My Sister Yangzom and Her World
Tashi Thondup, a 52-year-old Tibetan who has studied and worked in Beijing for 36 years, is increasingly homesick as he grows older. The outbreak of COVID-19 this year made him care more about his family far away.
Tashi Thondup’s hometown is Shangri-La, a city of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. It is nearly 3,000 kilometers southwest away from Beijing and at an altitude of over 3,000 meters. Tashi thungzhu was born in a Tibetan village called Niru, which is half farming and half grazing.
In the summer of 1984, with his excellent academic performance, Tashi Thondup left for Beijing to study. The 16-year-old young man set off with a handbag and travelling expenses borrowed from friends and relatives. After spending 9 days walking, taking log trucks, coaches, and “green trains”, he finally arrived in Beijing. He hasn’t spent much time with his family ever since then.
A photo of Tashi Thondup and his younger brother (middle in the back row), his parents and sister Tsering Yangzom in the pasture in the summer of 1998.
Like many other remote and backward villages in China, Niru Village has also undergone tremendous changes in the past 36 years. Roads, electricity and communications technologies gradually shorten the distance between Tashi Thondup and his family. In recent years, pastures far from villages have been able to pick up erratic mobile-phone signals. So, he bought a smart phone for his sister, Tsering Yangzom, who was herding cattle in his hometown, so that she could take more photos of his hometown and send them to him as long as she was free. The smart phone kept him informed of the recent situation of his sister and relieved his homesickness.
On March 12th, 2017, Tashi Thondup put the first post of Yangzom’s World series on We-chat Moments, trying to present the unspoiled land of Niru Village to the outside world from the perspective of his sister. The series of contents received a lot of likes and comments. From being curious to paying attention to the life of herdsmen, the development of Niru, and the culture of the Tibetan region, everyone raised questions of one kind or another, and Tashi Thondup tries his best to answer one by one.
Tashi Thondup said that his perseverance depends on his sister’s insistence. In 2019, Diqing stepped into the era of 5G as well. He looked forward to seeing places like Niru enjoy more stable and convenient communications. By then, more people can see for themselves the distant beauty.
A photo of Tsering Yangzom (second from left) and her family during the Chinese New Year in 2018.
Apart from its fairyland-like scenery, rich cultural resources, there are also are diligent, simple, generous and brave Tibetan people here, which outline a beautiful and harmonious society we yearn these days.
Here is the story narrated by Tashi Thondup:
On March 18th, when the vernal equinox was approaching, plum blossoms in Beijing were blooming. Spring was already here. From the pictures sent by my sister, however, it was still winter in my hometown, with white land and flying snowflakes. My sister was therefore worried if the animals would be able to survive this long winter.
Early in the morning, after having ghee tea and preparing feedings for yaks and horses, Yangzom started to look for the animals as usual. Tibetan herders get upset when their yaks and horses are absent from their sight for one or two days. They are worried that the animals could be hunted by wolves or fall down the cliffs.
She sent me 9 pictures on her way looking for horses and yaks. Each time receiving her pictures, I felt happy and admired the diligence shared by her and many other Tibetan women. Shortly after getting the pictures, I posted on We-chat Moments with some words introducing Niru—a new post of the Yangzom’s World series. In the past three years, as a result of my sister in the busy hours to take photos, the series update although not regular, but never off.
Dolma Yangzom (the mother) milking the yaks while grazing in the pasture.
My sister Yangzom is 42 years old. She has four elder brothers, including me.
She, the youngest in the family, gave her share of education opportunity to my younger brother and me, because my family couldn’t afford to send all of the children to school back then. Thanks to the education, I came to Beijing, and the other brother moved to Shangri-La, the capital city of the prefecture. While Yangzom, who doesn’t speak Mandarin let alone reads, has been living in pastures with our parents since childhood.
In Niru, a half-farming, half-grazing Tibetan village, those who are less strong would graze in pastures, while stronger family members do the farm work in the village, such as growing highland barley and corns. At the age of 23, during the Spring Festival—which is also important to Tibetans, Yangzom married a Tibetan young man from another household in the village. Since then she started her own family.
After that, she has been grazing in highland pastures. She became strong after years of sun, wind and frost. My brother-in-law usually farms in the village, but he goes into the mountains from time to time, caring for my sister. He drives horses to send food, and helps her out during seasonal pasture shifts.
Every year in April, the temperature in the winter pastures at an altitude of 4000 meters will gradually increase, and the yaks, known as "ships of the plateau", will start their new migration to the summer pastures. When the summer is over and the weather is getting cold, the herd will start to move again, heading for the lower elevations.
Therefore, Yangzom has two seasonal shifts each year. These shifts are like moving home for urban dwellers, with a lot of things to take care of. They need to move every piece of daily necessities and food. Everything depends on human and horse labor, because there are no roads between pastures.
