Tibetans Reclaim Ancient Ways

China annexed their land and trampled their culture, but today they are reviving

ONCE the white tents of the Tibetan nomad encampment appeared nestled in the high, grassy mountain valley, the trials of the journey seemed to float off as lightly as summer clouds.

Over the past six days, the trip had been obstructed by roads and rail lines shut down by mudslides, jam-packed airports where stranded passengers had waited weeks for outbound tickets, and a dilapidated orange Fiat that kept breaking down. A corrupt Chinese conductor demanded bribes for every berth on his overnight train, and leather-jacketed thugs bartered state airline tickets for huge sums. My Chinese travel companion, Li, temporarily vanished when suddenly forced to take a separate flight.

We finally arrived at the Tibetan camp, clutching the railing of a metal cart hauled by a rickety diesel tractor. The Tibetan tractor driver, a hefty man with curly black hair and light brown eyes, had gunned his vehicle up the mountain valley, charging across rocky streambeds and small gullies. The tractor's chugging shattered the tranquility of the windswept grassland. But once it sputtered away, peace returned to the nomadic encampment, and to my mind.

The journey to the Tibetan region within China's northwestern Gansu Province covered a landscape that was as dramatic culturally as it was physically arduous.

Along the Yellow River valley, the cradle of Han Chinese civilization, farmers steeped in Confucian tradition live in close-knit villages tilling the same postage-stamp plots that their ancestors had for ages.

Farther west lies the dusty, Muslim-dominated territory of the Hui people, with their mosques, white skullcaps, and fiery beef and mutton dishes. Famed for their skill as traders, the Hui today deal in everything from richly colored rugs to illicit drugs.

Finally the flatlands and villages gave way to verdant hills dotted with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Monks on pilgrimage to a holy mountain strode past, their full, maroon robes swinging gracefully. We ascended by car, foot, and tractor into the pastureland of Tibetan nomads. A furry Himalayan marmot scampered along a hillside. Shaggy black yaks grazed on thick green grass scattered with mountain wildflowers.

Hearing the tractor from a distance, a Tibetan nomad stepped out of the first white tent of the summer encampment. Sonam invited his visitors in and offered steaming bowls of Tibetan tea. When the tea was partly drunk, Sonam's daughter added spoonfuls of homemade yak-butter and tsampa (roasted barley flour) to the bowls. Everyone mixed the butter and flour with the tea by hand, forming balls of dough to be pinched off and eaten.

After this traditional Tibetan meal, Li lay down on a sheepskin rug and dozed off. Aided by a Mandarin-speaking Tibetan friend, Sonam began talking about his life. A nomad in his fifties with coarse black hair and deeply tanned skin, Sonam poured out a story of incredible anguish. But the instant Li awoke, Sonam grew silent. Sensing the ethnic tension, Li left the camp for a nearby town. Sonam's visceral mistrust and hatred of Han Chinese was shared by almost every Tibetan encountered.

Sonam's story explains his bitterness. He came from a wealthy nomad family that in the 1950s owned more than 200 sheep, 60 yaks, and 50 horses. His descendants had driven their herds in the Tibetan region of Amdo for hundreds of years. Like most Tibetans, Sonam was a Buddhist.

Soon after the 1949 revolution, China's communist armies annexed Amdo and the rest of Tibet. But Sonam's life was not dramatically influenced until 1956, when Maoist officials began to force the footloose nomads into herding collectives.

All along Tibet's eastern border with China, nomads like Sonam's father rose up in resistance, forming guerrilla bands to attack Communist occupation forces. In 1958, when Sonam was 16, his father was killed along with hundreds of other members of the nomadic tribe during a major uprising. In the ensuing crackdown, many more nomads were executed or jailed.

In the 1960s and '70s, the harsh new political order suppressed the nomads' ancient way of life. Scores of tribesmen died when collective mismanagement decimated the livestock upon which they depended for food, clothing, and shelter. Maoist zealots persecuted many other nomads, especially former tribal chiefs and the wealthy. They barred the tribe from practicing Tibetan Buddhism.

Since the early 1980s, the break-up of Maoist collectives and the easing of religious persecution have allowed Sonam and his family to revive aspects of their past life. Once again, they move from pasture to pasture, herding their own yaks and sheep. They churn butter, make cheese, and fashion many other necessities from the leather, wool, and yak-hair of their herds. And every day, they recite the mantras of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sonam is fiercely proud of his simple, subsistence life. He disdains the confining, close-huddled existence of Chinese farmers and their diet of vegetables and grains. He thrives on the open air of the grassland and the belief that nomads know best how to live on what nature offers.

Yet Sonam and his fellow nomads still yearn for Tibet to be free from China and for the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader, to return.

I left Sonam's camp on horseback, beginning the long journey back to the this-worldly realm of Han China. I was glad not to disturb the mountain valley again with the roar of a tractor.

* The author made this trip in July 1992. The names are pseudonyms, to protect against possible retribution.

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