The dump, Fudi Village

It seems most, if not all, Tibetan villages have a landscape sacred to them. In Hongpo Village, it is Dralha Chonyi, the mountain from whence the village water supply comes. In Fudi Village, near LaBrang , it is a beautiful, small valley, where animals graze peacefully in an unaltered environment. Because it is sacred, nothing is ever put there, nor is anything ever taken out. Great care is taken to insure this home of the mountain gods suffers no trespass. This fastidiousness engenders peace and assures that babies are robust, livestock is healthy, and crops are plentiful.

Well, that is how it is supposed to be, but the Chinese government paid an expert to come to the region and decide where best to put the township dump. The site picked out as the one least compromising to the environment, a great concern to the ruling class, was, yup, you guessed it: Fudi’s sacred valley.

The villagers got together to present their case to the county government, to no avail. In fact, they were threatened for their outspokenness. In a final attempt, the men of the village went again to plead their case, telling the officials how important the site is, giving their reasons. The officials retorted that they were not going to pay an expert to come out again, and the villagers should stop being so superstitious. Two of the entourage, arbitrarily picked, were thrown in jail. Released a few days later, the incident was so frightening that the villagers signed a ten year contract.

The dump site is a repository for everything from the sizable town: garbage, toxic chemicals, hospital waste. To facilitate disposal all this effluent, a large roadway wide enough to accommodate three vehicles at a time was graded and paved. Truckloads are brought in everyday, mornings and afternoons. The bucolic valley is defiled, and the peace of the region forever disturbed.

But that is not all. Some very strange things started to occur as the mountain gods cried out loud. The first anomaly was to manifest itself in the teeth of the cattle grazing on their traditional feeding grounds in the valley. They turned black. A few months later most of the animals were were dead. Autopsies revealed guts full of plastic.

By the second year the dump was active, it was worse. Two children of the village were not developing as they should. They had both been fed milk from cows known to be grazing near the dump. One of the children has a cousin of the same age living elsewhere. When the cousin came to visit, the grandparents were disturbed at the comparison: the village child’s growth was considerably stunted. They called in a doctor, who after testing, concluded it was definitely something in the milk. Now, cows are not allowed to graze in the sacred valley.

But it doesn’t stop. By the third year, sudden blindness was afflicting villagers. At first it was just the oldest, those in their 80’s, but gradually the condition struck younger and younger people. Last year, the seventh of the existence of the dump, a 37-year old villager lost his sight in one eye. The blindness manifests itself in anywhere from a week to three weeks after the first symptoms occur. Ten people in a village of 50 households have gone blind.

Adding even further insult to the situation, the government contract stipulates that the trash will be covered with fill dirt with every load dumped. That has not happened, and now plastic trash flies everywhere, especially in the winter with the winds that accompany that season. Flies, too, proliferate. Lord knows what they are carrying around.
The villager’s beliefs were validated last year as the mountain gods spoke loudly. Every year these gods in any Buddhist village are honored with the planting of auspicious arrows by the village men, creating a labtse, which can have hundreds, maybe thousands of arrows. Since before communism, Fudi Village has maintained their labtse, and the site stands straight and strong all year. In 2013, for the first time ever, it tilted to a very noticeable angle. This is a very direct indication that the gods are distraught. And, of course, so are the villagers. The government offered money to rebuild the site, but the villagers are righteously annoyed. From their viewpoint, all of the problems would be solved if they would just close the dump, and that money that they were willing to give could be put to use for a truly meaningful project.

Before the dump, none of these problems existed. All this, I was told.

Fudi Village needs Erin Brocovitch.



Ah, Amdo

Amdo. It is still here! The ride in from the Xiahe airport was refreshing with vast grasslands and herders, and hardly any development for the 30 km drive. LaBrang town has changed. It is no longer a provincial hamlet, but a booming urban center revolving and evolving around the big monastery. Despite its modernization, the place FEELS Tibetan. A young, soft spoken Chinese woman who came in on the same flight as I also needed a ride to LaBrang, so we shared the taxi Samtso hired. Once in LaBrang, this young woman couldn’t believe she was in China. She was enchanted, and that was nice to see.

It was a sad ride out to the village, because it was on this leg that I encountered the large hotels, humongous residential projects, government buildings and widened roads where I didn’t want to see them. But once turning into Fudi Village, time and concern evaporated. Of course there are changes, everyone is seven years older, for starters, and Samtso has a 15 month old girl.