While in Shangri-La City, around 100 kilometers from Niru Village, an airport was built in 1999, reducing the trip to Beijing to only 5 hours. That’s way more convenient than in my days. It was not until about 2006 when roads from Shangri-La reached natural villages. Before that, Tibetans basically led a relatively isolated life. And my sister’s family and I only get together during Spring Festivals.
Luckily, however, the increasingly advanced communication has built a bridge for us. In the mid-1990s, China Mobile constructed base stations in Diqing, gradually accessing more Tibetan dwellers to mobile phones. In around 2010, more people in the area started to use smart phones. Later, signals can be sought even in remote pastures, so I bought my sister a smart phone. She then started to learn how to use a smart phone, first making and receiving phone calls, later sending messages, videos and pictures via We-chat. She started to chase for signals whenever she was free. By 2017, following my “instruction”, she got used to post nine pictures on We-chat Moments, showing me the pastures in my childhood memory.
I was deeply moved by her first post. It was in March, 2017, in a heavily snowy pasture, the first cattle of the year was born in Yangzom’s family. A yak giving birth to a cattle marks the official beginning of a new year for herders. To make an auspicious beginning, Yangzom phoned our mother who lived in Shangri-La, asking for a name. My mother named the cattle “Chesom Lhanye”, meaning “crescent on the third day of a lunar month”. Because there was a white crescent on the forehead of the cattle.
A photo of Tsering Yangzom and her mother Dolma Yangzom.
My mother Dolma Yangzom is 85 years old. Herders of her generation have no access to education and spend most of their lives tending to cattle and horses on the pasture. Until the summer of 2008, she got hurt while working. It was an evening, she went into the mountain to drive the yaks back around the pasture house. She accidentally fell in a pile of rocks, her chest bumping into a rock. She didn’t take it seriously, just getting over the pain and taking some pills. Such things happen in grazing areas. Animals sometimes hurt herders as well. In days when there weren’t modern medical treatments available, they just treated it in simple ways and continued to work. These were common situations.
What had never occurred to my mother was that she didn’t get better a few days later, and even had difficulties in breathing. She fainted in the pasture, but luckily other herders saw her and informed my family. Then she was sent to Shangri-La. After recuperation, she felt better, but going back to the pasture was too much for her. So she stayed in the city with my younger brother.
After the accidental “retirement”, my mother on the one hand misses life in the pastures, on the other finds the city life enjoyable. “My children take good care of me. And the living conditions are good here. I never imagined I could have all these,” said my mother. In her memory, be it in farming or grazing areas, life was tough. They didn’t have enough resources to feed, clothe or shelter themselves. They rely on their feet most of the time, no matter how far it is or how heavy the items are. It was often heard from grazing areas, nearby or remote ones, that people were starved or frozen to death. Such conditions are unimaginable to younger generations today.
Tsering Yangzom with her yak.
We have more abundant resources available these days, so cases of starving and freezing to death haven’t occurred for decades. What hasn’t changed was the life style in the pastures, still busy and lonely. My sister didn’t have the time to visit our mother very often, except after moving to a smaller pasture each winter.
Last year when she was at our mother’s, she stayed for only two days, saying that she didn’t feel comfortable there. In addition to the Tibetans, Shangri-La is home to dwellers of a dozen ethnic groups, including Han, Naxi, Yi, Bai groups. Yangzom said she couldn’t read, nor did she speak Mandarin. So, as for TV shows, she could only understand Tibetan channels. And it was difficult for her to communicate with people of other ethnic groups.
This Spring Festival, affected by the outbreak of covid-19, the Diqing government advocated people to stay indoors as much as possible, so my sister canceled her plan of visiting our mother. Luosang Eshe, my younger brother, told her that our mother and everyone else in the family are safe and sound. There weren’t any confirmed cases in Diqing, but everyone on the street wore a mask and were well protected. Hearing that, I am also relieved.
After Spring Festival, my sister started to “Chyanmoley” the animals. “Chyanmoley” is the pronunciation of a Tibetan phrase used in Niru, meaning feeding the animals salt on a regular basis. This is an important task for herders all year round.
A selfie of Tsering Yangzom working in the pasture.
Without salt, yaks don’t have good appetite for grass; with overdose of salt, they get diarrhea, sometimes hard to be cured and will die of disease. This is the experience handed down from the older generation. Just a little bit more salty than human taste is enough.
My mother said that there wasn’t any road in Diqing at all when she was young. All salts were transported from Tibet relying on human and animal labor. The salts were some red and white glued mixtures. When needed, they was first burnt on fire, then melted in the water within a pot. Adding the salted water into meat soup, tsampa and corn, animal feeding was made.
Back then, human shared the same sort of salt with animals, and no Iodine was added. When I was a kid, I saw some elders with big necks. Later I learned that it was caused by a lack of Iodine.
