Faces in the Dark

When we entered the Monastery, the lights were out. Every step we took was as if blind, and we had to navigate by way of cellphone light.

“Huh, that’s strange,” our guide Tashi said, going on with the tour regardless. He introduced Buddhas, scriptures, and other figures to us in the quiet hall.

But as we walked through, it was as though we were only catching glimpses of the Buddha: a foot, a smiling face, an outstretched hand, and when we turned one corner after Tashi’s explanation, a whole row of tall Buddhas looking down at us below. Sometimes the butter wax candles glowed in front of the altars and we could see a flickering image of the Buddha. Sometimes we saw only as far as our feeble flashlights could show us. In that still hall, I could feel the presence of a thousand faces we couldn’t see just then, but who all looked out from the darkness.

It’s a similar feeling to our drive through the Himalayan region, where the green mountains stand out, but the truly magnificent ones are hidden behind clouds and rain. Sometimes the clouds burst and we can see wrinkled snow on the cliffs, sometimes we can only see a glimmer of it as we continue on our ways. But we know that there are faces in those clouds, looking down from above. WeChat Image_20170719153255

WeChat Image_20170719153302I sometimes wonder if this is just the nature of coming face to face with something truly divine. It doesn’t matter how close you get: it will remain unknowable, and by not being completely knowable, it remains divine. It’s not good or bad or right or wrong. It’s just a face in the dark, looking out at you as you strive to catch even a glimpse of its smile.

 

Debate Time

When our guide told us that we would be seeing monks debate scripture at Sera Monastery, I guess I pictured something more austere and solemn. Perhaps a monk making a point, and another saying something along the lines of “yes, perhaps, but have you considered…?” in a very gentlemanly manner.

Instead, to my delight and surprise, we entered a very lively courtyard full of red-robed monks who seemed to almost be sparring with each other. They were scattered around the courtyard in pairs, one monk standing and one sitting. The one standing wound up and clapped his hands together in an emphatic lunge and asked their question. The one sitting had to answer in a satisfactory way.

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The whole area rang with the sounds of clapping, the sounds of questions. By unlike most debates I’m used to, this one was practice and seemed like a lot of fun. In one area, a monk clapped three times in succession before the other could answer and they all just started laughing. The younger monks got very aerobic with their questioning, almost leaping from the ground as they thought of new questions.

Of course there’s more to it than this, but I like the excitement and joy that was all over the courtyard as people gathered to discuss philosophy. I like that new questions and new thoughts were a celebration, and that the challenge of twisting around words and thoughts was like a game. I like that it was practice, and so questions could be considered without consequence before more public debates.

Mostly I liked that for once in my life I could see a different kind of debate that didn’t end with people shouting at each other, and instead lifted the human spirit as it tried to make sense of a complex world.

 

A Thousand Words

We had already made our ways through Jokhang Temple that morning with our guide, a local Lhasa man, who is without a doubt the most impressive example of making the most of a temple visit I’ve ever seen. The temple is one of the main centers of Tibetan Buddhism, and is quite well preserved, with ancient thanka paintings still gleaming on its walls. But as much as I liked Jokhang Temple, it was where we went next that left a deeper impression.

Had I been on my own, I probably could have found the temple tucked away on the local shopping street, and I might even have walked through main prayer hall for a quick look. But when we entered, we were met not with crowds of tourists, but with actual believers making their rounds.

The room hummed with mantras as a crowd of monks stood by the main statue in the center. Our guide told us to touch our heads to the statue for good luck and to follow him to the kitchens. As we walked out of the prayer hall, he passed a monk who as it turned out was his uncle, and as we entered the back hall of the kitchens, we ended up meeting his aunt, who was a nun.

They welcomed us to the table and served us some milk butter tea and bread. I noticed that they were dipping the bread into the tea, so followed suit and tried to figure out how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Tibetan. (No dice, so far…)

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Then, as we were enjoying our tea, I heard the young boy speaking Mandarin. I know Tibetans don’t really like speaking Chinese, but I figured “aw, why not?” I told the boy to come over and took out a small stack of Minnesota postcards.

“This is my home!” I said. “You can choose one.”

He looked over all of them with rapt attention and then selected the one with the sunrise, running over to show his mom. In his excitement, he was showing them the sunrise upside down.