Probably the most extraordinary reunion was with the little dog, who is no longer tethered. I am surprised he is alive, and so pleased that he remembered me! Rather remarkable that he does, and he even wanted his hand out. That was our thing. He was a ferocious protecter, tethered near the two-plank. Every time I went out to use it, I would bring a piece of bread. In the beginning, I would toss it to him, as he was really a formidable presence, good at his job. But within a day he stopped barking at me and by day three, we were buddies — like, I could pet him! I have his picture in my office at home.

The hearthside welcome was warm, and Samtso and I visited like we were sisters.

I caught up on the scuttlebutt about the nunnery, sad but not at all surprising. The head nun, the fat one with the scheming eyes, has indeed, ascended to her self built throne. For herself, she has built opulent chambers, replete with servants. Meanwhile, she kicked out all of the older nuns and recruited new ones who are under her sway. They live in little tiny rooms. She would not report to Samtso, who had worked very hard getting and supervising a grant helping the nunnery build the much needed temple. The head nun shined Samtso on, saying that her group’s donation didn’t amount to anything anyway. She, the nun, said she had much richer friends who donated ever so much more. So, no accounting was ever made. Altho Samtso is certain there is money left in the coffers from the grant, she feels it has gone to line the sleeves of the head nun. Samtso does not know what has happened to the beautiful nun, nor, of course, he “youngest”, both of whom I photographed on previous visits. I was hoping to see them, but the women have dispersed with the winds to places where they can stay for little or no money…which is what they have.

Speaking of money, I gave Samtso the donations I gathered for her bakery, and it sure is a relief to get that wad out of my belt. We spoke a bit about her ideas to get the business off the ground. It will be really great if she can succeed, not only for herself, but the idea of an independent Tibetan business that furthers the self sufficiency of Tibetan women is terrific. She has trained her niece in French style baking of pastries, so that ultimately Lhamo can be the head pastry chef, training others. The equipment is in place, and her plan is to start small, serving tourist hotels that cater to western guests, enhancing her presence with a small outlet in the historic center.

I have no doubts that Samtso is up to it, and she has been working hard developing the idea for a couple of years. But there is one serious problem, not at all in her control. A year ago there was a huge fire in Shangri-La that burned the entirety of the the old town business thoroughfare.
I went there. It is devastation full blown. The government is rebuilding, and they are doing a nice job, but it is no longer OLD. It is a reconstruction, and the vibes aren’t there. That said, forgeries in China are remarkably deceptive. Still, for Samtso, the new rents are prohibitive. She is trying to figure this one out.

Now let me tell you a bit about Kelsang Pudrun, whom I call Padoon, cuz that is whatI thought they were saying. She is a doll! Fifteen months old, smart as they come, and with a disposition so delightful that she is a true joy to be around. After the spending time with the naughty Lhasand Dundrup, Dolma’s boy, the idea of children in the same room with me for any length of time was, mildly put, off putting. Padoon is simply fun. She laughs at about anything, and warms instantly to whomever enters the house…me included.

Hongpo tidbits

There is much that doesn’t make sense about Hongpo, till one hears the story. Hongpo is very pro Chinese, and they truly embrace the improvements from the government. Not so long ago, they were under an oppressive war lord’s authority. Mao freed them from his domination, and they worship him still. They are anti Big D, so much so that followers (only six families), even though villagers, are pretty much ostracized. It is getting a little bit better, I am told. I did hear drumming one morning, and later visited the home from whence the sounds had come. It was the home of a very beautiful woman I had seen at the community center. Her brother is a yellow-hat monk in Deqin. She appears to be an active member of the community, but admittedly, with the exception of Dolma’s family, all of the people at her lunch were from the six aforementioned families.

I was perplexed at the dances to see so many animal skins, especially big cats, as Bid D has made it very clear that the use of animal skins for decorative purposes is no longer an acceptable practice. But, now that I know of their distaste for Big D, it all falls into place. There is also a lack of basic spiritual celebrations. Yes, we walk around the stupa daily, and chanting is a continuous background sound, but mostly Losar is a lot of visiting and eating.

