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Tibetan Nomads Enjoy Greener Grassland Festival

To roughly 1,700 Tibetan nomads living in the village of Diqing, the annual gathering in the summer is their carnival. At the festival, they attend the religious rituals, circumambulate the sacred mountains, sing and dance, and play games.

This year it is even more special.

At first, the festival between August 1 and 5 was given a name and attracted visitors from Beijing. All the Tibetan men didn't dress in their festival best a traditional chuba, or long-sleeved sheepskin cloak, decorated with patches of otter, leopard or tiger fur.


The name is the Green Community Ecological Culture Festival at the Source of the Lancang River.


The visitors are a dozen conservationists from Conservation International (CI), an organization based in the United States.


One of major attractions for them is the nomadic Tibetans' decision to leave their dresses with furs of endangered animals, in trunks.


Few herders in the hinterland of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau know that it is probably the first time these furs have not been used to decorate a Tibetan festival. And the increasing demand of these furs throughout Tibet has put these animals on the brink of extinction in the wild in recent years.


"Though the festival is really a tiny one, it's symbolic to us," said Lu Zhi, director of the CI China Office and a biologist at Peking University. "It shows that it is still possible to shift Tibetan people's fondness for the furs of these endangered animals."


The village is located in Zaqing Township, Zaduo County, Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province. The arena of the festival is a stretch of grassland by a clear branch of the Lancang River or the upper reaches of the Mekong River.


To get there, Lu and her colleagues had to spend two and a half days traversing dozens of mountain passes rising more than 4,000 meters above sea level and crossing streams without bridges.


But the bone-jarring adventure of more than 1,000 kilometers from Xining, provincial capital of Qinghai, turned out to be worthwhile. What the outsiders saw was not only a "green" festival, but also determined community leaders, devout nomads, and a land steeped in the Buddhist ideals of humility, patience, cooperation, and compassion.


Festival for conservation


The festival is the brainchild of Hashi Tashi-Dorjie (Zhaduo), head of Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association, a non-governmental conservation organization based in Yushu, the source area of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang rivers.


While Zhaduo tried to find spots in the region to launch his projects last year, one of his colleagues recommended Diqing his hometown.


"Because of worshipping the sacred mountains scattered in the area as devout Buddhists, the local people have kept the area unspoiled for the past 20 years," he said. "And the area is within the buffer zone of National Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang Rivers Source Nature Reserve."


So Zhaduo and his colleagues came to the area at altitudes of more than 4,000 meters and talked with village leaders and lamas from the Rili Monastery near the town of Zaduo. Their conservation proposals were accepted with the full support of the community leaders.


The Nomad Volunteers' Association for the Conservation of the Source of the Lancang River was founded in April.


Its members include villagers and leaders of Diqing and three other villages and monks from the monastery. Lama Zhuga of the monastery, who was born in the village, was elected head of the community organization.


Zhaduo and the community leaders began considering holding an event to raise the local nomads' awareness of participation and environmental protection.


Their first thought was the summer gathering.


"Scattered in the broad grasslands, the families of the nomadic Tibetans usually live in isolation," Zhaduo said. "The annual gathering is probably the only chance all year for them to meet one another. It's the best chance for us, too."


Well-organized event


More than 70 tents made of cotton and yak wool were scattered at the festival site. Colorful prayer flags and posters reading such words as "all lives are equal" in Tibetan are used to decorate the arena.


Township and county governments lent many big tents to the village, said Randai, the village head. "The local forestry bureau gave us 1,500 yuan (US$185) to show their support."


The nomads poured into the site by horse, motorcycle or truck. "I don't know how many people would attend the festival," Randai said. "Those living nearby came in the day and returned home at night. Members of some families came in rotation. We had visitors from other villages and even the town and county."


It was the rich programs of the festival that kept the grassland crowded.


At the opening ceremony on the afternoon of August 1, Lama Zhuga made a speech telling his followers: "Conservation suits the ideals of Buddhism and our traditional culture. We should protect our environment on our own initiative, as it is actually protecting ourselves."


