March 7th - Lijiang
I came to Lijiang, Yunnan province to start a new project. Besides the interiors of houses I want to try to make pictures of the social spaces in monasteries. Usually this will be the kitchen. In Northern Yunnan and in the adjacent province Sichuan there are a lot of famous Tibetan monasteries. It will not always be easy to get authorization to come in . Women can not always enter and also the Chinese government can stop me to travel into stipulated areas. I rent a part of a Chinese house from a French couple, who have started an artist residency here. The house is in one of the villages near by.
The old town of Lijiang is a World Heritage Site and one of the “musts” for national and international tourism. In reality it is no more than Disneyland at its worst. After the earthquake of 1998, where the bulk of the old town was destroyed, the Chinese government has not restored the old town but they built a complete new “old town” best suited to attract millions of most Chinese tourists. There are streets and streets full of the same buildings, filled with shops and guesthouses. All shops sell the same souvenirs. Probably they are also all property of the same company. There is some talk of the Chinese mafia having taken over most of the streets. It is difficult to move forward in the small streets. The whole old town is full with Chinese tourist. For me there is nothing here to take pictures of. This is all fake.
March 11st - Puji Si
My guide Ahong has arrived from Dali. We traveled already together in 2007 through Qinghai and Xinjiang. Today we went to see the monasteries around Lijiang. Wenfeng Temple lies on a hill. It is a steep climb to come up, so soon we are rid of most of the tourists. Only Tibetan pilgrims around us. Unfortunately only a couple monks live at the monastery. Therefore the kitchen is very bare. To come to the temple we had to drive through some villages and then along one of the four golf courses in Lijiang. The 5th golf course is already on its way. Although it is very dry around Lijiang and the farmers have great difficulties growing their crop, a lot of garden folk are watering the plants and the grass. Along the golf course a large number of luxurious villas have been build. They all have a great view on the small lake and Dragon Snow Mountain with its beautiful cap of snow. The next temple near Lijiang is Puji Temple in another small village. Again a steep climb through a pine forest. We are the only visitors. One older monk is sitting in the kitchen, chatting with two old ladies from Lijiang. They come often to pray at the temple. Three very young and shy monks are preparing food. Along the wall in the very dark kitchen there is an abundance of hams and sausages hangingto dry. On the cutting board there is a large heap of pork fat waiting for the wok. We are invited to join them for lunch. Ahong is strictly veganist so this is not her kind of food. But we have to accept a cup of butter tea. Later the driver takes us to a roadside restaurant. The food is excellent.
In the afternoon we intend to visit Yufeng Temple. This is supposed to be the most famous temple around Lijiang. Already outside the number of tourist busses warns us for what is to come. To come to the entrance of the temple you have to follow a small path lined with tourist shops, musicians and dancing ladies, who stop dancing the moment you do not raise your camera to take a picture. If you do they will ask you for money straight away. The temple is a disappointment. Again no monks living there. In a small back alley of the monastery we find a very old and little used kitchen – very barren. Only one old man seems to be living there.
March 14th - Coming to "Shangri La"?
We have decided to take the bus to Zhongdian – at 170 km NW of Lijiang. Since 2001 this place is officially called Shangri-la, after the holy place in the famous book of James Hilton. Since then tourism has been booming with the same results as in Lijiang. Zhongdian however is much smaller en still keeps some of its former character. In the temple in town Zong Gu Zu there is only one monk on duty. The chanting comes from an electronic sound system. The temples outside town – La Ke and Lin A both house a few monks. The kitchens are their living rooms, very dark but coosy and a large flat screen TV is on all the time. To reach Lin A you have to make a steep climb and our driver brought his daughter to help to carry my heavy photo bag. Tibetan women take care of most of the heavy work. In the Gun Ba temple women are not allowed to see the big kitchen. But fortunately there is also a smaller one. In this kitchen 6 monks cook all the food for 185 monks.An even smaller kitchen serves as the place to dry the hams and sausages. It takes some talking before I get permission to take a picture here.
After visiting the temples the driver takes us home to his village and shows us several Tibetan houses. Form the outside these houses look like fortresses – heavy stone walls, with on the first floor only a few small windows. Inside there is a very large, but also very dark living room. Most of the light comes from the ceiling. The stove has a small chimney that goes through a big open space to the loft and ends there. There is no hole in the roof. The smoke has to disappear through both open sides in the gable. In the opening meat is hanging to dry and the blather of several pigs to keep the house safe for fire. Next to the stove an open fire with four copper pots to cook – two for food for people and two for the animals. The walls are filled with very elaborate wood carvings. We are amazed and speechless because of the size and the wealth of these interiors. But the butter tea and tsampa – butter tea with barley flour - make us soon feel at home.
