Friday, July 25, 2014

Almost Tibet

We're just back from a visit to northwest Yunnan, a corner of China that is home to more ethnicities than almost anywhere else in China. This visit was very Tibet-intensive, since many of the people in the area of Lijiang and Shangrila were ethnically Tibetan. Their homes were Tibetan, their food (think yak, yak, and more yak) is Tibetan, and their faces looked Tibetan to me.

Even more interestingly, we saw many pictures of the Dalai Lama on the walls of homes and temples, a face that in other places in China could get you thrown into jail. Some theorize that Yunnan has such an important and growing tourism business that it makes no sense for the Chinese to bully the Tibetan Buddhists there. Others operate under the ancient philosophy that "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Although these days the outside world is getting closer and closer.

To aid in the growth of tourism and to harness the powerful and raging waters of the three rivers area there -- the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween (or Nu) rivers -- a gigantic dam is being planned on the Nu. The immediate result is dirt roads carved out of the sides of very unstable mountains. We lost count of the number of times a rock or mudslide had wiped out most of the road, forcing cars and trucks to maneuver through on one very precarious lane. All of us were praying that the giant boulders we'd see sitting in the middle of the road wouldn't descend just as we were passing through.

Speaking of prayers, the area is a fascinating mixture of religions, too: Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian. We watched as Qilin, our Tibetan driver, murmured prayers as he drove us along. Our Muslim host on Haba Mountain, Mr. Bao, served a potent form of his homemade baijiu, although he didn't imbibe himself. And the Catholic church in Cizhong was a peaceful oasis where a grinning deacon wearing a large wooden cross around his neck showed us the church and told us he heard confession and gave out communion. The community of several hundred Christians met for worship four times a week -- on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

We also visited other ethnic villages -- a very poor Yi village in which farmers lived in log cabins where the outside could be seen through the gaps in the walls; a bizarrely unfriendly Lisu village decorated with posters warning about the danger of cults (did they think we were proselytizing?), a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery where the nuns had shorn black hair and smiled shyly at us.

There was so much mud and so much rain, but all that moisture produced more wildflowers than I've seen in three years here, glorious puffy clouds in the sky behind which the snow-capped mountains peeked, and green everything.

Here we have a truck driver who has stepped out of his truck either to clear the road or to see whether more boulders were descending. When he started to run back to his truck, I said to Bob, "Get back in the car! Now!"
Hiking near Meili. It looked like the set of Avatar.
The view from our window at the Songtsam Meili. Hard to leave.
More stunning views of the Baima mountains.
A Tibetan monk and his water bottle.
The view from the nunnery. 
Since I'm a rooster in the Chinese zodiac, I love these beautiful fellows.
After dinner with a Tibetan family, we saw this stunning rainbow. Hard not to think the heavens bless this special region.
And then the grand finale: a torch festival in Shangrila. How lucky that we've had two chances now to wave around burning pine sticks and smear ashes on each other.

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