My Weekend in Zhonglu Village by Joe Totterdell
Thursday 24th October to Sunday 27th October
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to travel with some of the Dragon Yunhe team to the Tibetan village of Zhonglu in Danba County, Sichuan, where their forest school centre is located. It was a fantastic experience to be able to live in a traditional Tibetan village and have a glimpse into the key aspects of the villagers’ lives, from their agricultural systems to their homesteads and religious customs.
After making it on to the Danba bound coach at Chengdu Chadianzi bus station by a matter of seconds, we began our journey to the Tibetan village of Zhonglu. The journey was long, however the dramatic scenery either side of the road made it an enjoyable experience. From the pristine Wulong Nature Reserve to the towering Daxue Shan mountain range, there were amazing views throughout the drive. It was interesting to watch the transition as the fertile farmlands of the basin surrounding Chengdu gradually changed to rugged mountainous passes as we passed further into the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
After reaching Danba we then got a taxi for the remainder of the journey to the top of Zhonglu village where the Yunhe Centre is situated. We followed a winding road through the village and then had to ascend a steep path by foot to get to the centre. The Yunhe Centre is an impressive combination of traditional Tibetan architecture and modern eco-friendly construction. The well-designed heating and other facilities made my stay very comfortable.
We were fortunate to experience clear skies for most of the day so that I could fully appreciate the spectacular panoramic views from the centre down across the valley, with the small white Tibetan houses dotted about the lush alpine landscape. It was a far cry from the bustling metropolis of Chengdu, and the fresh air was very welcome.
After taking in the scenery, we had a brief look around the Yunhe Centre’s garden so that I could see the diverse range of crops being grown there. Tomato, maize and apple plants were all thriving in the fertile land around the centre, as well as a pear tree overloaded with fruit (a very common feature throughout the village).
Then the village council of nearby Lanyue arrived to visit the Yunhe centre and see the agricultural techniques that Zhonglu had adopted. Firstly, the villagers were greeted and introduced to the centre through several presentations detailing its objectives and past successes. This gave me a perfect chance to learn more about the centre and its synergistic relationship with Zhonglu village.
Dragon Yunhe’s solution to depopulation and the threat of unrestricted touristic development facing Zhonglu is the setting up of a forest school in the village, from which they helped local villagers to establish an agriculture and tourism cooperative to sustainably increase their income. They have assisted the community by developing the idea of growing lavender so that the villagers can make significant profits from their farming rather than just growing crops to feed themselves. As well as establishing supply chains from the village to facilitate effective distribution of the harvested lavender, Dragon Yunhe have negotiated a means of converting the lavender into lavender oil at a factory in Sichuan for next year’s harvest. This opens up many new options for how the villagers can sell the lavender in the future and with consistent investment can help to drive sustainable economic development of the village.
After learning about the purpose and ideas of the centre, the villagers were given a chance to exchange conversation over a freshly prepared Tibetan lunch.
Lunch was followed by a thorough tour of the centre, including the library, herbarium and rooftop. The Lanyue villagers were fascinated by the adaptation of familiar, traditional architecture along with modern sustainable methods to create the state-of-the-art centre. They particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see plants both from their area and farther afield in the herbarium. For the majority of the villagers, although they may have seen most of these plants countless times in the wild, they would not have had the chance to study them in detail before.
Next on the tour was an opportunity for the Lanyue villagers to experience Zhonglu’s novel agricultural venture; lavender. As mentioned above, with the aid of Dragon Yunhe, the production of lavender as a sustainable cash crop was started this year with the aim of enabling local villagers to earn a profit from their farming, rather than purely feeding themselves and their livestock.
This also allowed me to see the village and have a glimpse into traditional Tibetan lifestyles for the first time. It was fascinating to see how most aspects of their lives had been retained for hundreds of years and highlighted the need to preserve these ancient parts of their communities.
After a walk down the road through the village, surrounded by pear trees and traditional houses, we entered one of the new lavender fields. We walked through the fields, observing both the planting organisation of the crop and the harvesting method carried out by villagers using traditional tools. This seasons crop appeared to be very successful, with a consistently high yield and no observable losses The Lanyue villagers were able to have a conversation with the Zhonglu agricultural director and seemed very interested in the use of lavender as a crop, seeing it as a potential avenue to explore for their own agriculture.
After showing the Lanyue villagers a variety of guesthouses aimed at tourists, the people of the two villages said their farewells after a productive day of exchanging ideas.
Unfortunately, we woke up to see that the weather was not quite as pleasant as the previous day and therefore plans to observe the lavender process in more detail had to be changed slightly. This did give us a chance to explore more of Zhonglu village however, particularly the traditional Tibetan houses. I was privileged enough to be given tours round several homestays and witness one of the beautiful Buddhist prayer wheels in action as two traditionally dressed Tibetan women walked around it to pray. It was heartening to see that this ancient custom was still practiced while some aspects of the village were beginning to become more modernised.
After that we had lunch with the village elders, who kindly gave me some of their baijiu. It was a delicious meal with a variety of dishes, including a yak meat stew, fried liver, fresh vegetables and homemade bread. In another house I got the opportunity to try a traditional Tibetan butter tea drink, made from yak butter, tea and walnuts. I also got to witness the zero-waste ethos of the village first-hand, when I saw how the toilets of some of the houses were used to feed the pigs beneath the building.
While exploring the village we got to see inside a building being used for as one of the locations for storing the harvested lavender crop. All three floors were filled with fresh, fragrant lavender bundles.
Afterwards, to round off the visit to the village we were given talks detailing the history and symbolism associated with the unique watchtowers dotted around the landscape. The main purpose of the watchtowers was unsurprisingly mostly believed to be defence against invading tribes. Most of the towers had large amounts of stockpiled food so could keep hiding villagers alive for months while they waited for the invaders to move on.
This intriguing talk was followed by the opportunity to climb up one of the larger watchtowers. This was an amazing experience, as both the exterior and interior of the tower had been preserved in perfect condition. It was a very exciting experience as the pathway we used to climb up the tower would have been very similar to that used by local people for myriad past generations. The challenging ascent made the view at the top feel all the more rewarding.
To finish off our weekend in Zhonglu, we had a delicious hotpot back at the Yunhe Centre in preparation for the early departure back to Chengdu in the morning.
My fascinating experience in the village was one which I will always remember fondly, and I would like to thank Xiaomei and the rest of Dragon Yunhe for giving me the opportunity to explore Zhonglu. It enabled me to experience Tibetan life in a depth that would be impossible to reach by simply visiting as a tourist.