Trekking with Tibetans

It’s always been my dream to visit Tibet and see how the Tibetans live. As China made it very difficult for me to go to Lhasa due to my Estonian passport, we decided to go to Gansu province, which has a big population of Amdo Tibetans. I am almost thankful to the Chinese government for not letting me go to Lhasa.

We started our journey at 2am in Xi’an. The cheapest and slowest way to get to Gansu is by a train. We took an overnight train to Lanzhou, which is the provincial capital of Gansu. The train journey went quite smoothly despite the initial horror when we got to Xi’an railway station and saw the chaos. It turned out to be organised chaos and everything ran on time.

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Each compartment on the train has six beds – 3 on each side. David and I were in different compartments, but both ended up on the top bed, which is considered the worst as it is difficult to get up there (there are no ladders, you just have to climb on the other beds and hoist yourself up) and it’s not possible to sit up as there is only about 50cm between the bed and the ceiling.

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We were welcomed by nice and cool weather in Lanzhou at 11am. Plan number one was to find a coffee, so we headed straight to the KFC. Unfortunately their coffee machine was broken, so we ventured into a little café that was awfully decorated with purple satin sofas, fake crystals and red table cloths that claimed to have coffee. It looked like coffee, but tasted like dust. Lanzhou is only a small town of 3 million people, we figured coffee does not yet feature in the locals’ drinking habits as much as it does in Xi’an.

We then took a taxi to the bus station to buy our tickets to Xiahe. While we waited for our bus we went to eat some 拉面 or hand pulled noodles, which are the local speciality. They come in a spicy broth with pieces of beef – very nice and very long. We immediately noticed a difference between the people of Xi’an and Lanzhou. Lanzhou gets a lot less tourists, so we were not seen as money-making objects, but rather a curiosity, so the locals were very friendly. We soon had a bunch of old men around us enquiring where we were from, where we were going and where we came from. They failed to pick up the fact that I was from Estonia and decided that I was from Tanzania instead.

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The family who owns the restaurant.

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After being stared at in amazement by everyone at the bus station, we boarded our bus to Xiahe. The ride took us through beautiful mountains, tens and tens of mosques on the roadside and the road ran along the Yellow River, which is actually very brown and muddy. After about 3 hours we started to see more and more Tibetan architecture, stupas and the smoke rising from them.

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Yellow river in the foreground and mountains in the background, taken from the bus.

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A small village we passed on our way to Xiahe.

Xiahe is s small town of 70,000 people about 3200m above sea level in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Xiahe is known for its Labrang Monastery, which is one of the most important in Tibetan Buddhism. It used to house over 4000 monks and had a very important monastic university, but the Cultural Revolution downgraded it significantly. About 1200 monks remain and so do six traditional Buddhist teaching colleges. The town is largely populated by Amdo Tibetans, who have their own culture, norms and language, which is unintelligible to other Tibetans. There is also a small Hui Muslim community and of course a large Han Chinese community, which was planted in the town with the aim of diluting the Tibetan population, but it didn’t work. All three communities stay well away from each other. There was some fighting between the Amdo and Muslim community in 2008 and foreigners’ access to town was blocked, so they are being very cautious now.

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A view of the town.

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Tibetan girls keep their hair in one plait, when they get older they keep it in two.

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We stayed in a guesthouse ran by an Amdo man and his family. He spoke very good English and was able to answer our many questions. He mentioned that since 2008 Amdo Tibetans have not been let into Lhasa due to their support to the 2008 Lhasa protests. He also said that the Chinese are trying hard to make the Tibetan culture weaker by only allowing education in Chinese. I tried not to ask too many sensitive questions as there were quite a few Chinese people staying in his guesthouse, but it seems like the Chinese and the Tibetans generally stay away from each other.

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I found the Amdo people extremely friendly, spiritual and welcoming. Even though we could not talk to them, we always felt welcome. These people are on a whole different level of spirituality. The murmur of prayers never stops. Every single person is walking around holding prayer beads. It almost seemed like a pastime activity. As we would check our phone while we were waiting or bored, they would take out the prayer beads and start reciting sutras.

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One of the many ladies in their traditional dress, which is worn daily.

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Lots and lots of people walk around the monastery spinning prayer wheels in the morning. This walk is called the kora and it’s 3km long. Everyone walks at their own pace (usually quite fast) and says their prayers as they go. We walked slowly as I found the altitude made me feel quite dizzy. We were constantly being overtaken by old ladies, who always gave us a coy smile.

