Straight into Another World
It was early morning when we set out from Lhasa on our way to Ganden monastery. The bus was, of course, rickety and noisy, and our fellow passengers were almost uniformly monks on pilgrimage. One of them sat next to me and seemed very excited, reciting his mantras and counting his beads.
A couple of hours later we were crawling up the winding track towards the monastery, which was situated halfway up an extremely steep hill, shielded from the dreadful wind by the structure of the surrounding hills. We got off the bus and were led straight into another world.
It was a very small, low-ceiling and very dark room that we were supposed to enter at one end, then pass through to the other and exit. In-between was the pungent smell of burning incense and the slightly menacing bass growl of chanting monks. Every now and then their nodding heads emerged from the smoke-enhanced gloom. The whole experience took only a couple of minutes, but its surreal nature stays with me to this day.
After that we were outside again. No one told us where anything was. We wandered through the rain trying to find something interesting. Most of the buildings were in either in ruins or had fallen into total disrepair.
Towards the top of the hill we saw the remnants of the old monastery. It was a lonely place with crumbling walls. Some paths were blocked off, presumably because of the danger of falling masonry. We walked back down the hill and found the newer buildings which were patrolled by packs of goats. One was trying to take shelter from the constant rain and wind on one side of a stupa.
I looked over a wall and discovered an overgrown garden, inside of which was what looked like a disused open-air theatre with a stage and seating. My imagination was left to construct the scenarios that might have been played out here in better days – days that seemed to have gone forever.
Finally we found the main building, situated at the heart of the complex. We walked up the stairs and into the main room. To our surprise we discovered that this was where the monks hung out. Through the windows of this room you could see most of Ganden, old and new. Inside, the walls were panelled with wood and the furniture was covered with a thick layer of dust. The rank smell of butter tea permeated the air.
The monks were lying around the place, on mats and sofas, holding each others’ hands, giggling inanely. They wore the traditional russet-red robes and skirts. All had shaven heads. By now my Messiah complex was in full force – would this be where I would find out my place in the scheme of things?
The oldest monk started pointing at me, gabbling away in Tibetan. Was he trying to tell me something? No, he was just directing his gaze at my hippie clothes and making a joke for his monkish mates. To the now familiar sound of high-pitched giggling, I turned around to examine the various prayer wheels and bells that they had on display, but it was a desultory collection.
Outside it was still raining. As we crossed from the monastery hill to the opposite hill, we were subjected to the full force of the Ganden wind. Entering the “restaurant” we discovered it was a dilapidated, freezing-cold shed with a few old women selling highly-priced Chinese noodles. We supped the noodles and ignored offers of the famous butter tea, for if anything was guaranteed to give you gut rot, it was that. After an hour or so it was clear we going to have to wait even longer than we expected, so I fell back on my time-honoured waiting strategy – chain-smoking.
Finally the bus started up – time to get back to something approaching normality. I found myself sitting next to the same monk. He pointed out the window as we rolled down the hill, a radiant smile upon his face. “Ganden,” he said, and as the monastery passed out of sight he started waving, like he was saying goodbye to an old friend.