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           BY GYIMI PUNCHA

Fish and Fishing in Lhasa   

Traditionally, the Tibetans refrain from eating fish, and fishing naturally did not previously exist in the region as a business. Unlike people in other parts of Tibet, however, people in Lhasa have handled fish as a business and with success. And these ¡°fishermen¡± are all authentic Tibetans.

¡°Fish are foam in water and everyone can eat it, and so do I as a lama,¡± they say.

¡°Even the emperor is not able to taste fish caught in spring, but fish caught in summer and autumn is shunned even by beggars,¡± they also say.

On the southern bank of the Lhasa River some 50 km southwest of the capital, and skirted by the Lhasa-Gonggar Highway, there is a village called Junba. Inhabited by some 80 households, it was long inaccessible by road and people wanting to leave the village or entering it had to resort to oxen hide rafts. Now, living on fishing, the villagers lead a well-to-do life.

Junba is a Tibetan word taken from the Tibetan opera Prince Lobsang, and means ¡°catching.¡±

The village sits amid a delightful environment featuring emerald mountains and picturesque Lhasa River. River birds fly low and willow trees chat with each other in gentle breeze. Groups of people each composed of three or five are seen to till the field, and cock crows and dog barking are heard sometimes.

When we drove there, we found a new village with most of the houses built in recent years. Each house was built with stone and is complete with a courtyard.

The village is attached to Quxui Town, Quxui County of Lhasa. Friends of mine in the county brought me directly to the home of the village head, from whom I learned a lot about fish caught in the river and the way the villagers go about the fishing.

¡°Fish caught here come of great varieties, and they include what we call ¡®club club fish¡¯, fish with pointed mouth, white skin fish, striped fish and others named after their appearance,¡± I was told.

In regard to cooking the fish, some favor frying fish and some others cook fish in salt water before it is dried in the air. There are also those who stew fish with a lot of seasoning.

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Processing fish. ¡¡ Hot peppers used to cook spicy fish.
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Chopping fish into pieces. ¡¡ Cooked fish that will make your mouth water.
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Minced fish is used to make caviare. ¡¡ A fish feast.

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What is interesting is the making of fish paste: De-skinning fish each weighing over one kg, and mincing the flesh and bones; the minced fish is then mixed with salt and minced onions and peppers.

We paid a visit to Balsang Renqen at his home courtyard in order to examine oxen hide rafts. We saw one standing in the courtyard.

According to this old man, who is thin and dry, the frame is composed of five oxen hides tailored and sewn together, and wood in the middle, which is as thick as a wrist.

¡°I finish all this in two days,¡± he explained.

Such oxen hide raft resembles a triangle large enough to contain 12 people. It is used for fishing. ¡°Large raft composed of eight oxen hides could contain up to 30 people,¡± the old man said, adding that, ¡°it could be used to transport walking tractors.¡±

Saying this, he danced with the raft on his bony back. He moved lightly as if it was a kite flying around him.

¡°It weighs about 39 kg,¡± said the old man after his performance.

Oxen hide raft dancing is much favored by Junba villagers during the celebration of the Ongkor (Bumper Harvest) Festival. Six or seven young men will, with oxen hide rafts on backs, line up to dance to the accompaniment of singing.

We also paid a visit to Galsang Dawa, the youngest son of the old man, at his home. The young man joined hands with six others to form a fishing team. When we got there, the team was having a meeting after returning from fishing in Renbo County.

According to the old man, young people in the village fish for a person from China¡¯s hinterland who covers all their living expenses. ¡°Then, he purchases fish at a price of two Yuan per kg.¡± 

¡°We caught more than 5,000 kg of fish last year, and made some 2,000 Yuan per person,¡± Galsang told me.

¡°Our boss nets huge profits from the business. We were told fish from Lhasa enjoys good sale in the hinterland and at a price of dozens of Yuan per kg when the fish is sent to the hinterland by air. ¡°We are in the cold temperate zone and fish grows slowly in cold water. It is comparatively hard to catch fish in the Lhasa and Yarlung Zangbo Rivers, forcing us to fish in areas away as far as Ngari.¡±

I found this hard to believe, because, a dozen years ago, when I went to Lhasa, I had seen fish swimming in Lhasa River.

Those who do eat fish do so according to seasons. Most Tibetans refrained from eating fish in the past. Traditionally, Tibetans also follow water burial and fish performs the duty as do vultures in sky burial in disposing of the corpse.

When the PLA entered Tibet, fish were so abundant that one could catch fish in water with the hand or with a thorny plant. As a token of respect for the Tibetan tradition, the PLA men who loved fish were ordered neither to catch nor eat fish. Fishing, therefore, did not become a business until the past two decades. 

Fishermen from the hinterland fish generally in lakes. Fish caught there produce thick flesh but also have a thick skin. This makes cooking comparatively difficult but once cooked the fish have an excellent taste. One kind of the fish is called ¡°Kiss.¡± Kiss fish caught in summer and autumn contains toxin, so locals won¡¯t eat fish in these seasons.

The village head entertained us with a fish feast. Many of us favored eating fish paste: Ladling a spoon of fish paste onto the palm and eating it while eating zanba (roasted highland barley flour).

We learned a lot during the feast that Bahe river fish sells at the highest price of 200 Yuan per kg. People with Bahe Town enjoy an annual average income of more than 10,000 Yuan from fishing, making the town the first ¡°10,000-Yuan town¡± in Tibet.

¡°Yadong fish also sells 400 Yuan per kg,¡± one person said.

¡°Not long ago, I went on errands to Yadong and was told a kind of fish there comes from the Indian Ocean. It tastes delicious and is covered with what the Tibetans say noble patterns-maps. Hence, it is called the Map Fish. But it¡¯s price is beyond the means of many people.¡±

With help from local officials, we saw a Map Fish and managed to have a taste of it.

We were also told some old ladies in Lhasa would buy swimming fish from markets and release them into the Lhasa River. ¡°They are silly and have no idea they would be slain soon,¡± one old lady said, adding that ¡°they are still swimming in wooden kettles.¡±

Of course, released caught fish fail to keep pace with the greediness of human stomachs!   n  

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