3: Of Monks and Yak-Men – The Year of Living Differently – China …

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3: Of Monks and Yak-Men

ZOIGE to LANGMUSI, CHINA – 21 May, 2002
Zoige was so wonderful we woke up at 4:50am and hastened to the bus station to catch the first bus out. Langmusi was our next destination and when the ticket window was opened, I pushed and shoved against unruly Tibetan monks to try and obtain bus tickets.

To my surprise, the horrid ticket-seller said that the bus for Langmusi was full. Oh no… I couldn’t imagine spending another day in splendid Zoige! In my desperation, I asked for Hezuo which was a town much further away. Now, this was the start of a series of bus-ticket scams. He claimed that I could purchase the tickets for Hezuo.

But Hezuo was about eight hours away and Langmusi was only 2½ hours away. And it was the same route all the way until Langmusi Bridge. If the bus for Langmusi was full, it would also mean the bus for Hezuo was full. Yet, he said I could buy the tickets. He just wanted us to pay for more than where we wanted to travel, I knew it! I didn’t want to relinquish my place at the window and had no choice but to purchase the tickets.

We were directed to yet another muddy, ratty bus. Jane popped her head in and said, “Boy, this looked like the medieval times…” I took a look and was similarly shocked.

The light was dim. The entire bus was packed to the brim. Staring back at us were wild-unkempt-haired, dark-skinned unsmiling men in yak fur coats. In fact, this went beyond medieval times for me, they looked like cave-men!!

I was actually a little nervous. Thank goodness, the curly-haired bus conductor helped us and assured me he would get seats for us. Firstly, he ordered those cave-men at the back to pass the baggages out through the back window so that he could pack them at the top.

Once done, Curly climbed into the bus and spoke to two guys sitting near the exit. He asked if they could move to the back and let these two ‘Lao Wai’ (their slang for foreigners) sit here. He added, if anything bad happened to us at the back seat, (flash-back: On our way to Zoige, Jane bounced so high she hit the roof and then, slammed her chin on the seat in front of her when she landed!) “Wo Men Pei Bu Qi!” In direct translation, the last line meant, “We cannot afford to pay.”

OK, taking into consideration readers’ cultural differences, I would spell out what he really meant: He meant that they cannot afford to have anything bad happened to us tourists, guests to their country. Hmmm… for example, compare the difference between the below newspaper reports – ‘There was an earthquake last night and 300 people died’ vs ‘There was an earthquake last night and 300 people died, including 1 international tourist’. Hope you know what I mean.

Anyway, I was really touched he was so concerned for us. I was even more touched the two half-yaks-half-men moved to the back wordlessly.

At 6am or so, the bus jiggled away. A half hour later, the bus stopped. Apparently, the rain last night caused the mud track out of Zoige to be even muddier and a heavy truck up ahead was stuck.

The grounds to the left and right of the mud track were rather flat. But they were of soft peat and those impatient vehicles which went off-road were promptly stuck too.

Many passengers disembarked to check out the road conditions, while others left to pee or poo in the grasslands. A pair of the most colourful characters on our bus (one with a cow-boy hat and Mod 1970s sun-shades and the other older one, a Golok Tibetan with dread-locks and mobile prayer-wheel) even took the opportunity to rescue a yak stuck in the mud in the distance. It had looked like a lump of coal to me, how they recognised it as a yak-in-trouble from our bus is beyond me.

Outgoing buses and trucks started to queue all the way back to Zoige.

Slowly, a flurry of activities began. The Zoige police got involved and chains and tractors were delivered for some tricky extraction.

We waited four hours before we sensed some success up ahead. When it was our turn to cross, Curly yelled at us to get off and run. Meanwhile, our bus made the dash across the worst bit and it went successfully! Hooray!! All smiles abound as we climbed back into the bus and made our second attempt to leave Zoige at 10:30am.

Another 30 minutes passed before we came to another stuck-vehicle situation! Oh no… How is this story going to end? After a long wait, a bus, similar to ours, made the attempt to cross off-road and was stuck after five metres. Later, another one made the brave attempt. It travelled all the way to beyond the last incoming vehicle and got stuck while trying to get back onto the mud track.

Mod-shades guy smilingly told me that this was good news. If that bus could make the attempt (almost), so could ours.

