Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Into The Tibetan Borderlands

It was a big decision; from Danba do we head north and east to the wonderful tourist attractions of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong (for a few photos of these amazing places check here) or do we head west, on the road less travelled, through the Tibetan borderlands of Sichuan and on into Qinghai province, looping back to the north (eventually) through the cities of Xining and Lanzhou. For discomforts sake we chose the latter and three days later sitting in our little room in Manigango we have no regrets. It just keeps on getting better and better out here!

From Danba there is a good road up a river and over a mountain pass to Bamei on the edge of the Tagong grasslands. The effect of heading west was obvious, suddenly we were in Tibet. The bus was full of monks in crimson and gold robes with wacky hats of different colours and design, nomads in their bulky wrap arounds with who knows what tucked away and beautiful women young and old with the colourful trim to their traditional clothing. The closest comparison we have in NZ is the staff seating at a university graduation. Just add in a ragged and slightly festive air and the layout of a bus and you have a pretty good picture.

For most of our time in China, we have been travelling through the harvest. Stacks of corn and bags of rice, people working together in the fields. Now we are sprinting on the froth of winters tide. You can see it in peoples faces that the months of cold are almost upon them, and they are ready to endure again. We asked a guest-house worker in the Yubeng what they do in winter, “sit around with our friends and drink”. Sweet as! The Tagong grasslands were only the beginning of the barrenness. Up-river the terrain is big, rounded and unforgiving. Buddhism is flourishing,. White glistening chorten dot valleys and triangular paddocks on the hillsides are filled with thousands of prayer flags. Many in this area white, although maybe these flags are the bleached, worn bones of the common colourful arrays.

A gentle mountain pass and our bus is halted temporarily by a herd of yaks, ugly hoary yaks, no wonder the meat is tough and requires good cooking! We have been having an ongoing discussion concerning what exactly is a cow and what is a yak (these were definitely yaks). Relieved we recently found out that the ancient Qiang civilisation crossbred yaks and cows about 2000 years ago, creating the “Pian niu” (cattle yak). Past the yaks we glimpsed for the first time the Chola mountains. A long glaciated and broken range blocking our passage to the south-west. We planned to cross this range via a road pass of around 5000 metres.

Our destination for the night is Garzi, we arrive there win time to appreciate the fading light. The hotel opposite the bus station provides us a comfortable twin room for 60 yuan (the prices out here are nowhere near as bad as suggested in the Lonely Planet). Out on the street men with giant carts sold great slabs of meat. We went vegetarian, or at least unidentifiable, the bbq courgette kebabs came complete with staring monks. Are we that strange? We followed this up with our cheap back-up option the small steamed buns with filling, sometimes cabbage or potato but mostly meatish. We still lack the language skill to distinguish, and both feel ashamed for not really trying with our mandarin (or putongwah), but we get by alright.

The night was cold and the next morning we found out why. Snow covered the streets. Ice hung from the powerlines and trucks choked in the street. We were up early casting the streets for food and checking out the local monastery. So alive! Two buildings, each with a route for “circumambulation”(is that a word?). You start out front, merging into the human traffic when it allows, spin the big prayer wheel on the left of the main entrance then follow the trail of smaller prayer wheels through a hall around the remaining three sides of the building. You spin the prayer wheels if you dare. The person directly in front of you is much more practised and they send each clacking with a casual flick. You pay for confidence with crunched fingers. “Tashi Delek” is the greeting to anyone that meets your eye, or a grin and nod of the head. The people are amazingly friendly to us outsiders.

All the advertised buses are gone early but we count on finding a mini-van, they seem plentiful on the road. Sure enough as we approach the main road with our packs we are sniffed out.....”(something in Tibetan)”, “Manigango”, “(something in Tibetan)”, “how much”, “(an amount we agree with according to Penny)”, and we follow him to his van and he locks our packs in it (mistake: always keep your pack so you can negotiate with rival drivers). But our guy comes through and after an hour we are off. Its an easy ride through rolling country, with the snow quickly melting and the road clear. Monasterys and villages appear regularly in the barren valley. What is there to keep this many people here? And construction seems to be booming as well. At least it is largely in the traditional style. On our left the Chola mountains keep us company and occasionally pop a pointy head over the lower hills.

Manigango appears, perched on a broad spur at the junction of two valleys. We expect wild west and get nothing less. It is rugged Tibetan out here. Monks and wild haired nomads on bikes. Yaks and saddled horses tied up at street corners. Pool tables and gaggles of young men behind every door and on the muddy road fringes. Cheeks vary from rosy to blackened. Frost nip. Hair is wild and long, giant great manes. The red balaclavas favoured by some remind Penny of Ruatoria while the travel worn pilgrims are constantly at you, begging for yuan, they are often weathered old women constantly spinning prayer wheels.