March 18th - visiting an 8 year old 'Living Buddha'
The idea was to travel from Zhongdian first up to Dechen, almost on the Tibetan border and from there to follow the Mekong river to Weixi. Along this road there are several small monasteries and Catholic churches. But the road to Weixi is closed because of repairs on the road. You can pass only on a saturday but you cannot reach Weixi in one day. So we had to return from Dechen the same way we came. Also on this road there were roadblocks and we could only pass certain parts of the road in certain periods of time. The time in between we used for visiting houses in several villages. In one village the people were preparing for chanting for a dead relative and therefore we were not welcome, but in another house the chanting had just finished and we were invited to come into the big circle of family members andstay for a meal. Unfortunately this was not possible because of the road block. We would not have been allowed to travel on. A little bit North of Nixi our driver took an unpaved road along the Yangtse and so we arrived at Tacheng last night. On this trip wevisited the house of a Living Buddha in a village somewhat away from the road. What a beautiful spot in a narrow valley with many fruit trees in full bloom.
To day we want to visit the four monasteries on the mountain in front of our hotel but that means making a very long and steep climb. I am unsure whether I can make it. But we decide to try it at least. After half an hour on a very steep and difficult trail we arrive at the first monastery – new and not very interesting. From here the trail goes on for more then an hour – as steep and difficult as before. On the trail a Tibetan family – grownups, small children, babies and grandmother – passes us, happily chatting with each other. I need all my breath for each next step. But we reach the very old monastery at the top, half hidden in a cave. On this place monks have lived for over 300 years. Again only two young monks who alternate praying during most part of the day. We can make pictures in several rooms of the monastery and then we start to go down to visit the third monastery. This one is also old but very large, almost the size of a small village. Once many monks have lived here. Now they will only come for a festival. The meat storage is well prepared for receiving several hundreds of people. I never saw so many hams hanging to dry from one ceiling. The big kitchen is now almost out of use, but still impressive.
On the way down there is one more monastery to visit. We meet the old monk Con Chu outside and are invited to enter his personal living space. He came on this hill 67 years ago, when he was only a boy and he has never left the place. The living space is nothing more then a wooden platform with a stove in the middle. Around the stove some mats to sleep on. In each of the three walls around the platform a small window. A young monk comes running from the field. He is playing with his self made bow and arrow. I ask for his age. The old monk tells us, that he is 8 years old and acknowledged as the reincarnation of an old Living Buddah. So this small boy is now a Living Buddah himself and has to stay in the monastery for the rest of his live. Much to the honour of his parents of course. This monastery is part of a small mountain village that can only be reached by foot or by horse. So we decide to take a look inside some of the houses. In a very dark room the first thing we spot is a big and colourful poster of Chairman Mao. What a contrast in this black Tibetan house. Outside again we see several very dark clouds coming over the mountain top. It is time to leave as quick as possible. We have just reached the first monastery again when the storm breaks loose. Heavy guts of wind and rain and fierce lightning. The monk kindly serves us tea and after half an hour we can move further down until we reach the spot were we have left the car.
March 25th - Lugu Lake
Lugu Lake is a mountain lake on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan province. Ahong and I have decided to come here, because we want to meet the Moso people. Around the lake several minorities have their villages. Moso, Pumi and some Yie. Most of the Yie live higher up in the mountains but the government urges them to come down to the valley to have better living circumstances and give the children the possibility to go to school.
But the Yie have never been farmers and the hard work on the fields is not yet intheir genes. Their houses are very small and poor. Small log cabines without windows or chimney. Light comes in through the openings between the logs and the smoke has to go out through these openings as well. Inside the cabin a small fireplace with one cooking pot and some food bowls and a few mats to sleep on. That is all. They feed themselves with buckweat pancakes and potatoes, whichthey roast between the hot coals in the fire. The Moso and Pumi are better off.
They have large houses, but also without windows or chimney. Some light comes in from the ceiling, but further they have to rely on the light of the open fires or electricity. But not all places have electricity during the day. In every house there are two open fires that only smoulder for the biggest part of the day and night. The smoke has difficulty to find its way out through the openings in the gable or cracks in the roof. A big part of the room is black from soot.
