Life on the Third Pole

By staff reporter GONG HAN

LOOK what I’ve found!” George Schaller exclaimed as he displayed a black caterpillar squirming on his palm. This particular grub was the eminent American wildlife biologist’s most impressive discovery on his trip to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

On the way from Yushu to Zadoi the drivers transporting Schaller’s team stopped at a section of road that was writhing with these caterpillars. They got out, placed the larvae carefully in buckets and released them in the grass by the roadside.

This scene was recorded in the Roof of the World, China’s televised documentary on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The crew visited 60 untraversed areas of Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan over a 16-month period. The resultant documentary commanded the biggest investment of any filmed in this region of China.

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, located at the world’s highest elevation, is known as “the Third Pole of the Earth.” The only polar region where there is abundant human activity, its varied landforms include snowcapped mountains, glaciers, lakes, and wetlands, and abundant species of fauna and flora. The region’s deep religiosity also imbues it with a certain mystique.

“I showcase in the documentary the real life of Tibetan people,” director Zeng Hairuo said. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau landscape is majestic and magnificent, but Zeng’s focus is on the lifestyle of its inhabitants, and how they embody the relationship between humans and nature.

The documentary’s audience rating exceeded by far the production team’s expectations, the first broadcast achieving an accumulative viewing scale of 83.34 million. The U.S. National Geographic Channel has bought the broadcast rights – a rare instance of a domestic documentary’s export to a famed international documentary platform.


Real Life in Today’s Tibet

Zeng Hairuo shot his first feature documentary in Tibetan areas of Qinghai Province 10 years ago. He has since longed to make more films about Tibet. His last experience, however, was quite different from the first.

“Tibet is much more modernized than I expected. Mobile phones and apps like WeChat are popular among locals,” Zeng told China Today, adding, “and the Tibetan people are less conservative than I thought. They show a great interest in the changes of this era and in contemporary society.”

The director initially planned to film Tibet from a traditional perspective. But during the preparatory stage he found that most books on the region focus on history and travels, and that few describe the daily life of Tibetans, especially over the past five years. Zeng hence decided to make authentic life on the Third Pole the focus of his documentary.

It is said that Tibetans bathe only three times in their lives: at birth, when they marry, and after they die. Zeng found this to be a fallacy. “Although there are no bathhouses in pasturing areas, hot springs are common. Locals frequently spend days at a time at these spas and take frequent baths.”

Few people are aware that bathing in hot springs is a Tibetan medicine therapy, particularly for treating bone disease. The Eagle Hot Springs in Tibet, which includes 20 or more spa pools, seems to be a place for socializing. Amid the steam, people talk and exchange ideas while knocking open the spring holes to release the water flow.

On their way back from the spa, the crew encountered a family living in a tent. They were feeding six abandoned wolf cubs they had found with raw mutton from the body of one of their sheep a pack of wolves had killed earlier that day.

The relationship between humans and animals on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau expresses the local people’s reverence for nature. One local woman named Dawa nursed an injured black-necked crane back to health, and residents of one village moved their dwellings further down a hill to make the environment more suitable for apes living there.

Zeng Hairuo believes that Tibetans’ respect for animals originates in their time-honored traditions: “Learning from their grandparents and parents, an attitude towards life of equality with and gratitude to all beings has evolved over generations of living in this harsh natural environment. For example, people here do not distinguish among insects as either beneficial or harmful.”

Zeng was particularly impressed with the custom of one particular village he featured in the documentary. Every year, villagers go to a temple to acquire a pill that represents atonement. They dissolve the pills in water with which they feed sheep that are to be slaughtered. They then pray for remission of their sins through the killing of the animals, and for the sheep’s reincarnation.

“In Tibetan culture, humans are not superior to other things,” Zeng said. “In their eyes, the plateau and nature as a whole are hosts, and men are simply their guests. A guest should not take things belonging to the host, but be content with what the host offers. This is why herdsmen in the region keep a limited number of cattle in efforts to preserve the grassland. To them, humans are just one element of biodiversity.”


Fusion of Tradition and Modernity

In the Mindroling Monastery in Chanang County, the crew witnessed construction of the mandala, symbolic of the universe where all Buddhas and boddhisatva gather. This is a ritual that, as a rule, only certain Buddhist monks are allowed to witness.

It is a ceremony that takes place during the Saga Dawa Festival in April of the Tibetan calendar. More than 40 monks at the Mindroling Monastery constructed the mandala from four different directions on the floor by sprinkling multicolored fine sand into an outline sketched from white sand. An indescribably gorgeous pattern took shape. This ritual is said to be the same as that practiced by Sakyamuni and his disciples.

The next step was truly astonishing. Having completed the mandala, the monks all knelt down and began swiftly sweeping away the colorful sand by hand, and then mopped away the white framework. In less than one minute, the incredible mandala disappeared without a trace, sand once more becoming sand. “It symbolizes anything and everything as well as religion,” Zeng Hairuo said.

