Monthly Archives: June 2012

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.

Packing and Pika Catching

Sanji was called over to the pasture by his daughter and wife, so I stayed one night at his home alone. Before he left, he asked the neighbor woman to help me start the fire. Yak dung is actually fairly easy to burn, if done properly. My first try produced a lot more smoke than fire, until the helpful woman came for the rescue.

The old herder’s family planned to move in the next day or two, depending on the weather. And I was going to follow them.

Before Sanji made it back, the old herder’s son rushed over in a hurry. His Mandarin was close to nothing but from his gesture I could tell. It was drizzling and the family must be in a rush to pack. The yak-hair tent would get overly heavy if it gets wet. So, I jumped on the back of his motorcycle and was at their winter camp in no time.

Most of their belongings were spread on the ground. The wife, the old herder and his wife were all there. They must have been waiting for me. As soon as I got in, with hardly any time to get my camera ready, they took the tent down. Women still do most of the work, packing, rolling the tent while the men sit around and chatted.

Their children came back from school as well. They were giggling in the truck bed while the adult packed. Turned out, they were playing with the small plateau pikas which have become so prevalence on the grassland. I asked the old herder to let his grandsons show me their pika catching techniques. The kids did so gleefully. It was a team work, once they were sure of a catch, one of the kids would swing his shirt very hard on the ground, the other blew at one of the holes while the brave and lucky one put his hand in the exit hole waiting for their trophy to come out. They had a few to show off in just a short time.

The family will stay in a temporary small tent tonight and move the next day.

Intro to Old Herder’s family

Moving finally in two days. Sanji took me to the old herder’s place in their winter pasture. I wanted to get to know them a bit before starting to follow them.

It was nice and sunny. Their black yak-hair tent was actually quite breezy because they can flip the side up and let air in. The old herder’s daughter in-law did all the work — milking the yak, making butter and cheese, making yak-hair rope, tightening the tent when it got windy, making dinner, making yogurt, feeding dogs, drying yak dungs, …. The men including Sanji played chess all day long. When the daughter in-law was working the yak hair into thread, the light and color on her face was very lovely. This family would be a good addition to the story.

Sanji will go to the nearby city to buy me a small tent. After they move to their summer pasture, they will be much closer to the desert.

All is well

I’ve been worrying if I could meet a good translator in Langmusi. That worry was found unnecessary when I started working with Qijia, a young Tibetan on his way to college. It’s a tedious process that requires a lot of time and patience. Luckily, Qijia has both.

So, I did two days of translation, working more than 10 hours a day. The summer days are so generous, even with that schedule, I still have time to go for a short hike in the afternoon, along the White Dragon river or up one of the small hills. One of the dusks I walked up a reddish cliff overlooking the whole town of Langmusi, the other one I met three Tibetan women digging for Caterpillar Fungus who were surprised to see a Chinese walking in the mountain alone. On one sunny afternoon, young monks played by the river while I walked the river bank and checking out tadpoles and flowers. It’s wonderful to have tadpoles and flowers.

For Mountain

For Mountain

That bright yellow wild poppy, why something so delicate blooms on the steep slopes by the thousands?
That hardy pink and rosy one I have not met in names, your fragrance so pleasing, who are you waiting for?
And that one lone blue one with fuzzy stems by the hidden creek, what have you heard since you were born?

Secrets of nature await no one and every one.
There is so much life here I want to cry.

That fluffy white cloud hanging so low and still, as if it is waiting for me to climb on to it for a ride over the green mountains.
Thin air does wonder to the mind, until, a rowdy raven flew across the canyon, laughing at me and my dream.

The wind blew the prayer’s flags steady and loud.
May the spirit of the mountain bless that wounded horse in the alpine meadow, all alone with a sad looking face.

What is not sad is the giant marmot, dashing through the greens.
And that red-tailed black bird, guiding me and my thoughts in the early morning gorge.

The stream tells a never ending story. The granite walls listen in silence.
Nothing else really matters here.

– A break from the plains to the hills and canyons

Flower Lady

One of the nice things my brief sojourn to Songpan was meeting Vanessa, an American teaching in Burma. We ended up sharing a room and travel stories in Langmusi. We had breakfasts at a tiny restaurant where the owner was a tiny muslim lady who loved flowers. All the wall papers, curtains, her jacket have flower prints on, and a vase of flowers from nearby mountain slopes was sitting on a stove top — she let the big stove rest for the summer. “They are everywhere”, she told us when I asked about the small yellow flowers on pine like branches. She wished she could have some free time to pick some more, some of her flowers were starting to wilt.

