There is a sense of place in Xiahe.  The peace is retained in the old architecture and tradition maintained for centuries, the atmosphere of philosophy, learning. Tibetan monks debating in circles, their red cloaks clashing against the umber hills behind their claps clear against the silence and mumble of passing pilgrims on kora.

Every morning at ten o’clock I joined Jamyang, a monk friend, for tsampa in his humble home.  I walked through his courtyard greeted by an orange kitten, who cried in eager anticipation of play-time.  I took off my shoes and sat cross legged on the raised platform made specifically for sleeping and eating.  The sun poured fresh light into the room.  The stove was hot, the milk tea sputtered out of the spout.  Jamyang shoveled a few spoonfuls of the roasted barley flower into two plastic bowls, then a heaping spoonful of the dried yak cheese.  He sliced off thick chunks of yak butter and offered the sugar to me.  I took what I liked.  He poured in the hot tea and breakfast was served.  The kitten waited patiently in my cross-legged lap.  He took any opportunity to bat at my hair.

Jamyang and I can hardly speak to each other and sometimes it is awkward for me.  It is strange for us to spend time with people we don’t know and yet Jamyang’s patience and grace allowed us to spend countless hours sitting, walking, existing in quietness and getting to know each other in this silent way.  And he does have beautiful grace, a humble happiness that is reflected in the simplicity of his home and the way he dotes on his kitten.

After breakfast was over and Jamyang and I spent a few minutes trying to communicate it was usually time for him to join the rest of the monks in mid-morning prayer.  I returned to Tara Guesthouse.

I was welcomed into Tara Guesthouse just about the moment I walked in.  The manager, Tinley saw my pictures from India, and the first one he picked up was of my Amala.  “Oh, I know her. She is from my hometown.”  This was not the first serendipitous moment of my travels, but it was the one that made everything possible.  We name dropped for a while and found out we knew many of the same people.  Tinley and the rest of the monks at the guesthouse were overjoyed to hear their friends and family were well in India.  I was overjoyed to have found another home in Asia.  By the time I left Tara Guesthouse I was designing a website for them, sitting behind the front desk and staying for free.

Every day ended around the stove in the staff quarters with a glass of green tea.  The monks fingered their malas (rosaries), and Tinley and I spoke of India and Tibetan freedom, the chance of us meeting and we joked.

“One day there was one foreign girl who went to my hometown and she spoke the Tibetan nomad dialect very well.  So one nomad heard her speak and said, ‘Whoah! She can speak human language!’”

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For two years I have heard the word “Labrang” dropped.  I’ve heard descriptions of its beauty, its vastness.  I’ve heard my family in Dharamsala repeatedly, like a mantra, say “Labrang: this is my home.”  Until recently, Labrang was just a dream somewhere in Western China.  I had Google Map images implanted on my mind, I had no concept of its accessibility, nor of its tradition or history.  Now it is a place that I have witnessed.

I arrived in warm sunlight after seven hours nudged between Tibetan women and their children who fell into my lap with the jolting of the bus.  We had traveled passed Buddhist holy sites painted on cliff faces and decorated with the blues, reds, greens, yellows, whites of prayer flags.  We had crossed over half frozen rivers, petrified waterfalls that, coupled with the braided hair and chuba adorned men and women beside me, made it seem that time itself had stopped.  And finally, after countless mountain passes, we started to hear the other passengers call out, “Xiahe!” “Labrang!” and we knew we had arrived.

Labrang is one of the largest Tibetan monasteries still in function in Western China.  Located in the city of Xiahe, it is nestled between small barren mountains and a river winds through the southern edge of the city.  The day I arrived, it seemed the place glowed gold and red.  Monks walked along the dusty streets and dotted the earthen city with their maroon robes.  The red and white painted monasteries stood proud under their shining gold roofs, and the Tibetan curtains hanging from the windows billowed lightly in the quiet wind.

And the city bustled.  Pilgrims, with long grey braids and small prayer wheels in their wrinkled, left hands, circumambulated the monastery grounds and turned the larger stationary prayer wheels so that their squeak was heard at the other end of the town.  The pilgrims shuffled, they prostrated, they mumbled their mantras in rhythm with their heavy step. And I knew it was Labrang I had made this journey for.

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C

Tenzin’s friend is an incarnate lama.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhist religion, a lama is a monk who has attained a particularly high level of meditation and transcendence.  They are able to have visions and give guidance by way of these visions.  Every community in Tibet has a lama. Every person goes to these lamas in times of strife.  And some children are found to be the reincarnation of past lamas.

