Blue Skies over Beijing

Todays perambulations have taken me to new hutongs and more water. The goal is the Back Lakes area of Beijing, Shicha Hai, a series of man-made lakes once part of a system used to transport grain by barge from the Grand Canal to the Forbidden City. It is a pretty scene, with fishermen on the periphery. Low carved marble balustrades outline the lakes, with arched bridges for pedestrian traffic at the narrows, where each body of water connects. The district is filled with small shops, restaurants, and Chinese tourists.

Duck Island

Duck Island

Wack, wack, wack.” Mallards. I do want you to know that conservation is alive and well here in the middle of Beijing. Not far from the shore, right next to the swan boats, is a tiny man-made island, maybe 30 x 40 square feet, with nesting condos for wild ducks! It is a big deal. The government has gone so far as to mount a large plaque, praising the residents on the merits of this significant conservation effort.

Environmental protection for wild ducks

Praise for conservation effort. Click on photo to read.

Prior to 1911, the Back Lakes district was an exclusive area, where only people with connections to the imperial family were permitted to maintain houses. It has that feeling still. I see a beautiful doorway that is slightly open, revealing cascading orchids. A well-dressed man comes out and when I ask if he speaks English, his answer is in English without a trace of accent, as is his reply when I asked what establishment lies (lays?) beyond the gate. It is a restaurant, open for lunch and dinner. “A very fine restaurant,” I say. “Thank you,” says he. Seeing my interest, he added, “but you would need a reservation.” This is a euphemism for his assumption, correct as it may be, that I am not up to snuff for his place of business. (BTW: Fashion is in fashion here. The well-to-do dress for such venues. And most of the women I have seen climb out if the plentiful Audis, BWMs, and Mercedes are young and beyond beautiful, although “mother” is frequently dowdy.)

My meander today lasts for about eight hours, primarily exploring the alleys. I surface every now and then to get my bearings. With only a map for the subway system rather than the streets, every time I come across a station, I orient myself, then dive back in. I am always happiest when I am deep inside, where tourists don’t often wander. The people tend to be much friendlier.

Roof tops of the Confucian temple in Beijing.  Note the blue sky!!!!!

Roof tops of the Confucian temple in Beijing. Note the blue sky!!!!!

This day’s great surprise is the Confucian temple, at which I arrive after passing through a stunning ancient gateway crossing the rather wide alleyway I have been exploring. The temple, closed for the day, is an impressive compound built in the 1300s. My view is whatever is above the wall, which is quite impressive. It has been my luck to arrive at significant historic sites after hours. Perhaps it is because on previous trips I have spent most of my time looking at the ancient that I do not feel I am missing anything. I have enjoyed blue skies over Beijing. And, not everyone can say that!

Gilt Buddha for sale

Gilt Buddha for sale

Not far from the Confucian complex is the Yonghe Lama temple, another old, large, spiritually oriented place. I feel like I have found the philosophers’ corner. Emerging onto a large boulevard filled with colorful gold gilt shops garnished with prayer flags blowing in the breeze, Chinese Tibetan trinkets, incense and golden Buddhas are mine for the paying. O mani padme hum blasts from speakers in front of a closed door decorated with Buddhist symbols, outside of which burns a lovely smelling offering. It feels sincere. Still, there is an oddness to the isolation and marketing of spirituality here.

My legs are finally tired, so I head in the direction I surmise is the right one. It is, although I do take a couple of wrong turns, ending up in alleys that have no exit. Somewhere in the hutong, not the heavily congest touristized part, but more a locals’ shopping area, I decide to have a drink. There is charm to the little place I find, and FRIENDS is playing with English subtitles above the Chinese. The sound is barely audible under the din of the noisy street and the ventilation system, so I read the script. How ridiculously satisfying to laugh at the goofy familiar characters. It is a good show, even with the sound off!

In an attempt to duplicate the joy of the frozen yoghurt plastered with fresh mangoes that I had last night, I buy another. But somethings are better left as good memories. Tonight the sugary treat is cloying and most of it goes in the garbage. I do indulge in the spiral cut, deep fried potato on a stick. Yum. I walk the touristic hutong for the last time, going to the atm for tomorrow’s cab fare. Before heading to the airport, I plan to go to the art zone, a converted factory I read about.

My final evening in China is spent organizing and packing. I am not really ready for home, as I feel I now have my travel legs. I also am not ready to enter into a world where I will understand what everyone is saying. I am accustomed to communicating with small gestures and not talking at all.


Polar Bears

The only reason I added Harbin to my itinerary is that I really wanted to see, in person, the remarkable ice sculptures in the Sun Island complex that I had seen on the internet. Alas, I never made it there. Instead, after a whirlwind tour of the (impressive) snow sculptures, WN, my guide, insists we get to get to the Polarium for some kind of aquatic show. The Polarium is an aquarium and place where animals of the cold are showcased.

