June 10, 2009
We’ve settled into village life, haven’t even been here a week and have already had a year’s worth of strange adventures. Things are a bit different than when I was at the house here in 2007. For one thing, the family now has a refrigerator. I was a bit concerned about the electricity that the refrigerator uses; they’ve been using silver folding panels for years to heat water for tea. But now they also have a solar panel that is 12” X 24” and powers two rooms and the refrigerator.
The first day in town, Barb (Barb has now acquired the moniker Bob-boo) and I bought a bunch of vegetables for meals (cauliflower, shallots, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, mushrooms of various kinds, and carrots) and when we looked in the refrigerator later, the only thing in there were bananas in a bowl.
What about the vegetables, we asked—later we would get to the information that bananas don’t go in the refrigerator. Oh, the shang-kee (the refrigerator) isn’t good for them, it’s too cold. We keep them in the root cellar. They’ll spoil in the shang-kee. They had a big chunk of meat in the freezer compartment, but thought this was probably too cold for it, too. Lhamo Choedon rapped on it with a wooden spoon to show me the problem, and sure enough, it was frozen solid.
I looked out over the wall, and sure enough, Ani-La (the sister who is a nun) was climbing into the root cellar like a mouse, and then re-emerged, backing out with the vegetables in her arms.
They also have a new washing machine, which was one of the first things they showed me after we arrived. Despite clothes washing happening in big tubs everyday since we’ve been here (we haul water up from the well in the yard and heat it on the stove with a yak dung fire), we haven’t seen the machine put into action. It sits in the large space below the living quarters, covered with a fitted tarp, making its home mid-way between the yak stalls and the 20’ high neatly-stacked piles of dried yak dung which serve as fuel all year long. These new additions to life in the village have come about because of the generosity of Norbu, their relative who has immigrated to Australia.
But back to yaks. Barb and I have jumped right in with our city slicker ignorance. Years ago when I first came to Tibet I ate the best yogurt in the world that comes from the dri, the female yak. Every time I tasted it, it was slightly different, with faint flavors of meadow or flowers—you could rhapsodize over the thick yogurt just like vintners do over fine wines from the Napa Valley, making up endless descriptions for the subtle flavors and aromas. Recently, after dinner one night, we asked about sho (yogurt)—where was it? I was used to a two litre bowl of it available at all times. It often sat right next to the five pound mound of dri butter that was gobbled up in a few days. Meh song was the word on the sho. It’s gone—there isn’t any. But why? Thus ensued a lengthy discussion about how sho is best in the morning, after the dri is milked at night, and the sho sits and thickens. Sho at night is not so good. Okay, so where’s our morning sho? There isn’t any? But why, there’s two yaks down there. Answer: One yak is too young to produce milk. Okay we get that, but what about the other one? They look at us, puzzled–perhaps we have a communication breakdown. With a stroke of pure genius Barb suggested I ask if the yak was a male and that was why there wasn’t any. Indeed. They looked at us incredulously. It hadn’t even occurred to them as we worked the yogurt conversation from several different directions that we were missing the basic fact that the yak (which by the way is the biggest, stud-liest yak in the village) was a male and wouldn’t be giving milk anytime soon in this lifetime. We told them we were just “de-tsi, de-tsi, khuk-pa”—a little stupid in the head, and they got a laugh out of that.
The fourth day we were here, Uncle Soega came to say that while all the villagers were circumambulating the main prayer wheel, the police came and asked about foreigners in the village. Uncle Soega (who is my plant guide when I am in Tibet during the summers) told them he didn’t know too much about us, but we were Americans and just here looking at wild flowers and would leave soon. They said they would be back at night to check our papers. Photos of the Dalai Lama were taken down and hidden in the temple room (which doesn’t seem like too much of a hiding place to me, but I assume they know what they’re doing). The family also removed several photos of me and their brother/nephew/uncle Rinchen. As a monk who raised a sign for Free Tibet, Rinchen was arrested and put in prison. After three years of being half-starved and tortured, he was released and escaped to Dharamsala where I met him on the street. We became fast friends and I now serve as the living link to his family, who never expect to see him again.