Tenzin’s friend is an incarnate lama, however he does not wear his traditional yellow undergarments, nor does he advertise his title in any way.  If he did, he would run the risk of the Chinese government questioning him, possibly putting him in jail.  The government might be suspicious that he is collaborating with the Dalai Lama in India.  However, these restrictions on his identity do not hinder his constant smile nor does it keep him from offering as much advice as he can.  This guidance is his “business.”

Tenzin’s friend was eager to answer my questions about religion and the traditional practices of devout Buddhists.  He pointed at various over-decorated statues, figures in the longest thangka in the world, and explained who each deity represented.  He thoroughly enjoyed teaching me the Amdo dialect.

Together we traveled through the vast open plains of Qinghai province.  A four hour car ride that showed us herds of  yaks, their dark figures striking against the dull yellows of the fields.  We peered eagerly at the light indigo contours of Qinghai Lake.

We arrived finally in a very deserted town about forty five minutes from the lake, only to find that foreigners were not allowed.  There was a slightly tense run in with the police, but after about an hour of explaining that we had no idea about the laws governing this remote area of China, they let us stay the night on the promise that we would leave as quickly as possible the following morning.

The fact that there are restricted areas in this country, makes it more obvious that China has something to hide.  This town didn’t seem much different from others I had been in.  Yes, it was remote.  Poverty was clearly visible, but I had seen worse.  It wasn’t until dinner that I realized just why they don’t want us here.  Tenzin’s friend invited to Tibetan girls to join us.  The spoke no English.  They asked where we were from, and Tenzin explained that we were from just over those mountains.  He pointed at the rolling hills, deep purple in the dusk.  They nodded in approval of this answer.  When he clarified that we were from America, they offered looks of confusion, and asked where and what America was.  I realized that these women had no proper education.  They had spent their lives as nomads, out with the herds or in with the family.  They watched TV but only the local channels.  China’s ignorance is its bliss.

I have overdressed for the train.  Metal boxes characteristically placed under the windows pump out more heat than any of us have been used to for the past two months.

Trains have a sense of place of their own.  They are a historic reckoning of the past and yet they are accelerating into the future.  The older trains in China could be placed in the 1930s, yet they are organized and clean and China’s main form of transportation.  This train is full.

Down the car a father and son throw nuts at each other. The elder has an air of responsibility. The younger is excited about this adventure, and radiates youthful curiosity.

Like this young boy, I too am eager for this escapade and, wide-eyed, watch China pass by the windows.  Out here is countryside I have never seen before.  There are hills made of loose sediment that rivers of the past have contoured and curved, and where now step terraces for small plots of rice. Here there are strange juxtapositions of little girls in bright down jackets walking along the foot-paths that feather veins through the hills.  It is hard to spot the small villages from the train, for they are built of the same russet earth.  Only the painted communist slogans set the houses apart.  I wonder how this land shapes its people and who they are to have chosen long ago this strange country for their home.

Cherry blossoms and magnolia trees bring new life and a spot of color to grey Qufu…

It has been a while. And for this I apologize.  I have been processing two months of wild adventure through Asia, trying to make it have some sense.  But I shouldn’t be so naïve as to make that happen.  Asia is chaos, it is confusing and quixotic.  And like all travel in my life, it has led me closer to home.  I’ve realized that Gloucester is where the journey started and where the journey will end someday of course with visits back scattered here and there.  But about five years ago I got in my car and drove around America and realized that the road is my real home.  Since then, every few weeks I feel a tug at my soul to get started again.  And the pull increases until I finally do.

Anyhow, enough about that.  The next few entries will be elaborations on some writing I did while traveling.  Enjoy…

Also, here’s an interesting quote from one of my student’s writing:

Many countries in the world are afraid of Chinese developing.  Do the American think so?  Many articles say that the future belongs to USA and China.  I don’t think so.  Although developing very fast in the past few years, China have a lot to solve and what’s more, China will never invade others n past or future.  It’s a tradition.  If China were the strongest country in the world, what she wants to do is how to keep harmony with other.  Our ancestors taught us two characters.  One is to tolerate, and the another is harmony.  So what I think about American’s attitude towards Chinese develop may be positive.  Is that right?

Hello All-

I am terribly sorry for being horrible at updating stuff. Things have been very low key as far as material write about, and I have been busy with the end of the semester.  I am about to embark on a three week long adventure into Western China, begining in Xining and hopefully continuing into Lhasa and then back to Qufu.  I hope to return towards the end of January with tons of material to update the blog with.

