Monday, November 20, 2006

Ganzi, Kham Province, Tibet- Days 12 to 13

The next day we finally left Danba. I felt like I had been there for months, rather than just a week. All five of us got on the bus heading west, still quiet and exhausted after the ill-fated trip to Dangling. We were all going in the same direction but all had different desitnations. I wanted to slowly work my way towards Derge, on the border with Tibet. Li Tong and his wife were going to Sertar, the site of a large Tibetan Buddhist college that is a good distance from the main road and where both foreigners and photography are forbidden. Liang Chao and Wen Yi were in a rush to meet some people in Pelyul, a small town to the south of Derge. I initially wanted to get off at some small towns along the way, but because it was raining when we passed them I just went all the way to the next large town, called Ganzi, with Liang Chao and Wen Yi. Li Tong and his wife had to change buses before Ganzi, and after a week of travelling with him we finally parted ways.
We arrived in Ganzi just as the sun was setting. Ganzi, set on a plain in a wide valley and preceded by rolling grasslands, felt a little dull compared to the dramatic Danba, with its towering canyon walls, rushing river and unusually tall buildings. It also felt darker and more threatening; Liang Chao and Wen Yi were both visibly uncomfortable there and did not want to stay any longer than they had to. The morning after we arrived they got on the earliest possible bus to Derge.
When I saw the town in the light of day I realized it was also far more Tibetan than Danba, and that Ganzi's Tibetans weren't the Sinified kind that you found to the east. Many of them only spoke Tibetan, or at the most some broken Chinese. I later learned that Ganzi is something of a center of Tibetan resistance to China. Since 2000 there have been several bombings and riots in the area. This is actually not surprising, as Kham has always been the most rebellious area of Tibet, regardless of whether it was Chinese Communists or the Tibetan kings or Dalai Lamas trying to control them. The Khampas, as Tibetans from Kham are called, are quite religious (they like the Dalai Lama- especially now that they have a common enemy in the Chinese- but that doesn't mean they want to be ruled from Lhasa) but also quite warlike. Many of them carry around knives, which are usually over a foot long and which they are very proud of.
I spent a day hanging around Ganzi. It wasn't a particularly interesting place, but there were some pretty areas outside the town that were good for walking. The most interesting thing about the day was running into some kids in a village, who showed me around the local temple and explained what all the paintings were and how one should behanve towards them. For example, if you point with your index finger at a picture of a Buddha, rather than with your whole hand, your parents will fall sick and die. The only way to prevent this is to recite a sutra 99 times. Every time we came before an image of a Buddha all the kids would immediately start prostrating in front of it. One of the things that surprised me about the kids was how good their Chinese was- it seemed that the younger a Tibetan was, the better his or her Chinese would be. I kept encountering that every where I went in Sichuan and Tibet. I was also interested to find that one of the kids wanted to be a cop, not something I would have expected of a Tibetan child in a place as restless as Ganzi.
I spent the rest of the day checking out what sights Ganzi had to offer. There was another temple on the outskirts of town, and the Ganzi Monastery. Both were new and not especially noteworthy. I assumed that the Ganzi Monastery had been trashed during the rebellions of the '50's and '60's, and they didn't bother putting the care into the reconstruction as they did in other more famous temples. The run-down Tibetan old town was actually more interesting that the monastery, though it wasn't any prettier. Many Tibetan towns are divided into a new Chinese area and an old Tibetan area. The new Chinese area is inevitably almost the same as every other Chinese town throughout China, with maybe some superficial attempts to add a "Tibetan" flavor. All the stores and markets are in the Chinese areas. The Tibetans areas are crowded and far more run-down, and often have open sewage. They consist of tan mud buildings that are far uglier than the pretty Kham houses that dot the countryside. The paths are mazelike and narrow, and are mostly made of dirt. I found the Tibetan old town to be a little scary. It didn't help that after visiting another temple I had been chased by a small dog and was still a little shaken. I shouldn't have been scared when I ran into the dog, but I wasn't in the mood to risk getting bitten either.
Aside from sightseeing I spent a lot of my time in Ganzi hanging out with a Czech woman I met on my first night there and a Tibetan family she had befriended. She was the first foreigner I had seen since Chengdu. (Rumor had it that there were a few in Danba but I never saw them myself.) She had come to Western Sichuan to help some friends shoot a movie, and was travelling around after it turned out that they would be unable to shoot it. She loved the place and had spent the better half of a week in Ganzi (which I found to be pretty impressive- I was got bored there after half a day) and had already managed to befriend a Tibetan family and get "adopted," even though she spoke no Chinese or Tibetan. The son did speak pretty good English, because like many well-off Tibetans he had studied in India to avoid the Chinese educational system. I was a little jealous of this Czech woman- I could talk with the entire family, not just the son, but I couldn't quite reach the degree of sociability with Tibetans that she was able to. A another Chinese-speaking foreigner I later met suggested that when you can speak a bit of the language the standards for a relationship shoot up, and there is more disappointment when people find that you have little to talk about. When you can't speak, all that's left is the mutual interest and good intentions, and an acknowledgement that you will never be able to have a deep relationship. That said, I can't deny that part of it was also this girl's hyper-sociability. She was quite generous- she gave me what was left of her sunscreen since I had lost mine in Dangling (I had not yet suffered any burns, thankfully).
I spent a good amount of time that day sitting in the family's store at the center of Ganzi, sipping yak butter tea and chatting under a large picture of the Dalai Lama (hidden behind hanging rolls of cloth). The Czech girl worked in the fashion industry in Barcelona, and after coming to Kham had hatched the idea of importing Kham clothing into Europe and eventually America. She was a little uncomfortable with campitalism but felt that if she could help traditional Tibetan clothing makers- there were very few left- while making just a little money, it would be worthwhile. I had to admit that she was onto something. A lot of Kham clothing was pretty nifty looking, particularly the sort of leather boots she was starting with. Perhaps I'll see them the next time I go back to New York...

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