. Rural families are meant to be large. But if this woman has fallen foul of birth-control restrictions she may be in trouble.

At first Tibet and other underpopulated rural areas were exempt from the strict family-planning measures – including the one-child policy – introduced by Beijing in 1979. But in 1992 it became the mission of local authorities to control strictly births in areas inhabited by minorities, no matter how remote. Cadres who achieved results were promoted, those who failed were demoted. In some regions specially trained Chinese teams would tour villages looking for women pregnant with their third or fourth child – sometimes even their second. When caught they were coerced – sometimes even physically forced – into having an abortion. Some women were sterilized without their consent.

Traditionally women in Tibetan society had a relatively good position. They suffered neither footbinding like their Chinese sisters nor widow-burning as in India. Polyandry was an accepted custom and Tibetan women could choose to marry or divorce as they pleased. Often it was women who ran the house and controlled the purse-strings. There’s a Tibetan saying that goes: ‘The woman has the brains and the man has the brawn. Put them together and you have a good combination.’

It’s one o’clock. Time to head back to the monastery and be blessed by the new 10-year-old lama, known as the Karmapa. The boy has already been whisked off to Beijing, where he was induced to make a pro-Chinese statement about ‘the unity of the Motherland’. But that hasn’t stopped pilgrims coming from all around to be blessed by him. They are queuing up the steps of the monastery now. We are ushered into a downstairs room, where a sign asks us to make a donation ‘for the monkees’. Then we are herded up a ladder into a room from which comes the thrilling sound of brass horns, bells and chanting. We are blessed by the Karmapa – a very bored-looking boy, it must be said – hastened out again and it’s all over in no time.

Altitude sickness is hitting hard now – we are 4,600 metres high – and I’m feeling about as spiritually edified as the jeep driver looks happy. He wants to go back now, he says, even more sulkily than at seven o’clock this morning. Okay, but can we stop off along the way? No way, he says. He has no permit for stopping. We plead. He grumbles. Just a little stop, no-one will know. He grumbles some more and maybe agrees.

We drive till we come across a group of women and children out on a washing expedition by the river. I plonk myself firmly down on the grass beside them – and upon a decidedly fresh yak pat. Luckily I manage to slope off relatively unnoticed, remove the offending garment and give it a good wash in cold crystal-clear water. When I get back a girl is showing these unexpected foreigners how to eat the delicious inner skins of pea-pods.

As we set off again the driver looks resolute. It looks like no more stops. But no-one has reckoned on the allure of Tibetan horse races. When we come upon a gathering of scores of people partying and some daredevil horseriders the driver has no problem stopping.

Time after time horses come thundering along the track, riders leaning perilously out of the saddle to draw a line on the ground with a stick. A woman keeps plying us with barley wine – potent stuff at this altitude. We stay a couple of hours and the driver seems well placated – whether by the races or the barley wine is not clear.

On re-entering Lhasa it feels like we have left behind the true Tibet. We are back to a prison of soldiers everywhere as we pass a ponderous bronze statue of two yaks, symbol of the Chinese ‘liberation of Tibet’.

Three days later we leave Tibet. As we leave a large aircraft lands and disgorges yet more soldiers. Five days later foreigners are ordered out by the next available means of transport. Tibet is once more closed to foreigners until further notice.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 274 magazine cover This article is from the December 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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