Gama Zaxi, kanbu (scholar) of the Rili Monastery who is also secretary general of the volunteers' organization, led several monks to chant prayers for the festival. Before that, he said that dressing in otter, leopard and tiger furs is not a good part of Tibetan traditional culture. "We can't be indifferent to other kinds of life while caring only about our own image," he said.


A dozen Tibetan men and women participated in the first fashion show staged on the grassland. Their dress, decorated by embroidered traditional patterns instead of wild animal fur, and jewellery made of amber, turquoise and silver, still looked splendid.


Then 10 villagers who are active participants of the association received awards. "Many of them took the initiative to patrol Lama Luola, our sacred mountains this spring," Randai said. "This year we drove out five outsiders who sneaked onto the mountains to dig caterpillar fungus and fined two of our fellow villagers a pack yak each for the same reason."


Sacred mountains


Worshipping the sacred mountains plays an important role in the lives of the local people.


On the second day of the festival, a grand ritual was held to show the locals' respect to the Lama Luola Mountains.


Lama Quejiao Limba of the Qiaoling Monastery in Chamdo, located in the eastern part of Tibet Autonomous Region, was invited to host the ritual. It was said that a previous incarnation of the holy man named the sacred mountains more than 100 years ago.


That morning, more than 100 Tibetan men left their campsite on horseback and climbed onto a hill rising nearly 5,000 meters above sea level together with the monks from Chamdo.


The hill has been considered as the guardian of Lama Luola, which is still a two- or three-day horse ride from the site. On top of the hill overlooking the gullies is a laze, a stone heap at the top of which colorful prayer flags are usually planted.


There the villagers carried more stones to strengthen the base of the laze while the monks chanted prayers. A "treasure jar" was buried into the laze, which serves as a "seal" to guard the sacred mountains. Then juniper branches were burned, liquor and highland barley were offered, and new prayer flags were put onto the altar. After a group of sheep and horses was set free, colorful paper prayers were scattered into the sky.


After the ritual, the herders guided the visitors on a tour of the domain of the sacred mountains.


Nomads' consumption


Lu Zhi and her fellow visitors were impressed not only by the vast rangelands and spectacular snow-capped mountains, but also five families of 35 Tibetan wild donkeys and two Tibetan gazelles seen in that afternoon.


The villagers told the visitors that hundreds of blue sheep and white-lipped deer could also be seen in the area.


"We put the area into complete protection in the 1980s," Randai said. "Even though caterpillar fungus was priced at nearly US$4,900 per kilogram, few people of our village have gone out to collect it on the sacred mountains. That's why the populations of wild animals are rising here."


The visitors were not just the onlookers.


In the next three days, Lu Zhi and her colleagues showed films on wildlife trade to the villagers and completed a brief survey on their consumption of wild animal furs.


They made some interesting discoveries.


Before 1980, only two chubas with patches of otter furs could be found at the village of Diqing, said Sun Shan, the CI conservation director.


The villagers have started to purchase the robes with furs of wild animals, mainly otter, since the income from collecting of caterpillar fungus began to swell their pockets about 10 year ago. "Now almost every family owns robes made from otter, leopard, or even tiger furs from Pakistan and India," she said. "They are still buying."


But robes made from the fur of wild animals are not as warm as the pure wool robe.


"Actually we dress them only once or twice in a year," said Gangzi, a villager of Diqing at 66. "The life has become much better in the past several years. But we don't have many things to buy except motorcycles, trucks and clothes (made from the furs of wild animals)."


After learning of the poaching of these animals in other countries as a consequence of their consumption, the old nomad expressed that he would not dress his chuba with otter furs ever again. "But I hope the government could give us a little compensation," he said.


Gangzi is not the only one who announced he would stop dressing in that kind of clothes.


As the climax of the festival, the nomadic Tibetans vowed to Lama Zhuga at a ritual held on the last afternoon of the festival that they would stop various bad habits.


Eighty-three people vowed to stop drinking; 33 promised to stop smoking; 42 would stop gambling; 66 would stop dressing in robes with furs of wild animals; and 113 said they would never purchase any pro-ducts made of wild animals again.


"Here if we have made a vow in front of a lama," Zhaduo said, "we will certainly keep it."


(China Daily August 25, 2005)




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