Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Slice of Tibetan Life in Litang

Litang is China's Tibetan wild west. Although not officially in Tibet proper, this small town, sits just a couple mountain ranges to the east, and 80% of its population is Tibetan. The difference is obvious and immediately noticable. It feels different, it looks different, the people are different, the language is different, the food is different, the architecture is different. Litang is colourful, friendly, lively, devout - and crawling with police. Yup. We are practically in Tibet.

Tibetan people are fantastic. They are, hands down, some of the friendliest people we have encountered thus far. Whereas the Chinese are definitely friendly, they are much more likely to stare with blank faces than to produce the wide, genuinely welcoming smiles, as the Tibetans do. You really can't help dancing down Litang's main street, grinning silly, high on life from all that good cheer. We caught on to the Tibetan greeting Tashi Delik pretty quickly- and using the Tibetan language produced great results when interacting with the locals. They just loved it.

Tibetans look tough. The women aren't tiny, dainty things like many Chinese women. They were built for living the rough, nomadic life high in the mountains and over the endless stretch of grasslands. The whole place is straight out of a National Geographic magazine. Wise elders have dark, weathered, warm leathery faces that seem to be permanently etched into huge smiles. The men wear cowboy hats and the women, colourful aprons. Young Tibetan teens zoom their colourfully decorated motorbikes around town, their music blaring, their long, black hair flowing behind them. They wave and shout greetings enthusiastically. 'Tashi Delik! Ni Hao! Hello!' Sometimes we respond with a bonjour, just to cover another language. And thats the extent to which we can communicate. Saying 'hello' in multiple languages. This doesn't seem to deter anyone in the slightest.

The Tibetans are incredibly devout Buddhists. Anyone over the age of forty is constantly fingering prayer beads. They spin their prayer wheels continuously, no matter what else they are doing. (Prayer wheels are cylindical silver boxes that are attached to a small pole and have a little ball attached to a cord to the box, so that when the silver wheel is spinning, so is the little ball attached to it- its hard to explain). We went to visit the town's massive white stupa, and were warmly welcomed, again. All around the stupa, in a covered walk-way are huge versions of these golden prayer wheels. People walk around the circuit, pushing each wheel around, making it spin. We hopped on the circuit, much to the delight of the locals and fumbled through, trying not to interfere or do anything disrespectful, spinning the prayer wheels with all our might. We were dizzy after the first round, but everyone else just kept going- round and round...

Tibetan kids are wonderful as well. You can set them apart from the local Han Chinese by their huge, rosy, red cheeks. Even the younger kids aren't intimidated by us, as most Chinese kids are (we know this because one look starts them wailing in horror like we have just been beamed down from a looming spaceship to abduct them). Not the Tibetan kids. They shout their greetings, if they are old enough to talk, or waddle on up to us to play. Like I said - Tibetans are tough.

The Tibetan's traditionally nomadic lifestyle is evident in their cuisine. Yak is largely featured, along with other, substantial, no-nonsene, frill-less dishes. From what we can tell, the food's purpose is to fill the belly and provide energy for the long day's work- not so much for its tastey-ness. Take Tibetan butter tea, for example. It has 'butter' it. In my books butter= delicious. This, unfortunately, is not the case, I was disappointed to discover. (Twice). The tea is savoury, rather than sweet, and very 'yakky.' Of course, they make a 'sweet' yak tea for tourists sake- but I think its the 'yakkness' that is the aquired taste. You wouldn't know the distinct 'yak' flavour until you've tried it- but after you know- and its everywhere. In attempt to give Tibetan food a few chances, we started ordering anything on the menu that was vegetarian. We had no idea what we would get, but that was half the 'fun.' We ordered tsamba. In Indonesia, Samba is a sort of spicy chilly, lime, garlic chutney. Yum. Tibetan Tsamba arrived, grey-ish, chunky and the consistency of cookie dough. I thought it had a slight taste of Guinness, which I didn't mention, because it would have sounded weird. Jonathan looked it up, I think because he didn't quite believe that it was actually vegetarian. In Tibet, tsamba is a barley porridge. It required a whole lot of sugar- that's all I'm saying. Finally, we ordered 'momos' because they had a funny name. Now they were a hit. Essentially, momos are Tibetan perogies - big crunchy/doughy pockets stuffed with (in this case) potato and spring onions- and served with spicy dipping sauce. Delicious.

Litang looks like what we imagine Tibet to. The sky is big and perpetually bright blue. The air is crisp and chilly. Snow topped mountains surround the valley and can be seen from every point in the city. Other than the distant mountains - everything is green. The grasslands stretch from under your feet and roll into the foothills of the mountains. Its spectacular, and a landscape unique to anything we've seen before. Yaks dot the hill and fill the valleys. Yaks are just like cows- only more fun. They are massive and super hairy with huge, sometimes crooked, horns. They wander at will, it seems, and especially like to take themselves for walks down the middle of the main highway. Only the middle will do. Pigs like to go for walks too. That's something I didn't know. Piglets especially enjoy wandering to and fro, scampering in front of speeding taxis, sniffing gutters and eating plastic.

Litang is at the wheeze-inducing height of 4,100m!! (That's about 13,000 ft for all you Imperial junkies). It's high. Breathing was sometimes hard, and walking on level ground felt like a workout. Litang's monastery sits up in the hills behind the town. Its quite the sight, especially in the late afternoon light when the warm maroon walls and gold roof glow in the sun. Locals circle the monastery three times, walking clockwise only. Not only are you already at 4,100m, but everyone then hikes UP to the monastery, and UP around behind it! We were bent over, gasping for the limited oxygen every ten steps and the elderly Tibetans would cruise past us, mumbling prayers, working their way through the prayer beads in one hand, and spinning their prayer wheel in the other! Of course, they would stop to greet us, smile and chuckle at our state, but they would then continue on, up the path like they were on some sort of relaxing Sunday stroll.

