The Chinese province of Tibet (known as XiZang in Chinese, which literally means West Tibet), occupies more than one million square kilometres, twice the size of Spain. However, this wide territory is just the cure of the former Tibetan empire, and of what today is still known as the “Wide Tibet”. This region occupies parts of five different Chinese provinces and is as large as Western Europe.
Many of the holy sites of Tibetan culture, of its largest monasteries and of its most astonishing natural wonders are situated in this “Wide Tibet”, and not in the administrative province of Tibet. The less strict regulations affecting this region make out of it the best entrance door to discover the richness and deepness of Tibetan culture.
Ganzi, in the Northwest of Sichuan province is one of the most important Tibetan cities. Its concrete buildings and dusty roads can hide its uniqueness at first sight. Indeed, any time before dawn one would think that it is yet another modern Chinese city in which aesthetics and culture have been unable to resist against the push of urban development. Additionally, the high altitude makes it difficult for trees to grow and lets Ganzi unprotected from wind and dust. Many of the few tourists who pass by Ganzi will never discover that it is much more than that. They just see it as a random point in their way to Lhasa, the sacred capital of Tibet province, and the new Mecca of Chinese tourism. Indeed, Lhasa’s tourists have been increasing by over 20% in the last few years. This prosperous industry, together with the high wages which Chinese colons receive as a compensation for living in Tibet, is turning Tibetan people into a marginalised community even in their own territory.
The uniqueness of Ganzi will reveal itself early in the morning, as soon as the first orange and red tones rise in the horizon the city seems echo them showing its own saffron, orange and golden colours. Shops in every street open their blinds to display their range of religious objects: saffron tunics, Buddhist prayer flags, and copper bowls; while the streets get full of monks who head to the humble street food restaurants for breakfast. Ganzi is located halfway of some of the largest monasteries in the Tibetan plateau.
When monks have a few free days, or when they have to or a stopover in Ganzi before heading somewhere else, they tend to grasp the occasion to enjoy all the amusements that Ganzi offers. They might meet old friends who live in distant monasteries and happen to be in Ganzi too, buy a trinket or two for their relatives, or even try their luck at target shooting, arcade games, or any other minor sins.
As in any other Tibetan city, the morning starts with the Kora, a ceremonial walk around the main temple of the city, which is the perfect occasion for any traveler who wants to integrate in the community, since many Tibetans will be eager to teach the correct way to perform the ritual. Laypersons and monks perform the ritual together, they often carry praying wheals which they make turn, as they turn themselves around the temple while repeating the famous mantra: “Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ”.
The largest monastery in Ganzi’s surroundings is Sertar, housing 40.000 monks. Although it was founded as an international religious center, the restrictions imposed by Chinese government have held the project from being realized. Indeed, access to foreigners is strictly controlled, if not banned, depending on the year.
Sertar is the most prestigious ground for a Tibetan pedagogic and dialectic practice known as “clapping discussion”. Inside the main temple of the monastery the monks get together in pairs: one sits down while the other stands in front. The one who is sitting, the “guide”, will ask questions ranging from religion, to history, or philosophy; while the one who is standing must answer question after question. When the monk who is standing considers to have provided a good argument, he jumps violently over the sitting monk to clap loudly just a few inches from his face; immediately the sitting monk, who must not take grievance or a defensive stand after the violent reaction of his partner, will calmly ask one more question. I find no better metaphor of the character of Tibetans than this “clapping discussions”: it combines the energy and strength, with a restful and serene attitude, on a common quest for knowledge and illumination.
There are about three million nomads in the Tibetan plateau, whose life style is perfectly adapted to their arid territory. In winter they shelter their herd in stone buildings in the valleys, while in spring and summer, as the weather gets warmer, they climb up the mountains establishing temporary camps where the yaks can enjoy the grassland while the children enjoy the good weather.
Although white synthetic tents are becoming more popular, the majority of nomads still prefer the traditional yak fur ones, which they cover with fat to waterproof them. Many aspects of Tibetan life have remained untouched for centuries. The encounter with a Tibetan nomad family follows the same pattern that it would have followed when Tibet was an empire: the main meal keep on being tsmpa, barley flour mixed with butter and water, and the many of the conversations could have happened anytime in the last millennium. They focus on yaks, sending the younger son to a monastery, or going to the highlands to harvest yartsa gunbu, also known as “Hiamalya’s Viagra” or Himalays’a gold. Yartsa gunbu is kind of caterpillar which, after being infected by a fungi is mummified by it. According to traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine it is a powerful aphrodisiac, and unsurprisingly is one of the most expensive ingredients in the world: EUR 35.000 per kilo. They have been called the diamonds of the highlands, and just like diamonds, they can bring wealth to those who find them, but tend to spread misery and violence in the communities. Indeed, as the price of yartsa gunbu has rocketed, the episodes of violence related to it have become more common in the highlands.
Although it is tempting to daydream of an untouched society up in the Tibetan plateau, this romantic idea shall not hide the many objects that remind us that the Tibetan nomads, as any other community, are in constant transformation. Red Bull has become one of the most appreciated gifts, and has gained a prestigious role in the ceremonies of many families; in any nomad tent or even monastery, there is always a mobile phone playing Tibetan songs in Youku, Chinese version of Youtube; and most of the tents have a black suitcase carrying a satellite TV which the Chinese government offers to Tibetans in its attempt to assimilate them. However, the foreign object that have more naturally find its place in the Tibetan culture, and which has more successfully merged with it, is the motorbike.
Motorbikes have naturally claimed for themselves the same place in the imaginary that once was reserved to horses. They are the perfect tool to herd yaks and, ridden by a skilled nomad, require no roads or paths to cross the highlands. Like mythological horses they have names, personalities and are decorated with trophies and amulets. A roar of countless motorbikes in the highland in summer indicates often that a yearly horse festival is taking place. One of the regions which is better known for this kind of festivals is Liming, in the province of Sichuan.
These festivals have probably been celebrated since before Buddhism arrived to the region in the third century, and are still today a key date in the calendar of the nomads: an occasion to meet relatives, find a partner, or catch up with old friends. Men and women wear their most luxurious outfits: decorative knives, exquisite hair braids, and heavy and bulky coral necklaces, which have often passed from one generation to another since it arrived to Tibet from the Mediterranean through the Silk Road. The roar of the motorbikes shuts down as more horse riders arrive. Finally, a high ranking monk marks the beginning of the competition in which the riders will exhibit different skills: archery, grabbing objects from the ground while trotting, and jugglery on top of the horse.
There is a big Tibet out of what we known as “Tibet” in the West. The Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai are home to the majority of Tibetan population, and to many of its most sacred places. Many travelers will be disappointed when arriving to Lhasa: it’s difficult to find vestiges spirituality in the city, and almost impossible to escape form the surveillance of the Chinese State. Their frustration might lead them to think that Tibetan culture is extinct; but they might just be looking in the wrong place.
There is no more effective wall than a wall of emptiness, which is the only one which will never be demolished. There is no better protection for Tibetan culture that the wideness of the highlands, which remain inaccessible to cars, bureaucracy, and control; and it is comforting to know that the conversations held under the yak fur of a nomad tent will always remain private and free.
Summer 2014, Tibet