Earlier in the day we had a tour of Tiger Park, a truly pathetic tourist attraction where some 200 Bengal tigers live on a few blocks of land within the city of Harbin. They are, of course, flabby and lethargic. A drive in a caged wagon through the preserve affords us a look at these huge felines (including several white ones) in a natural setting. Well, sorta (said sarcastically). Extremely bored drivers navigate the park, pausing only at the double gates that separate groups of cats from each other, organized by age. The tour ends at at a distressing bank of rusty cages, home to some miserable animals, including a Liger, a freak cross of Lion and Tiger. I hate this whole place.

When I read about it online, I knew I did not want to go, but WN is so insistent that I cannot seem to manifest my wishes. Thus, I now find myself inside the Polarium.

The initial displays are saltwater fish tanks, actually quite well done, albeit a bit crowded. A ray glides midst a bevy of colorful fish, while a large grouper hovers in the corner. Also, much to my surprise, are two cylinder tanks of jellies. I am wondering if this is the aquarium Dave Powell, my old diving pal, consulted on. Jellies are very difficult to display, and he perfected the waterflow for the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ll have to inquire.

Then I round the corner to the mammal display and am sickened. Arctic foxes in glass cages sprawl on cement snow. Two polar bears, separated from each other by steel bars, live in a space about the twice the length of the animals. They pace and roar. One is particularly agitated, and its thunder reverberates in my soul.

Fortunately (yes, fortunately), I slip on a wet step while leaving the toilet. The facilities are more often than not raised up one step, and the door to the cubicle is right on the edge of the step, so that when you open it, you must immediately step down. For some reason, in the Polarium, there are two steps up to the john, and there is a woman mopping the floor. This combination proves to be dangerous. As I leave the stall, I forget about the step and thump down, only to slip off the wet second step and fall hard, my coccyx hitting the bottom step as I go down. It hurts like hell, and I am dizzy as I leave the room.

To see the much touted aquatic show, I am to take the escalator to the lower level. I can see from the posters that there will be beautiful free divers interacting with beluga whales, who will form a heart shape by arching their backs while touching tails and bowing their heads nose to nose. What I wasn’t prepared for was the size of the tank. It is tiny…deep, but tiny. I cannot stand it, and I cry. I do not want to be here. I do not even want to know about this. As I descend to the basement, changing colored lights illuminate the denouement of the performance previous to the one I am supposed to see. The two magnificent animals perform their act perfectly to a packed house. The audience is enthralled. I apologize to the whales, and know I have to leave. I cannot stand to be here.

I spy a beaming WN. (Isn’t this wonderful! Yes, yes, yes.) I tell him of my mishap, and that I must go back to the hotel…NOW. “But, but, but. You don’t want to see this show?” I insist we leave, and he is convinced when he sees my bleeding hand. I wasn’t aware I cut it.

We had planned to go see the ice sculptures after the Poalrium. Remember, they are the whole reason for my journey to Harbin. “No, no. We cannot go to the Sun Island ice sculptures tomorrow. We are on this side today, tomorrow we have many things to do.” I am way to tired and hurting too much to even begin to mount my protest. “There are ice sculptures not too far from your hotel. You can see them.” What he doesn’t say is that they are paltry and half melted.


Now I am in Beijing. I have only two days before I leave, and need to get a few little souvenirs. There is nothing that really appeals to me that is within my budget till I stumble onto a working ceramic studio. Three little polar bears are arranged on one of those tiered Chinese shelves. They are just artistic enough to please me. Without a moments hesitation I complete the transaction, pondering the coincidence that my trip begins and ends with polar bears. The sculptures are charming, but are also a symbol of the sadness I feel. Those two white bears in the Polarium and the loss of Polar Bear habitat in the wild parallel the predicament of Tibetans in China.

I have truly enjoyed Beijing, but the wanton Han incursion into Tibetan and other minority lands along with the exploitation of the ethnic groups as tourist attractions is an painful thing to observe. The distress has permeated my trip. How could it not?  Somehow this experience, witnessing the demise of traditional Tibetan cultures, including the rape of their land, is a core element of my journey.

Samtso’s brother said regarding images I had given him from my earlier visits, “We have pictures from you of places that don’t exist anymore.”  Of course change is inevitable everywhere, but here in China, the new scene is almost always one of woeful environmental and aesthetic degradation. It is NOT progress; it is depressing.


Flying into Yesterday

I like that I packed last night. My morning is simply a wash and go affair. The hotel is storing my luggage and will call a cab for the ride to the airport when I return from my exploration into Beijing’s contemporary art scene.

