31 August 2010

Nomads in Tagong highlands

Tagong, our next destination, is a small Tibetan town at the altitude of 3600 meters. It consists of one main street and a square and is surrounded by grassy hills. Again, we were lucky with the weather - after some heavy rains in the region (and landslides!) the skies cleared.

The main street with typical architecture: Tibetan stone houses with (mostly) flat roofs and decorated windows:

The monastery in town is circled by people everyday doing their kora. Prayer wheels practically never stop turning.

A local woman sewing prayer flags.

The weekend before our arrival a horse riding festival was held in Tagong attracting huge crowds of Tibetans who then set up camp on a hill above town. The area was full of tents, but as the festival was over, most people had already started to pack. Nevertheless, we were there early enough to enjoy the hospitality of a family who invited us in for a cup of tea and some pastry. Their little son wasn't too sure about posing though. :)

We hiked to a nearby village one afternoon where more of the typical Tibetan houses could be seen.

The main reason for our visit was the fact that the high plains in the vicinity of Tagong are populated by nomads living in black tents and herding yaks. We organized horses and a guide to get there and set off the following morning. After crossing a river and making our way along a valley we began to climb up a grassy hill. It was too steep to continue riding, so we dismounted and the guide led the horses to the top of the slope.

There were endless grassy plains around us. We passed a couple of uninhabited houses.

Our Tibetan guide with a cell phone.

After four hours of horseback riding we reached a plateau with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. At that point a woman from the nomad camp we were headed to joined us.

Soon the first herd of yaks came into view, grazing lazily on the endless pasture.

Five hours since the beginning of our trek we reached the camp where we would spend the following night: a "village" 0f five black tents.

Some of the nomad families improve their income by allowing tourists to stay with them, offering them a tent, food and an opportunity to experience nomadic life on a high plateau. Our hostess Soku greeted us and immediately started to make lunch. The tent is a place to sleep, cook, eat and stay during bad weather, and it is also used as a shelter for baby yaks; they are too vulnerable to wolf attacks outside, so they are brought in at night. They sleep on one side of the tent and the people sleep on the other. In the middle, there is a fireplace, and during the day the roof of the tent is opened so that the smoke gets out. Most of it anyway. :)

Soku was making some sort of dumplings which were steamed instead of cooked in boiling water.

In general, she was very busy. When she wasn't cooking, she was preparing food, taking care of her three children, running around ...
... milking yaks ...

... while I was playing with her youngest, a cheeky 3-year-old boy.

His face was constantly dirty and his nose runny. High altitude and cold winds turned his cheeks red.

Not far away a couple of vultures were feasting on a yak head.

I was also invited into the neighbors' tent. Nobody spoke English but they were eager to communicate with me, and they offered me some food and yak butter tea. There were no objections to me taking photos, on the contrary, after a few shy moments everybody was proud to see themselves on my camera LCD. Even the grandmother, who was just feeding the baby.

Children grow up fast. This boy was already able to take care of all chores in the camp at the age of 12. Here he was showing me a cut on his finger.

The weather kept changing the whole afternoon. After a few overcast hours the sun broke through the clouds to produce this wonderful sight. It was raining at the same time and I was trying hard to prevent the lens from getting wet.

The sweet light was magical ...

... and when the sun was gone, the clouds were still illuminated from below creating a wonderful spectacle in the sky behind our "white" (i.e. tourist) tent.
There is much more to be said about the nomads and their way of life, and I will try to do so in one of the following posts.

20 August 2010

Ganzi, West Sichuan

Litang was already on our list of favorite towns, but Ganzi was just as terrific. The journey itself in a small minivan led from Litang through some of the most picturesque scenery one can imagine: rolling green hills, full of Tibetan villages and yak herds, with hairpin roads plunging into wooded valleys. Add mysterious morning mists and a driver willing to stop for pictures and you’ve got a photographer's dream.

Ganzi lies in a green valley at the altitude of 3400 meters, surrounded by green hills and high mountains. Exploring the streets took its toll on our lungs, especially when we reached the Tibetan part of town with a monastery up a steep hill. Oh, but what a view!

The town itself has a bit of a Wild West feel.

We checked ourselves into a fancy bright yellow hotel. Fancy, you ask? Compared to some other decrepit, pay-by-the-hour shit-holes, definitely yes!

The southern edge of town is flanked by a wide river which can only be crossed on foot ... and the mountains beyond, bathed in the late-afternoon sun, were reason enough for me to practically run across to capture the light before it was gone. Even a friendly monk couldn't stop me. ;)

There are many monasteries and stupas in and around Ganzi.

The biggest monastery, stretching over the hills above town is home to a number of monks. We caught them just as they were dismissed from the afternoon praying session.

At another, smaller monastery we were let in by an extremely accommodating monk who was ecstatic to see us and couldn't wait to show us around. I guess it must be pretty boring for him to sit around most of the day with nothing to do.

Spinning prayer wheels is part of Tibetan everyday life. Not just the small ones that can be held with one hand, but also the big variety.

These ladies were, like everybody else, extremely friendly, smiling and eager to pose.

When wandering about town you are approached by locals all the time. Despite the language barrier they just want to show hospitality, communicate with travelers, and have their picture taken! And who was I to deny them? :) Especially children - you can't imagine the joy on these girls' faces after I'd shown them their photos on my camera display.

Shy, mischievous or something else? :)

The weather was moody - sunny one moment and stormy the next. But we tried to make the most of it and didn't mind risking getting wet when we ventured into the countryside with no shelter in sight.

The surrounding hills offered great views. Dramatic clouds? You bet. It rained an hour later.

It seems I can't conclude a post without a picture of me eating. :) Sichuan cuisine is extremely spicy and here I'm trying not to burn my mouth with a delicious, but HOT Sichuan stew.
All photos of me taken by Dominika Osvald

From Ganzi we headed to the east, to the nomad country of Tagong. More about it in the next post.