In August 2008 I, along with a small team of volunteers, distributed 325 Tibetan style winter coats along with 1000 pairs of socks, 500 hats, 500 pairs of gloves, 350 pairs of shoes, soccer balls, basketballs and a computer printer to a small nomad boarding school in the town of Danglog in Golog Prefecture. Most of China and Tibet experienced one of the worst winters on record in 2007/2008. The areas of northern Kham and western Amdo experienced temperatures as low as -40C (-40F) with snow well over a meter deep (40 inches). A large percentage of the yaks and sheep in this region died from starvation since they were not able to graze in the deep snow. The nomad people in this area depend on their yaks and sheep for just about everything: meat, dairy products, wool, fuel, etc. This area is not only one of the poorest in Tibet, but one of the poorest in all of Asia. While the local government did a superb job of quickly getting aid to most of the region, the supplies were not enough to go to all the small nomad communities.
I first started planning this project over a year and a half ago. In December 2006 I traveled through the remote nomadic areas of Chumarleb, Chende and Drido in northern Kham while doing research for The Discovery Channel. During that time, the temperatures were well below -25C/-13F and many of the children were wearing shoes with huge holes in them and had no socks or gloves. Their coats and hats were in very bad condition as well. I talked to a group of friends of mine back in the Pacific Northwest about the possibility of raising funds to purchase new winter clothes for nomad children. They happily agreed that something needed to be done and the plan was set into motion.
In October 2007 I traveled for 2 weeks through northern Kham looking for a place to do this project. The nomad areas of Tibet that experience harsh winters each year are huge...far bigger than the state of Texas. I wanted to find the perfect place to do this project. The two main criteria that I had in mind were a remote nomadic area with a large amount of children. During the trip in October 2007 I found a few possible locations, but none that really made a huge impression on me. In November 2007, my family and I returned to the US for a visit. When we returned in the spring of 2008 I went out again to the nomadic areas of the northern Tibetan Plateau. On this trip, I made a 3 day stop at a nomad Tibetan boarding school in the small village of Danglog along the south face of Mt. Amnye Machen (one of the 4 main holy mountains in Tibetan Buddhism). Though this school was extremely remote, it had a student population of nearly 400. All of the students were extremely poor and came from nomad families. Many of the students had lived in a hand woven yak wool tent their whole lives. I had a great time getting to know the teachers at the school. Nearly all of the teachers at this school were also from the area and understood the hardships of nomadic life in Tibet. A few days after leaving the school, I contacted the school headmaster (a Tibetan man who was native to the area) and asked him if I could do the winter clothes project there. It took him no time to tell me that he would love for me to come.He told me that he would arrange all the proper permits and permission forms for us to come.
All 325 coats (called Chuba in Tibetan) we purchased were homemade by a local Tibetan family. We thought about buying western style winter coats, but decided against it for many reasons. One of the main reasons was cost. A western style winter coat costs over 4 times what it costs to make a Tibetan chuba. Also, most nomads in this area prefer chubas over western style coats. Nomads have been wearing this style of coat for many centuries and they feel it is the best type of coat for the extreme cold environment of Tibet. Chubas are not just coats. They are more like robes. Boys chubas go all the way to their knees while girls chubas go all the way to their ankles. Both have extremely long sleeves. It is similar to wearing a sleeping bag.
We found a nice Tibetan family from Chabcha who gave us a great deal on the 325 coats. Their family (5 people total) worked around the clock (pictured above and below) and finished making the coats in less than 2 weeks. Since we were waiting for the bulk of the project money to arrive to us from the US, the Tibetan family agreed to begin making the coats with only a 2% deposit. The coats were all made according to the style of chubas worn in this area of Tibet. Chubas differ all across Tibet (ie. in Lhasa they are very thin and rarely are lined with wool, while in nomadic areas they are very thick and are always lined with many sheep skins).
With all of the coats finished being made, our next priority was purchasing bulk amount of shoes, socks, hats and gloves. My wife has a lot of experience in buying items in bulk so she knew right where to go. We got excellent prices since we were buying such large quantities. We were able to purchase very good quality shoes (350 pairs in total) for a very low price. Nomad boys and girls both wear hats, but different styles of hats. Boys wear a typical wool knit hat that is commonly worn in the West, but girls wear a wool knit scarf that they often pull up high to cover their ears, though it does not cover the top of their heads. In addition to all the clothes we purchased ($12,000 in total), we also bought several soccer balls (footballs) and basketballs for the children as well as 100 jump ropes, and 100 yo-yo's. Most nomad children grow up never having any real toys so we though these small little extra's would be well received, which they were.
Our date to leave for the project was August 10th. We had made reservations for a bus to haul all of the clothing items down to Danglog 2 weeks before we left and those of us volunteering to do the distribution would take a Toyota Land Cruiser. Three days before we were to depart, the bus company that we had contacted drastically raised their estimated price for the trip. Since we were working with a tight budget, we could not afford the extra price for the bus. So I started making some phone calls to different drivers and bus companies. None of them had a bus that was large enough to haul all of the clothes we had. With only 2 days to go before we had to depart, I started to panic just a little. I had no idea how we would get all of the clothes to the children in Danglog. I called a friend of mine from Singapore who spends a lot of time in this region of Tibet to see if he knew anyone who was able to help me. He said he knew a Tibetan truck driver who helped to deliver aid to this area earlier in the year. I called the truck driver, named Jokphu, and he not only was able to help us but he gave us a great price. With the problem of the truck solved, I thought everything was looking good for us. However, 24 hours before we were planning to leave, the driver of the Toyota Land Cruiser we were planning on taking called and said his vehicle had a blown axle that needed to be replaced (common on Tibetan roads). It would take at least 2 or 3 days to replace it. So I began to panic (just slightly) again. The roads where we were going were not good so I needed to take a big vehicle like a Land Cruiser. A car would be useless on these roads and I absolutely had to leave on the morning of August 10th. I couldn't wait for the other Land Cruiser to be repaired. I have 5 drivers that I consistently use for overland trips through Tibet so I began calling them. The first 4 I called were all busy with trips and would not be able to help me. The last driver I called, Wangphu from Trika, was available and said he would be happy to take me and my small team of 3 down to Danglog for this project. Finally we had the 2 vehicles with drivers ready to go.
