Garzê, Sichuan, China  དཀར་མཛེས་

Tibet isn’t just the Chinese province of Tibet. Despite having parts annexed into other provinces, Tibetan culture is still well and alive in Sichuan and Qinghai, where Tibetan-majority autonomous areas exist — in some ways, you could say it’s even more Tibet than Tibet.

Garzê (Chinese: Ganzi 甘孜) is probably one of the more famous areas, with domestic and foreign tourists (often those who can’t enter Tibet) alike, but even then it’s hardly a hotspot, with its somewhat remote location in the far west of Sichuan 四川 province. Eschewing any further package tours from Lhasa, few to none of which stop in Garzê, I chose to head to Garzê the local way: wait six hours for a share taxi, then sit for 40 more hours (of Tibetan pop and rap, Bon Jovi, that Vengabus song from the 90s, Bollywood music, and Tibetan covers of western music) as it heads through beautiful but gruelling roads that don’t even exist on the map, crossing rivers, pushing the car up muddy slopes, sleeping in the car as drivers alternate and continue through the night. Everyone was so tired the second night that we gave up and stopped at a guesthouse for all of seven hours.

We were split into a two-car caravan, with Sonam driving the car I was in, along with his wife and two kids. Being stuck in a car together with people you don’t know for three days makes for either massive awkwardness or a quick friendship — and luckily, the latter happened. His young children were remarkably patient and well-behaved (or just sleepy) in a very bumpy and long car ride, and I got to know them a bit — Sonam’s from the Garzê area, his wife Wamu from Shigatse where they live, and they’re heading over to visit his family.

Upon arrival, Sonam brought me to his relative’s guesthouse and invited me to join his family’s going-ons for the week. Having the cheapest comfy bed I’ve ever paid for (20 yuan, $3), the guesthouse, like most in Garzê, didn’t have a shower, so off we went the next day 30 km away to Sonam’s village of Rongpatsa, where two hot springs (one for men, one for women) surrounded by incredibly gorgeous landscape bring in all the locals, even from the nearby monastery. With no notions of self-consciousness, people bathe on one side, and wrestle and splash each other on the other. The traditional mixes with the modern: from little children to the elderly men who braid their long hair, attach a long red tassle and weight to it, then wrap the whole thing around their heads; from monks to the hip, mullet-boasting, and tattooed, often with odd English tattoos the way we’d see people out in the West with odd or plain incorrect Chinese tattoos. Heh.

Joined by a revolving cast of his family members — mom, dad, some of his six brothers and their wives and kids — we had a picnic in a large meadow, surrounded by verdant mountains glistening with the late July wildflowers. I was quite surprised at how nonchalant everyone was to having a stranger around: I was acknowledged in Mandarin, offered a ton of food and hospitality on a no-name basis (like with many Chinese, no introductions — I spent three days with Sonam before I even gave him my name!), then people went back to their own conversations in Tibetan. Not a problem at all: I enjoyed the atmosphere of it all, the silence of the scenery interspersed by a rare car horn or cowbell, plus the odd mouthful of momos (yak dumplings), green onion bread, local berry jam bread, and Chinese snacks. I politely pretended to indulge on the other offerings of boiled yak meat/fat and copious amounts of Red Bull everyone seemed to be drinking — eh, no thanks.

Three days later, back to the same area: a horse festival was going on, in honour of a (very specifically) local holiday celebrating the sacred mountain adjacent to the village. In a stark contrast to the days prior, masses of people and traffic descended upon the small area. Joined by 10 friends of Sonam’s brother, all Tibetan artists from Shigatse, we set up a big Tibetan tent nearby. While Sonam and his family decided to chill out, the 10 young artists eagerly pulled me into the festivities, explaining as much as they could to me in Mandarin while obsessively taking selfies.

The sacred mountain, absolutely covered in prayer flags, was surrounded by young and old (and riders on horses!) circumambulating the kora circuit — and I was told to do it three times, while chanting… something. Okay! (“Om mani padme om”, according to the Internet. It sounds far weirder in Mandarin-transliterated Tibetan, which was what the artists used to explain it to me, and I never caught on.) Paths to go up the mountain were completely covered in a heavy stack of prayer flags, which we had to crawl under. Along the steep-but-short ways up, the mood was jubilatory: monks beating drums, yelling “Lhasaaaa!”, and everyone throwing prayer papers like confetti. Seeing a bunch of rainbow colours billowing into the deep blue, high-altitude sky was a beautiful sight that’s imprinted itself into my memory.

The area and its residents are far more culturally… open than their counterparts in Tibet province. Pictures of the Dalai Lama hung openly in tents, car rear-view mirrors, and are proudly displayed on cell phones. A few police were around for the event, but mostly to redirect traffic — nothing of the security sort found in Tibet. There is some resentment for the Chinese regime and its restrictions in Tibet, as I touched upon in Lhasa, but people seem fine enough with the Sichuan status quo not to complain or make a fuss, consequences or not. No one here’s going to cause any problems.

