Two mornings later, G and I awoke to the freezing chill of a Tibetan early spring morning with the sun having not yet risen in the sky, with the soft thrumming of voices that could be heard wafting through the unglazed window. I struggled to escape the layers of blankets that had kept me warm throughout the night, even though fully clothed, and peered with curiosity down to the courtyard below. My eyes were greeted with the sight of hundreds of Tibetans, some sporting huge chunks of turquoise bound tightly in their long hair, patiently waiting for their Rinpoche to appear. It was barely sunrise, yet there they were, quietly praying or nattering excitedly to a neighbor, some prostrating on the bare earth, caking their bodies in dust and sweat, pointed in devotion towards our place of rest.
Since it was still early, I got back into bed and put in about another hour or so of sleep while G did the same.
All is nectar..or not.
There is a concept of pure vision in Tibet whereby a devotee can show devotion to their teacher by drinking a small amount of their urine, since, it is believed, everything that these reincarnate lamas touch or emanate, is pure. Its a very old custom and one that at that time defied my understanding, yet it is probably still practiced today by some as a very direct link to the past.
I woke up the for the second time that day to the sound of liquid pouring from one container to another. At first thought, I imagined that tea was being prepared and breakfast well underway. On rolling over to the other side where I could see the inside of the room, I gazed upon, with half asleep disbelief, a monk draining off the contents of our night pot and portioning it out into smaller containers, some of which were being eagerly quaffed by smiling monks, one after another, who were filing quietly up the narrow stairs. At first, I thought to shout out warning that the contents were not as they expected- that the pee of another not quite as holy as their returned master ( ie , me) was mixed in with the contents. I turned to look at G, who also having just woke up, was watching with mouth wide open. It ended as abruptly as it had started, and the monks were gone…
Hot buckets of water were brought up to the room for Gesar and I to bathe with, and the monks besotted with interest wanting to stand and stare at everything that Gesar did. I kicked them all out, and G and I enjoyed a few brief moments of privacy in what was to be a very long day. We cleaned up as best we could, and stuffed down the bowls of rice and sweet milk that were sitting waiting for us. The pure, pure air of that early Spring morning danced with the dust that was caught in the sharp light streaming in from the window, and for a few brief moments I let my mind dance too as I watched the minute particles swirl in the gentle breeze.
The monks appeared again, this time led by the smiling young Khenpo, bearing ceremonial robes that were to be Gesar’s for this ceremonial occasion. These clothes consisted of yellow flowing shirts and under robes, and an elaborate brocade jacket that would be the finishing touch to the multi-layered outfit. The monks handled each piece of clothing reverently, covering their escaping breath with a piece of paper held in their mouths, gently easing each garment one layer at a time onto Gesar’s imposing frame. I dressed as best I could, the monks giving me a clean white undershirt for my black tibetan Chuba.
At one point before the official ceremony began I went alone down the steep stairs that led outside of our lodgings, only to be confronted with an absolute sea of faces and people, who, taking one look at me, bowed their heads in reverence, and parted in much the same way that the Red Sea must have parted for Moses did to let me through.
At that point, I felt more like Darth Vader than Moses- my long hair, greasy and tied at the back of my head samurai style, a week old Fu Manchu beard and moustache, and my long black tibetan dress. I must have looked terrifying to the little children who visibly shook at the sight of me. It was a stunning experience for all involved; I smiled and tried to be as inconspicuous and friendly as possible, but as I could see by the looks on some of the people and little children’s faces that this was, for many, their first contact with a foreigner. How strange and exotic I must have seemed to them, a stranger in their Himalayan land!
One of the monks showed me where we would walk into the temple and start the ceremony, and pointed to where Gesar would be seated and I would stand in attendance behind him. The temple, little more than just bare earth days before, had been tricked out in their fines brocades and cloths and tankhas (religious paintings), with monks already seated in long rows, chanting their opening prayers, some of them looking up at me and smiling broadly as their elders tried to keep them focused on the task at hand. Somehow, with my horrific tibetan, I was able to understand what the order of the day would be, and I left to go back up to the room with G.
We were excited to say the least- this was the reason why we had come, to see Gesar enthroned at his own monastery, and with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche having died earlier in the year it left a huge vacuum in the organisation of the local Tibetan buddhist community. Having Gesar establish links with his own heritage and legacy would give solace and comfort to many of those missing the loss of their great Guru and dharmic grandfather.
The music below us in the main temple started to play, with the deep booming drone of the long horns signalling us.
The ceremony. With a surge of about eight overly willing monks, Gesar stood up from his bed and proceeded to make his way towards the overly steep stairs and down outside to waiting crowds. I got in front of him, and tried to fit in between the monk musicians, armed with long tibetan trumpets, giving that all familiar call of an event about to happen. You have to imagine this tiny little stairwell with suicide-like tibetan stairs gradient, about twelve monks, the young abbot, me, and Gesar wearing these voluminous religious garments, all trying to get down the stairs at the same time and be of assistance to their long lost son. It was hilarious, with Gesar and I visibly laughing at the danger and frantic scrabbling hands of monks trying not to tumble down the stairs on top of one another, yet often doing so. I did my best to keep those near me upright, suddenly I was at the bottom of the stairs and the crowd below started to surge forwards towards the doorway-so much for Moses!
