I often find myself in the middle of a moment so overpowering and profound that I doubt my actual existence; the actual here-and-now that I otherwise perceive myself to be in. How is it possible, I ask myself, that an experience so intense, so transporting, can actually be real? Even if such an moment is real, or even possible, how is it possible that I am amidst it, experiencing it in all its power? What did I do to get here; where will I go afterwards?
These moments of simultaneous emotional depth and profound doubt seem, in my experience, to most often stem from two opposing yet (as most opposing things are) linked feelings: from wonder, amazement, and pure satisfaction; or else from utter disillusionment and despair. My recent trip to Yushu prefecture was dominated by these emotional extremes, and consequently filled with those brilliant yet paralyzing moments of existential profundity and personal questioning.
On April 14 2010, the people of the remote town of Yushu (Jyekundo) in southern Qinghai province awoke to find their town literally falling down around them (and, in many cases, on top of them). The magnitude 7.1 earthquake destroyed an estimated 80% of the town’s buildings, many of which were simple mud-and-stone constructions. The government’s assessment of damage listed 2,800 dead and over 12,500 injured. By all accounts except for this one, these numbers are a severe underestimate.
ViA’s volunteer in Yushu, Brendan Selby, was in his house at the time, and made it to his doorway just in time for the building to collapse around him. His students pulled him out of the rubble, mildly injured and thankful to be alive. Many were not so lucky; the girls’ dormitory at Brendan’s school collapsed the moment the earthquake hit, killing many of the students inside.
Brendan’s students were eventually moved to the industrial city of Benxi in Liaoning province, a place known as China’s pharmaceutical capital, where they must painfully stick out amidst the almost entirely Han populace – and where they must be pining for home. Though I was supposed to be teaching these students in Yushu this year, the earthquake – and the resulting forced migration of students to Benxi – made this impossible. As a result, I ended up here in Xining teaching my little angels at Shida Fuzhong. But since I first was placed in Yushu, and especially since I arrived, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to be able to visit the area. I not only wanted to see how earthquake relief and reconstruction efforts were going, but I wanted to see the area I would have been living in, the area of spectacular natural beauty and strong Tib culture that, since moving here, I’d heard so much about.
Early this month, I heard that the foreign teachers were going to have a full week of vacation while the students took their “real” (as opposed to our “fake”) midterm exams. After confirming that this was indeed true, I jumped on over to the bus station and bought a ticket for Yushu on the Saturday afternoon bus.
I have quite a few students whose families migrated from Yushu after the earthquake; my school also has two classes of Yushu students who live and study in a separate building. When these students heard where I was going, there was a sudden burst of enthusiasm and outpouring of grief. At the time, I was grading papers on the concrete slab outside my house; I was quickly surrounded by the students. One offered to have his father take me around the area; another offered to have me stay at her house; another said I could go pick caterpillar fungus with her family in the nearby grasslands. All asked for news, and told me to tell them what I thought of the situation when I returned.
When I arrived at the bus station on Saturday afternoon, it was absolutely packed. Everyone, seemingly, was going to Yushu; there was a full-to-the-gills bus leaving for the 14-hour-distant town every five to ten minutes. After asking around, I soon learned that the swarms of people heaving their burlap sacks onto the Yushu buses were migrant workers who were heading down to find work. The government-directed reconstruction of the town needed labor, and so local workers from Xining and Linxia, as well as people from far-off provinces like Anhui, Henan, and Jiangxi in the 内地 (“inner lands”, e.g. China proper) were heading en masse to this remote, intensely Tibetan town tucked away 3,700 meters up into the mountains of southern Qinghai. And so, along with forty-three Hui construction workers, all men, I boarded a bus for Yushu.
Fourteen hours later, I awoke and groggily stared out of the frosted window to see a narrow river valley, the mountaintops faintly illuminated by the sun’s earliest rays. We crossed a wider river – the Tongtian 通天, or the upper Yangtze – and ascended another narrow valley, the sun’s rays now spilling down to the valley floor and illuminating what I soon perceived to be a sea of blue tents. Each tent was about five meters long by three meters wide; on the tent roof were the characters “民政救灾” – “People’s Government Disaster Relief”. These were the tents in which people, more than a year after the earthquake, were still living.
The bus, now gliding along empty partially-paved streets lined by half-ruined masonry structures and the now-ubiquitous blue tents, now moved through Yushu town proper. We crossed a narrow river, went through a market area (all of the shops in tents) and finally pulled in at the bus station. I got off, passed a tent marked “ticket office” and another tent marked “ticket-checking station” and wandered out to the street outside.
