A Tour of the Valley


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One morning Palzang, Yizha, and Imaja, took us into ‘the valley’. The valley is behind one of two of the town’s monasteries. You have to pay to get in but once you are in, you can do hours of hiking in the valley.

We had a storytelling tour. We learned about the story of the town. The town’s Mandarin Chinese name is actually Langmusi, as it appears in most travel books and maps. However, its official Tibetan name, and the name that our community partners have asked us to use is Taktsang Lhamo, which means “the tiger and fairy’s cave.” This name comes from a village myth; a ferocious tiger living in a valley cave often attacked the village, killing people and livestock. Eventually, a bodhisattva took the form of a fairy called Lhamo and defeated the tiger, subdued it as his mount, and made it a protective deity in the spiritual world. The township is thus named after the mythical tiger and fairy. We saw a rock where the people would hang on in defense of the tiger and the cave where the fairy cave. People climbed up into the cave, which can be climbed up with hanging ropes.

We also saw where there used to be a small dam built into the river. The monks are very protective of the river since rivers are very spiritual. The dam brought the river level down and so one day the community got together and disassembled the dam. These stories were all translated from Chinese to English so there might have been some content lost in translation. But from what I understand, monks live in the valley all the time to protect the forest against the Chinese government who keep trying to utilize the area for energy production. They mentioned that some monks were even injured through physical fights between the monks and the government.

After going into a cave and rubbing a belly to alleviate health ailments, we climbed up to a hill and saw a lama that was preserved in gold and in an ornate display. You are supposed to look the lama in the eyes.

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One evening we also visited the other monastery in town. We didn’t learn much about the monastery but wandered around and took photos. At this place, they do the sky burials where all Tibetan funerals in town take place. In a sky burial, the body is placed on a hill where birds come to eat the body. The concept is that there should be no remnants of the body left for the spirit to reincarnate.

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Bottle Washing

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We had a long list of things to start on before we could get started with construction. Get the materials, finding the yak dung, finding the mysterious “white dirt”, design the structure, finish the foundation, find and clean recycled bottles, and find the frame materials. We had a pretty full day of making plans and cleaning bottles.

The hostel had been collecting bottles for us for a few weeks so we had plenty to go through. We bought bins and started washing the bottles to be used on the structure. The reason that we had to clean the bottles was because if there were any organic matter, like stickers, the materials would rot once inside the building. Also, since the bottle bases would be facing outside of the structure they should at least look clean.

It was a little disheartening at first thinking about how many bottles we would need to clean to reach our goal. Washing the bottles was very time consuming and we started wondering if we would have enough time to build this structure in just five weeks. We calculated that we needed a total of 500 bottles.

We found a lot of the bottles in the steam. Unfortunately, people do not understand the adverse effects of litter in streams so the streams are filled with dumped trash. I have even seen some young monks throw litter in the stream. Of course, here it is not seen as ‘wrong’ to litter like it is in the United States. According to Palzang, people do not have a concept for what trash is at all. He thinks this is because up until a few years ago there were only biodegradable materials being used. Even our translator, who understands the issue of trash and cares a lot about our project, does not fully understand about the concept of what makes something compostable. He saw me throw an apple core into some bushes and he gasped and pointed at me – indicating that I had littered.

Cleaning the streams was also a benefit since people would see us cleaning up the rivers and would give us ‘thumbs-ups’ or gasp in shock. It was initiating the conversation about trash and would get people to start thinking about river water quality.

Community members also helped us gather bottles. We collected bottles from restaurants, hostels, and the monastery. In fact, I wasn’t there but I heard that Maddy was dramatically and mysteriously taken away into a car up to the monastery where monks on a roof kicked off mounds of recyclable trash that they had been saving for some unknown reason. We brought them back and celebrated by how much trash we had accumulated in our hostel courtyard.

Cleaning bottles was a spectacle for many. People would spend hours staring at us through the window and coming out to get a closer look. Monks were the most curious and seemed to have the most patience for watching us with curious faces and often laughing in our direction. After about a week of work – we finally got the number we were looking for and rented a truck to carry them up to the construction site. We were one step closer to building our structure.

First Impressions

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I distinctly remember waking up and seeing Lhamo on our first day. I had held onto high expectations for this place but I woke up and was shocked by the scenery. Our hostel is set between two streams that are constantly rushing with water. As you walk out of the hostel, you turn right and see a monastery with a backdrop of combined jagged and kind-looking mountains. Monks are always wandering up and down the street and can be ask young as 4-years old.

One of our first surprises was observing the monks. The town consists of a population with what I would guess would be about 40% monastic monks. When they are out of the monastery they are plastered to their smart phones and their robes cut off at their extremely hip-looking skater shoes. On my first day it was difficult to resist taking photos of the monks but oddly enough it seemed that they were equally fascinated with us.

Sometimes I would find myself working alone at a table when I look up to find handfuls of monks staring my way and pointing. Other times they sit across from me and stay upwards of an hour chomping on snacks – or even pulling out watermelons to share. In these situations I have to try and focus on whatever I am doing and normalize the situation at hand.

The first day we got acquainted with the town as well as the altitude. We walked up to our construction site the long way and were completely out of breath due to the lack of oxygen. We went through the main road of the town that is now catered towards tourists selling Tibetan garb or offering food. When we finally reached our site we found that it was on the top of a hill and had vistas of all Lhamo’s mountains. Again, my expectations of the construction site were far exceeded. The site consists of a beautiful library, a hostel, and a home. The completion of all the structures will create a place for tourists and locals to enjoy and a true community center.

