Located deep in the southern mountain range which forms the border of Kham, Jiga District is a half-farming, half-herding area. The people are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and consider themselves Tibetan, but they differ from their high grassland relatives in dress, foods, and some religious interpretations. There are numerous villages that make up the district, each with a low valley farming section (where it is hotter and water is more available) and a higher mountain herding section. Jiga is near, as-the-crow-flies, to Zhongdian, the county in northern Yunnan Province which was renamed “Shangri-La” in the early 2000’s. It is culturally similar to that area, though by road, Shangri-La and the recent wealth tourism has brought it, is still over a day’s drive away.
The main road to Jiga is unpaved and poor, and when we visited it took 8 hours from the Daocheng County seat, which is itself a journey of two long days from Chengdu. From the Jiga District Township, it is a three-hour walk into Gala Village, in which we do our work. Largely because of this isolation, visiting Gala is like stepping back in time.
The houses in the farming section of the village are high four-story fortresses; the bottom floor is for animals, the third floor is used as a threshing area during the harvest, and the top floor is for hay storage. The second floor is where people live, all in one large, high-ceilinged room, which is separated into kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, and storage areas, but contains no internal walls. The kitchen is the primary part of the room, and has two fires near the back wall. Smoke escapes through openings in the roof, which are designed in a way that does not allow rain in.
Although the village officially has electricity, it is seldom actually provided. So, seated in dark rooms, lit only with the light of fires and candles, the women of Gala spin, weave, and sew – blankets, robes, rain capes, and furry rugs – made of yak and goat hair, and hemp fiber. They also make alcohol – beer and clear barley wine, tasty with a strange hint of chocolate. They feast on dried peaches and salt pork, and when guests come, they kill a chicken for dinner, and serve it with corn fry-bread. At night, they prepare beds for the guests with white goat hair blankets to cover them. The black yak-hair blankets they use themselves.
In the lower part of the village, they raise black pigs, goats, and chickens, and grow wheat (two kinds), barley, corn, walnuts, apples, stone fruit, vegetables, and some organic hemp. (The growing of hemp has much decreased in recent years, as even in the isolated Jiga Township, factory-made clothes have become cheaply available.) Here it is too hot for yaks, even for the relatively heat-loving big low-altitude yaks they have in Jiga, and so yaks are kept higher in the mountains, the old people live higher up in the mountains, and put each family’s small herd out to pasture each day.
While waiting for the yaks during the day, these elderly women of the high mountains spin yak and goat hair, which is then woven by family members in the valleys. These elderly women do fine spinning, finer than any other part of Kham that we have seen; they spin the coarse belly hair of their low-altitude yaks (these yaks lack flank and back hair – an adaptation to make them more able to handle heat) more finely than most people can spin the finer flank hair of their high-grassland cousins. This produces in the end a lighter, more flexible, weaving.
Our Project in Gala Village:
We got in contact with Gala Village through Tsering Droma, a young woman who just finished studying in the English Training Program in Xining, Qinghai.
As part of a class on Women and Development, which then evolved into the Shem Group (www.shemgroup.org), Tsering Droma had applied for grant money to purchase simple threshing machines for women of her village, which would free them up to do spinning and weaving… All they needed was a place to sell the items! And that is why Tserang Droma contacted us.
The money for the threshing machines has come through, and we started working in Gala in September 2006. The villagers produce beautiful work, including yak and goat hair weavings as well as wooden items, and even some silverwork. Despite the distance and hard travel to reach Gala, the agreeable, hardworking people and reasonable prices there make it possible for us to place orders with them. The money they make selling these items is, in the case of most village families, their only monetary income.
Furthermore, Gala is interested in re-commencing the production of hemp. The Northern Yunnan/Southwest Sichuan region is in fact the original source of hemp worldwide. Hemp produced in Gala, and other villages in Jiga, is organically grown and hand-processed.