ONCE the white tents of the Tibetan nomad encampment appeared
nestled in the high, grassy mountain valley, the trials of the
journey seemed to float off as lightly as summer clouds.
Over the past six days, the trip had been obstructed by roads
and rail lines shut down by mudslides, jam-packed airports where
stranded passengers had waited weeks for outbound tickets, and a
dilapidated orange Fiat that kept breaking down. A corrupt Chinese
conductor demanded bribes for every berth on his overnight train,
and leather-jacketed thugs bartered state airline tickets for huge
sums. My Chinese travel companion, Li, temporarily vanished when
suddenly forced to take a separate flight.
We finally arrived at the Tibetan camp, clutching the railing of
a metal cart hauled by a rickety diesel tractor. The Tibetan
tractor driver, a hefty man with curly black hair and light brown
eyes, had gunned his vehicle up the mountain valley, charging
across rocky streambeds and small gullies. The tractor's chugging
shattered the tranquility of the windswept grassland. But once it
sputtered away, peace returned to the nomadic encampment, and to my
The journey to the Tibetan region within China's northwestern
Gansu Province covered a landscape that was as dramatic culturally
as it was physically arduous.
Along the Yellow River valley, the cradle of Han Chinese
civilization, farmers steeped in Confucian tradition live in
close-knit villages tilling the same postage-stamp plots that their
ancestors had for ages.
Farther west lies the dusty, Muslim-dominated territory of the
Hui people, with their mosques, white skullcaps, and fiery beef and
mutton dishes. Famed for their skill as traders, the Hui today deal
in everything from richly colored rugs to illicit drugs.
Finally the flatlands and villages gave way to verdant hills
dotted with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Monks on pilgrimage to a
holy mountain strode past, their full, maroon robes swinging
gracefully. We ascended by car, foot, and tractor into the
pastureland of Tibetan nomads. A furry Himalayan marmot scampered
along a hillside. Shaggy black yaks grazed on thick green grass
scattered with mountain wildflowers.
Hearing the tractor from a distance, a Tibetan nomad stepped out
of the first white tent of the summer encampment. Sonam invited his
visitors in and offered steaming bowls of Tibetan tea. When the tea
was partly drunk, Sonam's daughter added spoonfuls of homemade
yak-butter and tsampa (roasted barley flour) to the bowls. Everyone
mixed the butter and flour with the tea by hand, forming balls of
dough to be pinched off and eaten.
After this traditional Tibetan meal, Li lay down on a sheepskin
rug and dozed off. Aided by a Mandarin-speaking Tibetan friend,
Sonam began talking about his life. …