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China's Nomads Have A Foot In Two Very Different Worlds

Zhaxi Cairang (right), a 59-year-old Tibetan nomad, moved to a city in western China 15 years ago as part of a government effort to settle nomads. But Zhaxi says he plans to return to herding yaks next year. His son Cicheng Randing was raised in the city, but his father wants to expose him to traditional nomadic life as well. (NPR)

Zhaxi Cairang is trying to give his son a choice of two worlds to live in: the traditional, pastoral world of Tibetan nomads, which he has inhabited for most of his 59 years, or the modern urban lifestyle that most Tibetans experience in today's China.

Zhaxi made the transition himself about 15 years ago, when he left the grasslands and moved into the city of Yushu in western China's Qinghai province. Yushu sits on the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau. More than 95 percent of its residents are ethnic Tibetans.

I last visited Yushu in 2010, when a devastating earthquake killed around 3,000 people. Since then, the place has made a striking comeback. It's awash with government investment, new construction and new residents.

Zhaxi's apartment is clean and modern, with wood floors, a large television and a bottle of Jack Daniel's on a bookshelf.

The High Cost Of City Living

But Zhaxi says he plans to leave the apartment next year and go back to herding yaks. He says city life is OK, but he just doesn't have the skills he needs to afford it.

"The housing and subsidies the government gives us are great," he concedes. "We've got bathrooms, heat and running water. But they all cost a lot. On the grasslands, we burn yak dung for fuel, and we drink milk, all for free. It's not as comfortable, but there's less economic pressure on us."

Zhaxi took out a loan to pay for his current apartment. He plans to produce and sell his own yak meat, yak butter and yak yogurt until the loan is paid off.

Speaking of yak, there's also a food angle to Zhaxi's thinking. Unlike urbanites, Tibetan nomads don't grow or eat many vegetables. They mostly eat barley, yak and yak products.

Zhaxi serves me a dollop of unprocessed yogurt of the sort he makes, and I can taste exactly what he's talking about. The thick, creamy and sour stuff makes supermarket yogurt of the sort I'm used to seem insufferably runny, bland and insubstantial.

Maintaining Traditions

Zhaxi further explains that he moved into town so that his children could get an education. Now, he says he's moving out, in a sense, to continue their education.

"I want to show my children who have graduated from college how our ancestors have lived for generations," he says. "I want them to see that education can help them make it, but if they are unable to put the knowledge they've gained to use, they can always return to the grasslands."

Zhaxi's son, Cicheng Randing, who is sitting nearby in a T-shirt and baseball cap, grew up in vastly different circumstances from previous generations.

Unlike his father, he went to college, where he majored in Chinese — the language that any Tibetan who wants to get a good job in China these days needs to learn.

But, he says, that's not all there is to learn: "Now that I've studied other ethnic groups' knowledge and language, I must not forget my own people's culture. I think my dad's idea is great."

As of the end of last year, Qinghai officials say, they've settled just over half of the roughly 500,000 Tibetan nomads in the province.

Human rights groups say the policy is coercive and undermines Tibetans' culture and identity.

For many Tibetans, though, the issue is not so much modernization itself as control over it, and the right to choose which parts they want and don't want.

As a result, Zhaxi and his family and many other Tibetans are hedging. They have a foot in two worlds, one in the towns and another on the grasslands.

Zhaxi says he's just trying to help his children enjoy the benefits of modernization, without forgetting their Tibetan cultural roots.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's move now to China's far Western borderlands. For centuries, they've been inhabited by nomadic herders - Tibetans, Mongols, Kazakhs among them. In recent years, the Chinese government has launched an ambitious and controversial program aimed at trying to modernize these areas and move the nomads into permanent settlements. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of one Tibetan family, a family that tried the settled city life, but has decided to move back to the grasslands.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Tibetans gather in a circle and do traditional dances in the downtown area of Yushu. It's a prefecture in western Qinghai Province, where more than 95 percent of residents are ethnic Tibetans. Yushu has made quite a comeback since 2010. I came here then to report on a devastating earthquake that killed around 3,000 people.

Now the place bustles with new construction and new residents. Zhaxi Cairang is a former drokpa, or nomad, who moved into town in 1999. I visited him and his family in their clean and modern apartment, with a big-screen TV and a bottle of Jack Daniels set on a shelf. But Zhaxi says he plans to leave the apartment next year and go back to what he's done for most of his 59 years - herding yaks. He says city life is OK, but he just doesn't have the skills he needs to afford it.

ZHAXI CAIRANG: (Through translator) The housing and subsidies the government gives us are great. We've got bathrooms, heat and running water. But they all cost a lot. On the grasslands, we burn yak dung for fuel, and we drink milk, all for free. It's not as comfortable, but there's less economic pressure on us.

KUHN: Zhaxi took out a loan to pay for his current apartment. He plans to pay it off by producing and selling his own yak meat, yak butter and yak yogurt.

CAIRANG: (Through translator) A lot of products for sale in the cities these days are bogus. Consumers get a bad deal when they pay for these processed foods. I'd like to sell them the real thing.

KUHN: And he'd like to eat the real thing. Unlike urbanites, Tibetan nomads don't grow or eat many vegetables; they mostly eat barley, yak and yak products. Zhaxi spoons me out a dollop of unprocessed yogurt, and it is the thickest, creamiest, sourest stuff I've ever had. Zhaxi explains that he moved into town so that his children could get an education. Now he says he's moving out in a sense to continue their education.

CAIRANG: (Through translator) I want to show my children who have graduated from college how our ancestors have lived for generations. I want them to see that education can help them make it, but if they are unable to put the knowledge they've gained to use, they can always return to the grasslands.

KUHN: Zhaxi Cairang and his children grew up in vastly different circumstances. Cicheng Randing is Zhaxi's son. Unlike his father, he went to college where he majored in Chinese, the language that any Tibetan who wants to get a good job in China these days needs to learn; but he says, that's not all there is to learn.

CICHENG RANDING: (Through translator) Now that I've studied other ethnic groups' knowledge and language, I must not forget my own people's culture. I think my dad's idea is great.

KUHN: As of the end of last year, Shanghai officials say they've settled just over half of the roughly 500,000 Tibetan nomads in the province. Human rights groups say that the policy is coercive and undermines Tibetan's culture and identity. In fact, Zhaxi and his family and many other Tibetans have got a foot in two worlds - one in the towns and another out on the grasslands. Zhaxi says he's just trying to help his children enjoy the benefits of modernization without forgetting their Tibetan cultural roots. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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