Monthly Archives: December 2011

Old man, couple, and Baisang

Lots of dog barkings and lots and lots of dreams in between. Giving a hug to Sophie, watching Brian cut open a car tire, in anger as usual, body fighting to hold down my soul to stay in this body but it wanted to raise up, flew toward the woods, birch and aspen trees, the green leaves I could only see through an oval-shaped prism. Then there were lights shining on me, pale yellow to bright, I could see through my third eye. Oh, let the light in, what a powerful feeling. Then, I opened my two normal eyes and it was still dark out.

I shall come back here just to dream some dreams.

Daerji called and said he had arranged a couple of elders in the village to see me. After breakfast, Sangji and I walked a few houses over to a two-story brick building. Upstairs, all the nice bright orange furnitures and two big stoves in the middle. Compared with Sangji, they must be quite affluent. The old lady held a new born boy by the window. The old man smoked cigarette. I was offered to sit by the old man.

Daerji and Sangji helped me briefed the old man. Even though I couldn’t understand what they were speaking, I could guess they were retelling some of the stories of last summer, when I came and rode with them to see the sand dunes and that both of them were “selling” me to the old man. Eventually, everybody was ready. The old man looked full of emotion when he spoke on camera. What could I do to fully honor their trust?

I really like the look of the old lady, her very wrinkled smile radiated happiness. Not much she could say though, just smiled in shyness.

The next family in the next village. The elder had left the village to go to Langmusi, so the son talked instead. He was funny and talked very eloquently. Their house was an old wooden one that looked really pretty. Even they have already had a house, the government still insisted on building a new brick house for them, and of course, they have to get a loan to pay it back. The wife could say a bit Mandarin so we talked while she breast-fed their little new born. Loved her look by the fire. I wished I had more questions for her as she seemed very eager to talk.

After having another meal, Sangji took me back home to wait for Baisang who just came back from Langmusi. We went back to his home which is almost done decorating and talked very briefly. When he was young, Baisang ran away to India and spent some time there as a monk. One of Sangji’s brother ran away to India as well and stayed there. Lots of story here if I dig deep enough.

Bo was already waiting while we were at Baisang’s. He followed us back to Sangji’s and I bid a quick farewell to the family. He offered me a yellow Khada on my way out — I’m truly honored. What can I do for them in return?

Can’t say I’ve gotten too much great footage for this stay, but at least, it strengthened my relationship with the herders in these villages. It’s hard to say I’ve gotten a story yet, since for people in this village, their lifestyle hasn’t changed that much, something not quite what I perceived last time. Their nomadic practice still remains, and it’s really hard to show the slow changing environment. I need to come back to film them move houses and yak herds next time. Or, the better question, why am I so hard on myself for doing all these? Maybe I can help them with making something with yak fur? Or have scholars here to study the causes of the desertification and make suggestions? What? What? The call of adventure always win.


Frosted window in the morning. Woke up then fell back asleep. Luckily days come late here so even when I heard the family getting up again, it was still before sunrise.

Sangji walked me out to see the herders drove their yaks out. Hundreds of yaks walked into the morning fog, then the big red sun rises right above the horizon. It was a gorgeous sight for winter solstice. I’ll freeze the frame and send it to Steve as I promised.

Sunrise didn’t last very long at all, a few minutes of adjusting iris, finding the right angle to include the herders on their horses, and then it was already the day.

Back inside, Sangji’s wife cleaned the table where they put pictures of Dalai Lama, the lama at Langmusi who lives at India now, and a few others. The situation is not as strict here since it’s so far away from anywhere and no party leaders bother to come. The herders have some freedom putting out whoever pictures they like, and the Dalai Lama is still the spiritual leader in their mind.

The wife cleaned the small metal bowls with burnt yak dung, which polished the copper amazingly well. After the table and the scripture books were dusted, she added water to the little bowls, put some yak butter in the bigger one, poured in hot water, and then Sangji came to mumble some scriptures.

