One of the things that has most touched me about living in this place is the amazingly deep connection to land and place that exists here.
In January 2004, when we took our first trek to Zhakra Mountain, I asked Djarga and the other nomads guiding the group to plan the trek themselves, since I knew nothing of the area. They did, and that meant departing at 6 from the winter pastures, and riding hard until after dark, with no stop for lunch and no stop for water, except a quick hand dip from a spring. When we finally arrived at our destination below the lake, in the forest, we slept under the stars while they made an all-night fire and laughed and talked most of the night. What impressed me so much on that first trip was that their life did not change. Just as at home, in the tents or in the huts, they had their teapot, their bowls, and their tsampa and butter. They made a fire and seemed completely at home, as if they had not just ridden all day and made a fire at the base of a tree. This forest, and the entire path across the long grasslands and over the mountain pass, it was all their home, the largest house I had ever seen. I had never met a people who defined their home not as the house in which they lived, but as their whole environment (as long as their don’t wander off into a unrelated tribe).
In all of our ventures here, I have tried to honor this thing, the fact that the place where travelers find themselves, is the deep, meaningful home of a whole group of people. I want to tell them the stories of the shrines on the mountains, the people who put up the prayer flags, the events that led to these things. To me, it is beautiful. But it is also common courtesy, when visiting someone else’s home, to pay attention to what they tell you, to ask them to show you around, and to express interest in what you see.
Too much of the time, tourism — particularly that of the very young — seems to be about the self, about looking good, about yourself as explorer and yourself as the protagonist of the story. These are the kinds of tourists who walk a day far out into the wild grasslands, and stay in a small temple, and yet never ask the name of the temple, or share a cup of tea with a person there, or donate a yuan to the donation box. To me, it is impolite and uncaring to visit a place and not bother to care. This is particularly true here, in a small and rural place, where people have lived and built and cared deeply for generations. For me, if I send someone to a small temple, I first suggest they take a guide, to show them around and connect them to the place. If they cannot afford that, then I will tell them everything I can of the temple — its legendary past, the tales of the amazing lamas who used to be there, how it currently hosts a small school. I will suggest that they go to meet a certain lama or householder there, maybe the school head. For the visitor, this is polite and caring, but it is also interesting, and gives a much deeper experience of place.
As a person who introduces people to this place, I feel it is my task to show people the deep beauty and meaning that is here — not to encourage their narcissism, not to encourage them to act as parasites on this place. It is my task to encourage their learning, their self-improvement, their seeing something new. And that something new is the different way of seeing place and self, which exists here in full steam, and which is sometimes hard to find in this increasingly homogenized world. To refuse to look at it, or to encourage people to stay within their own comfortable constructs, is to see the world as less than it is.