We were once again asked to get off, walk across the peat and wait. To block ourselves from the biting, chilling wind, we waited near a truck… for another 2½ hours.

The stuck truck was finally yanked out of the mud. In the distance, we could see our bus making its move as it bypassed the other trucks in front and then, went off-road dangerously. It travelled on the slanted peat and made it to the other side all in one speedy attempt. It didn’t get stuck like the other two buses before us. We cheered and yelped for joy!! I sprinted down the mud track to rejoin our bus.

The 6½-hour ordeal had secured strong bonds among us passengers and possibly, made firm friends among some of the Tibetan guys. We finally left Zoige at 1:30pm without any more incidents.

At Langmusi Bridge, we got off and tried to hitch a ride for the remaining 4km into Langmusi town. A CHINA MOBILE van stopped for us. My charm worked on the guys and we packed our dusty backpacks into the cleanest van we had seen in a while.

Langmusi was a muddy little town on the border of Sichuan and Gansu Provinces. Almost like a one-pig town. There was no paved road at all. The main thoroughfare was this muddy track. It had been snowing the past few days and now, with the snow melted, the mud was wet and slippery. One’s boots could come off while walking through the sucking mud.

We stayed at a new hotel near the Sichuan Monastery (there was another Monastery across the town on the Gansu side). For such a tiny backwards town, we were surprised to find a brand-new TV set and electric blankets in our hotel room!

Finally, we trudged out to Leisha’s Cafe for our breakfast at 5pm. We had heard something about Leisha. She apparently made heavenly apple pies and yak burgers. Really strange to find this sort of food here.

The locals here consisted of more of those Tibetan yak-men wearing huge sun-shades and carrying menacing gold daggers. Some of them, especially those riding motorbikes, looked like mean, mustachioed outlaws. But actually, they were really friendly. We were greeted by the children, women, these men and monks constantly with ‘hellos’.

Once fortified with food, Jane and I started wandering around town and lusting after the hunky and handsome Tibetan monks.

There was a blackout at Langmusi that night. Our hotel owner had reassured us that he had a generator but that died too. With no electricity, the TV set and electric blanket were useless. Then, it started to snow.

LANGMUSI, CHINA – 22 May, 2002
It had snowed throughout the night and continued to snow this morning. I had never seen falling snow before. But now with inadequate clothes, it was probably not the best time.

We lingered in bed and finally, hunger compelled us to get dressed and head out to town. I had to do some shopping, I thought, if I wanted to survive the cold here. Shopping in Langmusi? Hmmm… not quite Paris and Milan which I was used to but I guess it will do for now.

After food, we attempted to walk around but were simply too cold to head off anywhere seriously. A special moment for me was to actually and clearly see the six-sides of a snow flake that landed on the sleeve of my jacket.

Back to the hotel to defrost. Out of pity for us, the hotel owner, Adaisya, relocated us to another room that had a hot pipe (which carried the water to our shower) in it. This warmed up the room and it cheered us up considerably. We felt human enough to take a nap.

That night, we had a late dinner at a Muslim Restaurant. We noticed here that a few restaurants had TV sets and VCD players. There would be a speaker outside to broadcast the programme being shown out on the streets. As we imagined not many people here to have TV sets or VCD players, this must be a marketing ploy to get people to come into the restaurant to watch the programmes and hence, buy food or tea. It was warm and cosy in the restaurant and soon, we started lusting after the teenage Muslim boy serving our food too.

As we crawled our way slowly in the dark across the mud track to our hotel, we passed by the monks selling tickets to the Sichuan Monastery. They had already made several attempts to sell us the tickets yesterday and today. But we were too hungry yesterday and too freezing cold today to entertain any thoughts of sight-seeing. The two monks invited us into their quarters to chat. There was a hot stove in their quarters that warmed us up pleasantly but we only lusted after one of the monks.

The monks launched their promotion campaign, explaining that the Sichuan Monastery was more special than the Gansu Monastery because in one of the funerary stupas, there was the body of one of the past Buddhas who died in 1800+. After many years, the body had been exhumed by a monk and at that time, it was still undecomposed. The monk hid it in the mountains and it was again exhumed in 1980+ and finally moved to the funerary stupa here. It remained undecomposed, of course. The 11th reincarnation of this Buddha, whom they all worshipped now and who was called ‘Huo Fo’ (Living Buddha) was now living in India. Hmmm… this greatly intrigued me and we promised to visit the Monastery tomorrow.