Today our driver took us to a Moso village two hours walking from the road. The Moso are still a matriarchal society. The women are the head of the house and the land, the farm and everything else belongs to them. Marriage doesnot exist in the Moso society. A woman and a man can decide to have a child together, but each stays inhis own family. The man has little to do with the upbringing of the child. Uncles perform the role of the male in the house.
We first have to climb some steep slopes, but then we walk through a wonderful, very old rhodondenderon forest andother huge old trees with grey leeches hanging from the branches. Unfortunately it is to early yet for the flowers. The houses we visit inLi Jia Zui are black in- and outside and very dark. But one is very rich decorated with swastika’s and many white dots. These are ancient Buddhist decorations and are renewed every New Year festival. They expresses the hope for wealth and happiness. On the way back we pass three very dark old ladies in long black and tattered coats and gowns. They sit happily chatting around a small fire, while their flock of black pigs wanders around.
April 2nd - off into Tibetan area's
For this part of the trip I have got a Tibetan guide, who will also be my driver. We need a4wheeldrive, as the roads will be very rough and there can also still be a lot of snow. We will try to reach as many monasteries as possible, but we have no idea what problems – if any – lay ahead of us. Of course we will also visit a number of houses when we are on the road. The last days we toke already some pictures around Zongdian, but here visiting houses has become a part of the services offered to tourism. You have to pay for the use of the road and you are expected to eat lunch in every house and leave a rather large sum of money. So it is time we leave for villages that are of the main tourist roads. First my guide Non Bu will take me to his home village.
I am surprised at the large number of houses that are built in every village and the seeming wealth of them. My guide Non Bu tells me that almost all the wood for the houses is for free, as they come from the forest around the village. The walls are made of stamped earth only. All the villagers help to build the house and you only pay them with food as long as they help building. Everything that is expensive in western houses is not there. There is hardly any electricity and no bathroom, kitchen, running water, or plumbing in the house. The elaborate woodcutting is paid by giving the workers one or two yaks. His brother is just building a very large new house and the craftsmen live and work in a tent next to the building. Non Bu’s father has been elected as the village leader and we are welcomed in almost every house. I can see that Mao is still considered to be a very important leader. When we drive on Non Bu takes off his baseball cap every time we pass a stupa. If possible he will pass the stupa clockwise. Even when that means taking the car of the main road.
April 3rd - into the snow
We stopped last night in Xiangceng, just inside Sichuan. We arrived late as we got stuck in the snow on the mountain pass. It is very cold. We will first visit the local monastery which houses over 700 monks. It has a very impressive kitchen and even a dining room. Not much signs of food. Usually in these kitchens only butter tea is made and the monks have their own barley flower to make tsampa. Very seldom real meals are cooked in the big squaldrons and even then it will not be much more then noodles with soup from (yak)meat and little vegetables. Nowadays many monks cook their own food in the woodstoves in their own quarters.
Going east but get again stuck on a mountain pass. There is still very much snow in the mountains and often the cleared road is too narrow to let big trucks and busses pass each other. Also many cars donot have snow chains or are driving on summer tires. It takes a lot of skills to regulate the traffic to stop cars from blocking the road. No policemen in sight. Problems as this are common and usually sorted out by the people together. This time the blockade takes 6 hours so we donot come further then Daocheng. Along the road many villages with very interesting and impressive houses. The earthern walls are grey and the decorations in this area have no colours. All woodwork is painted black and decorated with white dots in a regular pattern. The villagers – men and women - are working together to build a draining system to lead the water away from the land, when the big masses of snow will start melting. All the hard digging is done by hand.
April 4th - Litang
Today we hope to reach Litang – an important Tibetan centre in the middle of the plateau. But first we take a road into Yading National Park . No luck, Gongalin Gumba has no kitchen anylonger. Non Bu tells me that the old kitchen was still there last year. But Gongalin Gumba has become an official tourist site and the old kitchen was not considered appropriate for the new modern Chinese society. Besides no big ceremonies are held any longer in this monastery, so the need for the big kitchen is gone. Only a few monks take care of the necessary rites. On the way back we visit a house at the other side of the river. The wooden bridge has just been repared but we still have to walk to reach the house. In the big hall on the second floor a number of yak carcasses are hanging from the ceiling. Not much meat is left on the bones. Inside the family lives on the floor of the house. The room is pitch dark and black from soot. Only a little light comes through the opening in the ceiling.
