The Stone Lion
“There’s no reception here.” The young Tibetan man standing next to me snaps his phone shut. I look from him to the expanse of mountains surrounding us on all sides, my ears ringing with silence, not another human, not even a building, in sight. It hits me how completely isolated I am with a man I met yesterday. Maybe not great, I think. What would my mother say.
I first met Zhuaxi in the street market in Kangding, a tiny mountain town in Sichuan 7 hours west of Chengdu. He and his brother were sitting in the shadows behind huge wheels of yellow yak butter, their dark features hidden behind shoulder length black hair and black cloaks. They looked bored, staring through the bustle of shoppers passing their stall to the Han women selling eggplants, fern buds, and tomatoes around them.
I asked him if he made the butter himself, he asked me if I was American. “Looking around at the empty green slopes surrounding the town I asked, “Where are all the yaks?” He paused, looking up from his cell phone, studying me nonchalantly. “I can show you, if you want.” His brother says something sternly to him in Tibetan and he shrugs. “But it’s good to show our American friend around,” he says back in Chinese, looking at me.
“Right now?” He looked up at the dark, fog shrouded mountains to the West. “We could. But tomorrow the weather will be better. Come back tomorrow morning.” I nod, walking off, wondering if he’s serious. “Hey!” He calls after me. I turn around and he’s slouched in his chair, looking at me. “Ni kending yao hui lai,” he says. You definitely will come back. It catches me off guard before I realize it’s a question.“Kending,” I say. Definitely. And at that, I start thinking maybe I actually will.
Twenty hours and about 100km west of Kangding later, we’re alone in the mountains, beside a crystal clear creek in short green grass studded with tiny white and purple flowers. I check my phone. Zero bars. The warnings of the women running my hostel ring in my ears. I had told them my plans that morning and they had told me sharply not to go, that bad things have happened to foreign girls in this town before. There is a strange feeling in Kangding, which is a border town between the Han Chinese community to the east, and the Tibetan community to the west. It’s an almost eerie tension that does not belong in a sleepy mountain town, a subdued feeling that’s hard to explain. Maybe I was wrong to ignore it. I could still run back to the Tibet-Sichuan highway we came in on in a matter of minutes, I think. A convoy of hundreds of Chinese military trucks has been barreling in from Tibet all morning, and I could easily flag one down.
Zhuaxi slips his phone back into his pocket and does what any Tibetan man who has cornered an American girl alone in the mountains would probably do: he starts talking about the Dalai Lama. “I truly love him,” he tells me. “All Tibetans do. He is…amazing.” His voice trembles with sincerity, carries the meaning his broken Chinese, which is about on par with mine, cannot convey. We follow the creek deeper into the mountains as he tells me more about the Dalai Lama, how he is carried in every Tibetan’s heart, he says, pointing to his chest, how he is a true reincarnation of the Buddha, how every day, his mother yearns for him to come back.
I tell him the Dalai Lama visited my hometown in New York once, because we have a small Tibetan monastery there. He nods. “A lot of Tibetans have moved to the US already,” he says to me. “It’s good, maybe they can save a small piece of our culture there. But this” – he gestures around us, from the bright blue sky above the dirt yak path we’re walking on. “This we cannot win.”
Snow covered mountains rise up behind steep green hillsides, still spotted with patches of snow. Huge yaks, their long black hair shaking back and forth as they graze, inspect us from glistening black eyes. Zhuaxi carefully takes a picture of me standing next to a yak, and then tells me he’s taking me to see a very special rock, a rock that looks just like a lion. “No matter what you’ve seen in your life,” he said to me proudly, “I’m certain you’ve never seen a rock like this before.”
In the distance is a stone cottage with smoke rising from it. Zhuaxi points to it and smiles. “My relatives lives there. Let’s go visit.” As we approach the cottage, a large woman with one eye and red cloth braided into her hair lumbers towards us, waving and laughing at Zhuaixi. They chat for a bit, and she beckons us inside. The one room hut is cold and smoky inside. A pile of blankets sits in the corner, and the one-eyed woman grabs two of them, throwing them onto the smooth dirt floor by the stove for us. She puts a kettle on, throws more dried yak dung into the stove, and walks outside.
Zhuaxi takes me over to the wall where a huge frame contains pictures of maybe 30 different llamas. “Can you find the Dalai Llama?” He asks me. Its like a Tibetan Where’s Waldo, and I squint in the dim light at the tiny faces behind the dirty glass frame, and in the center is the forbidden image of the Dali Lama, smiling and standing beside the young Panchen lama.
Zhuaxi’s aunt has saddled up her two horses for us to take up the mountain, to see the stone lion. They’re gaunt after a long winter, hips poking out at sharp angles behind the saddles. I can feel my horse’s labored breath as it carries me slowly up the hillside, the air getting thinner and thinner. A half hour later we’ve made it halfway up the hillside to the closest neighbor’s house. Another old woman stands in front of a small blue tarp hut and a stone yard with two children and several dogs, all watching us. As we get closer she recognizes Zhuaxi, comes over and greets him.
It’s a Thursday, and I start to wonder what all these kids are doing at home. “Are the schools out here taught in Chinese or Tibetan?” I ask Zhuaxi. “There are no schools out here.” “Do these kids have to go all the way to Kangding to go to school then?”
He shrugs and just repeats, “There are no schools.” I look at the little kids staring at us from the distance, and finally realize that they simply don’t go to school.
