Monday, February 16, 2009

Travel and Culture - Mekong Valley by Ben Stanistreet

While driving to our next destination, the Mekong River, we stopped for the night in the town of Shangri La. Upon arriving in Shangri La we visited a large monastery. At the entrance there were several locals with tables covered in cheap Tibetan paraphernalia, eager to sell it to the enthusiastic tourists. We climbed a hundred and fifty something steps up to the temple. Inside was a very elaborate giant golden Buddha, in front of which people had left offerings of food, money, photos, and trinkets. Visiting the monastery was a very cool experience, and our first look into Tibetan culture.

The monastery outside of Shangri La.  Photo by Jason Cohen

We arrived in Xidong on February 4th for a week of paddling the Mekong, hiking, and absorbing the culture. Although we are still within the borders of China’s Yunnan province, the people  in the Mekong valley are Tibetan. They speak a Tibetan dialect, so the few Chinese words we have learned are somewhat useless here. Xidong is a very small town with one dirt road that runs through it. The people here farm on terraces and produce most of the goods they need.  The night we arrived we attended a Tibetan New Year’s Party.  Young girls dressed in elaborate and colorful outfits and performed dances. Several village elders sang traditional Tibetan songs. We were asked to sing a song in English, and chose “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin because it is simple to translate and everyone knew it. I found it particularly interesting that while performing everyone is expected to face a portrait of Mao Zedong.  I have since learned more about China’s control over Tibet and the importance of Mao Zedong’s photo in small Tibetan towns. Mao is viewed as a hero and great leader by rural, agrarian communities like this one. The locals do not choose to view him as this but are forced to act as if they did by the Chinese government. They do not have extensive formal education, if any at all. When I asked Zachary, our Tibetan translator, about this he said that the people here would get in a lot of trouble for taking Mao’s picture down if the Chinese government found out. He also said that he could get in trouble for even talking about the China-Tibet issue with the locals.

Our hosts from Xidong in traditional clothing.  Photo by Jason Cohen.

Perhaps our most unique cultural experience was our brief stay in the mountain town of Yubeng. Yubeng is a small, roadless Tibetan village nestled beneath the Meili Snow Mountains. After driving a couple of miles up the road from our guesthouse in Xidong, it was about a three and a half hour hike to Yubeng. The hike started with a 3,500-foot climb that leveled off at an elevation of 12,000 feet. Hundreds of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze created a peaceful atmosphere at the top of the ridge. As we climbed over the crest we were stunned by the spectacular view of a massive snow peak pushing 20,000 feet. Yubeng is in a valley with an elevation of about 9,500 feet. We stayed there for two nights and enjoyed a day off from school. During our day there we hiked up to the base of a very large snow covered peak known as Buddha Head. Thousands of prayer flags hanging from the trees and bushes made for some excellent photos. At the top of our day hike we filled our water bottles with clear, refreshing glacial water. It was the most beautiful hike I have ever been on. When we were not exploring we were chilling in the sun playing cards, hacky sack, reading or just enjoying the scenery. The food in Yubeng was excellent and we had quite an appetite after so much hiking. We tried yak butter tea, which is popular throughout Tibet. When the tea is brewed a chunk of yak butter is added for a creamy, salty flavor. Some of us really enjoyed it while others didn’t care for, or had a strong dislike for it. Yubeng was an incredible experience and well worth the intense hike in.

View from Feilai Si.  Photo by Jason Cohen.

After Yubeng we came back down to Xidong to paddle and finish the week of classes. With our translator Zachary’s help I was able to interview the native family that owns the guest house. Ci Li Zong is the grandmother of the family. She was born here in Xidong and has lived here all of her life. They started the guesthouse in 2003. Many of their clients are foreign tourists that hike to Yubeng or other destinations in the area. Other guests include people traveling through or Buddhists on a pilgrimage.  They said that foreigners are easier to entertain because they are cleaner and easier to please. Apparently some Chinese guests are less environmentally conscious and tend to leave trash lying around. Foreigners are usually here to experience the culture so they are less likely to find things to complain about. When I asked Ci Li Zong how often they leave town she said only about once a year. For most of the year they are very busy tending crops. We got to know the locals in Xidong better than in any other town we have visited yet. Tomorrow we are starting our three-day drive to the Nu Jiang, or Salween River. Although it is sad to be leaving Xidong and the Mekong Valley, I am excited for the next adventure on this incredible journey.

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