We were adventurous one afternoon and attempted to hike up the hills behind the monastery. It was a lot harder than it looked when we started out. Just when we got to the top, huffing and puffing, a black cloud rolled out overhead. Great! It's going to rain, we thought. That would suck. But no, all the way up here it didn't rain- it SNOWED! We laughed and laughed as the huge snowflakes melted on our jackets. Snowing!

We stopped in at the monastery in the early afternoon and had the pleasure of watching the young monks 'debate.' It doesn't look like you would think. The monks are paired up. One is sitting on the ground, cross-legged, book in hand. The other is performing a complicated, beautiful set of movements, which, from what we can tell, end in that monk posing a question to the sitting monk. The deep maroon robes of the dozens of monks 'debating' set against the spectacularly blue sky, high on the roof of the monastery was just magic.

As we watched, a couple of the young monks noticed our presence- more likely- they zoned in on the one thing that people all over China are united in loving- Jonathan's beard. The cluster started showing interest a ways away. But they were shy. They inched closer. Eventually, beging pushed forward by the increasingly intrigued group, one of the monks ran forward, tugged on Jonathan's beard, laughed and then ran back to his group. It was like kids tugging on Santa's beard to see if it was real. Since the brave, young monk hadn't been bitten (J: I tried!), or been the victim of any other serious injury from the scary, hairy guy, the group deemed it safe to inch even closer. Jonathan smiled and invited them to sit next to him on the ledge. That was all it took. The group rushed over and took turns tugging on Jonathan's (overgrown) red beard, laughing and discussing how much Jonathan's beard looks like an unruly Chairman Mao's (as interpretted by myself). Other monks saw all the fun and rushed over to crowd around. And again, almost instantly, Jonathan had grown a fan club. Who needs to be able to communicate when you have a big, bushy beard? The facial hair is large, unruly and red enough to be a personality all on it's own. Although, lately, this particular beard is also growing a bit of an ego. Apparently it's looking for it's own blog entry- The beard- a bridge between cultures. Wonder what a little scissor action would do to it's confidence?

Wandering up the hill, through the traditional Tibetan village on the way to the monastery was so eye-openingly Tibetan, and absolutely fantastically photogenic. Unfortunately yanking my camera out seemed completely inappropriate. There was no way this village was in AD 2011. The buildings were stone but ornate with the window and door frames colourfully painted. Older people, without teeth, dressed in colourful, but sensible clothes sat under stone archways, working their way through their prayer beads, watching children with wild black hair play in the dirt. It was so authentic. Everyone smiled and waved. The kids shouted their greetings until we were out of sight. At one point, in front of a particularily peel-y, atmospheric white building with colourful Tibetan curtains about twenty older people sat together, watching the world pass them by on the street, all smiling toothlessly, chanting and swinging their prayer wheels. Wow. I don't even know how many times I pretended my eyelids were the camera shutter, and squeezed them shut trying to etch the images into my brain. It really was just fantastic.

Just outside town is a cluster of Tibetan houses that have hot springs. The water comes from underground, so its maybe not that naturally aesthetically pleasing, but the water is warm, and its relaxing. The people have built huts with cement baths that you fill with the steamy water by unplugging the tap yourself, before hopping in. We went with a great Czech couple, Petra and Uricra to the hot spring of the friend of our hostel host. After we had soaked for a significant amount of time, listening to the wind howl outside the door we figured it was time to move on. It was an hour and a half walk back to town and we wanted to get there before dark. As Murphy's law would dictate, it started to rain literally the second we started to head back. Apparently the rain also made the already aggressive stray dogs even hungrier for blood. They chased us back to the house by the hot spring. The young Tibetan girl smiled and led us inside to the wood stove where who appeared to be her mother and grandmother sat on cushions, sipping Tibetan butter tea. I could pick out that smell anywhere. haha The older woman had an especially warm, weathered face and thick soft hands, which she reached out to grab mine in, and hold until our nice host came to rescue us.

Sure, the kids play with live wires and the pack of stray dogs are eyeing your calves like a tastey snack- but massive hairy yaks families wander down the middle of the street without a care and the tiniest piglets scamper about oinking and wagging their tales. If we don't actually get the opportunity to visit Tibet proper (and the increasingly high Chinese hoops are doing a job of insuring that) we will feel just as privileged to have had this opportunity to experience this slice of real Tibetan life.

PS. There are more photos in our photostream
P.P.S: Happy Birthday Daddy-o, Mom Mooney & Bryan!

1 comment:

Joel and Sonia said...

J & K, it Snappy and Cheerster here!! we are sitting at a brew pub just outside DC reading your blog and just really, really, really enjoying what we needed to catch up on regarding where you are and what you are doing!! :) we love the story of the sky burial wow to have seen that is really one of those memories you'll be talking about when you get home. I love the stories about J's beard, and I also love the imagery for the Tibetan village - in some ways we are right there alongside you as you experience those things. do the Tibetans love the blonde hair too?! :) We can't wait to read more so keep on posting! when you get a chance please send us an email and let us know what else is up. We have started the job search (sigh) but no jobs yet!! xoxoxo to you both and safe travels.