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We saw a lot of very young monk boys and wondered how they become a monk at such a young age. It turned out that the parents would decide that their most talented and smartest son should become a monk. If the monk decides after some time that monastery life is not for him, he is allowed to leave and come back once. So many of my monk stereotypes were broken on this trip. They seem to be pretty normal people – boys playing football, fiddling with their smart phones, sitting in coffee shops, doing grocery shopping etc. They go to school in the monastery, where they learn the sutras and other Buddhist teachings; they hold sutra debating nights, music evenings and so on.

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The monks get on the roofs of their houses at sunrise and say prayers altogether.

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One of the temples at Labrang Monastery.

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A lone monk in the mountains.

We ate a lot of yak products – milk, butter, cheese, meat, yoghurt. Tibetans like to drink yak milk tea, which comes in two varieties – sweet and salty. The salty kind contains tea, milk and yak butter and is quite an acquired taste. The sweet one tastes like milk with honey and is delicious. They also have something called momo, which is like a dumpling or a pelmeen stuffed with yak meat. The dough is made with barley flour, though. Barley is the main crop and the staple food is barley flour mixed with water, yak cheese and butter.

IMG_0126After two days in Xiahe, we headed to Langmusi (mitte musi, vaid Langmusõõ). Langmusi is a village of 3000 people even higher up the mountains. It’s situated right on the border of Gansu and Sichuan provinces. The road there was beautiful, all we could see was mountains, tents and yaks grazing. Our bus driver was crazy and did not hesitate to overtake trucks at steep curves on the mountainside. We got used to it quite fast, but the constant honking was pretty annoying.

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We stopped on our way to get some honey from a family living by the roadside.

We checked into what looked like a very fancy hotel. Oh and fancy it was. It had hot running water that had pressure – quite a change from our shower in Xiahe. The view was a monastery on a mountaintop. The hotel was owned by an Amdo family and the 13 year old daughter was in charge.

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Main street of Langmusi.

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It takes about 7 minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other. We arrived in the afternoon, so had just enough time to visit one of the two monasteries in the town. We very slowly climbed up the hill to the monastery and quickly sat down. I was feeling very dizzy, but the views that opened up were so amazing. Blue sky, very Alpine looking mountains with pine trees growing all over them, monks chanting and people going about their daily lives in the town below.

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We are sitting by one of the temples at the monastery, overlooking the town.

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The bluest sky I have seen since we’ve been in China.

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Motorbikes are widely used to get around the mountains and grasslands.

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We woke up early the next day ready to get on a horse for three days. We rented Tibetan cloaks called chuba, which are made of lamb’s wool and are extremely warm and essential in those harsh conditions.

After a short lesson in horse riding and a walk through the town with our horses, we were off for our first day on horseback. We were accompanied by a lovely American couple, Dan and Alissa, on our first day, who also made this video about the trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYQOGq6Dsso and have this very cool travel blog: http://www.thisworldrocks.com They make money from travelling – that must be the smartest move!

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The beginning of the trek went by the Blue Dragon River and was quite flat. After a couple of hours’ riding we stopped for lunch at a nomad tent. There was a grandma cooking potatoes and egg soup in the tent and her grandson playing outside.

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We were building tunnels.

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We finished our lunch quite quickly and headed off on our horses again. We kept going higher and higher up the mountains and soon arrived at the source of the Blue Dragon River. The spring water was clean, cold and very tasty. We stopped for a rest and admired the views all around us. Our guides were excellent and we managed to communicate in our broken Chinese. It later turned out that the guides had to especially learn Chinese for this job.

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After an hour of resting and admiring the views, we were off again to conquer even higher grounds. After a few hours we arrived at a gate, which led us into a huge grassland filled with yaks. This was a very stressful time for me, as the yaks are so big and look very scary with their huge horns and I did not really know how to control a horse. Our guides chased away any suspicious looking yaks and we soon arrived at our nomad family’s tent. Dan and Alissa went a bit further on to their nomad family.

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Our family had three members: mum, dad and a 4 year old boy. As soon as we arrived they helped us take the saddle off our horses and led us to their tent, where tea was poured into our bowls straight away. It felt a bit strange at first to be going into a strangers’ house and we did not really know how to behave or what to do. But they did not seem to mind. The mum kept filling our cups with tea while she chatted away to our guide, who is one of the few sources of news to the family who lives in such a remote place.

