I woke up to a chilly morning and struggled to get out of bed. Dawn in Litang, at over 4,000 meters above sea level, was cold even in summer. After checking out of the hostel, I walked to the bus station to get a transport to Daocheng. But transportation in this Wild West of China is difficult and unpredictable. I went to the bus station the day before to ask about buses to Daocheng but the ticket lady told me to come back the next day; she couldn’t even tell me what time the bus would come in and what time it would leave. This was because of the extremely bad road condition. So the best way to get around is using one of those shared taxis.
I was approached by a burly Tibetan man and after trying unsuccessfully to bargain down the price he quoted (because he quoted a fair price) I joined other travelers and locals in his car comfortable SUV. I was the first to arrive so I chose to sit on the passenger seat. While we were traversing through expansive Tibetan grasslands, climbing imposing snowy mountains, I struck up a conversation with our driver. But boy! Was I in for a treat! His stories mesmerized me the whole way.
Q: What’s your name and how old are you?
J: My name is Jiang Yang and I’m 38 years old.
Q: You are a Tibetan?
J: Yes, I’m a Tibentan from the Kangba region.
Q: What is your job?
J: I’m a driver. For 13 years I’ve been driving people from Litang to Daocheng and back.
Q: Are you married?
J: Yes, I’m married and I have 2 daughters; they are 5 years old and 2 years old.
Q: What does your wife do?
J: For many years she worked as a volunteer teaching in an orphanage. But recently she got of job working as a writer in a company.
Q: You are also known as ‘longlife’, as in the ‘longlife’ of Peace Hotel, featured in the LonelyPlanet guidebook, right?
J: Yes. Actually the name ‘longlife’ referred to my friend, Chiren and me. In 2009 we opened the Peace Hotel and the travelers, instead of calling us our names, they called us ‘longlife’. Maybe they were wishing us long life (laugh).
Q: How did you start the hostel?
J: Chiren and I met while we were both working at the Potala guesthouse. We became good friends and decided we should open a hostel together. So in 2009 we opened the Peace Hotel. Chiren managed the daily running of the hostel while I managed the tours and transportation for the travelers. It was very easy to open a hostel here; we only needed ¥10,000 (≈$1,700 USD). The place wasn’t very big: there were 9 double rooms, but the business was good.
Q: What happened?
J: We were very busy and got a lot of business during the summer months, but there were no business at all during the winter months. And spring and autumn months were unpredictable. We didn’t make enough money. The business in the summer couldn’t cover the rent and expenditures for the rest of the year. So we decided to sell it in 2012.
Q: So you became a shared-taxi driver?
J: Yes. I go to the bus station every day looking for people who want to go to Daocheng. Once the car is filled up I drive them there. And in Daocheng I look for people who want to come to Litang and drive them back. I do this almost everyday. Some days I would arrive at 3am and by 6am I would be at the bus station looking for customers again.
Q: That must be very tiring? Do you charge different for Tibetans and foreigners?
J: It is very tiring and the road is really bad, but I’m used to it. No, I charge everyone the same price; Tibetans, Chinese, foreigners all pay the same price.
Q: Do you have other business?
J: Yes. I tour people around Litang. They can hire the car and tell me what they like to see, I will organize everything for them. I can bring them to see sky burials, remote Tibetan villages, go milk yaks, etc. I know this area very well.
Q: How much do you charge?
J: To hire the whole car, I charge ¥400 (≈$66 USD) excluding fuel and ¥700 (≈$115) including fuel, per day.
Q: You did something incredible and very inspiring when you were a kid. Tell me about it.
J: When I was 9 years old I walked all the way to India because we wanted to see the Dalai Lama.
Q: How long did that take?
J: 2 years.
Q: You walked for 2 years?
Q: Amazing! Were you alone?
J: No. There were 7 of us. My brother who was 15 years old was the eldest and I was the youngest.
Q: Did you tell your family you were going to India?
J: No, we didn’t tell our family. My brother and some friends decided one day that they wanted to see the Dalai Lama, so I decided to go with them. Our parents eventually realised that we were missing, and we did write to them to tell them that we were walking to India.
Q: Tell me about the journey.
J: We didn’t have much money so we begged along the way to get money for food. We ate and slept with Tibetan families along the way. Once they knew that we were on a mission to see the Dalai Lama, they welcomed us and helped us. They generously gave us food to eat and warm beds to sleep in. Sometimes when we were lucky, we hitched a ride from trucks but most of the time we walked. We also stole food from the Chinese army camps, many times. Some nights when we couldn’t get anyone to host us, we would sleep on the floor in the monasteries. Because it was really cold so we would sleep huddled together to keep each other warm.
Q: Wow! It must be extremely cold in the mountains.
