By Iain Manley
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is a 2,412 kilometre stretch of China’s National Highway 318. It starts in Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, at an altitude of 370 metres, and climbs up over a series of mountain passes almost 5,000 metres high to arrive tired and weather-beaten at Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama had his capital until 1959. National Highway 318 carries on from Lhasa all the way to the border of Nepal, but it crosses its most controversial frontier much earlier, a little over one thousand kilometres west of Chengdu, at the boundary between Sichuan and Tibet.
Chengdu was established almost 2,500 years ago by the ninth king of Shu. An independent state influenced to a limited extent by the culture flourishing to its northeast, along the Yellow River, Shu nevertheless remained a place apart until 316 BCE, when it was conquered by Qin. Almost one hundred years later, when Qin went on to extend its control over the whole of China, it was the conquest of Shu that gave it an edge. The Sichuan Basin was not only one of China’s most fertile – and today most populous – regions, but also a grain basket safely cut off from the rest of the country by mountain ranges at every side but its east, where Southeast Asian jungle and rolling hills presented a similarly forbidding obstacle.
The people of Shu assimilated quickly. Their leaders were executed or exiled and Qin moved tens of thousands of its own people into Sichuan, defining the westernmost limit of Chinese civilisation as it did. Sichuan’s geography on the other hand remained an obstacle more than 2,000 years later, in 1937, when Chiang Kai Shek retreated to the province after losing most of the rest of China to the Japanese, and it is in Sichuan that the country’s Han majority still rubs up against the edges of the Tibetan Plateau, along a fault line straddled by National Highway 318.
Western Sichuan has gone by a number of names. It was originally called Chushi Gangdruk – Four Rivers, Six Ranges – because the Yalong, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze Rivers pass in parallel between six watersheds on their way out of the region, down from Tibet. It was called Xikang by the Republic of China – a name it kept until 1965, when it was incorporated into Sichuan – but perhaps the name that makes the most sense is Kham, because the majority of the region’s people call themselves Khampas.
Kham was a part of the Tibetan Empire that at its peak extended north into Tajikistan, south as far as the Bay of Bengal and east right up to the walls of the Tang Dynasty’s capital, Chang’an, which it took in 763 but could only hold for fifteen days. When the empire fell apart less than one hundred years later, Kham broke down into a collection of fiefdoms only loosely connected to Lhasa. The region was only incorporated into China in 1728, almost a thousand years later, after Tibetan leaders pledged allegiance to the Kangxi Emperor in exchange for military assistance. In 1717, Mongolian invaders had captured Lhasa, where they looted and executed members of the Bon and Nyingma religious orders. When Qing Dynasty troops took the city three years later, they were hailed as liberators.
Climate separates the Khampas living in Sichuan’s western valleys not just from their cousins on the plateau but from each other, and because each valley has its own microclimate, affecting its access to building materials, water and transport, the region’s languages are as various as its architecture. This independence has bred warriors along with bandits, and the Khampa are still regarded as Tibet’s most fearsome soldiers. The men traditionally carry knives half-a-metre long in ornamental sheaths; women’s are shorter and hang from their belts beside a sewing kit. Khampa men are tall for Tibetans and wear their hair long; they are also consummate horsemen and were still fighting on horseback in the 1960s, when they were armed by the CIA for a guerrilla war. In 1956, they were among the first Tibetans to rebel against the Chinese Communist Party. They were the last to surrender too, in 1974, after a protracted resistance fought out of Nepal’s Mustang Valley, and Chinese rule still weighs most heavily on the Khampa. Of the 49 confirmed Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 – that is, drunk and doused themselves in petrol, before burning to death – 28 were from a single prefecture in Kham.
Tsepak had been a refugee in India. He learnt to speak English where Claire and I first taught it: in McLeod Ganj, the seat of Tibet’s Government in Exile. Refugee was the word used to describe the men and women – or, in the majority of cases, teenage boys and girls – who made their way on foot over the mountain passes separating China from India and Nepal during the winter, when there were fewer guards. Almost every Tibetan in McLeod Ganj relied on some sort of stipend and for many it was just a halfway house: they were moving on, to Delhi, Germany, the US or somewhere else, where they had an uncle, a sister or just a friend willing to help them find their feet. The treacherous journey out and the overwhelming desire to make a new life: it was the story of refugees everywhere, but in Tsepak’s case it didn’t entirely fit. After all, why had he come back?
We met him at a simple Tibetan restaurant on the outskirts of Shangri-La’s old town. It served boiled yak meat on the bone, millet bread and noodle soup, which wasn’t much to choose between. Tsepak came over to help us order all the same. I don’t remember if we spoke Chinese or English initially, because choosing a language was awkward for Claire and I. Not every Tibetan spoke Chinese well and assuming they did – or even wanted to – was a mild insult; their English on the other hand was generally much worse, but Tsepak was an exception. He spoke the language fluently, with an Indian accent that gave him away.
