Why do we travel? I found myself pondering this question, not unconscionably, during the thirteen hour sleeper bus ride from Xining to Darlag (达日县), a small county town in southeastern Qinghai’s Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Surrounded by sheepskin-robed Tibetans, cigarette smoke, and the smell of unshoed feet; outside, massive grasslands stretching into the distance towards snow-speckled mountains with only one or two people in sight, I felt at once frighteningly happy to have left my school behind for a few days and yet confused as to how I had gotten myself somewhere I was so out of place, so metaphorically lost. What exactly did I, a well-off city boy from Philly, think I was doing traveling to this remote region of sky-high grasslands and soaring mountains and tent-dwelling nomads and countless yaks?
Cigarette smoke wafted across my face, blown from a nearby passenger towards my slightly open window, causing me to cough violently; my musings and confusions went out the window with it. Fuck it, I thought, we’re probably all out of place trundling through the grasslands on this isolated boat of a bus. I’m just here, and we’ll see what comes of it.
Despite my self-questioning, I actually had more of a specific reason for coming to Golog than when I traveled to the prefectural capital last autumn. This time, I was going to visit Darlag’s Sengcham Drukmo School for Girls, a partner organization of fellow recent-Bowdoin-grad Willy Oppenheim’s Omprakash Foundation and a place I’d been hearing about for some time. The head of the school, Dockpo Tra, was a friend of Willy’s; he had traveled around the world – including one time to Brunswick, Maine (for which occasion, though I was studying in the same town, I had been totally unaware), and spoke excellent English. I had been communicating with Dockpo via phone for months, trying to find a good time to come down, but minor interventions like Saturday classes (on my end) and the authorities closing the county to foreigners (on his) had kept me from visiting until this point. I had planned to travel to Yushu this weekend to look into the recovery efforts, but after being unable to procure a bus ticket (four days in advance!) I rerouted myself and traveled to Darlag instead to check out Dockpo’s school.
My interests in seeing the school were threefold. First, Omprakash had told me they were interested in seeing what was going on, as it had been some time since they sent a volunteer to the school and it was difficult to continually check in on all their NGO partners around the world – especially those in areas as remote as Darlag. Secondly, I was traveling as a representative of my organization, ViA, to see if it would be feasible and worthwhile to send a volunteer there in the future. And lastly, I was motivated by sheer interest; after talking with Dockpo for months and spending time cruising their website, I was motivated to see what this unique school was doing in this remote area of the plateau.
And Darlag is nothing if not remote. I realized this more than ever after the sleeper bus left Chabcha/Gonghe, our last major stop, and cruised into the seemingly endless grasslands. Night fell; despite being able to see for miles into the distance, our own headlights were the only lights that pierced the intense blackness. I fell into a fitful half-sleep as the road turned to dirt; bumped and jostled nearly out of my berth, I wedged myself tightly next to the window and tried to get some rest.
Suddenly, someone was yelling in my face: “Darlag! we’ve arrived, get off the bus!”
I groggily opened my eyes to see more blackness, little different from the dark grasslands we’d been passing through for hours. The bus was continuing on to Banma county, another three hours away, and those of us whose destination was Darlag had to debark into the deep gloom. I wearily stumbled off the bus; the driver, pissing gratefully into a trashfilled ditch alongside the road, pointed me towards the sleeping county town. The headlights of the bus receded into the all-encompassing blackness, the other Darlag passengers wandered off to their homes; I was suddenly alone in a shadowy world, the only illumination available coming from the brilliant stars slowly wheeling overhead. I took a look at my watch: 4:46 am. Sighing, anticipating the dark, cold wait to come, I slowly wandered up the street towards town.
Stray dogs, visible only because of their floating glowing eyes, sauntered past. I picked out a few of the signs on the buildings; others were lost in the darkness. Ahead, I saw a light. A streetlamp. No, not a streetlamp; a floodlight to illuminate an area below a telephone-pole-mounted security camera. So what if I was being watched, I thought as I put my bag down beneath the light. At least I can see the dogs here and, hopefully, won’t get rabies.
