Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Qinghai Travels, Part II: You Should Have Come in July

The impression of Yushu I had from my scant information proved to be accurate enough - a small, remote, and pleasant town with Tibetan characteristics. From the architecture to the hilltop temples and the huge (and I mean HUGE - take note of the bulldozer in the picture) statue of a legendary Tibetan warrior king, it had a refreshingly un-Chinese character. Like my travels through Xinjiang, there a slight feeling of not being in Kansas anymore.

As would be expected, Tibetans look, dress, and act quite distinctly different from the Chinese. Red-robed monks were everywhere, and it was generally agreed that Tibetans, with their cowboy hats and unpolished features, were much cooler looking than the Chinese. Many of the women were very attractive. Not necessarily more so than Chinese girls, but they were striking at the time for their differences. As expected we attracted attention on the streets from passersby, but there was a genuine friendliness from the majority of residents, and many come up to make friendly conversation. There seemed to be fewer obnoxious "hellooo!"s shouted at us than usual. Yushu is 85-90% Tibetan, although surprisingly most of the restaurants served the same Chinese cuisine we have come to know. And to our surprise food was twice the cost of food in Zhangye, because much of it must be brought in from long distances away. A theme emerged in the conversations we had with locals: there is a big horse festival in July. Most of the tourists come in July. The grass is greener in July. Why didn't we come in July?

One of my favorite aspects of the town was seeing monks going about their everyday business. From the typical images of monks we see in movies and the media it's easy to form a stereotype of them sitting in a temple all day chanting, but there was more life to these monks. Monks on cell phones. Monks on motorcycles. Monks shopping. Monks on escalators. Monks falling off motorcycles. Monks joking around, talking to us, having their dinner, taking a bus. All the while in their brilliant red robes.

The town was old-fashioned, even in comparison to Zhangye. The streets (and there were only about three of them) were lines with stalls with every manner of handicraft, and people would be pounding metal or carving wood on the sidewalk. And of course, it is quite a remote place. I mentioned that the bus from Xining is at best a 17 hour trip - Xining is the closest big city in any direction. Despite the holiday we were not anticipating running into many tourists.

There was also an unusually high number of beggars. During our first dinner in Yushu, after a few minutes a woman came into the restaurant to beg, obviously focusing on us. She stood for an awkwardly long time with hand outstretched before giving up in the end. When she left, another beggar came in and did the same. And then another. And then two monks chanting. They were tag-teaming us, with a replacement for each disappointed beggar who left. We decided to keep count, and during the meal we faced down 19 different beggars. Presumably word was going around the begging community that foreigners were in town. During the next meal there were 8 beggars, and this quickly dwindled down to almost nothing. Word must have gotten around that these were stingy foreigners. Qinghai is one of the poorest provinces in China, and it's possible that the widespread belief in Buddhism is a factor in the higher numbers of beggars compared to the more secular Chinese of our own Gansu.

During that first meal, we asked for a couple of safe dishes plus a request for a local specialty. After a long wait we were represented with two enormous plates of what we determined was yak meat, which was delicious but exhausting to chew. There was a group of teenage monks in the opposite corner, and we had a lengthy disagreement over their sex. Stephen was adamant they were girls, whereas Andrew was convinced they were boys and I was simply confused. After they left Andrew finally asked the staff and found out to his disappointment that they were girls, which Stephen was happy to bring up during the rest of the trip.

One of the attractions in Yushu we were aware of was the largest collection of prayer stones in all of Tibet. Prayer stones are stones which have Tibetan Buddhist prayers carved into them and are in large piles which grow slowly as worshippers add more stones. There are apparently more than 2 billion prayer stones at this site, which are arranged in walls around a temple. Me and Stephen took a walk around the complex while Andrew found a shady spot and some people to talk to in Chinese. Andrew had little interest in Buddhist temples throughout the trip, and could frequently be spotted in a shady spot talking to people in Chinese. Not every Tibetan could speak Chinese well, but there were more Chinese speakers than I had expected. There were several friendly and curious Tibetans hanging around that chatted with us, and asked to have their picture taken. They also informed us that we should have come in July.

After visiting the inside of the temple and continuing our walk, me and Stephen were surprised to see a foreign woman just older than us walking with a young Tibetan girl. She turned out to be a volunteer teacher in Yushu originally from South Africa, and the girl was her student. After a brief conversation we exchanged phone numbers with the woman, whose name was Natalie, and she offered to give us further help with our stay.

We felt it was time to go at this point and wanted to fetch Andrew. We knew he was just around the corner, but when we turned to get him a quiet Tibetan man who had been sticking with us awkwardly communicated that it was impossible to go that way. In Tibetan belief, you should always circle a temple clockwise. We were aware of this and had been abiding by it, but we didn't realize it was strict to the point where we couldn't turn around and walk back 50 feet. I tried to explain we were just getting our friend, but he firmly suggested we go around. So we walked all the way around the temple complex again to get Andrew. I envisioned him getting up to look for us and circling each other blindly for 30 minutes, but he was still in the shade where we had last seen him and we went back into the center of town.

That night we took a look around the area of our hotel, and settled on the Prosperous Restaurant/Bar as a promising place to get a drink. The owner was a large, opinionated Tibetan man who was happy to have conversation with us. From him we learned that the Tibetans and Muslims (the town had some Hui, a Chinese Muslim minority group) don't get along too well. Actually, he didn't call them Muslims, but rather "white hats" for the distinctive head ware of Chinese Muslims. The hats might be white, but according to the owner they have "black hearts" and can't be trusted. His bar also featured a prominent picture of the Dalai Llama, which we would see frequently throughout Qinghai. In the actual Tibetan Autonomous Region his picture is forbidden and restrictions on Tibetans are more severe, but Qinghai seems a little more relaxed. The Prosperous owner said this is because in the TAR most of the government is made up of Han Chinese, but in Qinghai much of the government consists of Tibetans.

Like some others we would meet, and some of the Uyghur I met in Xinjiang, he spoke of a general dislike of the Chinese. The Chinese government handily crushes any separatist sentiment in the vast and strategic regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, and encourages an influx of Han Chinese to the areas, who are the main benefactors of the development in these regions. My students, who have only heard the official Party line, have a naive but sincere belief that China has a mission to help out these poor backward people and improve their lives for them. Some of my students talk fondly of their desire to find work in Tibet or Xinjiang and help out using their superior education level. The Dalai Llama has been painted as a troublemaker and criminal who wants to take from China what is rightfully hers. Western travelers carrying the Lonely Planet Tibet guide have had the preface ripped out while being screamed at by customs officials, as it was written by the Dalai Llama.

But among his other opinions, the bar owner didn't forget to suggest that we should have come in July.

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