At around 9:30 am on August 10th, we departed for Danglog. In the big truck was the driver Jokphu and 2 friends of mine from Danglog who helped us load up the truck. In the Land Cruiser was our driver Wangphu, Paul from Romania, Dan from the US, Brett from Canada and me. Brett and Paul came along to film the project for a documentary. Dan came along because he had nothing else to do. I have traveled extensively in Golog Prefecture, including the town of Danglog. The scenery along the way (pictured above) is stunning. This area consists almost entirely of Tibetan nomads living in tents, though there are some that prefer to live in small mud-brick homes. The Amnye Machen mountain range has many peaks above 5000m/16,405 feet with the highest topping out at 6282m/20,611 feet. Green grasslands filled with yaks are found as far as the eye can see. Due to the remoteness of this area and the lack of coverage in Tibet guidebooks, this area receives almost no foreign tourists even though it is one of the most beautiful regions of Tibet.
The first night we stopped in Huashixia in northern Mado county. Huashixia sits at 4100m/13,452 feet and is about 200kms/125 miles from Danglog. When we woke up the next morning, there was nearly 4 inches/10cm of snow on the ground (pictured above and below) with steady snow falling. While snow in this region of Tibet does not happen everyday in the summer, it does happen from time to time. Temperatures were around -8C/18F and with the snow, it made driving very slow. The route on the second day took us very near to the south face of Mt. Amnye Machen. There are several high passes along this route including one that is over 4700m/15,420 feet high. As we approached this pass, the conditions grew worse. The snow was over 8 inches/20cm deep and falling heavily. The snow drifts along the side of the road were over 2 feet/61cm deep. This wasn't just a summer snow storm, it was a full on blizzard. It looked more like the middle of winter than the middle of summer! It wasn't hard for us to imagine what the conditions must have been like last winter when over a meter/40 inches of snow was on the ground with temperatures reaching as low as -40C/-40F.
Driving carefully through the snow, we finally made it to Danglog around 1pm on the second day of our trip. When we arrived at the school, all of the students lined up at the gate to greet us. Local Tibetan officials also came to meet us and put traditional khata (white scarves) around our necks. A huge meal of boiled yak meat, butter tea and fruit was waiting for us. After eating for around an hour, we began the task of distributing all of the clothes. It was quite chaotic at first with all of the students fighting to try to get close to us, but then the teachers came and organized the students according to their age and gender.
Most nomad Tibetan boarding schools have classes year round. Unlike the rest of China, this area of Tibet does not have much of a summer break. The students are given a 2 or 3 week break for Losar (Tibetan New Year) and then another 2 weeks or so in May to harvest caterpillar fungus (a high priced medicine used across Asia). So nearly all of the students were present at the school even though it was mid-August. Boarding schools for Tibetan nomads are free. The government gives them a free education and pays for all of their room and board. The parents are only responsible to cover their children's personal needs, but since rural nomadic areas of Tibet are extremely poor, most families cannot afford to get their children new clothes. When the students began to receive their new Tibetan coats, shoes, socks, gloves and hats, they were all so excited. They began to throw away their old raggedy shoes and socks and quickly put on their new ones. It took a team of 12 of us about 4 hours to distribute all of the clothes. It brought a lot of joy to us to see all of these poor Tibetan kids with all new clothes. I have participated in several projects in Tibet and this was by far my favorite one.
After distributing all of the clothes, the children, ages between 6 and 12, all gathered in front of a traditional white tent used for festivals. The whole school sang a song for us. Then several groups of students took turns singing (pictured above) and dancing. They put on a great show and really showed their gratitude towards us. The headmaster and several local government officials also came and thanked us several times and gave us an open invitation to return anytime. There are a lot of people in the world who are aware of the needs of the Tibetan people, but few are actually doing anything about it (buying a sticker for your car with the word "Tibet" on it does nothing for the Tibetan people). I am very thankful that we had this opportunity to make a huge difference in a nomadic community.
The next morning it lightly snowed at the school (pictured above). Winter comes early in this region of Tibet and I am sure that when it gets to be the middle of winter (remember, it was only August when we we were there) the children will be even more thankful that they have new clothes. A lot of people worked hard to make this project happen. I want to say thank you to Paul, Brett and Dan for volunteering their time and services to film this project and assist in the distribution of all the clothes. Thank you to the drivers who got everything there safely. Thank you to all the teachers in Danglog for being such great hosts and for helping make this project happen. And most of all, thank you to all of our friends back in the Pac NW who worked hard in raising the $12,000 needed for this project. I know it was a lot of work, but it was well worth it!!
Danglog is a small community with no more than 600 people with 400 of them being students at the boarding school. There are no hotels, stores or restaurants in the town. Most people have never even heard of it. Many of the people in the town had never come across a foreigner before we arrived. But, for a few days in August, they were in the spotlight. I am already beginning the planning for another project like this to take place in the summer of 2010 in a different nomadic region of Tibet. If you are interested in helping with either your time or resources, please let me know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org