Out to the Pasture

Raining on and off. Cleaning up of the feast started in the afternoon. Loads of food to put away. Tibetan dress comes in handy as ready sacks. The tents were taken down, and tractors came to take stuff back to homes.

Daerji was among the last to leave. When he was finally ready to take me to his home, it was quite late in the afternoon. His father sat by the window on a piece of sheep skin. He couldn’t walk very well. The wooden house was shabby and dirty though a newer two-story brick house with ugly pink paint was under construction. While Daerji went out to load the tractor — one of my bags will go with the tractor, the other camera bag I would carry with me on motorcycle, the father turned on the TV to entertain me. Some singing competition was on. Tibetan women with modified traditional dress — very modern looking were on performing.

It was raining quite heavily when Daerji came back. I put everything in dry bags, had rain jacket on and out we went. There was a stretch of very bad road I would ride on the tractor and after that, Daerji would take me on his motorcycle. That was the plan.

Thinking back all the strange transportations I had ever been on. Whatever that was, a sense of adventure started when I boarded any one of them. This was no exception. One young man drove, the other one sat on the back, next to me. The tractor was loaded with bottles of soft drinks.

It was cold sitting there. My rain pants apparently had holes.

When we came near the bad, waterlogged section of the road, they put chains on tires. Daerji followed on moto. The water came to almost the height of the tires. The mud was sinking. The tractor struggled ahead, hit a rock, and stalled. Two motorcyclists came to help push, Daerji as well. But the tractor was damaged enough they decided it needed repair at Maqu, the next day.

So, with rain and night falling, I chose the option to go back when Daerji let me choose between keep going to the pasture, which must involve wading through this section in the cold rain, with no dry clothe to change into, or going back to the village.

Sun was out the next morning and I was fully prepared for wading. We took a different route, through the open grassland – or swampland rather, instead of the bad road. It was very pleasant actually, walking through the lumpy swamp. The water was clear and cold; the grass was soft to my bare feet. “This is your bath.” Daerji joked at me.

Before tractors and motorcycles, herders used male yaks to move. Yaks and horses would be better choices here.

After the path became ridable, it was a hot but not so long of a ride through many hillsides with deserts to Daerji’s pasture.

A Feast

After a few days of waiting around in Langmusi, I got ahold of the village head and also Daerji. They were having a gathering at the winter village and asked me to go too.

My driver claimed he drove for the lama from the Sichuan side of the monastery. But he lied that the mountain path, the short cut to go to the village was closed for years — I was on it last year. On the way there, someone called him on the phone about prospective gold mine site near the village. With one near Maqu already causing problems, another one would be devastating.

Lots of people at the entrance to the village. They were not waiting for me, but government officials instead, higher level party members from the county, prefecture.

Three tents were set up on the grassland in front of the school. A couple of women guided me inside and there were trays after trays of meat on the table — the most in one setting I have ever seen probably. I was given a knife to carve the meat, and there were also momo dumplings, all kind of snack and drinks. Older herders sat around with the prayer wheel in their hand, spinning.

Soon a motorcade of jeeps rolled in and out came the suit-dressed officials. They were taken to the big colorful tent and out went more momos from the kitchen tent. A college-aged boy spoke good Mandarin so I chatted with him. A few familiar looking faces came in and out of the tent — I have been coming here for almost three years. “Eat More Meat!”, they said to me whenever they stopped by.

Eating went on for hours in the colorful tent while some of the women who came along went out to the field for photos of them in the grassland. Playing, drinking, eating later, the motorcade left. One of the women from the village told me they were given 30K Yuan from the local government to host the officials to come for this three-day feast. I was there on day two.

For the evening, Zuba arranged me to sleep in the communal house where the men and women who came to prepare the feast slept. The party continued, or, just started. Loud talking, laughing, more meat eating. When one of the women brought out a plate of flour, the room got rowdy. A nearly toothless guy became the target, then I was told, it was time to sing. If someone would not sing, the punishment was a choice between sniffing out a piece of candy hidden in the flour, or get a hair wash — I wasn’t sure why that was considered a punishment.

With the guy fighting, laughing, and people pushing and nudging him, two women brought out a wash bucket, detergent, and wash towel. The room laughed uncontrollably, peaking when the poor guy eventually gave in for a head wash.