As the world turns, Rinchen was given a visa by the Australian Government in 2007 (something they did for 50 Tibetan high profile ex-political prisoners), so almost every day he calls us from Sydney and checks in. While we eat yak meat momos and sit in our mud house, with a dome of trillions of stars glittering above us in the Milky Way, Rinchen is often on break from his job as an aide at a nursing home, or sitting on Bondi Beach in Sydney with Tibetan friends.
Rinchen has described his low-pay/hard work job to me as, “As the very best job I could ever have. It makes me very happy. I love taking care of these old people. They are often angry at the world and I like to talk to them and make them happy and help them change their dirty clothes.”
With the news of a possible police arrival, I laid out the painting supplies and gave Barb a quick lesson in painting leaves, so we could look like authentic flower painters, but the police never showed up, and we’ve almost forgotten the whole scare even happened.
Yesterday afternoon, unexpectedly a man showed up at the house who looked almost exactly like Uncle Tsering Ngodhup, same nose, mouth and eyes. Yee-Doh is, in fact, a stepbrother—they have the same father and are one year apart in age. He came to thank me for my financial assistance when his brother, a Lama from Gansi Monastery, fell ill. This was several months ago. Rinchen had told me the Lama was ill and in great pain and no one had money for him to go to Chengdu to get proper assessment or medical care. I sent the money so he could go and be taken care of, but he died a month ago, at the age of 55 years. This Lama was the main teacher at the nunnery up the mountain where Rinchen’s sister is a nun. I first met him 4 years ago. Yee-Doh held my hand and wept as he talked about how this was his younger brother, a very kind Lama, always willing to do anything to help the nuns learn. His road had been hard and he should not have been the one to die first. He showed us all photos of the funeral pyre burning on the mountain with monks from Gansi Monastery and nuns from Gedun Choeling Nunnery in attendance, praying for his positive rebirth.
Late in the morning, we went to a hot springs about 45 minutes away. It is owned by a monastery, where (wouldn’t you know it?) the very large natural pool is mostly for men and monks and it is bad form for women to get in there, too. There is another much, much smaller area for the girls. It is a warm pool behind some rocks and the nearby ground is strewn with empty laundry soap packages and shampoo bottles, with the occasional flip flop scattered in among the litter. We scrubbed down and were on our way, stopping briefly on the main road (a two-laner with a car or truck going by every 15 minutes) to buy snacks from a Chinese vendor. He was pushing his cart like a popsicle wagon from village to village, and sliced off some translucent noodles –maybe soy- dowsed them with chili, leaving off the MSG for us foreign types, and we chowed down on the roadside. As we continued to drive toward Oh Szang Village, he was already pushing his cart along the empty road, the next village not even in sight,
As I write this now, Bob-boo is hoeing the potato fields with Lhamo Choedon, the snow of Khowalangri Mountain shining in the distance. Lhamo Choedon takes care of the daily family needs, herds yaks several days a month and is the sole person responsible for bringing in the crops-barley, potatoes and peas. She has several acres to work, no irrigation system–and, as you might guess, is a few years behind on the job. Almost every day she has a major migraine headache (what other kind of migraine is there, after all?)–which we can’t figure out if it is from the sun, from being dehydrated, or just the long view of her life of toil.
I shall take a turn at the potatoes after I haul up buckets of water from the well, and as the sun goes down, we’ll be set for a dinner of thukpa (noodles and vegetables) and another round of mysteries.
May 25-June 1, 2009
Okay, I take a lot of it back. After that last letter, we arranged for the expensive truck, went out for spaghetti and meat balls again to get ourselves ready, came back to the hotel at 10:00pm to find Uncle Wangyal sitting in the lobby waiting for us. He had come in from 1.5 hours away out in the country for the second time that day, and said he had a truck. A young woman with a very beautiful face and abrasive voice got on her cell phone and starting yelling at God knows who, Jason (English nom de plume of our handsome hotel manager who I have a crush on) translated between Chinese and English, and after only 2 hours of yelling and the Tibetans’ phone ringing every two minutes (Jason: “My God, they’re busier than I am and I run a 145 room hotel!” Me: “They must be drug dealers–that’s the only explanation.”), it was decided that we would leave at 6:30 am with the new/old truck with a Chinese driver who was a friend of some one or other and spoke no English. During all of this fol-de-rol, the Tibetan dance troupe arrived back in full costume from a successful performance at the Intangible Culture Festival and ran exuberantly around the lobby leaping and singing Tibetan opera and punching each other in the arms.