Along the road there are many modern houses build. Everybody seems to have large expectations, now the Yading National Park has been opened for all tourists. But around the big stupa’s all the old people are still gathering. We try to visit some old houses that are lying on a small hill at a bend of the river, almost like a castle. But we are not allowed to enter. Everywhere where tourists are expected, the police warns the people not to let them inside their house.
The road to Litang is on the plateau. There is still much snow on the road. Beautiful sights of snow peaks on both sides and many yaks along the road. The track to the summer places seems to have started. There are several old and new monasteries along the road. Two of them are consecrated to the Dalai Lama with big pictures of him above the main altar. Non Bu is delighted. He starts his private collection of pictures from the Dalai Lama in his mobile phone.
April 5th - meeting with nomads
Litang has one of the largest monasteries in Sichuan. Over 2000 monks are living here. The kitchen is amazing with the most beautiful light I could wish for. No problems at all to take pictures. Until now it has been more difficult to take pictures in private homes then in the monasteries. We are welcome in both the kitchen and in the private rooms of the monks.
When we drive on to Yaliang we visit on the roadside the winter houses of some nomad people. Around the houses there lay a number of dead yaks. The late snow has been too much for them. In the houses there is the utmost poverty. Still we are very welcome. The live in these houses does not differ much from that in the tents. A special kind of sod covers the floors and also the roofs. Other floors are just mud floors. Many windows are only closed by a piece of cardboard. The houses are laying in the shelter of a mountain that will keep the worst wind away. But still it gets very cold in this area in winter. We are on over 4000m. Several houses have no furniture at all, some have only an iron bed. There are many kids and even three small babies. They must have been born in the middle of the winter. Are they born in these houses? Did the women assist each other? Non Bu doesnot speak much English and I donot know whether questions of this kind are appropriate. I am allowed to give some money to the babies. Anything else they will not accept.
On the pass again there are trucks that could not make it. It is over 4700m and the gasoline has frozen. It takes us three hours to pass the blockade. When we have to wait for such a long time at this altitude I get a splitting headache. I do not drink enough during the day, but there is no place for any kind of sanitary stop along the road. No lunch for Non Bu either. He does not want to eat the nuts I toke along. He has problems with his teeth. Also apples he is not used to eat. He seems to thrive well on sweet “French breads”, a new product of modern China. The long road to Yaliang is in very bad condition, but the views are amazing. Still I am exhausted when we arrive in the hotel.
April 6th - the Dalai Lama in 3D
On the road to Daofu again trucks got stranded. The drivers burn old tires to heat the frozen gasoline. We wade through the snow to a small tent. Again several dead yaks. First there had been warmer weather, so the shepherd had left the winter home to come here to graze his yaks. But then the snow came back and now he has not enough fodder for the animals. In the tent he keeps three young yaks next to his small fireplace and also an older one that is highly pregnant. He tries to safe at least these few animals.
A new monastery along the road, with a large 3D picture of the Dalai Lama. On the walls not fresco’s but vinyl wallpaper with fresco prints. Outside there is a huge marble statue of one of the important gods. The priest is very proud and happy to show us around. In Gateleh Gumba the praying session has just ended and the many young monks are happily chatting outside. In the temple their red capes are left the way they toke them off. Many tea bowls laying around and bottles of coca cola for a drink. It is clear that soon the praying will start again. We are urged to come for tea in the kitchen at the entrance. Soon it becomes clear why. One of the monks wants to sell us ivory bracelets and hairpieces. We are always interested to look, but not to buy.
The weather gets worse and we get caught in a heavy snowstorm. We can only vaguely see the people along the road heading for home. Even the 4wheeldrive car gets into a nasty slip and we land into the ditch. But fortunately we manage to come out by ourselves. Roads here are only misery!
April 8th - on forbidden roads
Yesterday, along the road to Kandze, we tried again to visit some houses. But the people were too afraid to let us in. Also the monastery kitchen seems to be closed and the men with the key has left. When we tried the door, it was open and people were working inside.
