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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."


April 27, 2010

When I saw photographs of the tough, determined looking monks digging
through the ruins of Kyegu town, I was struck by a sense of helplessness
and frustration. Probably, some of you readers felt that way too. I
wanted to be out there with those monks, helping to find survivors in
the rubble, or at least unearthing the bodies of those that had perished
— cleaning them up, restoring some dignity to them, before taking them
away to be cremated.

The only thing I could actually do that was perhaps faintly comparable,
in a feeble academic sort of way, was to go through my library and my
notes and dig up all the information, geographical, historical,
ethnological, cultural — everything I could — on the people and land
where the earthquake had struck. I wanted, in my minds eye, to see all
those who had perished there not as faceless victims, but as actual,
flesh-and-blood individuals, with real lives and stories, and try to
establish the role that they, their forbears, and their homeland or
phayul had played in the ongoing story of the Tibetan people and

The area where the earthquake struck is known as Ga Kyegudo (spelled
skye rgu mdo or skye dgu mdo), the Ga or Gaba (sga-pa) being name of the
people of the area. Khampas tend to pronounce Kyegudo as Jyekudo or
Jyegundo, softening the hard “k” sound to a softer “j or “ch”. They also
do this in the case of the official title “dzasak” which Khampas
pronounce as “chassak”. “Jyegundo is sometimes contracted to Jyegu, or
these days, to the more sinicized Jiegu. One explanation I have come
across for the name Kyegu is that it is a contraction of “kyelwa gu” or
nine lives. The claim being, I suppose, that one life lived in these
beautiful and blessed grasslands is as fulfilling as nine lives lived
elsewhere. But there are other explanations.

The suffix “do” denotes that the place in question is located at the
confluence of two rivers, as in Chamdo, Dhartsedo and so on. In the case
of Kyegudo the two rivers or streams are the Dza-chu and the
Peltang-chu. The broad geographical description of the whole territory
is Kham-toe, or Upper Kham.

The region in which Kyegudo is located, is nowadays called Yushu.
Tibetans claim the name is derived from “yul shul“ or “yul gi shul“,
literally, “vestigial land” (of the Ling Gesar epics). Yulshul is the
land where Gesar’s beautiful queen Singcham Drugmo was born and where
her father Ga Tempa Gyaltsen ruled. Because of this connection with
Gesar’s queen, Drugmo, the women of Yushu have the reputation of being
beautiful and regal.

Historically, the Yushu area became part of the Tibetan empire at the
time of Songtsen Gampo. With the fall of the empire in the ninth century
this area like the rest of Tibet broke apart into separate tribes and
principalities. In the middle of the 12th century the region was united
under Trebo Alu, the first king of Nangchen, and Yushu was incorporated
into the Nangchen kingdom. The name Nangchen is said to be a contraction
of nanglon-chenpo, as the descendents of an eminent (chenpo) and inner
(nang) minister (lonpo) of the Tibetan emperor settled in the region.
The Nangchen kings ruled over 18 inner tribes and 25 outer tribes. The
Gaba tribe belong to the latter category. Nangchen was one of the six
kingdoms of Kham, the others being Chagla (Dhartsedo), Derge, Lhatok and
Lingtsang and Mili.

With Manchu colonial expansion into high Asia, Yushu came under the
nominal control of the amban at Sining. But the growth of Chinese Muslim
(Ma) military power in Gansu at the beginning of the last century
further weakened traditional Tibetan rule in the region and a Muslim
garrison was established at Kyegudo in 1915. In1928 the Chinese
Nationalist government established Qinghai as a province and some areas
of Gansu, including Yushu, were incorporated within it. Since 1951,
Kyegudo has been the capital of “Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture”
which an official handbook tells us consists of six counties, 121
monasteries and with a population of 237,000 people. The town of Kyegudo
has a population of 37,000.

Kyegudo has traditionally been one of the most important centers and
crossroads for trade and commerce in Tibet. It is the hub of many
important routes. One road leads to Lhasa via the nomad center of
Nagchu. Another leads to Chamdo and Derge. One road north leads to
Kumbum and Sining, while an adjacent route goes to Tsaidam and Mongolia.
But the most valuable route is one that runs from Kyegudo to Dzachukha,
Kanze and finally Dhartsedo. This route is called the Chang Lam, as it
is the northernmost routes from Dhartsedo to Lhasa. It is also called
the Jha Lam, since most of the tea imported to Tibet is transported from
Dhartsedo to Kyegudo and finally Lhasa.

