Monday, March 13, 2017

Travels in Sichuan's ethnic corridor: Taoping Qiang Village and Gyarong Tibetans

This Spring Festival I headed over to Sichuan. I had a fun and full trip, watching pandas, attending a friend's wedding in the countryside of Northern Sichuan, hanging out with the local Esperanto-speaking community in Chengdu, eating hotpot and even becoming a bit of a champion at the local variety of Mahjong (I won at least 300 Yuan at the game). But the experience most worthy of being written about is probably my visit to a Tibetan village in Western Sichuan.

As you may be aware, the West of what is now Sichuan province forms the easternmost part of the Tibetan plateau, and is historically and culturally part of the Tibetan world. Tibetans call the region Kham. As you travel West and North from Chengdu, you gradually start to feel Han China turn into Tibet. As is the custom of Chinese administration, the region is divided into two "autonomous prefectures" named after the most prevalent local ethnic groups. These are the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. It was to the second prefecture, north-west of Chengdu, that I ventured.

My destination was Taoping, a well-preserved village of the Qiang people which has now been turned into a tourist attraction. The Qiang are one of China's 56 recognized ethnic groups, but I must admit that I had never previously heard of them. They number about 200.000 in total, just a drop in China's ocean, but they do manage to make up 19% of the prefecture's inhabitants, while Tibetans make up 57% and the Han make up the remainder. The Qiang speak a group of related idioms known as the Qiangic languages, a sub-group of the wider Tibeto-Burman family. The language is divided into dialects that may not be mutually intelligible, and attempts to provide it with a writing system of its own have failed. Qiang culture is influenced by both Tibetan and Han Chinese elements, since historically they have fallen under the domination of both.

The village I visited is in the county of Wenchuan, which was the epicentre of the dreadful Sichuan earthquake of 2008. 69.000 people died in the earthquake, and literally millions were displaced. I had to change buses in the county capital, where in typical Chinese style everything has been rebuilt and there are no visible traces of what happened. I don't know if the new buildings and schools are earthquake-proof, but I hope so.

After another half-hour bus ride through splendid mountain scenery I got to Taoping. The village does indeed have a genuine historic centre that has survived, but unfortunately that was not the first sight that greeted me. Taoping has now become a weekend getaway for holidaymakers from Chengdu, and just like any Chinese tourist site it has become fully commercialized and filled with kitsch. An entire new section has been added onto the village in typical "fake-old" style, filled to the brim with hotels and restaurants. The locals, some of them old women in traditional costumes, mostly seem to be selling trinkets for visitors at road-side stands.

That was the area at which the bus dropped me off. Although I was initially disappointed by the mundane atmosphere, the beautiful mountains surrounding me on all sides and the fresh, warm air raised my spirits, and I decided to look for a place to stay. Although touristy the place was far from crowded. The village is after all only well known in the region, not nationally and certainly not internationally (Lonely Planet fails to even mention it in passing). After dropping off my bag at a hotel run by two local women, I went off to look for something to eat. It was already 4 in the afternoon, hardly time for lunch in China, and most restaurants turned me away. I finally found a place that was open, and I went in and sat down.

A family of Chinese visitors saw me, and the father invited me over to sit at their table. He lived in a small town in Sichuan, and was eager to chat with me. I ended up sharing the family's food for free, and having a conversation with the well meaning middle-aged man who had invited me, who was full of questions about life in other countries. His other relatives seemed a bit put out, which made the situation rather awkward. His daughter, a high school student, was of course egged on by her relatives to practice the English she had supposedly learnt in school on me, and predictably refused. This same scene always seems to play out in such situations.

