Travelogues .............................................................................................................................

Tibetan Plateau Adventure
Editor: Emma from Australia  Edited Date:2006-8-2 21:04:40   Visitors:2883   
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First day of the New Year, somewhere half way up the Tibetan Plateau, Ribo Village, Shangmeng County. I am accompanying a Greenriver volunteer on a 3 day expedition into a remote and quite stark part of China. Our missions: Toilets  (A recurring theme in China).   Increasingly, Chinese tourists are seeking adventure holidays off the beaten track.   This new trend has required local hosts, often minority groups such as Tibetan or Chiang, to replace their traditional, low-impact loos with flushing toilets that, without adequate sewerage infrastructure, are channeled directly into the nearby river.
I can see why urban tourists are attracted to Shangmeng.  On our journey out of Chengdu, towering city buildings shrouded in thick haze were replaced by mountains rising slowly out of the morning mist, drifting over the river.   The road follows the narrow river valley of the Min River.  We travelled over rocky, dusty, winding roads, passing little hamlets characterised by their stone architecture.  We also swept past a number of white-washed stupas on the mountainsides and a herd of yak-cattle crossbreeds heading down from the grasslands.  I even saw snow, although I have to confess that at first I thought someone had thrown their soapy suds onto the roadside after washing in the river.

However, despite this rural idyll, signs of progress abound. Hydro-electric power stations punctuate the rivers course only kilometres apart, even when the river is barely more than a trickling stream.  Disused docks and rusting metal boats are surrounded by dry boulders and silt.  Litter is strewn along the waters edge, and plastic hangs like prayer streamers from the few bare-limbed trees.  With the added pressure that tourism will bring, its an area crying out for sustainable practices.
Upon our arrival we are rounded up to huddle around warm coals and sip wine from a bowl, to discuss toilets. Its freezing, I wonder about our sleeping arrangments, and fear having to brave a nocturnal sojourn past the near-rabid village dogs. 
I let my eyes explore my enclosure. Consumer goods have penetrated even this relatively isolated wilderness.  Theres a little pile of home-grown carrots in one corner, and a huge TV and sound system installed  in anticipation of KTV enthusiast tourists. Smoke from the flat-topped wood stove escapes through a rough hole in the roof, and a few dishes lie on the sparse, dusty furniture, but theres an oddly modern-looking stroller against the wall and a shiny satellite dish on the roof.  A small ginger kitten has folded itself against the warmth of the oven and Chinese pop music is playing.
Outside, the mountains are a dull brown-red with the dry brush of winter, and gullies scour their way down the slopes.  Higher up, these still shelter the remains of last nights snow, and it stands out like scars against the dormant vegetation.  The river here is more rock than stream flow.  The boulders are smooth, bearing witness to their turbulent journey from their lofty origins beyond the regular paths of men or flocks.  The sky, while not entirely clear and blue, is far higher and brighter than that of Chengdu.
There seems to be much sitting around in the course of this investigation.  So far weve had a five-hour bus trip, with another hour-and-a-half of heart-in-mouth driving in a dodgy minibus round hairpin curves and cliff-edge roads.  The presence of a coach in the new village (consisting of 6 incomplete guest houses and little else) indicates the arrival of more tourists.  My companion plans to interview these later.
Our minibus driver turns out to be the local headman, and as his guests we have been invited to his familys New Years Day get together.  I am informed that his brother has slaughtered a pig and we will enjoy this feast. Actually, there were four pigs killed that day.  Their heads hang above us as we gather around the open hearth in the centre of the kitchen/dining room.  I would say that on a scale of dread, little compares with staring up at a dismembered pigs head hanging above you and moments later feeling something small but significant drip onto your head C two days away from a real shower too.
What I came to think of as the Gentlemens Club C drinking from a communal jar of fermented juice.
I feel a bit helpless with my companion sinking into drunken inattention.  Business in China is conducted with alcohol as a partner. The men gather and toast and proceed to get toasted have trouble understanding my no drinking at work policy. The ladies took me in and we sat down on kindergarten chairs according to age and gender. The ladies are lovely and I try desperately to avoid offending their hospitality, but without a willing translator felt a little rude and feeble passing up their widow-cleaner spirits served from what looked like a fuel can, their home-made fermented juice drunk communally through a bamboo straw from a large pottery jar with unidentified seeds floating on top, and pigs offal without a polite explanation. 
