by Jean-Jacques Ndayisenga '13
Despite many lovely moments spent in Lanzhou, we were looking forward to leaving the city for the fresh-air of Xiahe Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. At 8:30am, everyone was ready with bags and dressed in warm clothes to protect ourselves from the brutal weather that was expected. It wasn’t until we reached in Linxia that we realized that temperatures were not as bad as people anticipated.
As we left Lanzhou, Professor Brown asked us to share reflections of our time in Lanzhou. We discussed Lanzhou’s pollution and relative poverty, the hotel, which was owned by an airline, and the importance of the Yellow River as well as the excellent time we spent with the students from Lanzhou University. Lanzhou proved to be a welcome break in the middle of our trip.
Once we left the city, Professor Brown noted that Lanzhou sits at the south end of the famous Hexi Corridor, which forms the core of the Silk Road. The Silk Road connected the ancient city of Chang’An (present day Xi’an) with Rome, and hundreds of caravans passed through the Corridor each year. Professor Brown described the Silk Road as the “ultimate road trip” and noted that all road trips involve music. He then presented the group with an acoustic guitar to help pass the long hours on the road.
Our local guide, Eagle, then began to tell us about life in Linxia, a county inhabited mainly by Tibetans and Muslims. We learned that Muslims are largely engaged in trading businesses while Tibetans are engaged in farming and yak herding. In the past, Muslims and Tibetans had frequent disputes, but now their relationship has grown stronger because they need each other in daily life. About 52% of the population in this region is Muslim, and the place is considered by Chinese Muslims to be a substitute for Mecca for those who cannot afford to make their pilgrimage to the Haaj.
Our first stop in Linxia was to buy 250kg of rice and 250kg of flour for an orphanage that we planned to visit later in the afternoon. We then went to lunch, which consisted of generous chunks of mutton and raw garlic, both of which are eaten with the hand. Our presence caused quite a commotion because one of the waitresses wanted to have her picture taken with Derrik and Becca (she also took a picture with Martin after Ali, our national guide, suggested that he looked like Harry Potter). All across western China, we seem to have a big audience wherever we go.
After two hours on the road, beautiful mountains emerged and we crossed the Tumen Pass, the old border between China and Tibet. At the border, which is marked in both Chinese and Tibetan, we got out of the bus to visit a stupa and to take some pictures.
The presence of foreigners is very sensitive in all Tibetan areas, including this one. In fact, it was closed to tourists for two years following the riots in Tibet in 2008, so Professor Brown asked us to be careful about taking pictures of potentially sensitive things. Among those things was a school for orphans from across the Tibetan Plateau that we visited soon after crossing the Tumen Pass.
When we arrived at the school, the kids lined up at the entrance to welcome us. The youngest kids there were 5 years old while the oldest was a boy who is 17. The rest of the 72 kids fall in the middle. One of the teachers – a volunteer from Fujian Province – directed us into a room to give us some background information about the school. Founded three years ago by a Tibetan monk, it serves the entire Tibetan plateau, and children stay for a year or more while the monk finds places for them to live.
Afterward, the children gathered around. Professor Brown showed them a magic trick and then made balloon animals and hats for the children. We all assisted to the delight of all of the children. Derrik then retrieved the guitar from the bus and awed the children with his rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” The kids returned the favor by singing “You are my Sunshine” and traditional Tibetan songs, wowing us with both their range and volume. We also toured the dormitories (in which the children slept 2-3 to a bed) and the classrooms.
Our final visit of the day was to Labeleng, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Yellow Hat sect. There are a total of 3600 monks at the monastery. One of the monks who spoke English showed us different temples and different statues of the Buddha. We visited 4 different temples, which included the temples housing two different schools, one of philosophy and one of medicine. The school of medicine was built in 1784 and it takes 15 years for one to graduate from there.
Our lodge is a very typical place with local traditional decoration of the rooms, including kangs (traditional heated beds). Although we expected this hotel to be the most uncomfortable, it turned out to be a class favorite. Dinner was spent with a local Tibetan family, who provided a nice tea with milk and yak butter, rice prepared with sugar and fruit from the Tibetan plateau, lamb, and yogurt made from yak milk. Songs, jokes, and chatting were all part of this delicious meal. Now we are looking forward to a relaxing evening, with maybe some board games and more singing!