From Labrang we made our way to the city of Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to enjoy a delicious Tibetan dinner and spend the night.
Our Tibetan dinner included roast Tibetan sheep, shabalep – fried dough stuffed with meat, momos – dumplings, masan – pastry made with tsampa (roasted barley flower) and yak milk tea. Unfortunately, I always forget to take photos of the food we eat as I’m too busy stuffing my face so you’ll have to take my word for it that the experience was incredibly satisfying.
After a good night’s sleep, we headed off on what would become the journey on the Worst Road Ever. A road that is more suitable for an ATV rather than the minivan with questionable suspension we were travelling in. We are; however, grateful for the disproportionately high clearance of the van’s ceiling as we would have surely hit our head on many occasions as we bounced along for what seemed like an eternity. Thankfully we were distracted from our misery by the gorgeous scenery outside. Out our windows we saw herds of yak and sheep, sometimes in the company of a Tibetan cowboy on horseback, yurts set up in their summer pastures, fat marmots lounging in the sun, and ground squirrels darting from hole to hole, careful not to be caught by one of the many condors soaring above.
Just when my brain started mulling the possibility of shaken baby syndrome in older children, we reached our destination. The grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were just beginning to wake up from its winter slumber but it was already incredibly magnificent. I can’t imagine how much more jaw-dropping it will be in July or August when flowers blanket it.
Travelling through the grasslands really gave us a sense of the openness of the plains and the freedom it offers. It is understandable why 40% of Tibetans remain nomadic despite attempts by the Chinese government to settle them. Being nomadic allows them to liberate themselves from the restrictions imposed on them.
Restrictions we felt when we tried to get a hotel room that night in the Tibetan town of Maqu (closest town to the field site). We were told that all the hotels in the town were not allowed to accept foreigners due to a festival/holiday that was a month away. Our hosts were not surprised but had been hopeful that we would get lucky. It seems the upcoming holiday was just an excuse as this practice happens regularly. Apparently, another biologist and his foreigner guest were woken up in the middle of the night and asked to not only leave the hotel they were staying in but the town of Maqu. Our only recourse was to ask for permission at the police station, which turned out to be a thoroughly absurd process. We were told the police supervisor was not available to give us permission as he was apparently out drinking. It seemed that travelling with small children in tow was not convincing enough that we did not have an ill intended political agenda. (Although we feel strongly that the policy is not to send a message to visiting foreigners but rather to the local Tibetan people.) Our host considered the feasibility of going to where the supervisor was and drinking with him. Fortunately, he is a Tibetan well versed in the practices of the area. A few cigarettes proffered and the right respectful words seem to have done the trick. We would be allowed to stay the night if we provided copies of our passports to the police station . The process didn’t just stop here though but rather continued until we left town. There was a police officer at the hotel to check our documents again when we went to check in and then the next morning at check out, two police officers arrived to once again ask why we were in town. I think they just wanted to make sure we were leaving. Nothing is ever simple in China.