It was absolute mayhem; masses of hands, many grubby with dirt, thrusting forwards with babies, silk welcoming scarves, tongues stuck out of mouths in signs of respect, constantly chanted prayers, scrabbling feet, falling bodies, some trying to prostate, laughing, jostling for position, and monks and priests trying to keep order. Somehow the crowd pushed us away from the door and literally crowd surfed us towards the temple door, where we escaped inside, the monks keeping the many tibetans outside for the time being and at bay. Everyone was laughing, and G and I made our way to the throne that had been set up for him as the monks inside kept up the steady rhythmic chant of their opening prayers. His throne was covered in holy objects- texts, bells, books, a damaru (ritual drum) and other symbols necessary for the enthronement.
Finally the ceremony began- the numbers of people outside being too many to fit into the still under construction main shrine hall, they peered in through the open doorway and waited for the general blessing that would follow the ceremony. The crowd chanted patiently, prayer wheels whirring, malas clacking between hands, young and old staring inward trying to follow the procedures inside. There was an overwhelming energy that pervaded the temple that day, with smiles everywhere as the obviously proud young monks, older nuns and priests sat and prayed their welcome and recognition of Gesar.G sat through it all, beaming at everybody, graciously accepting the lead from monks that showed him through the ceremony, instructing him when to make certain movements, and being the most patient I have ever seen him be.
A parade of faces -The crowd was eventually let inside, and the general blessing began- this entailed the entire crowd being led through the shrine room to the front of Gesar’s throne, where they would receive a blessing on the head by Gesar placing his hand or sacred objects on them, and the tibetan khatag scarves that they held reverently being placed back around their necks. Many of them bore gifts- statues, animal pelts, books, malas, bells and religious practice objects, some very old and obviously treasures. I cannot explain or attempt to describe the emotions that flowed in that half-constructed temple those next few hours- crying, weeping, wailing, laughing, the sheer awe in the face of many of the children, the whispered prayers, or the breakdown of some of the older folk who had seen one of their great aspirations come true- a high lama’s return.
Through it all Gesar just smiled and smiled, the love between the crowd and him palpable and cogent. For those of us near him, for me and the other monks that were attending him that day, it ultimately grew to become too much, and we all ended up weeping as well, laughing at times when we saw some overly devout person cut back into the line to try and get another blessing, only to be intercepted by one of the wily older monks who would shoo them away. We watched this comic dance time and time again, sometimes allowing it to happen, and then seeing and older monk lose his temper and try to keep the crowd constantly moving ahead.
I still marvel today at the clarity of devotion in those simple khampa folk- as we all know, the eyes do not lie, and theirs shone with a brightness that I will never forget. Like diamonds.
It took the best part of the morning to finish this seemingly endless processing as prayers and horns and rituals were performed until late in the day. By the end of it Gesar and I were exhausted in the thin air as the energy and emotions overwhelmed us. With another fanfare, we struggled back out the front of the temple and towards our refuge above, to be met with the same enormous crowd and the same mad scramble to get near their returned teacher. This time dozens of hands stretched forwards to help Gesar walk, the smiling faces and laughing eyes giddy with joy as we were pushed back up the stairs to our lodgings and quiet.
I awoke hours later that day to the sound of hushed voices whispering prayers. As I gradually opened my eyes and adjusted to the dimly lit room around me, I could see a group of monks sitting on the floor, about eight of them, just sitting there staring at me while they did their prayers. I was covered with about three of four thick blankets and quilts on top of that, very comfortable despite an open window nearby. Through it, a bright shaft of cool air pierced into the room, the light cutting like a laser into the darkness but penetrating no further than its vivid, blue-white beam. Perhaps it was because of the quality of the air high on that Himalayan wilderness, but light had taken on an otherworldly quality.
Gesar was seated on a makeshift throne/bed, above my head and to the left, wrapped in a collection of clothes and thick blankets. I was still just completely disoriented, he just smiled and told me that I had slept for about 5 hours, utterly dead to the world. I sat up, and immediately a wooden cup of warm yak’s milk was thrust under my nose by a smiling but very dirty face. I sipped at it gingerly, feeling the hot vapour caress my nostrils and its nourishment gratefully welcomed by my fragile intestines, which at that point could handle nothing heavier.
The headache that had struck me almost blind when we had arrived was gone, and I was able to look around with more than detached interest at my surroundings. They had given Gesar and I a complete floor of the half-completed main shrine hall, which had been destroyed during the cultural revolution, about two floors up, dark except for the tiny tibetan style window that let in the piercing light. Gesar had slept too eventually- I presume they realised just how tired we must have been by my collapse, and let us both be in peace for a while. Monks and other guests I could hear outside still milling about, in fact as I craned my neck to look out the window I observed a large crowd was gradually forming outside the temple, as more and more people heard the news and the local communities came to pay their respect.
The monks had set up small tables in front of our beds, where a small plate, knife and a pile of rib bones of some ancient animal lay in front of me ( which in these parts, meant an animal that had died of old age), the hair and blood not removed during the butchering process and still plainly visible. I tried not to baulk as I looked at G- by his returned glance I could tell he felt the same way, a much larger pile in front of him. We knew it was the best they had to offer us, and we were grateful; but for the time being I decided that I would just forget about food and concentrate on fluid. I drank gallons of the warm sweetened yaks milk that was constantly replenished by an ever waiting monk.
I leaned back against the wall and Gesar and I chatted for about an hour, gradually giving all of the monks nicknames due to the fact that my brain could barely function and I could not for the life of me remember each and everybody’s name. For the first time in many days we felt truly safe.
Living in Shangri-La. I must take a moment to describe the energy of this place called Sechen monastery- it was calm, calm and clear like a hidden fog shrouded lake stumbled upon accidentally when hiking in the mountains, quiet despite the muffled noises of the tibetans outside going through their daily activities. The monastery was located on the side of a wide valley, cut in half by a crystal clear stream that babbled softly below. With the mountain behind it serving as a safe backdrop, it would be sheltered from the worst of the weather that must beat down on a place as high as this.
