Ten days in Tibet
Dan and I were looking for something to channel our commitment to help a worthwhile cause. Through our friends and the dedicated Liza and Chris we found this amazing initiative in Tibet, SGVTS. New Day were looking for someone to go and take a look at the work being done and the results of their donations to date. We were to also gain a closer appreciation of what the most pressing needs were going forward.
Sitting with a wine in my hand in the comfort of my flat it seemed a no brainer to travel to Tibet. We had the time and we thought the energy. However, after committing ourselves to the trip I will admit to a growing trepidation. I am a worrier with a finely developed ability of seeing potential disaster in the most mundane of adventures. This was not always the case but ironically this is because I am a Mum. I could imagine all sorts of ways that I was about to orphan my kids in the name of helping some other children. We had been warned of altitude sickness, earthquake potential, Monks self immolating and landslides not to mention the lack of alcohol on the plateau! However as the amazing journey unfolded all these fears (clearly unfounded) peeled away to reveal a truly great land with fascinating people.
We flew to Xian from Hong Kong one morning and then boarded a train to Xining. The journey would be twelve hours overnight. The train station was chaos and Dan and I were the only westerners. After much pointing, pigeon Mandarin and walking to the wrong counter a few times we were safely ensconced in the “ First Class Lounge” to await departure. When it was time to board several smiling but urgent staff ushered us to the train clearly concerned that the big noses would get lost! Armed with pot noodles, biscuits, fruit, coffee, cards , books, Candycrush and the crossword we were off!
The train was great, clean cabin for four people, flat beds all boding well.Yes, we thought, we can do this “roughing it thing”.
Pulling in to Xining, a “small “ provincial town of about two million people you begin to see one of the many paradoxes of this Region. Forests of high-rise apartment blocks line the railway on either side…all-empty. The pace of development here is breath taking as is the rural poverty. The Chinese have brought many good things to the Region such as telecommunication and electricity but not all of their initiatives are needed or welcome. What is clear is that everyone is trying to work with them rather than against them contrary to what may be the perception outside Tibet.
We booked into a hotel and gave ourselves a couple of days to acclimatize to the 2500m . On the morning of day three we were met by the two men behind SGVTS and Loveqtra, DockPo and Philip. DockPo presented us with the traditional Tibetan scarf, the Kata and we all introduced ourselves. The welcome was warm and relaxed and the chemistry between the two men was palpable. Both sported ponytails , one passionately Christian, one solidly Buddhist both 100% committed to helping other people and remarkably laid back. It became evident over the week that you need these qualities to make things happen here and deal with the consequences when they don’t.
They were to take us to the Performing Arts School where they had campaigned tirelessly to obtain entrance for 13…well actually 14 but more of that in a bit. They were clearly nervous and briefed us carefully on the visit as the school authorities had been initially reluctant to allow us in.
We were greated with great ceremony and introduced to the Headmaster,two Deputy Heads ,and the Party Secretary who clearly had overall responsibility. All the conversation was in Chinese and Tibetan and Philip did a gallant job at translating their comments and our questions. The school team are clearly very proud, and rightly so, of this impressive campus. We saw the dance studios with some more established students rehearsing. The dormitories were neat and bright . We also saw the Art rooms and therein lies “ number 14”. As the final admissions formalities were completed back in the Summer , Dockpo just popped a lovely little girl into the process who just happened to be deaf and mute …..into a drama school! He could see a chance for her to develop her nascent skills in painting that had began to surface the year before. No better example exists to show how optimistic, opportunistic and determined Dockpo and Philip are for their girls. She is to be taught how to paint the Buddhist Tanka which will guarantee her a living in the future as few have this skill.
We then went to meet the girls and they greeted Dockpo and Philip like long lost Uncles which is how they address them. After hugs there were questions from both of them like “ are you working hard?”, “are you ok?”, “how’s the food?” “ are you looking out for your sisters” etc and that’s when it hits you. These are children just like ours. They have the same needs, the same ambitions and the same emotions they just had a really rough start. They are not just part of a charity project and you just want, as any Mum or Dad , to do everything you can to meet those needs. It is very clear that Dockpo and Philip are in this for the long term. Even so, they constantly plan for the independence of the girls and this school plays a very important part in empowering them to that goal.
New Day’s agreement to fund this initiative was sincerely appreciated by DockPo and Philip as they had been turned down by several other channels and had taken a chance by enrolling the girls before they had any confirmation of funding as they would have lost the places.
