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Lives Less Ordinary

Extreme Road, a documentary series telling 21 life stories of ordinary Tibetans, inspires viewers with Tibetans’ insight and wisdom concerning happiness, faith and meaning

By NewsChina Updated Mar.6

The horse was terrified. It made a few faint neighs and its legs trembled in the air. The animal was firmly secured into a harness, suspended on a rope and pulley system above a turbulent river crashing against the rocks. Four villagers on one side grasped the rope and pulled the horse to the bank with all their might. 
The horse belongs to Pema, a 19-year-old projectionist from Bome County in the Nyingchi region of Tibet. He had walked two days across thick forests in the upper valley to hold a film screening in a small village of just eight households. The only access to the village is by making the perilous journey across the river on the precarious cable and pulley system.
That night, Pema showed the villagers the comedy Goodbye Mr. Loser. They had never seen an open-air movie, and their eyes were fixed on the screen with awe. The young man always enjoys this moment. He loves to walk among the snow-capped mountains, forests and fields to show movies to others. “If only the road were less scorching hot when I’m on my way,” Pema said. 
His is just one of the 21 stories recorded in Extreme Road, a seven-episode documentary that depicts how ordinary Tibetan people live. The documentary started its run on China Central Television’s Channel 10 and on two video streaming sites on December 24, 2017, and is rated 9.4/10 on Douban, China’s leading online film review site. Through focusing on the lives of people in the extremely beautiful, yet harsh land, the series delivers a message about life, faith and happiness.  

Harsh Environment  

Produced by the Beijing-based Five Star Legend Culture Company, Extreme Road was made over a period of six months by a 50-strong film crew. 
It is the second Tibet-themed documentary by Zeng Hairuo, the documentary’s executive producer. His first, Roof of the World (2015), centered on the natural landscapes and everyday lives of those on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Roof of the World garnered a surprising amount of viewers and its English version was also licensed by the National Geographic Channel.  

Compared with Roof of the World, Zeng told NewsChina that Extreme Road focuses more on people than nature and geography. He was determined to cast aside the “grand narratives” and cut down the geographical, cultural and historical background information to highlight the stories of individuals. He wanted to let the details of their lives speak for themselves. 
From the Qiangtang Grassland to the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, from sacred lakes to Himalayan alpine meadows, the film faithfully records Tibetan people’s breathtakingly beautiful, yet perilously inhospitable living environment. The director told our reporter that the documentary was intended to show “extreme lives in an extremely harsh environment.” 
“Not only did we hope to demonstrate Tibetans’ unique culture and life experience, but also show the common emotions and activities they share with everyone, such as love, friendship, dedication to work and faith,” Zeng said. 
Unlike many interviewees in cities, Extreme Road’s executive producer Zhang Yi said that those they interviewed in Tibet could not care less about contracts or incentives. To ask permission to film them, most importantly, the crew needed to show sincerity and pledge not to disturb their lives. The crew had to follow Tibetan customs like never throwing trash into a fire, not jumping over a bonfire, and not disturbing a cow when she gives birth. 
Since its debut, the documentary has taken streaming site Bilibili by storm with 11.3 million views so far. Viewers have been fascinated by the Tibetans’ close connection with nature, their simple and optimistic attitude to life, dedication to their faith and the things they hold dear.  

“Striking, awesome and beautiful. My scalp tingled as I watched it,” one Douban user commented. “I love every story in the series. The people they filmed are so kind and pure. They hold nature in sublime awe, which puts people who live in a cramped concrete jungle like us to shame,” another Douban user “Jiayifang” commented. 
Qi Jinyu, dean of the Ethnology and Sociology Department of the Minzu University of China, described Extreme Road as “a visual ethnography with cultural anthropological precision.” 
“The film records rich details of Tibetans’ daily lives, customs and cultural practices, all of which manifest the harmony between humans and nature,” he commented. 
The popularity of Tibet-themed films in recent years, including Roof of the World and Extreme Road, reflects that people nowadays are increasingly afflicted with anxieties, unrest, and emptiness that stem from rapid modernization and commercialization, said Zhang Yaxin, a professor and director of the Center for Television Studies at the Communication University of China. 

“The unique Tibetan culture, the simple life attitude and lifestyle of Tibetans in Extreme Road bring an invigorating and refreshing ‘wind’ of comfort that modern people desperately need,” Zhang Yaxin said.  

Live Sincerely  

Among all the tales told, the story of three grannies selling their home-made herbal skin lotion was the most liked and discussed among Internet users. 

The three lighthearted ladies – 73-year-old Pema Chodron, 70-yearp-old Tsering Chodron and 85-year-old Chome Dolka – never doubt they are the happiest people in the world, even though one is an orphan, one a widow and one from an extremely poor family. 
Calling themselves “three Tibetan princesses,” the trio has supported each other for 65 years. When they get together, they laugh, banter and support each other as they climb up and down the mountains collecting herbs for their beauty lotion. They brew their herbs in a cauldron, stoke the flames and sing songs. They peddle the results of their labor on the village roadside, applying it to the faces of people who happen to be passing by. 
Another popular story is that of the mural artist Phuntsok Tashi. The artist spent most of his time living with monks and painting murals in temples. In 2015, he was invited to restore the murals in a re-established temple in Shigatse, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 2011. Three of his apprentices died during the disaster. Phuntsok Tashi painted a Sitapatra, a protector against supernatural dangers, with the wish that the deity can guard the temple as well as the world from woes.  

