Letter on the History of the Treks
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Rongchang County in Chongqing municipality starting in 2001, teaching Environmental Education at the Veterinary Medicine and Animal Husbandry school there. Rongchang is the central market town for a large rice and vegetable farming area. I spent many evenings and weekends wandering the little paths in the countryside around town, and slowly discovered many many stories -- of people, natural areas, and little temples. Most of my friends while in the Peace Corps were countryside people, who to me were both fascinating in their simple world view and comfortable to be with, because they were so very kind. Our China treks are based on this experience, and we simple walk and stay with people, spending time in this very different world.
My interest in Tibet started my first winter vacation from Peace Corps, December 2001. Two friends and I had planned to visit the mountains to the west, not realizing that they were in the Tibetan region. We arrived in the border city of Kangding on a sunny afternoon, and noticed large, tough looking people in colorful and unusual dress. I stopped at a stand with two women selling yak butter, curious, and they offered me a taste, and another taste, and then some tsampa, and then some more and then some more, and on and on until I said: "Okay, I gotta go find a hotel now," pointing to my large bag.
The older woman, the mother, mimed (she didn't speak Chinese): "Stay with us."
I said" "We have 3 people."
"Fine," she said. So they packed up the butter and we set off across the city, she hefting one of the bags, even. We spent a night then, and a night on the way back down, and had a great time. We talked and talked, and became friends. They -- this mother and her grown son and daughter -- were in the city just for the winter, to sell butter, and invited us to their grassland home in the summer, assuming we wouldn't come. But I did go, and it turned out to be a remarkable place. Theirs is a world of black yak-hair tents; handmade robes with sleeves that hang down to the ground; fresh butter and yogurt; two-day rides across the rolling grasslands to find wood for house beams; monks on horseback coming to visit and giving gifts of small lengths of sacred string or sacks of sacred sand; temple festivals where the young men and women flirt and the old pray; little boys running barefoot across marshes in hot pursuit of young yaks; and long evening talks around the fire, the middle of the tent open to the stars. There are no roads to their various homesites, and they live a life that I had assumed had ceased to exist. It is both idyllic and very hard.
Since then, I have spent 3-5 months of each year living with this family; winters in their rock house in the low valley and summers in the black tents on the high grasslands. We've become very good friends through these months of slow days and evenings. Our communication has gradually improved, and we've shared stories from two sides of the world, and discussed everything from reincarnation to yak breeding to the Iraq war to snow leopards. They (this family) are people with a sense of curiosity and humor, and a lively intelligence. They are interested in the broad world outside and in sharing theirs. They have taken me in as a member of the family, and I remain fascinated and charmed by their unusual viewpoints, dedication to simple pleasures, openness and kindness, and their curiosity about the world I'm from. Over the years, I've learned to make fires from yak dung, herd horses and yaks, make yogurt from elderberry shoot cultures, identify edible mushrooms, gallop around on horses, and to get along with the many visitors who come by, day after day.
Tashigara "Djarga", the one brother in this family of four sisters and their mother, and I thought up this plan of having treks a few years ago. Tibet is the poorest part of China, and this is wearing despite the impressive sense of fun with which they handle it. They have a lack of warm clothing, vegetables, and medicine. And this family is one of the poorest in their village. The treks were originally conceived as a way to make some money to mitigate this situation (and it has helped, allowing Tashigara to build up his yak herd, buy a few nice things for the family tents, and pay for doctor's visits for himself and the family), and also because I would look across the rolling grasslands to the high mountains and long for them. I grew up in a Colorado ranch town, and have spent most of my summers (and winters) in mountains, and I missed them. But there is no way to get across the steppes and passes without some sort of companion, and probably guides, and I didn't have any companions except Tibetans, and they were busy dealing with making a living off of butter. There was no time. But if we made it a job, now, there would be time.
So we went, and the treks, I think, are helpful for Westerners too. The thing is that they give you a chance to learn something really new, because they give you a chance to know people who really do have a different way of viewing things. Their experience is quite distinct from the 21st century in Western countries, and the experience you will have there is as well. And the fact is that the place is astoundingly beautiful, with high peaks and rolling green steppe, and this is a chance to be in the natural world for a long period of time.
After leading a few Tibet treks, I realized that it would make sense to add on a China section of the trek, for trekkers with the time to do it. Tibet is not the only thing to see on this side of the world, and understanding the situation there also requires understanding the surrounding world. So we have China treks, too, to show you the real China, as we do Tibet. Through these you get a chance to understand the basis of China, the big endless countryside, whose people make up two-thirds of the population.
-- Update Spring 2013 – Rereading this, I find only two things I would need to change. First, roads have been built to the winter homesites of these nomads, but their spring and summer homesites remain roadless. Second, in the last sentence, I note that countryside farmers made up 2/3 of the population of China. This is no longer the case. This year, the balance is expected to turn in favor of the cities, at over 50% of the population. So seeing the countryside now is seeing a story of change. Welcome!