In some way Hongpo feels like a secular village. Perhaps it is the extensive atheist Chinese presence that contributes to this sense, but, it is also capitalism. I was told there are quite a few very rich people in the village. They, for, the most, part keep it pretty low key, visually. Attitude? That is a different story. Only one family seems to have come into their money by merit. Not far from Ah Mo’s house, a familial dwelling is owned by a very prosperous couple. He is a sought after traditional painter and stupa builder. His wife is a doctor, and she and their daughter, also a doctor, have a clinic in Shangri-La. They are now building an enormous, Chinese-style (cinder block, covered with stucco-like stuff) hotel in the village, which has altered the scale and authenticity of the community. The family spends most of their time in Shangri-La, so, I guess it is just progress.

Most notorious of the wealthy is the self- proclaimed lama of the monastery. He recently declared the nearby healing hot springs as his, charging people to go there. His son is placed well as one of the town’s high officials, so the lama is now well situated to maintain his personal interests. His daughter sounds kind of interesting. She has gotten her Phd, and it is in something that, if I recall correctly, is rather noble. Wish I could remember.

Dancing, eating, drinking, cards (for a few) and TV are the main preoccupations outside of circumambulating the various stupas. The TV thing is pervasive, and deserves its own post. But the most popular wherever I have visited are the traditional Tibetan singing and dancing shows, Chinese extravaganzas, and the Guinness Book of Records competitions.

Probably the singular most surprising thing I learned about Hongpo is that it is OK for a woman to marry brothers. This situation is not unusual, and occurs when one brother is away a lot. So one might be a farmer staying in the village and the other a driver, like a long distance taxi driver. It is not at all acceptable for one man to have two women, emphatically. Remember, it is the women who do the bulk of the work.

Uh oh…

Xi’an 1

Have you ever had that feeling in your gut gut that something is amiss? I don’t mean the big adrenaline producing “thunk”, more a gentle “oh, you hoo…” So that you are inclined to not pay attention, even though? That kind.

A few minutes later, like five, and five more miles down the highway, the “you hoo” gets so agitated so that now it is an “uh oh” and you are moved to action. Because, a nano second before “you hoo” became “uh oh”, you KNEW exactly what the problem was going to be. And it’s a doozie!

But let’s back up. I flew into Xi’an this morning, and found the little hotel near the airport that I booked on in the wee hours of this morning. It’s fine, although a bit tricky to find, tucked into a project looking neighborhood. But it is near the airport. The reviews online were favorable, and since I need to be at the airport by 6 am, it is perfect. The couple who run it it are both helpful and nice…and, as it turns out, they will drive me to the airport for free in the morning. Can’t beat that!

One of the first things I do when near electricity is start charging batteries. It seems to take forever to charge here, and no time at all to discharge. So, because of this ritual, I immediately figured out I left my iPad cable in Lijiang. Un-fucking-believable! I probably have about two hours left on my iPad for the rest of my trip (more than two weeks). So, as you might imagine, this has put me in a boohoo kind of mood.

It is only noon, and since I am near to this wonderful old city of Xi’an, a place which has nice memories of going to see the astonishing terra-cotta warriors, I decided to make something of my layover. After weighing the complications of getting the right buses when I cannot read Chinese, I decide to hire a taxi to drive into the heart of the city so I can visit the Bell Tower. From there I can just mosey around till I need to catch a cab back out to the burbs.

I grab a card from the front desk that has the name, address and telephone number for the hotel. The hotel owner has offered to take me to a place where I can get a cab, so we head out, but once the front door opened, I realize I better add a layer. It is cold. I return to the room, don my wonderful alpaca sweater, and off we go. I am so glad I brought this sweater. It is a keeper.

Getting a cab here is a strange event. The owner drove about a mile, then we got out and crossed a very busy intersection with a lane like a free way exit that we had to navigate. After a few more such crossings, we end up actually on the freeway a bit down from that exit, so that now the only cabs passing us will be headed toward Xi’an, which is about 25 km of heavy traffic away through ghastly industrial development. Three cabs pull over to vie for the fare, the hotel man acting as my agent. After sending those away, a forth comes and the price is right, 60 Y, so I get in.

Feeling quite together in terms of my little day adventure, I settle in for what turns out to be a really long, unpleasant ride. For starters, on the back of the front passenger headrest, leaning about a foot from my face, is a monitor—dead. All I see is my face reflecting back––very close. Yeah, there is the ugly stuff flashing past the side window, but is not worth a kink in the neck to look at. So I find my self looking down, which pretty much sends me inward.