The valley was green, lush with grass and framed with tall cedars clinging to the sides of mountains and ridges. Yaks wandered aimlessly about, feeding on the grass and basically unaffected by the human settlement nearby.
When the Chinese had come and disturbed this idyllic community, they had done everything within their power to disrupt, humiliate and destroy the will of these simple living people. Monks had been forced to copulate with nuns at gunpoint, lamas pushed off roofs to verify whether they could fly or not, scriptures used as toilet paper and shrine rooms destroyed, at times with the Chinese coming back and doing several times over ( hence the ruins of the main temple at the time).
All of these things must have been severe challenges for the little community. But if the Chinese had thought that it would stop these people in any way from leading their deeply spiritual lifestyles, they were mistaken. Monks and nuns had handed back their robes (and vows) and gone off to live with each other, raising children and often the next generation of monks and nuns. Their houses stood quite close by to the main temple, of which we visited many over the next few days, always forcing down momo after momo and cup after cup of thick salt tea.
Each morning the men would go off, back to their temple, resuming their usual prayer schedule, which the ex-nuns did too, collecting together elsewhere. For members of “the ancient ones” , the Nyingma lineage, marriage, or no marriage, the motivation to practice was the same. Freedom for them always burned in their hearts, adn teh whole community functioned as it had for many years before. Only the ancient Shedrak still lay abandoned and unused, a place we would visit a few days later.
Some days we stood on the temple roof, and looked out over this wondrous community. Gesar and I shared the same feeling- we wanted to just burn our passports and stay there, disappearing into another world and life.
The dead end kids-And now back to our attendants- a more loveable and rascally lot you could not meet. One monk just looked completely like Eddie Murphy when he did his Buckwheat skit ala Saturday Night Live, curly hair, big lips and a beautiful broad toothy smile. This had G and I in hysterics when I saw the similarity and mentioned it in passing. I could see the mischievousness in some of the young faces too, they jostled and bullied each other to serve Gesar and me and satisfy our every need, returning cheeky smiles at times. Yet, they were totally devoted, many of them fiercely innocent, and actively fought to serve us, regardless of how servile and menial the task. Their devotion knew no bounds, and when compared them to the often off and on attempts of us westerners to be devoted to a cause or person… well, I am sure you get the picture. There was no politics here, just pure unadulterated service to another human being. Who was I? Yet I was feted like a king.
The Abbot-The young khenpo that we had met on arrival came upstairs again and formally prostrated to Gesar, presenting a scarf and asking for a blessing, which in the tibetan custom entails the laying of hands of the teacher on the head of the supplicant. I could tell by the look in his eye that he was already totally in love with Gesar, and knelt on the ground next to G’s makeshift bed, holding his hand for the next few hours, just wanting to be with his teacher. I don’t remember how many times I cried over the next few days, I just know that it was often the smallest, most subtle things that made my heart burst open; a feeble voice, a loving gaze, a silent gesture, things that I would barely take note of usually but here, in this far off land in the middle of high nowhere, these small gestures meant the world.
Touch- The sense of touch was definitely highlighted for me there in Tibet, something I noticed again later when I did my stint as a monk in northern India seven years later. People wanted to touch Gesar’s hand, or be touched by him. It was so expressive; whenever he moved there was a mad scramble to be one of the people who would hold his arm or elbow, to grab a piece of his coat, to guide him wherever.
Everything he touched became valuable, and an object of worship to these uncomplicated, fiercely devout people. A tissue used to free blocked nasal passages, when placed down as rubbish, was fervently picked up, (sometimes briefly squabbled over) and wrapped in a silk scarf, finally touched to a forehead and kept as some sacred object of worship. Grains of rice left in the bottom of a bowl were picked apart one by one, taken out to the waiting crowd below and distributed to the eager hands scrabbling for a single grain, those lucky enough greeting success with a prayer and a bow to the room above.
I learned something about devotion while there those brief few days. Love for us is often so conditional- it is something that I remind myself often of even to this day. What more can a human do than give completely from their heart? What a precious gift.
It was a surreal experience, and those first few hours of the fading day passed so quietly, punctuated only by a very bold few who managed to make their way upstairs and through the horde that waited. At dusk, we managed to force down some rice and meat cooked together, and settled down in the rapidly cooling evening air. The plan for the next day was to inspect the whole monastic and lay people community, the destroyed house of the previous Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche high on the mountain above, and the still ruined library (shedrak) on the other side of the valley, a little way off. The day after that was to be an enthronement ceremony, thrown together rapidly due to shortness of time. Gradually, the noise outside thinned as light faded and then was lost in the clear clean sound of night, broken only by the ferocious bark of some Tibetan mastiff as people returned to tents and houses, patient to wait one more day to meet their long lost son …
To pee, or not to pee.
At night, the cold outside was fearsome, to the extent that we dared venture outside. There was another reason though also : the monastery was in possession of a pack of barely trained Tibetan mastiffs, which patrolled freely outside and basically acted as guards against thieves or unwanted visitors in the middle of the night, alerting all to any movement by loud barks and growls. They were massive, fierce beasts, more bear than dog, that both Gesar and I feared confronting in the middle of the night should we venture out to attempt to relieve ourselves. Thankfully, the monks had left us a rather large pot for this very purpose, and Gesar and I took turns throughout the night relieving ourselves of the copious amounts of fluid that we had consumed during the day.
