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China's smallest ethic group seeks new future in Himalayas

2013-09-25 16:09:38



Wearing beaded necklaces and traditional wool costumes, members of the Lhoba people dance around the Yin-Yang tree, a real-life version of the Tree of Souls from the movie "Avatar."

Unlike the mysterious Na'Vis, the Lhoba people, with a total population of more than 3100, are performing a traditional sword dance to entertain visitors to the forest-concealed area in the southeast of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

"The costume has been listed as the nation's intangible cultural heritage," said Dawa Chodron, a 31-year-old local tour guide who has returned to her hometown after graduating from a high school in a second-tier city in southwest China.

The sword dance is a Lhoba tradition celebrating harvest, hunting or the practice of becoming sworn brothers, according to Chodron.

"Visitors from home and abroad are also attracted by our ancestral customs and religious practices," she said.

The Lhoba, one of China's smallest ethnic minorities in terms of population, live mainly in Mainling County of Nyingchi Prefecture in Tibet.

Located near the Brahmaputra River, Chodron's hometown of Qionglin Village in Nanyi Lhoba Ethnic Township is the largest inhabitation for the ethnic group.

Chodron's ancestors were the first cultivators in the Himalaya mountains, but they led a primitive life even as late as 1950.

The Lhoba have their own spoken language, but no written form. They once kept records by carving notches in wood or tying knots, and most speak Tibetan.

To avoid attacks by bigger clans, the Lhoba lived a sequestered life of hunting and planting highland barley and buckwheat. They also cut trees, processed timber and collected herbal medicines to trade for food occasionally.

Tourists have been coming to the Lhoba's secret world since the 1990s, and completion of Mainling Airport in 2005 has freed visitors from troubled mountain transport.

To protect the environment, Mainling County receives at most 2,000 visitors per day, and visitors are not allowed to drive vehicles in the villages, leaving them at the tourist center instead.

A two-story white building with log cabins beside it is the home of villager Penba. As basic as it looks from the outside, the well-decorated rooms are full of modern household devices, including a television, washing machine and refrigerator.

Though the natural conditions are unfavorable, the Lhoba people have managed to glimpse the outside world through the magic of Weibo and WeChat, China's most popular messaging and social networking platforms.

Penba's family bought a computer and installed Internet service a few years ago at the request of his daughter, Zhoima, for online study.

"Now we are no longer labeled barbarians, as ecotourism has transformed hunters and loggers into cultural entertainers," said the 50-year-old man.

One of the shows that Penba often presents to visitors involves fortune-telling by burning an egg in fire.

He puts an egg in the stove on a wooden frame, then sets it on fire. According to Penba, egg white flowing through the cracks indicates good luck, but if yolk leaks out it's a bad sign.

"It's one of many fortune-telling means we had before. When people got sick or suffered from something bad, we turned to fortune tellers or witch doctors," said Penba.

"Now we go to the township hospital instead. They have doctors who graduated from colleges in big cities and they are really good," said Penba.

All 176 villagers in Qionglin Village are covered by the national medical care system. For serious illnesses, reimbursements can reach as high as 80,000 yuan (13,064 U.S. dollars).

Penba's family earned 60,000 yuan last year by growing highland barley, corn, and Chinese caterpillar fungus as well as through tourism.

Gesang, chief of the county publicity office and the first Lhoba university graduate, believes that tourism has aroused the Lhoba people's awareness of passing on their culture and preserving the ecological environment.

Gesang has completed almost three years of field research and published a book on the development of Lhoba culture.

"It's our responsibility to carry on the Lhoba civilization as we try to keep pace with the times," he said.