The 798 Art Zone is a huge complex.  Once a ___________ factory, it has become a major commercial art hub out of what used to be a just a place with a handful of working artists.  While some of the work is interesting and a handful world class, most of what I see is bordering on mediocre. Sophomoric is the word that comes to mind. That, and egoistic. Still, the trip is worth it, and my opinion might be different if more galleries were open. Several places are installing new shows, and many just have closed doors. It s winter. Even so, at noon, the place is teeming with sightseers and the trinket shops are full of potential buyers. Lots of selfies being made with the outdoor art as backdrops.

The spaces themselves are fabulous. Large with high ceilings, so high that one installation includes a stairway and “rooftop” exhibit. Most galleries hang their shows with a generous amount of space between pieces. One opulent exhibit space has four large galleries, about 50′ x 15′, each with a single flat screen monitor mounted on the end wall. That’s all. BIG spaces.

There are many video installations. Too many for my brain, and often several crowded close together. Most are talking heads, and long. Think Ai Weiwei. In fact, his influence permeates the scene, but not his brilliance, nor his profound social relevance.

One thing I have discovered is that the Chinese are not shy about imitation. Derivitive, that over-prevelent criticicm in the West, evidently isn’t a concern.  Also, it is a culture of only children. Everyone, it seems, is a star. If art is largely attitude, they’ve got it made.

My ride out to the Zone was odd. The cabby fingered his walnut-like beads the entire way, and he was extremely calm. No zip zip, dodging in and out and around other cars, and no horn honking. That, in and of itself, is notable. Beijing drivers use their horns more than their steering wheels.

Are you wondering how he knew where to take me? The fellow who runs the hotel wrote the destination on a slip of paper. I just jumped in the cab and handed the Chinese script to the driver. And, having learned my lesson in Xi’an, I most definitely have the directions back to the hotel in my safe little belt bag.


The flight home will always be memorable. Not only did I watch three really good movies (The Judge, Birdman, Whiplash), I got to see the sun rise over Alaska: meandering wild rivers, with oxbows and resakas, and rose -tipped, snowy mountain ridges. Best of all, I just happened to open the window to have the glory of Denali fill the window frame. Wow.

So now I am through the horror of international arrivals at Seatac. Three full flights, one from Amsterdam, one from Dubai, and my flight from Beijing, all funneling through customs and baggage inspection. That’s normal. But here, anyone with a connecting flight — many many of us — were processed through a narrow hall to two old Xray security checks.  We hadn’t even had the opportunity to leave the secured area, but that was what we had to do. All in all it took about two and a half hours. And here’s the strangest part: IT IS STILL TWO HOURS BEFORE I LEAVE FROM BEIJING!!! So weird.


The Moat

Across the moat that surrounds the Forbidden Palace, on the far end from Tian’an Men Square, is a little park where little dogs are happily arguing the balance of power while their masters chat about them. It feels like a park I used to take Mick to in Sausalito, only the language is wrong, and the walls of the emperor’s fortress are reflecting in the water instead of the masts of a bevy of sailboats.beijing-dogs-1030802

Beijing is filled with dog lovers, I remember taking notice of this on my first trip. But now that China is fashion-minded, it is quite something to see the outfits that dogs parade around in. Of course, this is mostly the situation when the owners are women. Which is not to dismiss the doting dog dads. Pretty cute…and not one person objects to me photographing their pup!

The moat at the far end of the Forbidden City.  Finding it was happenstance.  Pretty cool, eh!

The moat at the far end of the Forbidden City. Finding it was happenstance. Pretty cool, eh!

It is late afternoon, and while walking down a big and busy street, a large group of mostly African Americans, with guide, pass me. It is noticeable seeing black people here… and nice to hear someone say “hello” without an accent. Then I spot hoards of people just ahead and many guides holding up their flags. And an old-looking structure looms in the near distance. I figure I must have happened upon something important. I have. The tiered building is one of the perimeter guard towers for the Forbidden City, and I am at the moat surrounding this lofty complex. Lordy, Lordy.

The channel is large, and the scene is a potential beauty shot. Many photographers have set up cameras on tripods, awaiting the setting sun. I decide to join them, armed only with my tiny lumix that doesn’t even shoot raw. But it is a feather weight, and I am exploring Beijing via foot. (I often use it to take pictures of intersections, so if I have to retrace steps, I know where to turn.)

