A Travellerspoint blog

Braving the Tempest, part II

Where did I leave off? Oh, yeah, Yumbu Lha khang, also called Yumbu Lha khar. It was the fortress of the first king of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo. Technically speaking, it is not the original building. It was destroyed at some point...and then rebuilt in the 1980's.

The fortress is perched atop what is probably called a "hill" in Tibet, easily visible from the road, and quite easy to access. At the foot of this hill, there are people with mountain ponies available for hire for those who choose not to walk to the top. To our surprise, there was also a camel. One elderly woman was convinced I would not make it to the top with the use of her beautiful horse. I disagreed.

The walk up to the fortress (it can't even be called a hike anymore) takes perhaps ten minutes unless you stop for pictures, as we did. The surrounding view is incredible. The village below is quite small, and full of farmers, so the fields are plotted out for the spring, making beautiful brown and gray patchwork on the ground. Above, one can see the thousands of prayer flags strung across the adjoining peak.

On the way up, Tashi, who it appears is Tibet's biggest consumer, stopped at every small table with goods for sale, asking about this, or that, and buying frequently. Near the top, there are some incense burners, where we stopped and took turns making offerings.

Inside the fortress, there is not much to see. There are two small chapels and a small courtyard with a wonderful view. Once you visit these chapels, the real experience is actually outside the fortress. Behind the building, there is an open stretch of mountain top. There, more incense was offered and then we took stacks of paper prayer flags, perhaps an inch and a half square. These you throw into the air all at once, off the side of the mountain, where they flutter in the breeze like so many beautiful butterflies, carrying your prayers, wishes, and dreams into the heavens.

Following this, Tashi took our string of cloth prayer flags out to the top of the peak, a bit of a dangerous trek. Like all Tibetans though, he has the sure footing of a mountain goat. He was followed by Kelsang. After making sure that the prayer flags were secure and being properly moved by the wind, he and Kelsang returned.

In the mean time, Stephanie and I were watching and she was also taking video of them, us, and various people that were engaged in the same process. A group of the most beautiful Tibetan children ran by, laughing and shouting back to the camera. Together, they sent their own paper prayer flags into the wind, enjoying every moment, and running back and forth on top of the mountain.

After this, we went back down, and drove out to the tomb of Songtsen Gampo, the 7th century king who assisted with the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet by his marrying two Buddhist women, one from China and one from Nepal. In all honesty, there was little to see in terms of the tomb itself. There is a chapel with statues of Songtsen Gampo and his wives, and a few deities. The view from outside though, is as spectacular as from the fortress. The countryside is breathtaking and one can see a beautiful monastery and palace in the side of the mountain facing the back of the tomb.

Once we left the tomb, we drove back to Tsedong for dinner, where Kelsang and Tashi ordered somewhere around 60 momos (dumplings) filled with mutton. Six months ago, I had never eaten mutton, although I had eaten lamb. Now, I can't even tell if the meat tastes strong or not. Mutton is quite popular here, pushing a close second to yak. Anyway, let's say that I did not leave the table hungry. Tibetans order, and eat an incredible amount of food. It is almost incomprehensible coming from a country where each person orders a single dish for him/herself. However, it shows a great deal of hospitality and generosity on the part of the host. The return to Lhasa was uneventful.

On a more personal note, I would like to say that the bathroom of the hotel in Tsedong was equipped with a scale, the first I have had access to since arriving here. I took the plunge and got on the scale. I would say that so far, weight loss has been quite successful. To date, I have lost approximately 40 pounds. That's an average of ten pounds a month. I was, and am still, thrilled, so I wanted to share that with my family and friends.

All right, we are now up to date. I am still trying to upload photos, but it is still difficult to get the required bandwidth. Please be patient and they will be up as soon as possible.

Posted by michab3 04:40 Comments (1)

Braving the Tempest

This week has been rather busy, hence, I am a bit late in posting-- compared to the rest of January.

To start with, the teaching has been progressing. I have certainly learned a bit more patience, and having a lesson prepared in advance is a big help. However, she still doesn't do all of the homework that I give her, but she is doing much better. Tashi is doing quite well. He studies hard and will sometimes say a word thirty or forty times in order to perfect his pronunciation. He is learning quickly.

