A Part of China, but Apart From It
Beijing Has Little Bearing on Ethnic Tibetan Villages in Sichuan Province

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 4, 2006; D01

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.

A day's walk from the road, along the raging whitewater of the Gamuni River, the village of Laykandao lies in isolation. In some ways, this is a good thing, its inhabitants say. A quarter-century ago, China dispatched Communist Party cadres here to organize villagers into agricultural collectives -- an experiment long since abandoned, with each family now in control of its own plot. Whereas most Chinese are restricted to having a single child, ethnic Tibetan villagers may have up to the three. No one has come to collect taxes in more than a decade.

"Nowadays, there's fewer Chinese people coming here, and so we have fewer problems," said Gyatse, the village chief. "But we also have more wishes."

At the top of the list: a road. In summer, Litang is a full day's hike plus a two-day jeep ride away; three days by horseback. In winter, villagers are pinned in by snow.

"Every year, we hear the road will be built," the village leader said with a sigh.

Wangchuk Chompay, 25, has never left the environs of the village. He follows his herd of 30 yaks to the high country for grazing in summer months, sleeping in a yak-wool tent. He returns to the valley floor in winter, huddling in a mud-walled tent and burning yak dung for warmth. If he had more money, he would buy himself a parka to replace the light windbreaker he wears, its back embossed with Romanized Chinese spelling out "New Century." He cannot read it, having spent only a few months in school.

"Study hard, move upward day by day," proclaim crude Chinese characters written in chalk over the wooden doorframe of the one-room schoolhouse, where 36 children ages 7 to 16 squeeze into rows of wooden benches. The lone teacher speaks little Mandarin Chinese, the national dialect -- not that this matters to most families.

"I don't want my grandchildren to learn Chinese," said Aka, 63, fingering Tibetan prayer beads with leathery fingers as she squatted by the fire in her house. "That's a language without connection to us."

Her son, Tsea Do, 30, was eager to see his three children educated. "Otherwise, they may as well be cattle," he said. But he hoped his children would go to school in India, where the Dalai Lama lives and where they could learn English.

His family coaxes barley and potatoes from these high-altitude soils. Caterpillar fungus has given them spending power beyond imagining, more than tripling their annual income over the past decade to about $625 per year. "Now we can buy rice," he said. A solar-powered fluorescent light hung overhead in their home. They have in mind a television.

"Who doesn't want a television?" Do said. "Then I can get information from other countries." But Chinese news would be of no interest. "This is Tibet, not China."

The Naygo monastery is another day's walk up the river. Its carved wooden beams hang over a narrow valley, where water crashes hundreds of feet from melting glaciers above. For more than 1,000 years, Tibetan families have sent boys as young as 6 to become initiates here, hoping this would bring luck. These days, fewer families are making that choice, directing their boys toward other pursuits, as the ranks of the monastery have slipped to about 250 from 400 in 1947.

"There used to be no opportunities in this area, and people were very poor," said one monk, Tsering Jimba, 66. "Nowadays, families have many choices. They can send children to school, run a business."

One thing remains constant: enmity toward the Chinese. Older people remember the Chinese troops that came and razed the monastery in the 1950s, killing monks, demolishing statuary and shutting down the place for 26 years until it reopened in 1984.

"The Chinese, they don't like Tibetans," said Gyamatse, a 42-year-old monk who like some Tibetans goes by only one name. "They know we revere the Dalai Lama, and they were afraid we would wake up and be ready for a fight, so they sent their army here to destroy us."

In recent months, Chinese officials have returned -- this time with plans to market the monastery as a tourist destination. Once an enemy culture to be suppressed in China's eyes, the Tibetan way of life has become a valuable commodity.

"We are orphans," Gyamatse said. "We're the adopted children of China. Our holy man is in India, and we don't have a mother or father. We feel sad."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company