It is supposed to be spring by now, with sights of sheep and cattle grazing on the grassland, but the Tibetan areas of northwestern China are still covered in thick snow. After more than two months of severe winter, in early March 2019, four counties in the southwestern part of China’s northwest Qinghai Province are still reeling from severe snowstorms. The province is located mostly on the Tibetan Plateau, and the blizzards have left many in urgent need of assistance.
Returning to Qinghai again after 23 years
Since late December 2018, Qinghai Province's Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture has been struck by a number of severe snowstorms. According to information dated 12th February 2019 provided by a charity association in Yushu, some 26 villages and towns in the Prefecture have been hit by snow disasters of different scales, affecting 12,731 households and more than 55,000 people.
Yushu Prefecture first came in touch with the Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan in the aftermath of a snow disaster in 1996. Tzu Chi had sent a team of volunteers from Taiwan to Qinghai twice, on 27th March and 27th April in that year, to distribute highland barley and emergency cash to the affected locals. The aid helped a total of 15,924 disaster victims in several villagers to tide over the difficult times.
23 years after the first Tzu Chi relief distribution in 1996, the disaster assessment team that set foot in Qinghai this time consisted of three China volunteers, namely, Qi Hai Ming, Tang Guo Liang, and Wang Yong An. With sincere compassion for the plight of the impoverished residents, they braved the harsh winter conditions of sub-zero temperatures, traversing across the mountainous region. They set off for the arduous journey on 9th March 2019 and travelled to the hard-hit Qingshuihe Town of Chindu County, with the help of a worker from the local grassland workstation, Dawa.
46-year-old Dawa, a devoted Buddhist, began looking after the grassland in the farming area since the age of 19; hence, he is very familiar with the local area. In a surprising coincidence, when Tzu Chi carried out its relief distribution in 1996, he was also present to help with managing the crowd at the distribution site.
Livestock freeze and starve to death in the harsh winter
The team of three Tzu Chi volunteers and Dawa travelled for some 10 hours, crossing the highest point of Yushu Prefecture, the Bayan Har Mountains (4,829 m above sea level), before finally arriving at Chindu County. Under the advice of the Deputy Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the volunteers began their disaster assessment on 10th March at Qingshuihe Town, which had previously received Tzu Chi’s aid and assistance.
The mayor of Qingshuihe Town said that the amount of snowfall and snow frequency in the recent months had broken the past records of the weather station since its establishment in 1956. The local herdsmen used the money they had to buy animal feed for their livestock, and their food supply at home could only last them for about two to four weeks. But unfortunately, the snow would not start melting until May.
As the volunteers travelled across the disaster area, they saw carcasses of dead animals lying in the vast stretch of snow covered land. The animals had either been frozen or starved to death.
The volunteers arrived at Zhama Village and visited a 55-year-old villager named Suo Cai. The snow disaster had killed 70 out of the 110 cattle he owned, causing him to suffer a great loss. However, Suo Cai has a grateful heart. Whenever his family received donations from others, he would ask someone to help him record the name of the recipient and the amount of aid on paper, as he is illiterate.
Another villager named Song Bao chose to move his yaks to a farm 300km away, in an attempt to prevent the animals from starving to death. Unfortunately, 70 of the yaks died of hunger on the way to the farm. In order to keep the remaining livestock alive, he had no time to deal with the carcasses of the yaks that had died. As a result, the dead yaks were eaten by wild wolves.
As many of the herdsmen watched their cattle die of starvation one after another, they had no choice but to feed the animals with the highland barley they had at home. Thus, they had to think of other ways to source for food to feed their own families. The deputy secretary who tagged along the volunteers revealed that the herdsmen were only concerned about protecting the remaining cattle they had, so their own food supply became a secondary issue.
Unforgettable sentiments and memories
On 12th March 2019, the volunteers once again departed for Qingshuihe Town to assess the disaster situation. It was a freezing minus 26 degree Celsius that day, but the sincere love from an “old friend” warmed their hearts amid the sub-zero weather.
A villager in Qingshuihe Town immediately recalled a barley distribution notice slip which he had kept, after hearing Dawa mention that Tzu Chi had conducted an aid distribution locally back in 1996. He managed to find the notice slip, which, although had turned yellow with age, was a very precious nostalgic item.
The villager said that the notice slip actually belonged to another villager. It was well preserved by the villager, out of gratitude and appreciation for the Tzu Chi volunteers, who had travelled from hundreds of miles to help the locals.
There is an elderly lady in Pusang Village, a devote Buddhist who is a vegetarian and recites the sutras daily. It is a local custom that old people adopt a vegetarian diet and that the livestock are only kept for their milk and hair, till the animals die naturally.
Due to the high altitude of the place they live, the locals basically have no supply of vegetables. Therefore, Tibetan tea is very important to them, and it is their daily staple. The volunteers noticed that many of the local households did not have enough food supply at home. Hence, apart from government subsidies, these simple village folk required further aid and assistance.
After leaving Qingshuihe Town, the volunteers visited a factory that produces barley noodles to find out its manufacturing capacity. After assessing the situations of different areas, the volunteers would obtain an updated name list of disaster victims. Then, they would proceed to estimate the amount of aid to be purchased so as to make preparations for the upcoming relief distribution.