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.