After a lunch of more momos and yak meat, we headed over to a nearby dirt track, and the true show began. One by one, locals rode their horses straight past, with the crowd cheering for any locally-famous horse. The riders showed off some absolutely crazy skills, the most alarming one being having their horse run (trot, but never gallop) at full speed while they dangled off the horse, holding on with one foot. Over the span of an hour: one fall, no one hurt. Wow. Less dangerous tricks showed off some major technical prowess: having the horses trot rhythmically, or having the horses turn their heads backward while able to trot in a straight line forward.

Then more food, more napping, spontaneous dancing, and spontaneous bath time! We headed to a glacial river for a bath. Whaa? Okay. According to local legend, the 15th day of the 6th month of the Tibetan calendar (about a month off of the Gregorian one, and not the same as the Chinese one) is when the water’s cleanest. Probably just superstitious and not scientific at all, but clean — and freezing. And more selfies! But not at the same time, please…

Though introductions were slow-to-non-existent as usual, I got to know some of the ten artists and learn more about their lives and where they stand in modern Tibetan culture, over Sichuan-style roast skewers, Tibetan nie chang (barley wine), and of course, them scrolling through their social media feeds on WeChat, the Chinese WhatsApp-Facebook hybrid.

Ranging from 17 to 27 in age and having met somewhat serendipitously either through connections or share taxis, all were in Garzê to work for four or five months — despite being a much smaller city than Shigatse, the lack of artists around means there’s more work for them, painting walls or furniture, and filling up any remaining time as they please by doing hired housework (or loaf around playing pool at the guesthouse). Some just finished high school. One was using the proceeds from his 10 years of work (he’s 24!) to fund his twin brother’s university studies: once his brother graduates next year, they’re swapping spots. Others were using the money to fool around a little: buy drinks, smokes, and any raunchy ¥2 video content they could pay for on WeChat.

Danqu (probably not even close to how it’s spelt, since he introduced himself in Mandarin), on the other hand, had a pretty different take on his work. Born to a poor family with four father-uncles (though he knows who his actual father is), and married by arrangement to a wife he shares with his brother, his five months in Garzê are a serious opportunity to support his family’s income — back at home, he works on their farm growing barley and tending to the yaks. His family wasn’t well-off enough to send him to school, and he took up artistry solely as a means of income: never having picked up a brush in his life prior, he had to be taught to draw and learn colour combinations for a whole year after high school before he was able to start finding work. Originally working a few hours away from Shigatse in Nagqu, Tibet (C: Naqu 那曲), a relatively affluent city due to the cordyceps (冬虫夏草, parasitic fungus that mummifies caterpillars, valued among Chinese as an herbal remedy, worth more than gold by weight) trade there, after government controls intentionally slowed the economy there — a paranoid Chinese government thinks affluence breeds unrest — he ended up in Garzê.

Enormously proud of his upbringing, he credits his father’s religiosity for getting his family through all the rough times. As a result, he himself is as well, being the most religious of the artist bunch — no meat, no smokes, and no alcohol. As soon as the power and WiFi went on at the guesthouse, everyone races to update their WeChat feeds and watch Chinese-dubbed movies. Danqu races to consume any sort of content that has the Dalai Lama in it, in any language, despite only speaking Tibetan and Mandarin — this includes an undubbed, unsubtitled English clip of some reality show that had starstruck contestants cooking for the Dalai Lama, who was a guest judge. Whaa?

While all the artists were are proud Tibetans and more than happy to share their cultural habits, quirks, and opinions with me, Danqu went a bit further, sharing concerns about cultural preservation. Language is the main thing: he mentions him and his friends unable to have a full conversation in Tibetan, interspersing Chinese words up to half the time. Tibetan children oftentimes simply converse amongst themselves in full Mandarin rather than Tibetan, since it’s what they’re used to. Given how much more widely available Chinese pop culture is, and how many modern items were introduced first in Chinese with no Tibetan word equivalents, it’s understandable. But his concern goes a little further, when school education in math, Buddhist texts, and even the Tibetan language are taught in Chinese.

Though China’s made serious strides (since the disastrous Cultural Revolution, where everything of historical value was destroyed and minority languages were suppressed) in recognising the value of culture, there’s still definitely a ways to go in preserving it for generations to come. I managed to get Danqu to admit as much, that while there are still many, many gripes to be had, much has improved since the absolute nadir nearly 40 years ago. And Tibet wasn’t the only one affected back then, even though it may have been especially affected. With most of China now rapidly modernising, more people getting education, more recognition of culture, more opportunities to get to know people and places outside of China, and an Internet that is becoming more and more unpoliceable, Chinese citizens are becoming more aware of issues that could use improvement. I met two Chinese tourists who were able to openly tell me, on the street, that they had issues with the way the government continues to treat Tibetans. (And heck, one of them even mentioned how he thinks China will become a democracy someday!) Proud Chinese citizens, able to see that patriotism and support of the government don’t always have to go hand in hand. As bad as the situation still is in Tibet, both Danqu and I could see some hope for future decades to come. And according to Danqu, even the 80-year-old Dalai Lama predicts that someday within his remaining lifetime, he’ll be able to return to Tibet.