As I waited, it seemed to get colder and colder. A few people occasionally wandered past, staring, themselves seemingly as lost and confused as I was. A taxi driver stopped to ask if I was OK, then, every trip back up and down the street, he stopped by again to check in on me. An hour passed, then another half an hour before a faint variation in darkness, a color the folks who make paint color names might label “Wine-dark sea” in imitation of the ancients, appeared above the mountain in the east. The wine-dark sea clarified, after several minutes, to simply “navy” and then “pale maroon” and then “wan streetlight-glow” and then “approaching dawn” and, finally, gloriously brilliantly rich light, the light that casts shadows worth staring at, spilled luxuriantly over the eastern mountaintop and flooded the valley with gold more valuable than in any bank vault. The light revealed a barren landscape of grassy hills, a landscape made even more stark by the extreme contrasts between sunlit and shadowy hillsides. The hills, many topped by towers of prayer flags, and one surmounted by a strangely massive equestrian statue, swooped steeply down to town, to the barren street on which I stood, dogs wandering aimlessly alongside the shuttered shops, colorful pieces of trash floating and fluttering in the light wind, as if in imitation of the prayer flags above. After confirming that Dockpo’s phone was indeed turned off, I picked up my bag and walked along the street, looking for somewhere I might sit inside for a short while and warm up. As I walked up the street, I thought I heard familiar-sounding shouting; I turned a corner and suddenly saw two columns of uniformed middle-school students jogging down the center of the deserted street, yelling rhythmically in time with their footsteps, just as my students do in Xining. I continued up the street, slowly getting colder and colder as the light wind frosted my exposed cheeks. After searching for a half hour or so, I heard the creaking sound of gates opening; I turned around and saw a light shining through an open window. Fortuitously, the newly opened shop was a small Muslim bakery run by three cheerful and talkative women who, after I bought a piece of bread, invited me to sit down and have a cup of tea. Which I did until, after another thirty minutes, I got a call from Dockpo saying he was at the bus station and that I should meet him. After paying my respects to the kind bakery ladies and (strangely) meeting a Hui student from Xining’s Qinghai Minzu Daxue who was volunteer-English-teaching in Darlag (his English was quite good), I arrived at the bus station to find Dockpo in a seemingly brand-new scarletred car waiting to greet me.
Thirtyish, stocky, lightly bearded, and wearing crocs and American-style outdoor clothes, Dockpo looks like the kind of person you could transport anywhere in the world and, in that anywhere, would fit in and find his place just fine. And he has done so; after spending four years in India learning English, Dockpo has done quite a bit of traveling (including, as mentioned above, to Brunswick, Maine) yet still seems quite comfortably settled here in his hometown, 4000 meters up in the grasslands. He welcomed me with a smile and we drove two minutes back up the street, then onto a narrow dirt track, before parking at the narrow entrance to a half-constructed courtyard. We had arrived.
This being a work day rather than a day of classes (due to the May holiday), the girls were still asleep. But, Dockpo informed me, when they have classes the girls must be up at 5:00 am to practice their recitations and finish homework. Today, however, they could relax. We went into a small room where another young man and a couple of women were warming themselves over a stove. After Dockpo introduced us, we sat down to a breakfast of tsampa topped with some especially strong butter tea and waited for the day to warm up and the work to begin.
Which, before long, it did. The girls got up and, after making my presence known to them, gathered around me to get a look; some bravely asked me questions in Chinese and English, while others warily eyed me from a few paces away. But the introductions didn’t last long; there was work to do. The work for the next few days would be to complete the courtyard, a task which involved much digging, earth-moving, and the like. Dockpo would be leaving for Xining in two days, and when he came back with trees the courtyard had to be prepared for them to be immediately planted. I worked alongside the teachers (many of whom are monks who Dockpo, insisting on quality teaching, recruits especially for the school), Dockpo’s adopted brother, and the girls as we dug into the stony soil and moved piles of earth from one place to another. The girls were amazingly independent and hardworking; the oldest worked tirelessly, joyfully, singing popular Tibetan songs and playing around as they went; the youngest, six year olds, carrying tiny portions of soil across the yard in helmets, took their task just as seriously as the professional workers laying down cement for the yard’s sidewalks. Teacher Sonam, watering the newly laid-down soil with a hose, playfully sprayed the crowd of girls, who, screaming, laughing, ran away in mock fear and delight. Before I knew it, lunchtime had come, and we went inside for bowls of noodle soup before coming back out and working until evening under the intensely bright high-altitude sun. I was constantly surprised at how cheerful and energetic I felt for what I was doing – hard work at 4000 meters – not to mention having arrived that morning on the sleeper bus; the spirit of the place was infectious, and I was lapping it up.