I learned something interesting this past week, myself. I was discussing the tendency of Tibetan men to have rather longish fingernails, comparatively speaking. I mean, next to some ascetics in India, Tibetan men have super short nails. However, there is a particular phenomenon that exists here, and in some places in India, I have heard. That is, the long pinky nail. Now, in the States, a monk came to the Buddhist Tradition class one time and when he was asked about this fingernail, he said it was fashionable. Perhaps that is true, but there is also a more practical side to this. In America, the more "practical" side involves the pinky nail being used to cut lines of coke. Here, it is nothing so drastic, but more immediately, well, a bit disgusting from the Western point of view. Apparently, the long pinky nail is used in place of a Q-tip. Yes, that's right. The long pinky nail is used to collect and remove all manner of ear grunge. Environmentally friendly? Certainly. Socially friendly? Well, let's just say that it is one thing I will not miss.

While that sums up the week, the weekend was quite a different story. Stephanie, Tashi, Tashi's friend Kelsang, and I had planned to go to Samye Monastery on Saturday. However, Saturday was New Year in Shigatse, a city outside of Lhasa. So, there was no car available to drive to Samye, and Tashi refused to get up at 5am to take the bus, and I don't blame him. I wasn't looking forward to that option either. Instead, we left on Sunday.

We had a bit of a late start. We set 9:30am as departure time, but Stephanie and I were running a little behind. About a quarter to ten, we left, but had to stop for a breakfast of thukpa, shabalep, or meat bread, and cha ngarmo, or sweet tea. It was actually a delicious breakfast, if you can stand to eat yak meat at 10am. Finally, we made it out of Lhasa.

The drive to the ferry, which one takes to get to Samye, is perhaps two and a half to three hours long, depending on breaks and traffic. There is a bridge now that crosses the Yarlung Tsangpo river and will take one to Samye, but Kelsang and Tashi prefer the ferry. The ferry terminal is a small building with three boats anchored into the sandy shore of the river. If one has the misfortune to be the only one trying to cross the river, one might have a long wait, as the ferryman prefers to have approximately 14 or 15 people in the boat before he crosses. So, if there are not enough people, you wait and wait until there is a boatload, or you are willing to pay 150 yuan for the hire of the entire boat.

The boats are perhaps 20 feet long and maybe 6-8 ft across. They are flat on the bottom, from what I could tell, and do quite well on the river. In the boat with us were two Tibetan girls who were terrified the entire time. Understandable when the skill of swimming is all but unknown to the Tibetan people in general. Ordinarily, the boat ride seems to take perhaps 40-45 minutes, not including breaking the boat free from the ice at the edge of the river. However, the trip over took quite a long time. First of all, you must realize that, at least in the winter, there is not enough water to cover any of the land that runs down the center of the river. So, the boat goes upriver, around the jetty of land and then, back downriver on the other side. Our trip, naturally, involved this upriver trek, but as we were about to turn and go downriver, a sand storm blew down the valley and slowed our progress immensely. Furthermore, it was nearly impossible to see, not because of the amount of sand in the storm, but the amount of sand in one's eyes. So, in addition to fighting the storm, the wind was intense and whipped the river into a field of white caps, panicking many of the Tibetans, and making it difficult to continue a forward motion.

Once we made it to the other shore, the vehicle available to take people to the monastery was not visible from the shore, and after a few yards, neither were the people that came off the boat. It was like a completely different world. The wind was howling and the sand was flying in sheets. Finally, we were able to see the truck, but there were more people than could fit in it at a single time, so those of us left behind walked perhaps half a mile to a small village outside of the monastery, and waited for the truck to come back. In the meantime, the storm slowed a bit, gusting every few minutes, but with respite in between.

When the truck returned, those of us who were left, piled in--ten, eleven including the driver. Three people were stacked together to my left, two monks and the boatman, I was in the middle with Stephanie on my lap, and there was a couple sitting to my right, with her sitting on his lap. Tashi and Kelsang squeezed together in the passenger seat in front. The ride to the monastery takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but the condition of the ground, I cannot call it a road, between the village and the monastery is, shall we say, a bit rugged. There were several times that my tookus came off the seat, even with someone sitting on my lap.

