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A Trip to Ganzi

Written by Doug & Liz Searles
November 11, 2006

Doug & Liz Searles – China

Happy Thanksgiving from China!

It feels like Fall here, but the colors are not brilliant as they are in the American Midwest. If you live where Fall means rich oranges and deep yellows, look out the window for us and give thanks for the changing scene, won’t you?

I (Liz) just got back to Chengdu from a dusty 12-day trip to Ganzi, the mountainous region west of us. The purpose was to follow up with former students in the schools where they teach. Son Mick (14) says it takes about a week for me to shed the smell of wood smoke and yak – all that salty yak butter tea. My hosts drank somewhere between 10 and 20 bowls of it a day!!

Often, I was hosted in teacher housing: concrete on-campus rooms with no water or toilet, and intermittent electricity. In Luhuo, for example, the entire school of over 200 kids and 50 teacher/staff families share a single water tap and a 10-hole latrine. There is no water at the latrines for flushing or washing. The water source is the equivalent of 2 blocks away from the latrines – probably a good thing for some health reasons, but not so good for others!

Each kid uses less than 1 cup of water daily, I'd estimate. Every night, the same water is used for faces, then hands, then feet. I have no idea when the parts between the face and the feet get washed. Privacy is very limited.

Tibetans drink almost no water, getting liquids from yak butter tea and soups. As the Himalayan cap melts, there is less and less waterin the rivers, however. Some are dry beds most of the year. There is talk of installing plumbing in some schools. That would increase the amount of water consumed by a factor of 20 or more, however, so it’s a difficult choice.

Over 50 small villages in the gorgesalong the Dadu river will be flooded sometime between now and 2009 for a new hydroelectric plant. These are Tibetan communities of about 20 houses, a 40-minute-or-so scramble straight up from the road and the river.

Like most, the family home of Shen You Zhi has a big orchard with cherry, fig, persimmon and pear trees near the house, and a grove of apple and walnut trees as a cash crop. Beyond the orchard is the vegetable garden, and then a field for two annual harvests in rotation: wheat, and corn or potatoes.

Each family mills its own flour and cornmeal. Families are self-sufficient except for buying tools, rice, cooking oil, matches, a few spices, salt and sugar. Every breakfast, there are fresh wheat-flour biscuits and, of course, butter tea. Every lunch and dinner brings an appetizer of chicken soup. Shen You Zhi’s mother won’t eat in a restaurant or buy in a townmarket. She says city fruits and vegetables are not healthy.

They use a single old sofa, 5 stools, 3 handmade benches, an old desk (covered and not used), some small tables, wood-slat beds and a few woks. Also, a Motorola TV that is about 20 years old and a large Sharp stereo system of the same age, but no tapes to put in it. The government gave these to Shen You Zhi's father, a driver. They were part of his reward for driving a truckload of aid supplies in a convoy from China to Iraq in the 1980's. He also got a Fuji 35mm camera, a fancy phone that is not connected but dusted daily,some cases of wine, and a decent wage.

Like most settled Tibetan families, this one raises chickens, a yak for milk, butter, yogurt and cheese, and a couple of pigs. Last spring, 20 chickens died in a day, and they don't know why. I asked about avian flu, but they've never heard of it.

Recently, their 18-year-old yak died. Four men dragged the huge carcass down to the river and dumped it. Their new yak is about 6 months old. Yakscanstart giving milk at a few months. Young yak milk is mild, so their yak butter tea was more to my taste, with fresh young yak butter and ground walnuts in it. Many Tibetans, however, prefer the stronger tea from butter “mature” enough to taste like blue cheese.

The high terraces along the Dadu River are fertile and support many many Tibetan families. Although the government promises it will compensate villagers displaced by the dam, people feel anxious about breaking up their communities. Most are over 40. Their children may be living in a city.

When Tibetans leave the rivers, mountains or high grasslands to live in town, they often get depressed. Some men get work in the construction industry, because they are good woodworkers and have built their own homes. Many more, however, languish, especially the herders who get moved off the grasslands. Many drink, play pool (pool tables are outdoors where it’s warm), and dream of buying a motorcycle as they sit and smoke in the sun. Town life is a very hard transition for people used to spending time actively farming or herding in all weathers.

One former student is now 8 months pregnant and in a small apartment in Danba City. She and her husband teach in Dege, a town over 11,000 feet, on the mountainous border between Ganzi, an area in western Sichuan, and the vast Tibet Autonomous Region. Dege is more than 20 hours away from Danba on the bus. She has come to lower elevation to deliver near her parents' home. Her mother and aunties are with her while she waits for her baby to come.

While I was visiting, her mother spent much of her time sitting at the window and staring wistfully beyond the concrete and rubble of the city at a single willow tree and the sky above it.  Last week, she found out that her village soon will be flooded for the hydroelectric plant. She is 53 years old, looks 65, is generally very happy and humorous, and loves to dance and sing. Her last move was 24 years ago, when the family moved down to their present home from a village about a 6-hour climb from the river and the road. That move gained them electricity and access to transportation into town.

She says she will never trade living in a city apartment – no matter how convenient – for a village home.  In the village, she must gather kindling for cooking andmilk the yak daily, work long hours in the garden and field, carry water up steep paths from the river, slaughter her own chickens and pigs, and go to the toilet in a public lean-to down the path and around a bend from her house. Yet, she says can't sleep in the city. She has grown accustomed to the constant lullaby of the river rushing through the mountains.

I, on the other hand, after only 12 days away, am very very happy to get back to the conveniences of town, especially my warm cozy bed with the constant lullaby of heavy traffic, hot showers, bottled drinking water and – oh joy – a western toilet just down the hall!

May you keep seeking the steps of the Master, wherever they take you!

Liz, Doug & Mick in Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Doug and Elizabeth Searles work with the Sichuan TV and Radio University in Chengdu, China. They both serve as English teachers.

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