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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



May 14. TONGREN (Qinghai) "Buying Thagnkas" Viva's friend and the Thangka painter came by our hotel around 11:30 so we could look over the thangkas.  It was only one painter with three thangkas but they all had an impressive amount of detail.  He was only 23 years old but his father had also been a thangka painter and he had been training his entire life.  He had started selling his paintings at the age of 12.

The one we both like best was the largest painting of a 1000 armed Goddess of Mercy.  But, after only seeing three thangkas we were reluctant to buy anything to quickly.  It was also a fair amount of money.  The one we wanted was Y1500.  When we explained that we had to decide how much we could spend and would call him later in the day if we wanted one of his thangkas he dropped the price to Y1300.

We waited until about 1:15 for Viva to arrive and go with us to nearby Sangkeshan village so we could view some more thangkas.  We had planned to meet her at noon but something detained her so at 1:15 we left her a note on our door and went to look at the large Longwu Si monastery complex in Tongren.  

The monastery was built in 1301 and was an extensive group of buildings and halls dedicated to the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism on the edge of town.   The first hall we viewed housed a huge protector deity and was being actively circumambulated by monks, nuns and pilgrims.  In front of the hall we met a young Tibetan man named Raften that spoke some English and offered to walk us around the monastery buildings.  He explained that the monastery was normally busier but it was picking season for the caterpillar finger, the herb we'd seen being sold at the Hui market in Xining, and many people were away from the village. 

Raften also had friends in the nearby village that painted thangkas.  Thangkas were big business for this area. His brother was a monk and he invited us into the monastery lodging area where he was temporarily living with his brother.  The small community of Tongren wasn't enough for him and he was planning to move down to Lhasa within a couple of months.

As we walked through the maze of buildings we came across a courtyard full of monks with a single monk pacing back and forth through the group posing philosophical questions to the group.  We stood outside the gate and were quiet but still drew attention and heads started to turn.  Raften informed us that they were going through their exams so we decide we should move on and not distract them.   Longwu Si was a lamasery with different institutes, like Taer Si, so monks came from all over to be educated here.

Some of the halls of Longwu Si were beautifully repainted with bright new thangkas and detailing while others still maintained their older decoration.  The one unique feature was rows of lights that lined the outside of the halls.  This was for the evening pilgrimages to the monastery, which was apparently the more popular time for the locals to come.  The skill of the local community was apparent in the artwork.  It was nice to see this traditional art form surviving in Tongren.  Some of the temples and monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region could benefit from their skill and it was unfortunate that many of skilled artisans of the TAR had left central Tibet for other regions. 

Our time at Longwu Si was limited since we had told Viva we would come back around 2:30.  We arrived on time and found a note from her telling us she had to take her cousin to see the doctor during her lunch hour and had to return to work for the afternoon and could not come with us to Sankgeshan.  We didn't let that discourage us from going on our own and hired a taxi to drive us out to the village and wait while we looked at the village monasteries and some thangkas.

Sankgeshan was a traditional Tibetan village with mud walls and brick buildings, typical architecture for this kind of geographical area.  It was in really good condition and as we wandered through the narrow alleyways we were met with smiles and nods.  The first monastery we visited was called Upper Wutong monastery.  Some construction was going on in front of the main hall but nearby people waved at us to go on up into the hall.  The interior was stunning.  It was obviously new work but it was very well done.  The copper Buddha was gold plated and much of the thangka work on the surrounding walls was detailed with gold paint.  It was radiant and one of the most impressive Buddhist halls, or gompas, that I have ever seen. Rob seemed equally impressed.  

Tongren and Sangkeshan were great examples of the local community persevering their traditions and religion just as though they had never suffered any repression.  Indeed, it seemed that this little area lived in relative solitude and isolation from its Chinese government.  With a majority Tibetan population in the area, the local Chinese seemed to coexist peacefully. 

As we were gawking at the interior of the gompa one of the monks came to ask if we were interested in seeing thangkas.  Of course we said "yes" and were swiftly shuffled off into their quarters.  He revealed several paintings of various scenes, some mounted with silk borders and others just by themselves.  We were interested in getting one with a Sakyamuni Buddha image and he had one that was relatively inexpensive. He was asking as much as $800 for some of his thangkas but not being experts we couldn't judge the real value and ultimately settled on the Buddha since it was within our budget and we just like it.  We also purchased a picture of the Green Tara made out of silk.  It as all  more rushed than we would have liked. Other monks approached us we left and clearly we could have spent all day looking at thangkas if we'd had the time.

The clock with ticking on our taxi so we wandered quickly in the direction of the Lower Wutong monastery to see if it was as impressive as the Upper Wutong before heading back into Tongren.  In the middle of the village we came across a group of about 20 children singing and playing in a circle.  As soon as they saw as they began to scream and giggle.  I tried to get a photo of the game they had been playing but as soon as I revealed my camera they all squealed and ran in various directions.  I smiled and pointed to my camera, motioning for their approval to take a photo.  One boy raised his hand with an OK and they all began to group together for the picture.  They didn't really stay in a posed position for long but quickly started flowing down the slope towards me smiling and pointing to have their photo taken.  It turned into a battle to see who could get their photo taken.  After assuring several of them that I had gotten them with my camera I put it away and we moved on.  I must have shaken every little hand in the group before they would let us leave.   About 20 feet further I pulled out my camera again to take a photo of the village but quickly heard teams of squealing little voices come running up behind me again for more photos.  I had to pack my camera away until we were out of sight.

The Lower Wutong hall was beginning to close as we got there so we didn't get a good look inside but it didn't appear to be as newly repainted as the Upper Wutong.  The village actually had several other gompas and a huge stupa so a monk walked with us to make sure we arrived at the right place.  It was a shame not to have more time to explore the area.

We arrived back at our taxi later than we had told her but she was still waiting.  One of the older monks that had tried to interest us in his thangkas was in the front seat.  We had told him that we didn't have time because our taxi was waiting so he must have taken the opportunity for a free ride into Tongren.

We were pretty pleased with our thangka purchase but still wanted the nicer Goddess of Mercy we'd seen in the morning.  When Viva stopped by to apologize for not being able to meet us we had her call the thangka painter  to come over.  When he found out that we had made another purchase he wanted to see the other thangka.  It wasn't as good of a quality as his work and he carefully scrutinized the details and explained to us what we should be looking for when we purchased thangkas.  We had already agreed to purchase his thangka so he didn't really have much to gain by spending the time with us but we appreciated the lesson.  In the end we probably overpaid a bit for both thangkas but the comparison between the two gave us a better understanding of the quality and worth of what we were buying.

It has turned into a long and busy day.  We debated about whether or not to stay another day in Tongren but  ultimately decided we would move on to Xiahe in Gansu Province the next morning.  It had started to rain which thwarted our plans to visit Longwu Si again in the evening but we found ourselves content with having some Chinese food at our hotel and just getting to bed.

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