After some awkward goodbyes, I continued walking until I found the genuine old town, which was nice to wander around. I climbed up to the top of the hill overlooking the town, and took some photos. The town is dominated by a traditional Qiang watchtower. Every Qiang settlement used to have one of these, and many still do. In the past the different villages were constantly fighting each other, so the watchtowers served as a warning against raids. The houses were also built of thick stone walls, which might be why they seem to have survived the devastating earthquake better than most modern buildings in the region did.
The old centre of Taoping, with the Qiang watchtowers

The new section of the town built to house tourists. In the background you can see the cluster of white houses where most of the locals actually live.
As I wandered round the narrow alleys, I came across an old house that looked intriguing. When I tried to get inside, however, I was asked to pay a 20 Yuan fee to look around. I refused and started to walk on, but the young man at the door called after me, saying that I was welcome to have a look for free. Foreigners are still rare in these parts, and he was obviously willing to make an exception for me. The house was impressive, genuinely old and full of artefacts. After seeing a few rooms I found a family sitting round a stove. There was a man who looked a bit like a teacher, who invited me to sit down. It turned out he was a university professor in Chengdu, but his family were the owners of the house. They apparently used to be the local chieftains before the communists took power, or so I was told.

The man went into a long lecture about the differences between the Chinese and Western political systems, to which I listened politely and made a few comments. Fortunately his views seemed relatively liberal. He then asked me if I wanted to stay and have dinner with the family. I of course agreed. After the last visitors had left, I was brought into a private back room where a huge dinner had been prepared. There was a big round table and a much smaller, lower one. All the men sat round the bigger table. The women and the children sat at the smaller table. There was only one woman sitting with the men, and I was told she has an especially strong and decisive character, and is a good drinker. I think the bigger table might have been reserved for those who wanted to drink alcohol, rather than for the men as such.

The food was great Sichuanese fare, and everyone was very friendly. It wasn't much of a Qiang cultural experience though, since the family were clearly very urbane and spoke to each other exclusively in Sichuan's Chinese dialect. After dinner we retired to a courtyard where the family organized a barbecue and the men played cards and gambled (I joined them and embarrassingly managed to win 100 yuan). At around 10 I finally retired to my hotel. It struck me that I had just been wined and dined for free not once but twice. Stuff like this would never happen in Beijing or anywhere in its vicinity.

The next morning I determined that before going back to Chengdu I would walk around a bit in the area and try to find somewhere less touristy. There is a major road passing next to Taoping, so I set off along the road with my rucksack. Although the scenery was majestic, the walk itself was hardly pleasant. There were cars driving past, and construction sites nearby. I passed a few villages where people stared at me in surprise, but there was nowhere one could really hang out. After walking for about 40 minutes, I decided to turn back. While I was walking back a young lady driving a car stopped and asked me if I was lost and if I needed a lift. I told her I was going back to Taoping, and she offered to take me. It turned out that she had seen me walk in one direction and then turn around, and wondered what was the matter. She was actually not driving towards Taoping at all, but was still happy to give me a lift. She said that she had once travelled abroad and people had been helpful towards her, so she felt she should do the same with foreign travellers in her country.

The road where I was offered a lift
Road sign in Chinese and Tibetan. The Chinese, being the language most people in the area are actually literate in, is much larger, while the Tibetan writing is included as a matter of policy

I started telling her that I had been looking for a place where I could see a bit more of the local culture. She told me that she was actually an ethnic Tibetan, and she originally came from a Tibetan village a bit further north. She lived in Chengdu, but she was back in her village for the Spring Festival. She ended up taking me to another tourist site near Taiping, which turned out to be a completely reconstructed Qiang village that wasn't even finished, but was clearly waiting to become another tourist trap. Since she had never been there herself, she got out of the car and had a look around with me. We both agreed that the fledgling tourist site had very little charm to it. Seeing my genuine interest in the local culture, the young woman ended up inviting me to go and see her village with her. I refused at first, but she insisted and the idea of visiting a Tibetan village was intriguing, so I ended up agreeing.

We drove north for about an hour, up into the mountains, until we reached Li county. Then we drove off the main road and into an isolated valley with mountains all around it. The young lady's village was in this valley. It consisted of a collection of a few dozen newly built houses. I was told that the original village used to be up on the mountain, but it was destroyed in the 2008 earthquake, and then the government rebuilt it down in the valley. Apparently the locals were satisfied with this, since the living conditions were better in the new village.

