Travelling Through the Tibetan Borderlands

"We still practice polyandrous marriage here, though it’s dying out. My wife only has one husband, that’s me! But my sister has 3 husbands who are all brothers."

Dhundup continued, in his matter-of-fact way, “usually two of them are away from home at any given time, one is in the army and one is a migrant worker in Chengdu. For us it’s always been like this, but it’s changing. I work in the local government, so I couldn’t have that kind of marriage, and there’s more communication with the outside world so young people have their own ideas and dreams.”

We were in Zhongdian, renamed ‘Shangri-La’ in the early 2000s in an effort to boost tourism. In the far northwest of Yunnan province, Shangri-La is the last stop on the road into Tibet proper, and like most of the regions that border the Tibetan Autonomous Region, its Tibetan-ness is its main attraction.

For the expat living in China, Tibet remains relatively unvisited, mainly because of the annoyance of having to join an organized tour group and applying for a permit. But the good news for the adventurous traveller is that the Tibetan borderlands contain a wealth of cultural and scenic riches.

One of the most famous places to visit is Aba in Sichuan province, the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. It was here one night in 2015 when there was an earthquake in the middle of the night and we all poured out of our hostel. Spending the rest of the night in tents, I chatted with Dongzhu. “My parents think things like this are the earth’s way of telling us we’re imbalanced, on ecological and spiritual levels. I just think if this is what’s happening we may as well have a few beers.” And be warned, for the average drinker Tibetans are not to be underestimated!

This kind of sentiment is pretty common in the young population of the Tibetan borderlands who are connected to the modern world in ways their parent's generation could never have been. But in the Gansu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, the Labrang monastery in Xiahe and the even more remote town of Langmusi, you are surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist monks, perfect blue skies with circling hawks, yaks and prayer flags. For the traveller not willing to join a tour group to go to Tibet proper, this is the place to come.

Personally though, my favourite Tibetan borderlands are in Qinghai province, where the Himalayas start to gradually rise to the south. Qinghai Lake is a famous tourist spot, as the largest lake in China, but it’s also a great place to explore the surrounding countryside and meet the locals.

The first time I visited the area we were hitchhiking through, and got picked up by a minivan with a Tibetan family in it. They were off to buy supplies from the next town and took us along with them. The next car to pick us up stopped off for a while in a ‘nomad market’, but no longer on horses these modern nomads travel by motorbike and van, selling a mixture of local produce and typical Chinese market clothes.

Finally we stopped and found a place to stay in a Tibetan family’s house. Sonam and his wife were eager to help us out with lodging, knowing it would make them a bit of money to supplement their income. I said I could help their daughter out with her English homework if they liked. “No worries, her second language is Chinese, she’s doing her Tibetan homework at the moment.”

  As we lay on the bed in the guest room, portrait of the Dalai Lama on the wall beside us, getting ready to hike up the mountain for the sunset, the granny kept walking round the house, into our room, shaking a rattle and chanting. We pondered about the clash of traditional and modern culture, of Tibet and the outside world.

And after her fifth visit to our room, Sonam popped his head round the door. “You two don’t worry, she just thinks you’re harboring evil spirits and you’ve brought them into our home, she’ll stop soon!”

If you want to see Tibet proper, join us in July for our Tibet: Roof of the World tour, with newly added Everest Base Camp extension.