I begin pondering my memory blips and this is a scary place for me.  Yesterday, when were driving from Hongpo Village to Ligiang, a Beatles song, sung in Chinese, was playing on the radio. It was a really famous, very familiar one, for which I couldn’t for the life of me remember any of the lyrics, or, for that matter, the title. Freaked me out just that I was struggling so hard. Breathe, and let it go. Later, as I was trying assiduously to practice non judgement regarding my painful observations of what is going on here in terms of development, Let It Be came into focus. Kinda perfect, eh. Anyway, it is at this moment, thinking about memory, that the little “you hoo” is morphing.

Oh shit! I start looking through my wallet, my phone purse, my pockets and then I search again.

Have you figured it out? Yup. I am flying down the highway, with a taxi driver who speaks no English, in a huge city where English speakers are rare, and I neither speak nor read Chinese, nor do I have the card with the hotel name and address. I couldn’t identify one road from another let alone direction. I only have my cash wallet, my hidden money belt, my flip phone, and my little camera. I am traveling light, for once. Too, light.


Mama Espinosa and My Arrival in Hongpo Village

Dolma arranged for me to ride with a distant cousin, who was coming from Lijiang, through Shangri-La and going to Hongpo Village. How fortunate for me. No changing buses in Deqin, and there is the possibility of photo stops. His charge is about $50, but for a private car taking me the seven hour drive straight to the village, it feels like a deal.

Once again, I find myself with a slow driver. I glance at the speedometer to see exactly how slow we are traveling, but it’s needle lay peacefully on zero, and doesn’t budge no matter our speed. I am embarrassed to say I called Dolma because I thought he was tired. It turns out he just likes to drive slowly. Of course, I am a pedal to metal the person, so it is exasperating to go so slowly. In reality, no car sickness, and I can see a lot.

The trip is a hard one.

I cannot ignore what the Chinese are doing…just about everywhere. It is actually infuriating me. Dolma told me the road to Deqin had improved and now it is very good. Even the dangerous road to Hongpo is paved and stable. A light should have turned on when Dolma mentioned the upgrade, but it didn’t.

Vastly improved in terms of ease of travel is an understatement on par with saying there are a lot of people in China. The countryside is basically unrecognizable from my previous sojourn on the only road to Hongpo. Since the road has both been straightened and leveled, the terrain has had to make the adjustments…to hell with any natural beauty or the fact that people live in the area. Just put up a giant bridge over a gully and let the people continue to live there, never mind they now live like trolls under the bridge looking at piles of gravel. No big deal. Nobody is displaced.

Even the wonderful loop in the river that I photographed the first time around is now walled off so no one can see it unless they pay the exorbitant entry fee. The river is an extraordinarily beautiful jade green, and I have been looking forward to rephotographing this scene ever since I saw the color. It would have been a stunning image and in reality worth the entry fee. But, I’ll be damned if I am going to support the bastards who deny the public such a wonder.

Improvements on the main road to Deqin and  Hongpo Village. Hmm...any erosion induced problems on the horizon?

Improvements on the main road to Deqin and Hongpo Village. Hmm…any erosion induced problems on the horizon?

The further we travel, the more angry I feel. Gorgeous Tibetan dwellings, with terraced fields cascading down the steep mountain slopes, once looked out across the river to a mountain side marred only by a few people trails and a thin shelf for the rural highway. Now it is nuts. Rubble and tunnels and mudslides and ugly bridges and ridiculous massive landslide control contraptions and dugout hillsides, many blasted with some kind of binder (bentonite?) greet them when they look outside. There is no getting away from it. This work goes on for the entire the length of the new road (hours of driving). It is the price to pay for ease of travel. 

The time and expense has been enormous. Mountains sliced and ground, wherever the need, then an attempt is made to tame the shale-like, unstable insides so that the main feature of this region are the containment structures. The remaining rubble from the demolitions are left in place,  enormous piles of ugliness. Did I mention this is the Snow Mountain National Park? It should be spectacularly beautiful.

Mine, but what kind I do not know. I saw at least seven of these huge operations on my drive out.

Mine, but what kind I do not know. I saw at least seven of these huge operations on my drive out.

And then the slag heaps. Ah, the slag heaps. Of course! Mining. Thus the destruction of an extremely beautiful—and very Tibetan— world. There is gold in them thar hills. And other valuable minerals.