But while Tibetan culture still fights to stay alive, perhaps it could also use some evolution with the times too.

On my last day in Garzê, Sonam invited me to yet another picnic: his village was holding their annual lingka, where they all set up tents in the nearby meadow, staying there and celebrating for a week. I didn’t have time to stay, so I got a ride there in the morning and back to Garzê in the evening.

And…wow, they really go all out with this picnic thing, eh? Each tent was furnished like a Tibetan home, complete with beds, tables, snacks galore (hello again, boiled yak and Red Bull), stereo systems, and even flatscreen TVs! One or more tents per family, with a little over 40 on the whole field. Sonam took me along as we visited tent after tent — again, nearly all completely nonchalant about having a Han person around, and on a no-name basis — where we were graciously offered more and more and more food: momos, noodles, boiled yak, butter tea, yogurt… the works. “Sor, sor!” With many unable (or perhaps unwilling?) to speak Mandarin, they all nonetheless beckoned with a smile, encouraging me to eat, eat some more, and come back later to eat again.

After “lunch” (well, hours of eating with various families, and Sonam’s son Tenzinlang stealing more food from the kitchen tent), one of Sonam’s brothers took the mic. Cue practically the *entire* village scurrying around, putting on their best clothes, then re-emerging in the center of the field, forming a giant circle. The music started, and as song after song played, everyone young and old somehow knew all the dance moves by heart, moving clockwise (as usual), swinging their exaggeratedly long sleeves. Unfamiliar with the dances as the only non-Tibetan and non-relative around, I joined the very few spectators (the elderly, and people tending to babies) on the sides. With the giant mountain meadows as a backdrop, it was a joyous swirl of colours and smiles I’ll never forget. Once people tired of dancing, several villagers took turns singing to the still-playing music, with “fans” doing their best to distract them by lining up to hang khatas (white scarves for luck) on their necks — at least that’s how I perceived it!

The revelry continued through the afternoon, with a lion dance (not so dissimilar to a Chinese one), male and female tug-of-wars, and everyone’s absolute favourite, the obstacle course. Monks acting as referees set up barrels, mats, and tires, and given the general portly build of middle-aged Tibetan men, it meant for a setup of easy laughs as many struggled to somersault over a barrel, falling flat on their bottoms.

I headed back to Sonam’s family tent, where I was surprised to find Wamu sitting on the ground *outside* of it. And this is where I learned about the sad realities of being a woman in traditional Tibetan culture.

Wamu’s family, as with those from most of Tibet province, are of Ü-Tsang culture. Sonam’s family, along with all other Tibetans in eastern Tibet province and western Sichuan, are Kham. (Qinghai province encompasses the Tibetan region of Amdo.) There’s a lot of differences here, with architecture — Ü-Tsang has whitewashed houses, Kham has red log cabins — being one of the more easily visible ones. But the languages are quite different too, and Wamu feels largely unable to communicate with people in Sonam’s village. Cross-regional marriages in Tibet are very uncommon, and she’s the only Ü-Tsang person married into Sonam’s village.

Wamu is from a somewhat prestigious family in Shigatse, one of a supposedly higher status than Sonam’s. Regardless of status though, women in Shigatse tend to be treated more or less equal to men. But in Kham, Wamu has a lower prestige, and when visiting Sonam’s family, bristles at the fact that she has to sit and sleep on the floor while the men (and women of high prestige, like Sonam’s mother) get to sit and sleep on the beds — indeed, that’s what I had been enjoying the whole day. She’s uncomfortable, not just physically, but at the notion that she’ll never get to sit at the same level as everyone else.

To my surprise, she started asking me about how women are treated in Canada. Amongst her friends who had emigrated, they boast of a life free of pressures. But here in Tibet, she’s expected to work a job, cook for the family, and raise the kids — alone most of the time, as Sonam spends most of his time in Garzê working a hotel while she stays in Shigatse running a restaurant. As much as she loves Sonam (and visibly so!), there’s a bit of resentment on how much of the burden she has compared to him, and the slight obliviousness he has to that fact. The questions about life in Canada kept on coming, and I started to feel the sense that she had some dreams and aspirations that just weren’t going to happen: mentioning again the passport denial issue, she quickly shut the conversation and changed the topic, smiling wistfully. She wanted to go home, back to Shigatse — but first, she wanted to go back to Garzê and not sleep on the floor.

Sonam called for us to get ready: Wamu got her wish that night. In the car, I stared out the window as we began to leave, watching the kitchen tents begin to billow again with smoke, the children fooling around in the beautiful family tents, and the women scurrying around in each of them, between serving up hospitality and sitting on the floor.

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