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IN NOMAD COUNTRY
AFTER SUCCESSFULLY CONCLUDING MORE THAN A YEAR of negotiations, we left Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in June 1986 to begin our study of the nomadic pastoralists of West Tibet. It was a dream come true.
Both of us already had considerable experience working with Tibetans outside of Tibet, but never expected to be the first anthropologists permitted to conduct in-depth ethnological fieldwork in Tibet itself. Goldstein, who first began studying Tibetan language and culture in 1960, recalls how the project came into being.
When China launched its new 'open-door policy" in the early 1980,s, I felt compelled to at least try to secure permission to conduct research in Tibet proper, and in 1982 proposed a study to assess recent linguistic and terminological change in Tibet to the Committee for Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China (the U.S. National Program for Advanced Research in China). As part of a bilateral cultural-exchange agreement between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China, it seemed the best hope for securing Chinese permission to do research in politically sensitive Tibet. The linguistic topic seemed appropriate since I had published a large Tibetan-English dictionary and two textbooks for studying Tibetan, and assumed that this would give credibility to my proposal in Beijing. The project was approved by the U.S. side in 1982, but was not acted on by the Chinese at this time. 'They did not reject the proposal, but instead enigmatically informed us that conditions in Tibet were not yet appropriate for inviting foreign researchers. It was not until the Spring of 1985, three years later, that I suddenly received a phone call from Washington saying, "The Chinese have finally approved your study and want you to come for two months-beginning as soon as possible." A few weeks later I was on my way to Lhasa.
During that first brief visit to Tibet, I was struck by the seeming vitality of nomad life in West Tibet. My hosts in Lhasa, at the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences (TASS), suggested I take a trip to see other parts of Tibet and I asked to visit West Tibet. In 1974 and 1976, I had conducted extended fieldwork with ethnic Tibetans in a remote part of northwest Nepal just across the border from West Tibet. During one of those research stints I had climbed up onto the mountain range that separated Nepal and Tibet and looked down into Tibet, frustrated that I could not descend with the local villagers and visit Tibet's holiest mountain, Mt. Kailash, which dominated the distant horizon. So when TASS offered me a trip, I immediately asked permission to visit Kailash, hoping I might also meet my old friends from Nepal who typically spend most of the summer trading in that part of Tibet. I left in a small jeep accompanied by my son Andre (a Chinese-language student at Beijing's People's University), several foul-smelling Jerry cans full of gasoline which we would need when we crossed the wilderness areas, and a pleasant Tibetan driver named Kesang, who continuously puffed away on Chinese cigarettes, treating as silly our admonitions about the risk of igniting an explosion.
The route to Mt. Kailash traversed nomad country for hundreds of miles,and we stopped daily at their tents to make tea and eat our midday meal. Although their dialect was difficult to understand, they seemed friendly and appeared to be still living the traditional life-many of the women, in fact, wore striking black makeup just as they had hundreds of years ago. The political climate in Tibet also seemed ripe for a major project, so when I returned to America I discussed the possibility of a joint field study of nomads with Cynthia Beall, a professor of physical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University who had conducted numerous studies of high-altitude populations both in the Andes and in Nepal.
Beall, who spoke "rough and ready" Tibetan, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to extend her work in Nepal to Tibet where people live at higher elevations. We worked up a research plan and when I returned to Lhasa in the winter of 1985 to finish the language project, I presented our proposal (in Tibetan) to the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences. These gods of Tibet must have been with us, for TASS seemed genuinely taken with the idea of a collaborative study of nomads. The hitch was that we wanted to live like nomads for a year in an area restricted to foreigners. "What would happen if you got seriously ill or fell off a horse and broke a bone?" they asked. "Why don't you just spend two summers there?"
