Seven di­vine weeks in Shangri-La

James Barker dis­cov­ers that the myth­i­cal utopia of books and lore re­ally does ex­ist

Mercury (Hobart) - - FOOTY FEVER -

FOR seven weeks my part­ner, Dolma, two chil­dren, Norbu, 6, and Jigme-Hab­bibi, 2, and I lived in Ti­bet with Dolma’s mother and fam­ily in their tra­di­tional sub­sis­tence farm­ing vil­lage two hours east of Lhasa, the cap­i­tal city of Ti­bet.

The vil­lage, at 3650m, is in a re­mote val­ley sur­rounded on three sides by moun­tains that ex­tend 1500m higher.

At this time of year, sum­mer, the moun­tains are cov­ered in lush pas­ture, small moun­tain flow­ers and tiny trick­ling streams.

There are about 30 houses in the vil­lage, each con­structed in the tra­di­tional Ti­betan ru­ral style of thick stone and mud walls, thick tim­ber doors, high or­nately carved colour­ful win­dows built around a cen­tral court­yard.

The court­yard has small gar­dens, a wa­ter tap, and pro­vides an­i­mal shel­ter dur­ing the harsh, dry and windy win­ters, and spa­ces for the house­hold­ers to re­lax with friends and fam­ily as well as catch up on the lat­est news from neigh­bour­ing vil­lages.

This, al­ways without ex­cep­tion, is done while con­sum­ing co­pi­ous amounts of de­li­ciously sweet, creamy milk tea and tra­di­tional Ti­betan but­ter tea made from ei­ther cows or dre (fe­male yak) but­ter, al­ways served steam­ing hot from a never-empty Ther­mos. Hours eas­ily pass by. Our boys would spend their days fol­low­ing their grand­mother around the farm. In the morn­ing they would help her milk the cows, after which they would herd them through the vil­lage, join­ing other herds as they go, even­tu­ally leav­ing the cows in a pas­ture at the bot­tom of the val­ley to spend their days lazily graz­ing the moun­tain.

After break­fast, of Tsam­paroasted bar­ley flour cooked with whey, but­ter and su­gar and eaten in lit­tle balls chased down with sweet tea, the boys would walk around the farm col­lect­ing cow and sheep ma­nure, and mix it with straw to cre­ate pat­ties that they then placed along the tops of the field walls. Ev­ery­thing is built from stone and mud, which are both in end­less sup­ply from the ero­sion on the moun­tain. The cow ma­nure pat­ties are left to dry for about six months, then burned in­stead of wood and coal, cre­at­ing a beau­ti­ful aroma and burn­ing very hot.

The boys watched their grand­mother churn the milk by hand, us­ing a tra­di­tional Ti­betan milk churn, turn­ing it into but­ter. Then they helped her in the fields, har­vest­ing the wheat, bar­ley and mus­tard seed, which is used to make cook­ing oil.

Dur­ing our stay, the sum­mer fes­ti­val was cel­e­brated, where of­fer­ings are made for the year’s plant­ing and har­vest. It is also a time for men and women to show their strength in tug-of-war events and the “lift­ing the re­ally heavy sack” event.

Women would wear their best Chupa-Ti­betan dress and men their new hats.

It is also a time to re­lax and eat amaz­ing food at end­less pic­nics, where men would sit in tight groups drink­ing and play­ing the tra­di­tional coin/ shell game Sho — each roll of the dice slammed down with a mighty ex­cla­ma­tion of the num­ber needed.

This was a great time for fam­ily to come to­gether from all over the re­gion. Tra­di­tional danc­ing and singing was a big part of the fes­ti­val, it was con­ducted with great mer­ri­ment and en­cour­age­ment, fu­elled by the spe­cially home-brewed Chung, a Ti­betan bar­ley beer, which is best when it’s sweet but still good when it’s dry. Un­for­tu­nately, it does not taste too al­co­holic so you can end up drink­ing a lot more than you should. On the last night, the men and women danced in the tra­di­tional cir­cle dance, the men would sing and then the women would sing in re­ply and drink­ing went on into the small hours in the dark and made for an amaz­ing scene as the head torches bobbed around.

We found our­selves spend­ing hours watch­ing the moun­tains from my moth­erin-law’s court­yard and on one of th­ese oc­ca­sions we spot­ted large black shapes mov­ing slowly down from the top of the moun­tain.

It turned out that all the vil­lage yaks were be­ing brought down from their sum­mer pas­ture.

We im­me­di­ately set out to­wards the yaks and met them just as they were be­ing herded into a large mud­walled com­pound.

Luck­ily for us Dolma’s brother-in-law was there with the fam­ily yaks so we were im­me­di­ately ush­ered into the com­pound, with about 14 herders and 50 yaks rang­ing from smallish to im­mense.

Need­less to say, the boys loved it and we, even though Dolma grew up with yaks, tried to stay cool and calm but I found my­self won­der­ing if our travel in­surance cov­ered dis­em­bow­el­ment by mon­strous bovine.

I need not have wor­ried as th­ese are in­cred­i­bly skilled men and women who have yak herd­ing in their blood. They showed no fear as they were dragged around the com­pound while wran­gling the yaks for a hair­cut.

Clothes-wash­ing is car­ried out in the stream that me­an­dered through the vil­lage. It was a great op­por­tu­nity to chat with the neigh­bours and watch the world go by.

We would all help out dur­ing har­vest, scyth­ing the bar­ley, ty­ing it in bun­dles and stack­ing it to dry at the side of the field. Un­like Aus­tralian farms, Ti­betan fields are bro­ken up over nu­mer­ous small ar­eas, so har­vest­ing is in­cred­i­bly labour in­ten­sive. Just this year, some farm­ers have started us­ing whip­per­snip­pers with fixed steel blades to cut the bar­ley.

Dolma’s sis­ter com­plained that it was too fast and left too many stems be­hind, each one be­ing very pre­cious.

Farm­ers were also start­ing to use small two-wheel trac­tors to plough the fields in­stead of the tra­di­tional teams of yaks.

Dolma’s brother, who lives in an­other vil­lage, ex­plained that yaks re­quire 12-month care, lots of feed and su­per­vised free roam­ing on the moun­tains and only get used a month or so a year. He is con­sid­er­ing re­tir­ing his team and us­ing a trac­tor, which I thought was sad, but I am not the one do­ing the work.

In the seven weeks we were there, we ex­pe­ri­enced amaz­ing things, and I was per­son­ally hum­bled by how re­silient and happy th­ese farm­ing peo­ple are. Their lives are hard, they work hard and the en­vi­ron­ment is harsh, but they have been forged from the moun­tains. They live through ad­ver­sity and thrive not be­cause of any spe­cial help, but be­cause they are Ti­betans, a beau­ti­ful peo­ple, with their own unique lan­guage and cus­toms. No mat­ter what changes come, they will re­main strong.

I think for a brief mo­ment in time we lived in Shangri-La. James Barker runs a Ho­bart roof­ing and tiling busi­ness.

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