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A Memorable Place

Meeting the in-laws in remote China

By Kirk S. Nevin

Our daughter Heidi and her husband, Tsultrim, called to say they had found cheap airline tickets to visit Tsultrim's family in China. "Why don't you guys come, too?" she asked.

Tsultrim's family, whom Heidi had not met, lives in a tiny village in a remote river valley in northwestern Sichuan province. Before 1950, the area was an autonomous kingdom in Kham, part of traditional eastern Tibet.

Normally my wife, Susan, and I would have spent months before such a journey learning some of the language we'd need at our destination. In this case, that seemed futile. In our in-laws' village, Chinese is the official language, Tibetan the language learned by Buddhist monks and Gyalrong the local language. Gyalrong, an unwritten language, is spoken only in the river valley and nearby mountain villages.

Fortunately, we were traveling with three linguists. Heidi and her sister Liv speak Chinese; Heidi and Tsultrim speak Tibetan; and Tsultrim speaks Gyalrong and English. We would survive.

The journey took six days from Baltimore, via San Francisco, Hong Kong and several bumpy and sometimes frightening van rides into the mountains and valleys of Sichuan province. We were exhausted late on the sixth day when we crossed a narrow footbridge over a roaring river and were graciously welcomed into the family home by Tsultrim's parents, sister, nephews and niece.

Our meeting with this wonderful family was an emotional one. Heidi was formally introduced to her husband's mother, Tashi, and father, Yungdrung. Tears flowed freely. Later, we were treated to a delicious multicourse vegetarian dinner from the family garden.

Tsultrim's parents and sister live in a comfortable barn-like stone structure. Until recently, the ground floor housed the family animals, a collection of yaks, pigs and chickens.

The upper floors are museum-like, with walls, windowsills and cupboards beautifully painted in glossy geometric patterns of reds, blues, greens and yellows. The fourth floor is a Tibetan temple, complete with two Buddhist monks who slept and ate there during our visit.

Tashi started each day by burning incense and lighting dozens of lamps. The monks' chanting is an important part of the spiritual aspect of our in-laws' home.

We were guests there for a week. We slowly became accustomed to the 12,000-foot altitude of the Tibetan plateau. We explored the nearby town of Barkam, reveling in the hot baths of a fancy spa and enjoying the calm quiet of a traditional Tibetan teahouse.

Our kind hosts then escorted us on a two-week tour of the mountains and villages of their region. Our delightful journey is one we hope to repeat.

Kirk S. Nevin lives in White Hall.

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