Tibetan encounters – 2007

Travelling through Yunnan

In October 2007 we travelled once again to China.

This time we went to the province of Yunnan in southwestern China.  We started in the capital, Kunming, and journeyed from there to Dali, Lijang and Di Quing (also known in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizons, as ‘Shangri-La’). Yunnan borders Burma and Tibet in the west, and Laos and Vietnam in the south.

The altitude in the area varied between 2,000 and 4,000 metres, with many snow-capped mountains – a stunning environment. This was the first trip to China where we had a clean environment and clear skies;  nevertheless we heard on TV that Beijing and other cities on the east coast were experiencing shocking pollution due to fog. As a consequence of this, our flight back from Kunming to Beijing was delayed by four hours.

Kunming, a city of 5 million people, is less developed than Shanghai and Beijing: largely industrial, with large apartment buildings, wide streets, lots of car, buses, bikes, motorbikes, scooters (Electronic ones, so no noise, would be something for Italy!!!). It was a cool 13-15 degrees, grey skies, and some drizzle sometimes, although we have avoided getting wet!!

In Yunnan, it is the people who make this province very special indeed. It is the home of approx. 50 of China’s 56 ethnic groups. The mix of cultures is unique. I was surprised to observe the enormous effort that is put into maintaining the traditions, languages and cultures of these ethnic communities. China has been unified, in one way or another, for over 2,000 years, yet these old cultures are still fully alive. The people are very proud of their heritage and they are supported in this by the federal government.

On Friday afternoon, we met up with Fred and Elaine who have already travelled to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai and we will spend the next week travelling ‘doing’ Yunnan. Our first day, Saturday, was a free day, which we spent walking the city centre, searching out a coffee place to get a decent coffee (WE FOUND ONE – good coffee, a little shop with only a shop front and four chairs on the street, where customer could sit and enjoy the ‘cuppa’. So we did, sat on the street and let the Saturday Chinese shopping crowd pass us by!!! We got lots of stares!). Then we stumbled upon a wonderful Chinese restaurant in the middle of a park, actually Fred and Louise justed peeped through the thick curtain that was covering the door, as we had seen two chefs standing at the back door, and yes… it was a restaurant – most dishes on the menu were in Chinese, but we managed to get a real great lunch. Then we ended up at the flower market, a fantastic array of flowers in beautiful bouquets were on display, a feast for the eye. Kunming provides 70% of all the flowers for China, and we saw the flower growing greenhouses when we landed!

That night we had dinner in the “Stone house” restaurant, a building dating back beginning last century. We ASSUMED it was a Chinese restaurant, but it turned out Italian (of all nationalities!!), and as the Chinese do not understand the concept of entree and THEN the main meal, and as we ordered like Bruschetta, insalata di mare, etc. and THEN canelloni, grilled meat, etc. we expected of course the entrees to come first. Well the only one who got the right order was me, as I ordered bruschetta, and grilled meat, Paul and Fred got their insalata di mare at the end, and most of the dishes were brought within 10-15 minute spare, so Paul and I were already eating our grilled meat, while Elaine was still waiting for her salad to come… well this was all good for a big giggle – the food was good though! Lovely evening.

Sunday we had excursions: first the “stone forest” – 90 km out of Kunming: a large area – since June 2007 included on World Heritage listing – with lime stone formations, formed millions of years ago. Just beautiful, but visiting with a MILLION other Chinese was a challenge. There are not many white tourists here. Anyway, our guide first showed us the busy area, which was of course spectacular. Then we took a side path – and suddenly there were NO CHINESE anymore. We only encountered a couple of other westerners. They call this the ‘Foreigners’ path!!! Very appropriate!

After Stone Forest we had lunch in one of the local restaurants, and then we went on to the Golden temple (is not really gold, but a HUGE copper temple from the 1600 – gone black over time with some shiny areas where the many hands had rubbed! We heard some lovely singing, and it turned out the local acapella singing group, who come together here every Sunday afternoon to sing songs, accompanied by a little drum, flute, guitar, etc. Fantastic to listen to, with some really good voices! Made the afternoon interesting! Fred was even drawn into the group by a lady when they started singing and performing a Tibetan dance!

On Sunday evening, our guide Jong Lin, managed to get first class tickets to a theatre performance of Dynamic Yunnan. It is the same performance Louise saw in Shanghai some years ago, with at the end the famous Peacock dance, performed by a lady. She is so incredibly flexible and dances with hands, fingers and body movements that are a wonder to watch! At the end of the dance she unfolds a huge peacock tail, while all the time dancing and moving to the rhythm of the music. The whole show was a wonder of speed, drums, movement and entertainment. Fascinating performances.