Our bus companions from the morning seize the opportunity of foreigners to share a mini-bus and we are soon en-route to Dege. We hadn't expected it to happen but we are off to cross the Tro La pass to visit one of the most special of Buddhist sites, the Bakong Scripture Printing Monastery. The scenery is amazing, the broad brown valley is quickly enclosed by rugged peaks, we pass the glacial moraine lake of Yihun Lhatso, icey blue on our left. While ahead of us we see a giant zag cutting back across the valley, our road! Its good going and safe though up to the pass. The road is too icy to walk on, but traction for the van is fine. At the pass the tradition is to hurl notebooks of prayers to the skies, guaranteeing safe passage. I have already prayed to the mountain, honouring its beauty and asking for its protection, so can understand the beauty and power of the local superstition.

The descent was steeper and uglier. Off camber curves on icy roads wth drops of hundreds of metres. At one stage we come across a stuck truck, that snarls traffic, but the spires of rock surrounding us provide plenty of the sublime to keep us happy during the wait. Down valley the mountains continue to unfold until the gorge cuts deep and towering rock walls of the canyon enclose us. Wow. We pop out eventually into Dege, a small town suffering for lack of flat ground. High rise apartments and precariously perched houses kneel on either side of a swiftly flowing river, now contained by the concrete jungle. Our bus companions recommended a super guesthouse. Tibetan styles (always preferable to the Han businessman monstrosities) and good value at 50 yuan for a snug colourful room.(cross the river by the top bridge and it is on the rivers edge, second on the right). Today we rose early, too early for town. The Tibetans are not a nation of morning people. We found an open fried bread shop and greased our stomachs for the day. Penny is into the rice porridge but I find it overhydrating and still well remember the 10 hour day at Meili Snow Mountain, including the 1500 metre climb out of the Mekong gorge, where I was still pissing clear despite drinking only 500ml's of water that day, after having rice porridge for breakfast! We then found the monastery, it was easy, the line of pilgrims circled its square red walls like swimming kids making a whirlpool. They must make more than a 1000 circuits to reach their spiritual goal, we joined in for one to be polite before entering the building. The door charge is now 50 yuan, but it is worth every jiao. The rectangular atrium was empty but we were quickly usshered through doors to the left. We walked through darkened corridors of engraved wooden blocks, kind of like chopping boards with handles stacked like books in a library. The blocks are engraved with Tibetan scholarship, religious but also other disciplines; astronomy, geography, music, medicine. 70% of Tibets literary heritage is stored in this one building, over 270,000 blocks! It was amazing to be in such a place of knowledge, I wondered what other places in the world may have such a vibe and came up with this list with the help of the internet. Possible future travel destinations?

Moving further into the complex we came to the printing room. Amazing. Pairs of men sat in perpetual motion. One holds the plate while the other places a piece of cloth and applys a roller to make a print, the cloth is removed and stacked while dye (ochre?) is applied to the block, then the process is repeated. Again and again, and quickly. The men are in fast forward, they are built these guys, professional athletes. One of the most amazing things either of us had ever seen.

Further up and we were in the sorting and binding room, older men with giant sheaths of prayers to order in the dim light. Then we were on the roof, flat and concrete, with a small temple and many sculptures. Looking over the edge we could see the pilgrims 15 metres below on their endless circuits while the town was splayed all around. A row of golden poplar trees hid the direct sunlight. It has taken me a while to realise that some of the landscape features that we think of as “kiwi” have such a Chinese influence. The combination of larch, fir and rowan trees that make Naseby are direct from the Yunnan, the golden poplar trees that dot Central Otago replicate those in the barren western valleys of Sichuan.

Heading back down we stumbled across the room dedicated to Indian Buddhism. 555 plates written in Tibetan, Sanskrit and Hindi that are the only surviving set in the world. The Lonely Planet is great for interpretation when there are no other sources! Our final highlight was the glaucoma cat and his friend in the sun. A Mad Eye Moody of the feline world!

We strolled down through Dege past the meat market. I can't wait until next time a bandwagon vegetarian tries to tell me what the world would be like if everyone in China ate meat. They eat truckloads. The only bits that seem to be remaining are the skin, the stomachs and the head!

Our next mission was getting out of town, back over the pass to Manigango. We are worried about the potential of getting snowed in somewhere in the next week or so, and are therefore proceeding more quickly than we might otherwise. The ride over cost us 50 yuan. The cartel at the mini-bus station tried to get 100. We weren't having a bar of it. “No, piss off, you're dreaming, go and find someone else to rip off, rip off the fat monk”. I have developed a habit of just talking in english, I think it helps get the message across, enabling the body language, intonation and facial expressions. We had settled into a holding pattern when Maria and her Tibetan fixer arrived. Maria is a blond Polish PHD student at a Berlin University studying under a Kiwi professor in the field of Tibetan studies. She has spent the last few months visiting remote sites gathering data on Buddhist meditation retreats. We talked for 10 minutes with a large crowd watching , while her fixer sorted us out a taxi costing 70 yuan each. It would have been good to talk for longer, but we were off.