The cold is getting to me, so I leave the pretty image to the pros and begin to wend my way back toward familiar territory. In this part of Beijing, the hutongs look to be family dwellings of normal folk. No tourist shops. No Audi’s. The majority of alleys here are too narrow for cars anyway, but a few motor bikes and tiny three-wheeled trucks are parked near gated sub-alleys leading to people’s homes. Nearly all of these passages harbor bicycles, which warms my heart even though the condition of most is pretty poor. I miss the bicycles of Beijing, which used to dominate the streets.  There are some old peddle rickshaws lined up against a wall, chained together like a convict crew.  I see very few people, except on the market streets.

Hmm, I am always happy to see a western toilet, BUT....the outside door is glass, and there is NO door on the stall.  ?????

Hmm, I am always happy to see a western toilet, BUT….the outside door is glass, and there is NO door on the stall. ?????

A significant change since last I wondered the hutongs of Beijing, likely the result of the Olympics being held here, is that the bathrooms are no longer smelly. Rather than the open trough one had to straddle with whomever else was present, now there are private stalls with flush toilets, albeit usually the squat kind. In summer the difference must be a life-changer for the residents. It was downright terrible before. I even see western style toilets available in some spots, maybe for the elderly or maybe for wheelchair access. One such toilet was in plain view from the street like a throne of honor? Eesh.

Public restrooms are plentiful, as the many residents of the hutongs often have no facilities of their own. And, most are very clean. However be forewarned: one must carry toilet paper, as none is supplied. This is true most everywhere in China.

The little hotel where I am staying has running water with a toilet and shower in each room, and it is definitely part of the hutong. Rooms are situated around a courtyard, which is typical. I guess that it was once a family compound, but I wonder how it got the water and sewage. Due to the language barrier, it will remain an unanswered question.

This walk has been great fun, and it is days like today when I realize that sometimes it is actually preferable to travel solo. I can amble at will without worrying about where I am going, nor how or when I will get back. And more significantly, I don’t have to consider my traveling partner. Mostly, like today, I am rewarded with something special, but sometimes the trek is a dud. Hard to share that. Plus, usually traveling pals like to eat, and often at somewhat regular intervals. Not so important for me. Oh, well. Just lost you as a wayfaring partner, didn’t I?

This is a wonderful place catering to foreigners, especially Westerners. It is quite comfortable being there solo.

This is a wonderful place catering to foreigners, especially Westerners. It is quite comfortable being there solo.

That said, it isn’t much fun to eat alone. When it comes to having a meal, I do prefer a sidekick. Still, I often manage to find someplace where I am comfortable. In Labrang it was Cafe Nirvana, here it is a terrific restaurant, Zarah, which has a tasteful photography show, elegantly hung, and good food. These places seem to cater to foreigners with electronics, and, that’d be me! I join my fellow keyboardists for lunch, enjoying a fresh salad and a glass of a very nice white wine while posting on my blog. It is pleasant being surrounded by like loners, mostly westerners who speak languages I don’t comprehend. I have come to enjoy both not understanding and not being able to speak, just listening…in other words my muteatude.

Leaving Pugdê Village – 3/8

One bummer about not understanding the language of one’s hosts is that often I have no idea of plans that are in the making, and changes in those plans (of which I am oblivious) are even more rarely communicated.  On the day of our departure, I was under the impression that our bus left from Labrang for Lanzhou at noon. There was very little sleep  for me because, of course, I had that disturbed repose one has when morning tasks before departure are many. My bed can’t be dissembled (and hopefully aired out) till I arise. As it is the base layer for my packing, it is important to allow time for all that that entails. And, I want to wash my hair and the rest of myself as well as possible, too. Lots to do, you see.

Meanwhile Samtso is gone. She went early to pay her respects to the Mountain Gods in their special valley (two loads of garbage from Labrang arrived while she was prostrating. See The Dump). I managed to get most of my belongings together before her return, and even put my luggage out by the courtyard gate. Her blasé approach is unnerving. Then I discover we are not leaving til 3!  The family, fully aware of the timetable, has resumed their daily tasks and are pretty much ignoring me. Visitors arrive, and chatting prevails. Samtso is with them and I am just hanging around the courtyard.

What I ultimately realize is that Samtso’s leaving is very hard on this close knit family. Her house in Shangri-La is so far away that they only see her once a year. Now, while she is in Pugdê Village, the house is filled with the joy of both her and Padrun. Everyone, especially her mom, is camouflaging their sadness at the impending departure by being gruff and busy. Unaware of the depth of the situation, I ask to make a picture of the family with me in it, as I have no photos of me in the village at all, let alone with them. The answer is “No, we are busy. She should have done that earlier.” Of course I accept their decision, but it is a bit of a sting. Then I get that they are suffering, their grief only thinly veiled.

Of interest on a curiousity level, very unlike before, not one person has asked to have a photo with me in it. I could be there or not, although it is very clear I am welcome. I am simply not part of their lives. They happily live around me. As we have no conversation, it is hard to see me as anything but an enigmatic presence, I am sure.