After a rainy and big citylike Kunming we went on Monday morning by plane to Dali, where the weather cleared. Dali is a lovely town, nice streets, all in grid format so easy to find your way. The old town is close to a 42 km long lake, pity that it was too far to walk to the lake, so we stayed in the old centre. Our hotel was right in the centre. We saw a local dance group performing some dances, which was done in a very lacklustre and uninterested way. We had three sorts of tea at a tea ceremony at the local cultural centre, which could have been a lot better presented. The building was lovely, but the interior was not finished, and very messy! For the rest we spent time walking through the old town, and relaxing. We were only 1 night in Dali, before we had a 4 hour drive to Lijiang.

In Lijang we came in contact with the Naxi culture. Although they are integrated into Chinese society the Naxi people keep their own traditions and their own language. They have both a pictorial and a phonetic written language. Their pictorial script, in particular, is unique and has been put on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List.

The old city of Lijang, which boasts its very own forbidden city (The Mu Palace) has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This water-filled city (nine mountain streams run through it) with its wooden houses, narrow alleyways and 360 bridges is absolutely delightful.

The township has narrow streets, running in all directions and every house has been turned into a ‘souvenir’ shop. Mainly Chinese tourists!! lots and lots of little restaurants, silversmiths (you can hear the clanking of the silver smiths through the narrow alleyways), weavers – weaving the shawls and cloths with the patterns of the area. The costumes of the Naxi people are much different from Dali.

Upon our arrival in Lijiang, we were shown the Black Dragon pool park, a lovely park, with a huge pong which is fed by springs, which also feed water in the local water supply. A lovely walk through the park stretched our legs after the hours long car trip from Dali.

In the evening we saw a local performance in their theatre, interesting stories, like the ‘walking marriage’ whereby the boy can visit and stay with the girl (after the grandmother has given approval – this is a matriarchial society) – no real commitment needs to be given and any babies are cared for by the mother and her  family! Boy and girl can leave this arrangement if they wish. It still happens, although real marriages also are custom.

A prosperous area, and Paul has been busy finding out all about telecoms when we went to a non-touristical village yesterday, where an old man, whom he ask (via the guide) if every house had telephone, showed him his MOBILE phone, what a scream!!

Lijiang is framed by the famous Jade Dragon Mountains, a 5000 mtr high mountain range, which had just the week before received its first snowfall, so was all snow covered. What a sight for sore eyes. From the front door of our hotel room we had a fantastic view on this mountain over the roofs of the old town. As we had a free day in Lijiang, Fred decided to play a day of golf at the highest golf course in the world, just with this beautiful mountain as backdrop. He came back all euphoric and enthusiastic! The weather was absolutely beautiful, cloudless sky, temps close to 20, but not warm, as it is pretty high and the air is cool. We had excursions to a local mountain village, and the famous, but very faded Ming Dynasty murals at Baisha Village. When we left the village lots of little stalls with all kinds of goods waited for us again!

With the exception of the Tibetans, the various groups seem to be quite content to live under the Chinese umbrella.

Tibetans in Yunnan

After Lijiang we had a full day drive to Shangri La (this mythical name was given to this place by a writer, the chinese name is Zhongdian). Although the name would give all kind of fantastic images, the opposite is true. A big city, with an old centre on the Tibetan plateau. This area is also 3100 mt high. so no running or jogging. Air quality is thin!!

Half of the six million Tibetan population lives in Tibet, with the rest being equally divided over the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. The city of Zhongdian (Shangri la) and its rural surroundings has a predominantly Tibetan population and the Tibetan culture is all-pervasive throughout this region. It was interesting to encounter Tibetans in this Chinese province and to observe the people, their daily lives, culture, religion and politics.

With their distinctive facial features, Tibetans are easy to identify. The same applies to their farms and cities. Their buildings are square with a slightly backward-sloping flat roof and the outside wall and all the windows taper gently outwards towards the bottom. On their farm there are yaks – 10 for a fairly poor farmer, 100 for a rich farmer. They grow barley and vegetables, and you also see the occasional pig and a few chickens.

Under Chinese rule Tibetans are allowed to have three children (The Naxi people are allowed to have two children).

Tibetan life

Like all the other people we have met in our travels the Tibetan people are friendly. They are devout Buddhists, followers of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. As a theocratic society their spiritual leader was (before Chinese occupation) their political leader also. This led to a society in which Tibetans were – and within China still are – among the poorest people on earth. However their religion provided them with a lifestyle framework which they still prefer to Chinese occupation.

