In the remote valleys where the provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan meet, traditional Tibetan houses are as much a part of the landscape as monasteries and stupas. Wood, stone and earth combine to create structures that harmonise with, instead of dominating, their surroundings. Although they may seem humble in comparison with religious buildings, they are part of the Tibetan cultural heritage part of the Tibetan cultural heritage and are equally worthy of study and preservation.
Before setting off from Xining in late July, I had little idea of what I would encounter on the way down to Chengdu. In the end it was the Tibetan houses, so varied in their designs, that I remember most. They seem to symbolise the areas in which they are found. I only have to look at the whitewashed, sun-baked homes of Danba to remember the warmth of that valley, while the austere shapes of Aba houses conjure up images of purity and devotion to the region's many monasteries.
Far from the "Land of Snows" of popular imagination, in Amdo and Kham Tibetans live near flourishing orchards, pomegranate trees, cacti and flower-strewn grasslands. Not only is each area different, but each valley also has its own character. This variation is reflected in the houses, and in a world of increasing uniformity it made a refreshing change.
My first experience of Tibet homes had been in mid-July. A four-day lurol ritual takes place in and around the village of Sa dkyil, near Tongren in Qinghai's Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. I stayed in a typical village house. Arriving on the fifteenth day of the sixth lunar month, in the evening I climbed onto the flat roof and watched the eclipsed full moon. Temperatures had been reaching record highs; the breezy roof was a welcome respite. It would have been comfortable to sleep there under the stars, but hospitality demanded that I make use of the kang (a heatable sleeping platform) inside.
In the morning I followed the lurol procession through the village and saw almost as many houses and courtyards as the sweating lhapa (trance medium) and his entourage. The houses in the village are broadly similar. A square wall made of rammed earth surrounds a courtyard, in which there is usually a small garden and a fruit tree or two. Flat-roofed living quarters are constructed against the walls. The principal rooms are south-facing, and have ornately carved wooden windows. There is a verandah, with wooden beams supporting the roof, and for the lurol ritual a table of offerings is placed just in front of it in the court-yard.
The preference for traditional materials, including lots of wood for the interior, is still strong here. My host's family said they were building another house in the village. Two truckloads of wood were needed, at around 5,000 yuan a time-no mean sum for most of these villagers. The logs must come from far away, as the surrounding area is almost treeless.
Most of the villagers in Sa dkyil have sold or leased their fields to the government, so they are no longer self-sufficient. But there are remnants of the old ways. Milk and butter came from the family cow, just outside the main door. Loaves of bread the size of sombrero hats were cooked in ashes near the watchdog's kennel. The verandah was a fine place to sit and eat a breakfast of tsampa with milk tea and butter, while the interior remained relatively cool even at midday. I loved the way cool even at midday. I loved the way the outer walls deadened the sounds of the village, and framed the mountains and sky.
Earthen walls also predominate in Aba (Ngawa) County in northern Sichuan. In early August the barley fields were a rich green the grass-covered hills cloaked with cloud. With such a rainy climate it was surprising to find similar building materials to those in arid Repgong. How-ever, the style of house was utterly different. These were miniature forts with three storeys, twice the size of Repgong village houses. Their trapezoidal shapes echoed the Potala Palace only prayer flage exceeded them in height.
Visitors to Aba are few, and there are many invitations to drink tea. Rough and ready on the outside, squat and centred like sumo wrestlers, the Tibetan homes of Aba are warm and comfortable retreats. The ground floor has a kitchen with a cosy stove, and there is space for both animals and fodder. The next floor is mainly living space, with several luxuriously wood-panelled rooms. The family shrine occupies part of the top floor, and there is a kind of loft used for drying grain or fodder. Again, wood was much in evidence: wooden floors, staircases and cabinets. I looked at family photographs on a wooden windowsill half a metre across; wall this thick provide excellent insulation in winter.
day south of Aba is Maerkang (Barkam). Rivers leave the flat grasslands around Hongyuan and rush down steep-sided valleys. The rocky slope account for the very different houses, for the builders here are masters of stone. A short drive from Maerkang, the village of Zhuokeji is recognised as a heritage site. Its houses also have two or three storeys, and beause of the stonework the resemblance to forts is even more apparent. "An English-man's home is his castle", goes the saying, but for the Tibetan families living here it is a reality. Perhaps the resemblance is real-many valleys in this area are spiked with tall stone watchtowers, relics of past conflicts.
