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The Land of the Sun Tribe

Text by Lu Linglong
Photographs by Qu Jing

A long time ago, a holy yak was locked by ice and snow on the Geladandong Snow Mountain. Several brave Tibetan men climbed to the summit and drew kindling from the sun. As the snow melted, the holy yak woke, and clear snowmelt flowed from its nose, forming streams and rivers. The sun and fire later became totems worshipped by the Tibetans. The Zhaxika people have since been called the Sun Tribe.

Before visiting Shiqu, home of the Sun Tribe, my knowledge of the place was pretty much limited. I knew it was the highest, largest, and most remote county in Sichuan Province, and the home of Zhaxika Grassland, the largest grassland in the Kangba Tibetan area. I knew "Zhaxika" was the Tibetan name of Shiqu, and that it meant "the riverside of Yalong." Located at the juncture of Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region in the southeastern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, it rises 4,000 meters above sea level and occupies an area of 25,141 square kilometers, 90 percent of which are covered by grass. It is 1,070 kilometers from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.

All these concepts remained abstract in my mind, until the day arrived, and then I began to understand this place.

A herd of female red deer

I had been to grasslands before, but when the boundless expanse of Zhaxika appeared in front of me, I was stunned. The imposing grassland is pure and vast, steeped in overwhelming charm. The sky is transparent, like a huge blue screen. The clouds, like wads of silk, move slowly and gently across the sky. The pristine Yalong River winds its way through flowered meadows, perfuming the wind. Enjoying myself in such an expansive space, so close to the sky and so far from the earth, I felt as if I was in a fairyland. The surrounding landscapes seemed veiled in the colors of dreams, which made me doubt my own existence. It seemed to me that at that moment I became a lighthearted herdsman, and what I was herding was neither cattle nor sheep, but my life and my soul.

It was summer, and the grassland was full of life. All of the flowers were in bloom. The mountains, rivers, pastures, and plants composed the music of nature. Zhaxika is also a paradise for wildlife. Here, you can find dark-neck cranes (Grus nigricollis) dancing in pairs on the waterside, white-lip deer (Cervusalbirostris) galloping among the mountains, bharals jumping nimbly on the cliffs, and strong eagles flying in the blue sky. Zhaxika is home to nine species of animals under state first-class protection, including the dark-neck crane, the white-lip deer, the Tibetan wild donkey and the wild yak, as well as 34 species under state second-class protection.

Summer and autumn are the best seasons for the grassland, during which "Shuabazi," or the carnival of the Kangba people, enjoys great popularity. The meadows are dotted with white, mushroom-shaped tents, and people in colorful ethnic costumes ride horses to the grassland to enjoy the sunshine, taking along yak meat, butter pastries and highland barley wine. With minds as broad as the grassland and passion as fierce as the sun, the local people are very hospitable. Any tent you enter, the host will offer you milk tea and wine. While presenting you a hada, a white scarf as a symbol of friendship, respect and good luck, the family will say "Zhaxidele" (meaning "good luck" in the Tibetan language) and sing for you, or invite you to dance with them.

Peace in the shade of the holy flags

Like many other Tibetan-inhabited areas, Zhaxika Grassland has a strong religious atmosphere. There are 46 temples in the county, and the oldest of them is Dumu Monastery, which was built during the reign of Emperor Taizong (627-649) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Although it was partly damaged, it is still popular with Tibetan Buddhist followers. Different from other Tibetan-inhabited areas, where there are Mani piles (piles of stones inscribed with six-syllable mantra of Tibetan Buddhism), Zhaxika has Mani walls. The Bage Mall Wall near the First Turn of the Yalong River is like a long dyke or an ancient city wall meandering through the grassland. The wall is three meters in height at most and two to three meters in thickness. Stretching 1.6 kilometers, it is the longest Mani wall in the world. The wall is made of Mani stones, which are engraved with six-syllable mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Kanjur, Tanjur, and other Buddhist scriptures. In the 300 years since the first stone was laid, the Mani wall has witnessed tremendous changes in the world. Regarded as a "Great Wall" of ethnic faith, it is still being extended.

Today, a primitive nomadic tribe with a small population still exists on the Zhaxika Grassland, keeping its own cultural traditions. The tribes people are viewed as living fossils, from which humans can have an insight of their own history. They like to call themselves "Zhaxikawa," meaning "the tribe at the source of the Yalong River."

The natural environment on the grassland is tough, but more than 60,000 people still live here. While challenging themselves in an environment that is cold and short of oxygen, they are putting their efforts toward the future of Zhaxika. What spirit supports them? I wondered. I found the answer just before I left Shiqu.

It was an after-snow dawn, and we were camping on the bank of a lake about 4,700 meters above sea level. In order to shoot the sunrise from the horizon of the grassland, we had equipped ourselves with cameras and lenses before daybreak. The moment I stepped out of my tent, a scene captivated me: a huge, full moon lingered above a mountain summit, and the moonlit wilderness was completely tranquil. The horses that had carried us along the trek for several days stood still on the snow-carpeted ground. They were also dusted with snow, and with the gentle moonlight and the reflection of the snow, their outlines looked like unrivaled sculptures.

I was touched to tears. And I understood.

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