Archives for posts with tag: Tibetan

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Look at that beautiful, empty boardwalk. Stretching past the river and enticing you around the corner and into the unknown—don’t you want to follow it?

Unfortunately, my travel companions at Jiuzhaigou National Park did not. They were anxious to take their selfie-stick selfies and get back to the crowded main road where buses whisked tourists from one poetically named Scenic Spot to the next.

I had sky-high expectations about Jiuzhaigou before I set out. I had heard of its reputation as one of the most beautiful natural places in China. I’d seen photographs of its stunning turquoise lakes and majestic waterfalls, set against a background of brilliant red foliage. The park has been heralded as a model of sustainable nature-based tourism in China. It’s been celebrated for the rich culture of the local Tibetan inhabitants, who still practice a form of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.

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Naturally, I was not the only one aware of Jiuzhaigou’s mythical beauty. Since it first opened to visitors in 1984, the park has received thousands of tourists from across China and the world (but mostly China), and their numbers continue to increase. In 2001, measures were taken to limit tourists to 12,000 per day.

To their credit, the park authorities have done everything they can to preserve the delicate ecosystems within the park, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the sights. Tourists are kept on elevated boardwalks away from the vegetation, and they are not allowed to stray from the trails or touch the water. They are shuttled to and fro on “green buses,” (powered by low-polluting liquefied petroleum gas), and ordinary vehicles are prohibited. Visitors are required to leave the park every night. The local Tibetan villagers are allowed to live inside the park in their ancestral homes, but they cannot farm or hunt; instead, they earn money through tourism-related activities and receive portions of the park’s ticket revenue. Studies have suggested that several wildlife species, such as Amur hedgehogs, wild boars, and the endangered takin, have increased in population since the area was protected.

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Nevertheless, an influx of millions of tourists per year will inevitably create rippling impacts across the region. Just outside the park gates lies an epic sprawl of hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. Driving towards our hotel (a very nice Holiday Inn) we passed by blocks of newly constructed apartment buildings, a colorful “Bar Street” à la Lijiang, and a resplendent 5-star Sheraton. One could argue that any conservation happening inside Jiuzhaigou National Park is being negated by the rampant development just outside.

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The very concept of nature-based tourism is a paradox. The truth is that Jiuzhaigou is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of striking natural beauty that of course every person wants to see. I am an environmentalist for very selfish reasons, if I’m honest: I love nature, and I want to be able to enjoy nature in a so-called pristine state. I also want other people to be able to enjoy nature, and I believe that people are much more willing to care about and protect nature when they have experienced it themselves. But I am a human, and my very presence in a rural setting will have an influence on that place. To visit a place like Jiuzhaigou, I need a road to get there. I need a vehicle and a place to refuel. I need somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to buy food.

That said, I think there are measures that can be taken to limit tourism development to a reasonable and sustainable level. They didn’t have to build quite so many luxury hotels. They didn’t have to build an airport for god’s sake, allowing urban tour groups to whisk into Jiuzhaigou without ever stepping off a man-made surface. Sometimes a little inaccessibility can be a good thing—I loved my trip last September to Yubeng, a Tibetan village accessible only by foot or horseback, in part because the other tourists were limited to the type who do not mind getting their shoes dirty. I didn’t see a single selfie stick during that trip.

Even as I write this though, I realize how pretentious I sound. I deserve access to these places because I can actually appreciate nature, unlike all those other shallow, uneducated, selfie-taking tourists.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter because I feel like I missed out on what might have been a nicer Jiuzhaigou experience. I’ve heard, via English-language tourism websites, that there are ways to avoid the crowds. You can take the buses all the way to the top and then hike down, in the opposite direction from everyone else. You can eschew the buses altogether and just hike around at your own pace. You can follow those little boardwalks that lead you away from the Scenic Spots with poetic names, and also away from the crowds.