No hot shower today! And I only discovered this after I was under it! Argh…

LANGMUSI, CHINA – 23 May, 2002
The weather is warm and beautiful today. Incredible!! Jane was now glad she stayed another day in Langmusi.

We bought the tickets for the Sichuan Monastery and started walking to the caves. Halfway through, it rained tiny hailstones. But the sun remained up, so we were not too disturbed by this strange occurrence.

Jane and I crawled into a cave to see the natural shape of an ox, as indicated in the brochure. It was a holy cave and many Tibetans had tied the white or yellow holy scarves around. In the darkness, we couldn’t make out the shape of any ox and soon, crawled our way out.

I was wandering around outside when an old monk came up to me to chat. Apparently, he was one of the care-takers around here and he asked me to join him in the cave again. He explained certain things to me but with his thick accent, I did not always understand him. I was told to drink from a spring in the cave. Tasted sourish. He showed me formations that resembled a ‘snake’, ‘frog’, ‘elephant’, ‘monkey’, etc… A good thing he was here to point out all these formations we had missed.

On the outside, he brought us to see more naturally-formed shapes of Buddhas sitting in rings of light. He took us on a circuit route up in the snow round the fenced-up home of the ‘Living Buddha’ (the one living in India, I’m sorry but I never really got his name) if he ever came to Langmusi. I learnt he came once in 1984 or so.

We reached the funerary stupa which contained the undecomposed body. There were a few locals waiting for him at the gate and the old monk let them in first to perform their prayers and chants. I was very touched by their devotion.

The body was now put into a structure so that only the face could be seen and the face had been dusted with gold powder. Still, it was a very humbling sight for me.

As we were leaving, the old monk called after us and beckoned us to return. He had taken out the Tibetan-Chinese Buddhism dictionary and turned to the last page. He told me to copy down a chant in Chinese and to chant it 108 times a day. The benefits are stupendous, he added. He was really quite a kind, sweet man. While we thanked him, he said, fate brought us together… otherwise, we would not have met outside the cave.

That night, there was no hot shower again. I made a fuss and asked for Adaisya’s help. He explained I should let the water run for 5 to 10 minutes and demonstrated for me to see. Later, he knocked on my door and asked me to write for him in English the instruction to get the hot water. Adaisya’s hotel was new and his English was not bad but not good enough to form this instruction. So, I wrote: “If the water is cold, let the water run for at least 5 minutes and the water will be hot by then.”

An hour later, as we were leaving for dinner, Adaisya was still trying to memorise this catchy slogan but he got it all messed up. I gave him a tip: Copy it and stick it outside the bathroom’s door. His eyes lit up and twinkled with wisdom. Hey, always glad to help.

LANGMUSI to XIAHE, CHINA – 24 May, 2002
Moons ago, a Japanese tourist apparently died on a bus-ride in the Gansu Province and the bus company was sued. As a result, all foreigners travelling in Gansu Province needed to purchase a travel insurance from the bus company.

Now, this was the part we could not understand. Purchasing this insurance did not mean that the tourist would be compensated in the event of an accident. It just meant that the bus company would NOT be sued in the event of an accident. Go figure… Or maybe I just grossly misunderstood this.

In some towns, if the tourists refused to buy the insurance, they would not be sold the bus-tickets. Sometimes, the insurance-less tourists were just charged a more expensive price for the bus-tickets.

Langmusi was on the border of Sichuan and Gansu Province so I had just entered this problematic province. And true enough, my bus-ticket from Langmusi to Xiahe was more than double the true price. What a rip-off!

Xiahe was a more modern town compared to Langmusi. The major claim to fame was Labrang Monastery which was one of the six great monasteries of the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and this was one of the two in China itself.

I noticed a few more differences in the Tibetan people here. They almost always wore only the left sleeve of the yak-coats. I had thought that they left the right sleeve hanging around the waist because they needed to reach for money to pay for the bus-fares, were too hot to be wearing the right sleeve, sleeve was too long to carry their bags, etc… but, it seemed, it was indeed the fashion to be wearing just the left sleeve.

