The kids are drunk with the happiness of companionship. It is always fun to travel with friends and everyone seems to have found a buddy they can pal around with. Sadie sticks her head as close to hanging out the window as possible, and she welcomes the wind as it whips through her hair, leaving knots the size of roadkill for me to comb through later.
Tongren and its wide, arched gate welcomes us with little fanfare and no roadblocks as we gratefully enter in, having heard of some possible sensitivity the day before because of the Dalai Lama's birthday.
The hills are awash again with evenings gift of golden stupor, the whole sky beckoning for notice and a hand offered in praise, a song perhaps of worship. The hills themselves are singing their own song and it is only ever left to us if we will join in, and I wish in some ways I was not so inhibited or perhaps I just would.
Up Into the Hills
First morning waking up in Tongren. We open our eyes to a view of first light coming up behind the mountains, overlooking the city.
After breakfast, we walk up through the Tibetan quarter of town, where the original village houses stand. The road dividing the Chinese quarter from the Tibetan is a narrow, tough stretch of uphill road that appears to be dug up today, a sewer line being laid. We follow the road up behind the edge of town to where the ascent starts sharply up the near side of the ridge on this end of town. A dusty, beaten path steeply rises, and we climb, little legs and big, for the good bit of an hour til we reach the crest. Following the ridge line up, we stop at a tepee-like canopy of prayer flags. The flags are gathered here as one of the many Tibetan Buddhist "hot spots," where the belief is that the prayers are especially heard. The line of flags then continues in a long, snakelike stretch up the mountain. Each wave of the flag in the wind sends up the prayers of Buddhist scriptures printed out on the flag.
So many prayers. So much hope to be heard.
We stop for a bit of a rest and to offer our own prayers on behalf of this town and the people we know in it. The boys all continue on to the top while we clamber down, then head to the old landlord's home for lunch.
A Tibetan Home
Around earthen walls and through narrow alleyways, the path climbs up the curve of the village slope as it hugs the base of the mountain. Each doorway in the earth walls is a beautiful, wooden arch of thick columns and intricate carvings. We enter one into a courtyard where flowers bloom in a small garden and the house surrounds us in a mixture of old, dry mud walls, piles of discarded pots, stacks of firewood, and the new renovation of pale wood paneling and floors.
The father, patriarch of this family and portly with white hair, greets us. His wife, she too round and sagging with age, opens wide her arms to us, welcoming us with hurried gestures to come sit down, rest, eat. The house is built to surround the courtyard and the rooms are spacious, some filled with the large kang heated bed and some dedicated to the the Buddha with an altar, burning incense, and rows of golden bowls for offering food.
We enter one room lined with couches and low tables where we find large platters of dry, crumbly bread and bowls of sugar. Wan Ma Duo Jie, the Patriarch, has six grown sons. It is the wife of his youngest son who helps serve us today. She begins by filling small bowls with milk tea, which we gulp down gratefully. The feast consists of a rice dish mixed with a roasted root, nutty in flavor, and topped with Yak butter and more sugar. Ryley mutters that the roasted root reminds him too much of tarantula legs and he tries to focus on the bread and tea. Most of the children are hard put to eat much of the rice and pasty cookie dough like specialty called sampa, made by adding a powder to your milk tea, along with butter, and kneading it against the side of the cup, but they give it a valiant effort. Finally, great tubs of rich, creamy yogurt are served, alongside blows of sugar and great plates of sliced melong. the yogurt rivals any Greek brand sold in high end supermarkets in the West and we scoop it up gratefully.
Song Jie Cai Rang's wife, who has prepared this food, has a young son clinging to her legs, now and then teetering off bravely on his own to peer over the edge of the table or find a small object on the floor to play with. We talk a little, she speaks mostly Tibetan but seems to understand a little of my Chinese.
Zhou Ma, the old man's wife, sits down by my side as I try to keep an eye on the kids who are running wild in the courtyard, finding spiders with bodies the size of my knuckles and climbing the ladder to the roof. We smile and compare her long, thigh skimming black braids tied together at the ends in traditional Tibetan style, to Sadie's twin french braids. She takes my thin, long white hands into her thick, brown ones, looking them over, then searching my palms for some sort of telling sign.
As we ready to leave, Zhou Ma brings out two round, crusty loaves of bread the size of a tractor steering wheel. We laugh in delight and astonishment at such a gift. The late afternoon light is just hitting the edge of the mountain ridge high above the courtyard roof rim as we say our goodbyes. White smoke rises from the cypress leaves burning as incense in a small metal stand, and we whisper prayers in our hearts for these precious people as we walk away.