When my husband was traveling in Baja, Mexico in the 1980’s, there was a gas shortage. The hangout was Mama Espinosa’s, where the best lobster tacos in the world could be had. A giant RV pulled into her gas station, and insisted on getting gas. The driver argued that she surely has some she was holding onto for herself, and when she refused to sell him any, because there was none, he drove off in a fury, She turned to Tupper and said, “When we had bad roads, we had good people. Now that we have good roads,we have bad people.”


Once in the village, I feel a shift. Hongpo is far enough up the mountain that the destruction below can be left below…at least for now. The new paved road doesn’t lead all the way to Ah Mo’s house, but the driver stops a (curious) villager and asks after her. Soon Yangtso and Yongdon Drolma (now very tall) appear. I get my money ready. I have decided to pay him a bit extra as there were no passengers to pick up in Deqin. Picking up an extra person traveling a short distance is how drivers plump their coffers. I present him with the bills, but he won’t accept them! I am flabbergasted, but such a fuss is being made of my arrival and my giant suitcase, that I rush off to help carry my burdens.

It is delightful to be here, and memories are flooding back. The season for my visit is different, but as we traipse down the little alleyways, things feel familiar. Except the house is so different that I do not recognize it. We enter from a different side, down concrete steps to an enclosed courtyard. The once great room, with the stove that had the pipe ending about seven feet from the ceiling and a dirt floor, is now three rooms, fully floored and there is a grand entry. The kitchen has the stove, but with proper ventilation. WOW!

They have waited for me to arrive before eating, so as soon as I freshened up (used the TOILET, a real porcelain squat toilet instead of the field), I am ushered into the kitchen and treated to boiled mutton, tofu and rice. It’s not bad at all, in fact the meat is quite tender.  Since there is no one who speaks English here, there is no after dinner conversation for me. I am tired, and a bit sick from the altitude, so I am pleased to be shown my quarters. I have a room to myself, and it is the same room where Dawa Drolma, Dolma, and Yongson Drolma and I slept on my first visit.

Very nice to be “home”.

Harbin, day 1

A force to be reckoned with, I once again was overwhelmed by the prevailing winds. I think in the long run, all will be well, but for now, I am still recovering from both WN and Harbin. Do I say it was a grand mistake? Well, it simply is what it is, but I would certainly not (NEVER EVER) duplicate the experience.

I cannot blame it on WN, as all of the tours booked the same venues. I had concluded that, since I had communicated that I only wanted to see the ice sculptures, and that I wanted time to photograph them, and that he kept pushing all of the other venues, it must be a government thing. He must HAVE to stick to the established tour route. maybe, but I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a kickback involved at the shops, or that somehow favor was gained. I will never know. I do know that I spent most of my time, and a lot of money, going places that not only did I not want to see, they were devastating to my sensibilities. Usury, of both human and animal worlds.

WN is a fairly good sized man, not fat at all, but thick and muscular, and relatively tall. I neglected to ask if he is Chinese, now that I think about it. He certainly acted quintessentially male Chinese, as my prejudices define it. Very dominant, very forceful, very talkative, very loud, and very pushy. The first thing we did was go to the bank, where I changed my money. Then before a step further was taken, he had me pay him IN FULL. Hmm, this is the guy who was counseling never to pay anyone in China up front. He had an itinerary and all of the gate fees figured out. the gondola to Sun Island, where we were to see the Russian village. As it turned out, only the Russian village, then right back over on the gondola to see the ice swimmers. “Wonderful, yes. Very good, very good.” Three, maybe four, swimmers came out and dove into a seriously cold body of water, one that freezes over when the circulating pump is off. That was it, except for a bathing suit attired couple with whom one could pay to have their photo taken. It was a freak show. The best part was the roasted sweet potato. I bought the steaming tubers, one for each of us, altho I did not see WN ever eat his!

Now, it is important to mention that WN was charging $90 for each day, which would have been just fine if he would have done what I wanted. Also, I believe he was honestly well intended and he was truly helpful in practical matters, like going the next day to get my real train ticket without the burden of dragging my luggage. However, the next day after a couple of hours of some actually interesting sightseeing, he told me he had to leave because his boss called. When I suggested that I should not pay the whole day rate, ” my goodness, my goodness, look what I have done for you. I got your ticket.” occurred. Here again, not really black and white, because he made himself available by phone, and once back in Beijing, he was very helpful in getting me to the correct airport. But I am certainly getting ahead of my story.