At one point in the proceedings, some young boys brought in a live or pheasant.  It was a large and handsome bird, and while the boys claimed to have caught it to eat, a woman also said that she had raised it herself to give to a zoo when it was big enough.  Both of these stories have some element of fiction i imagnine, as the bird was quite tame and wore plastic ties around its feet.  
Bland answers and a touch of hospitality seem to be enough to compromise even the most ardent environmental activist into dropping the issue.  Issues take time to unknot in this culture, but my sense of urgency (or perhaps impatience) warns me that the Chinese environment simply does not have time for pleasantries.
The following morning , the world seemed quite different.  It was snowing.  White flakes drifted past the window while the small valley below lay quiet and draped in white. An elderly woman, the welcoming, wrinkled Tibetan type Ive always imagined, hustles me towards the stove while we wait for breakfast. Breakfast is last nights left overs.  For a while I nod and accept the offerings that keep dropping in my bowl, but i soon realise that as long as i eat it, it will keep coming so i stall to a halt.
With three hours to fill in, I was determined not to sit inside anymore, and we headed out for a walk. Snow still lies in shadowed places and along parts of the river.  There are even real fir trees still bearing snow on their limbs, just like a Christmas card.  (Theyre very small though, the larger trees have been cleared.)  The stone dwellings look like chalets, and if one overlooks the shagginess of the grazing beasts, this could almost be Europe.
I have an urge to visit the next valley, and to keep following the river but we return via the villages Buddhist temple.  It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt during the 1980s.  One of the local farmers waxed forth about how wonderful the Communist Party was, for stopping the Cultural Revolution (work that one out) and providing for his future, particularly by encouraging the tourism industry in the area.  At the same time, others had expressed concern over the loss of income from the nearby power station, damaging the areas amenity and discouraging tourists even before the locals could recoup their outlay.  It is needless to say that the power company has close ties to the powers that be, and the rich get richer while the local poor have no rights to their natural resources and yet have to deal with the environmental and economic cost.
The locals were quite taken with my name.  The daughter of our host (who acted as our guide and with whom I shared a room the previous night) was named Joma (phonetically spelt).  A number of our new friends were convinced that we must have been fated to meet, and from then on we were referred to as sisters.  She really was a sweet girl, in her early teens.  I was told that she had quite taken to me but was shy, so instead she kept slipping me small gifts like bubblegum and yellow apples.  I felt helpless not being able to communicate with her and all I could leave her with was a bar of chocolate.
Inhabitants of Ribo Village
The children were taken aback initially by my sudden appearance in their midst, but they werent particularly shy.  In fact, the little girls showed independent spirit, even the very young.  There was one real character among them with bouncy pig tails sprouting from her head, and like all the children, her clothes were really grubby.  Nevertheless, she led the other kids in a peekaboo game around the door with me. Then, when some music DVDs were played, she took centre stage, throwing herself into some complicated dance moves and revelling in our amused attention.  Later she perched herself above the coal brazier with a self-satisfied air, rubbing her hands like the adults, queen of her small world.  She really was gorgeous.
I noticed the same resilience and inner strength in the women.  All of the older women wore their traditional split dress over trousers, and wrapped their glossy black braids around their hand-embroidered head dress.  I watched them pick up hot pans and kettles by their metal handles, and toss glowing coals back into the fire.  One woman was holding a cup while a guest clumsily poured boiling water into the cup as well as onto the womans hand.  While she was in obvious pain, she continued to hold the cup until it was filled.  Another woman, blind in one eye, took particular care of me, holding my cold hand in hers until I warmed by the fire.  I would have loved to have taken a photograph of her, but I felt that after such hospitality, acting like a tourist would have detracted from the moment and devalued her friendship.

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