Vanessa went on to do an over-night horse riding trip with Shike’s team. That day when she was away, in the afternoon, I took a short walk to the hills by Langmusi. The wild flowers overwhelmed me in ways I couldn’t find words to describe. Nothing was noted down on my notebook I thought I’d write on, but I did return with a whole bunch of flowers in bright yellow, red, purple, pink. It felt wonderful. And it felt even better seeing the “flower lady” at the small shop with a big smile when she received her fresh additions. Vanessa and I returned the next morning for more breakfast and to take pictures of the new flowers.

It warms my heart to know anyone who love flowers, especially the one who doesn’t seem to have the time for that kind of “pastime”. I added a new flower vase too, made out of a beer can to the small table by my bed. It held some flowers I picked, and a small piece of the mountains.

In Search of a billboard

With a couple of days until I have to return to the pasture, I left most of my filming equipment at Sangji’s home and caught a ride to the nearby city of Rma Chu, a dusty and characterless town, the first bigger city on the Yellow River. The Tibetans call the Yellow River Rma Chu (རྨ་ཆུ) as well, Chu is water, river, and Ma is the short name for the mountain peak where the Yellow River is originated from: Aemye Rma-chhen. Tibetan normally name their river based on its source, while the Chinese names are mostly the characteristic of the river. It’s good to be aware of the source, I reckon.

Not so much to do in Rma Chu other than waiting for the once-a-day bus to leave early next morning. I had plenty of time to print some photographs I took of the herders and added a few more Tibetan books to my collection. After a quick intro from Shike, Tibetan starts to make some sense to me, tea is ཇ, so far.

My bus departed at 6:30 in the morning. The direct line would be to Zoige, but that bus was broken on the road so I had to go Rma Chu to Langmusi, and Zoige. And I was glad it turned out this way. The mountain pass down from Rma Chu was spectacular. In addition, loads of pickers of Caterpillar Fungus, a highly-priced herb used in traditional Chinese medicine dotted the steep hillside. They were mostly Tibetan women. A good-sized such fungus goes for hundreds if not thousands of yuan in fancy stores in Beijing. Here, the herders get about 20 yuan for one, still a very good addition to their income. The fungus is not very easy to spot since there is hardly anything growing above the ground other than a small brownish stem, hence a lot of holes left behind by the pickers. In environment as fragile as it is here, any damage takes a long time to heal. Herders in Chake though don’t have access to any land with the priced herb.

After cruising down the mountains and passing a big lake called The Ocean of Ga, Langmusi was near. One of the Tibetan passengers was so fond of his own music he wanted to share them with the whole bus of passengers, by turning the speaker of his handheld player to the maximum. I sat right in the middle of the bus, where the Chinese and English pop music from the bus speaker and the Tibetan music from the eager passenger mingled.

The reason I wanted to make a trip out, other than a quick shower and some fruit/veggie infusion was to look for a billboard I saw on my last trip here. On there, a shiny new village, the kind that the herders were said to be settled into was blessed by the party leader, Cmd. Hu. Thanks to the communist party for rescuing us from thousands of years of nomadic hardship, the slogan said. I remembered seeing a few like that.

From Langmusi, I took a minivan bus to Zoige, and after everybody else got off, let the driver drove me around Zoige. No there. So, after a short break in the dusty town center, I caught another bus towards Songpan. The airport I flew in last time was close by. It could very well be there that I saw the billboards.

Pouring going through mountain passes. Almost at Chuan Zhu temple, I did see two billboards that resembled that in my memory, but not quite as interesting. Without much options left, after getting off at Chuan Zhu temple, an increasingly touristy town, I let a taxi driver take me to the model village and filmed a little bit of the billboard, in the rain.

Songpan, less than 20 kilometers away, was a nice tourist town with a walled old town center and lots of nice shops and restaurants. A simple room by the mountain side and a nice bowl of rice noodle made the trip worthwhile, in addition to the billboard.

More desert

My first night at the village was at one of the village head’s home. The whole family were there helping the move-out of his older daughter, who wasn’t very pretty nor polite. The able ones filled the nice-looking army-green canvas bags with barley and carried them out to be ready for the tractor load. The whole room was filled with the dust as those old bags apparently had not been moved for a long time. Two little toddlers crawled around while the mother had to helped out as well. The plan was to move all their belongings to a tent out on their summer pasture, invite guests for a gathering, and a few days later to move everything back to their brick house next to the parents.