Did I mention the van? $100/day for a heated van. I now know for sure, the driver did not get all the money, but, hey, a guy’s gotta make a living! Really. I agreed, and that is fine. The van was there when we needed it, and it truly was warm. Mind you, the temperatures were -14F. Fortunately it is a dry cold.

Arrival at Harbin

Henry wrote the address of my hotel in Chinese script, so I could get a taxi.  Meanwhile, WN, my guide booked online, had written emphatically NOT to trust the taxi drivers.  I should put my luggage in the back seat of the taxi, and not pay til I had removed my luggage and the driver had printed a receipt. I should also get the price before hand, so he would not charge too much at the end. Harbin, according to WN, is a den of iniquity. Taxi drivers will drive off, stealing luggage before you can get to the trunk to remove it.

At the Harbin train station, Henry’s mother offered to help me get a cab. So we, with her three year old in tow, headed to the taxi gate. HA!  A line to put all lines to shame. An extremely lovely woman, she stayed with me for a bit, and scoffed at WN’s concern about the cab driving off with my luggage.  ” Who would want what is in your bag, anyway,”  she queried, looking at my size. As she had Rory, with her, it seemed insane to ask her to wait with me, so, with many thanks for her help, she soon dissappeared into the nebula of Harbinites returning hone to celebrate New Years.

After at hour or so, I finally found my self at the head of the line, ready to do the cabdash. I slung open the backseat door, and threw my stuff in, and jumped in the front seat.  This unlucky driver ridiculed me to waiting passengrs.  But, hey, I couldn’t understand! The driver was basically furious with me for putting my luggage in the back seat. He could not pick up addition passengers, thereby losing money. I found this out because I called WN, so he could talk to the driver. No matter, we got to the hotel, and check in was a breeze.

The Ibis hotel is, I think, a Danish outfit. Small, but well thought out.  Still…the hard beds of China, and I was very grateful for my blow-up mattress. The staff were very helpful. Enough English was spoken, and, coupled with pantomime, we communicated quite adequately. I would recommend for the budget minded.

And on to Harbin

First let me say that the miserable little hotel near the train station redeemed itself with the breakfast that was included in the fee. It was great. There was Western fare available, but who would want that when all kinds of savory goodies were available. I opted for seaweed, which was excellent, and some veriform tofu noodles, and a tofu custard. All of these had wonderful spices and sauces. So despite the foot prints on the wall, and the oddness of the place, I’d go there again for the food!

And it was an easy roll to the train station.

There is a procedure for taking the train. First you go to the ticket office. For my train, I was instructd by the online railway booking agent to go to any gate, from 5-20. So spotting the numbered windows, I braved the lines: phenomenal crowds of people and luggage pushing toward the buiding like one giant amoeba. Heading toward window 19, I and my (ridiculous amount of) luggage made it, only to find that that was NOT the ticket office, it was the entry door. So off to the ticket office, a healthy jaunt away with more crowds doing the Chinese que.  The agent had warned that some officials will not take your confirmation.  They will tell you ” no good”, but, they said, be confident that your confirmation voucher is valid. If you should be denied, just go to another window and continue til you have success.

Fortunately I had no such problems (in either direction). I returned to the entrance and immediately after being permitted to enter, was greeted with an X-ray security check — for which I was completely unprepared. Throwing my heavy roll-on onto the conveyor belt, I then struggled to off load my back pack.  Meanwhile the carry-on with iPad and all my paper work was sliding through the X-ray machine with no one, at least not me, on the receiving end. Oh well, it was fine. I gathered it all together, and was on my way.

My next challenge was to find the correct waiting room. The Beijing Train Station is enormous. Thre are many huge waiting areas, with more waiting areas behind them. The elegantly attired railway officials were all quite helpful. Showing them my ticket, first class, they were courteous in getting me to the right places. I do beleive first class helps.

Of course I could not read my ticket, or more realistically put, I didn’t know how to read it. I would show a porter, who would point down the platform. I’d  hustle down seven cars or so, and repeat my ritual to the next porter, who would also point down the platform. I mean WAY down the platform. Had to be at least a quarter mile. I finally stepped into a car and asked if I could sit down. No no no. So I showed my ticket to the close-by passengers, and they pointed back one car.

