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Tibetans Reclaim Ancient Ways

China annexed their land and trampled their culture, but today they are reviving

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ONCE the white tents of the Tibetan nomad encampment appeared nestled in the high, grassy mountain valley, the trials of the journey seemed to float off as lightly as summer clouds.

Over the past six days, the trip had been obstructed by roads and rail lines shut down by mudslides, jam-packed airports where stranded passengers had waited weeks for outbound tickets, and a dilapidated orange Fiat that kept breaking down. A corrupt Chinese conductor demanded bribes for every berth on his overnight train, and leather-jacketed thugs bartered state airline tickets for huge sums. My Chinese travel companion, Li, temporarily vanished when suddenly forced to take a separate flight.

We finally arrived at the Tibetan camp, clutching the railing of a metal cart hauled by a rickety diesel tractor. The Tibetan tractor driver, a hefty man with curly black hair and light brown eyes, had gunned his vehicle up the mountain valley, charging across rocky streambeds and small gullies. The tractor's chugging shattered the tranquility of the windswept grassland. But once it sputtered away, peace returned to the nomadic encampment, and to my mind.

The journey to the Tibetan region within China's northwestern Gansu Province covered a landscape that was as dramatic culturally as it was physically arduous.

Along the Yellow River valley, the cradle of Han Chinese civilization, farmers steeped in Confucian tradition live in close-knit villages tilling the same postage-stamp plots that their ancestors had for ages.

Farther west lies the dusty, Muslim-dominated territory of the Hui people, with their mosques, white skullcaps, and fiery beef and mutton dishes. Famed for their skill as traders, the Hui today deal in everything from richly colored rugs to illicit drugs.

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