And the inner coat which used to be mostly sheep fur were now faux leopard, tiger, cheetah, even zebra prints. Many shops lining the one road of Xiahe were selling these fur materials and other religious items for the pilgrims and monks. There were various quality of maroon and fuchsia robes for the monks to choose from.

Many of the ladies were also wearing hats, only a few covered their hair with scarves. So, with the hats, the thick yat-dresses around their waist, the small eyes, brown faces and ruddy cheeks, they looked very much like their counterparts in Peru and Bolivia, wearing bowler hats and multi-layered skirts. The resemblance was uncanny!

XIAHE, CHINA – 25 May, 2002
We made enquiries and found that the 15th of the 4th Lunar Month was tomorrow. So, we decided to visit the Labrang Monastery then when more pilgrims and monks would be there for the special day.

Today, we headed to the grasslands around Xiahe. The surrounding area was rolling hills and green pastures with grazing sheep and yaks. It was very pretty. Walking up the hills at some points, we just wanted to break into our out-of-tune rendition of ‘The Hills are Alive… with the Sound of Music’.

Apparently, yesterday was a special festival for the Tibetans but because it had been snowing, they postponed the celebration to today.

We were lucky to encounter one such event in the grassland. There was a basketball match going on, huge tents were set up with food and drinks flowing. Curious children and friendly Tibetans welcomed us around. Main colour among the hat-wearing Tibetan women was hot pink, how about that?

Later, we went further up in the hills and I was rather mad to learn that our guide had not informed us that there was no food available anymore. Near a village, our taxis were stuck in the wet mud (Zoige flashback). We wandered into the village and came upon another celebration. This time, the villagers actually invited us to partake of the food and drinks and yes, they FED us starving tourists! OK, it was yak butter, some oat-stuff and tough buns, but it was food…

Through a guy who could speak Mandarin, we asked if the villagers wanted some photos and we would send to them once developed. They were delighted and went about gathering their infants and children and placed them before our lenses.

XIAHE, CHINA – 26 May, 2002
The Labrang Monastery was busy since early morning with pilgrims and monks walking clock-wise around the monastery grounds and spinning the prayer-wheels.

Jane was not with me so I tried my best to assimilate myself among the pilgrims without arousing suspicion and made the rounds with them. I was elbowed out and out-paced by wrinkled-faced grannies and skinny novice monks as they pushed and hurried past me along the prayer-wheels.

As I walked around the grounds, I was especially impressed with the devotion and passion of the prostrating pilgrims – they walked three steps and lay down to their face to pray, got up and repeated, all around the monastery perimeter.

Many had also changed money into one jiao (1/10 of one yuan) and set about giving one jiao each to the beggars lining along the route. Some beggars were indeed old and poor-looking. But others were well-scrubbed and wearing nice sweaters!

With all my planning to coincide my visit of the monastery with the 15th of the month, I still missed the chanting ceremony held there. What a shame. I heard that the monks wore elaborate robes and high yellow punk hats and the chantings were impressive.

That evening, I wandered around the Muslim quarters of Xiahe which actually consisted of rows of mud-huts, housing families of all origins. Came upon a few Tibetan boys of age 9 to 13 playing.

One of them quipped in Mandarin, “I have been thinking about you. Have you been thinking about me?” What a charmer! I replied, “Yes, I have always been thinking about you.” That broke the ice and soon, they were clamouring around me, examining the lock on my bag, my camera, etc… They requested and got some photos and made me promise to send them the photos when done. They took me to the edge of the mud-huts and a few demonstrated some acrobatics on their bicycles. They requested that I visit them again tomorrow. I just might. It seemed I can only attract guys this age.

XIAHE, CHINA – 27 May, 2002
Jane and I had wanted to rent bicycles to cycle out to the grasslands so that we could really sing ‘The Sound of Music’. We scrapped the idea when she woke up with a cold this morning.

I simply spent the day wandering around town slowly. I bought some fruits and headed back to the Muslim Quarters by evening time to meet my boyfriends. I wondered if I would be able to recognise them again. Well, didn’t have to worry about that. One of them came running and smiling. I gave him the fruits and he went around yelling for his friends to come out. They went through more examinations of me and my bag and made more requests for photos. They were really friendly and mischievous children. I had a wonderful time with them.

