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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



May 12. XINING (Qinghai) "Visiting Taer Si Lamasery"   Sleeping with the window open was a good idea to keep the smells away.  The air was crisp and dry.  But, as the square in front of the station came to life we could hear the train announcements and crowds of people gathering.  We were finally rousted from our beds by the sound of The Cranberries blaring off of the square.

We moved rooms in the morning and Rob negotiated us a discount for having had such a dump of a room the first night. The next room wasn't anything to get excited about though.  The beds still sagged to the side. There was grime on the walls and in the bathroom.  The shower had a head this time but it wasn't much better.  But, we were rid of the smell and overall the room was cleaner than the last.

The businessmen we'd met the day before had told us that Taer Si was closed to tourists but still advised us to visit just for the lively town surrounding the lamasery.  We walked from our hotel up to the bus station on our way to the west gate where buses left for Taer Si. The station had a steady bustle of traffic was getting busy but Xining still had a pretty laid back feeling.  A street washing truck was spraying the streets with volumes of water as it played "We Wish You A Merry Christmas".  That was very odd in a city that had mostly Muslims and Buddhists, especially since we were months away from Christmas.  I had heard a man's mobile phone ring in Xian playing the same tune so it must be some sort of Chinese fad.

At the bus station, we couldn't quite figure out what the bus schedule was for our next destination, Tongren (LP left our the characters for that town), and with the number of people in line we gave up trying to communicate with the person at the ticket window.  We would just show up the next morning and grab the next available bus.

On the street just along side the bus station we found a lively Muslim market in action.  The street was a sea of white hats, since it was mostly men, but the Muslim women were there as well, selling goods from their stalls.  We took a detour and walked through the market. As we stood to the side watching all of the commotion we slowly pulled out our cameras but were quickly discovered by a small group of Muslim men standing behind us.  They began chatting away and we heard the word "Meiguo" several times and confirmed for them that we were from the US.  They were smiling big and pointed curiously to our cameras.  Several tried to get one guy out in front so we would take his picture but he wriggled away.  The Muslim people in this region are the Hui people.  They are often fairer than their Chinese or Tibetan neighbors and have their own distinctive facial features.  

We moved slowly through the market.  People looked at us in an amused way.  We were the only tourists crashing their market that morning. A group of men were huddled around a bunch of caterpillar fingers spread out on a cloth on the ground.  It is an herb used by Buddhists and Muslims for traditional medicine.  They appeared to be bidding on one man's supply.  Not knowing if my picture taking would be welcome I carefully pulled out my camera but as soon as one man saw it he started yelling and clearing away the men from one end of the circle.  He was making room for my photo.  The were all immediately distracted from their bidding and all were pointing at an older man crouched on the ground who appeared to be the seller.  He had a white Muslim-style beard that was just a thin line of long hair along his jaw.  The man turned bright red so I didn't take a individual photo of him but still caught him in the photos I took of the group.  

Caterpillar finger was a popular item at the market that day but there were other herbs and fruits on sale as well.  There were also a few stalls selling a fried bread and unleavened Muslim breads.  As we reached the end of the market we noticed a small trailer full of sheep heads.  They still had their horns in tact and in the courtyard behind the trailer we could see a large pile of pelts.  About ten yards further a gate off to the right opened up onto a three acre market that was full of piles and piles of animal pelts, mostly goats and sheep.  Some of the piles had people perched on top but the activity was a relatively small group of people that were browsing through pelts and bargaining.   I approached one man in action and as I put up my camera he stood back and held up one of his sheep pelts and proceeded to cut a serious of silly poses while I took his picture.  

An older man that had been smiling at us was caught off guard as another man grabbed him from behind and held him out to have his picture taken.  He was laughing and turning red but this time I took the opportunity.  His bright face and skinny gray beard were priceless.  After I took the shot we thanked him and he shrugged it off with a smile.  So, it seemed that the show of shyness about photos was more of an act and they were really flattered by it.  A row of men lined up on a wall waived at me and straighten up so I could take their picture.  As I pulled back to get a shot of the whole market I could see a group of people at the back sitting on their pile of pelts and waiving at me.  These people were such fun to photograph.  They waived as we made our way back towards the food market. 

As we moved back up to the main street I noticed a lone Buddhist monk, dressed in his saffron robe, making his way through the crowd of white hats.  It happened too fast for me to get his photo but it was a nice contrast between the different cultures that made up this community.  Some Chinese people were also scattered through the market but didn't have any unique dress to distinguish them.  All three of these groups seemed to mingle comfortably, showing no signs of tension that might be expected between groups of such varied customs and beliefs.

The weather was so nice and the city so interesting we decided not to catch the bus to west gate but just continue walking through the city.  The city had a couple of mosques but they seemed closed, probably due to SARS.  Since we were planning to move further into the Islamic world during our trip I thought I should be prepared with a scarf to cover my head and show respect for their beliefs.  We passed a couple of shops that had a good selection.  I pointed at the scarves and motioned that I wanted to put one over my head in the Muslim style.  The shop girl pulled down the one I selected, showed me how to fold it and she carefully placed the scarf on my head and wrapped the ends around my neck to be tied.  I turned around to look at Rob and saw a crowd of Muslim people peeking in the other door smiling and watching me.  I bought the scarf and we continued down the street.

After a good half hour we reached the west gate, which really is the middle of modern day Xining.  The LP map had us lost looking for a bus stop that they mis-marked in their book.  We were supposed to find cabs and minibuses to Taer Si on the west gate intersection.  We just found cabs.  Being cheap we persisted in looking for a bus and bumped into one of the businessmen we'd met the day before.  Greg Jordan was from Australia and was on an extended business trip to Xining.  He was going out for a run and with his Chinese helped us negotiate a reasonable rate for a cab to Taer Si. He also proposed we meet up for dinner which we thought would be nice if we got back from Taer Si early enough.