The painter hopes his murals will remain for hundreds of years after his death. He considers painting murals for the temple as a form of spiritual development, believing that devotion to his passion can lead him to the Buddha within. 
“I hope I can have the virtues of Buddha and live like a monk,” the artist smiles as he talks about his wishes in the documentary. “The meaning of my life lies here, always painting, endlessly painting.” 

The documentary also features a director of a Tibetan drama group who tries to pass down the essence of Tibetan drama to his son; a Tibetan doctor in Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon and a young man studying the method of feeling one’s pulse through miraculous stones; an old Tibetan wooden lock maker who considers the happiest thing in life is “living with 48 cows and 25 pigs” and thinks the worst thing he has done in life is “having castrated his livestock.”  

“All the stories in this documentary are about ‘how to live sincerely,’” Zeng told NewsChina.  

“The reason they seem so much happier than us is that they do things seriously and live with a sincere heart. And this is also the reason why this documentary got so popular. Many viewers are moved and inspired by this attitude toward life,” Zeng said. 

Lost Traditions 

Apart from revealing Tibetan people’s simple lifestyles, the documentary managed to recapture some already faded ancient Tibetan traditions, such as the salt harvest pilgrimage and wedding rituals. 
The film reproduced the old custom of raw salt gathering in the northern Tibet, a ritual that goes back more than 2,000 years but may not last many more. For decades, the use of government-subsidized iodized salt has replaced Tibetan rock salt. Teams of salt harvesters are nowhere to be seen.  

Persuaded by the film crew, a 60-year-old former salt harvester, Tsering Wangchen, along with his grandson and other old comrades of the salt harvesting team, recreated the journey to the sacred salt lakes, driving their yaks across the scenic but perilous territory from their settlement. 
The salt trail is akin to a pilgrimage bound with ancient rituals: before the expedition, salt harvesters are forbidden to sleep with women for several months; they sing songs and pray to the goddess of the salt lake all the way, believing the further they go, the happier she would be; when the team reach the lake, they offer sacrifices before and after the harvest to show their gratitude to the goddess.  

Tsering Wangchen taught his grandson to cherish the treasure from heaven and only take the humble share they need. “The amount of salt is very limited. We can’t take it all. If we did, others won’t have their rightful share,” he said. 

The old harvester died in December 2017, too late to see his episode which was yet to be aired.  

The lost tradition of salt harvesting, thanks to the filmmaker’s persuasion, was performed again. Asked whether the crew’s intervention would affect the documentary’s authenticity and objectivity, managing director Zhang Yi told NewsChina “I don’t think the authenticity of the work is compromised by our intervention. They [interviewees] are not actors. This is their story and experience. And we just captured it in our time.”  

Songs of Life 

The documentary also records another faded ancient occupation, that of the wedding bard. According to the old Tibetan wedding tradition, a wedding bard is a significant figure who, in the name of gods and goddesses, gave blessings to the couple and answered questions asked by guests through singing wedding hymns. 
“Singing hymns at a wedding, a tradition dating back to the ancient nomadic period, is slowly fading away. Those songs contain profound guidance about daily life and existential questions, be it practical or metaphysical. The words are closely related to the life of Tibetans,” Zhang told NewsChina.
The documentary tells the story of Dradül, an old wedding bard in his 70s. Illiterate though he is, Dradül started learning the hymns from his grandfather when he was young. He usually had to sing throughout a whole ceremony for at least 12 hours until late at night.
In the film, the bard expresses his nostalgia for the past times when he was often surrounded by wedding guests who had many questions to ask, like how the world was formed, how to forecast the weather, how to put sheep to pasture or how to gain happiness. But nowadays, no one has invited him to a wedding for two years and few young people are interested in seeking guidance from him. 
The wedding bard’s biggest wish is to find a learned man who can help him write down his hymns which, he says, contain the “origin and legends of Tibetan people.”
An undeniable truth the documentary shows is that the Tibetan traditions are being increasingly threatened by modernization. 
“I used to think a lot about whether embracing a faster modern lifestyle would make us discard old traditions and rituals, whether we walk too fast and should slow down a bit. But after filming Extreme Road, I no longer get myself stuck in the dilemma of being fast or slow, and can appreciate them both,” said Zeng Hairuo.
At the end of the interview, the director shared with our reporter an anecdote from during the course of filming. He asked the same question concerning the fading Tibetan customs and traditions to a Tibetan monk, and was enlightened by the wise answer he received: “That’s how history is. Life is always changing. If one expects something to stay unchanged, it is, in fact, an obsession of not letting it go.”