The Tibetan homes are interesting buildings. They have thick walls that keep the houses warm. The inside is all timber, giving a pleasant, homely feeling. Built-in cupboards house home-made butter, other smaller produce and their personal belongings.

The furniture consists of low benches and tables with hand-crafted cloth in the typically colourful Tibetan fashion. Most houses are rather large, with three floors. The lower floor is used for cattle (yaks);  they stay inside during the cold winter months. The middle floor consists of the living quarters, the stove, which is on all day, and the water supply (brought in manually). At the back of the house are the bedrooms.  This floor also houses a large and colourful prayer room. The top floor is used for storage of their agricultural produce and cattle feed.

Above the stove is a covered hole in the roof through which the smoke passes. Often you can see smoke leaking through a large section of the roof, as the houses don’t have a proper chimney.

The housing and stable quarters are walled and partly roofed to dry grass, sods and produce. In the fields large racks are set out on which to dry barley and other agricultural produce.

One of the highlights was a meal with a Tibetan granny – a lovely old woman, who served us yak cheese, bread and Yak butter tea.  Yak meat and cheese have a very distinct strong flavour. Tibetans eat cheese with sugar and that certainly does take some of the strong taste away. Butter tea is made of black tea and salt with yak butter. If you are a well-to-do farmer you will drink this regularly;  however the poorer farmers serve butter tea on special occasions only. After you have drunk half the tea you add barley flour and sugar and knead it into a ball, similar to making pasta. You then eat the barley-butter tea ball – very filling.

There are still a lot of nomadic Tibetans and a significant number are semi-nomadic;  however their numbers are dwindling. We saw nomads with their yak herds in the Padacuo National Park, the highest part of the park is 4000 mt high.

Songzanglin Lamasery

Another one of the absolute highlights of our trip was a visit to the Songzanglin Lamasery of Tibetan Buddhism, the largest of its kind in Yunnan.

The monastery is just outside the city of Zhongdian in north-western Yunnan and, when seen from a distance, it immediately brings to mind pictures of the Lhasa Tibetan monasteries.

The impressions we received that morning were mind-blowing, the highlight being the sight of 400 monks, praying and chanting in this ancient building. We visited this sacred place on a sunny but cold October morning. Imagine a huge, cold, half-lit hall with shrines along the walls, lots of incense burning, huge statues of Buddha, and, in the middle, 400 red-robed monks sitting cross-legged in rows on 30 wooden benches, some with Tibetan fire pots next to them to provide some warmth.

Yet, to our amazement, we saw several monks using their PDAs, accessing the Internet, and others sending SMSs from their mobile phones – a touch of hi-tech in this sacred place.

In another similarly dark and cold chapel-like room a guardian monk chants with a bell in one hand and a little drum with strings of rhythmically swinging beads in the other. He sits there on his own, day in day out, surrounded by Buddhist images, and religious relics in front of a window covered with a transparent brightly coloured Donald Duck curtain.

In the middle of the monastery is a large courtyard with a few hundred prayer rolls that you can turn as you walk past reciting prayers.

The young monks are being given what the Buddhists call ‘lessons in philosophy’ where they learn to recite the many prayers. They might learn a small page of prayer from the Tibetan prayer books each day, and as we watched the chanting in the main hall we could see that not all the monks participated – presumably they had not yet learned those particular prayers.

As many as a third of Tibetan men traditionally end up in a monastery. They can enter as early as five years of age and they are formally ordained at the age of 18. Although possible, it is unusual for young men to choose to leave the monastery, as they tend to be shunned and perceived as untrustworthy. It would also be hard for them to obtain permission from the family of any woman they might wish to marry.

Monks bring respect to the family and a security that they will be prayed for. It often also comes as a relief, as it means that there is one less mouth to feed. We visited several Tibetan homes and there were photographs of monks (sons, brothers, uncles) everywhere.

Money is donated by the family to the monastery and to the monks. The monks live in the small houses against the hill on which the monastery is situated. They are built and maintained by the monks themselves, often with the financial assistance of their families.

While monastery life is harsh, this applies equally to the people living outside the monastery, and the monks at least don’t have to worry about food and a bed to sleep in.

The monasteries operate quite independently from each other and are owned by the monks themselves. The government does have some say – for instance, it can stipulate the maximum number of monks that can live there.  But it is hard to check this and, if necessary, the list presented to the government may be incomplete.

