Jeffery Soel had not expected that the 75-kilometer journey from Jiegu Town, a seat in the Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province, would take more than two hours.
When he finally reached the little Tibetan village hidden deep in the mountains by the Tongtian River, on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, the policy director of the American Planning Association (APA) opened his eyes wide.
At the sight of the village, Soel says the exhausting journey along the rough road became "really worthwhile."
"I simply could not believe there should exist a village so well planned in such a remote area," says the experienced planner, who has been to many famous cities around the world.
With a population of 657 in 186 households, Raston, the biggest village of Rabu Town in Chendo County of Yushu, features several dirt thoroughfares crisscrossed by lanes -- a unique pattern among Tibetan communities.
The straight thoroughfares and lanes are flanked by tall, lush poplar trees, and villagers' houses are built right behind the trees.
At the entrance of the village is a large area of dense woods, which is the village links or park, according to Choe Chung, a local Tibetan teacher of English.
Across a small river by the linka is the Rabu Monastery, a temple of the Glupa or the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
"That is a perfect conception of zoning," observes Liu Yuan, a Chinese consultant with APA, noting the river separates the monastery from the secular world of the village.
This separation, in addition to the definition of the roads by trees, distinguishes it from most others in Tibetan areas that have been built around a monastery.
The mastermind behind the village planning and tree planting was Jamyang Losong Kyanco, the 13th incarnation of the Living Buddha of the Rabu Monastery, after it was built by Dama Rergin Rinpoche, the first disciple of Tsong Khapa, the founding father of the Yellow Sect of Lamaism, in 1419.
According to a local legend, says Qiuying Lanze, a Tibetan official of the prefecture government of Yushu, Dama Rergin Rinpoche had the temple built to fulfill one of Tsong Khapa's dreams.
"He dreamed of a village to the east of Lhasa with colorful flowers around it," she says. "Following the revelation of the dream, Dama Rergin Rinpoche trekked 750 kilometers to the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to Yushu. There he found a village named 'Ra,' where the shape of the mountains and the two clear brooks flowing by the village as well as the flowers struck him to be the scenes his master said he had dreamed of."
Dama Rergin had the Rabu Monastery built and renamed the village Raston, meaning "place with flowers in bloom."
Time passed. In 1902, Jamyang Losong Kyanco, the 13th incarnation of Dama Rergin as the Living Buddha of the Rabu Monastery, decided to expand his learning of Buddhism and made a trip to Beijing.
The 13-year-old Living Buddha was impressed by the wide roads, electric lights and vehicles in Beijing.
"But what struck him the most were those green, tall trees, which were missing in his hometown," says Qiuying Lanze.
When Jamyang Losong Kyanco returned to Rabu in 1904, he brought with him 2,000 poplar saplings he had got from Huangyuan County near Xining, capital of Qinghai. He hired 500 yaks to carry the saplings, with each sapling wrapped in yak wool felt and its roots covered with earth.
"The caravan moved during the daytime and at night they would place the saplings in ditches to keep the moisture before camping," says Losong Dawa, governor of Yushu and a native of Raston. "It took the Living Buddha and his entourage more than three months to cover the 800 kilometer-plus distance from Xining to Rabu."
But only one-third of the trees survived the severe winter in Yushu, which usually lasts more than eight months.
"It nevertheless was a great success, as until then, there had not been a single tree in Chendo and most parts of Yushu, which covers an area larger than two Austrias, with most parts at an elevation of over 4,000 meters above sea level on the 'roof of the world'," says Losong Dawa.
The following year, the living Buddha had another 1,000 poplar saplings carried from Huangyuan in the same way. He also ordered each of the lamas in the Rabu temple to plant 15 trees every year.
"To guarantee the survival of the saplings, he named each of them after a sage so that no one dared to do any harm to them," the governor says. "He also told people to protect the saplings with clay walls from attacks by wind, snow and animals."
While planting trees, Jamyang Losong Kyanco also drew a plan for the monastery and the village. He had the course of one of the rivers straightened and had it separate the monastery from the village.
He also told the villagers to widen the roads to allow for the movement of something called a "car" in the future.
"He had the roads divided into lanes for cars and pedestrians, and defined the roads with trees," says Losong Dawa. "He even planned where the electric lines should go and where a transformer should be placed, although electricity at the time was far away from Yushu."
The innovative Living Buddha also had his type of "telephone" installed, Losong Dawa says. "He had a bell fixed in each lama's room and connected the bells with a string which he could pull in his room. When he pulled the string the bells would ring. He defined the meanings for the different number of rings. For instance, one ring meant to summon a certain monk and three rings meant a grand gathering."
The Living Buddha was not obeyed without complaints, says Qiuying Lanze.
Losong Dawa said: "Some lamas grumbled at the time that other Living Buddhas brought back to their temples gold, silver and other treasures, while Jamyang Losong Kyanco returned with nothing but firewood. Not until decades later did people come to realize what he had done for the later generations. We are now grateful to him for his wisdom and foresight. We are also proud of him."
Soel, who has been to Yushu as part of a study tour into the ecological situation of the source areas of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang/Mekong rivers, sees the village and monastery as an unusual and admirable "green legacy," which should be treasured.
Losong Dawa agrees. "We should take inspiration from this green legacy and have our development projects well planned and sustainable to benefit later generations, just as Jamyang Losong Kyanco did."
(China Daily August 26, 2003)