Trees On The Roof Of The World

An Excerpt From The Diary I Kept While Living In Tibet

1st May 2003

Turns out one of the guys at English corner works for the forestry department and has been planting trees all week. They tell me the whole town has been planting trees for Tree Planting Day.

Great, thinks me, so I ask if I can go plant trees with them one day this week. He looks at me as if I’m crazy, but I’m getting used to that, so I ask again, with a plea that I really truly want to plant trees. Josh, a student from the school up the road, tells me he will come round next week to pick me up and take me tree planting. Woo Hoo, I get to spend a day with the forestry folks, doing me bit for the environment.

Or so thought I – somewhere along the way, lines were crossed (or never actually connected – I’m not sure which). While I was out with my friend, Pema, Josh popped round with bunch of about fifty 2-metre-high saplings to give me. When my students asked why he was leaving a pile of trees for their teacher, he tells them that I wanted trees to plant.

“Where is she going to plant trees?” They ask.

“I don’t know,” says Josh, “She just said she wanted trees.”

Finally got a message round to Josh that I didn’t just want to plant trees, but that I wanted to plant trees as part of the whole tree planting thing they had been telling me about the week before. So, round he comes on Tuesday with a shovel and pick axe, we take the trees and a bucket and off we go, full of environmental good will and many a strange look following us as we roar along the pot holed road in a tuk-tuk , our young trees balancing precariously on top (we didn’t have any rope to tie them on so we had to stop on more than one occasion to gather up our poor saplings which had been flung here there and everywhere by a particularly sprightly pot hole).

The driver dropped us off at the horse race place. We unload our stuff and trek across the side of a hill to a small gully between two mountains. There wasn’t a tree to be seen in the area and Josh had chosen this place to plant the trees because of the small burn trickling under the ice; it meant we didn’t have to carry the bucket of water so far. Fair dos.

We dump the trees in the small section of burn which is bouncing with the fresh rebellion of spring from the frozen waterfall which clung impossibly to side of the rocky slopes above, and start digging holes. The ground seems as hard as the rocks above us and in the high altitude sun coupled with the thin air, it didn’t take long before I was pooped. I kept going though, not wanting to give in so soon when all this had been my bright idea. We manage to plant 7 before we both collapsed and decided it was time for a break.

We sat on the hard ground and breathed in the view around us; the mountains with their dusty brown rocks, the sun pouring down promises of life upon the bare rocks, the bustle of the town over there in the distance and the birds dancing and singing in preparation for the spring to come, and of course that awkward lump of a frozen waterfall. As I ‘oo’ and ‘ahh’ at such an immense block of ice just sat there in the, now very, hot sun, Josh offers to take me up the mountain for a better view and a bit of a trek. So, with 43 trees left to go, off we clambered up the waterfall (more of a water-stuck than a water–fall really).

This was my first of many yet to come hair raising adventures with the locals Tibetans, who due to their deep beliefs in reincarnation and regular encounters with death, seem to have no fear what so ever of crashing to their deaths below to meet Lord Yama. The route of our ascent was near vertical and comprised of loose gravel and dust on bare rock; there was never a sure footing to be had, clinging to the occasional tuft of grass or thorn bush as my feet slipped away from under me and half a ton of stones and dirt went sliding and crashing over the edge. Was sure we were going to plummet, if not to our deaths then almost certainly to an ir-reconstructible pile of mush.

We didn’t make it to the top before I was dizzy with exhaustion from lack of oxygen and food – I was ravenous. I see what looks like a nice way down the other side of the rock but Josh says it will take longer and we should just go back the way we came. (Huh? Gulp!) So back down we go, Josh leading the way and jings if the way up wasn’t bad enough. It got to the point where you are so sure of horrible injury that every slip and slide towards death merely becomes funny. So there I am giggling away as I totter unsteadily along the edge of the rock while Josh assures me there’s nothing to worry about; “Tibetan people know how to climb mountains.”

I can’t say I wouldn’t have chosen the 10 minute detour which would have avoided all risk to life and limb had I been given the choice again, but to be fair, he did get us down in one piece and with enough time to plant another 4 trees before starting the long slog back to town, muscles aching and covered in blisters. Knackered, but in that satisfyingly invigorating way that only working hard at something fun can produce.

[HINDSIGHT: I was told somewhat later that before the Chinese came to ‘emancipate’ the Tibetan people from their backward culture, there was not a single tree in Jeykundo; every tree you see here has apparently been planted by human hands, which I guess explains why their distribution is so dispersed and patchy. It’s hard to guess what the thinking behind this tree planting is and what benefit it could possibly have on an environment and people who have subsided without the woody wonders for centuries. The local people, of any nationality, are forbidden to cut them down, so they cannot be there for the people to use them. This high altitude environment has never been home to trees, so it’s hard to imagine it could benefit at all from such an invasion. My NOT-so-skeptical thinking leads me to the conclusion that it is merely another façade from the Chinese government of how they are helping the Tibetan people and working towards the protection of their environment which has been raped and sucked dry by the Chinese hordes. My rather-more-skeptical (and sadly, I think more accurate) thinking can only see it as another poorly disguised but all too effective way of curbing the nomadic life style of the people who live on the mountains; the areas where trees are planted are fenced off, along with other vast areas of grassland, to ‘protect’ them from grazing herds of yaks. Slowly but surely, the pasture land is being taken from the Tibetan people. The places where they can take their herds are dwindling and every year fewer and fewer numbers of yaks and sheep can be sustained, forcing the Tibetans to give up their nomadic ways. They are further encouraged to settle in the towns by the government who is building shanty-style housing for them. Many of these people are not adapted to such a life style, living in such close proximity to each other and the social problems arising from these settlements are too many to talk about here. I am not aware of any attempt by the government to ease these people into their new environments and lifestyles; this is not to say there are none, but the impression I was given on my last visit by the people there was that the new occupants of these new housing schemes, which are fast becoming slum areas, is that the government wants to get the nomadic peoples off the mountains and into houses where they can keep a closer eye on them as soon as possible.]

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