A Part of China, but Apart From It

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

LAYKANDAO VILLAGE, China -- Naydup Gyatse, chief of this settlement on the grasslands of the high Tibetan plain, does not know the name of China's president. Nor does he want to. On the map, this land is part of China's Sichuan province. But to the 300 people who live here, it is part of greater Tibet.

They sleep in stone houses and eat tsampa, the barley porridge that is a staple for ethnic Tibetans, washing it down with hand-churned yak-butter tea. The trip to anywhere else -- to town for supplies or medical care -- is made on foot or on horseback over a dirt path, as they wait listlessly for a long-discussed road. On their walls, they hang photos of the Dalai Lama, the paramount leader of Tibetan Buddhism, whose image is banned in China.

"China is far away," Gyatse said. "I don't know about the map. I don't know about other places. But I know this is part of Tibet. We don't get any help from the Chinese government. Maybe if we did, we would feel differently."

For decades, China has sought to blunt the separatist inclinations of its minority peoples -- ethnic Tibetans, in particular -- by tying their fortunes to the fast-growing Chinese economy. Where nationalism and Communism failed to inspire loyalty in territories distant from the capital, Beijing, rising living standards would do the job.

But a 10-day journey through ethnic Tibetan towns and villages in western Sichuan revealed that even as incomes have risen and modernity has filtered in, these communities operate separately from China, and their yearnings for self-rule are largely intact.

China's embrace of capitalism has reached even these remote places, bringing in television and motor vehicles and opening markets for locally harvested goods. In a grass-covered valley 14,000 feet above sea level and three days' walk from any road, a Tibetan monk sat near a meditation cave wearing a crimson robe and a matching Nike ski cap. Still, development is something most people here see as a means toward securing self-reliance. More than ever, they say, China looks like a foreign land.

As a reporter drove three days west from the provincial capital, Chengdu, to the town of Litang, six convoys of Chinese People's Liberation Army troops -- each with as many as 50 trucks -- inched their way toward Tibet, the vast territory China has controlled since it invaded in 1950. The army vehicles passed Tibetan nomads on tractors pulling carts full of passengers. The people bounced atop rice sacks stuffed with food and tents, en route to mountain camps where they would gather caterpillar fungus, a commodity prized for medicinal properties, that they would later sell to Chinese traders for as much as $1,200 a pound.

Litang has swelled from an overgrown grassland village into a thriving commercial hub. Longhaired Tibetan nomads wearing cowboy hats explore packed sidewalks, examining motorcycles, generators and satellite dishes for sale alongside yak-wool mattresses and woven saddle mats. People congregate on a new promenade under a pair of fake palm trees lit up in neon pink at night.

Inside a dumpling shop, 13-year-old Dawa Tsering occupied a table on a recent morning, transfixed by a television showing the movie "King Kong." His family had just returned to town after two months in the mountains harvesting caterpillar fungus. They had collected nearly $400 worth -- enough to keep his 15-year-old sister in school, though not enough to send him.

A day's drive to the west, at the end of a washboard pathway of dirt that could almost be called a road, the 1,800 people of Dangla have electricity, following the installation of a solar panel system in 2003. At the government office in the center of town, yak-butter tea is now made in a blender. A television casts its mesmerizing glow.

"Now we know about the international situation," said Luo Zeren, the local schoolteacher. "We know about the Iraq war. We know that the United Nations is in New York." Mostly, they know about distant hardwood floors. "We watch American basketball," Luo said. "The NBA is great. We love Kobe."

The road has brought rice, barley and canned foods from Litang. Empty cartons of Five Oxen cigarettes litter the muddy lanes of the town, along with plastic instant-noodle wrappers.

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