Which brings up another change in my Tibetan visits. Certainly in 2005 and I think in 2007, a visit to a villager by a Westerner brought prestige to the family. This I was told. But, now that outsiders are everywhere, and Westerners are a dime a dozen, this is no longer true. We can be a liability, as I mentioned in The Men’s Room. Another very significant shift is that very few people, be it in the village or in town, are OK with having their picture recorded. I get it actually. Being a curiosity myself has afforded me a new perspective. It is tiresome.

Ed Ross, a California Academy of Sciences entomologist and world traveler, made extraordinary images of people during his travels in the 1950’s through the 80’s. He would have lunchtime slide presentations at the museum for employees, where this gorgeous, intimate work was often summarily dismissed because he “paid the villagers he photographed.” This was said with great disdain, but it was how he gained entry into their lives. His subjects were not only cooperative, they were happy. I find this laudable. After all, we are using these images we make for some self oriented purpose, be it the joy of capture or paid assignment. Models can make a lot of money because there is really something about them that makes the image work. Why should we get to TAKE pictures of people, especially if we are going to use them? I realize this brings up some logistical issues, and I am not advocating that we all need to pay for our travel pictures. But there is something to respecting those who do not wish to participate in our documentary efforts.

Another thing: as I write about my photographic explorations, I find it disturbing that the terminology is so war oriented. Only a few artists create images, most of us take pictures, or capture an image, or shoot a subject. It is awkward to discuss a photo outing without such descriptions. How many times in a paragraph can one “create an image?” Anyway, I perceive I am gathering raw data. The image making comes later.

Well, our delay has its benefits. Something has just happened and the family is now in the courtyard awaiting the creation of the final photograph, the one with me in it. Goody. Also, we have time for a nice meal, and I get to take a last pass around the village. The chained guard dogs get their final lunge, and I have the great fortune of seeing one of the “jumping girls” from my first visit. She lets me take another picture, and I am please to have a recent image of her.

I also have time to put Neosporin in my little dog-pal’s eyes, and give him one last scratch. He is a sweet guy.

Thank you. And that is it. We leave Fudi Village.

No emotional good-byes, but I can see Samtso’s departure is very hard for everyone, especially her Mom. I want to tell Tse Dai Kyi that she has done a magnificent job raising her family, thinking that would be a true and nice thing to say to a mother. But Samtso cannot get the words out. She, too, is barely holding it together.


Monastic Dances

Fabulous costumes, phenomenal endurance, grace, and big crowds. As well as, as being beaten with a stick to get down so people in the back can see and pounded by a giant Tiger. What more could you ask for? And my pushy Tibetan introduction last evening was of great value. I am now a pro at not getting shoved over.

Representatives from various villages, clad n thier finest, are invited to a special gallery behind the dancers.

Representatives from various villages, clad n thier finest, are invited to a special gallery behind the dancers. They represent the army of the Future Buddha Helper. 

Today is the day when the Chem (not accurate, a Tibetan word pronounced something like this) Monastic Dances are performed. It is truly spectacular. Honoring the Future North Peace Land, that place in time and reality where all people are enlightened (nirvana), the performance features black-faced dancers representing the followers of ______________ the original leader of the Galupa Yellow Hat sect of Mahayana Buddhism and other important players. As well as an enormous entourage of monks accompanying the dancers, some chanting, some playing musical instruments, local village men in Tibetan robes sit together in a large gallery on the left side of the dance stage in the back. They represent army of the Future Buddha Helper.

I push my way toward the front of the huge standing crowd just in time to have the beaters come through and lower everyone in front of me to a sitting squat. Using a willow brach, they slash it  between people it to part the standing crowd. Those to the dance stage side of the part are to lower themselves. If the beaters, clearly officially sanctioned,  feel some one is not low enough, they lash out and whap, whap him or her.

For the long minute there is no one standing in front of me, all I can say is, “Wow”!  Magnificent costumes that literally are beyond my capability for description. Suffice it to say that Labrang is one of the most important monasteries in China, and the only huge one that is not run by the government. The elaborate performances are as good as they get: highly disciplined and  totally Tibetan. The costumes certainly reflect their exalted position.

this tiger is just about to "bonk" me!

The tiger is just about to “bonk” me!

Soon the folks just “beaten down” are back up again. And, in swoops the Tiger, a two person puppet that bonks people. I am a lucky bonkee, proud to say. The beaters and the tiger sweep the audience every fifteen minutes or so. Kind of a fun crowd control mechanism. I am right at the intersection of standees and squatters. Since I cannot squat very well, I feel the stick quite a bit. It is both good natured and serious.

