Amid the vast expanse of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the seeds of China's soccer dream have found an unlikely but fertile ground to sprout.
More than 4,000 meters above sea level, the Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Yushu and surrounding area is perhaps best known for its stunning natural beauty. Nowadays, though, the Beautiful Game is also putting the area on the map, with Yushu home to a flourishing soccer scene.
Female player Dekyi Drolma is one of its most eager participants.
The 26-year-old simply can't get enough time with a ball at her feet, with matches and training consuming her free time-often to her mother's consternation.
"I'm always itching for a game, but I feel guilty about not being with my family," said Dekyi Drolma.
"I don't know why, but I've just loved playing soccer since I was a kid. I would try to tackle my brother when he was playing. Soccer is a kind of language between us."
Dekyi Drolma hails from Yushu but works 120 kilometers away in Chengduo county.
However, such is her passion for soccer that she returns to Yushu on weekends and holidays to play.
She is not alone in her dedication, with the girls and women of Yushu's Gyegu township boasting their own team.
Established in 2017, they go by the name of Yushu Tibetan Mulan－a nod to legendary female warrior Hua Mulan, who disguised herself as a man to take her aged father's place in the army to fight the enemy.
The girls identify in a very real sense with the legendary figure and find parallels between their battles on the pitch and the historical battles of their heritage.
"King Gesar is a hero in the eyes of Tibetans, who curbed the violence and helped the weak all his life. We are Tibetan Mulans. We inherit the spirit of King Gesar as well," said Dekyi Drolma.
"There are some magical forces in soccer, which can transform grief into strength."
Yushu has needed to be strong. In April 2010, an earthquake struck the region, killing around 3,000 people. With debris and toppled houses all around, finding space to enjoy a kickabout was not easy.
Even amid the devastation, Dekyi Drolma recalls seeing kids on the street or outside tents playing soccer and talking tactics.
Thanks to a series of government-funded rebuilding projects, many pitches have sprouted up since the disaster.
Teacher Kunkyap Yondeng, 31, is one of the many people to benefit from that investment. He plays for a team called Yushu Khampa Wild Yak, comprised of civil servants, students, taxi drivers and even monks.
"My work is to allow more kids from remote pasture areas to play soccer and love soccer," he said.
"They are luckier than I was. They have access to professional training when they are young."
Wild Yak's coach, Wang Jun, is also grateful to have such fine facilities on his doorstep, and isn't afraid to dream big as a result.
"The modern pitches are very popular. Teams use the fields in turn," said Wang.
"My peers and I share one dream－for Yushu to develop a team, represent China and in the future participate in the World Cup."
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