As I grew drowsy in the dim lit room around me, G and I chatted until welcome sleep claimed us both.
Back in Xian two days later and once again smack dab in the center of the country (doh!), Gesar and I arranged another train ride; this time in a south-westerly direction, with another 1000 km plus journey and a seventeen hour train ride to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, the home of all that really spicy Chinese food you eat at your local Chinese restaurant.
This reminds me of a quick aside, the whole time Gesar and I were in China, we were struck by the poor quality and taste of the food, regardless of how expensive the restaurant was. I remember eating Bao in Xian, a kind of bread dumpling usually filled with meat or a vegetable, and the look on Gesar’s face after he bit into it, and immediately spat out half. A quick look at the contents showed us the bun was stuffed with green tea leaves. Ugh! My stomach still twinges from the memory. Why such poor food you ask? Well, you have to thank the late great Helmsman* for that. One of his most brilliant strategic long-term decisions during the Cultural Revolution was in getting rid of any kind of family lineage of skilled workers or tradespeople/ craftsmen due to their inherent bourgeois status, so that meant doctors, teachers, successful businessmen and your average skilled Chinese cook. Obviously they were still in short supply in 1991….
Anyway, back to the story. A different hotel, another travel agent, and tickets were purchased for the train. We had already lost about ten days with our aborted entry from the north, and didn’t want to sit around some dank proletarian hotel any longer than we needed to.
Plan Two: Ah, got to love Rinpoche..the man must have realized that Gesar and I would attract difficulties like flies to a carcass, and was probably sitting safely back in India laughing at all the potential strife we would get into….
Plan two was to meet an old Tibetan Lama called P&’%$ Tulku, a survivor of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and of incarceration in a Chinese prison, who would somehow help us achieve what felt like was becoming an impossible dream- to get Gesar safely into Tibet and enthroned in his monastery.
Let’s go! This time, there were limited train seats, so we were going the lowest class available. A brief description is necessary. Trains in India may have a bad reputation, but this train in China certainly could challenge that theory. The seating was arranged in benches to fit three, facing each other. To say ‘seating’ is a complement and mere flattery; these seats were more like church pews similar to the ones I experienced as a boy during my (obviously) failed Catholic Christian upbringing. No padding, bare wood, seventeen hours, you get the picture.
The train was packed to the gills. Stuff was everywhere, people getting on and off, similar to any train journey in India. Most of our neighbors had the prerequisite glass jars full of tea, with hot water readily available on the platform.
Public brawling, Chinese style-Now before I tell this next event, I want you to understand that in the People’s Republic at that time, trains attempted to leave on time, without fail, barring major catastrophe like the world ending or something similar. As we were sitting there waiting for takeoff, a couple of rowdy types in front of us started to argue. Again, any kind of argument in China at that time was considered entertainment, so everyone in the carriage craned their heads to watch. The volume of exchange between the two became increasingly agitated. Suddenly, right before our very eyes, one guy grabs this big empty glass tea jar (about a liter capacity) and rams it into the face of the other, and fists, blood, glass fragments, people and belongings started flying everywhere. G and I looked on in disbelief with mouths agape. The fellow on the receiving end of the glass jar was up in no time and staggering down the aisle screaming, trying to get off the train, blood spurting profusely like a fountain, all over the other passengers as the other fellow chased him, ultimately restrained by some other men.
Now, as all this is going on, the train is pulling out of the station, and already off the platform. The injured man and his accompanying party screamed for a train guard, pulling frantically on the emergency stop handle, which produced no result whatsoever. The guard came eventually after a few minutes, and they pleaded with him to stop the train and let the man off. The victim was obviously in need of urgent medical attention, now seated at the end of the carriage in an open standing area, and blood was still flowing from him copiously, the flow now dampened by some strategically placed towels on his face rapidly turning pink. There pleading was in vain: the guardsman just stood there and repeated, ‘mao, mao’ or ‘no, no.’ The train just kept going until the first stop 45 minutes later. Trains in China just don’t stop. The next forty-five minutes until the first scheduled stop saw all passengers on our carriage lost in their own quiet thoughts,humbled by the sudden outburst, the only sound to break the silence the occasional whimpering of the fellow at the end of the carriage.
Chengdu and P Tulku
Well, what do I remember of the journey on the train after that? Not much I can tell you! Oh, cans of the same soft drink taste differently depending on which part of China you are in; I distinctly remember extra fizz in the can when we pulled into one station near yet another nuclear power plant…….
Early the next day we arrived, covered in a thin layer of soot, in the famous city of Chengdu and set about finding our contact there- P Tulku. After a little searching around this Chinese and soon obviously Tibetan populated neighborhood, we were led by a man that was clearly an ex-monk to a nondescript street of apartment buildings. As we approached, a kindly old man dressed as a lama, hair pulled up on top of his head like a yogi, wearing worn, disheveled and dirty yogi robes came limping towards us with a huge smile and pools of tears in his eyes.
The feeling I had right then was like a child watching an old Lassie movie- my heart wanted to explode at the sight of his instant and utter devotion to a boy he had never met before.
Gesar’s previous incarnation had been P Tulku’s teacher, and the look in this old man’s eyes was enough to fuel at least 100,000 prostrations of the most stubborn western buddhist. He was so happy; he giggled and laughed at us and fired away in rapid Tibetan. Gesar blessed him, not wanting to, but forced to by the old man placing Gesar’s hands on his head. Here we were, standing in the middle of the street, people starting to watch from windows and unfinished laundry now flapping like prayer flags above us as this partially crippled old man tried to do prostrations on the road in front of him, displaying his unswerving belief that Gesar was without a doubt his teacher, reborn.