Despite the trials of the boat and truck rides, we made it safely to Samye Monastery, and it was quite worth it. The monastery is built to resemble a Buddhist representation of the universe. The chapels inside the main temple were similar to others that I have discussed in previous entries. However, there was no lighting aside from the butter lamps, which did little to light the inner areas of such large chapels. This did add a dash of mystery and drama to the visit, which I appreciated.

The second floor of the main temple is composed of a single large chapel containing statues of mostly unlabeled deities. The room itself, however, is worth the visit. The ceiling is high, like that of most chapels, but the entire ceiling and the beams and posts which support it are beautifully painted, the beams even having been painted with mantras. According to Tashi and Kelsang, the room was built without the use of nails.

Surrounding this room, about halfway up the storey, is a platform designed as a mini kor-ra, or circumambulation. There are half walls with a lattice on top so one can see the entirety of the monastery from this wonderful vantage point. The next floor contains more chapels.

At the bottom of the stairwell that descends back to the main chapel, there is a secret space between the inner and outer wall, the purpose of which is unclear, but provides enough space for at least 8-10 people to be hidden inside the wall.

The next place to visit is the section of the monastery devoted to the dead. The building, painted red, is adorned with carvings, and various other depictions of skulls. There are two chapels visitors may enter. One contains statues of various wrathful deities, and a particular friend of Chris', Tsiu Marpo. The second chapel will have to remain a bit of an unknown. When we arrived, there was a group of monks in the middle of something, and Stephanie and I did not feel comfortable going completely inside.

At this particular building, there is some renovation going on and other portions of the building were unavailable. Interestingly enough there is also a baboon chained to a post in the middle of the courtyard. Some young monks visiting from Sakya Monastery spent a little time baiting the baboon.

As we left, we encountered a family of nomads from Amdo. In the spirit of generosity that seems to prevail here, this poor family invited us to share their meal. There were happy to give us both meat and a surprisingly tasty mixture of butter and sugar. In return for sharing their food with us, Tashi shared 100 yuan with them, in an equally generous act.

Despite the fact that Tashi was practically gnawing on this yak rib from the nomads, he insisted on eating at the monastery restaurant, and of course, drinking tea. After our rest, we hopped back in the truck and returned to the boat. A short argument ensued with the boatman, who insisted there were not enough people to take across, but no one wanted to wait. It was almost 7pm, and people wanted to get home. So, finally, we went back across the river.

Once across, we gave a lift to the couple that sat next to me in the truck. We all stayed the night in Tsedong, a rather large city, perhaps an forty-five minutes from the ferry. The hotel we stayed in had a rating of three stars, but in my book, it was definitely worth five. The hotel is relatively new. The rooms are reminiscent of the Marriott. There were clean sheets, a mini-fridge, hot water, a shower and a wonderful, new, clean, disinfected Western-style toilet. Complimentary toiletries were available, including toothbrushes, razors, of course shampoo, soap, body wash, body lotion, and by all means, let us not forget the condom.

Once we had washed a tiny amount of sand away and freshened up a little, we all went to dinner about 9:30. We went down the street about a block to a Chinese restaurant, where the guys proceeded to order too much food, again. We ate until the restaurant had long since closed, and went back to the hotel, where apparently, us girls went to sleep and the boys went exploring to find a sauna.

After a very restful sleep, we awoke and got ready at a leisurely pace--well, Stephanie and I did. The guys were up half an hour before we were set to leave, and ready in about 5 minutes. We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then made our journey to Yumbu Lhakhar, but that story will have to wait until tomorrow.

Posted by michab3 05:58 Comments (1)

"Tibetans are like gold"

I learned another interesting lesson this past week. Tashi was getting ready to tell me something about his mala (prayer beads), but he pulled out a rather large gold chain from around his neck instead of his beads. When I commented on the chain, because it is the size gangstas, drug dealers and pimps wear in America, he said that he wears it because it is beneficial. It is pure, he said, and it reminds him to be that way in his life. If he is feeling bad about something, or doesn't feel like going to the Jokhang or praying with his beads, he can look at the necklace and it makes him happier, it motivates him be better. He said that whether it is old or new, gold is gold. Tibetans, he said, are like gold.