The singing circle continued. Many of the herders are great singers. Many of them sang the tune Danku’s mom sang for me last year — that was the first time I heard of such tunes. Daerji and a slightly drunk Baisang made me sing too. My voice was no comparison to that of the Tibetan women. Poor Jiamu (Han Chinese).

The next morning, more cooking, heating up the momos, and another smaller feast with monks from the village monastery and a few other visitors I didn’t know about. Zuba asked Daerji to take me out to the pasture when the feast was over.

A Year Has Past

It is frightening to say the least, a year has past but I’m extremely grateful I’m here again, in Langmusi, getting ready to go to the summer pasture to film again. I lost my phone but all the connections found themselves back and I knew I was welcomed at all the villages and families — that’s a great feeling.

Sangku’s brother Jai who teaches at a college in Hezuo helped me with the translation and even volunteered to come to do the presentation with me. All the grassland restoration connections came rather quickly, in May and June and all looked very promising. I’m hoping that this opportunity of hope I am bringing to them would help both them and me — them for a chance to heal their land, me a chance to finish my film.

So much happened in one year. Mom was ill and we were all frightened. Amazingly, she is feeling great these days. Hope that continues for a long long time. I lost my biggest support, Les. I switched a sponsor and had a producer, sort of, with no breakthrough funds so far. I made a promise in front of Les’ grave that I would finish this film. I have to stick to my words, no matter what.

Langmusi is littered with new construction sites. The flower lady’s shop is gone, and so does the tea/dance bar by the river. A few more new hotels. The price for my quaint little hospataje almost doubled. The older Muslim couple are still very nice and kind, they gave me a little bit of discount and invited me to have dinner together.

Sangku came to pray at the Monastary. Yidan was sick in the local hospital. We met briefly. He would make arrangement for me to go to the pasture. Talked to Zuobaja as well and also Darji — I’ll go to their village first while Sangku takes care of Yidan. It will all work out.

Last Day in Langmusi

Working almost around the clock for days, we (my translator and I) finally finished translating all the footage that needs translation. I’m really lucky Qijia is so diligent and with great patience. Going through the footage is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes depressing. There are those unexpected moments that really touched my heart and there are interview answers that are so off I questioned my whole idea of doing the project. But in the end, I’m pleased, I’m really pleased. What I have recorded, and hopefully with the blessing from Bhudda and lamas, shall arrive with me safely in Beijing, is at the very least a truthful portrait of the herders’ live on the pasture, their fear, wishes, and the humorous side of them. Sangji’s family is so unique in so many ways I have to believe that having them there is my fate working for me. There will not be this project without their help, their whole family. And I’ve become such good friends with the daughter, Danku, she felt like my little sister. On my last day trip to the pastureland, we laughed so hard taking photos together — which they love doing — it really felt wonderful. Now my only fear, well, two fears, are that I won’t be able to put the story together as nicely as I imagined, and I won’t be able to start the even harder project of bringing in some help to curb the area’s desert problem. But, I will try my best.

Have to sleep now, very early morning bus tomorrow and a whole day of travel to take me home to Beijing.

She sang

Danku’s mother is as innocent as a three-year-old, and she loves playing with her three-year-old grand daughter, Xiaobei. When she is happy and nobody seems listening, she likes to sing. The songs she sings she learned from her grandmother and they don’t sound anything like the current pop Tibetan songs. She has a super voice. But, as soon as she is put on the spot to sing, she blushes, covers her face, and starts giggling uncontrollably.

One afternoon, Danku tricked her mom into singing while I had my voice recorder on next to her. They were sorting yak hairs, Xiaobei played around. The songs came out in fragments. Then, thunder and lightening cracked open the sky. She continued to sing, her songs ebbed and flew within the bouts of downpour.

Only memory was recorded that time.

I was hopeful on my return trip, perhaps, she could sing again. When all the interviews were done, we took photographs, ate, and laughed at one of the guys among their group none of us liked. That seemed to the best way to bound women together.

Danku, Sanji, Yeedan were all sitting around waiting, the mother sat at the side of the tent, facing against us. And then, she started, singing songs with super long tunes that could cut open the tent and reach out to the sky.