Today we will try to come to Ya Chi monastery on the middle of a high plateau and far away from any city. Only a small country road is going there. Again trouble on the high pass, always the same story. Busses can not cross and the passengers have to walk over by themselves. If they are lucky they will find a buss waiting for them at the other side. While we are waiting a fierce and heavy snowstorm breaks out and everybody tries to find cover in one of the waiting cars. We take two monks from Ya Chi with us. Again some new monasteries on the plateau, but also the very old and almost deserted Tonguh Gumba. The monastery seems to be closed. But the monks know a farmer living on the complex. After some talking we are allowed to visit his rooms and are upset about what we find. 3 generations living in one small room. Two women are clearly ill and in bed. All the kids are coughing badly. Life on this altitude is very hard. We move on to Ya Chi monastery, which baffles me even more. This monastery looks on first sight more like a refugy camp. Along a number of very narrow roads ‘houses’ made of old wood, mud, cotton, some plastic and all kinds of used materials are the homes of 2000 monks and nuns. Many of them are out in the narrow streets. Dark red figures everywhere. We find the kitchen and there are even more people. Young girls with bright paper flowers are very happy chatting with each other. A high lama is expected and they are all hoping to meet him. Many people have been cooking large amounts of meat and sweet cookies for the occasions. All the food will be transported to the main temple in the blue plastic buckets, that used to contain the butter for the oil lamps. The kitchen is full of people, so no chance to take a picture.
It is late already and we have to find a place to sleep in the nearby village. In a ‘guesthouse’ for truckers we find a bed. There is not enough electricity for all the TV’s in the village, so the light is out every few minutes. The cook has to do its job by candlelight.
April 9th - Ya Chi, home to 10.000 young monks
Happy to leave the guesthouse. The toilet space was outside in the yard and in the open. There was a female corner, which I shared with sculls and bones of slaughtered yaks. I had been warned not to use it in the night, as in the dark it was the free space for the dogs. No water to wash, so only a swift teeth brushing out in the village street. So do the owners of the guesthouse. Straight after a harty breakfast of noodles and yak meat we return to the monastery.
Not so many people around, but we wander off in the narrow streets. We are allowed to visit some of the small huts. A 14 year old monk is cooking noodles for his friends who will soon come back from prayers in the temple. On his bed his teddy bear next to his portable radio and music disks. He looks happy and healthy.
All these monks and nuns are members of a new congregation who have gathered here to pray for world peace. The houses are self made from all kind of obsolete materials. How do they manage in winter with heavy snow and low temperatures. None of the houses have water inside and there are no toilets around. Monks and nuns just squat down and do their necessities in the street under cover of their long robes. The whole place is one big rubbish-dump, especially along the river from which they also take the water. But all the people seem to be very happy and from many of the walls in the small houses the Dalai Lama is smiling friendly.
In the big kitchen there are no signs any more from the party from yesterday. All the blue buckets are empty and cleaned. It is clear that you can cook here easily for several thousands of people. Big tree trunks outside. The monastery kitchen uses wood to heat the enormous stoves, although there are no trees around. We are far above the timberline. We take a tour around on the wide stretched monastery grounds. Everywhere small huts with hardly any space in between. All huts have their own fire-place and smoke is rising from all the little chimneys. What about fire protection in those houses?Around the overcrowded housing areas there are open spaces with a lot of small huts. I wonder what they are for. For private praying perhaps. But they turn out to be the bathrooms of the monastery. If you want to have some privacy you take a thermos with hot water and you have a space to wash and clean yourself. According to Non Bu they are also used as toilets. I did not go and have a look.
A very cold wind starts blowing over the plateau and a little snow comes with it. We still have a long way to go so it is better to leave. This is the most remarkable monastery I have ever been in. I am surprised the Chinese authorities allow foreigners to come and take pictures of this remarkable, but also very soddy place. Back to the guesthouse for a good lunch. You never know when will be your next meal. And then on the road again. Soon nature gets more friendly as we reach lower grounds on the plateau. Near Baiyu we even see fruit trees blossoming. For the first time in many days, I am not cold until my bones during supper.
April 10th - taken hostage
In and around Baiyu there are some famous monasteries, but the most famous of all – Gamtok Gumba has no kitchen any more. Also this monastery is soon going to be a tourist site. On the very old site high on a mountain extensive building activites are going on in full speed. Instead of silence there is the horrendous noice of drilling machines to ancher the hughe concrete constructions into the steep rock. Some new temples are ready and in full glory with very shiny golden roofs. Before this monastery was a small city, with even its own hospital. The building is standing empty now and left to decay. Perhaps soon another new concrete construction will take its place. Perhaps a hotel or a restaurant. The place has an amazing view of the surrounding mountains and the new golden temples. The small courtyard between the old temple and the empty kitchen building gives much away from the serene atmosphere of old times.