I explained at length how the anthropological approach necessitates longterm immersion in a culture, and how we both had conducted fieldwork in Northwestern Nepal and regularly walked over rugged terrain for two weeks to reach the research sites, and how once there, we had eaten (and enjoyed) traditional Tibetan food. We later discovered that Kesang, the Kailash trip driver, had supported our claims to hardiness by telling people at TASS that my son and I were able to circumambulate Mt. Kailash on foot in one day just as Tibetan pilgrims do, leaving well before dawn and returning at 10:30 at night. Ultimately, TASS appreciated that our study design required living with the nomads during all seasons, and that we seemed tough enough to handle the altitudes and hardships, and they approved the project in principle.
When I returned to the U.S. in January of 1986, Cynthia and I worked feverishly to raise funding for the study, and with the help of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Exploration and Research, the National Academy of Science's Committee for Scholarly Communications with the People's Republic of China, and later the National Science Foundation and private companies which donated equipment, we were ready to begin our field research in 1986.
However, in May 1986, just as we were about to leave for Tibet, we received disappointing word from China that our program had to be formalized in a written agreement with Lhasa before they would issue us research visas. Knowing that it would be impossible to do this by mail, we decided to go to Lhasa anyway to negotiate the terms, hoping to start the research immediately afterwards.
The specific terms of the written agreement had to be worked out with the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, our host institution which, in turn, had to secure permission from the government of the TAR. We wasted no time on sightseeing, and two days after we arrived in Lhasa, began a series of meetings to finalize an agreement. Negotiations ultimately took a whole month: this was TASS's first formal research agreement with Western scholars and there were many issues to hammer out. Initially, for example, they suggested that we turn over all our field notes to them and then ask for sections back as we needed them to write up the study We, of course, politely refused, saying that we had to have complete access to all of our data. Ultimately, all issues were resolved to our mutual satisfaction and the agreement was signed at a formal ceremony complete with toasts and a photographer in an elegant room with Tibetan carpets and furnishings.
Tea made with salt and butter is one of Tibet's most unusual foods. Nomads and villagers drink tea throughout the day, and contrary to what one might imagine, it is very tasty.
The unusual tea comes from inland China, compressed into rock-hard balls or bricks, which keep for decades. It is not uncommon to need a knife to break or chip off a part for use.
A handful is crumbled into a pot of water and boiled until it takes on a deep brown color. Tealeaves are re-boiled several times, and eventually become horse fodder. Although the nomads do drink this tea plain with just salt, typically they pour it into a small wooden chum together with a handful of salt and a lump of butter and aerate the mixture with a wooden plunger. The tan-colored 'tea-salt-butter' mixture is poured into a clay or metal teapot for serving. The oft-repeated comment that Tibetans particularly appreciate rancid butter in their tea is one of the ridiculously untrue myths about Tibet. Fresh butter is used when it is available. They may also use oil ff no butter is available.
We drank this tea regularly and enjoyed it, although it tastes more like a Western-style broth than anything we would recognize as 'tea" in a blindfold test. We particularly appreciated it in cold weather, for it seemed to warm to the core in a way our own tea did not.
One day soon after we arrived, a couple of nomad women from our encampment stopped by our tent just as Cynthia was making some Darjeeling tea. Fascinated by the shiny stainless-steel tea ball, they asked her what she was doing. She explained and offered them a taste. After the first sip they thought a bit, whispered something to each other, and then asked our cook for, some salt which they added to their cups. After their second sip, smiles emerged and they nodded, informing us that our tea was really not bad at all-it just needed a dash of salt.
Having been packed for weeks, we departed for the field the day after the formal signing ceremony. Sonam, an official from TASS, and Lobsang, our research assistant, accompanied us to Tsatsey (pronounced tsa-tsay) district, the area 300 miles northwest of Lhasa we had selected to study
Sonam was from an aristocratic family that had been sympathetic to the Chinese and their reforms from early on. As a youth, he had been a soldier in Tibet in the People's Liberation Army, and had served as an official in a nomad area adjacent to Tsatsey during the Cultural Revolution (in the 1970s). His experience in nomad country provided us helpful information on the events that had transpired there following the Chinese assumption of control over Tibet in 1959, and invaluable insights into what life would be like.
