By Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
The young as well as the elderly know their dialect in Kyegu. It is a town where people end their conversations with traditional blessings, “Tse Ring,” May you live long, “Ga Sho,” May you be happy, “Lo Ja,” May you live a hundred years.
Even now, or perhaps now, the words are necessary.
I have often described Kyegu as an old American western frontier town to friends in San Francisco, an association as arbitrary as the names given to Kyegu by the media in the days since the earthquake in Tibet. On the morning of April 14, 2010 major newspapers ran the story of an earthquake in “Western China,” and referred to its inhabitants sometimes as “ethnic Tibetans,” living in a region “bordering Tibet.” Days after the quake, I am still getting emails and phone calls from close friends, even Tibetans, who are wounded they did not realize the earthquake had taken place in Tibet and that the people dead and dying are almost all Tibetans.
“Western China,” “Jyekundo,” “Qinghai Province” and “Yushu Prefecture” are still unfamiliar names to Tibetans in exile because these names and regions did not exist for them before the Chinese invasion in 1959. The new Sino-map of Tibet replaces the traditional grouping of Chol-kha-sum or the three regions: Dotod (Kham or East Tibet), Domed (Amdo and Golog) and Utsang (Central Tibet). Now, Amdo, Golog and some old chiefdoms of Kham are pasted together into Qinghai Province, as Kyegu is, while other Kham tribes are scattered in the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Kyegu, sometimes translated by locals as “nine lives or rebirth,” or called Kyegu – do (the do, or intersection, refers to its role as a trading town like the other Do in East Tibet – Chamdo and Dartsedo) has been a political, commercial and cultural nexus for nomadic villages of the area for a long time. Kyegu was one of 25 chiefdoms of Nangchen under the guardianship of the King of Nangchen.
The kingdom of Nangchen - the first king of Nangchen, Driwa Alok reigned in the 1250’s and the 26th King, Se Achung passed away in 2008 in Kyegu – along with five other kingdoms made up the grouping of Kham. These are territories designed with geographical cunning of such formidable rivers, mountains, belligerent kingdoms and chieftains that for much of its history it managed to eschew a fixed political or administrative center.
Last year I asked Rinchen Tsering Drawutsang or Drawu Pon to those of us from the region, if he remembered the population of his area when he was the young chief of Kyegu (he escaped to exile in 1959 and lives in India with his family). He guessed a total of 650 families in the town: 400 families who paid taxes and about 250 poor families who did not pay any form of tax. Official documents in the town of Kyegu state there were 2092 families or 9,591 people under the chief in the towns of Kyegu, Parthang and Shinze before/when the region fell under full Chinese occupation.
Most people in Kyegu today claim a nomadic herding ancestry and have family members who continue to live in isolated nomadic villages in Nangchen, Kyegu, Dritou, Zatou, Trindu and Chumaleb (the six regions that today make up the post 1959 Yushu Prefecture). Out in the streets of Kyegu the dialects are discernible, all fairly similar but for slight regional quirks. A significant portion of this population is made up of nomads who were resettled from their herding lands.
My aunt has tried several times to describe Kyegu since the earthquake tore it apart on the morning of April 14, 2010. Last night, (her morning), standing in the yard of her collapsed house, she said scraggly beams and crumpled mud and wood cover the street she has lived on for over fifteen years. The elders of her street are camped with her in her yard and all day people come and go collecting water from the well in her house. The traditional wooden gate to her house that I had painted in green, red and yellow in October 2009 is in a heap beside the outhouse; three friends in the neighboring houses were found dead under the rubble.
“Tsering Wangmo, Kyegu is gone,” she said in a quavering voice. “Everything is gone and I am still here.”
Some of my relatives are camped in tents along with an estimated 10,000 people in the field known as Tajug thang, the field where horses race, a few miles out of the town’s center. Ordinarily associated with picnics and merry-making, and the popular annual horse festival which showcases the prowess of the Khampa in horse racing, singing, and gun-manship, Tajug thang is brilliant through the months of June through September with grass of such green delight and flowers that drive you silly with happiness. These days the field is dotted with tents. Last night my family had instant noodles and hot water for dinner, courtesy of the army who is serving food to people living in the camp.
My aunt says thousands have died. I do not ask my aunt if she is “ok.” I ask if she has had sleep and if she is keeping her blood pressure in check. I know from spending so much time with her over fifteen years that the present dispossession must bring up memories of decades of strife.
As I write this piece, the sick are still being air lifted out of Kyegu’s small airport in Parthang to be treated in hospitals in Chengdu, Xining, Lhanzou and other cities; thousands of homeless Tibetans and a small population of migrant Chinese are having a bowl of noodle soup as meal; many people are still looking for their missing family members under the rubble of buildings. This is just the beginning of a long and difficult journey for a community that has gone through so much. It is my hope we can help them get through the immediate crisis and be there to help them rebuild the town and their lives.
We can also help the people of Kyegu by remembering them by their real names. Before we said Tse ring, Ga sho to each other last night, I reminded my aunt Kyegu has nine lives. She was quiet for a moment and then she broke into her happy laugh.
Please consider your support to organizations of local origin who have begun working to bring food, clothes, sanitation, water and other emergency essentials to the earthquake victims:
Jinpa Project: www.jinpa.org
Tibetan Village Project: www.tibetanvillageproject.org