Friday, May 11, 2007

Ring Around the Province, Part 5: Kham is Calm

After Sideng/Shaxi came Zhongdian, probably my favorite part of our whole two-week-plus field trip. As I mentioned in my giddy mini-update while I was actually there, Zhongdian/Gyelthang (it's officially changed its name to Shangrila or, in pinyin, Xiangelila, after the eden discussed in the famous book Lost Horizons, but I refuse to call it that. Such pandering to the tourist industry...) is Tibet without actually being in Tibet (which is referred to here as the TAR or Tibetan Autonomous Region.) The ancient Kham kingdom (one of three large regions in ethnic Tibetan territory) extends about 100 km south of Zhongdian, and ethnic Kham people predominate-- that's where the pun from the title comes from, it should be attributed to Ashley-- (at least 50% of the population), along with Han majority and the Lisu and Yi minorities. It certainly felt like Tibet to me-- iron grey skies, a touch of altitude sickness (just a little nausea and being insanely quick to get out of breath), yaks everywhere, big effing snow-capped mountains.

When we arrived in Zhongdian, I think most of us were kind of disappointed. The grey skies didn't do anything to help the plain-Chinese-city streets look cleaner. But gradually I started to see the differences-- the scores of Tibetan women walking the streets in traditional dress, the Tibetan script on the store signs, the prayer
flags hanging from windows or on top of roofs a la weathervanes. The town's Old Section has been thoroughly touristified (they tried to sell me a hair ornament for Y25 that my friend in Lanping later bought me for Y5) but is still incredibly charming. On the first night the program treated us to Indian/Nepalese food, which was incredible (just as I remember the Nepalese food in Shanghai being, and as the
Nepalese food in Dublin was). All of us ate until we felt we were going to burst. Some workers from Khampa Caravan, the local travel agency/general helper-outers taught us something about Tibetan history and Zhongdian's own story. All of them were part of a new generation of Tibetans who are sent to India to study and who, therefore, speak Mandarin, English, Tibetan, and sometimes also Hindi. Hen lihai, as we would say here, (very formidable, basically). They were also all inordinately attractive, if not by general standards, at least in that they were all extremely interesting-looking. The girls in the group drooled accordingly. One of the Khampa Caravan men sang us a gorgeous Hindi/Tibetan song, and in return Ashley got up and started doing some of the Tibetan dance she knows. At the end she had all of the Khampa Caravan crew plus most of the restaurant staff also dancing, or trying to. She was better than a lot of them.

I just loved exploring Zhongdian. It felt very much the a frontier town to me, with all kinds of people coming together-- Tibetan nainais (grandmas) with their turbans, aprons, myriad layers; a couple of Bai businesswomen; a few Yi people I caught sight of; Han tourists; people from Thailand or India; the odd Westerner, all together in the dusty streets, with the occasional view of the rolling hills and towering mountains behind. I almost felt like there should be tumbleweeds. There were a few Western-style cafes (Noah Cafe had the best porridge with bananas ever)but really the heart of the town was Tibetan through and through, with Tibetan pop music (kind of a mix of China, India, and something unplaceable) blaring everywhere, adding to the ambiance.

One day we went to a large lamasery/Tibetan Buddhist temple out about 20 minutes from town. It's modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, where the Dali Lama once lived, and is pretty spectacular. First we went and met a living buddha, which means a person who has reached nirvana but opted to be reincarnated to help others. He blessed us, touching our heads in turn, and gave us each a manifestation of that blessing, a braided thread of red, yellow, and black with knots in it. We were to wear it for three days and then do anything we liked-- keep it, pass the blessing on to someone else, bury it, anything except throw it away. It was a powerful experience. I don't know how many people in the program actually believe in Buddhism actively, but I saw that in the coming days almost everyone continued to wear their threads.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the temple complex, and the only word I can really use to describe it is intoxicating. I'm not even sure why. The atmosphere, the sound of beating prayer gongs, the clouds of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, monks everywhere, incense and dark, close rooms filled with altars and prayer rugs. Tania and I walked all the way to the end of the complex to the smallest temple, dedicated to a Tibetan Buddhist demon/god of death (it's unclear whether this temple was to worship or protect against said demon.) It was smaller, more cluttered, more colorful, and less crowded than the other temples in the complex, and there were no sightseers at all there, only some older Tibetan women come to pray. Outside the temple was a stupa (which can only be described as a sort of white wooden mini-temple with a steeple, but you can't go inside) festooned with strings and strings of prayerflags. I climbed inside the tangle of flags and stood in a nest of colorful cloth, with the flat, green/gray Tibetan landscape peeking through. It was utterly peaceful and in some nameless way, alien.

The next day we went to a similar temple, but smaller and way out in the Zhongdian countryside. The roads there are... rough, to say the least. At one point we actually had to avoid an especially rough patch by driving through the spongy dead grassland that makes up so much of the Tibetan landscape. Yaks and alpine pigs scattered in our wake. From the end of the road it was about a 20 minute hike to the tiny Lamasery in the woods, lined with homemade prayer flags blurry with henna from snow and rain, and with rocks carved painstakingly with sutras in Tibetan script, said to help one's karma and with the balance of good and evil in the universe. The lamasery was again an oasis of strange, pristine calm. I spent a good hour exploring the outlying portions which were, in places, basically just a forest of prayer flags on a mountain flank.

We spent a good amount of time in Zhongdian and did a number of things-- learning about current Tibetan Buddhism from a reincarnated lama; going to a hot springs where Tibetan women come to bathe and where I soaked with Sophie, Tania, Keera, and Ali in a private room for a couple hours; went souvenir shopping with Kailey and John and bought a beautiful Indian cloth hanging and a couple of necklaces. But what I will really take away from that experience is that preternatural calm and the breeze on the empty Tibetan hills.

Next time: Lijiang, the unfortunately put but apt term "bullfrog" and why I had to get an IV, and the beginning of my ISP adventures.

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