Greetings from the Roof of the World!
From Friday to Monday, my world turned on its head. On Friday I traveled on the T151 26-hour sleeper train from Beijing to Xining, which turned out to be fairly comfortable. My cabin completely emptied after the 19th hour or so, after which I had the whole place to myself. I was met at the train station by a girl whose English name is Judy and her father (whose name I couldn’t pronounce correctly if there was a gun to my head) both of whom luckily spoke Chinese, so I had a way to communicate with them, albeit rudimentarily. I spent the next day and a half in Xining, which differs from other midsize Chinese cities in that it is truly a cultural melting pot. Xining has Tibetans, Uighur muslims, Hui muslims, and of course Han Chinese as well. I was happy to find out that rather than taking the 22-hour-long bus, Judy’s father had driven his SUV up to Xining to get us, so early Monday morning we embarked on the long overland journey.
I’ve never been on such a beautiful car ride in my life. I now truly and completely understand the word “plateau”. We climbed mountains, which then melted into huge flat grasslands, and then became mountains again. We climbed and climbed and climbed. The sky was humongous, and the distances between each little hamlet were huge; to top it all off we listened to the same CD of Tibetan popular music over and over probably 30 times. At parts the road was not paved, and other vehicles were pretty rare. All in all, though, it was fairly comfortable, besides my altitude headache, which still hasn’t gone away.
When we finally crested the last mountain pass and started to descend down into the valley where I’m living now, I couldn’t help thinking that towns like this must have been what inspired tales of Shangri-la. It was like being reborn into a mythical world, thousands of miles and hundreds of years removed from Beijing’s brand-name-worshipping masses. The town is surrounded on all sides by massive green mountains, atop which are colorful Tibetan prayer scarves fluttering in the wind. Walking down the main road past weathered old women spinning Tibetan prayer wheels in their hands, you hear the sounds of monks chanting in the local monastery, and smell stoves burning peat. The sky is an incredible shimmering turquoise color that I forgot existed after living for months in Beijing’s smog. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a giant, perfect diorama: the surroundings just seem too beautiful to be real.
The house I’m staying in is one floor, wrapped around a courtyard. None of the rooms are connected on the inside; to go from one room to another you go outside and then back in another door. The main living area is the kitchen, which has a low ceiling propped up with red and green painted beams and draped with beautiful Tibetan cloth. There is constantly a huge pot of Tibetan yak-butter tea sitting atop the peat-burning stove, and next to intricately painted Tibetan cabinets the television seems very out of place.
Without having any time to adjust to the new surroundings or the altitude, me and the one other volunteer, Corey, were thrown into the classrom Tuesday morning. It’s funny, no matter how far away you go, kids will be kids. Our class has the know-it-all, the clown, the bully, everything you’d expect from an elementary school classroom. But there are huge differences. At one point I asked the kids to draw something they liked or somethign they enjoyed doing, and label it in English. Of course, I got “I like apple”, “I like computer game”, “I like to pink”, but then occasionally I’d get a “I like Buddha”, or “I like monks”, which would certainly never come up in a Western classroom.
I’m teaching mostly in Chinese, given that the students’ English level isn’t quite at the point where I can give them instructions in English, although I’m trying to work on that. It certainly is good for my Chinese to suddenly be in a place where Chinese is the only way to communicate. I’m working on my Tibetan as fast as I can, but it still has a long ways to go, obviously. Luckily, most people here speak some form of Mandarin, so I’m able to get by.
I found out on the first day here that my Tibetan phrasebook is going to be absolutely useless. The Tibetan that people speak here is entirely different from Lhasa Tibetan, which I assume is what the Lonely Planet phrasebook follows. Even the word for “Thank You” is entirely different. Given that my phrasebook is useless and most people here are illiterate anyway, I have been entirely freed from using my eyes while learning Tibetan. The only way to remember things is by using my ears. We’ll see how it goes.
For Tibetans here, religion is the most important part of their life. When we first got here, Tsaya, our host mother, brought us into an inner shrine-room of the house, where a picture of her older brother lay surrounded by candles and incense. He passed away last year, and apparently really loved foreigners. So we paid our respects, after which Tsaya told us that her brother is very happy to see that we’ve arrived safely. Soon, she said, he will be reincarnated in a household nearby, and will grow up to be very rich, given that he was such a good person in his previous lifetime. The nearby head lama, which Tibetans regard as a living god, told her this. She explained to us that karma is an integral part of Tibetan life, and Tibetans, therefore, do not steal or hate other people, because they know that this will only come back to them, whether it be in this life or the next. Next week or the week after we will take a trip to meet the living god, and he may be willing to tell us about our past and future lives. I’m looking forward to that. All in all, I am truly impressed by the faith these people have. Compared to Beijing, where religion seems to have ceased to be an important part of life, and where people bow and pray but don’t really know why, it is refreshing to see people so rooted in what they believe. And it’s not fanaticism either, in fact, it’s very laissez faire. I’m unsure as to how this all fits into my own life, and into my own religious beliefs. On the one hand, I am a skeptic at heart, but on the other hand, something about the way religion guides life here is very comforting, and I’m almost a little jealous.
Well, this is probably enough for five blog posts, let alone one. I’ll write more as soon as I can.