I started teaching another student this weekend, a 15-year-old high school girl. She does, needless to say, provide quite a different teaching experience than Tashi. This is her winter
vacation, yet she is still taking math, English and Tibetan lessons. Apparently, the time constraints are such that she does not have time to go back and forth between the university and
her home, and thus, I go to her. It makes me a little ncomfortable about teaching when her parents might be home. Anyway, unlike Tashi, who is certainly more mature, she is just like any other 15-year-old, and would rather sing songs, or get me to sing English songs, or play with her hair or mine, than study. So, instead of being able to simply talk and work through things without a plan, as Tashi and I do, she is going to require something more structured. Already, she thinks of me as her friend and wants to go out and do things together. Being eight years her
senior, we honestly don't have much in common, and that would be more than a little awkward, I think.

When I went to her house on Sunday, she insisted that I stay for lunch with her and her sister. I tried to refuse, but unfortunately, "I have other plans" means almost nothing among Tibetans. So, we sat down to eat a ridiculous amount of food. After almost half an hour of eating, I put my bowl down and my student's sister told me I was impolite because I didn't eat enough. Let me tell you, folks, I ate a heck of a lot of food. There was physically no more space, but that also means next to nothing to Tibetans. She didn't seem offended, but was merely stating a fact, I suppose. I simply hadn't eaten enough to satisfy the demands of etiquette.

Anyway, things have been a little chilly. It's in the teens at night and usually barely 40 in the day, sometimes much, much colder. While the weather here is predictable (sunny--every day),
the temperature is not. The heat has been off in the dorm for five days now, so the nights are a bit cold, and the rats are certainly feeling it. They wake me up early in the morning, running around in my ceiling, perhaps digging or chewing, trying to get in. This isn't so encouraging. I'm hoping I don't have to drape my ceiling with steel wool, the only thing they will not eventually chew through. Luckily, they get scared away when I tap my broom on the ceiling.

I have been learning how to make tsampa pancakes. I ran out of white flour the other day and the only thing available was barley flour, so I made a substitution. However, barley flour requires
almost three times as much liquid as regular wheat flour does to make batter. Then, as I discovered this morning, if it is too thin, the regular thinness of pancake batter, it sticks to the pan and refuses to come up. In order to make tsampa pancakes, one must make thick batter, and be ok with either cooking a single pancake for about 8 minutes, or eating pancakes which are sticky in the middle. Other than that, tsampa pancakes actually taste really good, and not at all like regular tsampa. Of course, I'm sure that has to do with the amount of cinnamon I add to the batter.

So, as this week progresses, I look forward to having the opportunity to perfect my tsampa pancake recipe, and gain some patience dealing with a 15-year-old girl. Those are my goals. I
guess we'll see how things turn out next week.

Posted by michab3 02:43 Comments (0)

Money Can't Buy Happiness...

And that point was made quite clear to me this morning. We use this maxim in the West, but we don't take the meaning to heart and live by it. We use our abundant money to buy something that brings us a very limited happiness. Then, when we are unhappy again, we buy something else, and the cycle continues. We are unhappy despite all the conveniences we have at our disposal. Something could always be better, newer, brighter, tastier, healthier, cleaner, easier.

This morning, my English student, Tashi, spoke at great length about the differences he saw between the West and Tibet, with particular focus on happiness. He pointed out that in the West, we have everything. We have money, cars, houses, food, education, but very seldom do we seem truly happy. In Tibet, it is often the exact opposite. Many Tibetans do not have money, cars, education, houses, or even food, yet, they are often happy despite all of this. He said that many times, the government will provide food for those with none. They will give rice, butter and barley flour, but frequently, the family will then give the food as an offering to a local monastery, at the expense of their own hunger. This, he said, makes Tibetans happy, that they are able to give and provide for someone else. They are happy if they are able to visit this city, Lhasa, one of the holiest places in Tibet. They are happy as long as they have their prayer beads in hand and can recite their mantras.

