Kham in Reflection

I am sitting in the sunroom of Samtso’s parents house. I am warm, fed, and sitting in a comfortable chair. Wafting into consciousness are warm thoughts about Dolma’s family.

Their hospitality and willingness to try to communicate is noteworthy. Can you imagine housing a person who speaks not a lick of your language and hasn’t a clue in regards to your culture? Not only that, she doesn’t eat what you do and mostly sits around tapping on her iPad? And she is going to be in your house at least a week…a lot longer than it takes for fish to go bad? You can call your daughter for translations, which you do every now and then, but basically, this foreigner is a strange presence in your house.

Dolma's family in Hongpo Village

Dolma’s family in Hongpo Village

Everyone of Dolma’s family members, Sonam Gyitsen excepted (but, hey, he is a teenaged boy), were inclusive. They brought me to all of the inter-family visits, rituals of hospitality of which there were many. They didn’t let me miss a meal. And, they made sure my clothes were clean. We circumambulated the stupas, and I became the village photographer, a role that was easy for all of us. In short, they were wonderful hosts and it was special to be able to observe their daily lives.

For women, work is unending. Much of it involves food, either directly or not. Yangtso, Dolma’s older sister, is always the first up, initially gathering wood for the stove, so that the room warms up, the tea can be made, and the large breakfast, frequently leftovers with something new added, is hot. Tea is made in bulk, for in Hongpo salted, butter tea is drunk throughout the day. For me the first two cups I tried were fine — at least interesting — but I don’t find it refreshing, and also I think it contributes significantly to my unruly bowels. So I became the hot water queen.

After breakfast, the livestock are tended to. Living out their lives in a pocket-sized corral behind the kitchen, it is a small world for them, but is typical of what I see in Hongpo Village. There is no door out the back from the scullery, so the slop buckets need to be carried all the way out thru the front of the house and around to the back. (I think the single entry is a traditional security detail.) There are, at the moment, two piglets, two shortly tethered donkeys, two cows, one goose, and a herd of chickens. The chickens, by far, have the best lives. They get to roam all over, both in and out of the corral, pecking away, strutting their stuff. They look very healthy — even in the pot.

Sometimes Yangtso has help. But not often. As well as clean the breakfast dishes and tidy up after family and any guests from the day before, and taking care of the animals, she has all the normal household duties, like laundry and sweeping. But also, there are fields to prepare for planting, and the subsequent work of all farmers. And, of course, there is the next meal to prepare. Always. Mealtime is extremely important, and punctuality is essential.

Woven into most days are visits to the stupa. I don’t know if this is part of Losar, or a regular thing. Nor do I know if there is an order or priority, or even community association for each of the several stupas, but no matter which stupa we circumambulated, there were familiar faces. Greens boughs are brought to burn in the alter oven, accompanied by incantations, which end in a yelp for the men.

Throughout all of her chores Yangtso is chanting. Often, I am told, it is a version of O Mani Padme, but sometimes, the chants are unique to a specific purpose. Luseng, Yangtso’s husband, had a terrible accident due to the negligence of the owner of the car he was riding in, a fellow villager. The vehicle had a major malfunction which resulted in loss of control. In the resulting crash, his arm was badly broken, its use is seriously compromised. Complications from the surgeries, he also had two bouts of infections and was in the hospital for three months. At this point he has no strength nor mobility in his right arm and hand, so he spends a lot of the day doing exercises and chanting verses given to him by the local lama specifically for his healing.

Dolma and her 15 month old "naughty boy".

Dolma and her 15 month old “naughty boy”.

Upon the arrival of Dolma, a nice surprise for us all, along with the very loud Deqin, the local county town, entourage (Dolma’s father’s sister with two adult children, one of whom has the good government job, and bought the new iPad Air2 I brought over), the burden of daily chores is lifted significantly from Yangtso’ shoulders. Dolma, especially, is a very helpful person. And while she does have a super active fifteen month old son who needs constant attention, she is a person of extraordinary energy and was able to contribute a lot to the household. In turn, the family releases her from some of the burdens of having a young child by attending to the little fellow. Tibetan villages, or at least extended families, really do raise the children, and mothers are nonplussed by their kids’ absence.

Traveling from town to village and visa versa is still not easy, although the days of donkey back are gone from the regions I am visiting. Dolma made it as easy as possible for me. She truly facilitated this entire adventure, finding me places to stay, hooking me up with the invaluable driver, and helping me get my airline tickets. She is smart and decisive when need be, accommodating when that is appropriate. Saint Dolma: she is a gem.

As it turned out, the driver was of great importance. At Dolma’s suggestion, I hired him to drive me all the way to Lijiang, about five hours past ShangriLa. My plane to Xi’an flies out of Lijiang, and I couldn’t face taking buses with all the inherent changes, only to arrive in Lijiang, with my abundance of luggage, not knowing where I would sleep. This time it wasn’t free, but it was worth every yuan. Not only did he cut an entire day off the trip, he got me to Lijiang and found me a hotel with service to the airport. We also did some errands, like bank and ticket office, on the way through Shangri-La, taking care of some potentially worrisome trip details. The next morning he began his drive all the way back to the Village.

Lijiang is really lovely. Southern enough to be green, and prosperous enough to be healthy. I would like to spend some time there. But my flight is at the crack of dawn, and I have trouble to get into waiting for me in Xi’an.


Grumpy Me. Losar, day two – Hongpo Village (2/19)


So, what is up? This morning I am feeling completely repelled by just about everything. The food makes me want to gag. They eat such strange things. Fish heads and globs of fat. Now, I, who has forever loved leftovers, may never eat them again. I am sick at the dirt everywhere and the spitting of bones on the floor. I am sick of eating. And hearing Luseng eat. I am sick of being a clown in my attempts to communicate and I am sick at having to continually bother Dolma. I want a western toilet. I want out.

Then Yangtso asked me to accompany her to the stupa, bringing greens to place on the alter fire. This time it is mostly women, and they are so beautiful in their fuchsias and blues, with rhinestones catching the sunlight and warm smiles. The little Golden puppy is here, too. After making a few images, I, too, circumambulate. A little Om Mani Padme mixed with May all beings, with whom I am inseparably interconnected be awakened, fulfilled and free. May there be peace on this planet and throughout the entire universe. May we all complete the spiritual journey together.

Then I remembered arising to the sound of drums, and seeing the snow white mountain tower above a solid grey cloud bank, a bump of purity in an otherwise muddied world. It is a wonderful day.

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.

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”.