XIAHE to XINING, CHINA – 28 May, 2002
Xiahe is near Qinghai Province. I decided to go to that province in order to get out of the insurance scam of Gansu Province. So, Jane would be heading to Lanzhou, capital of Gansu and I would go to Xining, capital of Qinghai. But first, I still had to buy a bus ticket out of Xiahe.

Jane went ahead to purchase the ticket. She was given no choice but to pay for the insurance.

I signalled her not to talk to me. I removed my bandanna on my head, ruffled up my hair and hoped I looked like a local Chinese. I brusquely requested for the ticket to a town in Qinghai.

Then, the lady at the window asked the dreaded question, “Ni Shi Shen Me Guo Jia Ren?” (Which country are you from?). I faltered and wavered and went, “Huh?” She repeated herself. I hate to lie. I am terrible at lying so I said, “Zhong Guo Ren.” (I’m from China), trying on my most Shanghai look.

Lo and behold, she bought it!! No rubbish about bus insurance. Phewww…. thank goodness I was not asked to sing the national anthem.

For all my trouble, when I got onto the bus, it was already packed with locals who had clamoured on without tickets. Gosh, I simply never knew when to get on without tickets and buy later or when to waste time buying tickets. I sat on a crate. At least I had a crate to sit on.

XINING, CHINA – 29 May, 2002
Xining was a pleasant town set in the valley of ranges of brown mountains. Although it has a altitude of 2200m, the weather was reasonably warm in the day and wonderfully cool in the night. I liked it very much, actually, although there were almost no sights in town.

With very few Tibetan men and monks here, I was left to lust after doe-eyed, teenage Muslim boys.

The town was decidedly more Muslim. There were many kebab stalls all over. A lot of people were wearing skull caps and for the ladies, either white hats and covered with see-through velvety cloth or no hat and covered with regular coloured scarves.

I had seen goat heads floating in pots of stew and had assumed they were placed there for-show so that people would know the stew was mutton stew. But later, I saw a guy gnawing the cheek of a goat’s head. Hmmm… I would have to skip this dish, I’m afraid.

XINING, CHINA – 30 May, 2002
The other important Yellow Hat Sect Tibetan Monastery in China, besides Labrang, was near Xining and I made a trip out there today.

While this monastery was swarmed with more tourists than monks, I still found the temples very interesting and special. One thing that stood out was the yak-butter sculptures in Temple No. 7. The two yak-butter sculptures were huge, spanning the width of the temple and top-heavy. Cooled by Mitsubishi air-con, they were painted with colours and had many Buddhism stories, icons carved out of it. The displays were breath-taking. If I heard the tour guide explaining to a nearby group properly, the sculptures were melted down every winter and redone. Who would have the heart to melt them down?

XINING to DUNHUANG, CHINA – 31 May, 2002
I took my first sleeper bus today to Dunhuang (back to Gansu Province). The ride would be 20+ hours long and we left at 10:30am. The bed was tiny, just long enough for me. I wonder how Western tourists survived in sleeper buses.

It was really close encounters with the Chinese kind. A fuddy-duddy middle-aged couple were next to my bed. The wife fumbled around, adjusting and readjusting the placement of their luggage and then, her shoes. She fussed about the ladder on her bed not being as smooth as the ladder on my bed. She complained the shoe-box was crooked, the one at her husband’s bed was better. As she set the blanket around her bed, her inconsiderate large butt jutted over to my bed and nearly knocked me over.

I was glad my nose was stuck (the coming of a cold, I think) so I could not smell all the smelly feet around me. Two ladies had the ‘just-out-of-the-hairdresser-look’. Their well-coiffed hair was done up like Ivana Trump. What were they thinking? This was a 20+ hour bus ride on tough road conditions! I shall have to wait and see.

The bus climbed up mountain roads and my ears popped several times. We were surrounded once again by snowy mountains. Then, the bus headed downhill again and the changes in pressure caused my ears to go hay-wire. Soon, I was nearly deaf.

After dinner, the fuddy-duddy couple set about their after-dinner chores. They slowly and painstakingly removed their suits to reveal long-johns underneath. Then, I nearly choked, they further removed their long-johns to reveal pyjamas below. They had been wearing 3 layers all day? I was in 1 layer and barely able to cope with the heat in the bus!

Then, I drifted in and out of coma for the rest of the night.

4: Desperately Seeking Shade »

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