I am using my new pushing tactics to attain a decent view. The phantasmagorical creatures dancing with slow precision are representative of deities and honorees that I am not familiar with. My favorite, or course, is the one with the deer head. I can relate to a degree without interpretation.

It is very hard to photograph, what with the constant pulsing of people. Just as I get an image composed, some one walks into the frame, or I get shoved, or someone raises an iPhone right in front of my lens. But somehow this is all part of the dance. If I get a few images that trigger my memory to recall the whole experience, I will be happy. If I get a great one to share, I’ll be thrilled.

In the beginning, single performers strut their stuff, always slow and precise. Then come pairs, apparently inferring a confrontation. There are certain performers who receive khatas, but I don’t remember if it was only the solo fellows. No matter, by the end, the area is filled with elaborately choreographed interactions by the entire gang of gorgeous mystical apparitions. There must be fifty, maybe more.


monastic-dances-1090408I have seen images from Bhutan, and earlier Tibetan celebrations, where the costumes were more atavistic — a somewhat ragged aesthetic that I particularly like. These were contemporary, magnificent, and looked very heavy. As the performance is long and the day is quite warm (upper 60s), the endurance of the dancers is indicative of some strong, dedicated fellows.

I don’t wait till the end, though I was told there is a splendid finale. I have been riveted in place for three hours, and I think it is time to give up my spot. Also, my back is starting to complain.

I walk the length of Labrang and meet up with the family, who have been visiting in town. It is now cold, and as we wait for our favorite cab driver, I am grateful to have my big coat, which has been tucked away for the day in a lightweight collapsable carrying bag.


Kham in Reflection

I am sitting in the sunroom of Samtso’s parents house. I am warm, fed, and sitting in a comfortable chair. Wafting into consciousness are warm thoughts about Dolma’s family.

Their hospitality and willingness to try to communicate is noteworthy. Can you imagine housing a person who speaks not a lick of your language and hasn’t a clue in regards to your culture? Not only that, she doesn’t eat what you do and mostly sits around tapping on her iPad? And she is going to be in your house at least a week…a lot longer than it takes for fish to go bad? You can call your daughter for translations, which you do every now and then, but basically, this foreigner is a strange presence in your house.

Dolma's family in Hongpo Village

Dolma’s family in Hongpo Village

Everyone of Dolma’s family members, Sonam Gyitsen excepted (but, hey, he is a teenaged boy), were inclusive. They brought me to all of the inter-family visits, rituals of hospitality of which there were many. They didn’t let me miss a meal. And, they made sure my clothes were clean. We circumambulated the stupas, and I became the village photographer, a role that was easy for all of us. In short, they were wonderful hosts and it was special to be able to observe their daily lives.

For women, work is unending. Much of it involves food, either directly or not. Yangtso, Dolma’s older sister, is always the first up, initially gathering wood for the stove, so that the room warms up, the tea can be made, and the large breakfast, frequently leftovers with something new added, is hot. Tea is made in bulk, for in Hongpo salted, butter tea is drunk throughout the day. For me the first two cups I tried were fine — at least interesting — but I don’t find it refreshing, and also I think it contributes significantly to my unruly bowels. So I became the hot water queen.

After breakfast, the livestock are tended to. Living out their lives in a pocket-sized corral behind the kitchen, it is a small world for them, but is typical of what I see in Hongpo Village. There is no door out the back from the scullery, so the slop buckets need to be carried all the way out thru the front of the house and around to the back. (I think the single entry is a traditional security detail.) There are, at the moment, two piglets, two shortly tethered donkeys, two cows, one goose, and a herd of chickens. The chickens, by far, have the best lives. They get to roam all over, both in and out of the corral, pecking away, strutting their stuff. They look very healthy — even in the pot.

Sometimes Yangtso has help. But not often. As well as clean the breakfast dishes and tidy up after family and any guests from the day before, and taking care of the animals, she has all the normal household duties, like laundry and sweeping. But also, there are fields to prepare for planting, and the subsequent work of all farmers. And, of course, there is the next meal to prepare. Always. Mealtime is extremely important, and punctuality is essential.

Woven into most days are visits to the stupa. I don’t know if this is part of Losar, or a regular thing. Nor do I know if there is an order or priority, or even community association for each of the several stupas, but no matter which stupa we circumambulated, there were familiar faces. Greens boughs are brought to burn in the alter oven, accompanied by incantations, which end in a yelp for the men.