We kept drinking the tea, and the old nuns kept spinning their small prayer wheels. Alas, I was never really able to verbally express my thanks for the family letting us crash their tea-drinking time, but maybe sometimes words aren’t necessary.

 

Circular Motion

When you think of Lhasa, you don’t typically think of a Ferris wheel, which is precisely why in my free afternoon, I knew I had to visit it: the world’s highest (because of altitude) Ferris wheel, located in a small park opposite the train station.

It’s definitely not that convenient to get to, and I got some quality time with local taxi drivers there and back, but I have to say, I’m still kind of glad I rode it.

What’s it like? Well, as far as Ferris wheels go, not that special. It’s round, it’s white, and it moves torturously slow as it makes it’s giant loop toward the sky. From the top, you can just barely make out Potala Palace before the wheel turns and it’s hidden behind nearby apartment buildings. You go around once, and that’s it. And then you’re still inside of the children’s park with a pirate ship ride and whack a mole.

But as crazy and illogical as this seems, I’m glad I started my trip in circular motion, because everything in traditional Tibetan culture goes in a clockwise circle. Koras around temples and holy sites, prayer wheels, mandalas depicting the cycle of life and death itself. The wheel turns, you’re on top, and then it turns and you’re at the bottom once more. You get on, go for a ride, and then get off once it’s done.

The optimist in me likes the circular motion because it means you always get second chances. The pessimist in me says “yes, because they always pass you by if you don’t move.” However I poeticize it, the wheel keeps turning around and around.

And there’s something beautiful in that. There’s something profoundly beautiful about a circle, just as there’s something deeply moving in the way parishioners prostrate all the way to the ground when they make their koras around temples, and that when you stand still for a moment in the ever-moving circular motion, you can hear the scrape of their wooden boards upon the cement, like waves upon the sand.

 

Railway to Lhasa

I’ve mentioned before how much I’d been looking forward to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, in part because it is the world’s highest railway, and in part because I heard that the natural scenery is stunning. At last, the time came for the trip.

I boarded the train with other passengers, immediately noticing the oxygen valves over every bed in the hard sleeper compartment and by the windows.

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Of course I already knew this was coming and so basically just dorked out with other passengers until the conductors came by to both check that I had a Tibet travel permit and to give me a health waiver for the ride.

The waiver basically just reminds passengers that it’s entering very high altitude and that if there are any pre-existing conditions that make high altitude intolerable, then they should reconsider. We had to sign that we had read the information and that we were ready.

Man, was I ready.

Or so I thought until the train made it further out past Xining. We passed areas I had seen before, like Qinghai Lake. But once we got past that, we entered a giant wasteland that took my breath away.

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I have never seen such a vast expanse of unforgiving land, with no sign of human existence. Sprawling grasslands turned into hard brittle earth, and sharp mountains stabbed through the dirt as if challenging anyone to even dare to face them. I waited by the window for any sign of civilization, as the clouds got lower in the sky because of our ascent, and the sky pierced a shocking blue. After some hours, I saw salt mines, and eventually we reached an outpost city called Golmud.

In many past trips, I feel grand and capable of doing anything, but here, face to face with something truly wild and untamable, I feel smaller than an ant, and on that train ride, grateful for the walls of the train and the oxygen that pumped through my compartment as we slid through.

But when the night swallowed the earth and clouds cleared, I found myself leaning against the window, my hands cupped around my head to block out the glow of cell phone screens behind me.

Stars. Huge, glowing balls brighter than anything I’d ever seen. The finger of the Milky Way curled across the deep black sky, and the millions of constellations shone as if ringing deep, resonating with the wild. In Hangzhou I’m lucky if I even see a handful of stars (though I always crane my neck to check all the same). Out here in the barren wasteland of the Tibetan Plateau, the stars dominate the night sky.

As the sun rose the next day, every ribbon of water was illuminated silver in the pale morning light, and as I looked out once more, the earth still seemed flat, but the clouds were even lower, and at a height that looked no higher than your average hill, snow-capped mountains.

Welcome to Tibet.

 

I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter!

