Culture, Myths and Legends of Princess's Hometown
Yushu, a remote county in the depths of northwestern China's Qinghai Province, used to be two days' drive from the nearest airport in the provincial capital Xining.
As the source of China's three major rivers, center of Kham Tibetan culture and the site where a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) princess languished in a political marriage, it is a well preserved and, so far, little visited place to explore.
The first thing that hits you is that the gleaming new airport has been finished but the road to it has not. It speaks volumes about the sleepy pace of development here.
For many kilometers around Jiegu Town, the biggest in the county, nature runs rampant and unchallenged. Comprising a few dusty streets with slow moving restaurants and hotels, Jiegu hardly makes a dent in the wild green grasslands and towering mountains.
It does, however, make a good base for excursions and is also a center for Kham Tibetan culture which dominates this part of Qinghai. There is a massive horse racing festival from July 25, a record-breaking Mani stone mound, an ancient prayer site, a Kham culture museum and lots of Buddhist temples and stupas.
In Tibetan culture, prayers are often represented by a pebble or stone carved with holy script placed in a certain spot - called a Mani mound. It's an ancient practice which, accumulated over time, results in massive monuments to devotion.
In Xinzha Village (a part of Jiegu Town), the Gyanak Mani Mound is believed to be the world's largest of its type with, at last count in the 1950s, over 2.5 billion stones accumulated - two for every person in China.
Opinions differ on when it was founded - tourist material says 600 years ago, though our guide insisted it was more than 1,000 years old. According to legend, the spot for the mound was chosen because the six sacred letters of Sanskrit miraculously appeared on a rock in the mountains nearby.
In a temple within the mound complex this mythical rock is on display, though it looks suspiciously modern and carved. However the symbolism of the place holds great meaning for believers who come from surrounding areas just to walk around the mound up to 1,000 times over a month.
Selling stones carved with Sanskrit prayers has also become the main industry for local villagers. Prices can range from 5 yuan (73 US cents) for a pebble to 2,000 yuan for a large, machine-carved rock slab.
For a more lively intro to Kham culture, the Jyekundo Festival is staged every year at the end of July when the weather is at its most pleasant. Two weeks of horse racing and horsemanship are the star attraction, plus colorful singing and dancing.
But if you can't wait another year, 32 kilometers outside of Yushu there's a comprehensive Kham culture museum. Originally a temple, it now has an exhibition section with nearly 10,000 artifacts including Buddhist texts, traditional hunting tools and instruments, and stuffed animals.
At an average altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level, Yushu's natural scenery looks almost supernatural. Water lies as flat as a mirror on grassland spread with wild flowers which gives way abruptly to mountains. The sapphire sky seems so close you can touch it and white clouds nestle, just out of reach, on the mountain tops.
Yushu's 198,000 square kilometers is home to the source of China's three major rivers: Yellow River, Yangtze River and Lancang River which flows through Yunnan Province to Vietnam.
But with hundreds of kilometers of separation, you'd be hard pressed to visit them all. Instead, a convenient plaque commemorating the three has been set up near the Tiantong River (which turns into the Yangtze River) as it is the one most important for the local Tibetans.
The unique habitat here is home to a range of endangered animals. The Longbaotan Nature Reserve, 80 kilometers from Jiegu Town, preserves the breeding ground of the black necked crane, an endangered bird that only breeds on highlands. Stretching over 100 square kilometers, it achieved national park status in 1986. It also protects 32 other rare bird species as well as mammals such as the snow leopard and wolf.
Princess in Exile
The area's other claim to fame is Princess Wencheng, a Tang Dynasty princess that was sent thousands of kilometers away from her home in Chang'an (now Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi Province) to marry a Tibetan king in modern day's Tibet Autonomous Region.
This early inter-cultural mixing has become the stuff of legend for both Han and Tibetans. It took the princess over a year to travel to the remote area, arriving in AD 640.
Yushu was one of the areas she passed through and she left many relics along the way. Wencheng took with her a large entourage full of skilled artisans and experts from the Han kingdom who contributed greatly to Tibetan culture.
In one steep and inaccessible river valley she left a great number of Buddhist carvings both on the mountains and in the river. The Leba Valley is 30 kilometers from Jiedu Town and the carvings in the river rocks are especially impressive.
With the water flowing clear and shallow, hundreds of rocks in the river all bear intricate carvings from Buddhist scriptures. Lifting your head from the river, more carvings greet you high up the mountainsides.
Nearer to Jiegu Town there is a temple devoted to the princess. Due to her contributions to Tibetan culture, she has come to be venerated almost as a Buddha, and generations of poets have composed works in her honor.
The spot where she rested for an extended period on her way to Tibet has been turned into a temple with a large stone statue of her plus eight ladies in waiting, all in Tang Dynasty attire. Prayer flags, a staple of religious expression in the area, liberally adorn the hillside letting the wind carry their prayers to all corners of the Earth.