Lobsang, on the other hand, was not a government official or "cadre," as they call them in China. He was one of "the masses" (mangtso), i.e., from the common people. Although he spoke not a word of English and his education had stopped at middle school, he was a true intellectual with an alert and inquisitive mind. In his forties, he had retired early from his job as the accountant of a Lhasa cooperative business and was engaged in small business when we met him through a mutual Lhasa friend. He fulfilled all our requirements for a research assistant: he was intelligent, outgoing, verbal, and able to interact comfortably with all levels and classes of society. Moreover, in the early 1960s he had lived in Northern Tibet in a labor camp mining borax, so we did not have to worry about his ability to withstand the rigors of life in tents in nomad country.
Two days of travel from Lhasa in a Toyota Landcruiser took us southwest to Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city, and then due west to Ngamring, the county seat of the nomad area we had chosen. The current administrative structure of the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] consists of seven large administrative units called "prefectures," each containing some of Tibet's 77 "counties" (shen). These, in turn, are made up of "districts" (called chii) containing "villages" (shang). Ngamring, located in Shigatse prefecture, is a relatively large county seat that includes a high school and several score of government offices.
Ngamring's leading officials met with us in the county's large conference room. Bright red Tibetan-style coffee tables were lined up in front of the several black plastic upholstered couches along each of three sides of the room; a pot-belly stove sat in the center of the room. On one wall, three large framed pictures of Marx, Lenin, and Mao hung fading, a strange juxtaposition with the colorful tables and bright new Tibetan carpets draped over each couch. We all sat down and were served Chinese style loose green tea in spotless porcelain cups, each with a matching lid.
The officials, all Tibetan but one, knew we were coming to conduct research with nomadic pastoralists, and asked which of the three nomadic pastoral districts under Ngamring we were planning to visit and how long we planned to stay We explained our intentions and also answered a number of questions about America-for example, whether it was really true that everyone had his own automobile. In turn, we asked them many questions about the climate, roads, and differences among their three nomad districts. They had never dreamed that foreigners would have studied their language and be able to communicate with them in Tibetan, and seemed, not only impressed, but proud. Our presentation went well and early the next morning, our third day out from Lhasa, we left for Tsatsey, one of three district headquarters in Ngamring and one of the hundreds of isolated district headquarters in the vast nomad country that covers the western and northwestern Changtang of the TAR. After traveling about 60 miles westward on Tibet's main east-west road, we reached Sangsang, a sleepy district headquarters where we stopped for a cup of Tibetan tea at the house of the school principal (a former nomad himself) who was a good friend of Sonam, the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences' representative.
Sangsang is located at 14,600 feet in the center of a large pastoral district bisected by Tibet's main east-west motor road. This road is key to Tibet's communications infrastructure, linking the Ali (Ngari) Prefecture, which sits in the west on the hostile Indian border, with the rest of Tibet. It is unpaved, although some sections of it are maintained by donkey-drawn carts that pull scrapers to level the surface and by road crews that shovel dirt and stones on or off the road as appropriate. However, it is really nothing more than a rough rural dirt road in the U.S.
After an hour of conversation, dry meat, and hot tea, we left Sangsang and the main road, traveling north on a rugged, unimproved, and unmarked dirt track. We passed nothing but ranges of snowcapped peaks, herds of gazelle and wild asses, and one or two nomad tents. Our research design required a relatively remote area away from the heavily traveled road so that we could study nomadic pastoralism in a community that had not been altered by special development projects or by the road itself. As we had hoped, this area seemed perfect, for it was clearly not some "showcase" nomad area.
We intended to conduct our study in one of Tsatsey's eight nomad ups (shang), but needed more information about the eight in order to decide which would serve our needs best. So we planned to stay overnight in Tsatsey's district headquarters to discuss this with the officials there. We were on a tight schedule because the representative from TASS had to return to Lhasa that next day with the car to help host a close relative of the King of Nepal.