Cultivating oneself according to a religious doctrine is an important part of life on the Third Pole. By the lakeside at the foot of a snow mountain lives a pair of elderly twin sisters. The elder sister spent over two decades in a cave practicing her faith. The only visitors to this desolate spot are vultures. The younger twin, who appears the more affluent, provides her sister with food. Somewhat gaunt and ragged, the hermit twin commands great respect by virtue of her devotion. “Good faith is the best companion, and will relieve you of bewilderment and anxiety,” the elder sister believes.

On the other hand, the modern lifestyle is welcomed by increasingly more locals. Tsultrim, a Tibetan doctor, uses a cave as his office, but his primitive workplace is equipped with the whole spectrum of Apple products. Electronic appliances are also commonplace these days in Tibetan tent dwellings.

Zeng wondered whether or not locals worry about the younger generations’ passion for the urban lifestyle and the outside world. “Lamas and custodians of traditional culture tell me that they have always been aware that the world is changing, but that change, as a feature of this world, is nothing to be frightened of. If nothing were to change for decades, that would be cause for our concern. Ordinary Tibetans certainly prefer to a more convenient way of life.”

Daga is a kind of collective labor. The film crew came upon a daga group. Tools in hand, workers lined up on a roof top and as they began to repair it, worked to the rhythm of the songs they sang. The younger people among them wore contemporary style clothes complete with baseball caps.

Tradition and modernity sometimes fuse in a mystical way. Sita Dorje is a college student in Tibet. Although his everyday life is no different from that of his peers, this young man is a King Gesar storyteller.

The world’s longest epic, King Gesar has been orally passed down for a thousand years on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Over one million verses tell of heroic King Gesar who devoted his life to destroying evil and spreading virtue.

Sita Dorje is a “god-enlightened” storyteller. Most storytellers of this caliber are illiterate but have astonishing memories. They can recite volumes of verses as if taught by a god. Sita Dorje’s school filmed his performance. The young man, dressed in his most splendid attire, chanted in the posture of a veteran storyteller with half-closed eyes: “The lake is sacred. On a flaming holy mountain, Gesar sits on a throne. He calls for all gods to combat devils. He prays for killed demons for a better afterlife...”


Man – An Element of Nature

The roof of the world commands a view of superb landscapes. Most places, however, feature depopulated zones and bumpy mountain roads. Landslides are frequent. The proportion of oxygen in the air of this region is just 60 percent of that at sea level. Cameraman of the documentary Sun Shaoguang lived in this area for two years. He nevertheless found the journey back to make this film hard going – “the hardest conditions for film shooting in my entire career.”

Faced with the likelihood of accidents due to the high altitude, the crew members often felt powerless. Several gadgets for taking aerial shots stopped working, the life of batteries was much shorter than at lower altitudes, and gasoline also ran out quickly. “These are the realities of the plateau. It makes you realize how small you are, as a human, in proportion to nature as a whole,” Zeng Hairuo said.

Harsh conditions did not put the crew off. They took underwater shots of an ice-covered lake 5,000 meters or more above sea level, framed a shot while suspended from cliffs on the Yarlung Zangbo River banks, and captured images of the ecological chain in the depopulated zone of Changtang, to name a few hazardous exploits. The team recorded more than 1,000 hours of high definition video clips.

The locals often reassured the director, telling him there was nothing to worry about and that he would achieve everything he wanted to. Their calmness greatly impressed Zeng Hairuo. “I stayed in this area for more than one year, and never saw them express anxiety about anything, other than emergencies concerning their families or sheep. Every morning before going to work they would first enjoy some butter tea and roasted barley flour. They lead a generally quiet and slow-paced life,” Zeng said.

He believes this lifestyle is attributable to their beliefs, the agricultural production mode and, most important, their attitude towards interests. “Why are we always stressed? Because we see ourselves as the center of the universe and so are overly concerned about personal gains and losses,” Zeng said. “We constantly compare ourselves with others and worry whether or not we perform well enough, or if we are paid the same as our peers. We appear proactive and ambitious, but are in fact impatient, depressed, and cold to our families and even to nature. People here are not perfect, of course, but they do far better than us in this regard.”

In making this film, Zeng relived certain familiar feelings that are eternal for humankind. It also inspired him to adopt a new perspective on life and work – “remember to relax.”

To cameraman Sun Shaoguang, of all the places he has worked, he feels most comfortable shooting documentaries in Tibet. “Local people are amazingly tolerant. They don’t mind us or our cameras and just talk and behave in their normal relaxed way.”

The Roof of the World is the first of Zeng Hairo’s trilogy on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. In the next two films he plans to focus on the relationship between local peoples. “Whether in family relations, relations between neighbors or contact with animals and nature, there is always a feeling of respect. This is something that deeply touched me. This sense of equality between all men and between man and nature is what I would like to highlight in my films,” Zeng concluded.