Monday, October 23, 2006

Travelling, Day 5: Jiaju, Kham Province, Tibet

Initially after getting to Danba I wanted to go to the village of Zhonglu, which the hotel owner in Chengdu recommended to me. The most famous village in the Danba area is Jiaju, but the hotel owner told me that it really wasn't anything special, and in fact was really only for official photo ops and the like. However, Li Tong was going to go on a three day hike around a mountain near Jiaju called Mt. Mo'erduo, and asked me and another guy we met on the bus to Danba- a middle-aged Hunanese guy named Wang Bo- on the bus to Danba if we wanted to come along. I didn't know Li Tong very well, and I hadn't planned on doing something quite so intense as a hike aound a mountain, but I figured I might as well give it a shot. You shouldn't worry too much about risks in China.
Jiaju was a 20 minute taxi drive away, but to avoid paying the entrance fee we got out of the cab on a road below the village, which like almost every village in the Danba area was in a valley near a small river. To get to the village we had to climb up what seemed like a short distance- the taxi driver told us it would take about half an hour. We should have known that it wouldn't work out like that. We spent about two hot hours trudging up paths that appeared to be meant for cows rather than humans. I think the altitude also got to me a bit- we were something like 2500 meters high, which isn't too bad, but when you're dragging a 10 pound or so bag uphill it gets to you more than it would otherwise.
The first thing we did after getting to the village was find a place to stay. Li Tong apparently had written down the name of a place, which turned out to be pretty cool- it was a kind of "traditional" Tibetan-style guesthouse. The first thing we encountered after getting there was the guard dog. My Tibet guidebook said that Tibetan dogs were to be avoided at all costs, as they were extremely vicious and unfriendly to outsiders, so I was a little afraid of this dog. I had also been told that it was easy to fend off these dogs by pretending to throw a stone at them. The guard dog was on a leash, but I tried pretending to throw a stone anyway. It did actually work.
Later I found out that this dog's name was Ladeng- the Chinese translation of Laden, as in Bin Laden. I would rate Sept. 11th and the following month as the most traumatic period of my life, so I was not very happy hearing that. The Chinese found it amusing until I suggested that the dog's name be changed to Tojo. Li Tong explained that a lot of poorer people in China took Bin Laden as a folk hero, without realizing exactly how tragic 9/11 was for Americans. I wasn't very happy with this explanation, but I felt no hostility from the people there so I figured there must be some truth to it.
The place we were staying turned out to be pretty cool- it was supposedly a traditional-style Tibetan guesthouse. It was actually a pretty new building, but the beds there were these really ornate Tibetan beds that kind of looked like couches. Instead of matresses they had carpets, and they were always accompanied by very thick quilts. I got to sleep on a lot of those during my trip, and I always kindof enjoyed them.
After resting for a little while and having lunch we set off on a quick hike, as a warm-up for our trek. The village and especially the houses really were rather pretty. They all had painted beams on the roofs and striped walls, and many of them had wooden balconies that made them look almost like small castles. Also, almost all of them had corn or chilli peppers hanging from their roofs to dry, making them look even more colorful. As we walked along we picked peach and apples hanging from the trees to snack on I was a little skeptical about it at first, but several people we passed said it was ok, so I went along with it. They were very juicy and tasty.
After our walk we went back to the guesthouse to rest. While the other two slept, I talked a bit with the owner, a somewhat elderly Tibetan who told me he used to be a Tibetan teacher at the local school. Of course I thought it was odd that Tibetans would need a Tibetan teacher, and asked the owner why people would need someone to teach them their own language.
"All the young people here don't know how to speak Tibetan anymore," he told me. "They only speak Mandarin."
While that may seem like ample evidence of Chinese attempts to sinify Tibetans, I don't think it is entirely so. A lot of people in that area indeed claimed to be part Han, going back well before the conquest of Tibet, and a lot of Han claimed to be natives of the area, a claim no Han would make deeper in to Tibetan territory. Even so, it was true that a previously dominant Tibetan culture was being subsumed into the Han world.
When I found out that the owner was an ex-Tibetan teacher I couldn't resist asking him for a lesson. I had picked up a few sentences of Tibetan in Qinghai, but it was a radically different dialect and was totally useless in Kham. Qinghai is part of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo, and the area of Amdo I was in last time was a good 500 or so miles away from Jiaju.
The owner was, of course, happy to teach me a little Kham Tibetan- he had probably not had such an enthusiastic pupil in years. In fact he was almost more excited than me. After going through the words for the usual small talk and niceties, he launched into some decidedly esoteric phrases, such as "My heart leaps for joy when I see my parents." Eventually we went on to numbers. After teaching me one through 20 he asked me if I wanted to go on, and I figured I might as well. At 30 he asked again, and I figured it wouldn't hurt. By the time we reached 40 he was clearly really into it, and even though I didn't really want to go on, I agreed to it. After that I didn't have much choice and we went up to 70, when I finally told him it was enough. Li Tong and Wang Bo, who had just came down from their afternoon nap, were very amused.
The next day we decided to go back to Danba instead of continuing on to Mo'erduo. It had rained too much the day before, and it was colder than we had expected.

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