GW Expat: Winter, beauty in Tibet

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China, and is spending the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from East Asia as one of GW’s many expats.

I turned onto my back prepared to spoil the warm habitat I’d created and pushed aside 30 pounds of military blanket. As the cold air rushed in, I threw on long johns and stumbled to the window. The sun was rising above the mountain tops littered with the snow from the night before and amidst the pines, yellow and red patches of autumn leaves were strewn across the steep deep green valley walls.

To warm my hands, I turned and filled a glass with hot water from the thermos beside the bed. Light poured into the room, illuminating the colors of the traditional Tibetan paintings that covered the walls of the large wood house. Checkers, circles and curving shapes of orange, yellow, reds and blues covered the inside walls and ceilings, and the walls of the houses in the valley below.

Holding my cup of steaming water, leaning on the windowsill, looking from a room of rich cultural heritage that is looking to the valley of colors above, all things seemed to come together. Any awareness of countries, races and life in large cities left my consciousness. I was in Shangri-La.

In reality, I was staying within the borders of Jiuzhaigou, known as Natural Preserve in Sichuan province, with a Tibetan family who live in one of the nine ancient Tibetan communities after whom the park is named. Located in the northern tip of Sichuan between the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the Sichuan Basin, the remarkable preserve is actually not far from Shangri-La, which takes its name from the mythical Tibetan city of moral goodness and scenic beauty called Shambalah.

Living in a house with a Tibetan family along streams of crystal clear, aqua-blue rivers and lakes in a valley of colorful autumn leaves is as close as I will ever get to being in Shambalah. My hosts were friendly and beautiful, as we found most Tibetans to be.

Children running around on the street have snot running down their noses onto their upper lips and the rosy red cheeks of a Raggedy Anne doll. People on the street are cheery, anxious to speak a few words of English and converse a little in Chinese, sometimes even over a bit of rice wine and yak meat.

Last year, to reduce tourist traffic inside the park, officials made it illegal for tourists to sleep in the park with Tibetan families. But if you discreetly ask a Tibetan on the street, and are inside the house by closing time, families are still willing to take the risk of fines to recover some of their lost income. I ate breakfast and dinner with the family, and by the end, we were laughing and talking together regularly.

Year round, men wear thick woolen robes sometimes with lamb pelts sewn in as a lining. Since I left Harbin in the far north for Sichuan province in the south, I thought I was going to be greeted by warm weather. But I was wrong. Thankfully, as the rule of traveling light states – if you need it, you can buy it there – and by the end of the trip, I too was walking around town in a thick woolen Tibetan robe, toasty and receiving lots of waves and “looks good!” from passersby.

Chinese tourists, who, like most Chinese, are eager to compare the U.S. and China, often asked me, “How does it compare to Yellowstone?” I would reply, “Oh, about the same.”

I would pause for them to smile and nod, half-contented, and then say, “But you have ethnic minorities in China, so you win.” This of course made them very happy and I now have lots of friends.

But flattery of Chinese egos aside, the scenic landscapes of China that are complimented by the 52 ethnic minorities who live within China’s borders, are unique in geology and wildlife and rich in culture.

In modern times, Shangri-La has been denigrated by a chain of five-star hotels, but its origin in the scenic beauty of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the good people who live there remain.

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