Ride like a Tibetan nomad
Having reached the half time of our trip without any major incident, injury, illness, loss or similar catastrophe, we decided to celebrate with a very special adventure: a two-day horse trek through the grasslands of the Amdo plateau, surrounding the town of Lángmùsì – named Taktsang Lhamo in Tibetan – , on the border of Sìchuān and Gānsù provinces, with an overnight stay at the home of a Tibetan nomad family.
We booked it with a very well organized, professional agency – the eldest and most established in Lángmùsì – run by an extremely young looking Chinese woman from Chéngdū, Liyi, who was coordinating a dominantly male team of tour organizers and Tibetan guides with the authority of a great land owner. An exception among all tourism industry workers we met so far in China, Liyi spoke excellent English and so, before going, introduced us in detail to the schedule of the trek and some essential cultural particularities of the nomads to be respected when staying at their home (more detail on that later).
A very important detail in spring season on the grasslands: we were extremely lucky with the weather.It had rained at night so it was cold and windy, but the wind would take all the clouds away and so we were setting off in a bright spring sunshine, thanks to the Tibetan coats we rented, we didn’t feel any cold during the whole trek.
We were in a group with a young couple from Hongkong, who had never done any horse riding before and were relatively nervous about it; group was led by two Tibetan nomad guides, who spoke some Mandarin jargon (so we were told by our Hongkongese fellow trekkers), but mainly Tibetan and only some chunks of English, enough to tell us how to lead our horses (left, right, slow, stop, get off).
The two white horses Javier and me got were kind of speedy and pig-headed at the beginning, but were generally nice and once we had to get used to each other – and they were a little tired from walking up and down the grassland hills with two giant Europeans on their back – they were not too difficult to handle.
The scenery along the White Dragon River was just breathtaking: huge, snow-caped mountains rising from brown-yellow grasslands under and azure blue sky, immerged in a smell of humid soil and clean, flowery spring air. We could have ridden through this landscape forever.
But after two hours it was already time to stop again, to have lunch at a small house in the middle of the grasslands, which looked like a roadhouse for Tibetan horse riders, with a large court in the front, some Stallungen for the horses to rest over night, a “toilet” in a wooden shed which was … well… quite an adventure, and a small kitchen. A little Tibetan man with bowlegs – probably from too much horse riding on the grasslands – welcame us, served us green tea in washed our preserving jars and on its small stove cooked us a delicious lunch with rice, fried potatoes and cucumbers and a vegetable soup. After coming back from the grasslands, we have looked for similar dishes in numerous restaurants – so far without success.
For lunch, the seven of us were seated all inside the 8 square meter kitchen, under pictures of Mao and the Dalai Lama side by side – a kind of controversial sight. We were thankful to have the very friendly Hongkongese couple with us, who would translate questions and small pieces of conversations with our guide into Mandarin. So we learned that our magical cook was a Tibetan local (which explained the Dalai Lama picture), but that he had been fighting in the Chinese Army when younger (which explained the Mao picture in his left).
Our guide’s name was something that sounded like “Chico”, so we kept calling him like this, as it was easy to remember and he seemed to understand that we meant him. He had the perfect look of a lonely steppe wolf, thin and haggard, with a face dark from the mountain sunshine, his skin marked by the harsh climate and a pair of blistering eyes. He almost never stopped smoking, which made him look like the Tibetan version of the Malboro cowboy. Even though he seemed a little rude at the beginning, he turned out to be a very warm-hearted, friendly guy, which we could discern from the way he treated us, his animals, and the children of the families we visited. Moreover, he is responsible for all of the pictures of both of us together on the horses, as he had an sedulous motivation to grab our camera each time a beautiful scenery appeared and to make us pose.
After strengthening our bodies with the delicious Tibetan lunch, we continued our journey through the hills of the grasslands, crossed the source of one large Chinese River – we didn’t understand the name when Chico explained it to the Hongkongese. With each hill top we passed we could feel that our horses were breathing more heavily and getting hotter, so that we had to stop, let them rest and writhe in the cool mud, while we could relax our butt cheeks and oversee the snow-caped peaks of the mountain ranges behind Lángmùsì from the hill tops – it was the perfect feeling of freedom.
