Students do sports on the playground at the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County, Nagqu, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Wang Jing/Xinhua)
LHASA, Nov. 8, 2023 -- Travel about 100 km northwest from Lhasa along the G6 Expressway, turn northeast at Yangbajain, traverse the Nyanchen Thanglha Mountains through rolling hills and grasslands for around 240 km, and you will arrive at Nagqu, nestled amid the northern Tibetan plateau.
Averaging over 4,500 meters above sea level, the prefecture-level city in southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region has the highest average elevation of any Chinese city, along with thin air and a harsh climate. With fewer than two people per square kilometer on average, herders are scattered across the vast landscape, and even the nearest township school can be tens of kilometers away for many. Attending school used to be exceptionally difficult for children here due to the natural conditions.
But as China's support for education in the region continues increasing, the right to education for children here is better guaranteed. About 230 km west of Nagqu's urban center, the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County opened in 2012. With excellent facilities and faculty, as well as options for boarding or commuting, it has become a star school locally, attracting students from herder families even 200 km away to board.
Perched at 4,700 meters above sea level, it is the highest-altitude Xizang-based elementary school built with "pairing assistance" from the rest of China, in this case, Sinopec Group. So, what is daily school life like for the children here? Xinhua reporters visited one Friday afternoon to find out.
GOOD SCHOOL IN COUNTY SEAT
The school buildings are typical flat-roofed structures of two to three stories often seen in Xizang. Prominently displayed on the front exterior wall of a classroom building are Tibetan and standard Chinese characters reading, "Educate people to seek truth; study to become a true person." The indoor corridors and ceilings feature colorful traditional Tibetan decorative patterns.
Principal Ngawang Wangdu said the school currently has 1,323 students from grades 1 to 6, of whom about 600 board at the school. Grades 4 to 6 are encouraged to board, while grades 1 to 3 mainly commute, but boarding is voluntary. Some lower-grade students have applied to board due to living far away, while some higher-grade students commute for family reasons.
The principal took the reporters on a tour of the cafeteria, student dormitories, and bathrooms. The cafeteria was bright and spacious, with neatly arranged tables and chairs. The dorm beds were tidy, desks were arranged neatly with toiletries, and the floors were clean. Breakfast is tsampa, a staple food favored by Tibetans made of roasted barley flour, and milk tea. Lunch includes four dishes and soup, while dinner rotates the Tibetan specialty dumpling soup, fried rice, rice porridge with steamed buns, etc. Bread and milk are also delivered to classrooms for morning snacks, and night meal is after evening study. Students receive two sets of summer and winter uniforms every year.
"The mindset of herder families has changed tremendously, no longer satisfied merely to have their children attend school but wanting them to receive a quality education," said Ngawang Wangdu. "Although conditions have improved at township schools, many herders still find ways to send their kids to better schools in the county seat."
The school has central heating, which is rare on the northern Tibetan plateau. Teacher Nyima Tsamgyu was brought to tears multiple times when she recalled the harsh conditions of teaching 14 years ago at a primary school in Maintang Township of Baingoin: no electric lights, running water, or playground, and only burning dried yak dung for warmth in the winter, when temperatures dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Even indoors, children had to wear many thick layers of clothing.
Those memories have now been replaced by the much more comfortable, modern environment of Sinopec Primary School. Thanks to the "Three Guarantees" policy -- implemented in Xizang to provide food, accommodation, and school expenses for children of farmers and herders, as well as children from impoverished urban families -- students now eat their fill and stay warmly clothed and housed, Ngawang Wangdu explained.
The school was originally designed to accommodate 850 students, but this soon proved inadequate to meet the local demand. Additional buildings were constructed at the request of the school, making it now the largest primary school in Baingoin County by enrollment.
With so many students, strict food safety management is crucial, and the school prohibits outside food from being brought in. Ngawang Wangdu often worries about student illnesses. If the school medics cannot handle a case, parents are immediately contacted, and children go to the county hospital for treatment. Since many parents are far out in the grasslands and cannot quickly reach the school, accompanying and caring for sick students becomes the teachers' primary responsibility.
After receiving a call from the school, parents often reply: "Don't worry, teachers. I've left my child in your care and trust you will look after them well." This expectation makes teachers feel a heavy sense of responsibility. The school has over 110 staff members, including 78 teachers.
"Education is fundamentally a labor of love," said Ngawang Wangdu. "If we approach every school matter with the mindset that if this were my child, the work will be done better."
Norbu Gyatso, 39, is a herdsman from Shekyer Township, about 200 km from Baingoin County seat. He only attended a nearby "tent school" for a few years while growing up. To provide his daughter with a better education, after extensive inquiries, he chose to enroll her at Sinopec Primary School, where she now boards in the third grade. Due to the long distance and his work, Norbu Gyatso can only visit his daughter once a month at school.
With boarding available, Norbu Gyatso feels very reassured. His daughter can get a quality education without him needing to rent a place in town or miss work herding. Seeing her adapt to school life and become more independent makes the father very pleased.
Do the children enjoy life at the school? Pema Gyaltsen, a shy fourth-grade boy from Mchan Township, whose home is over 100 km from Baingoin County seat, told the reporters he likes playing soccer and basketball with classmates, school meals, and the candy teachers reward him with.
Pema Gyaltsen said herder homes are far apart, so he had few playmates at home. His father built a makeshift basketball hoop outdoors, where he would play with his brother and sister. "At first, I couldn't reach the hoop at school because it was much higher than ours at home."
Pema Gyaltsen does well in both Tibetan and the standard spoken and written Chinese language. But he said, "English is a bit hard. The teacher says my pronunciation isn't quite right." He runs and jumps every morning for PE because he wants to become a policeman, just like his uncle.
Ngawang Wangdu said Tibetan language classes are offered daily alongside standard spoken and written Chinese language courses to protect and pass on local culture.
In class 3 of grade 6, Tibetan teacher Yangjen Lhamo was teaching the children. She told the reporters the school offers rich Tibetan language and cultural courses, including composition, calligraphy, recitation, etc. "The students are reviewing for midterms. We just went over the textbook lesson 'Tibetan Plateau.'"
The reporters observed that many class schedules had Tibetan classes daily from Monday to Friday. The school also offers hobby classes like Tibetan calligraphy and emceeing.
On the playground, children in red or blue school uniforms stood in straight lines, lightly stepping to the melodic, distant music as they followed the teacher in dancing the "Xieqin." This traditional local dance of Baingoin has been listed among the national intangible cultural heritage, with local inheritors coming weekly to teach students.
Do the children like it here? The beaming smiles lighting up the faces of the children are the best answer.
For families across the vast pastoral areas, relatively centralized schooling models like Sinopec Primary School promote equal access to quality educational resources for children of all ethnicities.
"Boarding solves parents' difficulties with daily transportation and cultivates children's independence and life habits. We hope that through our quality education, more children will have the opportunity to venture beyond the grasslands in the future," said principal Ngawang Wangdu.
Students are pictured at the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County, Nagqu, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua)
A teacher demonstrates as students do sports on the playground at the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County, Nagqu, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Kong Linlin/Xinhua)
Students practice the "Xieqin," a traditional local dance, on the playground at the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County, Nagqu, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Kong Linlin/Xinhua)
By: Zhang Yunlong, Lu Yifan