This week was spent with my good friend, Helen. Last year she guided me through Qinghai Provence. This year Helen took me on an 8-day trip through Qinghai Provence and the western Gansu Province to visit ethnic minorities, Huzhu Tu and Yugur, as well as to attend Tibetan mountain god festivals, Shaman, in three villages around Tongren. I can’t leave out the stunning Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park! Much more was on our agenda but this post offers these highlights.
China has 55 ethnic minorities and the area in which they live are recognised as autonomous regions, allowing for a certain leeway for local rules and traditions to be observed. So far in this trip, I have visited the Uyghur, Tu, Yugur and Tibetan Autonomous areas in China.
Traveling from Xining to Tongren, we begin to see stupas protrude from the greenery and notice prayer flags on high mountain ridges. We pass one village that is Buddhist and then the next is a Muslim village with minarets raising high above the homes. From one village to another the architecture and lifestyle changes noticeably.
Tongren is home to the Rebgong art which is an important genre of Tibetan Buddhist art. This school consists of Thangka paintings, embossed embroidery, architecture coloured painting, sculptures (see: Xiahe to Xining ). From Tongren, we branch to three villages on a very wet and cold day. We are not sure the if the Shaman festivals will be cancelled or not because of rain…
The annual Shaman Festival observed by both Tu and Tibetan ethnic minorities express their thanks to the Mountain god who protects them from evil. Through an ancient dance to the god, they pray that the god(s) bless the land with an abundant harvest. The three villages observed three different types of dances. (The following is what I was told about the reasons for the festivals, through an interpreter, so if this information is wrong, please be so kind as to let me know.)
At the first village, Wu Tun, and although it rained heavily, a solemn dance with unmarried men and women, and children began. Here, they thanked the mountain god for sending the Roc bird (in the story, flew from India) to protect the people from wild animals and evil. In Tibetan language this bird is called xia qiong. Also, the dance is for xia qiong to bless the water, wind, and 5 grains of the Tu and Tibetan villages along the 12 kilometre of the river.
At the second village, Lanj Jia, dancing commemorated the war between Tang Dynasty and Tibet. It is a celebration of peace between them. Also a Tubo sacrifice to local gods. This is a military and dragon dance and for men only.
Lawa at Lanj Jia village
In the third village, Ma Ha Ba Tu, celebrations are to commemorate the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, a mixed army of Mongolian and Han Chinese accepted to enlist in Ming Dynasty in the LuWu valley. The dance celebrates peace and tranquility and to pray for ancestors, life and food. Here I met an 8 year-old girl, Do Jie Zhuo Ma, meaning smart or knowledgeable girl, who stayed with me most of the afternoon until her mother called her to dress for the festival. She asked me, “If you are a grandmother, why do you wear lipstick? Grandmothers don’t wear lipstick.”
Some rituals for the Shaman is to insert steel needles into the cheeks or back of males from 8-45 years. This ritual is usually a one time requirement.
Each village has a human, named lawa, that goes into a trance and is said to open to the gods and becomes a vessel with the mountain god.Below is a picture of the lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu, being prepared for his transformation and a video of the ceremony where he becomes a vessel for the mountain god.
People from the villages:
The rich land of Sunan Yugur Autonoumous Prefecture is located in Hexi Corridor, (see Lanzhou to Dunhuang) at the northern foot of the Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province. There are more than 30,000people living in Sunan, a third of whom are the Yugur people. Throughout history and today, although the Yugur (not to be confused with Uyghur) group is relatively small, they have been deeply committed to their traditions.
The Yugur people story begins during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the nomadic tribe migrated from Siberian over the Tien Shan Mountains in search for grass and water, then to the Mongolian Plateau during the end of the first century. This tribe separated and migrated to the Qilian Mountains, assimilated with locals to form the Huihe people, forefathers of the Yugur ethnic group. For nearly 300 years , the Tang Dynasty preserved fundamental peace with the Hiuhu and during this time the Yugur tribe emerged. The Qilian Mountains, natural cover for defence, gave them control of transportation through the Silk Road and they made connection with Central Asia between the 9th and 11th century, and they established the Ganzhou Uyghur Khanate near Zhangye. But it was destroyed and the tribe left the Hexi Corridor. During the 16th century tribes began to migrate eastward, and merged with a branch Eventually through intermarriage, war, and migration the Yugur ethnic group emerged.
In Chinese, “Yugur” means wealth and stability. Animal husbandry is the major industry of the Yugur people. The Yugur people believe in the Yellow Sect of Lamaism, their customs and habits are similar to the Tibetans. Only one meal is eaten every day of which their staple foods are primarily rice, wheat and some mixed grain. Yugur people usually eat beef, mutton, and pork, as well as chicken and camel meat, to which they add some garlic, soy sauce and vinegar.
The Yugur people are renowned for their hospitality. No matter when guests arrive, they will give them a feast. Fragrant tea or milk tea will be immediately presented that lets each guest feel the Yugur people’s friendliness.
My appointment with Mrs. Ke Cuiling, keeper of Yugur traditions and culture, lived up to the Yugur’s notorious warm welcome and generous hospitality.
We were served a feast of Yugur delicacies and at the end the offering of finger glass of traditional barley liquor accompanied with the flicking of liquor to appease the gods and bring blessings to ourselves.
Like many traditional crafts that are passed down over generations, Mrs. Ke learned the skills from her mother and elder sister from an early age. She worked for many years in the local museum before beginning her own local cultural center. Despite her tight schedule, Mrs. Ke still manages to train young Yugurs in tailoring of traditional clothing, embroidery, and culture during her spare time. Ke Cuiling faces the same problem as traditional artisans face throughout the world that technology and consumerism will erase local and traditional handicrafts. But she is doing something about it by opening opportunities for tourism and summer programs for youth. ( Read: Keeping Yugur Ethnic costume alive.)
Zhangye, meaning extending the arm, is a city in the centre of the Hexi Corridor. Fifty minutes drive and we are in Zhangye National Geopark is located in Sunan and Linze counties in the Quilain Mountain range within the prefecture-level city of Zhangye, in Gansu Provence. Zhangye Danxia is known for the unusual colours of the rocks, which are smooth, sharp and several hundred meters tall. They are the result of deposits of sandstone and other minerals that occurred over 24 million years. The result, similar to a layer cake, is connected to the action of the same tectonic plates responsible for creating parts of the Himalayan mountains.
Wind, rain, and time sculpted extraordinary shapes, including towers, pillars, and ravines, with varying colours, patterns, and sizes. (Information from Wikipedia)
Of course, one must leave a wish before saying farewell to this awesome geological wonder:
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Love the costumes! Love the rocks!