The girl's family had a three storey house facing the village's main gathering point, a little square with a basketball court in front of the local government headquarters. Just behind the headquarters there was a small area that seemed to be dedicated to religious practices. There was a series of golden prayer wheels like the ones you find outside of every Tibetan temple, surrounding a drab concrete structure. Next to it there was a space with a much larger prayer wheel and a few old sofas. There were five or six elderly ladies sitting on the sofas, all but one wearing colourful Tibetan outfits. The young lady introduced me in the local Tibetan dialect, and I sat on one of the sofas.

The old ladies continued chatting, then they suddenly got up and started walking around the building turning the prayer wheels while chanting in Tibetan. Encouraged by my new local friend I actually followed them around a few times, spinning the wheels while chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, the most famous Buddhist mantra and the only one I know. Of course we were all walking clockwise, as is the custom. Spinning prayer wheels is supposed to allow you to accumulate wisdom and merit, or good karma, and even an insect that crosses a prayer wheel's shadow is supposed to accumulate some merit, which I suppose it can store up for its next life.

Local ladies spinning a prayer wheel

I spent the rest of the day hanging around in the village and in the family's house. It soon became clear that I would be their guest for the night, especially since the girl was only going back to Chengdu the next day and there was no way on earth I could leave this place in the middle of nowhere without a car of my own. There was exactly nothing to do in the village but sit on the family's front porch and read my kindle while eating sunflower seeds, which suited me fine. I walked once around the village, which took me all of five minutes. As I was walking an old lady in Tibetan clothing approached me and said something. She seemed not to speak Chinese, so all I could do was answer "Tashi delek", the supposed Tibetan greeting that has now become famous throughout China and beyond, even though it is really just a religious invocation and its use as an everyday greeting is very recent. In the old days Tibetans would greet each other by sticking their tongues out. Once I got back to my host family, I learnt from them that the woman had actually wanted to invite me to her home. Word travels fast, I thought.

The weather was quite warm during the day time, although it got very cold at night, as you might expect at such high altitudes. The house was fairly comfortable compared to many where I have stayed in rural areas. It had a modern bathroom, although there was no real shower. I ate both lunch and dinner with the family, and both were delicious. Dinner included a grilled lamb leg with the hoof still attached. The grandmother of the girl who brought me to the village ate with us, wearing her impressive local dress. Although I couldn't really speak with her, the girl told me that she was an open-minded and curious old lady, in spite of the fact that she had never seen much of the world. She reminded me somewhat of my late Italian grandmother.

Lamb leg during and after cooking
As the girl who brought me there had told me, the area's inhabitants are extremely Sinified Tibetans, and I could see this very clearly in the younger generation. Not only did they dress in modern clothing, but they seemed to speak to each other mostly in Sichuan Chinese rather than in Tibetan, and they looked and behaved just like youths throughout China. Although they still have to speak the local Tibetan dialect to communicate with the elderly, there is clearly a language shift towards Chinese going on. This is an area relatively close to Chengdu though, and the girl assured me that if you travel further North you can find more "genuine" Tibetans whose culture is more intact. The girl herself had grown up mostly in other parts of China, since her parents had worked in various cities. She spoke Chinese without the trace of a Tibetan accent, and would have been in no way identifiable as an ethnic minority in any other context. She came across as a cool young Chinese urbanite, and told me that she owns her own business in Chengdu.

Local ladies on the street

The following day I ate an interminable meal with my host family outside another relative's house. This time relatives and friends all collected, with at least 20 people present. The food was grilled on large flat stones, something I had never seen before. There was all sorts of food being grilled, including things like octopus and other seafood which I suppose cannot be part of the traditional menu in an area so tremendously far from the sea. After a lengthy meal the girl and I finally set off for Chengdu in her car. I drove most of the three hour drive, happy to have the chance to finally give something in return for the hospitality. As the mountains turned into the suburbs of Chengdu and the traffic got heavier, I began to think of the flight back to Beijing that awaited me the following day, and I felt my holiday was over.