We left Chengdu at 6:30am on schedule and drove for 40 hours (usually takes 18 hours). We had to buck road construction for hours, a blinding snowstorm coming over a 16,000 foot pass, and a driving rainstorm with rain coming at us like crystal swizzle sticks.
The driver kept talking to us in Chinese and looking at road signs, asking me where to go. I had no idea, as I don’t read Chinese and couldn’t remember the way to Gansi–all yak herds were looking the same.
The fun nature of the trip was added to by a leak of freezing water coming in through the roof of the cab-right over Barb’s head. Being Barb, she gamely just wadded up a plastic bag and balanced it on her hair to ward off a potentially severe head cold.
Finally we crossed the last high pass (Gye La Pass–4,290 m/14,075 ft) and descended into the fabulous Tagong grasslands (a bit snow-covered for our arrival, but grasslands none the same). We pulled into our hotel about 10:00pm, falling out of the cab and into the hugs of the hotel’s owner. I’ve been through here before and they are always a warm, inviting group, chattering away. They showed us our rooms, and ran to the kitchen to start preparing a meal of thukpa (vegetable soup), rice, yak meat, potatoes–enough for a hungry party of forty, although we were the only guests.
Early morning, we were on the road again, the potholes and mud slides hardly fazing us. In the fields were decorated ponies and people with red yard woven in their hair, topped off with big amber and ivory headdresses and huge chunks of turquoise hanging from their ears. Snow covered the fields and the yaks in the meadows who also sported red yarn in their tails. We passed the beautiful homes made of native stone–they have a crisp rich feel–and indeed the Tagong grasslands are known for their fertile fields and fine architecture.
The Tibetan Plateau is known for its highly decorated windows and doors on stores, hotels, homes and monastic centers–designs include mountains, animals like the snow lion, flowers, leaves and the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.
The snow gradually disappeared and the roads improved a slight bit, cheering us up immensely. There is nothing that makes your heart skip and speaks more to being in Tibet than rounding a bend in the road and seeing Om Mani Padme Hung (often spelled and pronounced by Westerners as Hum)–the Tibetan prayer to end suffering for all sentient beings painted on the hillside high above a village.
. . . or driving by a village and seeing prayer flags stretching up the mountainsides, fluttering in the wind, sending out these same prayers of compassion out into the universe.
The weather began to clear before Tagong, where we stopped briefly at Lha-Khang Monastery, one of those shining examples that the Chinese Government has on display to show that all is well in the land of Tibetan Buddhism. I could be wrong about the public relations motivation on this one, but I have been there many times and have never seen more than a few monks on the grounds, and never heard or seen a ritual in progress.
Hours later (9:00pm), after more hours of insanely inefficient 10km/hour road construction, we crossed the final pass that signaled we were almost in Gansi. It was just in time–we were all ready to crack.
In the village of Oh Szang, a short drive beyond Gansi, we were greeted with tears and hugs by the villagers, and within minutes a fight with the driver had ensued because I had agreed to pay him more for the trials and tribulations of the trip and they thought I shouldn’t and insisted I not, hustling me into the house (We’ll take care of this!!”).
Jason had been calling all day from Chengdu to track our progress (world’s most nurturing hotel manager) and got on the phone and talked to everyone while the driver and the villagers yelled. Finally, I had Jason tell the driver I would give him the agreed upon fare in front of everyone, he should accept it graciously, and I would slip the remaining $130 “tip” under his seat in the truck. This came down with no further problems–we all went in the mud house to eat momos (including the driver), and be force fed with cookies and tea, and slept a sound sleep after being tucked in by Lhamo Choedon, my friend Ricnhen’s sister, and a woman who has become a friend like family over the last years.
Today we put one of the fab tents up and Uncle Soega went off to town to negotiate for tent poles, spikes and other accessories.