Prayer flags in Tsedang
The rest of this blog is in memory of our dear, lifelong friend Pat Jong, the nicest and most compassionate person I have ever known. Wherever you are now and whatever you are doing, I know there is a smile on your face…New Video
- of a monk banging a drum at the Samye Monastery outside of Tsedang.
The flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa was short but did provide some nice views of the Himalayas as we crossed from mountainous Nepal into the high plateau of Tibet.
Immigration was a pretty serious affair as the Chinese are very uptight about foreign travel to Tibet and apparently just recently, a couple of American journalists were thrown out when they were caught up to no good. I was momentarily concerned as Cindy’s bag showed up and mine was noticeably missing - shades of Italy. I really didn’t want to travel for two weeks in Tibet with only the clothes on my back, but after a bit, it did show up and we went through customs without a hitch. As we were walking out, we were met by a young kid who looks like a Tibetan rock star who introduced himself as Tensing, our guide. He seemed friendly enough and his English was at least OK so that was a good start. We walked out to the parking lot and, just as advertised, a Toyota Land Cruiser was waiting for us with Jao Yan our driver (who doesn’t speak English at all).
We headed out on amazingly good roads for the two and a half hour drive to Tsetang, the birthplace of the Tibetan people and our first stop. It was an easy drive through beautiful but arid and desolate scenery with huge sand dunes in front of small mountains and some nice snowy ones in the background. The route follows the Yarlung River as it meanders through Tibet. The altitude didn’t seem to be bothering either of us but it did kind of make us doze a bit on the way. We got to Tsedang which appears to more of a typical modern Chinese city than Tibetan and were pleasantly surprised when we pulled up in front of what looked like a very nice hotel, the Tibet Yulong Holiday Hotel (three stars no less!) We thought this was the “budget” trip and will no doubt pay for this later in the week.
We rested a bit and then went out to an ATM and got some Yuan out (Chinese currency) - quite a change from 1983 when I was here before and you changed all your money on the black market! Tensing and Ji Yan took us to a local Tibetan restaurant called the Tashi that was pretty good. Cindy, being smart, listened to what Razzu told us and had the vegetarian curry set menu. Being a bit more adventurous, I opted for the Yak curry set menu and a Lhasa beer (how could I pass that up?). The food was good and hopefully I won’t be paying for that choice later.
Sand Dunes in Tsedang
We were talking with Tensing, asking him how old he is and he told us 22. He asked if we had been in Tibet before and we said no but that I had been in China.
He asked when and when I told him 1983, he said “I wasn’t born yet!“ He started telling us stories about his guiding adventures in the past and brought up an incident out West by Mt. Kailash where an Indian woman who refused to listen to him about her altitude illness and go to lower elevation ended up dying. This did not exactly inspire our confidence but we assured him that we would listen to him if he thought we were sick. On a positive note, he said that the rest of her group felt that Mt. Kailash, Tibet was an auspicious place to die.
Inside Samye Monastery
Breakfast at the Tibet Yulong Holiday Hotel was a buffet with mostly strange looking things that we didn’t eat but they did have Bao and pickled cucumbers that were tasty.
We were sitting at a large table by ourselves when an older foreign woman walked over and asked if we spoke English. We said that it is the only thing we speak and she sat down and, in a strong Israeli accent, asked if we had a good guide. It ends up that she is originally from Berlin but left for Israel when she was young and her husband, a Holocaust survivor who joined us a few minutes later is from France originally, then Israel. They now live in Scottsdale, AZ but have worked and lived in Asia a lot over the years and are in Tibet celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They were really nice and unfortunately having a terrible time with their guide.
Butter Lamps in Samye Monastery
They set their Tibet trip up in Beijing and the guide has been less then friendly or helpful and they have been paying for hotels and entrance fees in addition to paying the guide. We had been warned of this too and instructed in how to “suck up” to the guides so that we get good service - luckily our’s is not a problem.