Throughout all of her chores Yangtso is chanting. Often, I am told, it is a version of O Mani Padme, but sometimes, the chants are unique to a specific purpose. Luseng, Yangtso’s husband, had a terrible accident due to the negligence of the owner of the car he was riding in, a fellow villager. The vehicle had a major malfunction which resulted in loss of control. In the resulting crash, his arm was badly broken, its use is seriously compromised. Complications from the surgeries, he also had two bouts of infections and was in the hospital for three months. At this point he has no strength nor mobility in his right arm and hand, so he spends a lot of the day doing exercises and chanting verses given to him by the local lama specifically for his healing.

Dolma and her 15 month old "naughty boy".

Dolma and her 15 month old “naughty boy”.

Upon the arrival of Dolma, a nice surprise for us all, along with the very loud Deqin, the local county town, entourage (Dolma’s father’s sister with two adult children, one of whom has the good government job, and bought the new iPad Air2 I brought over), the burden of daily chores is lifted significantly from Yangtso’ shoulders. Dolma, especially, is a very helpful person. And while she does have a super active fifteen month old son who needs constant attention, she is a person of extraordinary energy and was able to contribute a lot to the household. In turn, the family releases her from some of the burdens of having a young child by attending to the little fellow. Tibetan villages, or at least extended families, really do raise the children, and mothers are nonplussed by their kids’ absence.

Traveling from town to village and visa versa is still not easy, although the days of donkey back are gone from the regions I am visiting. Dolma made it as easy as possible for me. She truly facilitated this entire adventure, finding me places to stay, hooking me up with the invaluable driver, and helping me get my airline tickets. She is smart and decisive when need be, accommodating when that is appropriate. Saint Dolma: she is a gem.

As it turned out, the driver was of great importance. At Dolma’s suggestion, I hired him to drive me all the way to Lijiang, about five hours past ShangriLa. My plane to Xi’an flies out of Lijiang, and I couldn’t face taking buses with all the inherent changes, only to arrive in Lijiang, with my abundance of luggage, not knowing where I would sleep. This time it wasn’t free, but it was worth every yuan. Not only did he cut an entire day off the trip, he got me to Lijiang and found me a hotel with service to the airport. We also did some errands, like bank and ticket office, on the way through Shangri-La, taking care of some potentially worrisome trip details. The next morning he began his drive all the way back to the Village.

Lijiang is really lovely. Southern enough to be green, and prosperous enough to be healthy. I would like to spend some time there. But my flight is at the crack of dawn, and I have trouble to get into waiting for me in Xi’an.


An Introduction to Pushy Tibetans – Labrang 3/3b

This household, and I think this whole Labrang region, is very spiritually inclined. Wanma Dun Drub, Samtso’s herder brother, recites his chants like a monk with the scriptures in front of him every morning before he goes off to the tend the herd. ______________, her dad, prostrates daily and is chanting with his beads nearly every time I see him. He also spends time carefully making Tsampa pellets for offerings. The women, too, chant and it is they who tend to the alter. There is a special shrine room, behind a closed door. Outside, drying every afternoon I see little brass cups, a ladle, and an icon that are carefully cleaned. I think the offering in them might be alcohol, as upon entering the gathering room after a day out, I smell spirits.

There are many monasteries located throughout the area, as well as nunneries. Big D is revered, not for leaving, but for being peaceful. The fact that he left is a matter of confusion for both Tibetans and some inquiring Chinese. Aside from propaganda, which is a serious business here, the vast majority of people have no contact with people who have any facts. Thus, the stories and fears vary from the reasonable to the preposterous. The middle way has been mentioned once, only.

The Chinese young woman (age 22) I met at the Xiahe airport immediately asked Samtso, when we got in the cab, something to the effect of “how could you follow the Big D, when he left this country (China), and wants all Tibetans to disclaim China?” Oddly, she was willing to come for an adventure to this Tibetan world by herself. She told me she was looking for peace. Women traveling alone are rare. In fact she is the first I have encountered. She had been to Australia, and wanted to travel to the U.S., but her parents would not allow it, as everyone in America has a gun. (I am guessing what news China allows in: our riots and war invasions. What else?) When in Australia, Big D was coming to speak, but she had been warned not to attend the huge gathering that that news garnered. There were Chinese spies everywhere, they would take her picture, and she would not be allowed back home.


Extracting myself from the throngs in the street with whom I had witnessed the veiling of the Thanka, I sought refuge in, what turned out to be, a very busy Restaurant Hotel Nirvana. Samtso and Kamu, baby on back, met me there after circumambulating the monastery. We indulge in treats and internet, then trundle off to the main hall at the monastery, where blessings for that part of life after this one, but before the next are being chanted. The molmn (hope/wish/intention) is that one will be born a human in the life when nirvana is finally attained, and all are awakened. This event It is packed to the gills, but we managed our passage, which was the point of our visit. This is when I discovered pushy Tibetans. Holy Smokes! They are something else!

