Sunday, October 16, 2005

Back In Tibet

I'm back in Tibet on my way west to Pakistan, though I'm not going to stay here long as it is getting rather chilly and I only have one jumper. Yesterday it even snowed. Though there is one advantage to the plunging temperatures: I'm having to wear far more clothes than usual (as a general rule two of everything) so my backpack has become considerably lighter.

Travelling in Tibet is not so much fun though. Buses only leave early in the mornings and go from one main town to another, but if you want to go further than one town in one day you're out of luck, as even if you arrive in the late morning you have to stick around until the next day to catch your onward connection. Plus Tibetans don't travel well: most of the men chain-smoke and half the bus is usually throwing up out of the windows (not fun if said people are leaning over you to reach the aforementioned window). At least you get compensated with some amazing views.

So my first proper stop after Jiuzhaigou was the town of Langmusi, which straddles the Sichuan-Gansu border. Here I almost got to witness a Tibetan sky burial, though it was called off for some reason. Sky burials are the traditional way of disposing of bodies in Tibet: the recently deceased are taken to a special place in the mountains and then the body is ceremonially sliced open, scalp to groin, and left for the vultures, who, so it is said, only take 15 minutes to leave just clean-picked bones on the ground. The reason for such a burial rite is the harsh Tibetan topography: the ground is often too hard to bury a body and wood is too scarce a commodity to be used for cremation. Although there was no burial there were plenty of bones and rags scattered about the burial ground. To see some pictures of a sky burial click here (not for the faint-hearted!).

Now I'm in Xiahe, site of one of Gelugpa Buddhism's (the main school of Tibetan Buddhism) holiest 6 lamaseries. Pilgrims come from all over the Tibetan plateau to do the kora (in Tibetan Buddhism a pilgrimage trail around a holy site, which can be a building, stupa, mountain, etc. always done clockwise, and usually three times as well, unless it's a really long kora) round the walls of the lamasery, spinning the thousands of prayer wheels as they go around the walls of the lamasery, which is almost as big as the town itself. It's very easy to get lost amid the many temples, colleges, stupas and monk's quarters; it's actually a little town all to itself. Which is all the more impressive considering that the complex was severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Ah yes, I said I would talk about that earlier. Well, in 1966 Chairman Mao, in his infinite wisdom, decided to rid China of the remaining "imperialists", "intellectuals" and "counter-revolutionaries", and throw off the shackles of the old world and replace them with new ones. To reach this end millions of fanatical Red Guards (young students who were completely devoted to Mao) were given the power and authority to liquidate anybody or anything deemed to belong to the old world order (paintings, statues, monasteries, musical instruments, palaces and anything else that one would consider to be of cultural value). Millions died, the country was thrown into turmoil and countless national cultural treasures were irrevocably destroyed. That's why, whilst travelling around China, you often visit sites that "were unique and amazing examples of Ming architecture", put are now little more than a pile of rubble.

But that's enough of the history lesson, I've got something much more important to impart to you dear readers today. Whilst wandering about the lamasery I've discovered that yak butter has a multitude of uses, apart from being used as a novel tea flavouring. You can make nifty candles out of it and, even more spectacular, also sculptures! there's a whole building full of yak butter statues and bas-reliefs. Neat! I also got stopped by a group of young monks, but the language barrier made communication rather difficult. In the end we did manage to find a common denominator though: football. We'd take it in turns to name a footballer and the other would give a big smile and a thumbs up when he finally deciphered who the other meant. Entertaining for a few minutes, but rather tedious after that. The contrast between the monastic life and the modern world is perfectly demonstrated as I'm writing this post in an internet cafe: about a quarter of the surfers are monks, dressed in their crimson robes, chatting away on Yahoo or playing strangely violent online games. Surreal!

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