Wrathful Protector in Samye Monastery
After breakfast, we headed off for a drive over the Yarlung River and a small pass en route to the Samye Monastery. We were on a dirt and gravel road and Cindy asked me “Aren’t we driving a bit to fast?” right as we started to spin. Luckily it had rained last night so the dust wasn’t too bad but the road was a bit bumpy (or “bampy” as our friend and guide MinMin from Burma would say…) We made it to the pass and stopped to admire the view (the first picture with the prayer flags and river in the distance) where Tensing said “Take your time - make pictures…” We did as instructed watching the locals burning incense and herbs in a small stupa.
We really like the Tibetan motorcycle - there were a bunch of them up there, most with at least two adults and a child, some with a boom box attached blasting Tibetan rap/pop/bubblegum - not great stuff. Notice the cool seat which is a Tibetan carpet. After a bit, we walked over to our car, now with the hood raised and realized why Tensing told us to take our time. There was steam pouring out of the radiator which had a hole in it that Jao Yan was attempting to fix. It seems that he has just returned from Mt. Kailash and the road was so bumpy that the battery bashed a small hole in the radiator which he previously repaired. We watched as he deftly scraped off the old glue, then mixed epoxy with which he affixed a piece of aluminum from an old Coke can. This will have to suffice until we make it to Lhasa.
Prayer and Assembly Hall in Samye Monastery
Guess like China, capitalism rules in Tibet too - the best of American products and Tibetan ingenuity.
Butter Lamp at Samye Monastery
After the repairs, we continued the rest of the way on the bumpy, dirt road to Samye Monastery. The picture of the sand dunes gives you an idea of what the geography looks like here. There are beautiful, untouched dunes backed by mountains all the way to the monastery (thankfully no ATV’s ripping around on them…). Ok, a bit of history and information about Samye - if you are not interested in Tibetan monastery stuff, feel free to skip ahead or just look at the pretty pictures J
Samye Monastery was Tibet’s first monastery, founded by King Trisong Detsen sometime around 780 A.
D. This roughly corresponded to Guru Rimpoche’s (of fame from our Bhutan blog as founder of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery and widely revered throughout the Buddhist world) defeat of demons at Hepo Ri, just east of Samye which helped pave the way for Buddhism’s triumph over the local, humanistic Bon religion. Initially, seven monks were ordained at Samye and both Indian and Chinese scholars were invited to help translate Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. This helps explain why the three story building has the first story built in Tibetan style, the second in Chinese and the third in Indian. Samye is designed based on the principle of the Mandalic representation of the universe where the central temple represents Mt. Meru, home of the gods, and the temples built in concentric circles around it represent the oceans and continents of earth. The Utse temple is at the center of Samye and is where all of the “inside” pictures here were shot.
Samye Monastery Prayer wheels and Chorten
Surrounding the Utse are four large chortens of different colors representing the elements: Red, Black, Green and White. Much of Samye has been rebuilt as it was destroyed numerous times, especially during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Supposedly, there were originally 108 buildings surrounding the Utse and 1008 chortens on the walls surrounding Samye.
Praying Tibetan Woman at Samye Monastery
The inside of the Utse is dark and filled with the scent of burning butter lamps which are everywhere. All of the pilgrims come with containers of oil or bags of what looks like half butter, half lard and offer it along with small bills at each and every statue. Tensing did his best to explain things to us but at some point we realized that, as far as Buddhism is concerned, our knowledge level is somewhat like my mom’s knowledge of rock music. For her, an educated guess is always one of Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Deep Purple or Joe Jackson.
After seeing literally thousands of Buddhist and Hindu statues, we still have trouble figuring out who it is. Generally, if the statue looks a bit angry with bulging eyes and has a mustache, we guess Guru Rimpoche. Buddha we can usually get (but this gets tricky here too as there is the past present and future Buddha and various manifestations, aspects, consorts, etc.) As far as the old Tibetan kings, we are so far at a loss and still can’t say Avalokiteshvara who is the most famous Bodhisattva, the Bhodisattva of Compassion. This is the guy that all of the Dalai Lama’s are reincarnations of.
Black Chorten at Samye Monastery
After walking through the Utse, we walked the perimeter of the monastery walls which are circled with prayer wheels and chorten and tons of pilgrims dressed in traditional Tibetan garb with prayer wheels, chanting and walking. We stopped in a few of the perimeter temples but didn’t want to get in the way of the devout (let alone slip on the butter covered floors).
