Runxiao Zhu: 3000 Miles - An Explorative Trip of Tibetan Monasteries 2012
The knowledge acquired from books and the depictions of places in pictures is often very different from visiting a place in person. My last trip to Tibet and the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures was in 2002. In the summer of 2012, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute gave me a grant that helped me embark on a new journey to visit the monasteries in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and Qinghai Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
Before my trip, I was concerned about what kind of experience I would take away from visiting these monasteries because most of them were destroyed during the 1950s and 1960s. During my trip, I travelled extensively. I drove almost 3,000 miles and stayed in places that were over 10,000 feet above sea level. My concerns subsided, for after my trip, I was able to practice speaking Tibetan and established important relationships with local tribe leaders, professors, and monks.
My main research focus is Choné, once a powerful kingdom on the Sino-Tibetan borderland. Its monastic system and tribal social structure interested me the most. But when I visited the Great Monastery of Choné, I was disappointed. All the material I read about Choné in the last two years seemingly had nothing to do with the monastery I saw. The original monastery burned down three times, in 1929, 1958 and 1984, and there are very few pilgrims left behind. Luckily, one professor from Lanzhou University introduced me to the daughter of Mr. Yang, the direct descendent of the Choné King. She took me to her father’s apartment after we visited a local monastery to see mural paintings. I was fortunate to meet Mr. Yang in person, and conducted a small interview with him about the kingdom, the family, and the monastery. Mr. Yang was gracious enough to speak with me and invited me to visit next year to see all the monasteries in Choné.
My trip was an adventure. I had a total of four days with no shower, three days with no running water and two days with no food. My rented SUV was stuck in the mud for seven hours in the middle of nowhere, and I had to call the local authorities for help. While waiting to be rescued, local Tibetans stopped and tried to help, some even called others to come help. I gained invaluable experiences during this trip.
During my trip, I also realized how crucial it is for Tibetans to formally learn their own language. In the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to communicate with the local Tibetans because of the different dialects. Before long, I was taught how to speak their dialects, but I was also teaching them how to write their own language. Since the places I travelled to were mostly nomadic areas, most nomads I spoke to were illiterate. In these areas, the formal education system ends after elementary school. Most children are not able to continue their study in Tibetan language after the sixth grade. By building relationships with the Tibetan community, my spoken Tibetan improved tremendously. Through these relationships, I also learned about many social concerns affecting the region.
The Weatherhead MA summer funding grant allowed me to have a successful and rewarding trip. I am sure that my experience this summer will help to build a strong foundation for my future doctoral study.
For more information on the Weatherhead MA Training Grant fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.