Monday, June 13, 2011

Painting Thangkas in Tongren, China (Gansu Province)



Destination:  Tongren, China (Qinghai Province)

Number of Days Spent: 1 day

Where we stayed:  We had originally thought of staying here for a night but opted to head on to Xining the same day so we could spend the time exploring around there instead. 

Best restaurant:  On the bus between Xiahe and Tongren don’t miss the yak yogurt!  It’s deliciously creamy and tangy (at least Tracy thought so anyways). 

Best of: We made the best of our time here by visiting a few more monasteries as well as shopping for the ‘perfect’ thangka (Tibetan art), a local man at the Rongwo Gonchen Gompa was especially friendly, giving us a quick tour of the massive complex

Worst of: Either the hotels in town didn’t want to take foreigners or they really were full – either way they were off putting and the one recommended in LP was the rudest of all (You Zheng Binguan). We had a hard time convincing someone just to watch our bags for a couple of hours so we could explore.

We took the only bus from Xiahe to Tongren at the wonderfully early hour of 6am. Despite the early hour of departure, we were rewarded with views of the valleys and mountains as well as a little snow as we went through the pass. Yes, it was June 1st and snowing. The snow quickly dissipated and after a quick stop to pick up yogurt – one of Tracy’s favorite food items in China, we arrived in Tongren around 10:00am. After some pleading with the hotel clerk, they finally agreed to keep our bags for the day and we were off to check out the Wutun Si Monastery.

Down the hill about 6km from town sits the Wutun Si Monastery. The monastery is actually split into two separate sections about 1km apart. The lower part was nearly completely under construction at the time of our visit and aside from the sound of a few electric saws and hammers, one might think the entire place was disserted. As with so much of China, this area appears to be a work in progress but the parts that were visible appeared to have received a recent coat of paint.  


In between the upper and lower monasteries sits several artisan workshops. The area is famous for producing some of the highest quality Tibetan paintings, such as the one pictured at the beginning of the post, with commissions coming in from all over the Buddhist world. A work such as the one at the beginning of the post can take up to a year to produce and sells for around $1000 US to $1500 US – a fairly good wage for this area but considering the time and effort – a steal of a deal. After shopping around we ended up taking home a couple of paintings – far smaller and much less expensive than the mural above. 


The upper monastery was a bit more intact with less construction and there were monks there that took us around and let us in to see the riot of colors in each prayer hall and temple. Sometimes we can take for granted all those amazing colors and the amount of detail that goes into creating each and every one of these temples. From the hand woven prayer flags to the intricately carved wooden overhangs the buildings are works of art in and of themselves.


Back in town, we decided to forgo food and opt to check out the main monastery in town – the Rongwo Gonchen Gompa.


Unlike the Wutun Monastery that focused on the art and painting, this monastery had more of a “tourist” feel to it. Generally speaking, when they charge to see it and even more for a ‘guided’ tour you know you have found the ones that the government has taken over for the sake of tourism. That’s not to say that they are not monasteries – they are in every sense of the word, but you can sense a certain feeling in the air of distain for the situation. I suppose I would too if you charged admission to see my culture and loaded up people on big bus tours to come invade my church for a back seat view of private rites and rituals all for the sake of making a buck. We reluctantly paid the entrance fee but refused the guided services opting instead to just wander around a bit. The man who sold us the tickets, came out and decided that it was slow and he wanted to practice his English so he gave us the ‘tour’ for free anyways.



I say ‘tour’ because it was more of just opening up locked doors and making sure we didn’t get lost in the maze of buildings that line the hillside. He also explained that the chanting and praying, along with the huge horns that were being blown were being done in mourning for the lives lost in the recent earthquakes that ravaged the town of Yushu, one of the largest Tibetan communities outside of Tibet.


The man was quite friendly and even helped us get a taxi at the last minute to take us back to hotel to get our bags, wait for us, and then on to the bus station for a reasonable price. Back on the road, we had one last stop to make before leaving the Amdo region – the modern city of Xining! 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ganja Grasslands – Xiahe, China (Gansu Province)

A short day trip outside of Xiahe is the Ganja Grasslands.  We opted to rent a taxi with two other travelers for the day. It’s fairly easy to get out here. Just flag down a taxi, negotiate a price & point to where you want to go from your guidebook and then haggle a little.

The rolling hills and plains are a stunning canvas in which to find herds of sheep, yak and cattle grazing.




The area is also home to several of these small walled villages. Dating back over 2000 years, the walls surrounding the village are from the Han dynasty. Be forewarned that they will collect a small ‘entrance fee’ if you step one foot out of your cab. It was a small fee (10-15rmb/less than $2), but the lack of signage or notification that you would be charged for looking at a village led to a small argument with the ‘mayor’. There’s really not much to see anyways, but the fact that you can walk on 2000 year old walls is pretty cool.


