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March 15, 2011

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Village where the Dalai Lama lived

LIFE is getting better in the poor village where the 14th Dalai Lama was born and the local government has rebuilt the birthplace that pilgrims freely visit. Wang Ruoyao, Chen Guozhou and Li Na report.

Sterile farmland, a terrible climate and harvest failures - this describes the harsh life that Lhamo Thondup, later given the title of Dalai Lama, and his extended family lived in a high plateau village.

His parents worked hard year after year, but their efforts were often ruined by severe hail or drought, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso recalled in his autobiography, which was published in 1991.

He spent four years living in the remote village formerly known as Taktser, which is located on the eastern fringe of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, until he was identified in 1939 as the incarnation of the deceased 13th Dalai Lama.

Twenty years later, the Tibetan spiritual leader fled Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, and has been living in exile for more than half a century.

In a speech the 75-year-old Dalai Lama delivered last Thursday in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, he alleged that he would resign his political role and devolve his formal authority to an elected leader.

Renamed "Hongai," the village is now home to 274 residents, including 44 Tibetan families and 25 Han families. It is administered by Shihuiyao Township in Ping'an County in the northwestern province of Qinghai.

For generations local residents have made a living by growing highland barley and potatoes. Even today, Hongai Village is among the most impoverished villages in less-developed Qinghai.

However, profiting from the increasing openness of China's social environment and the country's decade-long efforts to boost development in underdeveloped western regions, many Hongai villagers have left the barren land to seek jobs in different locales.

Going outside

Tsihen, a Hongai villager, can't help but worry about his son, who is working in the provincial capital of Xining City.

"I often call him, telling him not to hang out with bad boys and not to get into trouble," says the 45-year-old woman, as she sits on a sofa in her newly decorated living room.

Working as a waiter, the 19-year-old earns a monthly salary of around 1,000 yuan (US$152). The average monthly income of a Chinese farmer was about 493 yuan last year.

Besides hanging around or gambling, Tsihen's husband sometimes does odd jobs at construction sites.

But the family plans to make some quick money next month by picking caterpillar fungus (cordyceps), a valuable Chinese medicinal plant that grows in meadows at an elevation of 2,800-5,400 meters.

In some pharmacies in big cities like Beijing, every gram costs several hundred yuan.

"We expect to earn 40,000 to 50,000 yuan this year," Tsihen says, adding that many well-off families made a fortune this way.

However, they are taking a big risk since the local government has prohibited picking the fungus because years of harvests have plundered the region and disrupted the fragile ecosystem of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

The government provides a money-making alternative. It provides funds to teach people how to make stretched noodles, a Qinghai staple that is increasingly popular with city dwellers.

Running a snack bar in Xining can bring in 20,000 to 30,000 yuan a year, says Liang Zhengxian, a Shihuiyao township official.

The farmland environment around Hongai has been damaged by excessive reclamation and to repair the ecology, half the land has been planted in forest.

Advised by agricultural offices, villagers have been planting cash crops such as broad beans and rape on the remaining farmland, which generated 10,000 to 20,000 yuan per family last year.

Now, almost each family in the village owns a TV set and a motorcycle, while some better-off villagers have bought vehicles and have Internet access.

In 2010, the government subsidized all households in the village to rebuild homes and renovate courtyards.

Noble family

Among the rich people in the village, Gonpo Tashi is the most envied and revered by his neighbors.

Gonpo, aged 65, is a nephew of the 14th Dalai Lama and guards the Dalai Lama's birthplace.

Gonpo has served for 13 years in one public office, offering advice to the county government. He and his wife live on his salary and generous donations from followers of the Dalai Lama.

Gonpo has a son and three daughters, two of them are members of the Communist Party of China.

In reverence for the clan that raised a "big shot" worshipped by Tibetan communities, "nobody ever inquired about the income of the Gonpo family," Tsihen says.

Although the Chinese government has lambasted the Dalai Lama's "attempts to separate Tibet from China," it invested nearly 380,000 yuan to rebuild his former residence in 1986, 27 years after he went into exile.

Since then, Gonpo poured hundreds of thousands of yuan into the house renovation. Now, the courtyards have a two-story wooden building and a prayer hall.

Driving a Mazda sedan and using a Motorola cell phone, Gonpo seems to have adapted well to more modern life.

However, he still spends nearly four hours a day in the wooden building. At dawn, he chants prayers and worships his uncle; in the evening, he burns incense and cleans rooms.

On the first floor of the building is a chanting hall to accommodate visiting pilgrims, and on the second floor is a bedchamber Gonpo prepared for his uncle the Dalai Lama.

Outside the chamber stands a customized, bright yellow throne, which cost Gonpo 20,000 yuan. Nearby are photos of the Dalai Lama with hand-written inscriptions.

"The Dalai Lama is a top living Buddha," Gonpo says. "Everything must be prepared in line with the religious rituals."

In the 1990s, Gonpo twice visited his uncle, who gave him Buddha sculptures, photos, a monk's robe and pieces of Thangka, a traditional Tibetan painting.

"I miss him very much," Gonpo says. "I will feel greatly satisfied if he can sit on this throne at least once."

Gonpo also says he believes the soul of the Dalai Lama had returned to his hometown many times.

Free visits

In recent years, the former residence of the Dalai Lama has drawn an influx of devout pilgrims and curious tourists from across the country.

Local officials say the number of visitors has increased to around 5,000 a year, including Buddhist believers, monk, officials and journalists.

A reporter saw three monks driving a Volkswagen sedan to make a brief pilgrimage at the site. They took a group photo at the courtyard before leaving.

"The Dalai Lama's home is not far way. I went there twice," says Losang Samdan, a Tibetan Buddhist monk at Chorten Ki Monastery in Huzhu County, which neighbors Ping'an County.

"People can visit here whenever they want, which shows that the country's religious policies are really loose and tolerant," Gonpo says, adding that the government never objected to the worship.

"Using advanced communication technologies, visitors can easily tell people about what they see here," he says.

The increase in visitors to Hongai Village also brought residents business opportunities. Tsihen wants to start a canteen in the village with the money expected from selling caterpillar fungus.

She says it will cost 30,000-40,000 yuan. "We will buy a car first," she says, "before we stock the canteen."


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