All of these options require you to be willing to miss out on seeing some of the famous, but farther-away lakes and waterfalls. I was willing to skip these, but my travel companions were not, and I can’t really blame them. Jiuzhaigou is extremely famous in China, to the extent that they read about the Five Color Pond (五彩池) in their grade-school textbooks. It would be like an American visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, and deciding to spend all day in the National Postal Museum instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, just because it was quieter.

In the end, my trip to Jiuzhaigou was still absolutely worth it. We made the most of our one day in the park, and the landscapes we saw were truly spectacular, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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I’m even glad we had a selfie stick with us, because you know what? Some of those pictures turned out pretty darn good.

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(I’m the second creepy panda from the right)

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I am writing this blog post from the window of New Moon Café in Burlington, sipping tea and watching the afternoon shoppers stroll by. That’s right, I’m home. After a train ride, a plane ride, an evening in Bangkok, then another three flights of varying lengths, I have arrived in Vermont safe and sound. My contract with The Nature Conservancy finished. My visa expired. I left.

I’m still going over everything that’s happened to me over the course of my time in Lijiang—the people I met, the places I saw, the decisions I made about my future (grad school!), and the lessons I learned about myself and the world. Cultural differences. Falling in and out of love in another language. At some point I’ll write about all those things, I swear. But for now, I’d like to back up to my last week in Yunnan and tell the story of how I took a traditional Tibetan art class in Shangri-la.

First of all, yes, there is an actual place called Shangri-la. It was thusly named in 2001 in an effort to boost tourism in the area, replacing the former name Zhongdian (which was a Han renaming of the original Tibetan name Gyalthang). The place that is currently called Shangri-la is a predominantly Tibetan county in northwest Yunnan Province, and it is home to the Thangka Center, run by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. Thangka is a traditional style of Buddhist art. Painted in bright colors on silk or cotton, these highly symbolic works are common among Vajrayana Buddhist cultures across the Himalayan region. I have always admired the intricate details and vivid colors of thangka paintings, and I was excited to see that the Thangka Center in Shangri-la offered art classes to tourists.

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I emailed the director of the Association, Dakpa Kelden, and he replied in English saying I was welcome to stop by at any time. The Thangka Center has several full-time students from local villages, and I was welcome to join them for a few days of classes. I could even eat and sleep at the center for a very reasonable price.

A few days later I showed up…alone. I had been traveling with another girl, but she elected not to join me on this part of the adventure. I met Dakpa Kelden briefly, a well-dressed businessman with a posh Indian accent. Born to Tibetan exiles in India, he returned to his ancestral hometown in Yunnan as an adult to develop the community and preserve cultural practices such as thangka painting.

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The art teacher himself was Master Palden, a small, soft-spoken man who showed me the cavernous twelve-bed dormitory where I would be sleeping (alone) and got me started in the art studio. Six other students were already at work: five Tibetan teenaged boys, and one Han girl—a tourist like me. I was very grateful for her presence.

I could immediately see that thangka painting was not a skill that one could acquire in an afternoon. The students at work on large, colorful cloth paintings had been studying for years. A couple of the boys were still sketching in pencil on scrap paper. It takes several months of sketching before one is ready to begin painting in color.

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My first task was to sketch the head of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This involved copying an intricate framework of lines and angles onto the page, upon which the Buddha’s features must be carefully and exactly replicated. One of the more advanced students was assigned to keep an eye on me and give me pointers. Although he couldn’t have been older than eighteen, this boy struck me as extremely mature and trustworthy. All of the boys seemed a little bit different—less cocky and more disciplined—compared to teenagers in the United States.

After finishing the Buddha’s head, the boy came over to investigate my work. I was pretty proud of myself for getting the grid and the proportions right, and I thought I’d done a very nice job on the facial features thank you very much. But what did I know? The mouth was all wrong—too big and too downturned. The eyes were too wide. The ears were crooked and short. The chin was too pointed. Even the round thing at the top of the head was the wrong shape—it was supposed to be a jewel, I learned, although I couldn’t tell so from the scanned line drawing I was trying to copy.

