Seven divine weeks in Shangri-La
James Barker discovers that the mythical utopia of books and lore really does exist
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.