Cell signals were sporadic that day, which was kind of normal. I was hoping to go and film some more Baisang’s family but he was not home. Another idea was to film some elders talking about what they’ve been seeing over the years. After breakfast, which lasted for about two hours, Sangji rode out to see who he could find; the wife did some stiching work; I waited, and played with the granddaughter, who seem to be amused by anything and everything.

After Sangji came back with no confirmed arrangements, he offered to take me to the confluence of the Black River and the Huang (or Yellow) River where his first daughter lived, in a tent.

Kind of a bumpy ride but not as bad as when we crossed the dried-up peatland in the summer. One section was by a seasonal wash, all others were among dried grasslands, and there was remaining of a mud wall the villagers built some twenty years ago to protect the best of the pastures.

At the confluence. This side of the Black River is Si’Chuan, the other, Kham. The city of Maqu is right across the river. I asked Sangji about the gold mine. He pointed at the mountain side where some construction were clearly visible. The mine, the processing factory.

A big herd of yaks tried to walk down to the sandbars by the river. Sangji told me the river bank has been retreating visibly over the past twenty years. High wind in the spring time turned into dust storm after taking in the fine soil from the eroded river bank, he believed.

The Huang River was not completely frozen though the ice blocks made it looked very rugged. Sangji said loud cracking noise of ice crashing could be heard at night.

A short ride from the river was the daughter and her husband’s little tent, in a camp of about 6 or 7 families. They are still the true nomads. The two look like teenagers but are already the parents of two children. The little boy about a year old cried hiding behind his mom when he saw me. The young husband rode out while the daughter cooked. He soon came back with a big bag of snacks and spread in between me and Sangji. I wish I could convince them there were so much unhealthy chemicals in the snacks they didn’t need. After a nice dinner (or lunch), Sangji and I rode back in the cold. The sun had already set by the time we reached his house.

The younger daughter and the wife were making dough and fillings — yak meat for dumplings. The daughter could make the perfectly looking moomoo (a kind of dumpling like a bun), but not jiaozi(potstickers) so I taught them how to wrap. They had a great time learning. The daughter got it much faster than the son in-law and she made sure to give him a hard time showing off her “masterpieces”. Quite a co-incident dumpling-making the same tradition parents will follow at home for winter solstice.

More hope for tomorrow. So much appreciate the family treating me like one of their own.

Back to Chagu

Bitterly cold morning. Bo came in early and we hit the road by eight, which was just about sunrise for this part of China. Nothing changed much from June except the landscape, now all brown with spots of dusty snow. Just passed the gas station outside the city, someone in a police uniform waved us over. Apparently he was only looking for a ride. Most likely Bo told him we were passing by. He got on, and soon fell asleep.

The section just after Si’Chuan in Kham was paved, a nice little break from the mostly bumpy dirt road.

The Black River was frozen. Soon after crossing the bridge toward the three villages, I called Daerji. We still managed to make a couple of wrong turns and ended up in Gasha instead of Chagu, where I wanted to go. The half-finished new brick houses in Gasha were painted pink and purple, ugly in my eyes.

Eventually we found the school in Chagu. In a little while, Daerji came to lead us to the home of the Sangji’s. He was the one who rode me to the sand dunes in the summer. His wife and daughter helped carried my luggages in and Bo soon took off.

Daerji and the other village head stayed to chat for a bit. Their Mandarin is marginal so it was difficult to carry a conversation. Sangji’s on the other hand is much better. His daughter made me Zanba, the mixture of roasted barley flour with tea, sugar, yak butter, and small bits of dried yak cheese. All mixed by hand to a small dough and ate like that. Not bad.

The day goes on leisurely for Sangji, who, even only in his forties, has already become a grandfather. His younger daughter and son-in-law do most of the family chores. Since it was winter time, the family stayed at their more permanent camp and once a day herd their yaks to drink by the Black River.

When it was watering time, Sangji rode me to the open grassland. I filmed a few amused herders riding toward the camera, one of the girls though had the most elegant rope-throwing style, swinging her rope with a metal tube at the end in a circle above her head as a way to tell the yaks where to go.

