War, politics, history? Ask this Tibetan nomad something important

BY MICHAEL A. LEV, Chicago Tribune, Dec 9, 2004

TONGNA, China -- The yaks needed to be milked, and the milk churned for butter and the butter boiled for curd. These were the chores occupying the thoughts of Amtso, a nomad woman on the Tibetan plateau who is responsible for her family's herd.

It was a very late summer afternoon, on the cusp of the first snow, and nearly time to drive the yaks from their fattening summer grazing ground a few miles along the river to the family's winter farmstead, where family and yaks alike would sit out the freeze as best they could.

There was nothing else to worry about, for there is nothing else in the world of significance to Amtso.

The outside does not penetrate this valley. Not taxes, not politics, not strangers (she had never met a foreigner before), not news, not history.

Ask her about what is going on in Beijing and she does not know. She does not know the name of the capital of China or of Tibet.

She does not recognize world events. She understands nothing of the international controversies that surround China's control of Tibet. She wears a Dalai Lama pendant - of him she knows - but where is he? In exile? This has no meaning. She might have recognized the name of America _s he responded correctly when asked if it was a city or country. But of the Twin Towers and Sept. 11 and of Iraq - these were places and events that have no relevance to her life.

I asked if she could name any war between any two states, thinking perhaps if she did not know about the war on terrorism perhaps she understood the long history of Tibet and the wars and occupations that brought China, Tibet and the Mongol empire into conflict. She knew nothing of any war.

This was getting existential.

Amtso is a Buddhist who prays daily, reciting a mantra 100 times that means, "I bow to omniscient Buddha mind; hail the jewel in the lotus."

I asked if she knew there were other ways to pray, there were other religions in the world?

"I know of only one way to pray to Buddha," she said. "You can do so at home or at the monastery."

One of my guides felt I was failing to grasp the point: "Your questions are becoming more and more complicated," he observed.

To one who is more than your average 24/7 American news junkie, one who lives the news as I do as a correspondent and who has met Afghan shepherds coming down off the mountain from their century to mine, I should not have felt so flabbergasted.

In Beijing, a foreign correspondent I know tells the story of the day China launched its first manned spaceship. He drove 30 miles out of the city to interview peasants who knew nothing of the news. "What spaceship?" they asked.

But another correspondent drove 100 miles out and found peasants who asked him: "What is space?"

So maybe it was less a feeling of surprise than of curiosity about what the uncluttered life might feel like that pushed me to determine exactly where her world bumped into mine.

We were pretty far apart. My first day on a trip to this remote area of the Tibetan plateau, I hiked and soaked up the sounds of a roaring river. I must confess on the second day, as I followed a creek high into the hills, I wore my CD Walkman and listened to the noisy rock `n' roll of Guided By Voices. I enjoyed both days.

For Amtso, there are not choices like these to make.

She knows what she must. She knows she was born in the Year of the Dog, but does not know her age. That was unnecessary information. She knows she has responsibility for her extended family's herd of about 30 adult yaks, but she does not know the precise number. "I don't need to," she said. "I recognize each one."

This was a woman leading a more monastic existence than many of the monks I had met who carry cell phones and play video games.

Phuntsok Dundrop, who lived in these hills until age 8 and then moved to the county seat, returning as a doctor at a rural clinic, said women were more likely than men to remain so sheltered.

"They don't care about anything other than their family," he said.

But men, too, are sheltered. At the clinic several times, Phuntsok said, "I've asked men for their father's name, and they said, `I call him Papa.'

"I asked, where you are from? And they said, `I am from home.' Then I asked for the name of the place, and they told me."

There is nothing wrong with their mental functioning, he said. It is just a question of perspective. They do not know the capital of Tibet, but ask what important place they would like to visit to read scripture and they will answer, Lhasa.

Perhaps self-conscious after all my pestering, Phuntsok thought about his life as a doctor, in which he speaks both Tibetan and Chinese, and has traveled to Beijing for training and worked closely in the clinic with American doctors, and he said of the nomads: "These people are not very civilized. They spend too much time tending their yaks."

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