I run down the narrow road, curving loopily as thread dropped on an uneven surface. I’m flying everdownwards into the valley, soaring over the snowcovered rutted track, slowing to dodge oozing pits of gangrenous yellow mud, twisting and sliding and rollercoastering around slipperywet switchbacks, arms pinwheeling wildly in the crystalblue early spring air, crystal reflected in the crisp snow sparklingly whitewashing the sacred peaks above. Downwards, wildly, out of control and crazy and absolutely free and separated from nature only by these ratty shoes on my feet, soles and sides thinned by relentless wear and stained yellow from the everpresent particulated soil. They carry me around yet another corner, careening from roadside to roadside along the narrow track as if terminally drunk, a joyful drunkenness nevertheless, a reckless heedless boundless celebration of this day and this crystalline moment.
Abruptly. The moment ends. Everything in my head, or not in my head, halts. Stillness encircles me; my mind is focused on a single object. Three single objects. Three dogs on the roadside ahead, sitting in front of a small mudwalled house.
When I run in the States, I’m generally not overfrightened of dogs. I won’t pretend that I hold great affection for the animals – especially when I’m on a run – but I won’t stop, turn around and run away screaming either.
In Rebgong, as elsewhere on the plateau, the dominant breed of dog is the Tibetan Mastiff. These animals are large, strong, and known for their loyalty and ferocity in defending their owners. Mastiffs seem to get the majority of their pleasure and excitement in fighting off any intruders who dare to enter their domain.
And owners, unlike in America, aren’t about to call off their attacking dogs unless the intruder puts their hands up and assumes a pose of surrender. Instead, they take pride in their dogs’ ferocity, and encourage the animals’ bad-temperedness and anger by chronically underfeeding them. Thus, in addition to being quite large and and naturally combative, most mastiffs have a wild-eyed, desperate look that is truly terrifying.
Additionally, mastiffs are often carriers of a whole hospitalful of truly terrifying diseases. Alternately chained up outside their owners’ homes and let free to run wild in the nearby fields and grasslands, mastiffs come in contact with (and prey upon) a wide variety of environments and animals – both domesticated and wild. Marmots in this region carry the pneumonic plague, a disease that has spread to humans three times in recent years, usually by way of mastiffs. In 2009, there was an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in Qinghai’s Xinghai County. The first casualty was a local herder who had just buried his mastiff – a dog which had sickened and died after eating an infected marmot. Three people died and twelve were taken seriously ill.
Pneumonic plague is less likely, however, than rabies. Many of the dogs chained to (or unchained from) houses in nearby villages have contracted the disease, the presence of which adds some extra excitement and spice to one’s countryside adventures.
So for all these reasons, I stopped as I came down the road towards the three waiting mastiffs. I looked for a chain and post; none. The dogs were unchained. I quickly bent down to the roadside and picked up three small rocks, the usual way to ward the dogs off. Throwing rocks, or sometimes simply feinting a throw, can sometimes be enough to drive them away. Other times, however, the dogs advance in total disregard of your attack, eyes boiling red with defensive anger and hate. This is when you scream and run the other direction.
As I approached these dogs, however, they seemed – unusually – to pay me little attention. My cautious footfalls went unheeded, as the largest of the mastiffs licked the face and ears of a smaller animal, which I assumed to be its pup. Carefully, rocks in hand, I edged around the far side of the road, just four or five meters from the dogs. They could jump upon me in seconds, I knew; I kept my armaments at the ready. But the dogs heeded me little. They were occupied with grooming, and seemed to actually display some kind of gentleness and affection in their relations to each other. I quickly crept by and started running again, slowly, looking over my shoulder to see they weren’t following, then more quickly, accelerating over a hill and descending further down into the valley, out of sight if not out of mind.
As I continued running down the valley, I thought about what I had seen. I had nearly been attacked by a mastiff earlier on my run (it was thankfully called by its owner), so I was still feeling somewhat wary. But here in this starkly remote valley, I had seen the dogs expressing tenderness and love – the last qualities I would have expected from a Tibetan Mastiff.
Next week: more Fauna of the Rebgong Valley