Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Top ten things we have seen monks do

We are blogging now from our van, as we wait for the herd of 500 goats to cross the road, stopping all major highway traffic in both directions.

To catch you up on the past couple of days, we spent our last night in Xiahe eating at a muslim restaurant on the main street (no yak, we believe) and then had the Gansu region speciality warm beers at the hotel across the way. There we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a Tibetan welcoming ceremony, which appears exclusively designed for tourists and involved local tibetans dancing around led by an absurd white man who pranced and flailed like he was Brian Boitano going for the gold.

One more night in our dormitory room and we set off for Langmusi, another monastery town about 3 hours away. En route, we drove through the Sanke Grasslands, which were filled with beautiful rolling hills and wild flowers. Though less mountainous than our earlier drive, the ride was nevertheless exciting as much of it was on unpaved road.

We arrived in Langmusi early enough to enjoy a late lunch and do some exploring. To select said lunch eatery, we went with the surefire olken method of selection: follow the locals. This landed us in a muslim restaurant (menu included the phrase "we are a muslim restaurant and do not serve pork" followed by descriptions of several pork dishes - when asked about, they were unavailable. You decide.) where we had delicious top ramen (handmade noods and all) for the bargain price of less than 50 cents, as well as some other noodle extravaganza and some fried eggplant and pork mini-sandwiches. We do our best to order "chieze" (eggplant) whenever possible for guaranteed deliciousness.

Perhaps a word or two about the town is in order. Langmusi is on the border of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, and features two monasteries: one on either side of the "river." The river is more like a creek, and given some of the things we saw going into the creek, it seems advantageous to be upstream. Like way upstream. That said, we all loved the feel of Langmusi. It's very quiet (spritual fulfillment doesn't make much noise outside of prayer time at the monasteries) and a great place to hike, explore, and of course eat for a couple of days.

After hiking around the monastery on the Gansu side and up into the hills around it, our shoes became so caked with mud that it felt like we had gained 10 pounds every time we took a step. Horsebackriding is a popular pastime in Langmusi, though we opted against taking a ride, led by Jon's conviction that if we came within 3 feet of a horse we were all sure to be killed. To relax our weary feet from hiking, we stopped for tea at a tea house on the main street - the other patrons were all Tibetans in their characteristic all-weather robe-cum-jacket-cum-backpacks and oversized silver jewery; needless to say, they were amused when we insisted on sniffing each of the ~15 teas before buying.

Following our tea stop, we took a short break back at the hotel. This is notable not only because we were staying at a real hotel this time (think private bathrooms), but also because "short break at hotel" has rarely shown up on our daily itineraries. Caked in mud and mysterious odors -- Amy and I (Jon) had been to scared to shower in Xiahe -- we decided to take advantage of our luxurious Langmusi accommodations to clean up a bit. Boy would it feel good to take a nice hot shower. Only what little water came out must have come directly from a glacier. As Amy put it, it was not so much a shower as holding an icicle above our heads and cleaning ourselves drip by frozen drip. Only later did we find out that hot water was available only between 8:30-11pm or 6-8:30am. Of course.

Fresh and clean we ventured out for a traditional Tibetan dinner of yakburger and apple pie at a restaurant called Leisha's -- a tourist trap to the extent that a town populated almost entirely by monks and with only one 500 foot long road can have "tourists" or a spot to "trap" them. The yakburger was surprisingly delicious, and we also had cauliflower, noodles, and fried rice. Each dish came with a choice of vegetables or . . . yak. Not to be too western, we avoided ordering items on the menu ranging from bruschetta to pizza to risotto to burritos.

As dinner was winding down, Josh struck up conversation (in Chinese) with a group of travellers who had motorbiked from near Beijing over 5000 kilometers to places all over China. By "Josh struck up conversation with," I really mean that they overheard us mocking yak, and toasted us (with warm beers) because even Chinese stomachs can only bear so much yak meat. Our new friends took to us so quickly that they ordered a full bottle of baijiu -- a traditional Chinese aperatif/mindbender -- for the seven of us to share. We're fairly confident that biajiu translates to "grain alcohol" or "everclear" in English. To return the favor, we ordered "er" (that means two in Chinese -- I've become a master counter) apple pies, one for us and one for the three of them. Let's just say they didn't like our American treat as much as we enjoyed their Chinese one. After a couple rounds and an exchange of business cards, we stumbled home.

Day 2 in Langmu Si started early with a stroll up one of the high hills near town to a set of prayer flags (looked more like colorful arrows), from which we could watch the morning ritual: monks to morning service, pilgrims circling endlessly around the temples and performing prostrations, yaks and sheep and horses generally milling about. With the mountains rising all around town, it was completely gorgeous. Occasionally one of the pilgrims would wander up the hill, shriek in ecstasy, and throw handfulls of prayer confetti in the air. We watched the monks file out of the main prayer hall and sit for a "lesson," which seemed to involve sitting still and getting sutra-d at.

Back in town, we had a tasty and traditional Chinese breakfast of baozi (carrot and lamb), rice porridge, pickled cabbage, and a fried egg. Yum.

Afterwards, we met our guide for a brief, semi-informed tour of one monastary, during which we were suckered into buying shawls and incense to offer at a temple. We saw shrines to assorted Buddhas (e.g., buddha of eye health), as well as relics of mummified Lamas, and later got to watch the monks in class. It gradually became clear that our guide - who, keep in mind, professionally leads tours to the Tibetan section of China - has no great love for Tibetans nor any particular respect for their religion. Fun. Anyway, that took an hour and he was back to the hotel, leaving us free to wander and graze as we chose.

We spent the rest of the morning on a beautiful hike behind the second monastery where we ventured through streams and up mountain valleys. Back into town for lunch at our favorite muslim spot, we wandered around town and then ended up our day back at the second monastery where we found yet more living buddha relics and some monks doing end of day chanting (which were done in the lowest possible voices imaginable. Isaac Hayes has nothing on these monks). For dinner, we opted to pass on the yak and tried a sichuanese place in town which was good and spicy and hopefully a sign of the yummy sichuanese food to come over the next few days. Though the food was the highlight, the most amusing part of the meal came when one of the large fish in the tank adjacent to our table lept into the air, thereby knocking some piece of electronic equipment into the tank, and in the resulting fall back into the water, take its own life. No one in the restaurant appeared to notice or care.

So, after three full days exploring Tibetan monasteries, we would like to share with you the top ten things we have seen monks do in China:

10. Chanting sutras
9. Swinging a pick axe
8. Eating popsicles
7. Riding in a land cruiser
6. Playing 2x4 (a game where you swing a 2x4 at a passing motorbiker)
5. Flirting
4. Pooing into the main river flowing into town
3. Playing vice city on the computer at the local internet cafe/monk robe store/yak meat emporium
2. Hailing taxis while talking on a cell phone
1. Answering cell phone while chanting sutras


alice said...

Wait omg. Yak burritos and fish sui? How is it possible I'm missing this trip??? I have to go to a hateful HHLaw event tonight at Reef, and I'm dumping electronic equipment into all the annoying fish tanks and chanting a sutra in homage to you guys. LOVE.

Amanda said...

Wait, there is a game about hitting bikers with 2x4s? And monks play it? Amazing.

Also, "er" means 2 but when you're talking about 2 OF something it's actually "liang." And there's a measure word after it. Ask Josh...