My good friend and former student's (here referred to as Chuck) father drove. The dirt road, only forged in the last year or so, made the ride tremendously bumpy and kept travel slow. The road wound through scores of vast, grassy valleys, each curve bringing my wife, me, and our friend to an area that looked so similar to the last we wondered if we were driving in circles.
Hundreds of animals grazed along the golden hillsides and we consistently encountered smoke-billowing tents, housing for the people who call this place home. Residents of this region live much of spring, summer, and autumn as their ancestors did—nomadically—rearing domesticated animals upon the sprawling, hilly grasslands of the region. Chuck's sister lives in the area along with her husband and two children, and we were traveling to visit them while others went to help survey the land and redraw grazing boundaries.
Over an hour elapsed before we arrived at the family's tent. His brother-in-law awaited us accompanied by his son (seven years old) and daughter (nine years old). The children attend school and live in the village during the school year, but came home for the October holiday. Chuck's sister joined us as we got out of the car, stretched our stiff legs, and drank in the beautiful peace of the scene.
Our hosts invited us into their home. The structure lacked any flooring or beds. Instead, rugs sat on the grass. They had tucked away the blankets and pillows. Tools for living and food items lay scattered about, as well as a solar-powered portable television. In the center stood a typical stove. These amazing contraptions, usually fueled by dried dung, double as cooking and heat source for the nomadic and rural peoples across the region. The conditions were minimal, but warm.
The family insisted we sit as Chuck's sister served us warm, delicious milk taken from the animal mere hours earlier. We pieced together a conversation, but communication came slowly due to the linguistic and cultural differences. Not only did we lack the language to ask questions, we wondered what questions to ask. Chuck, however, served as a great translator and helped us along.
The children strained to comprehend us. They, along with Chuck's sister, had never seen Westerners, let alone interacted with them. Sadly, Chuck's sister had a cold, limiting our interactions with her. Intense shyness defined our socializing with the children. They questioned if we were human. We explained that we are, indeed, human and that we are not as different from them as they thought. We pointed out that we have the same body parts and needs—that we must eat, drink, sleep—and that we have families, just like them. But they struggled to believe it, insisting we were very different.
I got up and sat down next to them. They scooted away. I told them I agreed, we were different in one big way. Then I pulled up my sleeve to reveal my hairy arm. They recoiled with astonishment. (I did this fully aware of the response I would receive. Most Asians do not have body hair.) They had never seen so much hair on someone's arm.
A few minutes later the boy asked Chuck if we could visit the small treed area on the hillside across the valley.
“Have you seen trees before?” he inquired.
We smiled and told him that we had. The boy insisted we visit them. We assured him we would.
The neighbors invited us to their home as well and during the exchange they asked us if we wanted to ride their horse. I had never ridden a horse before (while my wife has many times). We excitedly accepted their offer. For the next hour we joyfully stomped around the valley, sometimes on our own, sometimes accompanied by Chuck, who could get the horse to really gallop.
For lunch, his sister prepared a phenomenal traditional dish, unquestionably the best I have had. More conversation accompanied our meal, as did countless photographs. The boy, however, grew impatient by the moment. The treed hillside remained unvisited. So with full stomachs we set off. It took about forty-five minutes to get to the trees. Unfortunately, the moment we arrived, we heard Chuck's father shouting at us from across the valley. They had finished their surveying, at least for that day. The time had come to depart.
Chuck's sister wished to visit a doctor so she and the children joined us for the drive back. Several newcomers piled into the truck as well, along with a small tree. Our numbers swelled to fourteen, a cramped but perfect ending to one of those experiences that cause me to look upward and shake my head with awed disbelief. During our walk to the trees, Chuck surmised we were the only Westerners to visit that valley.
It was not the first time someone told me that I am the first Westerner to visit a place. Such realizations always humble me.
When Jason Odell first arrived in China five years ago, his discovery of the country's ethnic diversity shocked him. His piqued interest led him to teach English in a unique region of China for three years. He, along with his wife, currently live in Southwest China and have started to …View Full Bio
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