Well what a delight. When it became clear where I was to sit, a Chinese boy clambered over his mother and took the seat next to me, thrilled that there was an American on board. So this 12 year old, Henry, became my seat mate. I gotta admit it was nice to be speaking with someone fluent in English. He had lived in Colorado, and being one of those kids who just assumes your his best friend, we chatted and played games all of the way to Harbin, and eight hour trip. He did teach me a lot about my iPhone. Although now, of course, I have forgotten.


Dawa Drolma (my traveling partner)’s best friend from university works in Shangri-la, and she was thrilled to be able to meet up with her. Abby, a designated American name from school, is a charming young woman and it was a pleasure to have her helpful presence. Also a former student of Michelle’s, she spoke a fair amount of English. She and Dawa Drolma were, indeed, very close and it was quite interesting to observe the sweetness of their reunion. Abby, whose name is Dolma, is quite fashionable, and by the time we parted ways, Dawa’s wardrobe had taken on an air of glitzy chic.  They were like sisters…teenage sisters. Annoying and charming at the same time.

Dolma asked if we would like to visit her village, and I, of course, jumped at the chance. A home visit, especially staying a noght or so with a local, beats the tourist path anyday. She told me she had two sisters living with her mother, one of whom was blind. Also, that her father and mother had separated, and as a result, when her eldest sister married, her husband came to live with her in her mother’s home. Usually, a married woman goes to live with her husband’s family. In this case, because the household was lacking a male, it was considered diminished in social stature and perhaps even unstable. ???? The house was now blessed with the indomitable energy of two children, Dolma’s niece, ????, about 4, and her nephew, ????, 8?.

Of course, the significance of these details didn’t register with me. I was pleased that I had purchased some Nivea creme for myself, and as I hadn’t used any, I had a gift for this blind girl.  Shallow concern, but innocent.

We had a lovely few days exploring the Kham village of Hongpo. Situated along at the base of a sacred mountain along a few mile stretch of a beautiful tributary, walnut trees grow alongside prickly pear cactus, and the stream bubbles gently down the hillside.  The village is well situated, with a culvert-like diversion heading right past most dwellings, so water is easily accessible, altho if one lives downstream, as my friends do, then it behooves one to arrise early so as to get un polluted water. The have devised an interesting way of pputting a stick in water to create a little spout.  Then the kettle is positioned so the water goes right in and the pot does not have to be submerged.  Clever.

The ride to the village had been breathtaking, both in scenery and in terror. While the main road from ShangriLa was well maintained, even paved with cobblestones for many miles over the pass ( just think of the people laying those stones), the road to Hongpo village was a frightening affair…especially when one looked back across a traverse to see a thin shell of pavement held up by a few sticks. Never mind that the road was simply a narrow shelf zig-zagging up a sheer, rubbly drop-off.

I spent several days photographing the village and meeting Dolma’s neighbors. Oddly, there was no blind sister. Since Dolma had gone out of her way to tell me about her, there was a quiet gaping hole, but something kept me from asking about her.

Finally, the last afternoon of our stay, Dolma asked me if I would like to meet Gyi’an. “Of course,” I said. And I was truly looking forward to the introduction. We, Dolma, Dawa Drolma, and I went out behind the house, past the pig sty to the animals cribs, and a pathetic, thin person emerged, wearing a hat with a very long duck bill. The sight was disturbing and confusing. Then Dolma explained she lived there. Still confused, I caught a glimpse of her face and didn’t believe what I saw. It was a very brief glance, and I imagined that I had been mistaken. But I had not. One of Gyi’an’s eyes protruded out of the socket, a shiny translucent mass about the size of a golf ball. Her other eye was a goopy glob of total blindness. Otherwise a beautiful eighteen year old, Gyi’an was a freak. And one in agony. The bulging eye caused searing pain unless she was perfectly still.

Dolma’s mom asked me to photograph the blind girl, and thinking she wanted to include Gyi’an in the family album, as it were, I worked with the waning light of the last day we were there, positioning her cap just so to make a very nice picture camouflaging her deformity. When I showed it to ________ , Dolma’s mom, she emphatically indicated “no.” She wanted me to photograph Gyi’an’s blind eyes and show the photos to western doctors to see if they could help.

This was quite remarkable, as tradition has it that Western doctors should never be consulted. Had Giy’an had seen an ophthalmologist when she was four, her glaucoma could have been successfully treated. But, for whatever reason,  __________ had changed her mind. It was now that Gyi’an’s mom was ready to look outward, for she asked me to bring Gyi’an’s plight to the attention of the western world.