When we decide to return to Baiyu a monk askes us to take him with us. It is ca. 20 km to come down to the valley and the bus has left already. Of course he is welcome. As there was nothing for me to take pictures of at the monastery I want to try to visit some houses and the monks offers to act as a guide. We are let in and visit an amazing kitchen on the third floor of a large Tibetan house. The first and second floor are used as stables and storage. You can only come up by taking two steep ladders hidden in the dark. Our host assits me with the light of a very small torch. The others just have to feel their way up. After the usual welcome I start to take pictures, but after the first picture our host starts to ask for money. He wants the equivalent of Eur. 200,00. I tell him that this was not agreed upon and decide to leave, but he doesnot let me go. As my guide and the monk have already gone down the ladder he tries to stop me. I am happy the monk is with us, because Non Bu starts to get very angry.I quietly losen the grip of the hands of the man from the wooden banister along the ladder and go down by myself. At the next ladder the same story. Finally the man gives in and we can all three leave the building without difficulties. This is the first time in China that I have come into such an akward situation. Sometimes people ask for money and sometimes we give money without being asked for. But in these areas the attitude towards tourists is very different. For money they easily forget the advices from the Chinese authorities. But threatening people and taking them almost as a hostage is an experience I never had before.
April 11th - lollipops
After our experiences yesterday I am not in the mood to day for visiting private houses. Fortunately Dégé has three monasteries in the middle of town, so we take a walk around. Again the old kitchen is closed, but we find one in a cellar across the road. If we are quick we are allowed to take a picture, but the monk is clearly afraid for the police.
In the next place everybody is relaxed and especialy the 15 very young monks who are playing in front of the kitchen. It takes a long time before Non Bu can stop from from entering the kitchen for a few minutes. I carry lollipops with me all the time for the kids and this for a start does the trick. But we have to promise them that they will be allowed to look through the camera afterwards. None of them is over 10 years old and they are a happy lot and They are brought here by their parents and are supposed to stay in the monastery for the rest of their lives.
The last monastery has a very special kitchen with very exotic drawings on the wall. But this is the first kitchen in which I am not allowed to take pictures. I look very sad for a while, but nothing helps. We decide to move on but shortly outside Dégé we get a flat tire. Bad luck for without a spare tire we cannot move on. So it is back to Dégé and wait for another day. In town we hear that we would not have been able to travel much further anyhow. The road is blocked for repairs and the checkpoint higher on the road has to be passed before 11 o’clock in the morning.
April 12th - earthquake
So it is up early and on the road as soon as we can. The tire has been mended. We pass an interesting small monastery, but it is closed. Through the window we see the same drawings on the wall as yesterday. In the early morning light the praying flags are very beautiful. As thin as they are, it is almost like the sunlight is radiating through the fabric. This time it is no problem to come over the pass, although there is still enough snow along the road. Somewhat lower again a group of mud houses and a lot of very grubby Tibetan children in traditional cloth. These coats are so thick that it will not be easy to wash them and they may take a very long time to dry. The houses are summerhouses made of mud, sod and thin branches on a beautiful spot near a small lake. Very friendly people who let me take pictures without problems.
We arrive for lunch in Maniganggo – a kind of small roadside town, much like the towns in American westerns. We had the plan to travel north from here to Serxu – a very famous monastery. But it is still 200km over a very bad road. Non Bu is not very eager to make the trip. So we decide to skip the plan and stay overnight in Maniganggo. But we can visit the surroundings in the afternoon. We are again on the Tibetan plateau with its vast plains and rolling hills. Now almost all the snow is gone and it has become less cold during the day. We visit monks taking a swim and washing their cloth in the river. They are all students from a new teaching monastery. We visit several new temples that look more Thai then Tibetan with stone elephants standing in front of the entrance. Refined buildings with lots of small golden roofs. They donot fit on thiswide and barren landscape. Also Non Bu is surprised and for him this type of Tibetan buildings is not common.
On the road a sign from one more monastery but we have no idea how far it will be. A passing Tibetan on his motorcycle offers to take us there. Again a strange building and the kitchen is closed. But we are invited to the private room of the monks. On the way back our guide takes us to his house – a very neat and clean Tibetan kitchen. Not as impressive as the houses we have been in before, but very friendly people, who cannot understand that we want to make a picture of their house instead of them. So we sleep that night in Maniganggo and not in Serxu as was the original plan. Only a few days later we hear of the earthquake of that night. On TV we see what is left of the hotel we would have stayed in. Several guides, cab-owners and tourists got killed that night in that place.
