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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



May 16. XIAHE (Gansu Province) Having gotten a good look at the monastery the day before we had already covered Xiahe's main attraction.  The weather was pretty nice in the morning so after a nice breakfast we took a walk to the bus station to buy our tickets for Lanzhou.  All of the shops close to the monastery catered to the Tibetan pilgrims selling jewelry, clothing, and religious items.  Most of these shop owners  appeared to be Tibetan as well. But as we moved away from the monastery the town changed into more shops run by the Chinese and Muslim communities offering practical goods like herbs, cooking supplies, and hardware.  It was like a kind of trading post where people from the remote villages came to stock up on necessities.

We weren't able to buy our bus ticket more than a day ahead so we slowly made our way back through town along the other side of the street, taking in all of the people and various goods for sale.  Rob stopped off at the hardware store to get piece of plastic pipe that would work well for protecting our thangkas.  We had searched for some sort of poster tube but this was not a big necessity for the locals.

At lunch the guys at our hotel told us about a Tibetan sky burial site that wasn't far from the monastery.  The actual burials generally take place early in the morning so they assured us we wouldn't intrude on a family's burial ceremony.  They did tell us the human remains were commonly found and sometimes you would still see the knife used to take apart the body left with the remains.  However, it was becoming more common for Tibetans with financial means to have their family member cremated and only the ashes left at the sky burial site.  

The sky burial spot was actually much closer to the village than we had expected.  A group of Tibetans were coming down the hill from the site when we arrived so we waited for them to leave before we went poking around.  About 20 feet from the trail we saw the charred remains of a skeleton with the ribcage and spine in tact.  It had probably been dragged away from the burial site by one of the hovering birds.  In the sky burial I had witnessed from a distance in Tibet the family did a much better job of disassembling their relatives remains and it seemed odd that such an obvious piece of human remains would be left.  In the burial site itself we didn't find any evidence of human remains. It looked more like piles of ashes with incense burning on top of them and piles of stones stacked here and there which were perhaps a sort of grave.

We continued to climb to the top of the ridge from the burial site.  A man coming down the hill made a strange gesture to me as he past which I later figured out was that we were going the wrong direction.  The path down past the burial area was an off shoot of the monastery's outer kora, the kora which circumambulates the monastery in a wider circle usually taking in a mountain or ridge where people will leave prayer flags and throw a kind of prayer confetti into the air.  When we reached the ridge we stopped there and watched a young Tibetan girl keep track of her herd of sheep.  A cluster of prayer flags was further on down the ridge but continuing to go along the path in the reverse kora would be considered a real faux pas.  As it was we had just come up to the ridge and planned to go straight back down again.  

The view from the ridge was really nice.  The weather was getting pretty cold but we still took a rest and just sat to take in the view.  From that vantage point you could really see the massive size of the monastery complex.  There were about a half dozen large halls within the walls but the rest of the area was filled with housing for the monks.  As we sat on the ridge a family of Tibetan women and two young boys came and sat next to us.  They women were all decked out in their fine clothes and they were just interested to know what we were doing.  Of course we couldn't speak Tibetan and they knew little Chinese so our phrase book wasn't of any use.  We just look at each other and smiled.  They let me take their picture which I showed them on the camera screen.  I tried to ask for their address so I could send them a copy but just couldn't get the message across.  After a while they cheerfully got up and waived goodbye and said "Zaijian" (goodbye in Chinese).

We made our way down the ridge via a steep trail that provided some nice views of the monastery and the trickle of pilgrims that were making their way around the kora.  They were only a fraction of the day before but this monastery was significant and never lacked a steady stream of devotees.  As we walked back to the hotel we let ourselves get sucked once again into the plethora of prayer wheels that ran along the side of the monastery but this time we stopped when we came to the road.  Our arms were still tired from the kora we'd done the day before.

The food at our hotel was so good.  The Nepali chef not only made good Nepali food but did a good job with some western dishes as well.  Xiahe had the biggest pool of tourists we had encountered so far and we repeatedly ran into the same English woman while we were eating. She was coming from Xinjiang via the route we were about to take so she gave us some good info on where to go and what to see.  

May 17. XIAHE (Gansu Province)  The town of Xiahe with its constant pilgrim community was so lively and interesting that we were regretting our decision to leave the next day.  Still the weather had really deteriorated and I was feeling a cold coming on.  It was as though we had changed seasons within a matter of days and it was hard to keep warm anywhere.  The hotel didn't run the heat except for winter and this wasn't technically winter and they had too few guests anyway.  If we weren't moving we just wanted to be under the cozy down comforters in our hotel room.

Rob had found a good Internet cafe down the street from our hotel.  The access was only Y3 per hour and it had a really fast connection.   It wasn't exactly a warm spot either but as the place filled up it was tolerable.  We spent a good three hours, each on our own computers, sorting through mail and catching up on all the emails we wanted to write.   Around us were other tourists doing the same or playing computer games.  The oddest thing was the group of young monks that were playing mortal combat!  I had to believe that the passive nature of Buddhism wouldn't approve of that pastime!   But, we had also seen a young monk is Sangkeshan with a toy gun so perhaps the monastery extended their new recruits more latitude to be young boys than you would expect.  Or perhaps they just don't find games threatening in the way we worry about them in the United States.  After all, has a Tibetan monk ever gone postal?

The only other restaurant in Xiahe that we tried was the monastery restaurant.  It was sort of a dingy little place but the people that ran it were really nice and their kids were a joy to watch play around.  They also served the typical Tibetan foods (momos, noodle soup, milk tea, etc.) that our hotel didn't have (even though it was the Tibetan Overseas Hotel).  We had a filling lunch there of fresh made momos and noodle soup.  They also served a sweet and fruity tea that was called "Muslim Tea", green tea with rock sugar and dried fruits.  

As we were nursing the last bits of our tea and beer a Belgian guy joined us.  It was hard not to acknowledge other travelers when there were so few of us around.  This fellow, Stephen, had been traveling for some eight years!  He was a hard core traveler as well and had some thrilling tales of trips through Tibet with nomads and nuns and fighting off rabid dogs.  It was great entertainment for us.  A British guy came into the restaurant just as we were finishing up.  When his eyes met Stephen's he said, " I know you but not from this trip. It was years ago."  Stephen looked at him closely and said, "Yeah, maybe Calcutta about ten years ago?"  The guy replied, "Yeah, maybe."  Then they both looked as un in bewilderment and said that they really did recognize each other and they were both in a bit of shock over it.  Anyone who ever says that we don't live in a small world doesn't know what they are talking about....

The rest of the afternoon we just spent going through all of the shops around our hotel but weren't particularly moved to buy anything.  Our thangkas had us pretty content for the time being.  The hotel open the door to the roof so we could take a look at the town but it was really too cold to stay up there too long.  In the end we wound up back in our room trying to keep warm.  Even the long johns and fleece jackets weren't enough to keep me warm in the hotel restaurant!  The hotel staff was nice enough to bring up a couple of sandwiches to our room for dinner.

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