I interviewed a Lithangwa who had worked on the yak caravans from
Dhartsedo to Kyegudo and Lhasa. He told me that about 100, 000 (bum
chik) yak loads (jha-khyel) of tea were transported through Kyegudo from
Dhartsedo every year. About 60,000 loads were taken down to Lhasa and
Central Tibet, the rest distributed to other areas of Amdo, Tsaidam and

Silks, brocades, chinaware, khatags, dhar, metalwork from Derge,
medicinal plants, fine woolen material from Central Tibet, cotton cloth,
cigarettes and other goods from India also passed through Kyegudo. The
more valuable and expensive products were transported by mules. Some raw
wool, untanned hides, and, of course, all of all tea, were carried on
the back of yaks.

My informant told me that mule caravans took about three months from
Dhartsedo to Lhasa, but yak caravans took at least ten months, if all
went well. It could take longer, what with the snow, the incredible cold
of the Changtang, and the occasional bandit. He boasted that many of
these caravans were enormous, some easily consisting of 3000 yaks. The
missionary, Susie Rijnhart writes of an encounter (in 1897) in the
northern grasslands “We met immense caravans of yaks with loads of tea
from Jyékundo, as many as 1,500 and 2000 yaks in each caravan, with the
merchants well-dressed and well-mounted, and drivers some of whom were
women and girls.”

Although Kyegudo was, in the past, not a large town, many Tibetan
merchants had permanent homes there. Quite a few of the townspeople were
also nomads, and moved back and forth from a nomadic existence to an
urban one, taking advantage of both worlds. In the decade before the
invasion Kyegudo became enormously rich and prosperous. Some Chinese
merchants lived there too, but probably found it difficult because of
the altitude and cold. This is probably why the present population of
the place is 97% Tibetan, as I understand. The prosperity of Kyegudo
depended not only on it being a vital hub of trade in Tibet, but also as
the surrounding grasslands could sustain the enormous herds of yaks
necessary for transportation.

The French ethnologist Andre Migot who visited Kyegu in 1946 noted “the
real wealth of the region reside in its grasslands.” He also wrote how
enormous the herds of yaks were that lived of the pasturage, and how
wealthy the herdsmen were. In spite of the altitude (3700 metres) and
the short-lived summer, barley, beans and various vegetable crops do
very well there.

Dhondup Ling Sakya monastery, on the hill behind the old town, is the
main monastery in Kyegudo. The site was consecrated by Drogon Chogyal
Phagspa, spiritual preceptor to Kublai Khan. Outside the town is the
famous Gyanak Mani, the largest mendong, or mani-stone mound in Tibet,
or, for that matter, the world. Nearby are the two Karma Kagyu
monasteries, Domkar and Trangu. Other Kagyupa monasteries as Zurmang,
the monastery of Chogyam Drungpa Rimpoche and Benchen monastery of Chime
Trulku, are further away.

Nearly all these monasteries were destroyed following the great Khampa
Uprising of 1956, when the tribes in the region rose up against the
Communists. During the Cultural Revolution what was left was razed to
the ground. The sacred stones of the Gyanak Mani were used for
paving-stones and to construct latrines for the Chinese military and
civil personnel.

In mid-summer when the grasslands are covered with red blue and yellow
wildflowers – mile after mile of a kind of rainbow carpet – nomads from
all over the region, some as far away as Nagchu come together for a
major annual gathering. This event can perhaps be best described as a
happy fusion of multiple picnics, a week-long party, community dancing,
religious observation, informal beauty parade, and an exciting horse
festival, where the men (all dressed to the nines) show off their
sensational equestrian skills. This marvellous gathering is held at
Barthang, a wide plain twenty kilometers south of Kyigudo town, at the
confluence of the Peltang chu and another stream the Zi chu. Further
south the river joins the Drichu or the Yangtze river.

Andre Migot was astonished at the sea of richly decorated tents that
covered the plain. He noted that the tents were spacious and comfortably
furnished with rugs, ottomans, low tables and even family altars, and
that there were also attached kitchen tents which had everything
necessary to prepare a feast.

“Nowhere in the world can a public holiday produce a more remarkable

Note: Check out Michael Palin’s travel documentary, HIMALAYA (BBC) on
disc 2 program 4, for wonderful scenes on nomadic life and the Horse
Festival at Kyigudo. You can rent it from Netflix. Also Check out for a photo essay on the “Horsemen of Kyigu”.
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