One more time

One of Sanji’s relatives, a young boy needs to have an eye surgery in the bigger city hours away. Being the one who can speak Mandarin the best in his village, Sanji has to go help out. It was a good time to take a break for me too, to go over the footage and see what to film next.

I found a nice and quiet little family style hostel to stay in Langmusi, next to the creek that runs down the canyon on the Sichuan side of the monastery. My translator came to work the next day. Interviews are easier, the vérité parts are more difficult and time consuming. But, once we got into a rhythm, it was a very enjoyable process. It became obvious through the process that I needed to make another trip back to the summer pasture to have a few more interviews, with Danku, the old herder, and Yeedan.

The eye operation turned out very successful. So, I made arrangement to return to the village.

The old herder had returned to their winter camp, handing the herding duty to his son. Our interview happened at their home in the village. The old herder’s wife and their very pregnant daughter were there sorting the newly cut yak hair. One of his grandsons kept making noise so the interview was interrupted a few times but otherwise it came out just fine.

After we finished all the questions with the old herder, Sanji rode me to the summer pasture while the driver waited at his home. They go to the same monastery and pray the same living Buddha who now lives in India.

The path going there had a new herders’s camp. Sanji told me they won’t be able to use this path in a couple of days when that group of herders’ animals got moved here. Good grassland has become a competing commodity among the herders.

Danku and her mom were waiting for us to start cooking lunch. The little girl seemed sleepy and shy this time. It was a gorgeous day. Hard to imagine all that activities going around in the morning when everything became so quiet in mid day.

Yeedan still prefer to be left alone when she answered questions, but much at east this time. And Danku this time volunteered a lot more information when I asked about her mom. It’s amazing how she has gotten comfortable with talking on camera. Later, she told me, she fought her shyness to say what she felt in her heart, so there would be a better chance their grassland could be saved. It was almost too much for me to bear. For that alone, this project has to continue.

It takes a village

Sanji and the old herder made plans to have people in their group, both men and women do some manure spreading on their own deserted pasture. The old herder, whose good deed of taking care of all the families’ sheep earned him the respect he rightly deserve. With little questions, many families joined our efforts and followed the old herder’s orders.

They raked sheep dung from their winter pen, load them into a tractor as well as filling every woman’s carrying baskets. The women followed the tractor to a spot by the sandy hillside and unloaded their baskets. The men helped out with spreading with shovels and rakes. Even though their whole efforts seem like using a small cup of water to put out a big fire, the fact that they are doing something that is unique in their situation, with all the limitation they have to help themselves is in itself something to be proud of. And it’s always nice to have women involved.

Afterward, I filmed the old herder talking to camera about their plan and his thoughts. I like the slow pace of his voice a lot. For the villagers, they have done their best to help me, with the hope that by telling their story, some help would head their way. Can I make something happen?

Danku and Girls’ interviews

Danku is Sanji’s step daughter, I later learned. Her mother was an orphan from a very young age and was given to a foster family who didn’t treat her well. After giving birth to Danku and her sister, not being able to produce a boy, the family kicked her out. For years, with her poor health, she took care of Danku and her sister all by herself. When she met Sanji, Danku was eight and they were dirt poor. These years, things have gotten a little better for the family, whose past hardships seem to bound them well together.

Having to help her sick mother, Danku dropped out of school after only grade two. But amazingly, she borrowed books from others and learned to read to the fifth grade level. She taught herself Mandarin from watching TV, and learned to read scriptures from Sanji and whoever she could. It was rare for girls, particularly from herder’s family to be able to read scriptures. Danku is an amazing girl. Without her there, I wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much with my project.

Sanji’s family is probably the most religious among the group. Danku insisted on bringing the full praying set with them to their summer pasture and she prayed almost everyday before breakfast. I liked the simple procedures she followed: clean the altar, add water to the small cups, burn some fragrant plant leaves as incense and share that with everyone in the family. Then she would offer some yak milk to the pictures of buddhas and lamas and go outside to burn some barley flour as a prayer to the spirits outside.

