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August 17, 2009

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Peace, tranquility and cow dung in the land that time forgot

TIBET Autonomous Region may have become over-developed and bloated with visitors, but there are lesser-known Tibetan areas in neighboring Qinghai Province that retain the inaccessible mystique of Shangri-La.

Also, there is a natural mix of Tibetan and Han cultures here that has shaped the unique local culture for hundreds of years.

The vastness of Qinghai is hard to comprehend. As the fourth-largest province in China, you can drive non-stop for days between one county to its neighbor.

Though its eerily flat landscapes look green and lush, at an average of 3,000 meters above sea level it is a harsh, cold, sparsely populated land where fruit and vegetables refuse to grow. At 5,000 meters even trees disappear and mountain tops turn to snow and bare rock.

Home to a great diversity of ethnic minorities including Hui, Mongol, Tu, Tibetan and Salar, the civilizations here are studies in the great resilience and creativity of human life.

An example of this is the village of Labu.

Located 55 kilometers from the nearest Chengduo County and with nearly 3,000 inhabitants, it has been chosen by International Channel Shanghai as one of 20 "undiscovered towns full of character" across China for a new documentary series ("Tripping on Treasured Towns," Shanghai Daily, June 26).

Labu features the sturdy, ingenious stone architecture of the Kham Tibetans, who dominate the area south of the Qinghai Lake.

Over 700 years of history can be seen here. The oldest structures lie on the outskirts of the village in the form of extraordinarily well-preserved stone houses where people still live.

Labu village itself was remodeled in the 1920s with Tibetan houses in the form of Han urban planning by an adventurous monk who had travelled east.

According to Luozhou, a researcher at the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center and a native of Labu Village, Han and Tibetan cultures have been mixing naturally in this part of the world since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and reached a peak in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Labu's monasteries have Han-style carvings, and its streets are modeled after the imperial, symmetrical grid system of Beijing, thanks to the 13th "living Buddha." He also introduced the idea of building on flat land rather than on hillsides as is the Tibetan tradition.

In 1914 he also brought back the first poplar seeds from the east from which all trees in the area have now sprung.

But the stone houses have remained the staple and these have not changed much over hundreds of years.

Looking at Labu town, it seems a lot older than its almost 90 years. The facilities are simple with little plumbing and running water. Tibetan families slap cow dung on their walls to dry and then burn it to cook milk tea and food featuring mutton or beef.

Most people are herdsman or farmers, and herds of cows wander through the town all day long filling it with the pungent, earthy smell of fresh cow dung.

Despite these humble conditions, there is a sense of peace. Tibetan culture is known for its focus on the inner spiritual life - it was their greatest comfort against the harsh natural environment.

Traditionally, the Buddhist monastery was the place where education and culture were concentrated. However, the Buddhist curriculum contains no science, math or languages - instead it teaches the virtues of patience, endurance and acceptance.

"Our spirits are full and we are an optimistic group," says Luozhou. "It's the opposite of the chaos and emptiness in those who believe in nothing. What's most important to us is reincarnation. It means we are not afraid of death and it has a good influence on all our deeds throughout life."

Every villager spends a part of their day walking several circles around the monastery walls - a distance of 2 kilometers each time. They also consult local lamas when seriously ill to read their fate.

There is an intricate set of monastic exams, and monks who fail philosophy exams do manual labor or are sent out into the town to run businesses such as the local gas station.

The peak of intellectual finesse is decided by a debate between two opposing views. The most ancient wall in the village, dating back more than 300 years, is part of a debating platform where the most accomplished monks would try to convince each other that white was black, and black was white - in other words that nothing is as it seems.

However, the downside of this is that few people in the village make it past conventional middle and high schools. Luozhou remembers during his childhood he walked and rode a horse for two days before getting to a high school in a nearby county. As a researcher he is the most educated person in his hometown.

In history, scientific techniques progressed very little - which is reflected in their buildings.

A few kilometers from Labu Village, the oldest complete remnants of traditional architecture can be found in Xiezong Village.

Two preserved stone family houses here can be dated to 700 and 300 years old. Despite a 400-year age difference, they are extremely similar. Stonemasons for the area all come from another local village called Keta - just 40 households live there.

The houses have commonly three floors with the ground floor a store house for farm implements and a cowshed at night, and the top floor an open verandah for drying produce.

In between are bedrooms, sitting rooms and kitchens blackened by centuries of burning cow dung.

The walls are made of rock from the local mountains - smooth, layered sediment rock that breaks easily into natural bricks.

These bricks are pieced together by stonemasons. Such is their experience and skill that the corners and edges are completely straight without the need for cutting.

"We simply judge by eye and it takes experience," says Jimei, a 60-year-old worker from Keta. "Positioning the house is really important. They have to face south or east for passive light and heat from the sun with its back against a mountain to protect against the wind."

The walls, up to 60 centimeters thick, vary in their heat retention with the thickness of the mud that's used to hold the stones together. More finely grained mud means more insulation.

As with all Tibetan life, the buildings are filled with spiritual and religious significance.

The house layouts are looked over by a local monk for fengshui, and the direction of the house avoids evil ghosts and bad luck.

Situated close to the sources of three great rivers (Yellow, Yangtze and Lancang rivers), societies here are closely tied to the water.

Every year, each village holds its own festival by the river banks, and traditional Tibetan architecture clings, defying gravity, to the gentle hillsides overlooking the lush river valley.

"What's unique about these villages is the stone houses against the high-altitude landscape," says Zhou Jian, a professor in urban planning at Tongji University. "Their setting against bare grassy hills and the river is extremely beautiful and worth preserving."

Until last week, Labu was only accessible by 20-hour drive from the nearest airport in the provincial capital, Xining. Now there are two flights a week to Yushu County, just two hours' drive away.

Modernization has slowly filtered into this remote place. Monks carry mobile phones and play basketball on their day off, and most homes have electricity - even if it is just a single bare bulb.

The pace of development is likely to quicken, especially if the town opens up for tourism. A new guesthouse with modern facilities is already under construction.

"Labu is currently very well preserved, tourism hasn't even started here yet. But it remains to be seen what happens in the future," says Zhou.


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