I boarded my bus in Chengdu armed with a 茶叶蛋chayedan and a spicy 凉面liangmian, ready for the seven-hour journey. Not being a big fan of long-haul bus rides, I had some trepidations about being bored or feeling cramped. However, my worries of discomfort dissolved as we exited the smoggy urban sphere and plunged into the achingly beautiful wild mountain-country of Sichuan.
After a thirty-minute stop for lunch, a nap, and a phone conversation I was at my destination, Danba. The long-haul odyssey I had feared passed in what seemed like a short two-hour outing.
I was now in the county of Danba (丹巴) in the Tibetan plateau (Tibetan language: རོང་བྲ , pronounced Rongzhag Zong). The Tibetan Plateau (or Qinghai-Tibet Plateau) stretches across over 2.5 million square kilometres encompassing the provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet proper, and bordering countries including Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, and India. Though Tibet proper requires most foreigners to join an organized tour, this is not the case for most other parts of the Tibetan plateau.
It was another half an hour in a minibus from then on to the small village at which our service site was located. As we wended our way further and deeper into the mountains I was once again captivated by Sichuan’s sheer natural beauty.
But it’s really the local culture in this region and the people who make the site of our service projects so special. The people possess a spiritual beauty which, I believe, comes from the Tibetan Buddhist values they practice and teach. Mainly the foundational conviction that all life is equal and that all sentient beings possess a right to live in harmony as part of the natural world.
For example, on my second day there, because it had rained the night before, there were many earthworms on the courtyard. Most property owners that I know of would have simply swept them away. Instead, I witnessed the staff picking each of the earthworms up by hand and depositing them back to the soft earth – of course, I just had to join in!
Our students coming to do our service projects here stay at guesthouses that are operated and sourced locally. Our main accommodation is actually run by the master carpenter, architect, artist who also oversees our architectural restoration projects, the owner is his wife – in this area of China men marry into the woman’s family and households! His guesthouse is a beautiful masterpiece that he regularly renovates and paints himself.
For Tibetans, art is simply a way of life. He told me that he worked together on the project with his son and that the entire guesthouse (the artwork and renovations) took about 3 months to finish. For a one-man-one-child-job, that’s pretty impressive. Behind the guest house is a traditional watchtower which, as unimportant as it looks, is actually around 500 years old!
Globally, as more schools move toward a holistic education model, where values learned in the classroom are enacted in the real world, schools are thinking more critically about the projects that they choose for their students. There’s a demand for more diversity in service trips; for them to be sustainable, longitudinal, projects that truly make an ethically positive impact the community they aim to serve. For this reason, we, at The Dragon Trip, are giving this location and these people the spotlight for this season’s service projects.
Our schools who choose the Tibetan Plateau as their service learning site have a wealth in breadth of project options to choose from: Projects span architectural restoration (water grain-mills, traditional houses, traditional stone trails), artistic research (creating traditional Tibetan dyes from scratch, learning embroidery), anthropological field studies (recording and translating oral traditions, filming and understanding traditional rites of passage), as well as historical inquiry (examining and analyzing century old watchtowers).
More importantly, our local partners are themselves incredibly dedicated to the preservation of the local community and geography. They are on a mission to build up eco-tourism in a way that is empowering instead of disenfranchising for the locals. A sad truth is that tourism is not always done ‘well’. Often the spending habits and sheer intrusiveness of outside tourists leave the local population dependent on seasonal and fickle consumer behaviour.
The local people involved in our service projects are not just there to provide goods & services to our students – they are themselves the educators. And, when we do workshops for our students we make sure that they are also open to local students and young people as well.
With the increasing ease of travel, as well as rapid urban migration, China has seen its population quickly homogenizing. In recent years, the Chinese government has been pushing to provide quality education to those in traditionally very rural areas. For example, young people from an ethnic minority are given special benefits and added opportunities in China’s best universities and secondary schools (for example, in the infamous GaoKao, China’s equivalent of the SAT/ACT/IGCSEs, test takers who are from ethnic minorities may add up to 20 points to their overall score. Just 1 point can divide thousands of test takers!). Although this is a great opportunity for these young people it also means that now, more than ever before, these same young people are migrating away from home.
Unfortunately, in the Tibetan Plateau, amongst the Tibetan people, many rites of passage and cultural ceremonies are passed down orally from generation to generation. Architectural knowledge, artistic skill & know-how, coming of age stories & celebrations, have traditionally followed an intergenerational model of endowment.
This urban migration means that there is a massive loss in intergenerational knowledge transfer. This is why – whether or not our schools and students are themselves from that ethnic community – it is now critical for us to learn, respect, and then spread by whatever means available to us the lessons, trades, and crafts from this region and her peoples.
Interested in finding that ethically sound, pedagogically compelling, service learning project set in a jaw-dropping location for your students? Enquire with us today – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message in our online chat!