A fortuitous trip into “town” (in this case Zhongdian) means a quick stop in a local Internet Cafe. We’ve been spending the last few days in Napa Village, a small Tibetan (with a dash of Naxi) settlement not too far outside of Zhongdian. The village is on the edge of Napa Hai which in wetter weather is a large, shallow lake but at this time of the year transforms into a broad, green expanse of pasture land dotted with more yak than one would think possible.
The villagers of Napa have made several transformations themselves in the last few years, shifting their economy from pastoral agriculture supplemented by quasi-legal logging to ecotourism supplemented by a quasi-legal toll booth blocking the new highway which runs through the area. In fact those traveling in Northwest Yunnan should be prepared for several of these make-shift money-making roadblocks. All over the Zhongdian area local villagers are whacking passing vehicles (even bicycles, one villager proudly announced at dinner) for 30 RMB a pop. My students were a bit perplexed until I reminded them that highway brigandry has long been a staple of the local economy and the new toll both minders are far more polite than their 19th-century predecessors. (For more on this, check out any of Joseph Rock’s writings on traveling in Northwestern Yunnan in the 1920s and 1930s.)
Our program has been coming to Napa, and the neighboring village of Ta, for many years in part due to a good relationship with Zhaxi Dorge, the ecotourism godfather/benefactor of the area who runs the Tibet Cafe and Shambala Ranch out of Zhongdian. Zhaxi has worked hard over the years to create a sustainable model of ecotourism which directly benefits the villagers while trying to avoid the fate of overdevelopment and tourist kitsch/crush suffered by other small minority communities in China.
We’ve been staying with the local villagers this week and learning a lot from them through an odd mix of pidgin putonghua and the local Tibetan. Even K, our Tibetan Studies professor who is based in Lhasa, has some trouble understanding the local lingo though we’ve found that when he speaks the Lhasa dialect, there are people, mostly older folks and monks, who can understand him.
Our students, as usual, have been great and have really bonded with several of their village contemporaries while working on a range of field research projects including household economics, ethnomusicology, gender and kinship relations, and local environmental issues.
The house where I’m staying is a real trip, the host is the head of the local tollbooth scheme and he tells us great stories every evening about stopping foreigners and nouveau-riche Han tourists, holding their cars for ransom until they buy a “village ticket.” Mind you he’s telling these yarns all the while chain smoking Yunnan cigarettes through a three-foot metal bong. Between his trucker hat, wispy beard, long hair, and the aforementioned smoking device, he reminds me a lot of my sadly departed Uncle Tim from Maine. It’s actually a bit eerie.
We’ll be in Napa for a few more days before traveling on to Yading and our cicumambulation of “The Goddess of Mercy,” one of three holy mountains near Yading in Southwest Sichuan.
Not sure when I’ll be blessed with Internet again, more later.