When we arrive at Lhamo Drolma’s home in the high reaches of Amdo in eastern Tibet, she is making momos. The family room is cosy with wood-panelled walls and a central stove that instantly thaws our stiff hands. We’ve driven past monks on motorbikes, across dirt paths, surrounded by jagged mountains and fields of barley, to reach this place, a 1,400-year-old Maigang village where farming life has remained unchanged for centuries.
We wash up and join our host on the wooden floor, copying her fingers as they expertly wrap sheets of flattened dough around a mixture of spiced greens. Our group of seven women, all of them different ages and nationalities, has travelled together through Tibet for a week at this point, with all logistics arranged by a local Tibetan company. We’re as different as it’s possible to be, with a shared desire to learn about Tibet through the eyes of the country’s women.
We take seats around the stove, soaking in its warmth, and I sit next to our translator Tsewang Droma, a young Tibetan who grew up in a family of nomadic herders. Born to forward-thinking parents who sent her to school and encouraged her education, she decided to go to college in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, where she now works as an indigenous language specialist. There are over 200 different Tibetan dialects, and most Tibetans who speak different languages speak Chinese to each other. This, along with the fact that the Chinese government makes everyone study Chinese as a priority, puts many Tibetan languages at the risk of extinction. Droma helps us communicate with our new host. Lhamo Drolma is slight and narrow-boned with a pretty face that I can’t place to be over 20. She has two children and a husband, who all live in Chinese cities where they study and work respectively. Dipping our momos into a home-made chilli sauce, made with ground dry red chilli, sesame oil, and salt, we learn that far-flung villages in eastern Tibet mostly comprise women whose husbands work elsewhere.
After a dinner of momos and milk tea, we’re introduced to the domesticated family yak. The animals from each house in Maigang village leave their sheds every morning to walk up the narrow village roads and into the mountains where they spend the day grazing. They come home by themselves every evening and each yak knows where their family lives. Lhamo Drolma tells us it’s almost time for her yak to come home, and so we stand outside her house and wait. A shaggy black head appears from around the corner bend. The animal pauses hesitatingly for a few seconds, and then moves past us to his shed.
The next day, we take a tour of the village, where every house has views of the green countryside, mountains shrouded in mist, and sloping orange thatched roofs. We visit the homes of two other families; everyone wants to feed us and by the end of the day we’ve consumed more milk tea, smoky braised pork and momos, more out of politeness than hunger. The first family we visit is an old couple with leathery faces and their young daughter. She’s 22 and stays at home to help with the many chores of village life. Their other daughter is studying to be a vet in Chengdu, China. I wonder how I would feel if my sibling went away to study and live in a faraway city while I stayed at home. Perhaps it’s her choice, but I can’t bring myself to ask such a personal question. We next visit the home of one woman, the poorest in the village according to our host. Her house is a small room with an old bed and broken television set, and she feeds us fried potatoes with the chilli sauce that is a staple at every Tibetan table.
Maigang redefines community for me. This woman will never go hungry although she is alone and her son works in a faraway city, because the community won’t let that happen. If something needs to be built in the village, every family volunteers a member and if it can’t, it has to pay 50 yuan/Rs500. Later in the day we help Lhamo Drolma with one of her many tasks, packing soybeans into huge bags. The first bag we help put on her back is so heavy she falls over. Later in the year, she will make tofu from these beans and sell them at the county near the village.
We plan on exploring the mountains that surround the village the following day. Lhamo Drolma is awake before the sun rises, and by the time I surface at 8 a.m., she has already been churning butter for hours, for us to take on our hike that day. Once churned, she shapes the dense butter into a bright yellow ball. In her kitchen, Lhamo Drolma has a row of balled-up butter that looks like gobstoppers. She takes us on a tour of her airy wooden house, and the kitchen, where pots are made of copper and the stove has gold carvings, is a definite highlight. Soon after, we make our way up the winding village paths until they morph into open country, and keep climbing upwards until the ground plateaus out into a high-altitude lake. Two black horses stand by the lake with a backdrop of mountains. My breath catches in my throat at the rugged beauty of where we are. Ani Shi Shi is just as impressed. She immediately starts to strike poses. When we first met, the nun was shy and refused all attempts by us to click photos. Now, she uses her maroon robe like a Bollywood dancer, holding it above her head for that picture-perfect shot. After eating a meal of home-made bread and butter by the lake, we spend the rest of the day hiking up to the highest point in the mountains.
The Maigang villagers spend much of their time up in these mountains herding their yaks and picking firewood. The day before, Lhamo Drolma had lost her horse somewhere high up in these mountains, and spent a few hours looking for it with the help of some of the other villagers. I figure losing a horse up here is akin to losing a phone back home, sometimes you have to enlist help. As we hike up the village roads back to our van and then drive away the next day, my thoughts linger with Lhamo Drolma and her horses and yaks, high up in the Tibetan mountains.
Indians travelling to Tibet must apply for a Chinese visa and then seek a travel permit issued by the tourism bureau of Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Chinese embassy in India is not authorised to grant individual visas to travellers from India so it’s recommended that visitors apply through a tour operator. Flights from Delhi or Mumbai to Chengdu usually have a layover in a South East Asian hub like Bangkok, Singapore or others. From Chengdu, there are short flights to Xining in Tibet. The writer travelled with Eastern Tibet Women’s Pilgrimage Tour, organised by Kham Voyage. The tour accepts six female travellers for an intimate 12-day cultural exchange, inclusive of a stay in a village and a nunnery ($2850/Rs1,99,322 per head; khamvoyage.com/en/).
Madhuri Chowdhury is an adventurous traveller who prefers long horseback rides across the desert, or hiking snowy peaks, to lying on the beach. She’s a freelance writer and travel editor based in London.