Drinking copious amounts of sweet milk tea and eating Tibetan pastries moments later in his little apartment several floors up, Gesar recounted the story of our adventure in Xining, occasionally acting out the part of various characters in the police station. Pewa tulku just giggled, laughed and smiled and smiled and smiled. Remember no-one spoke English, so we had to make do in broken Tibetan. P tulku recommended a hotel for us to stay in while he sorted out how we were going to get into Tibet, and set off with us to the hotel. Walking to a taxi, it was clear to me from the derogatory looks that the nearby Chinese people gave us that Pewa tulku was often derided by his Chinese neighbors. We couldn’t have been more proud to be with him that day. For the first time in many days, we felt safe.
Around Chengdu and the story of the born-again Chinese travel guide.
P Tulku took us to a hotel in the middle of town found on the bank of a rather large river, the Jinjiang, I think a tributary of the Yangste River. I just remembered the name- Traffic Hotel! ( for the morbidly curious: http://www.traffichotelchengdu.cn/)I can remember quite vividly the amount of garbage that I saw floating past in the river out front of our hoetl during our brief sojourn there, including the carcass of a rather bloated, recently deceased pig that eased effortlessly with the slowly moving current. How romantic. The hotel was nice enough, and the views (aside from the parade of trash floating by) quite spectacular. We were also next to a primary school, which announced its presence several times a day by loudspeaker fanfare and the noise of children marching around the playground listening to patriotic music and words of patriotic encouragement from their teacher. In fact, to us they seemed to do about as much marching about as they did study!
Directly in front of the hotel was a Chinese-only night club, big sign on the door, and a small pleasant little outdoor café, right next to the river bank and some weeping willows. Across the river was a public park, filled in the early morning with tai chi practitioners whirling swords and doing other group oriented exercises.
That little cafe was the scene in Chengdu if you were a westerner and tourist.You could always find some other westerners about, lolling around the café, eating the food ( which was quite good) and sharing their experiences. Some were teachers living in the town, some tourists/backpackers, and obviously the cafe was everyone’s quiet respite from the toils of their work, where pancakes, coffee and locally made snacks could be had pretty much all day and well into the evening.
P Tulku has settled us in, and hobbled off back to his house as we stood there, gratefully watching him go. It was plain to us that he had a great deal of difficulty in getting around, with one ankle turned painfully on its side as he walked, but he took off undaunted. I remember hearing something about him being severely beaten by the Chinese when imprisoned at some point. Most, if not all of the lamas we met on our trip had spent long years in jail, and P Tulku was no exception. With a smile, he told us he would send for us in a few days, and soon disappeared into the thick foot traffic that coated the busy street.
I remember people in Chengdu- people, lots of them, everywhere. The streets were packed with little stalls doing business, and men and women wearing their nondescript blues and greys, in typical Chairman Mao fashion. The café was located right next to both the river and a busy little lane, and since we suddenly had no schedule to commit to, we decided to sit there, eat, and watch the world go by.
Finding an empty table we nodded a brief greeting to another westerner and Englishman, instant friends by exchanged glances and a smile. We had barely sat down when the owner of the café approached us, not to take our order but to introduce himself with a booming english voice and start pitching his various business interests. His name was Mister Chin, and not only did he run the café he also has a small tourism company on the side. What I had first thought to be a menu tucked under his arm was in fact a menu of all the different tours he had to offer, after all, business first right? Within a minute and one seemingly long sentence, he had introduced himself as a proud and official born-again communist catholic christian, and proceeded to confirm the fact that he had indeed gone to church that very morning and was feeling really, and I mean really, really good. Gesar and I sat there politely while he went through his business menu and the englishman at the next table just grimaced; a trip to the Chinese opera, the Buddhist statues nearby, and various places of interest.
Due to our own superlative business skills, recently honed in India with many a taxi driver, we let him ramble on for a minute or two, then rebuffed his overtures and settled with some pancakes and coffee. Yet, I could tell by his face that he was the type that didn’t give up easily, and would be back later for round two, either to clinch some kind of tour deal with us, or convert us both to Christianity by his shining example.
Our English friend told us that Mr. Chin was that heavy-handed with everybody, and advised us to blow him off more quickly next time. We got the update from him on the town, and proceeded to spend a lazy afternoon in idle chit-chat with the ever wandering in and out customers. Hey, we also had hot running water in the hotel, so showers were taken all ‘round, and we returned in turn to sit and watch the slowly meandering river and constant flow of people cluttering the nearby bridge to the other side.
The afternoon was punctured by two incidents, the first, the arrival of a meter and a half long rainbow snake that shot at high-speed under the outdoor café tables, eagerly chased by a rapidly gathering crowd and a cook from the local snake restaurant, just down the lane, hatchet in hand. The second was the fruition of the constant interruptions by Mr. Chin, who regaled us at any given moment with his christian exploits and the obvious pride in being a member of the ‘Official Communist Party Christian Catholic Church’. Our English friend, who had gone off and returned later in the day interjected one of his spiels to ask him a question.
‘Mr. Chin, I notice that out front of your glorious church there is a rather large cross.’
‘Yes, we are very proud of that cross. It represents Jesus,’ says our resident Mr. Knowledgeable.
Leaning in to deliver the killer blow, our Englishman fired point-blank at Mr Chin.
‘Well then my good friend, perhaps you can explain to us, what’s that bloody great big red star doing smack in the middle of it?’