Under Chinese control

While there is a level of autonomy in Tibet itself, Tibetans everywhere are far more strictly controlled than the Chinese (the majority, Han, as well as other minority groups).  Most of them still want the freedom that was so violently wrestled from them by China in 1959. The Chinese people know very little about this and this is a source of frustration to Tibetan people. The government has suppressed the facts about this invasion, promoting it as the liberation of Tibet and claiming that it was necessary for the sake of progress.

At the same time the Chinese blame the Japanese for suppressing the truth about the Japanese invasion of China.

China argued that after its own revolution it shrugged off feudalism, while Tibet remained a backwards, feudal and theocratic state. Although there is a certain amount of truth in this, it doesn’t justify China’s actions.

The Tibetan people we spoke to know very well that they will never be able to win independence from China through violence;  yet they  do want to have cultural independence and there are still regular uprisings. You can feel the longing for freedom. Many would be able to accept the situation if China were to tell the truth about Tibet to its own people and start a dialogue with the political leaders in exile.

But we all know only too well how difficult it is for politicians to say sorry.

One of the Tibetans, we met, had fled – along with many others – to India at the age of 13 in order to get a Tibetan education over the border. He came back four years later, identified himself at the border, was put into a detention centre for three months (where he was well-treated) and then sent back to his parents. However, he now has a criminal record which will stay with him for life.

Tibetans are restricted in their movements. It is very difficult for them to obtain passports or visas, and when competing for jobs they often lose out to members of the majority, the Han Chinese.

As we regularly read in the press the Chinese government continues to attack the Dalai Lama. While in China, the English language paper China Daily, published an editorial written by Shi Shan, who made another scathing attack on the religious leader. According to Shan, The Dalai Lama, under the banner of dharma, has been turning pujas into political gatherings to spread bias and sow discord.

The author had been forced to dig into a speech by the Dalai Lama dating back to 1995 to find some ammunition for his arguments.


After spending the 8 days in Yunnan province, we flew to Beijing on Sunday from Kunming, which took us ALL day (a 3 hours flight) as the first plane, supposed to leave at 8 am was cancelled. Our guide got us on a different airplane from another company at 1 PM – so all day was spent in airport lounges and planes! I was exhausted at the end of the day when we arrived in Beijing. And as we were both sick of Chinese food (rice, rice and more rice), we went to one of the 5 star hotels and had a French  meal: steak, salmon, snails, ceasar salad (for me, as Chinese do not eat salad so I was really missing my fresh greens!!!)

On Monday – it was back to business – we were meeting with the two partners.

One of the partners took us out for lunch, and Paul ate ….. SNAKE  – AND ….he was invited to come downstairs to inspect the animal first !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I did not want to go, I would not be able to stand the thought! So he and Andy Cheng from ChinaCMM, one of the partners, went downstairs. And although the snake meat is good to eat, the number of bones is not funny, it is actually a lot worse then fish! And as there is not much meat – I would say only slivers of meat –  it is not worth killing an animal for the snippets of meat that it gives!!

We did not really have time to see Beijing, but being driven through the town, and on Monday morning getting up early to do a walk around the forbidden city, we got a good idea of the developments here. This city has changed sooo much since I last saw it in 1987, I do not think I have ever seen a place change sooo much in such a short time: hundreds and hundreds of modern designed office skyscrapers, lining 10 lanes wide boulevards, where the cars far and far outnumber the bicycles (was the other way around only 20 years ago) and they are all MODERN cars. The number of 5 star Hotels is mindboggling, the main shopping centre of Beijing – pedestrian area- is huge, there are around 17 (give or take a million or 2!!) million people in Beijing, and at 10 PM on Monday night the shopping boulevard was as busy as any shopping street in Sydney in day time, and not even all shops were open, only the big ones…. How come Communism?? – real Capitalism!!

Ringroads – 8-10 lanes wide – circle the city, modern new subway lines have opened up, but suddenly you see a patch of old Beijing – the little dirty not paved courtyards, single story decrepit houses, washing and rubbish everywhere – and these old patches have been walled with a nice modern wall, so you can only just see the roofs of the houses. Holes in the wall let the people in and out and show the situation behind the wall …. out of sight!

We also saw the Olympic stadium in full progress, a wonderful “birds nest” design, and next to it the space-like swimming stadium! These 2008 Olympics have done wonders for Beijing and the whole city is gearing up! The new airport is being built and the latest new runway, which was opened the day before we flew out of Beijing, was used by our plane to take off!. Only we had to be guided to the runway (took 20 minutes) by two cars with the sign “follow me” -plastered on top of the car, a weird sight actually. We ‘drove’ past the new terminal – huge as is everything in China!

Paul and Louise Budde

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