A few days later, back in Beijing, I shared photos of my trip with an Esperanto-speaking friend from Chengdu, an erudite man who is very familiar with the culture of the Tibetans and other ethnic groups of his native Sichuan. After looking closely at the women's costumes he at first thought that these were not actually Tibetans at all. After finding out exactly where I had been, he concluded that I had in fact stayed in a village of so-called Gyarong (Jiarong) Tibetans, a sub-branch of the Tibetan people so remote they do not even have the honour of a Wikipedia entry. They have their own distinctive customs and identity, and what they speak is in fact a language of their own, distantly related to Tibetan but quite distinct from it and unintelligible to anyone else.

My local host washing her car, while Tibetan prayer flags flutter overhead


justrecently said...

I've never made it to any place west of Anhui province. Fascinating pictures and descriptions.

Ji Xiang said...

Thank you!

So you've never made it West of Anhui? I thought you were an old-China hand. Obviously you're just an old-East China hand.

justrecently said...

If I'm an old "China hand", yes, that would only be the East, from coast to coast (north to south). Even the stay in Anhui was only a rare exception from the rule.

Gilman Grundy said...

I too never made it further inland than Chengdu, and then only briefly for a business-trip, so the mountains of Sichuan seem quite exotic.

In fact you are now definitely more of a China-hand than I, since I only lived there for five years (plus time in Taiwan, but that's not really the same), and have since only visited occasionally.

I hope you don't mind me asking Jixiang, but after nine+ years in-country, are you a lifer or do you still want to move on at some point? I know for myself than I could not have taught university classes for that long, though working in business there was more tolerable it was obvious to me that in China I could only rise so far, and ultimnetely if I wanted to have a family it would not be in China.

Ji Xiang said...

@Gilman Grundy:

I guess I am more of a China-hand then most people by now, yes. Having said that I have little personal experience of places like Hong Kong or Taiwan, which I could do with. On the other hand you've clearly never really experienced Western China that much. It's a pity because I think travelling there is generally a lot more interesting, rewarding and even pleasant then travelling in Eastern China. Obviously there are still annoyances, but in places like Qinghai, Ningxia or Western Sichuan at the very least the sceneries can be fantastic, there's much fewer people, some genuine minority cultures survive, and the locals are often friendly. Of course I would avoid Yunnan tourist hotspots like Lijiang or Dali.

I actually haven't yet been in China nine years, but I'm getting there. I am not sure if you're under the impression that I teach university classes, but I don't. I work for an NGO right now. I am willing to stay as long as I have an interesting, rewarding and reasonably well paid occupation. Under those conditions life in a big city like Beijing becomes tolerable, especially given the great people you can meet there. Having said that, I would agree that if I had kids I would not want to bring them up in China.

Gilman Grundy said...

Yeah, the 9 year figure I guessed from your blog years but like you say you're getting there. Dunno why I thought you taught university - did you used to teach at a university?

I lived in Shenzhen, and whilst the money and the job were good, it was clear that there was only so far I could rise in the company I worked for, not least because you can't become a Chinese patent attorney without being a Chinese citizen. I can see that an NGO (especailly an international one) might be a bit different as ultimately you could even work outside China.

I don't regret leaving - it may well be confirmation bias, but every time I go back to China I see things that make me think I made the right choice. I'll be back again this year so I'll see.

RE: Taiwan and HK, I think it's good for anyone who wants a broad understanding of Chinese society to get to know them, as it helps to distinguish those aspects of mainland Chinese society that are caused by Chinese culture, and those which are caused by being ruled by a communist dictatorship.


Ji Xiang said...

I did teach English in a university in Beijing for a semester, but only part time.

As a foreigner in China, you can only have a real career working in an international organization or company. If you want to find good reasons to leave the country, there are clearly plenty.

I have visited both Hong Kong and Taiwan, but only once each. One day I should really go on a longer trip around Taiwan. Like you say, it helps to see Chinese culture from a different perspective.