We ended up having lunch at the monastery at a small little restaurant, mostly filled with Tibetan ladies, many of whom giggled and said “Hello!” shyly. Tensing did actually get harassed by the Chinese Police out front who wanted to see our visas and permits.
Tibetan Pilgrims at Samye Monastery
We started back towards Tsedang on the same wonderful road we headed in on and after about twenty minutes of bouncing, I was becoming a bit uncomfortable. Was it the Yak curry from yesterday or just the bouncy road? Well I wasn’t sure but figured all I had to do was make it back to the bridge over the Yarlung River and then we were back onto paved road and close to the hotel. Things were getting worse the more we bounced - maybe I shouldn’t have had all that water at lunch. It’s ok to concentrate on holding one thing in but two at once on a bumpy road isn’t so great and wrought with potential peril.
Looking around there was nothing but sand dunes, dirt road and some sheep (one of whom was racing down the hill and stopped to pee just to torture me). Finally I saw the bridge and, almost sweating, thought “I can make it!” As we were crossing the bridge, I said something to Tensing about stopping at the hotel and he said sure, only fifteen more minutes. Panic time. There was no way in hell I was making it another fifteen minutes. Cindy knew by the look on my face and we convinced Tensing to stop whereupon Cindy headed off to take the awesome picture of the river. I was busy elsewhere…Thank god for drainage ditches!
After a brief stop at the hotel, we headed out to see the Yumbulagan Monastery which is claimed to be the oldest building in Tibet, at least the original foundation, as it like many others was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
It is up on a hill that we walked up but that, according to Tensing, all of the Chinese tourists ride up on the ponies, yaks or the one ratty looking camel down at the base. Originally it is thought to have been a fortress, but is now just a temple. Tensing told us of the famous monk who lived to be 120 years old and spent his time in a secret room (Cindy thought he said “cigarette room“ as sometimes, his English is a bit difficult to understand) with tiny windows that no one knows how to get to translating Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. The temple has hundreds of holy Buddhist texts known at the “Awesome Secret” that are reported to have “fallen from the heavens” in the fifth century. They line the walls in wooden cases and the locals all crawl under them as this is thought to cure illnesses. In case you have never seen one, these don’t look like modern books but rather, long carved wooden “bindings” maybe 3” wide by 16” long filled with sheaves of beautifully inscribed Sanskrit or Tibetan text and often with gold leaf - I will try to take a picture…We walked around each floor of the temple which is a precarious thing to do with slippery floors from the butter lamps and devout Tibetan’s pushing behind you.
Yarlung River in Tsedang
Afterwards we hiked up a bit above the temple for a great view of the Yarlung Valley and the temple itself. It is amazing the contrast in color and texture from the fertile valley floor fed by the river up to the desolate mountains. On the way back down, one of the local tourists with a cell phone insisted on taking a picture with me - hopefully I don’t end up as the front man for some bad Chinese advertising…
Yumbaulakhang Monastery in Tsedang
After Yumbulagan we made a stop at Trandruk Monastery which is one of the “demoness subduing” monasteries that I will probably write about in the Lhasa entry later. This monastery was very badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution by Mao’s Red Guard and they are still restoring it now.
On the perimeter, all of the monk’s quarters are still rubble. It is a very important pilgrimage spot for Tibetan’s and there are lots and lots of older, prayer wheel spinning locals hanging out here. The temple is quite small and, perhaps since it is on flat land and not on a peak like Yumbulagan, not as special. Since they charged a hefty 75 Yuan ($11) photo fee, we opted out.
Yumbaulakhang Monastery in Tsedang
We ended up having dinner at the Tashi restaurant again and had a nice walk home through the new and very Chinese part of Tsedang. On the way, we stopped off at a grocery store (and really, I mean a western style grocery store - China has brought some positive things to Tibet too) to buy bottled water. We ended up seeing beers in a small refrigerator next to the check out stand and tried to ask for them, eventually just pointing until they grabbed the right thing.
The girls at the checkout cackled when we tried to say thank you in Tibetan which is something like “too-chi-chey”. Tomorrow we drive back to Lhasa and spend several days there.
Yumbaulakhang Monastery in Tsedang