As luck would have it, the drive from Sangsang took longer than expected because we missed a turn and drove in the wrong direction for a couple of hours. There is no road per se in this area and one simply drives on the plains trying to follow the faint tracks of the last car or truck that passed by. The vague instructions we received at Sangsang said only to turn west after several hours driving and go just south of a Founded snowcapped peak, crossing a river and a small bridge. After three hours of travel north, we suspected we were lost, but we encountered no one whom we could ask for another two hours. Finally we spied a lone tent and stopped to ask where we were. The old nomad woman living there laughed when she heard that we were headed for Tsatsey. informing us that we were actually in Tshome district, she pointed south and said that the road to Tsatsey veered west a long ways back.
She made us some tea and we dug into our tsamba bag and made a quick meal.
After the meal, we backtracked, found the junction and finally arrived at the Tsatsey headquarters shortly after sunset, at 10:30 p.m. Located in the middle of a large flat plain where the nomads' headman used to live in the pre-Chinese days, Tsatsey consists of four large compounds, one for officials, one for the store and trade offices, one for a clinic, and one for the primary school. Each compound contains a square of one-story attached rooms surrounding a spacious courtyard large enough to hold six to eight trucks or a long yak caravan.
Our Landcruiser pulled into a dark, deserted courtyard that reminded us of a U.S. ghost town. The wind was awful, the swirling dust forcing us to shield our eyes as we set about finding the Tsatsey officials. It turned out that they were all at a party and, if truth be told, seemed to have had quite a bit to drink. When they first saw us in the poor light of a fading gasoline lamp, they responded with a shocked reserve bordering on hostility. However, once they realized that the Lhasa official from TASS was none other than Sonam, their old friend from Sangsang, and that we had permission to be there, their attitude changed completely and we were treated like visiting dignitaries.
Dorje, the district head, escorted us to the visitors' quarters. Wedged into a low mud-brick room with a single tiny window were five knee-high wooden bed frames each with two rolled-up quilts and a pillow adorned with a small towel as is current Chinese custom. A pot-bellied iron dung- burning stove with a crooked chimney sat in the middle, almost touching two of the beds. Dorje lent us a lamp, gave us a thermos of hot Tibetan tea together with a leg of antelope meat to boil for dinner, and saw to it that a sackful of dry yak-dung patties was delivered.
While the antelope meat simmered in the wee hours of that night, he took us to the quarters of his colleague, the communist party chairman, to discuss each of Tsatsey's eight nomad units so that we could select the one most appropriate for our research. Both officials were Tibetans, and the conversation was entirely in Tibetan. We later ascertained that there were no Han (ethnic Chinese) officials in Tsatsey and that Tibetan was the mode of communication even for official correspondence and records. We stayed up late that night asking questions and narrowing down the choices because the car had to leave the next evening and we wanted to transport our equipment and food to one of Tsatsey's eight nomad groups before it left. But choosing an area was difficult-some had more households, or more goats, or more sheep, but all seemed very similar. Ultimately, we selected what we thought was an "average" community-one that was neither the richest nor the poorest in the area, as well as two back-up sites in case the first proved unsatisfactory for some unforeseen reason. No restrictions were placed on which group or groups within Tsatsey we lived and worked with.
Tsamba, the nomads' staple food, is ground barley that looks and feels like flour, although it has been popped (like popcorn) and is thus edible without further processing. It provides about half of the nomads' calories.
Preparation begins with wetting the raw barley kernels and tossing them, a few handfuls at a time, onto sand which has been heated to a high temperature. A few seconds of tossing the kernels with the heated sand pops them without scorching since the sand diffuses the heat evenly. Pouring the mixture into a sieve separates the popped barley (called yo) from the sand. For grinding, the popped kernels are fed through a hole in the center of the upper of two flat round stones making up the hand mill. Each of these stones weighs about 30-50 pounds and is about 15 inches in diameter. The resultant white 'flour," called tsamba, spills out from between the stones onto a large cloth or hide placed under the mill. Milling is done every other day or so because the nomads prepare only a small supply (a few pounds) at a time, preferring to eat 'fresh-ground" tsamba.
