Horsemen, Monks, and Zombie Cities

Tibet was not on the top of my travel list, but when Trend Union and Edelkoort put together what sounded like the trip of a lifetime, I decided I had to go. We landed in Lanzhou from Beijing, and a curious landscape unfolded before us over a long five hour drive to rural Tibet. In many not-so-subtle ways mainland China was expanding everywhere. I saw all kinds of roads, segments of roads, partially built roads going nowhere, five lane roads planted with trees and fully illuminated with massive street lamps. There were also over-engineered bridges traversing tiny gullies with trucks and earthmovers lined up for miles along the roads. And then the high rise apartment buildings, jutting up to the sky in clusters. Vacant? Awaiting new Chinese workers? Brand new, but already in complete decay, they were not the bright and shiny cities of the future, like Shanghai, that I visited last summer, but more like places from a post apocalyptic Asia. I could fully imagine these landscapes filled with zombies at night. In the day I saw no one. I expect China is planning to migrate many, many people into these instant cities very soon.

Finally after several hours of driving, the high rises started to subside and be replaced by small villages, nomad tents, monasteries, and the maypole of colorful prayer flags dotted throughout the green rolling hills. There were few trees in the landscape of the nomadic farmer. Herd animals were everywhere, herds of sheep, goat, yak, many horses, and many piglets. With the close proximity of what I had just seen, I truly felt like this was a landscape (and a way of life) that might not be around for much longer.

One purpose of the trip was to visit sustainable textile manufacturing facilities. We went to a carpet-weaving place in the local town that used yak wool to make rich carpets. The first four nights we stayed in fancy tents at an eco-chic resort. A chef researching the local cuisine cooked with joma (miniature sweet potatoes), barley, and yak everything; butter, milk, and meat.

We spent one day at a horse festival. Being nomadic, Tibetans treasure their horses, and the various local tribes come together to celebrate in the summer.

The absolute highlight for me was a visit to the largest Buddhist monastery in the area. We walked around a whole “monk city,” spent time with a monk in his home, witnessed a chanting ceremony on the steps of the main monastery, and followed them inside as they all sat down in rows in the richly decorated interior. They continued with low chanting and humming for a long time. It was mesmerizing. We saw several monasteries throughout the trip. They were all decorated in layer upon layer of varied patterns and colors. So much chaos it was orderly;  Just amazing. We almost met the newly reincarnated thirteen year old Lama, but unfortunately he canceled all his appointments at the last minute.

Our last three days we spent at the Norla textile facility. Norla employs villagers and local nomads and supports more than 120 families. (Most everyone in the village was there because of the facility). Norla provides companies like Bergdorf Goodman and Hermes with high quality woven and felted goods (scarves, blankets, etc.), mostly out of Yak wool. They have recently started selling more goods within China.

On our last day as we were leaving, it turned out the same teen Lama was coming into our small village. So all the men donned their best burgundy wool coats, white shirts, and the range of fuschia-to-hot-pink sashes, and rode out to the start of town to greet him. The horse and rider as symbol of the nomadic culture in Tibet was a fitting end to my trip, and too soon I was back in Beijing, then the USA.

Words and Images by Verda Alexander