We took the cab for Y20 instead of the bus for Y6 and found ourselves in the parking lot of the lamasery in about a half hour.  Our driver pointed up the hill towards the complex of buildings and we just started wandering.  There weren't many people about.  We dodged one quick little old lady begging for money.  That is always a difficult situation but is common at Tibetan Buddhist temples and after my trip to Tibet I took my guide's view that just giving money to people can make them more dependent and isn't always a good idea.  

The first temple we came across looked to be open.  A few people we just coming out and pointed to a window just inside the door where a monk was sitting.  I made a circle with my hand to ask if it was okay to look around and he didn't hesitate to give his approval.  It was the Longevity Hall, built in 1716.  There were supposed to be about six halls available for people to visit but we weren't sure how many we would get to see.

The next hall we came across was closed but we walked the inner kora around the building to spin the prayer wheels.  It was up the hill from the rest of the complex and provided good views of the extensive lamasery.  Each hall represented an institute of study which helped prepare the monks to become lamas (Tibetan Buddhist Priests).  

We walked up hill towards the largest hall in the complex, The Great Sutra Hall.  An old monk smiled at us with his one bottom tooth and tattered yellow hat and for a three yuan donation he let me take his photo.  Unfortunately, he didn't show his tooth in the photo.  We saw him repeatedly throughout our visit and his smile was always so genuine that I couldn't help but smile back at him.  

The Great Sutra Hall was open and when we peeked our heads into the courtyard we could see a sea of shoes dropped all over the stairs leading up to the hall.  A monk motioned for us to go ahead and go on in.  We entered on the left so we could walk clockwise around the inside of the hall.  Walking in the opposite direction is considered a negative act.  The monks were all congregated in the middle of the hall chanting.  A few of the younger monks at the back were distracted by us and kept turning to look at us and even dare to say a "hello!".

Exiting the Great Hall we were directed behind the building to the most important structure at Taer Si, The Grand Golden Tiled Hall.  The old monk was circumambulating the building repeatedly chanting quietly to himself.  Another six monks or so were prostrating themselves in front of the building.  The wooden floor was worn out where they slid forward and extended their bodies onto the floor in a display of humility towards the founder of their sect, Tsong Khapa.    Inside the building stood an 11 meter high stupa that was said to house, among other relics, the bodhi tree that grew from the blood of Tsong Khapa's umbilical cord.  Tsong Khapa founded the Gelugpa sect or Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism, the one that recognizes the Dalai Lama as its leader.  Tsong Khapa also established the first Gelugpa monastery at Ganden in 1409, just outside of Lhasa, which suffered during the "liberation" of Tibet but now lives on as an active temple.    

There was a small ticket window outside the hall for visitors but no one was inside.  Not sure if we could enter or not we looked through the door.  One of the prostrating monks stopped between prostrations and with a smile motioned for us to go on in.  Since we weren't being asked to buy tickets we were leaving donations on the alters of the various halls.  The stupa was an impressive structure made of silver.

Throughout the day we only saw one other small group of Chinese tourists visiting the lamasery and a few Tibetan pilgrims.  Wandering from hall to hall we managed to see nearly the entire complex.  We missed the butter sculptures that the lamasery was famous for and a monk tried to take us up and have the hall opened but no one was inside.  They were all very welcoming and accommodating.  An English speaking monk offered to give us a tour but we had already made our way through most of the buildings at that point so we just chatted with him for a while.  He had taught himself English by reading and watching TV.

Around 3:00 we saw a group of monks in full yellow hat attire come out and line up along the wall of the main hall and face into the afternoon sun.  A young member positioned a small table in front of the group.  They proceeded to chant and perform a brief ceremony. At the end the young monk disposed of some of the objects he'd places on the table, collected the small table and they all returned inside the walls.  I had never seen so many lamas in their yellow hat costumes and we were the only people around to stand and watch them.  

At 4:00 we were passing the Great Hall and heard a bunch of scuffling as the monks exited the hall and came flying out the front gate.  They had been chanting for three hours in their puja and seemed happy to have finished.  For all of their apparent seriousness the monks I've met over the years always display a fun-loving spirit.  They are very tolerant of, even curious about, the outsiders that come to visit their monasteries.  The young monks have more latitude that their adult counterparts.  The older monks are patient with them as they learn and they still seem to be allowed to be the children that they are. 

The lamasery shop was an interesting look as well.  They were selling all sorts of herbs for Tibetan medicine as well as other necessities for the lamas.  The oddest items were two human skull caps.  They were indeed real and the shopkeeper told us they are used to hold fire.  This is seen in the Tibetan thangkas, paintings, that adorn the monastery walls but I had never seen real ones.  It is a morbid and disturbing concept to most westerns.  The Tibetan attitude towards death is very different than Christianity.  The dead are offered to nature in a sky burial as a way to complete the circle of life.  Once a person has passed on to their next life, (Tibetans are reincarnationists) the body is seen as a used vehicle, not the remains of a loved one.

Outside the temple we waited for a bus that would take us back to Xining.  The Muslim community in the surrounding village was evident and again reminded us of the peaceful coexistence these cultures seem to have in this part of China.

We caught of up with Greg Jordan for dinner.  He took us to one of the best and inexpensive Chinese food meals we'd had during our trip.  It really helps to go with someone who knows some Chinese, not to mention that it is more fun to share dishes with more people.  

CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30