As a light snack, tsamba is eaten dry by pouring a spoonful on the tongue where it gradually becomes wet from saliva. Until we became used to this style of eating, we often embarrassed ourselves with fits of coughing after accidentally inhaling some of the dry tsamba. We quickly learned not to talk or even breathe (inhale) until the dry tsamba got wet. To make a more filling meal, Tibetans mix a little tea into their tsamba and knead it with their right hand, all the while turning the bowl with their left. The result is a stiff dough-like bau that is called ba. Tsamba is also mixed with enough tea to make a concoction the consistency of cooked oatmeal.
The barley flavor is often enhanced by the addition of butter, dried cheese, and even a dried molasses imported from Nepal known as gurum. Or a layer of yogurt might be added on top of the tsamba and then licked off and another added, until the tsamba is finished.
We usually ate one or another form of tsamba for breakfast and lunch, and then ate rice or unleavened bread for dinner. So as not to strain the nomads' resources, we brought all our food from Lhasa, except for yogurt and meat which we bought when it was plentiful. Tsamba is a great trail food because it requires no further cooking and can be eaten with plain water if it is not feasible to make a fire and tea, for example during a storm. Eaten with dried cheese and meat, it provides a highly nutritious meal that requires virtually no preparation and at most, one pot to boil water.
Early the next morning we squeezed back into the Landcruiser, accompanied by Dorje, who had graciously agreed to introduce us personally to the community. It was normally a four- to five-hour trip, but again we encountered problems. While driving across what looked like a frozen river, one of our wheels broke through the ice, leaving us stuck in the middle of the river, halfway up a mountain pass at 17,100 feet. We were devastated since we knew that unless we freed the car quickly, there would not be enough time for it to take us farther and we would either have to go back to Tsatsey and start off again with a yak caravan, or wait where we were while Dorje returned and sent us yaks from Tsatsey. Having already wasted a month of research time in Lhasa negotiating the agreement, we had visions of wasting another two weeks: although we were only two or three hours away from our destination by car, it would take three to four days of travel by yak caravan once we managed to round up enough animals, a task that would certainly take at least another seven to 10 days.
With the rays of the blazing sun reflecting off the ice and snow, we spent several hours pushing, pulling, and rocking the car in a futile attempt to free it, gradually unloading our gear-tents, tent poles, sleeping bags, and food-to lighten the car. Finally, Dole walked an hour to a nomad camp we had seen on the way up, while we scouted around to see if there was enough fuel (dung) lying around to allow us to camp there if necessary. Dorje returned with some nomads who helped us extricate ourselves after another hour or two of jacking up the car, pulling it a foot, and then repeating the process. It was hard and slow work, and by the time we freed ourselves, our fears were realized-it was too late to reach the site that was our first choice.
Our driver wanted to return to Tsatsey immediately and leave us to move by yak from there-We tried to persuade him to take us farther. At this junction, Dorje remarked that once we crossed the pass, one of our second choices, the area known as Pala, was less than an hour away The driver then reluctantly agreed to drop us there and, as the sun descended toward the horizon, we crossed the Parong Pass (17,500 feet) and descended into a valley several miles wide that was ringed with snowcapped peaks. Again there was no road per se, so we drove across the valley floor moving toward a spectacular sapphire-blue lake that we later learned was called Motso Piinnyi, "Two Sisters" lake. Our destination that evening was a small encampment of three black yak-hair tents pitched about a quarter mile in front of the lake. We planned to stay there for a few days while we organized a yak caravan to move us to our intended site three days distant.
