Friday, June 21, 2013

Travels in the Tibetan plateau

Our trip began with a 20 hour train ride from Beijing to Xining, the capital of Qinghai. The province’s ethnic diversity immediately made itself obvious in the train, where there was a Hui Muslim with a white cap and beard sitting next to me. The young man actually performed his five daily prayers on his bunk during the train ride. He was reading a book about Islam in Chinese, and I saw that one of the chapters had the word 达尔文 (Darwin) in the title. Since he was quite friendly, I asked him whether he accepted the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution, to which he replied “of course not; we Muslims don’t believe in such stuff.” Sigh.

Xining's Great Mosque
Xining itself feels like a typical Chinese provincial capital, with few Tibetans living in it. Some of those who do have by now lost much of their identity, like a former classmate of my Chinese travelmate who we met in our last day in the city. He is an ethnic Tibetan, but although his parents spoke Tibetan they didn't pass it on to him, and he now speaks only Chinese. Xining however has an extremely atmospheric Hui Muslim neighbourhood, where most of the women are veiled, and most of the men wear white caps and sport beards. The neighbourhood is dominated by a huge mosque, which you can see in the picture above.

On the second day of our stay we went to see the Youning Temple, a sprawling 17th century monastery near Xining which belongs to the Gelugpa Buddist order. The temple has become the major religious center for the Tu people, a small ethnic minority who live in the area around it. The Tu (also known as the Monguor) are originally a Mongolian people who speak an isolated Mongolic language, and just like most Mongolians they follow Tibetan-style Buddhism. 

All the monks in the monastery were Tu. Although the temple is well known throughout the Tibetan world, it receives few tourists, and there was no entrance ticket or touts. Some of the monks were quite friendly, and spoke to us in their accented Chinese. One of them asked me with endearing naiveness whether Britain is a Buddhist country! The monastery is perched on a hillside, and we found walking up the hill extremly tiring, probably because of the relatively high altitude to which we had yet to acclimatize.

The Youning Temple's golden roofs
The next step of the journey was Tongren (Repkong in Tibetan), a small town further to the south which is mostly Tibetan. I soon found out that getting around Qinghai province is no simple business. The only railway line is the one which goes through Xining to Lhasa. Due to the small population and great mountain ranges, it was never worth building any others. The only way to get around is by taking long distance buses through winding mountain roads for extremely long journeys. What’s more different places often don’t have direct roads connecting them, and it is necessary to go through Xining. It occurs to me that this sort of isolation is what has helped preserve Tibet's unusual culture.

The four hour bus ride from Xining to Tongren took us through some beautiful mountain scenery, which gradually felt less and less like China proper, and more and more like Tibet. Villages and houses started getting scarcer, and the mountains higher and greener. One of the things which really differentiates Tibetan scenery from the scenery of the Chinese heartland is the scarceness of houses and people. What villages there were had typical Tibetan masts with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

The county of Tongren is notable for having been the seat of the 2010 Tibetan language protests. Education in the area is bilingual, but on October 19, 2010 there were protests by Tibetan high school students against a proposed government plan for most subjects to be taught in Chinese. It is unclear what the result was, but there was no violent repression, and the local authorities may have backed down on their plan. For sure, the Tibetan language is in no danger of extinction in the area. Official signs are all bilingual, and there is at least as much Tibetan as Chinese writing around. Tibetan is commonly heard on the streets, and I once saw children on the pavement doing their homework in Tibetan.

Tongren country has also been the sight of many of the self-immolations of Tibetans protesting against the government which have been taking place recently. In a village near Tongren, we saw one of those big red posters with government slogans on them which you can find all over China. The slogan, written in both Chinese and Tibetan, said “self-immolation is criminal behaviour against religion, against society and against humanity”.

Government banner in a village in Tongren county, saying in both Chinese and Tibetan: “self-immolation is criminal behaviour against religion, against society and against humanity”.

Rongwu Temple Complex
Tongren is the seat of the important Rongwu temple, and many Tibetan monks in red clothing and shaved heads can be seen walking the streets, as well as women in traditional Tibetan attire. The buildings however look the same as in any drab Chinese provincial town, in spite of an effort to build them with a hint of Tibetan style. Virtually all the restaurants are owned by Hui Muslims and serve the typical Chinese Muslim fare of noodles and chuar. This seems to be typical throughout the area. We did manage to find one Tibetan restaurant after much searching, and proceeded to eat yak meat and drink butter tea, which has a flavour I can only describe as weird.

Tibetan woman turning prayer wheels
The Rongwu temple was interesting and relatively devoid of tourists, while there were lots of Tibetan pilgrims. Many buildings had Tibetans walking around them clockwise while chanting prayers, as is the Tibetan custom. The profound devoutness of most Tibetans is one of the things which sets them apart from the Han, few of whom have much interest in religion. This is not just a result of the Maoist period, which affected Tibet as much as anywhere in China. The centrality of Buddhism in Tibetan culture has no equivalent in traditional China, where no single religion ever took on such an important social role.

At one point, we came across an interesting scene. Inside a temple, hundreds of monks were sitting and chanting rhythmically in Tibetan, while some of them beat gongs. Most of them were very young trainee monks, and this was basically their morning class in chanting the sutras. The monks were chanting behind a red curtain, and lay people like us could only kneel at the entrance and peep through the curtains. Apart from us there were various Tibetans listening to the chanting, with some joining in. At one point the monks took a break and came outside for some fresh air, and the younger ones behaved just like school children in recess.

A Gelugpa monk in Youning Temple, who seems to want to express his appreciation of heavy metal music for us. 

The sprawling Youning Monastery seen from above

An elderly Tibetan woman

Child monks on the street of Tongren

       An image of two skeletons having sex, Rongwu Temple

Monk dwellings inside the Rongwu Temple.

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