In the meantime, I am leaving you with some new writing I have done about various places in the world– India, Gloucester…  and an inspirational quote from a friend’s dad.  I hope these will keep you satisfied until further posts.

Be well….

“A traveler without a purpose is a vagabond.  A traveler with a purpose is a philosopher.  So it begins….”

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The Fort:

The Fort is the truck-growl and seagull warning at 3 am, the fish-gut, salt-stink at 8 am during greasy breakfasts and bad coffee, the hum of the ice-company and faint slap of waves on supporting walls. It’s the incestuous, Italian family-pride, the slum you don’t walk in alone, the history you’ve tried to forget. And it’s the place where Gloucester began.

The Fort is gorgeous in its grit.  Instead of church spires, fishing halyards interrupt the skyline that looks out into the harbor and the endless East of the Atlantic.  The small hill protrudes into the cadenced waves, lending the city shores natural protection unmatched on any coastline.

The Fort is not where I grew up.  Those were not the streets I knew as a child.  I did not roam in its expanses nor find solace in its corners.  Yet it was there as if waiting, and once it was discovered the whole of Gloucester, past and present, came with it.

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India:

I wish I could describe the way the houses settled into the mountains in Dharamsala so that you, too, could feel it in your being as I do.  Those hills have become as much a part of my life as the daily tasks that fill the empty moments, the fleeting thoughts.  I have felt the hill’s gravel and grit grinding beneath my walking feet, and I have transcended with them into the clouds of the monsoon–the life force of India.

……….            We brought the first snow in three years to Dharamsala, something the red-clad monks called, auspicious.  It began at the train station as a light drizzle.  We were weary from the hard, light blue cushions of Indian sleeper-trains.  The night had passed in jolts: the movement of the train, the occasional chai-po advertising the aromatic tea, oblivious of the racks of restless sleepers.  Our “Tourist Vehicle” struggled through, up the narrow curves of the foothills, across bridges over small pockets of cascading streams.  The rain came down heavily.  Two thirds of the way up, as if we had crossed an invisible line, the water suddenly turned to snow.

Our taxi driver proved different from the others, or perhaps because we were the first car in line we just got lucky with two minutes less of fallen snow, but he got us to the main square of Mcleod Ganj as if giving up would mean sudden death.

We were met with snowballs—an unceasing cascade of them on our heads, backs, behinds… Some were wrought with stones, others with chunks of ice, and it wasn’t the mischievous Indians who threw them, rather the red-clad monks themselves, with tight-knit hats on their heads, and shit-eating grins on their faces.  They threw them from the street, from restaurant windows, doorways and roofs, peering out into the dusky gray to see where they landed, to see if we would throw them back.

Dodging the snowballs, we dropped our heavy packs into Hotel Tibet, and set out to explore.  We didn’t yet know where allies led, faces were still foreign.  Tibetan men wore heavy long coats, called chubas, and dragged the heels of their boots through the dirty snow as they passed.  Soggy signs on the walls lining the street invited passersby to join in a vegetarian losar, new year, for “countless animals” who were facing slaughter just for the occasion.  The air was thin and cold, and the wet, white streets contained all the promise and excitement that a new place could hold.

Snow brings out the mischievous, the happy, not only in America, but in China as well.  I watch my students, giddy from the first snow–whipping iceballs at each other as they walk out of class.  During break they huddle by the windows to watch it fall. I join them.S now eases all troublesome emotions.  It quiets the air, and the wet smell covers that of coal dust and vinegar.  And the snow does not stop the constant need to set off fireworks.  Outside my classroom, sparks sizzle the white flakes and grey morning into color.We romp through the forest of flakes like children.  the snow falls heavy and straight, but occasioinally a small gust will support them in the air for a few moments longer and they will linger, twisting and turning until they find their gravity. I empathize…

Libraries across the world smell like home. Leading me through the stacks, Taylor takes the role of teacher for a while,–timidly, humbly, quiet. She has a hitch in her step, and her walk sounds uneven down the cold, concrete isles. I search for English books, only to find that the “foreign” section is closed on weekends. Taylor proudly shows me the psychology books, architecture, chemistry. We stop a while in the art section and she mentions a few famous calligraphers, opening to weathered pages with their respective work. I’m starting to grow accustomed to life here. Though China is not the adventure I intended, it is becoming routine, a place I can say I lived. It will never be home, but it will be familiar.

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