At this point, G and I couldn’t keep a straight face, and burst out laughing. We sat there, basically falling off our chairs with hysterics, while Mr Chin, having surrendered to a facial shade of communist pink, wandered away, muttering to himself.
That got rid of Mr. Chin for a couple of hours, and the rest of that day and evening was spent meeting various other western wanderers and tourists, sharing their adventures, and of those who had attempted, of their ill-fated attempts to get into Eastern Tibet from Chengdu. These stories were varied and fantastic.
- one had attempted to bike (!?%) around Tibet- attempt failed, bike confiscated and had been escorted by Chinese police back to central China
- one had wanted to boat down rapids out of Tibet and back into China- attempt failed upon capture
- one had hitched a ride in the back of a chinese army truck all the way into Lhasa- success
Chinese black-market, and Tibetan invasion plan #2.
Early in the morning of the third day, a Tibetan man came knocking on our hotel door to take us to see P tulku. We were led to one of the houses of his students, a lovely Chinese family that gave us an enormous feeding and made us feel incredibly welcome in their private, walled in compound. After the meal was over, Pewa tulku told us our marching orders.
He had arranged, by his connections with the local Chinese black-market, these things
- A Chinese police jeep to drive us into Tibet
- A Chinese police officer to drive us
- A young Tibetan monk, since neither G or I spoke a word of Chinese (who spoke no English) who spoke 5 dialects of Tibetan and was going to escort us and act as translator between us and the driver.
We were ecstatic at the simplicity and audacity of what he told us, but then I asked curiously how much funds this was going to require.
P Tulku said it was going to cost a cool $5000 US, payable that very day. Well, needless to say that we didn’t have that kind of cash on us, especially if I was to have emergency funds in case something went wrong (as I had feeling it would). A look of concern crossed P tulku’s face briefly, then he said that never mind, we could pay him them what we could, and for the remainder he would find the money and we could pay him back later. His earnest look said it all: we must get to Tibet.!
We were smart enough to realize that P tulku would have to put himself us as guarantor with his Chinese black-market reps, and we also knew what would happen were we to default.
Gesar and I weren’t sure if we wanted to get there that badly, considering the effort we had gone through to raise money from the American sangha for Gesar to come and study with Rinpoche in the first place. But the suddenly wrathful look on the tulku’s face convinced us that we better just agree with what he said. We nodded our assent. Suddenly the smiles were back again all round.
We would worry about paying him back the extra money when we were back in India. After all, Rinpoche had said that all things could be taken care of if necessary. So off we went to a local market to prepare necessary items for trip- Gesar and I both acquired Chubas and other necessities for the very cold and hard journey ahead of us. Chubas are the traditional Tibetan dress, long and generally thick, rough material to keep you warm in the high altitude, worn off one shoulder during the heat of the day, and a welcome extra layer at night. We had our requisite Chairman Mao hats to cover our heads if need be, and a few extra socks and sweaters.
We were told to be ready early the next morning as we had nothing to lose. The journey would take about three/ four days of hard-driving and we were instructed to sleep well that night.
Of course, we hardly slept- it was going to happen! It was a combined feeling of intense anticipation and absolute fear that wracked my discursive thoughts that night.
On our way.
The next morning we were ready at five o’clock as we had been instructed. We left a lot of belongings at the hotel; only take what is absolutely necessary. Our Tibetan friend drove us over to the Chinese people’s house, where sure enough sat a waiting Beijing Chinese police jeep, a Chinese policeman and a little Tibetan monk. Introductions were done, a wave good-bye to our new chinese friends and the aspiration of good luck from P tulku and we were on our way. I sat in the back, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible in the early morning traffic as we navigated our way out of the still sleepy, misty town, as the driver pointed the jeep west, towards Tibet and our destiny.
* The late great Chairman Mao
The ill-fated journey to wild west Xining/Qinghai- or, how not to piss off a Chinese police officer.
The realization that we were about 1500 km off course hit him like a bolt of lightening. ‘What the f..k!’, were the first words out of G’s mouth, and a look of total disbelief crossed his face. ‘F..k!’ ‘F..K!?’ We sat in the room, and tried to figure out what to do. The choice was obvious- we needed to arrange a train trip from Xian to Xining, as soon as possible. We had both planned to stay in China a maximum of two months, so there was no point in wasting time. The next morning, we had the travel officer at the hotel arrange a couple of tickets for us on the next night’s train. This was going to basically be a 24 hour journey from Xian, the old capital of China over 2000 years ago, to Xining and the old Tibetan border.
We had accepted out fate, and did some quick thinking. We were back on track. Neither G or I spoke any Chinese, Gesar could get by talking in Tibetan, and I had very rudimentary Tibetan skills from living a year at Rimpoche’s monastery in Bir, in northern India. Underline rudimentary. The train turned out to be ok; we had a sleeping booth, which we had to share with another person, but it was clean and seemed quite comfy. The car was filling quite quickly with Chinese from all walks of life, most of them carrying these big jars which later we were to realize was for them to drink tea from, a seemingly constant process of re-filling the jar with hot water (readily available) and milking every last drop of flavor out of a few pinches of tea leaves. We pulled out of the station, one of those classic fabricated steel and glass aircraft hangar shaped monsters with the standard People’s Republic mural of the victorious Chinese people marching behind a young and virile Chairman Mao plastered on the waiting room wall.
Tally ho! Time for a beer! Which was readily available, and we settled down to stare at the Chinese man sitting opposite us. Gesar, with his unique ability to make friends with anybody anywhere, had this guy drinking beer with us in no time, and telling us his story in very broken English. Mr. Z as I will call him was from Taiwan, and was on his way to the Northwest wilderness called Tien Shan, where the Chinese government would let foreigners go as long as they were prepared to pay shitloads of money, and possibly have their permission cancelled at any time. He was in similar straights as us, unsure if he would get permission.