April 15th - tornado and out of luck
The road from Maniganggo to Kandze was lined by monasteries, but many of them were almost deserted. Only a few monks had stayed for the necessary rites, now the big praying sessions (pudjah’s) are not allowed anymore. Kandze is an important Tibetan centre in Sichuan and the Chinese authorities do not allow big gatherings in this area.
In between the monasteries there were pretty villages and Tibetan farmers working on the fields with traditional farming equipment. I did not see one tractor. All the work is still done by hand, if necessary with the help of the yaks. But most of the heavy work is done by the women. We tried to talk to some of the farmers, but they were not very happy to have contact with foreigners. Only for money they were willing to let us come inside. I felt better not to try.
Shortly before Kandze the sky turned almost black and a small tornado passed over our heads. We had to take shelter by the thick walls of a monastery building. All the dirt on the ground was flying around us. Within a minute the car window was covered by dust and dirt. I tried to get out to make pictures, but it was impossible to stay on your feet. In no time I had sand and grit between my teeth. Not a good moment to take the camera out of the car. After one hour it was all over and we were invited in for tea by the monks.
After Kandze I wanted to return to Ya Chi monastery. It is a long way out, but I was so overwhelmed at the first visit, that I wanted to go back to take more pictures. Again the pass was blocked, but not for a very long time, so the trip went much faster. Once more we had a flat tire and during that stop a police car stopped next to us and we had a friendly chat. So I thought. But at the entrance of the Ya Chi monastery the local police was waiting for us. From this year on foreigners were no longer allowed to visit the monastery. I was not surprised. Nothing else to do then to return to the same guesthouse in the village. This evening it was very cold again and we were all standing around the cooking fire. Here we got the first news about what happened in Serxu two nights ago and slowly I started to realize that it was only by miracle that we were still alive.
So I couldnot be bothered that we came out all this way for nothing. Only one problem was left. We did not have a spare tire to return to Kandze. The local repare place could not mend the old tire for some reason. In the night Non Bu had a fight with the men he was sharing a room with. I found him the next morning sleeping in his car with his hand badly wounded. Back in Kandze it turned out that not only the tire was gone but also the rim was broken. Non Bu uses the biggest part of this day to buy a used rim from a police man who has the same car. Of course for a lot of money. But otherwise we would have been stuck for several days. Until now the trip had gone much better then we had expected. I am happy for the large amount of pictures I have been able to take. But now it seems we are running out of luck. Or is it that we both get tired. On top of all this I stumble in the street and hurt both my knee and my right hand. I am happy that I always carry a good medical kit, so I can take care of both our wounded hands.
From Kandze I try to phone home to tell friends and family that I am safe. But it is impossible to phone outside China from the Tibetan areas.
April 16th - police control gets tighter
Today we are heading for Xinlong. The road follows the river and we are in a better climate. Fruit trees in full blossom and for the first time the sun is really warm. In every village people are building new houses. Also here most of the heavy work is done by the women. We stop at an old and very interesting looking nunnery, but unfortunately the nuns aretoo afraid to talk with us. So no chance to visit any room at all. The monastery at the other side of the road is new and not very interesting.
We follow the river and several new monasteries are lying at the other side. But not at every place there is a bridge. Even when there is a bridge then our car is too heavy. So we decide to walk. Non Bu takes the heaviest part of my gear. We walk for half an hour along fields and through a beautifully decorated village. But no people outside. The monastery is surprisingly colourfull. A very high space with lots of light and very different paintings on the wall. The big stoves are not in use any longer but a monk cooks a meal on the smaller woodstove beside. He let us take pictures but disappears while we are there. We cannot find him anymore, when we want to say goodbye. The monastery consists of a temple, a kitchen building with other spaces upstairs and a number of old, but well retained monks houses. Most of them are locked. When we find one house that is open, we are allowed in for a little moment, but no pictures please. A pity, because there is a very warm and special atmosphere in the room.
Also in the village it is difficult to get contact with the people. Smoke comes from the chimnies, but nobody to be seen. From a small window high up in the building we are told that we are not welcome. Only in one house a man is willing to talk. He tells Non Bu that his son – a young monk - is getting blind and he has done everything to find help. But until now everything failed. We are standing in the big kitchen of the house, but the mother and the boy donot stay when we come in. Non Bu and the father have a long conversation, which Non Bu cannot translate.
