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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Quand Gao Pin Yun Ma parcourt les montagnes tibétaines

by Pierre Barbancey


Translated Thursday 11 September 2008, by Shelagh Rothero

China: There are some Tibetan communities tucked away in the depths of Qinghai Province. When I met one of the inhabitants of this high plateau, we talked of the Dalai Lama, of power and the future of Tibet.

Yushu (Qinghai Province) from our special correspondent

This is one of the remotest corners of Qinghai Province, extending between the steppes of Amdo in the north and the dense forests of Kham in the south. In Yushu, for that is the name of this area, 97% of the administrative authorities are Tibetan and there are many Buddhist monasteries. The journey there starts in Xining, the provincial capital, and involves a seventeen hour coach trip towards the Tibetan border. The route plunges through valleys and climbs over mountains, crossing passes at 4,800 metres, impressive overhanging cliffs in majestic scenery where the grasslands of the steppe sweep up to peaks which are more than 6,000 metres high.

By Chinese standards, Yushu (4,000 metres), with its 270,000 inhabitants, is a small town. Several dozen of its denizens are present in the square where we find, not a statue of a political dictator, but a yak – an animal which, although not quite as sacred as the cows in India, is of great economical importance and is, at the moment, irreplaceable. A mixture of old and young women sit right on the pavement with bowls of cheese products in front of them. The men, with hats jammed on their heads, some of them dressed in traditional Tibetan style, are very busy. They palaver, a scene one might sooner expect to encounter in an African village, pulling out calculators and small scales, vociferating over an amazing specimen. All this fuss is about the yartsa gunbu, a mushroom fungus which infects caterpillars, and is known for its virtues as a sexual stimulant!

Among them is Gao Pin Yun Ma, a sturdy fellow in his fifties. He has two children (a privilege granted to Tibetans and other ethnic minority groups, unlike the Han, a majority in China, submitted to the single child policy) one of whom is a singer. He left his land in the interest of preserving the steppe and receives from the government a grant of 100,000 yen in compensation (about 10,000 euros) which yields more than 6,000 yen per year. He says he has enough to live on.

“Our living conditions have improved considerably over the past ten years thanks to central government policy,” he says, adding “the problem is that the money is diverted by local management. As a result the Tibetans, who don’t see the difference between local and central level, tend to confuse the two”. He takes us into a valley twenty kilometres from Yushu. A thirty-two year old farmer has recently arrived from the higher summits, where his animals were grazing in preparation for the winter. His wife shifts the canvas bags on the backs of the yaks containing the precious dried dung, an indispensible fuel. He explains that their whole life is built around the animals, including what they eat and drink. In answer to a question about his ethnic background he replies that he feels 100% Tibetan. Like many of those I met, including Gao Pin Yun Ma, he doesn’t conceal his devotion to the Dalai Lama.

He concedes that “At a religious level we are faithful to the Dalai lama. But at a practical level the communists have lifted us out of poverty. We admire both the Chinese president Hu Jinta and the Dalai Lama”. Gao adds “The Communist Party has provided us with food, so we are drawn to the red flag”. The influence of religion and the tradition of Buddhism are so very strong that the only future the young man sees for his six year old son and ten year old daughter is for them to be placed in a temple. “I would like them to be monks” he says fervently. “People respect monks and their families. It’s a sincere hope for this life and beyond.”

In the "School of the Princess", built on a small plateau just above the Temple of Princess Wencheng, (from which it takes its name), children are playing, as children do all over the world. Chicheng Dan Zhen is one of the teachers. All the instruction is in Mandarin and Tibetan. Unlike the Han, the Tibetans do not pay an enrolment fee. At the beginning of the school year, they receive 10,000 yuan per child. Chicheng comments “Everything used to be in Tibetan but nowadays it’s in a mixture of the two languages. If the children don’t study, they won’t be able to find work”.

He, too, considers the Dalai Lama as the ‘bright light’. But, as he shrewdly adds “We have to ask ourselves how we would survive without China”. Chicheng is not a devoted supporter of the central government. He is very cautious and hesitant, even refusing to answer some questions, saying that they are all too dangerous. Gao Pin Yun Ma is not afraid to reply. “The Tibetans are worried that little by little their language is dying out and they are afraid of cultural assimilation. Then there is the question of unemployment due to lack of education”. This only encourages separatist movements here and in Tibet itself, not to mention the support they receive from other countries. He asks “What do they want? Do they really want to return to the times when we had nothing? Must we go back to the days of the horse and cart?”.

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