The next day, Sanji’s phone finally worked and I switched to stay at his place. He was the only one at home, the wife, daughter and son-in-law, and their dog had all moved to their summer pasture a couple of weeks back. Their family was the designated guard this year, looking out for the whole village group’s grassland until everyone was ready to move.

Sanji called them and asked to send the wife home. We talked the usual politics until the son-in-law brought her, as well as their cute little grand daughter home. She was shy at first, pretending to be sleeping then hide behind Sanji’s wife, but soon, she climbed all over and wanted to check out everything in my bags and pockets. It felt good to be sure I can communicate clearly to the villagers through Sanji.

Rained again. So we stayed in. They put me to good use making moomoo — yak-meat filled bun with the wife. The little girl loved them. Gradually, I got used to the smell of the yak-dung fire. Mixed with the smell of burning barley, which people some time do for good luck, it sits well in my olfactory memory.

Things have to be done slowly here.

And finally a good day for going out to the summer pasture.

Incredibly bumpy ride across the grassland. I liked it though, so out-there. Pika-like rodents everywhere it was hard not to run some over. I think they have to do with some imbalance in the ecosystem as well — it’s good to have some of them but it seems way too many for this type of environment now.

Even though the grassland was patched with desert, they are still beautiful to look at. Wide open.

Sanji’s family set their tent close to the foot of a sandhill in the grassland. It was good to see his daughter. We took a short break for tea ( da-cha, the original Tibetan tea before they adopted the leafy Chinese tea) and Sanji rode me out to see the desert, again.

Very light drizzle but nothing serious enough from the look of the cloud. With enough time, I can set the tripod out and film as long as I needed to, a luxury I didn’t have last time. In the middle of these sand hills was a lake, or what little remained of a used-to-be big lake the locals called it Bird Lake. A few white egrets and cranes lingered around. I wished I could see what it was like before. It was a good vantage point though, to film the surrounding sandy hills. I got an idea to experiment — a composite shot from all the angles I’ve gotten — will see how that could turn out.

Three Tibetan antelopes showed up in the distance out of my surprise. They kept the distance as we tried to move for a closer look. Sanji tried to herd them toward me but they out-smarted him quickly and vanished into the desert hill.

In addition to long shots, I got to do some close-ups as well of the little grass, flowers, and just sand. Another time, another weather, I’ll do some more.

Back at the tent, Sanji’s older daughter as well as her husband and their little boy came for a visit. Their summer land was not so far away. After dinner together, they set off on their horses, the baby boy in front of the father, and sang their way into the distance, half grassland, half desert. That image really moved me. For whatever reasons I chose to do this project, that would add to one of them.

Horse Racing Festival

The 18th of the lunar calendar, it was time for Gasha village to start their three-day horse racing festival of the year. So, with the help of Shike and the village chief who came in to Langmusi to bring a lama back for a home praying service, I got in to the village just in time in the middle of that day.

The road getting there was just as bad as in my memory. Half way, the driver pointed me to a barely visible ruin on the hill. That used to be a fairly sizable monastery resulted from conflicts between one living buddha and those who managed his monastery in Langmusi. The exact detail seems to have quite a bit of variations depending on who was telling the story, but for certain fights broke out, builidngs demolished, and the living buddha was expelled north.

It was nice not to be among tourists for the horse racing festival. The riders decorated their horses with bright orange or green ribbons. Little pieces of white papers symbolizing good luck were thrown into the air in the batches, then came down the grassland like snow-flakes.

A bad quality loud speaker announced the go. People cheered and screamed, the horses flew out of the starting line and out into the make-shift circled field where desert-patched mountain hill can be seen in the not so far distance. It was a nice scene nonetheless.

The longest race was only 3000 meters, three circles. But there were many races. I filmed a few long shot ones and close ups. Everyone wanted to see what I see through my viewfinder. Among the onlookers, a monk with an expensive Canon.

At the break, I cruised the white tents where locals hang out for drink and food. People in one tent called me over so I did. They giggled more than they could talk to me. Two monks came in and someone in the tent offered to pay for their food. Without me knowing, one young man in the tent paid my soda, then asked me to take photo with them.

The Tibetans seem to like to have their photo taken, as long as you show them afterward. The two young men who walked with me to the open field put on a serious look when they were ready for their picture, then motioned me to sit in between them for another shot.

It got chilled pretty quickly as the day winded down. Very pretty light when the final round of the racing began. Even though I have no idea how these footage would fit in the story, I was nice to witness a real horse racing festival out in the pastureland.