The inhabitants of Zhuokeji seem to have a disdain for straight lines. Builders place the stones in curving layers, so that the edges of the house appear to be higher than the middle. In the village itself, rocks of varying kinds are sometimes used to create a multicoloured mosaic of stone. Lattice windows and their frames are painted brightly and flowers crowd the windowsills. Higher up on the slopes, there is less ornamentation but it is common to see the Tibetan sun and moon symbol whitewashed on the walls.
After Maerkang, the road clings to the bank of the dajin river and arrives in Danba, part of Ganzi prefecture. The rock walls of the valley are even steeper and block out much of the sky, while the roaring Dajin hurries to meet the Yangtze at Yibin. Strange rocks reflect sunlight from the hillsides. In this dramatic setting, the Tibetan houses are also unique.
Stone is again used, but the wall are either entirely whitewashed or else patterned with suns, moons and bands of red and black. The whitewash is presumably for protection from the sun, but given the highly developed Tibetan sense of aesthetics, it could just be because it exists locally and looks good. Each house has a square tower with raised corner pieces. The flat roof has one or two altars, used for burning juniper branches or other ritual offerings. Another local feature is a wooden canopy over the main entrance, supported by twin carved dragons and bearing the image of a winged deity
Historically, both Maerkang and Danba were frontier areas at the edges of Amdo and Kham. Border instability probably explains the fortified houses and watchtowers. Heading south form Danba, once the Daxueshan range has been crossed the growing number of tall, red-braided men announces arrival in Kham proper. In mid-August, many Khampa men and women were also on their way to Tagong, in Kangding county, for a festival that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Ganzi prefecture's establishment.
The majority of tents here were commercial, but one was obviously different and authentic. As large as a tennis court, black in colour. Everything was made of yak hair, from the twisted ropes to the strips of woven fabric used for the tent panels. Inside, sheltered from the rain, sweet kham delicacies were being prepared for visiting monks.
In the villages around Tagong stone and wood were still the favoured building materials. Some houses were not unilke those further north, but others used whole logs to create a log cabin-style frontage, painted oxblood red. Sloping roofs with slate tiles protected them from the rainy climate.
Tagong was my last stop before kangding and the descent to Chengdu. Sipping tea in the black tent, I thought about the future of authentic Tibetan architecture. It is easy for an outsider, arriving in summer, to appreciate the aesthetic value of these houses. But would many people rally like to live in them? I had noticed how the small windows made the interiors somewhat dark and gloomy. Other shortcomings are easy to imagine: the danger of fire, the lack of water and sometimes electricity, the possible lack of protection from earthquakes.
In Wooden Architecture in Ganzi, a 1998 report for the Kham Aid foundation, Pamela Logan notes that "more buildings are being made from concrete, and …this is basically in accordance with the wishes of many people". Even in remote Daba, I also saw that some families had covered their stone houses with concrete to create a more "modern" (to my eyes, catastrophically ugly) look. The use of concrete is increasing, despite the fact that it is an extremely poor insulator. Much of the wood saved by building with "modern" materials will eventually be burned as extra fuel during the long cold winters. Even so, the perception of wood, stone and earth as being old-fashioned or "backward" may endanger the traditional houses that still exist. In Kangding, the closest thing to Tibetan architecture is the shape of the windows in the modern hotel on the main street.
Ultimately, a combination of simple economics (concrete is cheap, and requires less skill) and understandable safety considerations may eliminate traditional Tibetan building styles. Pamela Logan proposes several measures to help preserve them, including finding ways of making traditional buildings fire and earthquake resistant, and encouraging Tibetans to take pride in their architectural culture.
If tourism is a central part of "developing the west", it should be remembered that people will not come from afar to see villages made of concrete houses. The traditional architecture of Amdo and Kham deserves protection as part of the Tibetan cultural heritage.