Dotting the area are also numerous caves, most of which are considered sacred. Unfortunately, the caves are inaccessible due to a tourist fatality a couple of years ago. The area also is home to a couple of small monasteries, one of which I nearly took a tumble at stepping where I thought there was solid ground. All I managed to do was rip their plastic tarp covering the loose dirt. Fortunately, the couple we were traveling with happened to be carrying duct tape which we used to patch up the flimsy plastic as they scolded us in Chinese for walking through a construction site. 


International crisis averted, we headed back to Xiahe and prepared for the trip over the mountain pass to our next stop – Tongren.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Walking the Kora, Almost in Tibet – Xiahe, China (Gansu Province)



Destination:  Xiahe, China (Gansu Province)

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed:  Overseas Tibetan Hotel – Nothing special, but then again, this town didn’t really have anything too special in the way of hostels or hotels. Unheated rooms and fluctuations in water were a common theme in all the accommodations in town.  We arrived while the entire town was without water. 

Best restaurant:  Gesar Restaurant on the street perpendicular to main street, close to the entry of the monastery (thanks for the recommendation).  Slurp your delightful soup and enjoy wondeful Tibetan momos with local monks and Tibetan pilgrims at the cute little hole in the wall place directly opposite the Kora. 

Best of: Fantastic Tibetan Labrang Monastery, lush green grasslands with Yak and sheep, the many faces of religious pilgrims completing their Koras every morning and evening.

Worst of:  The entire town lost water while we were there and it was quite cold up on the Tibetan plateau. 

The smell of burning Yak Butter wafts through the air. Crimson robed monks spin prayer wheels as they circumambulate (walk around) the temple. An intoxicating array of vibrant colors adorn every wall, door and statue. Tibet proper it may not be, but there is little doubt this region is Tibetan in nature.  Welcome to the Amdo region.


The Amdo Region of China, some might argue, is more authentic than TIbet itself. The Chinese government has for years worked on making Tibet more Chinese. The train now runs all the way to Lhasa carrying with it thousands of Chinese workers. With the influx of Chinese influences coupled with thousands of tourists flocking to see sights such as Potala palace and Mt. Everest the real Tibet may seem a bit crowded and manufactured these days. If you are perhaps looking for an authentic and off the beaten path adventure, then perhaps Xiahe and the Amdo region are your answer.


In Xiahe (pronounced shuh huh with an almost cough like sort of lung hacking emphasis on the huh part) the dusty main road bustles with pilgrims young and old, Tibetan women with sleeping babies strapped to their backs buy from shops and other people in the streets while little old ladies walk and gossip about life. And the best part? The scene is real. No pre-manufactured, cookie cutter scenes filled with what the Chinese government wants you to see. This is the rural Tibetan landscape that the hippie’s found in the 60’s and 70’s a little further up the plateau. This is the Tibet that continues to fight against the seemingly insurmountable odds of one day regaining a sovereign nation.



Getting here was not overly difficult, but they do from time to time close the region off to foreigners, including the ones that live here. In the yellow hat sect, the same sect of Buddhism that the Dalai Lama belongs to, the Labrang Monastery is one of the six major monasteries.  Having arrived just after Buddha’s Birthday, the temple was buzzing with pilgrims. The monastery is capped at 1200 monks and covers a space that is 3km in circumference. 


Along with the 1200 monks, their living quarters and learning centers, the complex also has several temples and chapels. While you are free to walk about outside the buildings, to enter into many of the chapels and prayer halls, you have to sign up for a tour. The tour takes you around to several buildings. Some are filled with dusty relics in glass cases while others contain candles fueled by yak butter illuminating statues of Buddha and rows of cushions lining the floors for apprentice monks to meditate on. Of course the yak butter sculpture room comes standard with any tour of a Tibetan monastery. 


Everyday we were in Xiahe, we would walk the kora in the morning and explore the monastery and people watch for a little while. The vibrant colors and the smell of burning yak butter are instantly recognizable and one of a kind. Being an outsider, its difficult to get under the skin of the people here and to experience their frustrations with the government and their wishes to have an independent Tibet once again.



Their independence day may never come, but the culture and traditions of a religiously devout population live on despite the government’s best efforts. One of the must humbling sites to me are to watch the people that do the 3km kora taking three steps, then bow, then lay flat on the ground, then stand up and repeat. I am told that they will complete this same walk multiple times per pilgrimage. How many of us in our religious lives spend more than an 1-2 hours a week praying or worshiping let alone entire days at a time, multiple times a year physically exerting ourselves to the point of exhaustion. To me, that’s devotion of a deeper understanding – one that my simple mind cannot comprehend. 



Beyond its religious importance to the region, Xiahe is also an excellent base for exploring the grasslands where Yak and sheep roam, or at least once did! Next post – the Ganjia Grasslands!