For the first time we are stopped at a checkpoint and Non Bu’s double horn in the car is detected. The police are very quick and handy to screw it out. Non Bu is happy not to get a fine, but we are told that I have to go to the police headquarters as soon as we arrive in Xinlong. One more very interesting, very old and delapidated monastery. No monks to be seen. Some families have moved into the old monks houses. They all move quickly inside. The place feels like a medieval village. Cows are walking free in the narrow streets. The temple is closed. Then one old monk turns up and lets us in his house. Downstairs there is a large kitchen. Must once have belonged to the monastery. In his living quarters upstairs all windows are broken.
Above this monastery on a hill there is once more a new monastery in the same strange building style that we saw before. Here only young kids and a few very old people are living. It seems that only one very old nun and one younger monk are taking care of them. They show us where they cook for the kids. Unbelievable that you can make a meal on such a small broken down stove. I see many empty packages of dried noodles. In Xinlong we first find a room. The police is already waiting for us outside the hotel. I am told that I am not allowed to enter any of the monasteries in Xinlong county. A copy of my passport is made, but also the number of Non Bu’s car is written down. This is serious business. Again not possible to phone home.
April 17th - shopping in Litang
We take the warning from yesterday serious. It could mean a lot of trouble for Non Bu if we did not. Instead we ask some people along the road if we can come in. At most places we are told that the police has warned them not to let foreigners inside the house. One women thinks this is nonsense. But it is very clear that her son doesnot agree. She is very proud of her new house paid for by relatives in the USA, so she tells us. It is indeed a nice and new traditional Tibetan home, but it is lacking the atmosphere of the old houses.
Non Bu and I have lost interest in both houses and monasteries and silently we drive back to Litang. In the afternoon we go out shopping together. Non Bu wants to look for a new traditional dress, but in the end he only buys about 100 kilo’s a wool for his mother. The whole back of the car is now stuffed with wool. This is a pity because now we cannot give a lift to people along the road. Until now we have always met interesting people this way, and they have brought us to interesting places. But it is clear that Non Bu wants to go home. With difficulty I can persuade him to leave for Batang on the Tibetan border tomorrow.
In Litang we have returned to the winter. It is snowing again. Once more I try to phone home, but the caretaker of the hotel tells me, that that is absolutely impossible. So I ask friends in Yunnan to phone my relatives.
April 18th - nomads on the move
There has been a sky burial in the early morning. The owner of the hotel has taken one of the guest to watch. He is American, but from Chinese origin. She apologizes for not taken me, but taking foreigners is not allowed. Some people were very surprised that we had been able to reach Litang yesterday. Other foreigners had been stopped at a checkpoint on a bridge and been sent back to Kandze. We saw the checkpoint, but they were too busy. So they let us trough without inspecting my papers. In the beginning of the trip I did not feel any harasment from the Chinese authorities, but now things start getting as bit less pleasant. On the road west a full snowstorm. Many Tibetan families on the move with their yaks. Small lorries filled to the top with householdstuff, people and small animals. We have to drive very carefull.
Along the road summerhouses are opened up and we visit one more tent. This is the worst place we have seen until now. A mother with a lot of kids, only some bundles in the tent and a dead sheep. Around the tent many yak sculls and bones. They cook on an open fire in the middle of the tent. How can the yak milk be heated on this fire, before the butter can be separated. Perhaps they do not even own some yaks. We leave all the food and sweets we have in the car.
The road is surprisingly good. Actually it is the first decent road I have been on since I came to China this year. But this is the main road from Chengdu to Lhasa. The main road for transporting people and materials for the army. After a long decent we come into a much more pleasant climate. The sun is warm and I strip down to a T-shirt, the first time during this trip. Friendly villages along the road and also the people are friendly again. The tension from the last days seems to be gone. In Batang people are sitting outside on the the terasses and children play in a fountain. What a difference! The old monastery is in the centre of town and once more I see a fantastic old style kitchen.
After the monastery we walk around in the old Tibetan quarters. Batang is a very old city that once had walls all around. Some parts are still standing with some nice city gates to the river. Again we visit some houses and talk with people. It is nice to visit them in a relaxed way. I have stopped taking pictures. All at once I am out of energy. I am happy we came here, but it clearly has been enough. Tomorrow we drive home. It will be a nice trip along the river. We cannot cross, because the other side is Tibet. Later in Zongdiang I read a warning on the wall of the guesthouse. Batang is closed for foreigners!