I could see that thangka painting was very different from art classes I had taken in high school, where experimentation is celebrated and creativity is expected. Thangka painting is a highly exact and rigidly stylized process. Each building block—the eyes, the chin, the jewel—must be replicated perfectly and mastered before the student can move on. A finished thangka painting, no matter how complex it may appear, is simply a composite of these various building blocks, all of which are rich in symbolic meaning. I began to see why thangka artists never sign their work. Unlike art in the west, a completed painting is not seen as the accomplishment of a talented individual. Rather, it is seen as a new manifestation of a centuries-old spiritual tradition. A tiny drop added into the great ocean of Buddhist symbolism.

The boy handed me a blank sheet of paper and told me to try again. Once again I copied the intricate grid, then overlaid that with the features of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This time my efforts were rewarded—the nose was quite nice, and the shape of the face was almost right, although there was still something wrong with the ears. For homework, the boy told me to practice drawing the most difficult features over and over again: eyes, lips, and ears. I filled half a page with upturned mouths, spirally ears and wavy, heavy-lidded eyes, before it was time for lunch.

I am embarrassed to admit this next part of the story. Lunch was served with the other students in the little outbuilding by the studio, and it was very tasty—marinated cucumbers with Tibetan barley bread—but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy my American appetite. Since we had our afternoons free, I sauntered over to the nearest Western-style café (there are an astonishing number of these in Shangri-la) for some coffee and fried bananas. I felt like a pig.

That afternoon the other tourist girl left, leaving me alone with the boys. I had progressed by this point to Shakyamuni’s full body, which introduced the new challenges of hands and feet. Like all of the Buddha’s body parts, the hands and feet are highly stylized and must be precisely replicated in each of their various positions. After my first attempt at the right hand, one of the students peered over my shoulder and actually laughed. I couldn’t really blame him. My effort to recreate those fleshy, gracefully curved fingers looked more like a deformed tangle of spiders than anything else. The feet, meanwhile, proved even more difficult than the hands. I always made them too large, and the angle of the toes was never quite right. At some point my student teacher gave up trying to correct each spot where I had gone wrong, and started simply erasing my feet and drawing new ones.

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Dinner that night was much more satisfying than lunch (thank god), and my sleep in the cavernous dorm room was disturbed only when the middle-aged male caretaker decided his bed was too cold, and came in to sleep in the bunk two over from mine. Awkward, but whatever.

I was awoken bright and early the next morning by the sound of chanting coming from the art studio, which was located directly over my bed. The students, teachers, and caretakers had gathered for their daily recitation of Buddhist scripture. Their voices rose and fell together in a rolling cascade of syllables in 5/4 time.

After they had finished, I went outside and joined them for breakfast—tsampa and butter tea. I chatted a bit with one of the students, who I learned came from a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province and had been studying at the Thangka Center for three years. All of the students come from relatively poor backgrounds where they might not have had access to traditional education. Their studies at the Thangka Center are funded entirely by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. This knowledge only deepened my admiration of their discipline and modesty.

The second day, after more or less approving my full-body Buddha (the ears were still wrong, and the feet were actually the work of my student teacher), Master Palden instructed me to add clothing. Again, I worked with a grid and a scanned line drawing. Despite the relative softness of the folds of fabric, the process of drawing clothing was no less rigorous than replicating the delicate facial features. I had lots of trouble with the left sleeve, and the lotus petals upon which the Buddha was sitting were too pointy. During my last class session, I attempted a new drawing of Tara, the female aspect of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This one was difficult because her head was tilted at an angle to her body, but I’m proud to say that my attempts at her hands and feet passed inspection. Something was still wrong with the earlobes though. I still can’t quite say what.