The taxi was a bright yellow Honda Civic, and we were squeezed in with the fat monk and a travelling minstrel type who played us a few tunes on his zither as we headed up the canyon. Having seen the scenery we could tune into the people a bit more. Pilgrims marched down the road performing their prostations, prayerful burpees on the tarmac. They wore aprons, gloves and kneepads to cushion the impact. Others towed their carts, long wooden contraptions with all their worldly possessions. You wouldn't have thought a little car could be so powerful, but before long we were back up on top of Chola pass. The driver handed me a book of prayer notes and I threw them high into the air. But instead of scattering they clumped together and the book fell to the ground as a brick. In panic I picked them up and threw them again, this time scattering them successfully. The driver gave me an ashen look and turned away, the fat monk gulped and the travelling minstrel played a long mournful tune...well at least I think they did.

Quickly we were back at Yihun Lhatso and Penny was determined to have a better look at the lake. She hauled me out of the car and into the fields. We thought we could slip past the gate and avoid the entrance fee (you really get sick of entrance fees travelling in China), but were soon accosted by three young rascals who produced tickets. I threatened to come back and strangle them if the tickets weren't kosher but it all ended in laughs.

In fact it didn't quite end there for as soon as we had sat down for lunch on a hill overlooking the lake we were invited into a lonely house by a friendly monk for a cup of tea, and no sooner had we sat down than the three young curious rascals arrived. It was a fun 30 minutes or so, trying to communicate, showing them our passports (because they wouldn't believe our ages) and nibbling at the monks bowl of doughsticks. We had food to share as well, fried bread and mandarins. The monk was very much the way we imagine monks in the west, quiet, smily and humble, living a very simple lifestyle in the most beautiful of places. Not wanting to overstay our welcome we quietly took our leave.

We walked around the lakeshore, taking photos of the Tibetan script carved into shoreline rocks and bathing (only metaphorically) in the beauty of the lake and mountains. We sat down in a white pavillion on a little rise and took a photo of us.

Later Penny went for a walk along the lake shore while I sat and read poetry. We acquired a book back in Chengdu, an english translations of two eighth century Chinese poets, Li Po and Tu Fu. The book starts with a quoted observation that;

“Great men have a curious way of appearing in complementary pairs. This has happened so often in history that I don't think it can have been invented by symmetrically-minded historians, but must represent some need to keep human faculties in balance”

Li Po is a dreamer, Tu Fu more workmanlike. A Taoist and a Confucian. But anyway I sit above the beautiful lake reading them aloud trying to make a connection, when halfway through Li Po's “The Road to Shu is Steep”, it clicks...

”And taking nine turns every hundred steps, I clutch for Orion, pass through the Pleiades, And gasp for breath; Then, beating my breast, I sigh, Sinking to earth:

'Tell me Sir, this Western Way, has it any end? I fear its awful steepness, and can climb no more!'

I only see Mournful birds, Summoning mates From ancient woods, Cock follow hen Into thicket, And hear a cuckoo call On moon to light Sad, bare slopes...

The Road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the Sky!

It ashens those who only hear tell of it, From its peaks to the sky can hardly be a foot: The withered pines there have to lean over canyons Filled with contending dins of waterfalls, Gullies thundering a thousand rolling stones!

Such perils, aye, as this, Why, oh, why, Travellers from Afar, come ye to suffer them?


The road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the Sky! I half turn, but gaze West; with a long, long sigh”

I think not so much of the rugged country that Penny and I have encountered in Yunnan and Sichuan (Shu) but of the ancient paths we have seen, carved into cliffs, winding up passes and crossing quick flowing rivers by rickety bridges. I feel the history beneath our feet, but also understand the poet, tired of the journey but drawn west. Does the last line means he stops? And is it his choice? I know now how I will feel when we start to head back east towards home. But anyway I'm inspired maybe I'll attempt to write my next blog in verse!

We started to walk the 10km back to Manigango, trying to flag down anything that moved. The big rumbling trucks full of dirt did not stop, but a minivan did, 10 yuan each back to the village. The hotel at the top end of town stinks. It has the atmosphere of an empty uncleaned mental insitution. We moved on. Down the road towards the junction with eyes peeled. A lady gestured to us from a second floor balcony, the universal sleep symbol. A cosy room for 30 yuan with a chair in the sun on a deck to drink beer, and watch the end of the day. We are visited by two nomads, identical manes and aviator glasses. Full length robes, like thick dressing gowns, with arms so long they touch the ground when hanging, but are normally wrapped around, or worn over one shoulder. They peer at us, weird twins, a foot from our faces. I was too slow with the camera and one disappeared, but I snapped a picture of the other with our hostess.

We had dinner at the junction, “fried vegetables and the dish you recommend”. It was yak stew with pasta floaties, Yummy. The whole chillis challenged even my acclimatised palate (I have been eating chillis and dodgy meat for two). I love the runny nose and the hot lips, although dread the chilli hiccups! Our last challenge for the day was the absence of a cesuo (toilet). The hostess pointed to a little hollow on our deck, drained by a pipe, feeding straight out high above the street. We held on. Another great day travelling.

1 comment:

Bob McKerrow said...

A solid posting that I enjoyed a lot. Detail and emotion is important. Enjoyed reading about the harvests and the Tibetans. Did you know Obama has a policy on Tibet for the Tibetans. Watch this space with interest. Bob