As a guest at a Tibetan Family’s Home

“Stop?” the driver asked me when we approached another bend in the road with a beautiful view across the valley. “Go” I pointed with my hand to the road ahead, signaling that we should continue. We had settled on those two words to made ourselves understood, as no one in the entire town could speak any English.

I had spent a night in Xiangcheng and thought to splurge a little by hiring a driver to show me around the area. I remembered a beautiful spot near a village we had passed the day before on the bus, and was now trying to trace my way back there. We approached the top of the hill when I spotted the stupa surrounded by hundreds of orange prayer flags dancing in the wind. “This is it” I said out loud and smiled at the driver. “Stop!” he answered back and brought his minivan to a standstill.

Meeting the father of the house

I prepared the drone and set it up amidst the prayer flags with enough clearance above it to fly it over the stupa and out into the valley. There were two men sat in a corner who were now intently watching what was going on with this foreigner and his peculiar apparatus. As the drone was booting up, I took the opportunity to walk up to the two men and say hello. The drone’s camera feed was now live and I showed them the video on my phone.

My host and his friend when I met them

A hand gesture was enough to explain what the drone does before I took off and flew it around the pagoda. One of them seemed very interested to see more so I sat next to him and let him watch me flying around the valley. The wind picked up considerably and it was time to pack up my gear. The man who showed great interest in the drone saw that I was about to leave so he asked me with hand gestures to come to his house and join him for lunch. I made sure to double check if I understood him correctly using my phone to translate the sentence: “You want me to visit your home?” which he acknowledged with a simple nod of his head. He stood up slowly and reached out for the crutches I had noticed earlier lying next to them. One of his legs seemed to be injured but he managed to get on his motorbike and signaled us to follow.

The richly decorated Tibetan kitchen

His home turned out to be one of the traditional Tibetan houses down in the valley and from the size of it, I deduced, must accommodate a large family. He opened the big wooden doors and led us into the kitchen-living room. It was dark inside and the smell of wood smoke lingered in the air. The first thing I noticed was the delicately crafted kitchen interior painted in vivid colors that reminded me of the Tibetan monastery I had visited in the morning.

A boy was lying in front a huge flat screen TV watching, what looked like a Chinese version of the power rangers, whilst an elderly lady covered in blankets made herself comfortable in front of the stove. “Ni hao” I said to the wife who just came into the room and proceeded to prepare hot yak milk for us. We began talking through my phone translation once again about where I was from, where I have been and where I was going. The driver joined our little round and talked to the family in Tibetan. Halfway through the conversation my host used another hand gesture to ask if I wanted to stay the night. I was a little apprehensive at first but accepted his invitation.

“Mingtien, pick me up here” I said to the driver before he left me behind with the Tibetan family.

Drive into the mountains

I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going but everyone was getting into the little white car parked in front of the house. The older boy, who must have been around ten years old, waived me to sit next to him in the back of the car, whilst his little brother, whose age I guessed to be around three, was watching us from the middle row.

The boy of the house

“You want to take a photo?” I asked him in English. He seemed to understand my gesture more than the words, and took the camera off my hands. It must have been the first time for him to handle a big camera, but it didn’t take long for him to understand how to work it properly. He let out a childish giggle, when he saw the photo he took of the adults standing outside and proceeded to take another shot, this time of his little brother.

We made a quick stop at the petrol station before heading away from the village. The car was now filled with eight people: My host and his wife, the older boy and his little brother, the granny, two more ladies and another shy looking boy, who must have been the grandchild of one of them.

The road became more bumpy, but that didn’t stop my host to drive at full speed, giving me flashbacks of the hair rising bus ride the day before. The road led us higher and higher up into the tree-less mountains, the valley below slowly vanishing out of sight. It was busy with cars, trucks and motorbikes stirring up big clouds of dust, making it hard to see ahead. We came to a sudden standstill, a construction site blocked our way for the time being. The older boy and me kept each other busy with the camera whilst everyone else was chatting along in Tibetan.

We arrived at a little shop just as the sun was setting, drenching the snow capped mountains in a radiant orange glow. I was thrilled to witness this spectacle of nature and asked if I could send the drone up to take more photos. My host explained that we still had to drive a little further so I patiently waited in the car.

The ladies returned from the shop and passed us packs of nuts and dried green peas to eat. The sun had already vanished behind a thick grey cloud, when we reached our final stop. I had finally figured out where we were, when I spotted a sign for ‘natural hot spring’. My host gestured a sign for ‘washing’ whilst pointing to the entire family, followed by a sign for ‘walking’ and ‘taking photos’ and pointed to me.

I didn’t bring any change of clothes and was happy to spend the time walking in the countryside. A little path led me up along the stream towards the majestic rocky mountains and what looked like a hydro power station. I couldn’t help but wonder at the Chinese’s ability to destroy their most beautiful landscapes with an ugly structure like this one, as my eyes followed the huge metal pipes up the side of the mountain.

Dinner with the rest of the family

It was completely dark when we returned home, but we still had time for dinner with additional family members. A monk was one of them and he turned out to know a bit of English which made it a little easier to communicate. The food was variety of breads, fried potato slices and massive chunk of pure yak fat. I tried a piece everything but was not a big fan of the fat. It had a certain sheepish raw taste to it that didn’t go well on my stomach, but had to endure another go at it when I was offered one more slice.

Saying goodbye

The warm rays of the sun shining through the large windows, slowly woke me up from my sleep. I looked around to get my bearings, when I remembered where I was. A deep sense of joy filled my mind, and with a deep breath, I stood up and put on my clothes. The large room was made of light colored wood and resembled a log house from the inside. The only pieces of furniture was the mattress I had been sleeping on and a bed in the far corner of the room.

Waking up in this room was a surreal moment

My host was already awake when I entered the kitchen and we shared the freshly baked flat bred, his wife had prepared. He led me up the stairs to the roof as he knew exactly what I wanted to do: to fly my drone.

A view across the valley looking towards Xiangcheng
The Tibetan Family’s house from above

The sun had just risen behind the mountain, bathing one side of the valley in peach colored light whilst the other remained in the shadow of the mountains. You could watch the shadow slowly recede as the sun rose higher up into to the sky, increasingly revealing the green meadows and white houses spewing light smoke, dotted in between.

Drone shot of the surrounding mountains
Drone shot of the surrounding mountains

I climbed up higher with the drone and could now see beyond the mountains that had blocked my view of the rocky peaks beyond. I felt a deep sense of pride as I took the photo, but at the same time realizing how lucky I was to be able to stay in this village with my Tibetan hosts.

Back in the kitchen my host was ready to leave for work and we said our goodbyes. I thanked him for hosting me in his home and we exchanged WeChat details to stay in touch, before he drove away in his motorbike.

Last photo before saying goodbye

It was now approaching 10am and I chose to spend the remaining time playing basketball with the older boy and showing him how to fly the drone. I took one last group photo with the grandma and the two children and gave a small present to the boy. The driver was already waiting in his van out in front of the house.

“This is what traveling should be like” I thought to myself as I waved goodbye to the boys and the grandma.