We also saw firsthand how important a secondary objective of our project was – to preserve traditional Tibetan architecture. In conjunction with Lhamo recently opening up to tourism, a newly built highway that leads straight from Chengdu to Lhamo was constructed. Since these two events occurred, Lhamo has drastically grown and in just one year the structures of the main road have more than doubled. In growing so quickly, traditional Tibetan architectural style is being replaced by quickly-built identical concrete structures. So one of the concepts of the project is to utilize traditional techniques and materials to ensure that locals and visitors can expose themselves to traditional Tibetan architecture.

After we saw the sight, we continued to explore. We set our eyes on a gazebo in the distance and decided to hike up to it. The altitude made me feel a pulse in my eyeballs but we couldn’t help ourselves because of the vast beauty of the surrounding area. As we walked up the stairs to the gazebo, we heard monks chanting to the setting sun and we were all so overjoyed by the great potential of the project and to be in such a lovely place.

That night we had dinner as a group. We were first exposed to Tibetan food. I. loved. It. Most memorable of the meal was the fried yak meat pizza, spicy sliced tomatoes, stir-fried eggs and tomatoes, and the flavor of vegetables sautéed in yak butter. After this perfect first day, we all went to sleep to get ready for our first day of work.

Getting to Lhamo

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We arrived on July 19th to start building our eco-community center. We are tucked 12,000 feet up in the Amdo region of Tibet. Let me clarify. What the Amdo region means is that we are not on the Tibetan plateau but greater Tibet – where the population is primarily Tibetan, and the language and culture is Tibetan. However, the Amdo region is geographically in China (we are on the border between Gansu and Sichuan provinces). I want the opportunity to say that we still consider this as Tibet. In fact the current Dali Lama was found in the Amdo region.

Anyways, as I was saying we arrived on July 19th – the group flew from all over China to Chengdu where we embarked via bus up the mountain twelve hours. After waking up at 5 am and getting to the bus station, of course the bus was cancelled. So we, along with what seemed to be the rest of everyone on our bus, rented vans and ascended the mountain. My first glance of the spiritual Tibetans was the van driver praying and lighting brush in the van with the smoke billowing up to images of the Dali Lama…while driving.

We mostly slept, listened to podcasts, and snacked on that drive. We then got to Zoige where we had a dinner and searched for a bathroom. Only an hour and a half away from Lhamo, we were passed off to another driver. She was a female Tibetan and it was my first glimpse of how women here are seen doing what many would consider “a man’s job”. For me, the most shocking of all is when you see women carrying 100-lb bag of rocks into vans or building roofs with colorful skirts and beautiful hair.

After seeing incredible vistas, we arrived at 11pm and settled into our hostel where we will stay for the remainder of our five weeks here. We were introduced to what would become our close friends at the hostel and were too exhausted to do anything but go to sleep.

Introducing the Project

Somehow after so long of fervent blog resistance I am spending my precious time in Tibet blogging. It started when I first met Palzang, our community partner here in Lhamo, Tibet. He kept saying, “Everyone will hear our story”. I thought it was silly until I recognized the importance of storytelling in Tibetan culture. There is a story to every name and to every strangely shaped rock. So now, I have decided to tell our story.

Let me introduce the project. We will be building an eco-community center. This center will showcase brightly-colored bottles collected from nearby polluted streams, while maintaining traditional building techniques and style. Our hope is that this center will create a space that sparks conversation about trash, environmental planning, and unified efforts among nomads. One primary issue is about desertification of Tibetan grasslands.

The eco-community center will be a place for nomads and locals to address and learn about the desertification of the area. Desertification from rapidly changing weather patterns is a serious issue in the grassland areas surrounding Lhamo. This vulnerable area has the world’s highest-altitude marches and four nature reserves with many protected animals and birds. The green prairies that used to grow feet tall are now brown deserts with stony surfaces. As nomads are the primary inhabitants of the area with their grazing yaks and sheep, it is important that their voices are heard in finding a solution in reversing desertification in the grasslands. Lhamo is an ideal place for nomad collaboration due to their frequent stopovers in the town.

Last year Christina, Yutong, and Jin came to Lhamo to conduct surveys about people’s perceptions about trash and about how people would receive an eco-community center. After interviewing a hundred tourists and locals, the team had enough confidence in the project to come back this summer to start our journey. Before arriving, we had already made a relationship with our community partner – Palzang who works for Winrock International, an affiliate with USAID. He commits his life to preserving the Tibetan grasslands as well as Tibetan culture.

Throughout this blog, I want my voice to represent the group’s experience although I will write in first person. As for the group, we are a group primarily from the University of Virginia with volunteers from throughout China and the United States. Our group consists of six people: There is Christina who is an Anthropology and International Development Studies student, Maddie who studies Civil and Environmental Engineering, Yutong a religious studies student, Yuwei who studies Chinese and Western medicine, and Jin who studies International Relations. As for myself – my name is Katie and I study Urban and Environmental Planning.

Hope you enjoy reading about our journey and share our story – Tibetan-style.

In preparation

We are working hard preparing for our trip, less than two months away! We are designing some fun educational materials, creating prototypes, and jumping through administrative hoops. Stay tuned for photos of what we hope will be some successful test builds!