Thu 9 Feb 2006
The dim light cast long-fingered shadows along the splintered walls of the village tavern, dappling the faded images of Tibetan celebrities half-shredded by time with shades of yellow and grey, covering the scene in which I sat with a golden glow, from the half-seen visages of grinning individuals who had never before met a westerner, to the man standing serenading us with his mandel and his voice, in traditional Tibetan style, to the small stove burning coal late into the night, emanating heat from the middle of the room. The village’s name has faded into the rivers of bijou that poured from the hard bottle that seemed to be clenching a cigarette in its mouth that night, a village just outside of Tongren city in Qinghai province, in a valley surrounded by a lunar landscape of craters and yaks: It was the end of the third day of the Lunar New Year, a day which, in this village, at least, saw various rituals performed throughout the firework-spangled night
Tongren has long been a roaming ground for the nomadic peoples of the western grasslands; a battleground from the Han up until the Tang Dynasty, and a frontier region until the beginning of the twentieth century – in many ways it is still a frontier. It was only recently, after its traditionally isolated ethnic minorities of Tibetans, Mongolians, Salar, Tu, Hui and roughly fifty others were incorporated into the newly created Qinghai province of the P.R.C., that the tensions between these groups turned into a hybridization which has created exceptionally unique cultural traditions specific to small niches of the population. One of the broader traditions which sprouted about 700 years ago is that of Rebgong art, a style of Thangka, Barbola, and sculpture which is unique in China for its bright colors and fine lines, and the primary reason why Tongren is known to any but a few individuals outside of China.
I had come to the village at the invitation of a friend I had met in Tongren one night at a bar while dancing to techno music with a hundred awestruck Tibetans clapping and pointing, a man who boasted the ‘English’ name Enrico. The first to go to college in his village, Enrico had made himself known by slapping down a pack of cigarettes and four beers in front of me before sitting and singing a folk song for all he was worth, right in my ear. We had become fast friends, and motorcycle rides, Cham dances, fire-festivals, weddings, monks setting off fireworks and getting in candy fights, and hours of revelry followed, but that is all a different story. On this night we were in his hometown, and I was being shown just how hospitable Tibetans could be.
Hours after we had first entered the tavern, bottles overpopulated the table and a bilious cloud of smoke hung low in the small room, and the place had welcomed what seemed to be every young man in the village, all having come out to see the foreigner. Drinking games were exchanged, as were songs, and laughter – equipped with the purest smiles on earth. Then, late into the night, Enrico leaned close to my ear. ‘It is time for the haircutting ritual.’ He said, and everyone stood and stumbled out, into the night grinning with the thousand lights of the constellated stars.
Some wandered home, some sprawled on their backs and out-smiled the heavens; Enrico and I made our way through the potted streets to a door like many others, and after passing into the compound we were led by a covey of squealing children to a door which emitted light from the cracks around its edges. Inside, a large extended family was circled around a little girl with long, tattered hair. I was told that her hair hadn’t been cut in the three years of her life, and that it was on this night that ritual would finally denude her scalp. Alcohol and cigarettes were passed – a must in any Tibetan gathering – and the children learned to fear me when I clawed my hands and snarled; until the youngest boy began to return the act, at which point I accepted my defeat.
After much crying, nursing and petting, the child stood with a small sliver of hair coming down the back of her head, dancing just above her shoulders, and other than that the peach-fuzz looked electrified, rigidly pointing out in all directions. At this point Enrico and I were invited to the seats of honor in a small alcove set above the floor, with the elders of the family, who we proceeded to drink under the table, as was only polite. The men began to sing, the children starting attacking me, Enrico laughed as hard as I had ever heard him laugh, and it was suddenly four in the morning, and we were being ushered out by yawning grandpa’s who knew the next day would be much the same as that day had been.
We managed to make it to his house that night, and I curled up on the floor under a blanket and slept a deep, dreamless sleep. I was woken early in the morning by a painfully hung-over Enrico who told me in attempted enthusiasm to come outside. Once I’d emerged, feeling like a vampire in a silent movie, I was told to hold the goat in the courtyard while Enrico’s father prepared it to be released to wander the streets of the village. A yellow Khatta was tied to its neck, yak’s milk was poured over its back, and a small prayer was murmured as I gripped the horns of the goat, who I knew to be at least as confused as I.
Once these preparatory rituals had been performed, the goat was unceremoniously shooed out of the dirt square of their courtyard. Enrico and I followed, heading out of town for another day of unforgettable beauty. We followed the goat as it ambled towards the river which separated the village from the main road. Enrico leaned close again, ‘You’re lucky, man. There‘s wedding at bridge.’
I looked up, stopping my perusal of the gravel on the road and my reverie of the changes I was going through in response to the inimitable generosity I was experiencing, and saw that he was right. The bridge held a gaggle of people, the groom’s family, and they were waiting as the bride’s family led her up the road leading out of the village, preparing to give her away to the groom’s village and thus her new life as his wife. It was a relatively somber affair, compared with a simple night’s drinking, yet beautiful for the recognition of the symbolism involved, for the small moment I witnessed it and thus became part of their story, for the westerner watching as they began a life that would parallel mine for decades in such different yet similar ways that my hung-over mind could only sigh, and my dehydrated mouth could only try to chuckle.