That evening, after another meal of noodle soup, a few of the women teachers invited me to come out and walk around the square. A strangely vast plaza of flagstone and grass surrounding a monumental statue of a robed Tibetan woman looking expectantly to the west, the square looked as if it had been built all of fifteen minutes ago, and to the high standard of quality I’ve come to expect from Chinese construction. But it was a pleasant place to wander for a bit, and I after talking to the women for a bit I was approached by two of the monk teachers who wanted me to come play soccer with them and some locals in the corner of the square. Which we did, I surprised at how tireless I still felt after such a long day and playing soccer at such an elevation, until the sun dipped below the mountains in a spectacular redorange aureolic glow and night quickly fell. The locals told me that Americans play soccer too dirtily, as evidenced by my pushing and shoving (which I had not noticed; I just played normally); I told them that was our custom, and, having parted on friendly terms, we walked back to the school where I rapidly fell asleep.
We worked most of the next day as well, this time turning over some especially hard-packed, rocky soil interspersed with concrete blocks. In the early afternoon, while the girls were sleeping, I wandered up to the hilltop above town, where King Gesar, upon his majestically rearing steed, stared down haughtily from amidst mountains of prayer flags. The view stretched over town to distant mountains, the Yellow River, here a braided glacial stream, winding into the distance between grassy, snowspeckled hills, languidly approaching its frozen source streams in sumptuous, sunglittering arabesques. Ravens crowed brusquely, harshly overhead; pikas ran about underfoot; yaks grazed contentedly below. King Gesar’s legendary palace was apparently located nearby, and if I was an all-powerful king would I not do the same? In Xanadu, famously writes our opium-addled Coleridge, did Kublai Khan create a heaven on earth. But if I’m looking for an earthly paradise, I couldn’t do much better than right here, in this exact moment.
The wind suddenly picked up, and, as prayer flags fluttered with ferocious nervousness at my back, I descended to town.
That evening, after another afternoon of work and another bowl of noodle soup, I questioned Dockpo about the school, the girls, his plans. Dockpo had started the school six years ago after realizing the dire need for women’s education in the region, not to mention the desire to elevate women’s status in Tibetan society (in which, in most regions, they are approximately equal with the yak: hard, uncomplaining workers who occasionally provide the family with babies). I learned a lot about education in the region, including some truly shocking things which I will reveal in a separate article I’m planning to write. But I also learned that unless the volunteer is willing to pretty much stay inside the school courtyard, it would be impossible for the Sengcham Drukmo school to host a one-year ViA volunteer. Visas are pretty much impossible to procure for the region, and foreigners are closely watched. Which is truly too bad, as the school is truly deserving of a long-term volunteer, and it would be a truly amazing place to work. The places most needing help are the places that we, as foreigners, can’t get to. Such is life.
The next morning, Dockpo left town at 6:00 am for Xining; I, arising much later, said my goodbyes to the girls and went to the bus station to check on the bus situation. But, as there was an upcoming prayer meeting with a famous Rinpoche at the nearby monastery, the supply of buses was far short of the demand, and Xining bus tickets were impossible to procure. So rather than head back to Xining immediately, I decided to go to the neighboring county of Banma, where the kind ticket lady had assured me that the bus station would hold a ticket for me for the Monday night sleeper bus to Xining. I had a few hours before the bus left, so I wandered around town, which by now was bustling with the bustle that only trade and commerce can summon up. Longrobed, longhaired nomad men wandered down the busy streets, motorcycle-riding boys paraded in front of the young women sitting on the sidewalk, older women with magnificently braided hair and ornately jeweled belts stumbled down the street, looking into every shop as they went. I got plenty of stares, but also plenty of people, no doubt having been alerted of my existence by the soccer players, or the workers at the girls’ school, or the volunteer high-school teacher I had met the first day, addressed me in English with a friendly “good morning, Teacher!” It was incredibly comforting to know that even here in Darlag, I’d found a place which welcomed me and took me in as a friend; a kind of home in Golog.