Because of the crowd, coupled with the fact I have not a clue as to what I am doing, nor where I am going, I try to stick close to my group. As it turns out our visit was a simple pass through the building, in one door at one end, walk the length of the building, prostrating in the middle, and out the other side. Easy, and no problem if  we get separated. But I’m not taking any chances. Close as I stick to Samtso, little Tibetan women, strong as little bulldozers, shove their way in front of me, pushing, pushing. The most bumptious of them, this itty bitty thing, just tosses me aside like I am used kleenex. I regain my position in line to pass her prostrating less than a minute later. Like, what is the rush???

Toward the our end goal, Samtso indicates it’s OK to take a photo, so I reach in my pocket for the little camera and find a hand! A warm hand. And it sure isn’t mine. Heavens knows what it is doing there; I gently remove it.

Kind of a haiku, eh?

A warm hand in my pocket
Not belonging to me
I gently remove it

Well, all this was good training for my day to come. Indeed.


The Magnificent Thangka – Labrang, 3/3a

I awoke slowly this morning, as people were in an out of my room through the wee hours last night. Celebrations at the community center went late, and from what I could tell, I was not welcome. OK with me, I needed to sort thru some of my stuff.

When I asked Samtso about the idea that I shouldn’t attend the festivities, she had a curious reply. “On TV, in the news, and in the movies, Tibetans are always shown as sweet, gentle, generous people. It is not true. Some of the villagers have very small hearts. They have lived their whole lives in this tiny village, and they are uneducated. They want everything for themselves. This is not just about outsiders, they do it to each other.” Sounds like the real world to me. Samtso went on to say that the value of education for these people is non existent. “They do not feel that education is nearly as important as fine jewelry.”


The usual bustle of the morning is heightened today. We are going to town to see the giant Thangka. Everyone is dressing up for the event, even Padrun, the baby. Once arrayed, we all pile into the cab. Town is quite a spectacle. Thousands of Tibetans, most in traditional clothing, throng toward the the event, the human density intensifying as we get near the display.

Giant Thangka on hill near Labrang Monastery in Amdo

Giant Thangka on hill near Labrang Monastery in Amdo

I am unprepared for what I see. On the side of a mountain is a HUGE Thangka. I can only guess the size, but a hundred of feet by a hundred fifty feet is a conservative estimate. Made from fabric, many monks, each holding the edge, flap it so it billows into place. Then much to my astonishment, like all Thangkas, I see it has a covering. This massive amount of material is released into place with great effort to perfectly cover the art. Then the whole of it is rolled from the bottom, carefully lowering the top with the guidance of descending monks, into a humungous chimichanga of fabric, which is carried off to the monastery on the shoulders of the yellow-hatted cenobites, accompanied by guards on horseback, gloriously attired.

The formalities take less than an hour, and I am soon lost in the crowds, which means I cannot find Samtso.  It’s fine, as it turns out, with both of us. Just wondering around by myself provides a kind of freedom. My camera gives me permission to look, although it is not always welcome, like in some of the monastic courtyards. Also, some people are happy to be included in a picture, but many are not. Interestingly, the most beautifully arrayed are usually the ones who say “no”…accompanied by a look of disdain. I do not try to convince them. I really don’t care. That is not why I am here, to make images of beautiful Tibetans. I am much more interested in the ceremonies and the lives of my friends.

OK, not entirely true. I did steal a shot or two.  Every now and then. Sometimes. When I could…

Tibetans wear coral like the Navajo wear turquoise.

Tibetans wear coral like the Navajo wear turquoise.


Grumpy Me. Losar, day two – Hongpo Village (2/19)


So, what is up? This morning I am feeling completely repelled by just about everything. The food makes me want to gag. They eat such strange things. Fish heads and globs of fat. Now, I, who has forever loved leftovers, may never eat them again. I am sick at the dirt everywhere and the spitting of bones on the floor. I am sick of eating. And hearing Luseng eat. I am sick of being a clown in my attempts to communicate and I am sick at having to continually bother Dolma. I want a western toilet. I want out.

Then Yangtso asked me to accompany her to the stupa, bringing greens to place on the alter fire. This time it is mostly women, and they are so beautiful in their fuchsias and blues, with rhinestones catching the sunlight and warm smiles. The little Golden puppy is here, too. After making a few images, I, too, circumambulate. A little Om Mani Padme mixed with May all beings, with whom I am inseparably interconnected be awakened, fulfilled and free. May there be peace on this planet and throughout the entire universe. May we all complete the spiritual journey together.

Then I remembered arising to the sound of drums, and seeing the snow white mountain tower above a solid grey cloud bank, a bump of purity in an otherwise muddied world. It is a wonderful day.