26 Oct Nomads
Dry construction gravel crunches in clouds of dust as tyres roll around trenches and sewerage pipes, through closed streets and between excavators. Workers and market traders in animal skin coats and fur hats bustle through narrow passages, in and out of weathered wooden doors and between stalls, under leaves camouflaged in concrete powder. Crisp, deep blue, high altitude skies above a Tibetan town in the mountains of Sichuan. Down roads of homes packed tightly together, where goats bleat and large dogs bark at my clicking freewheel, I search for Henry. We had climbed together on boulder strewn dirt roads from Lijiang, past Tiger Leaping Gorge, through Shangri-La and had agreed to meet here, in Litang, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Off the main streets, in a large courtyard beside a heavy steel gate, the only other foreign faces in the town emerge from a taxi. An American called Ned, who works at a New York language school and his friend Yorn, from Norway. As we discuss travels through China, a stooped, wrinkled local man walking with his wife shouts at us with Mandarin directions to the hostel up the road. In the six weeks cycling since leaving Taiwan, forced to speak in rural worlds bereft of English, my Chinese had become passable, I shouted back to the man that we didn’t want the hostel and that I was looking for my friend. A bike and a little language knowledge had just invited me into an unexpected adventure.
With a photo of my target in hand, I hunt the crumbly streets, Ned and Yorn in tow, interviewing locals about the whereabouts of this old lady. Eventually a gate opens, a bear of a dog snarls and growls at me and a face matching the photo in my hand emerges, the mother of one of Ned’s students hugs him before inviting us into her home. A white scarf is placed around each of our shoulders by the couple, a traditional blessing and a welcoming. We sit on patchwork covers over a long seat in front of the wall of windows looking out onto the street, drink yak butter tea and eat heavy steamed buns. Inside the large, warm room, copper kettles exhale aromatic steam, family photos fade on the walls and the husband beams smiles at us as he turns from the news on an old television. Ned had been told by his student that if he was ever in China he should visit her family, so here he is, but he doesn’t speak Chinese, so here I am, make-do translator and part of the family for a couple of days.
Seven of us are herded into a five seat car and we bounce out of the town in search of a distant fringe of the family. It takes hours to track them down. The car stops sporadically for chats with those in the fields, asking for directions to an unknown destination. Strangers jump in, others jump out. As asphalt roads turn to gravel, passengers spring from seats, faces smush against windows and heads hit the roof. The car swerves and skids to a halt at holes in broken bridges threatening to swallow wheels. We turn off and drive along cattle tracks into the vastness of green plains set in a basin of towering snowcapped mountains. A distant white yurt begins to appear amidst the green, the needle in our haystack.
A smiling nomadic yak farmer with matted scruffy hair under a wide rimmed hat and his wife in her long, practical dress invite us into their fabric yurt. A kettle sits atop the large, black, dung stove in the middle, its tall thin chimney penetrating the roof, warming the cool mountain air and producing the earthy smoke that I have come to associate with simple mountain living. Bare ground covered in thick carpets, cushions and folded heavy blankets upon which two of the three children sit; rosy cheeked and grubby handed, their shyness rapidly melting in growing familiarity of three strange westerners. The youngest child, maybe one year old, rests in a box full of wool and fur blankets, only his dirt covered hands and face poking out, his huge brown eyes observing all around him. The family from Litang leave us and we sit to eat with the Tibetan family. More yak butter tea with dried yak meat and flat, dense bread. Butter-like fat softens in the mouth while chewing the tough, cold meat as I translate questions of ages, marriage and lifestyle. Nomadic life is relatively self sufficient, the days spent controlling and watching the cattle, eating simple food made and dried in the yurt, any supplementary requirements are bought at the market with income from selling yaks. The father talks of dong chong xia cao, “winter worm, summer grass”, a phenomenon whereby what is an insect through the winter, buries itself in the summer and becomes a plant. In their summer form, these creatures are revered for their medicinal value, used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to provide healing qualities, give strength and act as an aphrodisiac. The mystical beings exist in this area.
As the evening sky throws pastel hues of orange and purple over the mountains, the yaks are herded and tied down close to the yurt. A wolf is chased away and the calves settle with their mothers. With the thuds and shuffling of livestock, we stand outside amidst the vastness of the mountains, looking up at a cold night sky of perfect stars and the smear of the Milky Way. Illuminated from within, the silhouettes of our hosts are cast upon the walls of the yurt, shadow puppets in a story of long tradition. Sleep comes reluctantly as strong winds howl through the valley and dogs bark at unusual movements.
I awake early in the morning to the sound of laughter and Tibetan children trying to push a yak calf into my tent.
