Firecrackers and prayer flags, Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese food, Buddhist rituals, singing and dancing -- together all indicate that Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is just around the corner.
The start of the Year of Iron Rabbit, which begins Saturday, is a carnival for China's 5 million Tibetans and celebrations will last more than two weeks.
Tibetan woman Yeshe Drolkar happily shared a huge pot of Guthuk, a traditional Tibetan barley crumb snack with filling, also known as 29th dumplings, with a group of young men and women Thursday night to celebrate the ghost-exorcising festival.
The festival, which falls on the 29th day of the last Tibetan month of the year, features family reunions and lighting of fireworks and torches and is similar to Chinese New Year's Eve in many ways.
Yeshe Drolkar served each guest a bowl of Guthuk and seasoned it with chili sauce and yak milk curd. Like family, they sat around the table, chatted and devoured the food.
All the guests were employees at the chicken farm which Yeshe Drolkar and her husband run in Nedong County of Shannan Prefecture. Most are Tibetans but were unable to get home for the New Year holiday.
Yeshe Drolkar's husband, a Han national, invited the Tibetan workers to his home for the traditional feast while he worked on the farm. I've prepared him rice, fish and shrimps -- which the Han people prefer and he'll join us later at night.
As the group dined and chatted, a young woman suddenly stopped. Everyone laughed when she spat out a coin-sized piece of charcoal. Come on, she's not black-hearted. It's a joke, the hostess said when she saw the woman had coyly covered her face.
As the Tibetan custom goes, Guthuk dumplings, cooked in a soup of minced beef, slices of radish and vegetables, sometimes contain a chili, beans, a piece of charcoal or wool. One who accidentally eats a chili dumpling is described as outspoken, while one who eats a dumpling with a wool filling is good natured.
Charcoal, however, means black heart.
After dinner, the group drank highland barley liquor and played cards. Outside the family's compound, firecrackers made loud bangs and villagers holding torches roamed the streets to scare away evil spirits.
Phuntsog, a young man in Lhasa, lit a handful of barley stalks and waved it at every corner of his house. Out, out comes the bad luck, he yelled.
After the ritual he walked out and threw the burnt stalks at the nearest crossroad. Make sure you do not look back until you are back home. Otherwise the bad luck will follow you.
Phuntsog said he was expecting good luck in the New Year as he happened to eat a Guthuk dumpling filled with brown sugar earlier on.
NEW YEAR IN THE AIR
Across the plateau region, New Year festivities are everywhere.
The square in front of the Potala Palace in the heart of Lhasa is spruced up with a parterre, red lanterns and a huge chiema, a five-cereal container with roasted highland barley flour mixed with butter, fried barley and dromar refreshments, adorned with a butter sculpture in the shape of the head of a sheep.
The chiema is prepared in every Tibetan home and is served to every guest.
Other Tibetan New Year necessities include prayer flag trees, or Darchors, as replacing the colorful prayer flags on hilltops during the Tibetan New Year is believed to bring the Tibetans peace, compassion, wisdom, and strength.
I buy new Darchors every year, because it's a New Year custom to do so and will bring my family good luck and harmony in the New Year, said Tsering, a Lhasa resident.
The prayer flags, which are available at local markets, have five colors, including blue, white, red, green, and yellow. Respectively, they stand for the sky, air, fire, water, and earth -- the five essential elements believed to benefit Tibetan Buddhists.
By Friday morning, Lhasa housewife Tsenga had prepared everything for the New Year. These included the chiema, the Darchor, fresh yak butter, tsamba, tea bricks, peaches made of barley flour, and new clothes for her son Tenzin.
Each item symbolizes a different wish for the new year, she said, such as sufficient food, good harvest, health and a new beginning.
In the coming two weeks of celebrations, the Tibetans will also exchange New Year greetings, worship gods and race horses.