We got by with our international communication skills, mostly sign language, and explained that we were going to Tibet. He suggested in his own way that this might be a difficult prospect, but we were to be undaunted at this stage.
By the end of three hours we had both the railway guardsmen assigned to our carriage in our room drinking beer too and proceeding to get very drunk (sounds safe doesn’t it). But hey, this was China, and they ended up giving me and Gesar their communist party badges and various railway worker insignia, which I am sure they probably regretted later on.
The next day of travel was quite enlightening- here we were slicing across the Chinese countryside, and one could feel the ever present influence of the late great chairman. There were caves anywhere the countryside produced a bump, crops as far as the eye could see, and absolutely no free space to be seen. The predominant colors for me were three- the grey of all the concrete buildings ( since we didn’t see any older buildings- thanks to the destruction of 80% of anything historical during the cultural revolutions), the green of the rice fields, and the sweeping blue indigo of the sky.
G and I got to sample some of the culinary highlights of China Rail- one rather interesting dish later turned out to be snake, I was hoping the hand gestures meant eel, but then the chef smilingly showed us the snakes hanging from the ceiling…
Late the next day, we finally arrived at our destination- Xining. I will try to close my eyes now and paint you as vivid a picture as I can…Back in 1991, it was still very much a wild west town, many of the streets were unpaved, the locals an interesting mix of Han Chinese and blue-eyed Caucasian mix tribesmen that had obviously filtered down from the various steppes millennia ago. I heard later that a large percentage of the populace were ex-incarcerated criminals, social outcasts and political dissidents, whom after serving their time and receiving ‘re-education’, were forcibly sent to this outpost by the politburo in order to keep them as far away from the big cities, and causing any more trouble as possible. That meant that at night, when the natural light faded, the law often ceased to exist in obvious form.
Case in point- One day in China Gesar and I were walking down the street when we came across a large crowd surrounding three men who held a man between them. Whatever this man had done, we had no clue; but the crowd stood by and watched as one man systematically and methodically kidney punched this guy, much to the gruesome fascination of the crowd. It was torturous to watch, I couldn’t believe it was happening, and Gesar was absolutely horrified at the plight of this man, who now was bleeding from the mouth at every punch. ‘Where’s a policeman?’ G asked me. We frantically looked around, and saw one about half a block away directing traffic. We raced over to him and caught his attention, pointing at the man and the crowd down the street. He smugly ignored us, and turned his back… Gesar was really pissed off at this point, understandably so, and was making that quite clear by his loud upset and plaintive voice. But there was nothing we could do…we walked on down the street helpless and both feeling a little less than human…
Back to Xining. We found a hotel in the middle of town and proceeded to check in and get a room. I was in need of a bath, and so was G. As one would, I went into the bathroom and turned on the water- and nothing happened except this low resonant moan that emitted from the pipes….wtf.
Down to the reception desk go I, only to be told, sorry, the water and water heater will be turned on twice a day, once at 600-700 am, once more in the evening. Let me tell you that Xining at night is cold- is a good way northwest, and though the days are warm, the nights were freezing. In our four/five day stay there, G and I were never able to get a shower- the water had either already run out, or trickled out of the shower nozzle at beyond boiling point.
The next day, we started to explore town and carefully find a car company so as to try and hire a car. Wandering the sometimes unpaved streets, late in the day we found a car company and proceeded to arrange the hire of a car. Everything seemed ok, the employees were all smiles, so happily G and I went out on the streets to eat some street side bbq and drink some beer in the chill but energetic evening. The mix of races in Xining was interesting-here we were in China, but there were Mongolians, Chinese blue-eyed Muslims, Tibetans, all mixing together within a booming night market. A little tipsy, we returned to our prestigious accommodations to watch some twice-dubbed American movie with a voice track so confusing we kept ourselves entertained by making up our own dialogue. A knock on the door…..
There stood a Chinese police officer with the friendly hire car employee, not smiling now, and the manager of the hotel. Between the three of them, we managed to figure out that we were to report to the police office the next day first thing in the morning, where the police were very curious to find out why we wanted to get into Tibet…..
Things were not looking so good. Gesar and I started to figure out what the hell we were going to say to the police the next morning. It definitely couldn’t be the truth, and we were sober enough to realize that these policemen were going to check our contact in Tibet. We didn’t want to make trouble for them either. So here is the story Gesar came up with……as far as I remember!
Gesar was a son of a Tribal warlord who had fled the country in 1948 and gone to live in the US. On the death of his father, the son wished to reconnect with the rest of his relatives still living in China. The last known relative was now living in Tibet as an Chinese free land grant emigrant that had moved to Kham……. It was something along those lines, anyway. Lo and behold, in the middle of the story, Mr.Z from the train appears like a guardian angel/peaceful protector and starts to help with the translation into Chinese, completely going along with the story as Gesar told it.
I remember the face of the Chinese police officer as Gesar told his tale of being the long-lost son from America. You have to imagine in your minds eye that Gesar literally towered over your average Han Chinese policeman by a good couple of feet, and was built like a modern day sumo wrestler. The officers and the entire police station staff were spellbound and stunned to say the least. Gesar looked like ‘someone’. Just what kind of ‘someone’ and whether that kind of ‘someone was worthy of being let loose in Tibet they had no idea. I just agreed with whatever Gesar had finally come up with. The policeman dismissed us, and told us to come back later in the day, saying that he would now contact Gesar’s ‘relative’ in Tibet to confirm the story.