While I know things have definitely been changing in Tibet, and more and more people, particularly in the cities are interested in making money and having "things", there are many, many people still living in tents, who have no electricity, no modern conveniences, no money, but they are, according to one Tibetan, still happy, even though by Western standards, they literally have next to nothing and live in conditions meaner than any we see among the homeless in the States.

Included in this personal happiness, is a willingness to share it with others. Aside from the occasional unkind person, Tibetans are more willing to help each other than any I have seen. One particular example involves riding the bus. The public transportation in the city is designed for maximum capacity. Buses in America are designed for comfort. They put as many seats as possible so that as many people as possible can sit and be comfortable while they ride the bus. Here, however, there is a row of single seats along either side of the bus and across the back, but the majority of the passengers on the bus must stand. In the States, I have ridden public transportation quite a bit, and it is not often the case that men will offer his seat to a woman, even if she is obviously pregnant. Furthermore, while most people will offer their seats to the elderly, it is done almost grudgingly. Each person will watch the others to see if someone else will get up first so he/she doesn't have to. On the contrary, here in Tibet, it is almost a race to see who can offer his seat first. The young are very solicitous of the elderly, helping them on and off the bus, and of course, making sure they are seated as comfortably as possible. It's as if they treat every elderly person as their own grandparent. It makes for a pleasant environment to stay in.

To this, however, I must add that pleasantness is not always the word of the day. A few days ago, I was waiting for a friend near the Jokhang, standing at the end of the street where a chain is stretched across to keep cars out. Keeping track of this chain, for apparently there are certain vehicles allowed to pass, are usually two men, sitting on stools with very little to do but talk with each other and occasionally lower the chain. As I was standing there on one corner of this street, a young man, probably not more than 13 or 14, pedaled his bicycle-cart between the curb and the post holding the chain. As he crossed behind the men caring for the chain, a woman ran into his cart with her bike, pushing this young man's cart into one of the seated men, causing him to fall off his green plastic stool. The woman left quickly, but the young man was left to face the man. He came around the front of the cart, confronting the young man. Before I had blinked twice, the older man had punched the cart driver in the face. This young man said nothing in return, merely put his hand to his mouth, and kept his head down. The chain guard spoke to him for perhaps two minutes while a small crowd gathered to watch, and some young men, perhaps in their twenties, watched from the opposite corner, laughing, at what, I could not guess. After the chain guard had finished, he returned to his seat and the young man continued on his way.

This encounter requires a bit of thought on my part, and more observation. I understand the chain guard's reaction to the incident, but I would like to understand the young man's reaction more. This is not to say that I hope to witness more violence, but I think this leads back to the way in which the young people treat and obey people who are older then they are, especially their parents and older siblings. Perhaps there is also a greater fear of authority than is openly visible. I would hazard a guess that if someone accidentally knocked over a valet parking attendant or a rented security guard in the States, and violence was committed, one party would be guilty of assault and the other would claim self-defense. But that is only a guess. There is much that goes on here that requires reading between the lines, a skill I hope to improve greatly.

Posted by michab3 06:42 Comments (1)

Thukpa and Chubas

There is a great deal of monotony at this particular juncture. It is winter holiday, so there is no class until March. It has provided me with the opportunity to spend a lot of time alone, which I enjoy. Also, as I think I mentioned before, I am teaching English.

Friday, I had planned to go to lunch with Lauren and Rachel. I didn't finish English class until 12:30 so, Tashi was invited to lunch and Stephanie as well. It turned into quite a group. Well, we went down the street and around the corner to a wonderful jiaozi restaurant. Jiaozi is the Chinese word for those delightful little meat or vegetable filled dumplings that are often a disappointment at Chinese restaurants and called potstickers at T.G.I.Friday's. Here, they are small, about the size of a quarter, and come with a variety of fillings.

At this particular restaurant, we sat in our own private upstairs room. It is quite common for restaurants to have a second floor devoted to seating. We looked at the menu, and Tashi promptly ordered a jin (half kilo or 1.1 lb) of lamb jiaozi for himself, while us girls ordered another jin of lamb jiaozi, a jin of pork and cabbage jiaozi and half a jin of egg and vegetable jiaozi for Stephanie. Instead of having merely soy sauce to dip the jiaozi in, each person receives a small dish with garlic, green onions, and chili, to which you may add vinegar and/or soy to your taste.

