The bus to Xiahe left at 7am so I got up at 6am and checked out of the hotel. I hailed a taxi outside and headed to the bus station. Halfway through the ride I realized the seat of my jeans was wet with piss. It was too late to be of any use but out of curiosity I had to turn to ask the taxi driver whether someone had pissed in the front passenger seat earlier in his shift. ‘Yes’ he replied disinterestedly. I wondered why he would let me sit in a piss drenched seat without warning me.
Xiahe was clearly a western tourist destination and besides me the bus had three other westerners on it, the first westerners I had seen on public transportation so far on my trip. The first part of the road to Xiahe wound through pretty mountain countryside. The area was predominantly Hui, and we passed numerous densely settled villages bursting with mosques and cherry trees. As the altitude increased the cherry trees disappeared, the villages became fewer in number and much smaller in size, the place names became Tibetan, Tibetan script appeared on the road signs, and colored prayer flags and stupas started to dot the landscape.
The bus reached Xiahe around noon. A group of snotty nosed Tibetan children stormed the bus offering ‘taxis’ (actually pedicabs). Xiahe was a tiny one street town, with part of the main street actually running through the monastery, and so there wasn’t much need for a cab. I hopped into a real taxi van with the three other tourists though and we headed off together to look for a hotel. I chatted with the driver a little. Our Chinese conversation prompted the German guy beside me to gravely ask if I was a journalist. I said I wasn’t, and he said that hearing me speak Chinese he thought I must be “a specialist coming to report on the situation of the Tibetan people”. Germans have a way of being very serious. It would have been fun to pretend to be an undercover journalist sent to investigate rumors of a massacre of Tibetan nuns in the mountains outside town, but given my experience of plain clothes police in Yining it would probably not have been wise. China devotes a lot of resources to monitoring what visitors do in ‘sensitive’ minority areas.
The Germans somehow disappeared after we arrived at the hotel. Maybe they went on to another hotel. I wanted to shower and change out of my piss-soaked jeans but with no hot water available it seemed too hard, so after dumping my stuff I wandered along the road towards the monastery.
The town was clearly a tourist center, with lots of English signage advertising guest houses, restaurants and souvenir shops. Simultaneously though the town was clearly a genuine religious center, and the handful of tourists were easily outnumbered by hundreds of pilgrims.
The pilgrims streamed around the outer perimeter of the monastery, following a circuit around specific stupas and buildings, and spinning the prayer wheels lining covered corridors. They moved clockwise, and made multiple circuits around each stupa or building en route. The pilgrims varied in dress. Some were dressed entirely in traditional Tibetan woolen cloaks and robes, the men sporting long, uncombed hair and with horn handled knives dangling from their belts, and the women with their hair plaited, lower faces covered, and wearing heavy silver and amber jewelry. Some were dressed in factory made jeans and windbreakers. Others were dressed in strange mixtures of traditional and western styles. A few prostrated themselves every couple of steps, but most just walked briskly onwards, heads bowed, keeping the prayer wheels spinning. Some mumbled or chanted as they walked. Some walked swinging miniature hand held prayer wheels. A middle aged man who moved with the enthusiasm of a child sprang out from the procession, grabbed my hand, and dragged me with him laughing. He smacked at the prayer wheels with his free hand, sending each one spinning ferociously. He was clearly retarded. I twisted my hand out of his grasp, patted him on the back and waved goodbye as he lurched along the corridor of spinning wheels, laughing as he went. Lammist Buddhism must be a wonderful religion for a retarded person. That sounds disrespectful but is not meant that way. The guy was obviously enjoying himself immensely.
I would like to say something about the spirituality on display, but somehow the most striking thing was the filth. Obviously there were exceptions, but as a whole the pilgrims were very dirty, partly from spending weeks on the road, and partly because a lot of them never washed anyway. Many had hands caked with what looked to be weeks of accumulated dust and dirt. Their cloaks were stained with mud and grease. A stench of piss hung over the monastery itself. It wasn’t my jeans. Everywhere I saw monks and pilgrims, male and female alike, simply using walls or squatting over ditches to pee.
