Monthly Archives: August 2013

Black River Pasture

It was time to head out again. Yidan and her husband Ah-Ji moved out to Black River Pasture this summer along with the family’s yaks. Their home pasture was not big enough to keep all their animals so they rented her maiden family’s land. I liked her way of working and even though she was shy, she talked slowly with a good voice which I also liked. I wanted to film some more of them together.

It was an easy drive to the Black River pasture. I met Sangku at the nearly empty winter village, had lunch at a tent site set up for local Tibetan travelers and then drove out to Yidan’s pasture, very close to a cell tower.

She walked out of her tent to greet us, wearing the same cloths I remembered seeing her last time. She was still shy but not as giggly anymore. Ah-Ji wasn’t home yet. Sangku stayed to help translate my questions. To my pleasant surprise, Yidan was very willing to do interviews this time. Though she still requested Sangku to be away while she talked, I was fine to stay and film.

Her maiden family’s tent was right next to Yidan’s. They have a sort of a pet goat they raised on yak milk. Two girls giggled around when I filmed. One teenager looked really pretty on horse and had an elegant pose carrying basket. Another family was on the same grassland. The man was annoying and the daughter tried very hard dancing and singing to get my attention.

Very hot. The sun squeezed every ounce of energy out. I walked to a little sandhill to see how to film and got tired after a few steps. Women on the pasture have no time to rest. Yidan had lots of dry yak dung to collect to piles before the afternoon thunderstorm hit — they must have known.

Ah-Ji came back with some vegetables from town — he sent their sons to school there. While Yidan worked, he played chess with Sangku. That’s the way things work with the herders’ family.

Then the loud thunder came, rolling from distance then cracked very low above us. It was another mad dash, by the women of course to secure the covers of the yak dungs.

Sangku and Ah-Ji went back to Black River village, Yidan milked the yaks, prepared dinner, and watched TV while waiting for her husband to come home. I filmed a little bit of them during TV dinner. It was good.


The end of Ramadam, my Muslim hosts invited me to have brunch with them. Their children came back home from wherever they worked, their youngest son ran an internet shopping site in Shanghai. Earlier in the morning the men had gone to the Masque while women prepared for the biggest meal of the year at home.

It was all great until a phone call came and both of the hosts started crying. Later they told me their oldest daughter just passed away. When her young son called, the festival was cut short.

Most of the shops in Langmusi are run by Muslims. It was obvious when their holiday arrived and the shops were shut and the street were much less busy.

Langmusi is an interesting little town indeed for this reason. Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists seemed to live peacefully together. The hostess told me at her grandmother’s time, they would prepare little gift to the monks when a Buddhist holiday came. The conflicts between the two monasteries and those pilgrims dedicated to a specific branch of Buddhist teaching were, and are still more notable. The appearances of the monks from the two monasteries are very different two. One wears no watches and only black cotton boots, the other would be seen with Adidas and iPhones.

Taking a Break

Another sunny morning. I felt it would be a good time for a break. I was getting a bit tired, needing a shower, and my senses were getting a bit dull. Filming is an intense experience. I could only hold the focus for so long.

The way out seemed easier than coming in. Daerji took a little different path. The bad section was still muddy with knee high water but it didn’t feel very long.

A tragedy struck the village the day before. A group of people tried to crossed the Yellow river to Maqu, a short cut from their pasture than going many more times the distance by land, and their overloaded boat sank, killing seven people, four in one family. Zuba was busy handling the case so didn’t have time to meet me. Daerji arranged a driver to take me back to Langmusi. We took the back road, through the mountains. It was a gorgeous drive.

Qijia came to do translation. It was much smoother this time. He is experienced now. Things have also gotten better for Sangku’s wife. They would return home in a couple of days while I worked on translation.

Zuba and a few from his village also came to Langmusi and we met. I told them about the restoration idea I had already told Daerji. They seemed lukewarm. Hopefully my good intension would generate some good results.