I must say that jiaozi are one of my favorite foods. In fact, I eat them several times a week at the vegetarian restaurant around the corner. They are easy to order, since the menu at the "Wonderful Vegetarian House" is in English as well as Chinese. At the jiaozi restaurant, called simply "Jiaozi House", the menu is only in Chinese, so I tend to go there with someone who can read the menu.

Anyway, after our delicious lunch, Tashi insisted that he take us all out the next day, in a friend's car, to eat at his favorite thukpa restaurant, where, he informed us, the pork in the noodles comes from pigs which are raised in the house.

On Saturday, true to his word, Tashi showed up in front of the dorm with a friend's minivan and his friend, as well. Stephanie, unfortunately, was ill, possibly from the egg jiaozi she had eaten the day before, but it is difficult here to judge where food poisoning comes from.

So, Lauren, Rachel and I piled into this minivan and proceeded to drive across town to a rather dirty looking noodle restaurant. I will say, however, that often the dirty restaurants are tastier than the clean ones. I don't quite understand this, but it is true here. We walked through the front room, into an open courtyard with more tables, into a hallway, around the corner, and into another room with more tables, where we finally sat. Tashi informed us that at this restaurant, five bowls of thukpa are considered one meal, and if a person eats 21 bowls, he doesn't have to pay for the meal. Apparently 21 is the restaurant record. Tashi's personal record is now 9 bowls of thukpa. While the bowls are small, five bowls of thukpa is probably close to half a pound of pasta, and it was all Lauren, Rachel and I could do to eat five bowls. We certainly didn't want to be impolite. We didn't see any pigs, though--thank goodness!

Now, as for chubas, they are the traditional dress of Tibet. There are men's chubas and women's chubas. The men's chuba consists of a shirt and a sort of robe that goes over and is sometimes worn with the right sleeve off. A woman's chuba is a kind of sleeveless, floor or ankle-length dress with panels on the side that wrap around and are adjustable. Under the dress, is a blouse, usually with long sleeves. Married women wear a striped rectangular apron on the front of the dress, while unmarried women do not.

Tibetan New Year, which falls in February this year, is the most popular time for chuba-making. Everyone wants to be dressed in new and beautiful clothing to greet the new year. Even foreigners, those of us who live here and are often invited to people's homes for parties, are expected to dress in Tibetan clothing for Losar. To this end, I went with some friends to have one of my own made at a chuba shop recommended by a Tibetan friend.

I have never had clothes made in the States, but there is a certain amount of privacy that goes into measuring. After choosing the fabric for my chuba, a dark color on the recommendation of the seamstress, due to the fact that a dark color would make me "look less fat", I was measured in the front of the store. It wasn't such a great ordeal, but a bit awkward. First of all, I was wearing a t-shirt with short sleeves. Second, there was a whole nomad family in the shop at the time, staring. My friends were kind enough, after a short while, to stand between myself and the staring nomads. Of course, I was also standing right in front of the windows that completely formed the front of the shop.

Today, I went back to the shop to pick up my chuba and choose a blouse. The shop was filled with women, their daughters, friends, and husbands, ordering chubas for Losar. My chuba was brought out, and a blouse chosen by the saleswoman. I took one look at the blouse and informed her it would not fit. She insisted I try it on, so, I put my arms into the sleeves, and stood there, with my arms pointing out in opposite directions, unable to lower them, while other customers laughed at my predicament. I was laughing too, so it didn't bother me at all, and truthfully it was laughable. It was decided at that point that I would have a blouse made. I choose a color with the help of my friends, was measured again at the front of the store, and then tried the dress on to make sure it fit properly. It did, thank goodness, but there was something amusing about my wearing a chuba, that the man watching discussed with the saleswoman. We didn't understand, but he had a great deal to say.

Tomorrow, I will be returning to the chuba shop to retrieve my blouse, which, hopefully, will fit. And then, it is on in search of shoes! That will be an interesting adventure.

Posted by michab3 02:20 Comments (1)

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