Letter from Lhasa: A tale of ferries along Yarlung Zangbo River-Xinhua

Letter from Lhasa: A tale of ferries along Yarlung Zangbo River

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2024-03-26 11:03:46

Sonam Tashi shows his certificate of ferrying in Dranang County of Shannan City, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Feb. 23, 2024. (Xinhua/Tenzing Nima Qadhup)

by Liu Zhoupeng

LHASA, March 26 (Xinhua) -- It was a serene and sun-drenched afternoon when I met former ferryman Sonam Tashi along the majestic Yarlung Zangbo River. Clad in a traditional Tibetan robe and a broad-brimmed felt hat, he was tending to his flock of sheep near his Tibetan-style villa.

Our meeting quickly evolved into a captivating journey through history.

Sonam Tashi, who is now 67 years old, joined me in my car, and within minutes, we journeyed from the northern bank of the Yarlung Zangbo to its southern counterpart. During our journey, we crossed a major bridge in Dranang County, situated in the city of Shannan, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region.

Upon reaching Samye Ferry, my gaze fell upon a scene -- a damaged iron gate, an abandoned sweet tea house, and a flock of sheep calmly grazing on the untamed grass nearby. The fading graffiti on the tea house walls, marked with dates, hinted at its bustling past, which seemed to have faded away around 2015.

Yet, the once-thriving ferry was cloaked in silence and dust. The abandoned wooden boat on the shore stood as a silent witness to the tales of ferrymen like Sonam Tashi, who once navigated the river's currents with purpose and pride.

Sonam Tashi reminisced about the era before the 1980s when the winding waterway was the sole lifeline connecting Tsethang Subdistrict and Dranang County. The latter is home to the famed Samye Monastery.

"During that time, ferrying was not merely a profession but a way of life," Sonam Tashi recounted. His father, equipped with a yak skin boat, once ferried passengers across the river, braving its unpredictable currents.

In 1985, Sonam Tashi acquired his first boat -- a small wooden vessel converted from an old diesel engine, capable of accommodating around 20 passengers. Despite the need for frequent repairs, he navigated the shallow and sandy riverbed, ferrying passengers twice a day, undeterred by the harsh weather conditions.

"Being a ferryman demanded not only skillful boatmanship but also extraordinary courage and wisdom," he told me. From adjusting courses based on wind direction and current speed to navigating treacherous sand ridges, every journey was a testament to his skill and determination.

Three years later, Sonam Tashi upgraded to a new, brightly painted boat, which quickly became the preferred mode of transport for passengers and livestock alike.

Many passengers still hold fond memories of crossing the river by boat.

Pasang Tsering, 44, the deputy director of the Surkhar community, where Sonam Tashi resides, recalls his teenage years when he would cross the river every two weeks on his way back from school. The fierce winter winds made the boat sway dangerously, filling him with anxiety and unease.

"Yet, lively Tibetan songs on Sonam Tashi's radio eased everyone's nerves," he told me.

At a sweet tea house in the Surkhar community, Tashi Phuntsok, a 78-year-old resident, recounted his routine of taking a ferry from the north bank every three days to exchange potatoes and woven goods for daily necessities. He nostalgically recalled the anticipation of returning home in the afternoon if the ferry set off early, or the inconvenience of having to stay the night at a relative's house if it was late.

With the advent of modern highways and bridges in Shannan, and throughout Xizang, the demand for ferry services gradually waned. By early 2022, the total road length in Xizang exceeded 121,400 km, including 1,105 km of high-grade highways.

In 2001, a gravel road connecting Tsethang and Dranang was completed, providing an alternative to the ferry crossing. Nearly a decade later, the road was upgraded to a blacktop one.

"After the road opened to traffic, I also helped transport motorcycles and cars across the river," Sonam Tashi said. The ferry business experienced a decline at that time, leading to a reduction in the number of boats.

In 2015, the Dranang bridge, spanning 4,700 meters, was inaugurated, drastically reducing the hours-long river crossing to a few minutes' drive. This subsequently marked the end of an era for the ferrymen. Around 96,000 vehicles passed through the bridge last year.

Sonam Tashi's children now pursue endeavors beyond these familiar shores, while he himself finds that a mere five minutes on a motorcycle are all it takes to cross the river.

As I bid farewell to him, I couldn't help but marvel at the resilience of the human spirit in the face of changing times. While the river may stand as steadfast as ever, the tales of those who once navigated its currents persist, echoing through the ages.

An aerial drone photo taken on Feb. 23, 2024 shows the Dranang bridge in Dranang County of Shannan City, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Tenzing Nima Qadhup)