It has always been difficult for the herders to talk on camera. Daerji luckily wasn’t too shy so it was easy with him. He talked about what he wanted his children to become. The factorial stuff about the desert is probably enough from just one or two persons. I still like the personal stories better.

It was a pleasant surprise that the wife agreed to talk as well. I liked her look and voice. And I liked it that there were so much contrasts between her and her daughter. She spoke in a somewhat helpless way, very moving.

I couldn’t get the daughter to speak. A bit disappointing but I have to live with that fact.

My batteries ran out when the interviews were done and I tried to film just a bit more. Dealing with limitations, developing expectations and having expectations broken are all part of the process.

An older herder with some Mandarin came to visit Daerji and he told me they had no outside visitors to their summer pasture. He said he dared not do something like this himself and he commended me for what I do. If nothing else, at least I am having a unique life experience. And I shall be pleased with that.

Life is short, Art is Long, Live Difficulty — I miss Les and his inspiration immensely.

Sunny Days and Clear Nights

One early morning, I got up just when the wife got up and filmed her work in the morning mist — beautiful. Spreading wet yak dung was probably the hardest chore for the summer. In the winter, frozen dungs just needed to be picked up to burn, but in the summer, they had to be spread by hand to let dry.

One villager came to talk to me while I sent text messages on the hill in the morning. He told me that 30 something years ago they were given poisons to mixed with barley flour to put by the pike holes. Pikas died and soon they discovered dead vultures too and that scared them too much to continue that task. Pika population soared. They are considered a pest to the grassland by the villagers even though I do not share that opinion. It is the drying of the land that attracted the opportunists instead.

I tried to have him talk on the camera later with no vail. Had I have a crew I could have had the first encounter filmed. Oh well. Can only work with what I got.

The daughter was still sleeping when the wife had finished all the morning chores. It was a struggle getting her and the boy up. The daughter helped with milking and butter and cheese curd making, the boy played around, causing troubles when I filmed.

It was a hot day. I went out to film by a small water hole. Yaks come down to drink and bath. Yak moms cleaned their baby. Hopefully some good yak scenes. Lots of good yak eating sound too, and milking sound at dusk.

Clear nights on the pasture are gorgeous. Stars so bright and low. Scorpio came up every day from the hill top.

I learned a few more words of Tibetan and the family were eager to test me. They laughed whenever I got one right. It was good to be a laughing stalk once in a while.

Bird(less) Lake

One of the mornings, after Daerji herded their horses out to the open, he took me to film Xingcuo, Bird Lake. A few families in his group had their tent close to it. When I came to see these deserts for the first time, Sangku and Daerji took me to the other side of the lake and I filmed there. Nobody was around that time. I was glad I got to come back and filmed the people. Without people’s stories, a desert is just another desert.

It was quite a view. On the highest hill, both sides, the lake and the river valley were under full display. The lake was quite spotty, definitely not a continuous body of water and I could see no birds. The pity little stream that was supposed to flow to the Yellow River from the lake was a black, muddy cut on the ground at best. Where have all the water gone? It rained quite frequently this year, and last year too people said.

Filmed quite a bit. A handsome looking herder came on a white horse and we followed him to his home. Turned out it was the home of one of the thread making helper women. Their two daughters were preparing a meal. One of them goes to college in Lanzhou. That’s quite an accomplishment considering her family’s condition. She was so shy to speak Mandarin in front of her parents, and only spoke to me secretly on my way out — she wanted to get out of here, so much about the pasture she did not like, deserts, people. That’s the trend for young people here. Daerji’s daughter wanted to be a doctor and would not consider herding a worthy work to do.

I hoped to film a group of herders discussing their land. Daerji helped me gathered a few. But once the interview questions started, they became quiet. Either my questions were all wrong or they truly couldn’t say much. Or a combination of the two. For whatever reasons, that plan didn’t go. The wind picked up, afternoon rain came. Could have been a sign that that wasn’t quite a good idea.