Encountering Tibetan Culture


When we did our horse trek in Songpan, one aspect that we really weren’t counting on was the intimate exposure we would get into Tibetan culture. Normally, this three day horse trek would involve two nights of camping. However, as we were doing this trek in the depths of Autumn, the bitterly cold mountain nights meant we could opt to stay in a Tibetan village overnight.

As we left Songpan, we passed through a small village. Our Tibetan guide, who spoke a limited amount of English, informed us that the people of this village were not Chinese, they were Tibetan. He laughed when I said “Ni Hao” to a lady who waved to us from her garden, “No Chinese here”, he said.

We were amazed when we reached our destination for the night, we rode the horses into a stable underneath a house perched right on the side of a mountain. “My home, my village,” he said, waving to the spattering of houses beneath us, with a backdrop of rolling hills and rice terraces. You hear of communities who live remotely like this, but experiencing it first hand was something else. This village stands alone, several mountains over from Songpan, the nearest place with shops, restaurants and things that we value so much in our capitalist world. It was really quite amazing to think that we were hundreds of miles from the nearest city, Chengdu, as we stood nestled in the mountains which separate China from Tibet.


The family home was a cosy, simple but charming, wooden building. The kitchen was decorated in the Tibetan style of decor, vibrant reds, yellows and oranges. On the walls hung pictures of Mao, the Chinese president Xi Jingpin and the Dalai Lama. Our guide gestured towards these images “China president, Dalai lama, Tibet people worship the Dalai Lama”. It reminded me in a strangely familiar way of visits to my family in Ireland when I was younger. Simple, cosy houses adorned with religious images which seemed to be in all of the traditional Irish homes (there is one particular one of Jesus, with a red glowing crucifix underneath). They even had a stove in the middle of the kitchen, much like they have in the traditional Irish homes. It is remarkable to find yourself so far away, immersed a completely different culture, and find such familiar nuances.


The night drew in at around 5.30pm, presenting us with a crystal clear view of the stars and galaxies above. We shared a stodgy, but satisfying meal with the whole family. We were initially greeted with hostility from the grandchildren, one 3 years old and one 6 years old. The youngest grandchild was called something along the lines of “Garda” and the older one, “Josha”. Garda and Josha didn’t like our invasion upon their grandparents house. However, after a couple of hours some playful coaxing from Ben and Jamie, and an introduction to my iPad, they couldn't get enough of us.


Before we started our trek, we had purchased a hip-flask from a small shop in Songpan. Thinking that after our long days of horse riding, a bit of whiskey would warm us up on those bitterly cold nights in the mountains. This whiskey however, was so potent that none of us could drink it at all (I’ve tried some pretty potent drinks, but this one was on another scale altogether). Although the whiskey was un-consumable, the hip-flask it came in is engraved with Tibetan writing and pictures, so it at least made for a good souvenir. After dinner, our guide presented us with an ice cold Snow beer each. Naturally chilled by the cold mountain elements, it was one of the most satisfying beers i've ever had. Also, an interesting fact I learnt in China - Snow is the world's biggest selling beer, even though it is only sold in China. Just goes to show how big a place it is!

The two nights we spent in this house were the coldest conditions I've ever had to sleep in, during this time of year it is quite warm during the day - we all were rocking a bit of a sun-weathered look by the end. However, once the sun went down the temperatures plummeted. It was so cold at night that we all had to sleep fully clothed, the thought of exposing any flesh to that icy air was unbearable. I can't even imagine what it must be like at night there in the winter, you really have to be tough to live out in these conditions.


In the bottom left hand corner in the picture above, you can see a solar powered water heater. We thought this was quite an interestingly modern installation, in such a remote little village.

After our second night in the Tibetan home, we felt almost a little melancholy leaving this lovely family and the simple life of the mountains.