If this cohort works well the school will open its doors to more students from SGVTS. This has been the pattern when girls have been sent to other educational institutions outside Tibet. They work very hard as they truly appreciate the opportunity that has been afforded to them. A flat has been leased in the town in Xining for these 14 girls and others who may visit. It will be staffed with teachers on weekends. The girls will board at the Performing Arts School all week and then come to this flat and be tutored so that they can catch up on the years of academic study they have missed. In three years time they will sit the Chinese Certificate and together with hard won identity papers arranged by Dockpo and his supporters they have a future in mainstream China.
The following day Philip drove us for nearly 10 hours up to the School in Darlag, the main base where New Day’s funding has been aimed to date. He had only just arrived back from Yushu where he supports Loveqtra’s other work supporting Earthquake victims , so it was very kind to undertake another gruelling journey.
The scenery was awesome in the true sense of that word. Over 10 hours we travelled through a landscape that at once was the Grand Canyon with magenta, sheer rock faces, through scenery akin to the velvet clad Scottish highlands only to turn the corner and believe you were in the dunes of Saudi Arabia and finally the snowy peaks of Nepal. We never bored of looking out of the window. The human element was equally amazing with vehicles of all natures driving on the wrong side of the road straight at you and the occasional jam caused by Yaks being herded across the road. Then you begin to see the little girls and young women. They are the ones out on the bleak hillsides from dawn until dusk driving their animals across the pastures. They then return to the Nomad tents and collect Yak dung to make the evening fires and so on. Their habitat is extremely remote and they just live with immediate family or the family into which they have been sold. There is no education for these Nomads and no other children to play with. One of the children we met later was to tell us that the best thing about the school is that she has friends who have had a similar background and who understand her.
Philip gave us a rich background of history and cultural context as well as his own experience and motivation for the work he has dedicated himself to. He also had a wonderfully eclectic music taste ranging from Hymns to Seventies disco to Rock. All in all a very entertaining ride
After a quick bowl of noodles and a plate of Yak meat in a local restaurant we entered the school. By now it was dark and we were shown to a very comfortable guest room inside the grounds. It even had under floor heating, the only room in the school to offer such luxury. As we settled down for the night we had our first glimpse of the girls. They had moved a cassette player into the courtyard and were spontaneously dancing and singing in the cold drizzle of the evening. Others were just dashing about and there was a lot of laughter and smiling. This was not for our benefit as they did not see us peeking out of our window. For all the physical signs of their infrastructure needs this is a happy place.
We were taking altitude sickness tablets due to the rapid assent from 2500 m to 4500m. We were tired and certainly did not charge about but did not suffer the effects of the altitude too badly .I would describe it as a hangover…so lots of previous practice at handling those symptoms. We had been warned that we would have an early wake up call and so it was. At 6:30 am the girls get up and run around in formation on the basket ball court to warm up and get them selves ready for the day. Then they do some chores such as sweeping and taking out rubbish before lessons start at 8am.The older girls help the little ones get ready. We did see some teeth cleaning but personal hygiene is still a long education process here. The latrines are very basic and unclean and there is only one hose with running water for the whole school, so no hand washing is done and body washing could be monthly. There is a new shower block going in but Dockpo and Philip are keeping their fingers crossed that the water from the boiler will flow when temperatures fall to minus forty degrees over the winter. We have sent up some alcohol hand sanitizer and a simple slide on why hand washing before eating would be good. The overall health of the children is good although there is a constant sound of coughing and running noses are the norm. If one gets sick they all do.
We went to the staff room for some hot milk tea with Dockpo and some of the teachers at breakfast. They rolled barley floor dough into there tea but we stuck to good old cereal bars! We then embarked on a tour of the classrooms. The little ones have two small dark rooms in serious need of renovation and are looked after by one very overworked lady passing between the rooms. There was much giggling and fidgeting as you would expect at this age but they tried really hard to look at their books as we went in. Dockpo and Philip would like them to have more playtime but there are no toys and limited space. They know this is an issue but it is low on their priority list as long as the children are safe and well and are starting to learn.
The older children are in bright new classrooms and they hang attentively to each word the teacher says. They are all wrapped up in layers of clothes against the cold. To add to the teachers’ challenges they may have a class where the age range could be from 12-18 but they sort by ability. Attracting and retaining teachers is by far and away the schools major issue. The remote location, relatively low wages and private status of the school all play a part. Dockpo and Philip work very hard on creating the best environment they can for teachers and have just hired a retired Head Master to raise standards and help coordinate efforts to improve teaching levels in the medium term. We met this wonderfully enthusiastic man who is putting in discipline around standards and this will yield powerful results if they can get the staff.