J: Yes, it was very cold. Some people from the villages would give us warm clothes but it was still very cold. We walked so much that our shoes were worn out by the time we got to the mountain. So for a few days we walked barefooted. It was very tough and very cold. Then we ran into a group of hikers from the United States. When they found out what we were doing and saw that most of us didn’t have any shoes, they took us to the market and bought us shoes. We were really grateful to them.
Q: Any scary moments?
J: One time while we were climbing a snowy mountain, the weather was very bad with really strong wind. We got lost climbed for 2 days without food. Then it got worse and we got separated. By the time we realised we had lost 2 of our friends; we didn’t know where they were or where we lost them. At about 3am on the third day we finally found a village. We knocked on a door and when it was finally opened, we all collapsed on the floor and lost consciousness. When we woke up the next day we were tugged in warm beds and the family took care of us, fed us and asked us to rest. We were exhausted and the skins on our faces were peeling off because of the sunburn. It was extremely painful. We were relieved to find out that our 2 missing friends had found the village too and were resting at another family’s house.
Q: Did you have passports? How did you cross the border?
J: We didn’t have any passports. But it was easy to sneak across the borders in the mountains.
Q: So the 7 of you arrived in India after walking for 2 years?
J: Actually we met more Tibetans along the way who were also walking to see the Dalai Lama. Some joined us after hearing of our mission. So by the time we reach Dalai Lama, there were about 70-80 of us.
Q: How did you feel when you finally saw the Dalai Lama?
J: I was very happy. My heart was so light, so comfortable as if I was in heaven. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. There was no word that could describe what I felt at that moment.
Q: It’s very important for Tibetans to see the Dalai Lama, isn’t it?
J: Yes. We, the Tibetans, need to see the Dalai Lama. If we don’t make a pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama, there will always be an emptiness, like death, in our lives as long as we live. Living in the land of Tibet without the Dalai Lama is as if there’s a perpetual void: a sense of incompleteness. And this makes us very sad.
Q: So you have achieved your goal of seeing the Dalai Lama when you were about 11 years old. What did you do then?
J: The Dalai Lama helped me and a few friends to go to a school there and we studied English. I really enjoyed the time there, being so close to the Dalai Lama. But I fell sick after 2 months. I had problem adjusting to the low altitude. I was born and grew up in the mountain so my heart and lung couldn’t cope with low altitude. I was sent to Katmandu in Nepal to recuperate. One of my uncles owned a guesthouse there so I was helping him. I stayed there for about 6 months then I returned to India, intending to resume my study but after a few months I got sick again and was sent back to Nepal. So I was living alternating between India and Nepal for 8 years.
Q: What happened to your other 6 companions?
J: Three of us came back home at different times. The others went to the U.S.A, France and other countries.
Q: So you came back when you were 19 years old? Did you have any problem coming back into China?
J: No, I didn’t have any problem getting in. Because Tibetans and Nepalis look alike, so I dressed like them to pass off as Nepali to cross the border. Once I entered Tibet/China I changed back into normal clothes and made my way slowly back to my parents.
Q: What did you do after you came back?
J: I started working in my family’s yak farm. I worked there for 3 years.
Q: Did you like living here?
J: Yes and no. I love my land. This is Tibetan land. But the Chinese government is destroying the nature with all the development. Moreover, the Tibetans are not allowed to speak our own languages in public. If we are caught we could be sent away and never to be seen again. I’ve known 10 people who were caught for speaking Tibetan languages in public and I’ve not seen them since. And in the past, all the mini buses and shared-taxis had listening devices installed in them so the authority could listen in on us. But luckily that has changed this years.
Q: Do you plan to go on driving for many years?
J: No, I hope to open a hostel soon. I’ve bought a piece of land for but I don’t have enough money to complete the project. I’ve borrowed money from friends and family but still not enough. But I’m determined to go on with it. I hope to open it in 2014/1015.
Q: Why do you want to open a hostel?
J: Because I like meeting foreigners. I enjoy bringing them around my land and introduce them to Tibetan culture and traditions.
Q: Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you all the best with the hostel business!
J: You are welcome. And thank you.
Jiang Yang’s story really touched me. I was touched by his devotion to Dalai Lama that propelled him to walk for 2 years through the treacherous Himalaya mountains, at aged 9. How many of us are devoted to our own religion enough to go through what he has gone through? Just imagine the conviction and commitment needed for such a pilgrimage! I was touched by how much he loves his culture and his tradition and the passion with which he wants to share them with others.
So if you are in Litang and need transportation service or need someone to introduce you to the Tibetan culture please contact Jiang Yang. Please write to me through Facebook (wander2nowhere) for his contact detail.
*Due to the sensitive issues mentioned in this conversation, I’ve decided not to post any close-up photos of Jiang Yang.