Recharging … and interrogation(!)

Yushu meant internet, hot shower, phone credit, good food and long sleep. We were planning to head straight towards Xining, and I contacted my friend there to ask about places to stay. Turns out she was trying to get to Yushu. And the road was blocked. Due to plague.

Plague! There was plague between us and the railway line. Fortunately by the next day the road was open again and we managed to get tickets. We also transferred to a brand new youth hostel opened by one of my friend’s friends, which though expensive is really nice. The boss and his friends were super friendly, and we also met a French lady on a tour with two drivers, who works on a volunteer project in Nepal. They won’t get a lot of foreign business unless they get into Lonely Planet guidebook though, I imagine.

Yushu from the sunny hillsides is much more beautiul than the dark, cloudy, polluted, rather gross place it seemed when we first arrived. The hills are green and rather rounded, sloping up to plains and plains full of grasslands. We had passed loads of nomads with their tents and yaks on the way here, and I could imagine them all up there. Must be so cold in winter though, with just furs and yak-dung fires for company. The town is full of beggars. Many more than I have seen before, especially old women, children and monks. Here we experienced a rather less harmonious attitude to intercultural exchange than we got from Ge. “Hui people (Muslims) hate Tibetans. They will use for our vegetables water they have washed their feet in. We hate them back. The only people we hate more than them is the Han. This place is full of them. Wish they would get out.” “When I was a child if I spoke Chinese my mum would beat me.”

When I told them about what Ge said there was a snort. “A shame about these huofo (living Buddhas), given such a lavish upbringing with money donated by the people. Driving around in fancy cars while other people are desperately poor and can’t get a proper education.” It’s true, there had been a bit of the mafioso feel about the monks, however they also seemed like kind, genuine and sincere people.

In the evening we had Tibetan food – some amazing vegetable cakes and curried potatoes – then sat around in the youth hostel drinking beer and chatting with lots of locals, including my friend’s Tibetan boyfriend. Finally a chance to ask all the questions we were curious about. The peeing thing – how does it work? Monks are not allowed to wear underwear, it’s against the religious rules! What about atheist Tibetans, are there many – can Tibetan culture, which is so bound together by Buddhism, survive secularisation? Unsure, the younger generation are already straddling communist atheism and Tibetan Buddhism. There is a dislocation between the cosmopolitan life of cities and the nomadic life of the country. One of our new friends was born on a mountain top and his mother swaddled him up and kept walking. He now speaks perfect English and has a great job in the big city.

Another question that had been bothering us was unequal gender numbers. With so many monks, was there a problem of women unable to find husbands? They laughed. Well there are also nuns. But it’s true that there can be problems. Traditionally it’s not uncommon for women to have several husbands, but the other way round is unusual (though not unheard of). And what about language? Why is it that Tibetans seem to speak better, clearer, and more easily understood English than Han Chinese? That’s because Tibetan is closer to western languages. It also has a strong Sanskrit influence, which ties it in some ways to the ancient indo-european languages. But perhaps the main reason is that having to learn Chinese at a young age for school, Tibetans are already used to being multilingual and picking up new languages. It is just not such a big deal for them. However their chance to go abroad and use it is small. None of the folk we met this evening had a passport, though some had applied many times.

And there was more singing and laughing and singing and being told to hush, before an excellent sleep in a bed that was more than twice as comfortable as the place we stayed last night, though also twice as expensive. Batteries recharged. Interrogation of the locals temporarily on hold.

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