For breakfast, we eat tsampa; a dense, dry mix of barley flour, butter and a milk, in a small dish, that we press into small cakes and eat with our hands. The taste ignites strong memories of being sick while being detained by the police the first time I was in Tibet but I chew and smile, eventually putting down a half finished bowl, after which the legendary worm-grass from last nights tale is presented. Neither Ned, Yorn or I are inclined to eat them. They sit like large maggots, warming on the stove, staring at us, taunting us. One by one we crunch, chew and swallow our medicinal worms, a nutty, squidgy root. Dreams of shamanic, hallucinogenic, out of body experiences float through my mind as I chew. To sit at altitudes close to heaven, eat the sacred worm and find enlightenment, the holy grail of world travel experiences. But the worm is consumed, an empty mouth opened to the delight of the hosts and the moment is over. These must be the worms of another prescription, eternal life perhaps.
The morning is spent honing traditional nomadic skills: horse riding and slingshot. The seven year old daughter places a stone in the sling, spins it around her head with a flick of her hips and with a loud crack the stone flies straight and far. In my hands, stones drop to the floor, some fly left, some right and one whistles behind me past Ned’s head. I decide it’s probably best to stop before somebody gets hurt. While the father talks to a monk and the mother makes bread, cares to the animals and sees to the baby, Ned teaches the children basic English which they learn fast. These children will never see a school, they will rarely meet other children, never wander far from this valley, they will be raised to become yak farmers and their children after them, also. It is a hard life for tough people, moving with the seasons, enduring. But in such simplicity there seems so much sense. In their knowledge and their spirit, these people are the embodiment of their surroundings, they are intrinsic to their world. Cause and effect are tangible, solutions seem fitting to the problems. I wonder if they will suffer comparisons to others, self doubt, depression, identity crisis, I wonder what they would think of me in my old life in England, separated from the world I live in, no skills with the land, living up to unexplainable expectations under a construction of social and hierarchical pressure systems. But in this moment we play uninhibited, running around the valley, I pick up the girl and her twelve year old brother and spin them around, we laugh without care, free spirits, just manifestations of the universe experiencing itself in different ways. A beautiful life.
Under the midday sun three Europeans and an elderly Tibetan leave the camp and trek back across the plains and through rivers, to the car which returns us to the town, to another humble house where we are again accepted as family. Granny knits in the corner, dad talks business, mum keeps everyone full of food and the son teaches me how to play NBA games on his mobile phone. Thoughts of my own home had been strong in my mind for a while, with desires to spend time with the wonderful family I have barely seen in five years. Although completely foreign, the energy of this family scene evoked feelings of Christmas time in England.
We drive out to a place above the town, past the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama and beyond a huge, intricately painted temple, to the base of rolling mountains surrounding Litang. We walk slowly, in silence, through a most eery place of great spiritual significance, where wind whistles across the grass, raising dusty veils from the earth. At our feet, large feathers are interspersed between fragments of recognisable bone and discarded rusting blades. At the summit we stand before a mass of inscribed stones as, on the neighbouring mountaintops, populous venues of enormous grey vultures look on. It is the scene of the tian zang, “sky burial”. Just as Hindu’s wish to have their bodies burnt and thrown into the Ganges of Varanasi, this is the desirable way to depart the earth for Tibetans. A monk chants at the summit while the pale bodies are stripped of their clothes and laid on the mountain side. Knives hack into the bodies, skinning, exposing flesh, cutting chunks of meat and separating limbs, before a wave of vultures flows in, pecking at human forms, tearing at faces and hands, leaving little of the skeletons. At my feet are human hip bones, jaws and scalps, all that remains of the deceased, carried to the heavens on the wings of the vultures. There is something at once grotesque and mesmerising about the whole concept and the location; a zombie apocalypse in a moment of serenity. We, the living, contain our thoughts and descend in peace and awe.
I leave my new friends and family to, again, cycle alone with my thoughts into the high mountains, through Tibetan villages and among grazing yaks. Unlike my 2011 ascent to these altitudes, I find a Tibet full of life, rich in flavour and colour. I still awake in the comfort of two sleeping bags and begrudge the removal of each before emerging from my tent in the cold shadows of soaring mountains. But this time fresh mountain water boils on a glistening camp stove for porridge and coffee as I run up to meet the edge of the summer sunlight and, step-by-step, follow it down to where we breakfast together. I touch the soft ground and marvel at the trees who have also waited patiently for the sun to caress their leaves, at the mountains and the streams, the birds and the insects. In perfect solitude, I sit with my book of written treasures and read poetry before the day unfolds in new and wonderful ways, bike and cyclist soaring harmoniously between peaks and prayer flags.
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–
or have you too