In the hazysoft earlymorning light the street was revealed to be a narrow dirt walkway next to a ditch filled with raw sewage. Stretching away into the distance on both sides of the street were blue tents, each tent bearing a sign advertising it as a restaurant or hotel. Behind the tents stretched acres and acres of rubble, vacant lots where plastic bags whipped through the air in the light breeze, broken bottles crunched underfoot, filthy children with duststained faces collected trash from demolished buildings for their families’ fires, or for income. Two or three intact buildings loomed up in the distance, seemingly out of place amidst the rubble- and tent-filled wasteland. I looked at the map. The street on which I was walking was Shengli Lu 胜利路, or “Victory Road.” Until recently, it had been Yushu’s main street.
That’s not to say the area was completely empty. People hurried to and from the bus station, van drivers called out their destination to passerby, gangs of workers wandered lazily down the street, whistling at pretty girls walking by. Here, as everywhere else, the day was beginning; people were going about their normal business.
But what people? Despite statistics that the town is 97% Tibetan, I saw few Tibetans in evidence. The vast majority of the people were Han or Hui, young men, evidently migrant workers making the best of this opportunity for work before moving on to the next. The workers wandered about in groups, seemingly aimlessly, looking for fun or trouble or whichever came first. The gangs of shiftlessly strolling single young men, the rows of tents, the dusty streets mangy stray dogs and flying trash and children scurrying away to the dark corners in which their families lived reminded me of photos I’ve seen of goldrush boomtowns in Alaska or Colorado, tent cities where men came to seek their fortune, most frequently ending up instead on skid row or, with the frontier lawlessness, in jail. We often label as “frontiers” places that do not truly deserve the name; Xining is even described by some as a city on the “frontier” of civilization. I have done this myself. But though I work every summer in a 150-person Alaskan hamlet, though I’ve done interviews throughout northern Maine and have traveled to places in Canada which define the word remote, I’ve never seen a true frontier town, nor experienced a true frontier atmosphere, until I came to Yushu.
A frontier is most often defined as a border – as the edge of something, most usually civilization. But what happens (or is allowed to happen) in these borders, these marginal places, is what the word “frontier” really implies: a sense of anarchy, of little control; a freewheeling atmosphere of lawlessness and chaos where the only enforced regulations are Darwinian rules of survival. Eat or get eaten.
Coming from the comparatively law-abiding, primproperpolite and essentially orderly United States, the true frontier element of Yushu was a shock. Despite the signs everywhere exhorting residents to be “civilized” in their behavior, Yushu remains a place where – especially for the Han and Hui migrant workers – anything goes. During my visit, the majority-Tibetan local population of traders, businessmen, and farmers/herders was little in evidence, while the normally marginal populations – the floating migrant workforce, the beggars, the unemployed – were fully visible and given full latitude to do what they pleased. I don’t want to simplify the situation by suggesting that the migrant Han and Hui “lawless” elements are terrorizing the local Tibetan “law-abiding” majority; this is an oversimplification and exaggeration. But despite a heavy police presence, prostitution, gambling, petty theft and public fights were widely in evidence, and the local population seemed fearful and wary of the newcomers. Rather than confronting the migrants, the locals seemed to be laying low inside their blue tents, avoiding attracting attention and waiting for the day when their town would be theirs again.
I spent the day wandering through the town, which physically looks like it was the target of heavy aerial bombardment. The vast majority of town consists of bombed-out shells of buildings and rubble- and trash-filled vacant lots which stretch for acres. I wandered through the town’s former center, through the vast Gesar square where an equestrian statue of the legendary Tibetan king loomed over symmetrical rows of tents and slowly-burning piles of trash. I went up the hill to the town’s famous Sakyapa monastery, Jyekundo Gompa, which had been reduced to a pile of rubble; the monastery was housed in corrugated-metal sheds in the valley below, and on a nearby hilltop a massive new building complex, apparently designed for tourism, was under construction. I wandered down to the Gyanak mani wall, where longhaired Tibetan pilgrims circumambulated a massive (apparently one-square-kilometer) pile of two and a half billion stones, each carved with the mantra of Avalokitesvara, om mani padme hum. Gloriously painted stupas, cracks cutting through their hearts, earthquake-induced scars, jutted skyward out of the heap of stones. I circled the pile with a troupe of energetic old ladies, chanting the six syllables endlessly, turning prayer wheels and spinning the six syllables heavenwards, touching their heads to the six syllables on the stones. Surrounding the stone pile and its circumambulatory pathway was a line of blue disaster tents.