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The tent had three main elements that stood out – a stove, a pile of dried yak dung used to fuel it and a bed, which was just a long strip of raised earth. The mum gave us some pieces of yak meat and some tsampa to eat. Tsampa is the staple made of barley flour, yak butter and water, she also added a lot of sugar to it. It tastes very similar to what we in Estonia call kama.

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My new friend standing in his kitchen.

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The pile of yak dung took up a large part of the tent.

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Taking our saddles off on arrival.

About an hour after we arrived it was time to bring the yaks home. So the man of the house took his motorbike (modern day horse) to round the yaks and make them come home. A tool called pe is used to throw stones at any yaks that don’t behave.

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Once the yaks were home, it was the woman’s job to tie all the yaks up next to the tent. After this was done, we all went back into the tent and she started to cook the dinner. She made some noodles with yak meat and a courgette type vegetable, which were delicious. All of this was accompanied with copious amounts of tea, of course. After dinner they had a little chit-chat, of which we understood nothing as they were speaking Amdo.

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The bathroom was anywhere around the tent and made for an interesting experience. Chasing away the yaks while trying to go to the bathroom is not as easy as it sounds. Soon carpets were laid on the ground and we were tucked in under at least 4 blankets by the mum. It was nice and cozy and we slept like babies.

I was woken up by a yak falling on the tent. The yaks get very lively at 5 am and start frolicking and going crazy. So I got up, because I didn’t fancy being squashed by a yak.

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The mum of the house was up at 5, too. As soon as she got up, she went outside to collect the fresh yak dung, which she put into a pile and then spread out into a thin layer to help is dry faster. After this she collected the dried dung from the previous day, took it into the tent and lit the fire. She put the tea on, prepared breakfast and then went to milk the yaks.

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Guys still snoring while the women are out collecting yak dung and taking photos, which is also very important.

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IMG_0721After milking the yaks she would heat the milk and then make butter. After this she would make yoghurt and later in the day make cheese.


The man of the house was still in bed by the time this was done. It is the men’s job to herd the yaks, which is easy in the summertime as the yaks don’t go far away and all he has to do is get on his bike and round them up. In the winter, however, the yaks like to venture further away and he sometimes has to keep an eye on them for the whole night. I still felt like the woman did everything. But she did it with a smile on her face.

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We had some bread with eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers for breakfast, followed by a large dose of yak milk tea. Then we were off on our horse again. We went even higher into the mountains and did not see a soul around. We soon arrived at the foot of Mount Huagai, which is one of the sacred mountains of Tibetan Buddhism. The mountain is 4200 metres high and climbing it was very difficult. We walked for 5 minutes and had to rest for ten minutes. We got there after two hours only to find mist coming in and rain blocking all of our view. So we decided to go back down, halfway down the mist lifted. I was devastated.

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Passed out very high up.

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We got back down and had lunch with our guide Zhe Xi, who had been watching our horses while we climbed Mount Huagai. The lunch was prepared by our nomad mum on the same morning. She is a superwoman.

We got back onto our horses and made our way back to the family. We went back the same way we came and arrived back at the tent about 3 hours later. David collapsed onto the bed as soon as we arrived and I was hit with a huge headache. We realised that we had got altitude sickness. David broke out in a cold sweat and had to be sick a few times, I just had the strongest headache I have ever experienced. We could do nothing but lie down. The nomad dad tried to warm up David by warming his hands in the fire and sticking them onto his back, this seemed to help a little.

We woke up as good as new. The little boy of the family woke up with a toothache. The nomads don’t brush their teeth, but they use toothpaste as medicine for toothache. So she put some toothpaste on the poor boy’s tooth. He was not happy for the whole day.

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Squatting in pain.

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When all the morning chores had been done and when we had had our breakfast we said our goodbyes and started to make our way back to Langmusi. My backside was feeling rather raw on the third day, but the views were still so stunning that I did not really care. We arrived back in Langmusi in the afternoon and went back to our fancy hotel. I took off the clothes I had been wearing for three days and nights and had one of the best showers of my life. Also managed to pee without being inspected by a yak.

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Our guide leading us back into civilisation.

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It was truly one of the most surreal and amazing experiences. None of it seemed staged for tourist purposes and it really felt like the real thing. It is crazy to think that people still live like that and are happy doing so, although some modern comforts like a mobile phone, a bike and an MP3 player are starting to make their way into the nomads life. Some of them are deciding to stay put and build little houses on the mountainside.
IMG_0336I was also amazed by how practical everything was – nothing was wasted and everything had a use. The woman did all her chores with a smile on her face and wearing her beautiful jewellery she still managed to stay feminine while spreading fresh yak dung with her bare hands.