When we crest the hill, the view is mesmerizing. The steep green hillside tumbles down into another valley far below, yaks and sheep the size of stamps grazing on the fresh spring grass. Sharp zigzags outline an enormous mountain range stretching into the distance.
Zhuaxi points to each mountain, telling me their names in Tibetan. “The rock is there,” he says, and I can hear the excitement in his voice as he points to a white dot balanced on a distant hillside. “See it?” From where we’re standing, the rock is the size of my pinky nail. “ He ties the horses to a shrub to graze, and we pick our way down the steep mountainside as yaks wander close by. “How do people know whose yak is whose?”
“If it’s your yak, you know,” he tells me. I point to a nearby yak. “Is the red cloth tied to his horn so his owner knows it’s his?” “No. That’s a blessing from the llama, so no one can ever eat him,” he says. Eventually we make it to the rock, which from a distance, really does look a lot like a white stone lion, stretched out like a sphinx. Zhuaxi looks at the lion like a friend he had not seen in a long time, then at me for a reaction.
Up closer, loose slabs of quartz have been piled on the lion’s head, anchoring a tall white prayer flag. “It used to look much better when I was little, a lot more like a lion. Pieces have been falling off.” He gestures to the pile of rocks stacked on the lion’s head. “He’s getting old already.” He looks at the lion reverentially, not touching it. “Come, we have to walk around it.” We walk a circle around the lion, clockwise, squinting up at the white and yellow quartz outlined in front of the sun. “When I was little, he looked much better,” Zhuaxi says again, with a note of sadness. “He’s really fallen apart a lot.” We walk back to the lion’s head, and Zhuaxi pulls out a crisp one yuan note. He folds the note in half, mumbles a short prayer, and places the money in the crack of the lion’s mouth. We stand there quietly for a minute, then start back across the mountainside.
A dog by the house in the valley below watches us silently, given up on barking. “That house,” I say pointing below us, “Is the closest road to them the place we came in?” Zhuaxi nods, munching on a snowball he’s made. “But that’s like 2 hours away.”
“What do you think about that?” He asks me. “Well, that’s a pretty long way to carry your groceries from the supermarket,” I joke. He doesn’t laugh. “They don’t go to the supermarket very often.”
I’m tired, burnt out on sunshine and wind, feet aching from the steep downhill trail. Apparently yaks don’t understand the concept of switchbacks. As we approach his aunt’s house, Zhuaixi picks up a stone and hurls it. “Do you know what that means?” He asks me. I pick up a stone and hurl it too, thinking he’s joking around. “What?”
“The time around the Olympics,” he says slowly, and then pauses. “People here threw stones.” He looks at me, as if afraid to say more. I remembered the protests. In March of 2008, Tibet, Sichuan and Qinghai – everywhere with Tibetan populations – had been closed off by the Chinese military, blockades on every road as Tibetan monks and civilians alike rose up in a violent protest against China’s treatment of Tibet and its people. The protests began on Tibetan Uprising Day, when it 1959, Tibet rose up against China and subsequently had the Dalai Lama thrown out of Tibet. Tibetans has started attacking Han and Hui civilians, burning and looting. With no other weapons, protestors had thrown stones at the legions of PLA troops sent in to quell the protests using any means necessary. When I had heard about it, I remember being amazed, at how just angry you would have to be to throw a rock at someone holding a gun.
“They took 200 people away, maybe even 300, and our llama. Nobody knows what happened to them,” Zhuaxi says. In a community of 700, 200 people is no small number. “Where you involved?” “No,” he says quickly. “But every single one of these households had someone who was,” Zhuaxi tells me, gesturing to the mountains around us. “Is there any way to find out what happened to the people they took?” I already know the answer. “Mei banfa. Women bu hui cheng gong,” Zhuaxi says. No way. We can’t win. We’re quiet for a minute, walking back the way we came along the stream after giving the horses back to his aunt.
“This place is amazing. You’re lucky to have these mountains around you,” I say to Zhuaxi. He shrugs apathetically. “These mountains are boring to me,” he says. “I’ve seen them my whole life.” “Why don’t you go somewhere else then?” “Like where?” “You could go to a city, like Beijing.” He snorts. “What would I do in Beijing? I wouldn’t understand anything I saw there.” “But it’s like that for me too! I can’t read anything, I can’t speak good Chinese, I’m lost every day.”
He thinks about this and then points out one obvious difference. “The Chinese, they call us maoniu.” Yaks. “Because we have no culture. And it’s becoming true. Our culture, little by little, it’s disappearing. I really don’t think there are any Tibetans in Beijing. There would be nothing for them to do there. There is no reason to go so far away.”
“What about another big city?” He thinks about it. “Maybe someday I will go to see Chengdu,” he says. Chengdu, the nearest city, is a six-hour drive away. Zhuaxi is 30 years old, and has traveled west many times, to Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Gansu – but he has never ventured east, deeper into China. Its startling to meet someone with such an overwhelming sense of being boxed in, of being chained to his own back door by a cultural boundary that has made a prisoner of him on his own land.
We make it back to the road and flag down a crowded mini bus headed back to Kangding. Zhuaxi points to a seat beside a monk for me, and takes a cramped spot between two men behind me. Outside the window, the mountains loom. As we wind our way back to town I notice a large white boulder by the side of the road, and wonder how many years it take before Zhuaxi’s stone lion is worn down, and becomes just another ordinary rock on a mountainside.