On my last day in Xining, I decided to visit the Kumbum Monastery, even though the Lonely Planet (rightfully) warns you that it’s very touristy and crowded. It holds a very important position in the “Yellow Hat” sect of Buddhism. But if I’m being honest, that’s not why I braved the crowds that sunny day. I went because of the butter sculptures.
See, my home state Minnesota often has bitter sculptures as part of its annual State Fair, and these are always equal parts bizarre and impressive. Usually they’re busts of famous people carved out of butter, and they’re put in a revolving case so that all visitors can admire them.

So, what could the Kumbum Monastery offer?

As it turns out, a lot. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures inside, but let me tell you, these monks put butter art onto a whole new level. First of all, the sculptures are not just images of people, but are whole intricate religious scenes. Second of all, they are colored so that they almost looked like actual statues made from concrete or marble, and not the kind that melted in the sun or was destroyed every year to make a new one.

Third of all, they are extremely intricate.

Imagine if you will, a dragon with every individual scale, a lotus flower with millions of tiny, needle-like petals, a monk with a string of beads around his neck, or the folds in the flowing robes, or the tiles in the buildings, or the billowing clouds around the entire scene. I was more than stunned as I stood there staring at all the details. Wave after wave of Chinese tourist group lapped me as they admired it and then moved on. I kept looking, searching perhaps for the chink in the armor, proof that this was indeed nothing but butter and was transient.

What can I say? We Minnesotans have met our match.

 

Around Qinghai Lake: Part 5

The route on the last day was a bit ambitious. I wanted to go along the north side to make a full circuit, but also wanted to make it back to Xining that night if possible. In total, about 6-7 hours of driving.

I stood on the side of the road, extended my hand, and within two seconds, a car pulled over. A family of Tibetans with bolts of cloth in their backseat smiled at me. The son sat curled up in a blanket by the cloth and started making room for me and my bag. I told them the name of the next town and they said they could take me. Later in the car, I asked where they were heading.

“Oh, we’re going to Xining.”

So that was that.

It turns out that they were on a road trip from Lhasa to sell some Tibetan cloth in Xining. They liked to take the scenic drive around the lake, and they liked to take their time.

“We’re going to stop at this temple for a bit,” the father (whom I’ll call Abba because I think that’s what his son was calling him) said.

We pulled over at what looked like a slightly more run-down temple with wind-beaten prayer flags and clouds of incense wafting to the sky. Abba bought some seed-like materials for his son to pour onto an incense altar, and then they visited a monk who blessed three candles for them and led them to the steps up the hill.

We climbed the steps and reached what I thought was the top, only for the three of them to squeeze into a crevice in the rock wall and begin climbing into the belly of the mountain. They clutched their candles, and by that feeble light we groped our ways along rocks and ladders until we reached the true altar within: a smaller one flanked by candles and images of monks. The family said some mantras and set their candles down before we headed back down to walk a circuit of the temple.

Back in the car, I gave the son a Minnesota postcard which had the Northern Lights in glossy colors on it.

“Is it always like this?” He said as Abba began to drive once more.

“Sometimes,” I said. “In the North.”

He pinned the postcard onto his headrest and admired it for a long time. After that, we became friends, and he regaled me with stories about cars and explosions and guns and…did I mention he was twelve? As if you couldn’t tell.

During our day, we stopped along the road to admire some flowers in a field, to sit by the side of the road to eat watermelon, and to walk around the fields. The son bought a plastic gun and ran around with whoops and hollers. I managed to make a glorious face-plant in the flowers when I tripped over some string. Abba showed me his Stetson cowboy hat and recorded me reading the English instructions.

It’s funny because in a way they were still being nomads, even though they were in a car. They had a large tent and cooking supplies in their trunk, and they told me that however far they drove in a day was wherever they pitched their tent. They had a destination, but the road wound and wound as it pleased.

As we stopped by a field of yaks and watched as Abba’s son chased them around as if they were a flock of pigeons, I had to admit that it can be fun to be a nomad, even if only for a few days. This was the reason for my Kora of sorts around the lake, and I could feel the holiness of meeting other people and sharing the road with them surround me.
But as I texted some friends to let them know I was safe and as I plotted for some future fun back in Hangzhou, I’ll admit that it’s nice to have a home, too. And that sometimes, that is the dim candlelight that leads you through the dark.

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