While we approached the nomads’ winter houses, valleys and hills became populated with large herds of hundreds of Yaks – to the particular delight of Javier, who couldn’t stop taking pictures of them while riding in between the animal herds.
As we understood later, Chico brought us to the house of his younger brother, wife and son; until the month of May, the nomads stay in their winter houses, built of adobe, as strong winds and snow make life in the not waterproof Yak-hair tents too difficult. The house was minuscule, about 12 sqare meters in total, and the whole family plus us, the guests, lived, ate and slept inside together, side by side – and it was hilarious to look into the astonished faces of the Hongkongese when they learned about where and how they were going to sleep.
As the grasslands lack trees, Tibetan nomads fire their stoves with Yak dung they collect from the fields and dry in the sun. When burning the dung, the smoke emits a very particular smell, a smell we will always assimilate with Lángmùsì. Life inside the house is gathered around the Yak dung stove – as there is not quite much space to be gathered elsewhere – which warms up the small adobe winter houses, but also wrap it into dense and mordant smoke. Tibetans seem to be used to it, but we could hardly breathe.
One essential rule inside a Tibetan nomad house Liyi had introduced us to before leaving, is: don’t point your feet towards the stove or put your shoes on and off too close to the stove, as this is an offense to the nomads and will make them very angry. She couldn’t explain where this custom comes from, but it seems Tibetans are very sensitive concerning respectful behavior towards the stove.
Liyi had already told us that Tibetan nomad women are used to working all daylong, and this was certainly true for our hostess. She was already running around outside when we woke up at 6 am, went to bed with us at 10 pm and didn’t stop once while we were there. The men seem to have a quite more relaxed life, as while Chico’s sister-in-law was whirling around the house, he and his brother spent a lot of time sitting and drinking tea, and were told by Liyi that sometimes male nomads disappear for days from their houses, while remaining in Lángmùsì town drinking and playing cards with friends.
Spending one day so close to a nomad family was an interesting and in many aspects confusing experience, that made us think a lot about our own way of life and what it implied. We were stunned by the degree of naturalness and simplicity they lived with, which at a time caused so many complications to us, who are not used to it.
One example: the toilet affair. When the Hongkongese girl asked Chico where the toilet vast, he replied with a vast gesture: everywhere! Only not in the river, as they take the water from it to cook and make tea. No trees or bushes to hide, how would we make our necessities without showing our bare backside to everyone around? So Chico grabbed our Tibetan coats, opened them to both sides and made us squat – like this! And if you squatted with your butt exposed to the air – no one of them would bother, anyways.
When dark breaks in, life inside the nomad house quickly comes to an end. Yaks are driven back into the backyard, horses tied up in front of the house, so they wouldn’t run away, and the currish and dangerous dog released, in order to protect the animals from hungry straying wolves.
Dark means totally black night, unless there’s clear sky and the land illuminated by the moon. However hanks to the boom in renewables in the Chinese economy in recent years, the nomads now have some daily kilowatt hours of electricity, provided by a solar panel connected a lithium ion battery, which are mainly used to lit a lamp and watch TV – in Tibetan, with Mandarin subtitles.
After a surprisingly restorative and warm night, sleeping side by side like sardines in the wooden seating space, it was time to get on the horse back again. Legs and butt hurt a little, but now we were already more experienced and even ventured some short trotting, while our horses where still full of morning energy.
Lángmùsì town was far too short to our taste, so that far too quick we had to get off our white new friends again, to have our last grassland meal in a small village, in the house of – as far as we understood – Chico’s wife and children, but family structures seem to be somehow adventurous among rural Tibetans, so we are not really sure and didn’t dare to ask too many times.
We were given our farewell with another delicious combination of rice and fried potatoes and maybe the most emblematic Tibetan dish: tsampa, a mush made of barley flour, roasted barley grains, tea, butter and sugar. Tsampa is prepared similar to shortcrust, by kneading all ingredients together with one hand in a small bowl. It is mostly eaten raw, by forming little bite-sized balls, but can also be baked on the stove – what Chico did – so it gets a whole crunchy texture.
And then it was over and we had to say goodbye, to our horses, to Chico, to the grasslands … overwhelmed by all the impressions and sad that it was already over. So sad, that it felt like we had been riding like nomads for far more than one day.