The thing that struck me about the monastery complex itself was the use of cloth. The temples were draped with long banners and flags, and there were poles hung with brightly colored pennants. There was a feeling of movement as the banners billowed in the wind. It was very different to the more static feel of Chinese style Buddhist temples.
On the perimeter of the monastery was a knife maker beating blades out of steel with a hammer and sending sparks flying everywhere. Filth, pilgrims, colorful pennants, blacksmiths: the atmosphere was medieval.
While wandering around I ran into a French guy who had been on the bus with me earlier. As we wandered we saw a group of monks rushing into one of the temples for some kind of prayer session. We wandered in and the younger monks, just boys of about 12 years old, enthusiastically gestured for us to sit down. We sat at the back and watched. The old monk leading the session chanted in the most mesmerizing fashion. The chanting was so deep, so powerful, and somehow so other-worldly that it was hard to believe it could really be coming the throat of the old man sitting a few meters ahead of me. The younger monks sat with heads bowed for a few moments, made a couple of responses, and then the session slowly but surely began to deteriorate. The old man chanted on, the middle aged monks concentrated on the prayers and responded as appropriate, while the younger monks fidgeted, kicked each other, threw their yellow hats around the room, fished raisins out of the folds of their cloaks and ate them, and made faces at each other. One group across the room was inspired by our presence to imitate Christian rituals. They enthusiastically crossed themselves, clasped their hands in prayer, and competed with one another to look pious before looking across at us and collapsing into giggles. There seemed to be absolutely no discipline, but the clowning around remained good humored and nobody ended up in tears. Just as my legs were about to give out from sitting on the floor the session ended, the children and ourselves were shooed outside, and the older monks retreated into an inner room and closed the doors.
Back on the outer perimeter of the monastery me and the French guy (Giles) tried to chat with some young Tibetan women who sat down beside us on a wall to rest from their pilgrimage. They were very curious about us. They swapped comments about us in Tibetan and giggled. A lot of what they were saying seemed to concern our appearance. Giles did much better than me in communicating with them. He spoke much slower and more basic Chinese than me, and the women could understand a lot of what he said. When I tried to talk to them in Chinese they couldn’t understand me. I tried speaking slowly and clearly but I wasn’t very good at it. Maybe I had too much of a southern accent. Language barriers prevented the conversation from going far. They told us they were in town on a pilgrimage, and that they had come from Tibet itself. We couldn’t find out how they had traveled – i.e. whether they had walked or come by bus. Giles decided to ask them to recommend a Tibetan restaurant in town. I thought he was being a tad ambitious. First, their Chinese wasn’t up to discussing the intricacies of fine cuisine (not that Tibetan cuisine is intricate). Second, I doubted they were frequent restaurant customers. We never did get a restaurant recommendation out of them, and eventually an older woman traveling with them, maybe their mother, told them it was time to stop chatting with strange guys and continue with the pilgrimage. We waved goodbye and they disappeared among the prayer wheels and other pilgrims.
I had a very late lunch with Giles. We tried some sampa and momo in a small Tibetan restaurant that seemed to be catering mainly for tourists (with an English menu etc.). Sampa is the stable in Tibet and is a dish of milled grain, which the diner mixes into a paste by adding hard cheese, yak butter, and yak milk tea. I don’t think the sampa in this restaurant was anything like what Tibetans eat. It was a sort of sweet cookie dough, shaped into balls and dipped in sugar. Giles said it was different to what it eaten before in a Tibetan area of Yunnan. Probably it was a tourist version. Momo are steamed dumplings stuffed with yak meat. The momo in the restaurant seemed to fit that description and were reasonable enough.
After a rest I had a dinner inside the hotel. The waiter was a Chinese boy from a nearby village who had just graduated from school and was preparing to take university entrance exams in English in a few months. He was a desperate to practice his English so I chatted with him for a while. He had already been working at the hotel for a week or so but had still not managed to visit the monastery even though it was located just a hundred meters away. It was typical of how employees in low end service jobs get treated in China, with their bosses allowing them absolutely no free time, even when their job is not busy – the hotel and restaurant were practically empty.