Dockpo an Philip are totally focused on providing the girls with what they refer to as “ a last chance”. This is ensuring that some of the older children are either given access to secondary education off the plateau to help them integrate and progress in mainstream China where employment opportunities are greater .Others will be equipped with an employable skill. They have a computer room and aim to give the girls basic skills in this field. The school is approved by the local legislature and is providing a level of primary education equal to the state but has the freedom to add to the curriculum, hence English. Later this year they will convert two of there rooms to a sewing room and cookery class . They had a teahouse to train in aspects of basic hospitality but that is temporarily closed due to a government scheme to widen the road which has lead to the shops in this area being shut down for an indefinite period. The Government are also building a six storey Museum to King Gehser right in the middle of the school. Dockpo can’t challenge this. He has, however been promised that the girls can run it when it is finished. That could be another year away. Meanwhile the girls have to tolerate living in a building site. It is these situations that are beyond their control that the two men show such fortitude over.
At 10am the school gathers outside for exercise (prescribed by state) and an assembly where announcements are made.it was our chance to see them all together and appreciate the responsibility the school has taken on. There was much organizing of the little ones into uniform lines by the older girls then they were off into a well rehearsed routine that went like clockwork, quite amazing to watch.
Another highlight of that day was the chance to “ interview “ two of the senior girls. One was their first Graduate who had just returned from a placement in Beijing at a secondary level. She was waiting to go back to another placement and had ambitions of completeing a degree and returning here to teach. The other girl had been in Guanzhou and her English was very good. She was waiting to see if an English focused College could be found for her. Dockpo and Philip had concerns that her work ethic was slipping amidst her teenage development so they had brought her back to make sure she appreciated the advantage being offered to her. Again an example of how these men look carefully at each individual as parents and ensure they are on track.
The chat with these two girls was great. They talked about the warmth and security of the community. They had chosen English names…somewhat of a relief to us as we could not pronounce the Tibetan ones. One was Linda and one Paris! It was Paris who referred to the relief of coming to a place where her orphan status and lack of education when she arrived was nothing unusual in this special sorority. Nomads and Ethnic minorities face significant discrimination. They clearly felt this was home with all that that word represents.
Dockpo and Philip admit that they can’t help everyone brought to them as some just don’t want to work to change their lives. Their pride in the girls that strive to improve themselves and those around them is very obvious. As testament to their success the waiting list for the school stands at 170 girls .You can see that they would like to take in all the girls they can but they know that to maintain the standard of what they offer and by default the value they can only help those they can fit into their facility.
We stayed at the school for three nights. We watched the girls doing their laundry by the hose,then watched the same laundry attempt to dry out on lines strewn over the campus…in the rain. It did dry eventually. We watched them line up patiently for three hotmeals a day. Finally we watched them at play and had fun videoing them and playing the tapes back to them.We sincerely wished we could have spoken their language but we were made very welcome.
Finally Dockpo treated us to an unparalleled tour of the local area gaining access for us to the innermost sanctuaries of the Monasteries. We had tea with the Monks, saw their Sky burial sites and were given a deep insight into the cultural complexities and paradoxes of this Region. Gold plated Temple roofs juxtaposed with tented encampments housing subsistence farmers who may nevertheless drive an SUV ! Little novice Monks playing football with the local Nomadic kids, both groups with very different prospects ahead of them.
Dockpo drove us back to Xining at the end of our tour and the trip was no less exciting than the journey up as the landscape transformed under the different light. We stopped off at the Provincial Capital so that Dockpo could check on the status of his applications for the girls’ ID papers. We met up with Philip back in Xining to have a debrief and left them with the sure knowledge that we will stay in touch with these very special people.
The whole visit was a sensory overload. You look at one level and see insurmountable barriers to providing these children with the warm, clean and safe haven they deserve. You can think of so many things that would transform this environment…running water, better latrines, new dorms, a drying room, a playroom etc. However, it is very clear that there are few quick fixes here and mobilising supplies and services in Tibet is no easy task. So you see the pragmatic approach taken by the founders who don’t look at the issues through a Westeners eyes. Therefore they look at what is critical to keep the girls going through to independence. They know how far they have come from when Dockpo initially gave up his home to provide a shelter for 30 girls. Both he and Philip have made significant personal sacrifice to realise their ambitions for this vulnerable group. New Day’s support has gone a long way to helping in this and they feel a close connection to the Charity and it’s personal approach driven by Liza and Chris.So in addition to the large scale donations New Day make to specific projects at the school they will always want warm clothes, educational toys , sunscreen, sanitizer , stationary etc and all members can get involved with gathering and sending these materials. We have a postal address so we can send English letters to the Senior girls to give them a connection and some practice. Packages are more tricky and really need to go from Shenzhen but where there’s a will…
We would encourage anyone with the time to make the trip to this amazing place. It requires a bit of stamina, cereal bars, wet wipes and Tupperware (detail on request ) but what a privilege.
Dan and Jane Chavasse.