At this time of the year, the Black River is completely frozen. One young man was there crushing the ice open for the yaks. It was a beautiful sight with yaks, ice, water, herders on horse in the background, but I was sure it was so terribly cold for the ice-crasher, who had to pick the ice blocks by his bare hands to throw them away. One of the nicest things for the highland here though, is its almost constant warm sun during the day. After crushing enough icy surface, the young man laid down on the ice to take a break and asked me if I wanted to film him taking a nap like that.

Sangji’s family snacked a lot. Maybe because I was there, they ate all the times and constantly offer me food. In the middle of their room was a yak-dung burning stove. It was amazingly warm and didn’t smell bad at all. Come to think of it, it is a very sustainable way of fuel, as long as their grassland is plentiful, the herders will have enough yaks for food and fuel. The cycle, hopefully, could continue on.

The sun set late as well, almost 7 at night. I filmed some more how the herders drove their yaks back to the pen near their home. The whole village at dusk smell like burning yak dung. Temperature soon dropped to way below zero.

When we were warming up inside, the wife came in with a big basket of dungs and the granddaughter wrapped in her pretty little dress. The little two-year-old is very pretty. “Highland blush”, the red cheeks from the sun that are so normal for girls here have not reached her. She was shy for a bit but very soon, her naughtiness came right out.

For dinner, Sangji’s family cooked me a whole pot of yak shanks. That’s the best meal for guests. Their good-heartedness is what motivated me to come and film them, as always.

Night fell quickly but the room was kept warm by the dung fire. Kind of sad in a way herders here have well adopted TV watching at night. If I go back to Qiunatong, that small Tibetan/Nu village down Yunnan, will they still sing and dance by the fire?

Sangji’s family put me in the part of their house where his daughter slept. It was shabby of course, broken window and dirt ground, but that’s already their best. The blankets they gave me were so heavy I could barely move under there. It was warm enough. Just that all the dogs in the village decide to put on a choir at night.

Into Zoige

Bo came to meet me at the airport Saturday. He had a red jacket on and looked quite happy. Business was really good for him this past summer.

It snowed the day before and didn’t stop until this morning. The air was fresh as usual and the mountains well covered in white. Jiu Zhai(Nine Villages) must be an exciting airport to land for pilots, peaks after peaks after peaks and all of sudden, the runway appeared that seemed quite sloped to my untrained eyes.

The sun felt warm even though it was less than 20F. We had a quick noodle at a restaurant ran by a Muslin family. Half-frozen streams by the well-paved road and the dried grass covered hills reminded me of my first trip to Lhasa. We climbed a 3800m mountain pass with icy patches and a few trucks slid off coming up, but otherwise, an uneventful trip to Zoige town. Quite a bummer the hotel I used to stay didn’t have in-room cable anymore and internet cafes in town insisted on checking ID card I don’t have. Have to stay unplugged for quite some time. Sleepy, slept early.

It snowed again overnight. Sun out on Sunday. Tried to call a few places in Langmusi, I might base there instead if I could find internet, and it would be a more interesting place than this dull and characterless Zoige town.

Daerji, the village head in Chagu happened to come to town and we met briefly. He said he would tell the other villager I interviewed last time to be ready to have me there for a few days. All good.

Returning to Zoige

In Beijing. I shall soon return to Zoige, the high desert on the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau. Few months ago, I was there, riding on the back of the village head’s motorcycle, going through the bumpy and dried-up grassland, to film the deserted hills and the dried lakes, a scarred landscape that used to be magnificent.

I can never work as much as I imagined. Couldn’t finish the trailer for the camel project, not to mention going for funders. Zoige though, moved smoothly with Jo doing the translation, over skype, Don did the music, Aprylisa helped with writing, Les okayed it, Felix waived the application fee, and it sailed right through the fiscal sponsorship process with Arts Engine. I should be pleased, even though the road ahead is even more daunting than before.