After dinner, we talked about McLeod Ganj. Tsepak had an uncle in the town who had taken him in; he said had returned easily, because unlike many Tibetan he had Chinese ID. Shangri-La was a long way from the influence of the Dalai Lama – from both Lhasa and McLeod Ganj – but Tsepak didn’t want to talk about why he had gone into exile. He was ambitious, a businessman. “I have my own tour company,” he told us, before asking if we wanted his help.
“We’d like to get out of town,” Claire replied. “Do you know where we could go?”
“I can take you to visit some nomadic families if you like.”
“Are there still nomads around Shangri-La?”
“Yes, but not everybody knows where to find them. Do you like walking?”
“We love it.”
“Good, because it’s a long walk: five, six hours. Some of the hills are difficult. Is that okay?”
“That’s fine, but I’m not sure we can afford it. How much do you charge for the day?”
“Normally, $200. But for you… you were teachers in India. Give me RMB250, plus RMB100 for the taxi.”
“Okay, thanks. We’ll think about it. Can we call you tomorrow?”
“Sure, or you can just ask in the town for Little Tsepak. Everybody knows me.”
Two days later, we met Little Tsepak at first light. Shangri-La’s climate was not particularly severe, but the town was icy at night. It took time each morning to shake itself warm and awake, and the taxi driver Tsepak hailed was wearing a wool hat and leather gloves.
We emerged from the new town on a road skirting a seasonal lake. Low peaks encircled Shangri-La county completely, but the grassland in between was perfectly flat and, like a drink spilt on a billiard table, the lake was a latticework of shallow streams that came together in places to form deeper pools. At its edges, yaks and mzo grazed in dawn’s long shadows; the village homes behind them with white walls and dark brown roofs were reduced to impressionist smudges by hanging smoke. On the high plateau, roofs were uniformly flat, but in Shangri-La’s fertile valley they sloped gently at each side.
The taxi stopped at the foot of hills covered with coniferous forest. They rolled steadily up to a craggy peak that must normally have been snow-capped, but now in late summer was starkly bare. Tsepak led the way.
Instead of cremating their dead, Tibetans chop them up to feed to vultures. Wood is too scarce for pyres, but Shangri-La was thickly forested and while we started our climb Tsepak explained how loggers had cleared our trail, leaving a deep rut gouged out of its middle. They fastened two mzo to the trunks of tall trees and whipped the animals – a cross between yaks and lowland cattle perfectly suited to Shangri-La’s altitude – down to the road. “Us Tibetans say ‘If you love mzo, don’t sell them to loggers’,” he went on, and after that I could almost hear the bellows of suffering cattle echo off the contours of this strange erosion.
Tsepak was wearing a down jacket, a scarf and a wool hat. I was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, and because the climb was steep and the sun rising, I soon started to sweat. Tsepak didn’t: he kept the down jacket on for hours; when he took it off, he revealed a thick but bone-dry shirt. He was a tall and well-built – a typical Khampa – and the jacket only broadened his shoulders and puffed out his chest, exaggerating his size. After a while he swaggered out ahead of us, singing with his arms spread out theatrically.
“I’ve led a millionaire from Australia up here,” he told Claire and I when we stopped to pack away our sweatshirts. A list of Tsepak’s other achievements soon followed: he’d made a documentary about the mzo trail; he was regularly hired by wealthy white tourists; he was supporting a village school not far from Shangri-La; he spoke Hindi, and when he learnt that Claire and I had spent a year in India, he held this over us, chatting meaningfully in the language long after we told him we couldn’t understand it.
After two or three hours, we stopped climbing and followed a stream through alpine pastures filled with mzo. Every animal wore a heavy brass bell that the wind was strong enough to rattle; with the murmuring grass they made a sort of music that rose and fell with the breeze. In a field fringed with purple flowers, Tsepak stopped to let us to catch up. “Pick up a stone,” he said, showing me the two already wrapped up in his fists. “There are dogs here. Normally they’re chained up, but if they aren’t, they’ll attack you.”
The first Tibetan mastiff we saw leapt and twisted at the end of a length of rope. The dog was guarding a roughly made home with walls that were nothing but tree trunks stacked seven or eight high and a roof that was just crudely sawn planks. We saw two similar cabins, without the mastiffs, and then, at a third, Tsepak ducked under the doorway and went inside.
On our way up, we had been overtaken by a pretty woman wearing a bright pink headdress. She had been leading a small, lightly burdened horse and together they moved at an impressive clip. Tsepak had spoken to her briefly in Tibetan and we had exchanged a few words in Chinese. Nobody had mentioned lunch, but here she was now, standing beside her father, both of them welcoming us inside with an enthusiastic “Tashi dalek!”
Although everything was made entirely of wood, including the floor, a fire glowed red at the centre of the cabin, where it spilled out of a basic hearth. There was no chimney and smoke went out the same way light came in: through gaps in the roof and walls. After seating us on low, log stools, the woman and her father started to cook, taking tools and ingredients down from the shelves that lined every wall. She churned butter tea in a tube like a bicycle pump; he chopped a cone of yak cheese the size of a beehive into cubes. She poured dough onto a flat pan to make millet bread; he prodded the fire, making space for a saucepan so well used it was completely black.