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After two full days of lessons, I returned to Lijiang with a backpack full of imperfectly-eared Buddhas. I promised Master Palden never to throw my drawings away, out of respect for the image of the Buddha. If I ever choose to dispose of them in the future, I must burn them.

When I got back to Lijiang a couple of people asked me: what was the point? After all, I couldn’t really learn very much in just two days. Was it really worth the trouble? Although I’m no closer to being a thangka master now than when I started, to me the experience was absolutely worthwhile. My purpose in traveling isn’t to acquire tangible new skills; it is simply to expand my horizons as much as possible. Through my experience at the Thangka Center, I was able to glimpse the everyday life of a Tibetan art student and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural foundations of a beautiful art form. To me, such new experiences are always worth the trouble.

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I love new food. I love trying things I’d never heard of before and experiencing flavors I’d never known existed. I named this blog Malatang after my first experience eating Sichuanese cuisine and tasting the tingly, mouth-numbing pepper called huajiao. It was completely new to me, and I loved it.

I’ve just had another Malatang Moment.

After a week traveling in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan, I was introduced to a brand new culinary tradition. Sometimes it even challenged my notions of what “food” and “drink” even mean.

The staples of a Tibetan diet are barley and yak milk. Tibetans live in some of the harshest climates in the world, which means that fresh produce is scarce, variety is limited, and a high caloric intake is necessary for survival.

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The most common beverage is yak butter tea, which I think I drank almost every day while traveling in this region. It’s a hot beverage made from black brick tea steeped in water and churned with yak butter and salt. The tea is usually served in a beautiful metal pot and drunk from bowls. Tibetan people drink dozens and dozens of bowls of this stuff every day, similar to the way many Americans drink coffee, or to the way my family inhales Earl Grey tea morning and night. I can see the appeal of yak butter tea in such a cold climate—it’s hot, rich, and filling—but first I had to get over the psychological barrier of drinking something salty. It also tastes rather stinky. You know how goat cheese tastes goaty? Well, yak butter definitely tastes yaky. I almost spit out my first sip.

And yet, I hated the fact that I didn’t like a flavor that was beloved by an entire ethnic group. Since I hadn’t grown up on it, I simply wasn’t used to it. I therefore decided to drink yak butter tea at every opportunity I could, in the hope that I could teach myself to like it. I have done this successfully in the past with mushrooms and blue cheese (I’m still working on dill), so why couldn’t I now? One week later, I am proud to say that I don’t hate yak butter tea. It helped that the first one I tried was by far the stinkiest. Every other cup I drank afterwards was much milder. I still don’t want to drink it at every meal, but I can appreciate a little bit on a cold morning. Success!

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Moving on, the most common staple food for Tibetans is called tsampa/zanba, which consists of roasted barley flour mixed (with your fingers) with a hunk of yak butter and some yak butter tea to make a kind of dough. This is then eaten with your hands. I’d say it’s most analogous to eating raw pie dough, or maybe biscuit dough, something that consists of flour and butter and not much else. I only tried it once. It didn’t taste bad, per se…but again, I think I’d need to eat it a few more dozen times before I could start to really enjoy it. Although it isn’t technically raw, since the barley is roasted, there’s something about eating dough as an entire meal that just seems wrong to a western girl who always had to sneak licks from the cookie bowl.

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Besides tsampa and yak butter tea, the other Tibetan dishes I tried were much easier for my western palate to accept. We ate a delicious yak cheese that tasted similar to feta, which we dipped in sugar before eating. We had several different kinds of barley flatbread, meat dumplings called momos, yak meat hotpot, and many rice and vegetable dishes that were probably Han-influenced.

All-in-all, we only encountered one tiny corner of the Tibetan world, and I hope someday to explore more of their unique culture and cuisine. It was interesting to experience a diet so severely restricted by the limits of the natural environment. But then, when you’re surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, who has time to think about food?

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The village of Yubeng, located in the Meli Snow Mountain range, is accessible only by foot or horseback.

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