Diqing started to build roads in 1950s. After a few decades’ effort, Diqing had a crisscrossing road network, connecting connecting Markam, Tibet, Ganzi, Sichuan, and Lijiang and Nu River, from all directions to the outside world.. As transportation got better, herders had access to iodized salt. Human no longer shared slat with animals, and big necks have seldom been seen. These days, more travelers from distant places come with their modern dresses, thoughts and mindset.
Now spring is approaching, people are about to shift to summer pastures. It is the busiest season for herders, because ghee, a daily necessity, is made in this time of a year.
Tibetans have been living in high-altitude and cold areas, coupled with transportation inconvenience, thus having developed a relatively simple diet structure. Vitamin-rich ghee is a perfect dietary supplement for Tibetans.
Early in the morning, my sister Yangzom began to patrol in the mountains, driving the yaks into her pasture house for milking. Sometimes there are only a few of them, but sometimes more than twenty. After getting the milk, she would refine ghee from it. According to my mother, in the past, to refine ghee, people needed to heat or cool the milk to a suitable temperature, and poured it into a barrel of nearly one meter high. Then they started to stir for hundreds of times with a wooden blender rod. People sang while stirring, until oil was separated from the milk. These days, however, my sister and other herders started to use semi-automatic milk separators. What they need to do now is to adjust the temperature of the milk, then operate the milk separator to separate oil from milk. Then they put the separated ghee into prepared cold water to cool down, and then fish it out to squeeze extra water. The ghee is then pressed into the golden ghee cake, placed on the platform above a door to be dried. The remaining milk will be made into yogurt and milk residue.
Snowscape of the winter pasture.
In summer, one can see in a pasture neat rows of ghee cakes, which is a display of a herder’s strength and wealth.
After so many years away from home, I miss the summer pasture most, where the flowers are the leading role. Little yellow flowers turned a pasture into a golden world. White, pink, purple azaleas occupies the highlands or hills. They were eye-catching... There were many other blooming flowers whose name I didn’t even know.
Life in Niru is actually happy. It retains the original appearance of traditional Tibetan ancient villages, with people and animals living in harmony with indigenous forests. It is also home to various well-preserved climatic biomes. This is “the last unspoiled land of Shangri-La”. United Nations experts who visited the “three parallel rivers” called it “the first village in the world”.
What have been accompanying my sister are the dense indigenous forest, grassland dotted with flowers, clear sweet spring, plus blue sky and white clouds. Everything is pure.
Today, the once isolated Niru is gradually being discovered by the outside world, with a steady stream of backpackers visiting during the summer months. Tibetan villagers opened small inns to receive some casual visitors.
The same goes for my sister’s family. They have a Tibetan-style cabin inn in summer pastures, occasionally receiving backpackers. Many of them are hikers from the Shangri-La-Niru-Yading trek.
When the weather is nice, backpackers will find a flat land on the pasture to set up a tent for the night. Most of whom came to my sister’s small inn have experienced a rainy day. They needed fire to keep warm. They also had milk and Tibetan food at the inn.
Yangzom is illiterate, and doesn’t speak Mandarin. Therefore, it is difficult for her to provide more thoughtful services or bargain, let alone have any other communication.
But she will soon have a helper, her daughter, Yangzom Tsomo.
My sister has a son and a daughter. The daughter Yangzom Tsomo is 17 years old. After finishing her junior high school last year, she returned to Niru and started to do farm work with her father. She decided to go to the pasture this summer and learn how to graze. The son is still in primary school.
Compared with days when we were young, the children have way better conditions now. Diqing Prefecture has fully implemented a unified and centralized school system, and 14 years of free education, including the first 2 years of pre-school, 9 years of compulsory education, and 3 years of high school. Plus, local children all go to schools in the county or town, learning and living together.
Although education conditions has improved, many children in pastoral areas still struggle to understand the phrase “knowledge changes the fate”. For those who don’t have relatively good academic performance, they return to the village to farm, or go to pastures to graze.
Yaks in the pasture.
Yangzom Tsomo who received junior high education is active and smart. She speaks Mandarin, and some simple English. She uses her knowledge to communicate with visitors to Niru, and occasionally tries to use her cell phone to send pictures or short videos of her hometown with words introducing the village to the outside world.
Over the past two days, good news has been heard. Starting from the 16th this month, as the risk of the outbreak gradually decreased, many scenic spots in Shangri-La that had been closed for over two months started to be open to tourists. The Shangri-La-Lijiang expressway and railway under construction is expected to be put into use by the end of this year. On 19th, Yunnan Province announced that the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture had got rid of poverty!
As the weather warms up, my sister’s inn will welcome waves of guests. The “new herder” Yangzom Tsomo is also expecting them.
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