At the unusual sound of the approaching vehicle, people rushed out of their tents and were astonished at the sight of two foreigners accompanying Dorje. Invited in, we sat down, as custom dictated, to the right of the fire blazing in the center of the tent. Trinley, a 63-year-old nomad, was minding the fire, aromatic smoke whirling around his head as he pumped his goatskin bellow to keep it burning hot. Because there are no trees or shrubs on the Changtang, yak, sheep and goat dung are used for fuel. As we would gradually come to understand, these nomads most often use goat and sheep dung (called rima in Tibetan) because it is more plentiful than yak dung and bums hotter. However, unlike yak dungwhich will burn by itself once it is ignited, rima requires aeration from a bellows to keep it burning.
We learned that we were the first Westerners they had ever seen, and were not surprised when Trinley stared at us curiously while another nomad moved about offering us traditional nomad hospitality-Tibetan tea, yogurt, and tsamba.
Serving tea to guests is a universal form of Tibetan hospitality, and travelers always carry small wooden drinking bowls called poba in their pockets since hosts are not expected to provide cups for visitors. When the host offers tea, the guest places his or her bowl on a small foot-high table (or stone or piece of sod). Nomad etiquette calls for leaving the newly filled cupuntouched until the host returns with the teapot to offer more. By this time the tea has cooled somewhat and the butter has separated forming a thin layer on top of the tea. The guest then blows away a patch of butter to reveal the dark liquid beneath, takes a large gulp of the tea, and sets the cup down again so that the waiting host can refill it. Then it sits again until the next offer to replenish it. Both of us had drunk Tibetan tea before and liked it, but were surprised by our first experience with Pala nomad tea because the flavor was very strong, almost bitter, and there was very little salt compared to Lhasa tea. We later learned that nomad tea contains only about half the salt and butter of standard Lhasa tea. So different were the nomad and Lhasa teas that in the ensuing months when we occasionally hired nomads to pump the bellows for our fires, they brought tea from their own tent rather than drink the tea made by our Lhasa assistant, which they found too salty.
After a few cups of tea and some small talk and jokes about "Imperialist America," the "paper tiger" they had heard criticized frequently during the Cultural Revolution, we explained that we planned to study the nomadic pastoral way of life by living with Tsatsey nomads during all seasons in the coming year and a half. As they heard our plan, a look of incredulity appeared on Trinley's face. He stopped pumping his bellows and said hesitantly, "But it is not possible for you to live here on the Changtang in tents. It is bitterly cold and windy in winter, and only we, the drokba (nomads),4 can survive here."
Elaborating in excruciatingly vivid detail about the bitter cold, he again said proudly that only the drokba can cope. We, in turn, assured him (without much conviction) that it is very cold and snowy at our "encampment" in Cleveland, where we both teach in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. He seemed amused to hear that it snowed in America, but was clearly unconvinced.
After that somewhat pessimistic evaluation of our prospects, Dorje and the other TASS official left in the Toyota Landcruiser, and we set up our first night's camp by moonlight, beginning our study of the inhabitants of one of the world's last scientific frontiers-the awesome Changtang.
In the next few days, as we began to discuss our plans with Trinley and the other nomads in the encampment, we not only found them wonderfully open and friendly, but also discovered that the group that was our first choice for a research site would be less appropriate than we thought since it was actually the second richest area in Tsatsey. Consequently, after camping five days beside stunning Two Sisters Lake, talking to the nomads and pondering the options, we concluded that although Pala's 10 home-base encampments (263 persons and 57 households) were a little smaller than we originally desired, it was otherwise perfect, and decided to make it our research site. It was a decision we have never regretted.
Throughout the duration of our study the Pala nomads were extremely cooperative and, as it turned out, our initial plan to study an area larger than Pala was overly optimistic. The nomads' encampments are scattered over several hundred square miles and visiting them repeatedly was a challenge. We had to cross three mountain passes 17,500 feet or higher to reach all 10 of Pala's major encampments, and one circuit of all the encampments could easily take 40 days since much time was wasted rounding up the carrying yaks.