While they prepared a meal of Tibetan staples that the bustle and growth happening not far away had yet to change, Tsepak played interpreter. The father smiled at us constantly, but spoke no Mandarin. During the summer, he lived here, in the cabin; when winter came, he moved in with his daughter, who had a house in the town. She brought supplies up to him once or twice a week, on her horse, and took the milk, butter and cheese from his herd of mzo back down. They were pastoralists, not nomads, and despite a strong accent, the daughter spoke Mandarin fluently. Her children’s would be better: they were getting a thorough Chinese education in the town, and it was difficult to imagine them wanting a life up here, in the log cabin, milking mzo and making cheese.
Yak or, in this case, mzo butter tea isn’t to everybody’s taste. It is salty, oily and thick, but with a chunk of millet bread it makes better sense. I slurped it up and had a second and then a third cup, with enough of the warm, unfermented cheese to make my stomach hurt. Our hosts ate sparingly, but dished up more and more for us; we had to beg them to stop, at which point they reached for the tsampa and poured us another cup of tea. Tsepak mixed the two, making a doughy ball of barley flour, but after five months without dairy in Southeast Asia I was too full to try it. The father offered me a Double Happiness cigarette and we smoked together, happy that without language we could at least share this simple camaraderie.
The walk after lunch was mostly downhill. We stayed beside the stream for a while and occasionally passed a herder’s cabin, but saw nobody. Soon, the three of us were looking over the seasonal lake again, making our way back down to the road along a trail so steep and rutted it looked like a wound in the hill’s side. We passed two mzo yoked together with a tree branch, canvas strapping and thick twists of steel that had been stuck through their nostrils and pulled tight, but veered clear of them, because with enough momentum the long tree trunk they were dragging might just as easily have dragged them.
At the bottom of the hill, eight men were heaving the tree trunks onto a truck. Their cries merged with the din of construction around the shell of a new hotel called Shambala Ranch, and somehow in this confusion Claire and I were separated from Tsepak. We were standing beside the lake when he strode up to us closely pursued by an overweight man waving a cigarette.
“This land is private!” the man shouted at us in Chinese, with a strong northeastern accent. “You have to pay to cross it.”
“There are no signs,” I said.
“Signs? What signs? I own this land and you have to pay!”
“Pay for what?” Claire asked.
“For entrance to the village!” he roared, rising up high on his toes.
“What village? This is a road,” Claire shouted back. “Have you paid before?” she asked Tsepak in English.
“Paid for what?” he said, curling his lip in disgust. “This man says he owns this land, but this is a Tibetan village. He calls himself Tashi, but he can’t even speak Tibetan. He’s Chinese.”
Understandably, the man didn’t like being discussed in English. He tried to shout over Tsepak. “You’re a tour guide! A tour guide! They are paying you money and you must pay me.”
Before they can even apply for permission to enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region, foreigners need to hire a licensed guide, but they couldn’t hire Tsepak: he was unlicensed, and had asked us to say we were friends, which is what we did. The man from the northeast didn’t buy it.
“I have powerful connections,” he warned us, jabbing at Claire with his mobile phone. “Pay me or I’ll call them.”
“If you want us to pay you, we’ll need a receipt,” said Claire. “Call the police if you want to.” With that, we started walking away. Tsepak had already called a taxi and it couldn’t arrive too soon.
A minute or two later, a miànbāochē stopped beside us. A group of women and children dressed in a muddle of ragged costumes poured out. A small, dirty boy without pants wore a tall Hmong headdress with cascading silver baubles. It was intended for adult women and was far too big for his head: when he stood still, it fell over his eyes; when the group started pursuing us, calling out for money, it fell off. The children hindered the women’s progress and in our anger Claire and I strode far ahead. When the gap got too wide, the group piled back into the miànbāochē again. Instead of just catching up, they drove ahead to lie in wait.
Tsepak had already fallen back. He would inevitably want to return to the mzo trail, with other, wealthier tourists, and he needed to work something out. Claire and I stopped on a corner fifty metres or so from the group in the miànbāochē and waited. The taxi didn’t come. After ten minutes, we turned around to find Tsepak. He knew the taxi driver’s phone number and without it we were stuck. The miànbāochē started up again in pursuit.
It might have gone on like this all afternoon if the taxi hadn’t arrived a few minutes later. The miànbāochē stopped ahead of us and to block our path the villagers again emptied out of it, but by running a gauntlet of small, wizened women and snot-nosed children Claire and I made it into the car. The driver looked highly amused. Tsepak was still in heated negotiations with the man from the northeast behind us, but with some pleading the taxi driver nudged his way through the assembled villagers to fetch him. Tsepak got into the car, but suddenly wanted to pay. He borrowed money from the taxi driver, which we were to reimburse later on. I watched him pass it through the window: ten renminbi per person, or roughly $5 for the three of us. We had never asked for a price.
We drove off. Further down the road, there were two more hotels under construction amongst a handful of stone houses. My best guess was that the man from the northeast had bought land cheaply from the Tibetan villagers with promises of tourism providing an easy living. We exited the village a minute later, at a sign: Beautiful View Minority Village it read, above a picture of Khampas in full costume. It was difficult to decide if it was tragedy or farce.
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