One of the afternoons, after the women had finished most of their chores for the day, I asked Danku to be my translator for interviewing the old herder’s daughter in-law, Yeedan. It took Danku quite a lot of convincing work for Yeedan to agree to talk on camera. Tibetan women, at least here, are too used to be a silent caretaker too timid to express themselves. But with some encouragement, Yeedan agreed, with the condition that Danku would translate my questions and she would answer to my camera with no one else in the tent. With the few questions I had for her, it took us many trips in and out of their family tent to finish the interview. A good start nonetheless.

For Danku, I had more in mind to ask her. On one of the mornings, we sat outside just as if we were having a conversation and she answered my questions really well. I love her voice and how she presented herself, shy but affirmative about her love for her mother and their homeland. I am super lucky.

Women of the pasture

Skies on the plateau are magical. I was blessed with so many different weather in one day there was never shortage of sights to catch my attention and imagination. I like cloudy days the best here.

For a few days, I got up when the women got up and filmed every step of their everyday lives. Their patience and grace when they do these very repetitive labor really moved me. So much so that I think the story should be carried mostly by them. A lot of what they do is about rhythm: milking the yaks definitely is, churning the buttermaker is, and so is spinning the yak hair threads, hand-rolling the butter, etc. etc. Even spreading the wet yak dung in the backdrop of a dawn sky is beautiful in my eyes, especially when Danku’s mother was doing it. She doesn’t have a pretty shape and looks way older than her age, but it was the attentiveness that made her moves graceful. Sometimes, she would chant when she turned the butter machine. The yellowish butter and the pure white liquid that would later be made into dry cheese flow out of the machine in rhythm too.

The old herder’s daughter in-law, Yeedan, who can move much faster than Danku’s mother has a slightly different rhythm. She ran briskly to catch their family’s more playful baby yaks and less obedient mommy yaks. She couldn’t milk as fast as Danku’s mother so he got up even earlier in the morning. On one of the sunny afternoons, Yeedan was out collecting dried yak dung. A thunderstorm accompanied by heavy wind moved in abruptly. Yeedan, in fuchsia colored short sleeve shirt dashed across the field to save her cheese out drying in the open. It looked as if she was slicing the navy-blue sky away from the green pastureland.

To Summer Pasture

It was kind of cloudy but no rain. Sanji came back from the pasture to take me along the old herder’s family when they moved. He was a bit late, but luckily, the moving tractor inched away very slowly on the rugged terrain so we caught them quickly. The daughter in-law and the old herder’s second wife sat atop the bulging tractor while the son drove ever so carefully. After filming at a few spots from the distance, I climbed up the tractor and filmed from that angle. The two women giggled often. I liked the daughter-in-law, Yeedan.

The tractor went through different backdrops. More sandy hillsides than green pasture as it headed toward the summer pasture.

After I’ve gotten enough of the moving scenes, Sanji rode me ahead to their summer tent to wait for the tractor to arrive. The tractor had to go around another herding group’s plot. It was great to see the wife, the daughter Danku, and the cute little girl again.

We had time for some lunch and then the tractor came. Sanji’s family went out to help out with setting up the tent. Danku stayed in most of the time. I just learned that she was eight month pregnant and she just got a divorce from her husband. That was the reason Sanji had to come back to the pasture a few days back.

Setting up the yak-hair tent is a collaborative effort. The most difficult part is to lift the top beam up. After threading the wooden pole through the two pieces of the tent, two other support poles, each with a piece of yak’s spine bone on top would have to couple with the top beam. That was one of the few things men helped doing. Less strong ones held the tent ropes outside, even the little girl joined in the effort, although she often time pulled them to the opposite direction.

The men left as soon as their duty was over. The son needed to go drive more families in.

The more detailed work was left to the women. From the tone of her voice, I could tell Danku’s mother was telling her neighbor about what happened that led to Danku’s divorce. The now ex-husband had beaten Danku and showed no respect for her. They fought, and Danku decided to end the marriage. Herders marry very young here, in their teens. Danku is only 18, a very bright girl with the heart of an angle. Soon, she would have to take on the role of a single mother.

Sanji left for the city for errants after all was done. That night, I slept on the ground next to Danku, while the wife cuddled the little girl in their folding bed. Night on the plateau was cold even in summer time.