I wish we could have spoken to them more to see what they thought and what they were interested in and what they thought of us taking pictures of their every move. Unfortunately they did not speak Chinese and we did not speak Amdo.

They will soon pack their tent and move onto the winter grazing grounds. Moving will take them three days, the yaks are the last to be moved.

We still had a day in Langmusi, which we mostly spent in the hot shower and hot bed, but also went to see the monastery on Sichuan side. That monastery was a lot shabbier than the other one, but just as charming.

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After shopping for Tibetan jewellery and hand made scarves we took a bus that took us to Hezuo – a town four hours away from Langmusi. We stayed there for an hour until our bus back to Lanzhou. We arrived in Lanzhou feeling hungry and I had a special craving for sweet and sour chicken, which we found after a lot of looking.

After dinner we took a taxi to the airport, which was a two hour ride away in the middle of nowhere. As our flight was the next day we needed to get a hotel room. The airport hotel was all booked, so we decided to go and sleep at the airport. But the airport closed. So David spoke to one of the guards and got some guy to take us to another hotel further away from the hotel in a place which can only be described by the word hellish. We think the hotel doubled as a brothel. The owner of the hotel took David’s passport to write down his name. She opened the passport at his Zimbabwe visa and started to write down his name as Z…I…M…..absolutely clueless! There is no picture or any other form of identification on the visa page, how she could think that was the front page of the passport, I do not know. At least we had this lovely view from our window: IMG_0847

Getting back to Chinese areas gave us both an intense case of Chinese rage. All the hooting, not caring, billions of people, noise and dirt nearly made us go crazy. No wonder the nomads don’t want to move from their traditional way of life.

Our flight to Xi’an was only an hour and we soon arrived home to find that the electricity had ran out. We got some more electricity and put on a wash to get the horse smell out of our clothes.

David is now back at work and I am back to work tomorrow. Dan and Alissa are in Xi’an for a few days. We played beer pong yesterday and they won a whole bottle of vodka, which we could not finish, so I am keeping the rest for my vodka socks.

Being sick in China

I got very sick about 4 days before we were meant to go on our holiday. The symptoms were very high fever, headache, stomach ache and general weakness. I could not get up from bed or eat anything (that says a lot), so I called in sick for two days. There is a rule at my school that you must go to see a doctor on the day you call in sick to get a doctor’s note. To see a doctor one must go to the hospital. After finding one hospital closed for lunch, we went to another one. I first saw a very nice old lady doctor, who wrote down all my symptoms and then sent me to do a blood and urine test.

I went to do the blood test and it was all fine. Then was time for a urine test, at which I failed miserably, because I just could not pee. So I waited for the blood test results instead and hoped it would be enough.

Two hours later (it was now 6.30pm) I received my blood test results. The doctor I had seen previously had already gone home and I had to go to the emergency room to see a doctor there.

As you all know there are very many people in China, which means the emergency room is full of people with all sorts of trouble…but only one doctor. So I lined up with people with broken legs, people fainting and so on. Everyone is in the same room and everyone can hear everything that is being discussed. So I told her what was wrong with me. She could not find anything wrong with my blood sample and demanded the urine sample. When I explained why I did not have it, she told me to leave without giving me any medicine or giving a notice for my workplace. All because she did not have this sample, which the previous doctor had requested. She did not bother to take my temperature or hear me out at all. I was so angry that I yelled lovely things at her in Estonian, English and Chinese.

Three hours later I left the hospital and looked for a taxi to get home. I did not find a taxi. So I sat down on the pavement looking like a big pile of miserable foreigner. A scooter driver saw me and took me home eventually.

When David got back he went to get me some medicine from the local pharmacy. They gave him some herbal Chinese medicine capsules, which we could not open. It was too late by now, so we decided to try again in the morning and ask for some Western medicine.

The next day David went to get some Western medicine. He was very successful and came home with a whole box of antibiotics. I decided to Google them before taking any. It turned out that these pills had been banned in Europe and the US for causing irreparable damage to people. I was again without medicine.

So I did my own research and found what medicine I needed, translated it into English and went to a couple of pharmacies before I could find it. I found the correct medicine and am now almost back to normal health.

The whole episode made me seriously question the credibility of Chinese doctors. I am sure they care, but it seems like they are given so little independence to make decisions that if they encounter anything out of the ordinary they are stuck.

In other news

My mum is coming to visit in less than a month and brining cheese.

I will leave you with this smiley face.

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