Like a lightening bolt, G and I raced down to the local telephone exchange, where we called the number of our contact. You can imagine this huge guy crammed into a tiny phone booth, speaking very american accented Tibetan, with a much smaller westerner milling around, occasionally interjecting his 20 cents worth. Basically the result of the conversation was- we weren’t sure. The feeling of panic that had slowly permeated the police station seemed to make our grasp on the subtleties of the Tibetan language unhinged. Rimpoche has let them know that we were coming- the main issue was, could they somehow persuade the police chief that the story was legit.
Back to the police station and we were told to come back tomorrow, and they would talk to us about our permit- the phone conversation had gone well. Trying to hide our obvious glee, we made it at least to the outside the Police station before we each broke into our rendition of James Brown’s goodfoot dance. That night it was more bbq, more beer, and a weird Jackie Chan movie- I think it was Cannonball run.
An extra day, and Kumbum monastery- or, believe it or not…
The next morning we headed back to the Police station, to be told we had to wait an extra day whilst the wheels of Chinese Bureaucracy turned… whatever. We had somehow heard about Kumbum monastery, a Gelupgpa monastery founded by Tsokhapa 1357, a mere 30 kms away and hours bus ride from the city. We had a day to kill, and it was definitely worth the road trip. Or was it…..
Ok, this was my first real Tibetan gonpa (monastery) anywhere near Tibet, so I was excited. G and I were part of a busload of people headed out that way, crammed together with mostly tibetan looking types, food, chickens, assorted supplies, and what we thought were a few monks. Down a dusty and bumpy road we went, and as we wound our way down this valley I couldn’t help but notice how much the lan had deteriorated. There were a lot less crops being raised, and what was growing was of a much poorer quality than I had seen on the way west. We were definitely getting closer to the arid Tibetan border. Regardless, I felt quite good to actually be getting somewhere remotely Tibetan.
We arrived at the monastery and proceeded to have a look around. This would be a great opportunity for us to brush up our Tibetan skills, and also see one of the most important sites in Tibetan history. Something felt strange- I didn’t quite know what it was, but the energy was nothing like I was used to in the other Tibetan monasteries I had been to and stayed at. It was not peaceful, it felt…dead. We saw a couple of monks, and G headed over to have a chat. They avoided us, even though Gesar obviously caught the attention of one of them. Weird. Undaunted, we continued on, and had a look in one of the massive shrine rooms and got another shock- the place was literally covered in inches of dust, a brief look inside disclosed one beat up drum lying on its side, practice tables stacked loosely and lying about on the floor, dust and crap everywhere. How could that be? Outside the main entrance, Tibetans were still engaged in prostration activity, continuing a tradition that had gone on for centuries, and was evidenced by the literal hollowing out of the flag stones about the length of an average human, where practitioners had done countless offerings of their bodies. A look at Gesar’s face showed me he was just as confused as I was.
Seeing another ‘monk’, he chased after him and this time really pursued to talk. The ‘monk’ mumbled something is Chinese- he obviously didn’t understand a word that Gesar was saying. I don’t remember exactly how we found out, I think it was from a Christian missionary we met on the bus back to Xining later that day, but there were no real monks at Kumbum- the were all mostly retired army soldiers who were there to give the ignorant tourists the feeling that they were having a ‘Tibetan experience’. The buildings we saw had been stripped bare of any semblance of religious meaning and trappings- unkempt, beaten up, paint peeling off walls. It was an empty shell, a dead body, and our first wake up call to the real plight of Buddhism in China at that time.
And now, for the grand finale…or, end of act one.
We were up bright and early the next day and at the Police station waiting for out answer, which of course took all morning. The officer that had been treating with us the last few days seemed friendly enough, had asked more questions than a game show host, and was seemingly convinced by out story. ‘You have 80% permission; I just wait for my boss.’ Ok, so wait we did. I consumed best part of my fingernails to pass the time, G with his usual patience vibrating on the seat next to me. Finally, the phone rang, and the officer held a terse conversation with the person on the other end. The phone went down- he looked at us. ‘Well, my boss says ok you go.’ Broad smiles shared by me and G. ‘But…I say no.’ The look on this guy’s face said it all- it was a complete power trip.
We were both totally stunned- all that time we had spent, the phone calls, the stress. This guy knew he was totally screwing us.
G says to me, ‘let’s get out of here’. But my Irish blood got the better of me and I decided to give this guy piece of my mind, for what it was worth.
I don’t know what I was thinking, but I get up in this officer’s face, and eyeball him as close as I could get, channeling my best Scorsese Italian mobster wise guy face and say, ‘you x%&$#’ asshole, I wont forget you.’ He just recoiled, stunned and completely not understanding a word of what I had just said but definitely understanding my anger, as G and I stormed out.
It’s amazing how quickly you can get things done when you need to move. We were on that night’s train back to Xian, I was ready to put plan two into operation. Rimpoche had said it was going to be tough- he was right. And guess who is on the same train, in the same sleeping booth? You guessed it; Mr. Z They hadn’t given him permission to go to the wild north either. We commiserated over a few more beers and watched the countryside roll by. G was talking of just quitting and getting the hell out of China. I knew how he felt. I felt violated myself. But I remembered my instructions from Rimpoche- no matter what, get him to Shechen. So it was time for plan two…..
Way back in 1991, when Gesar and I were in India with our Lord and master*, Rimpoche suddenly came up with the bright idea that we (ie G and I) should go to Tibet, and that Gesar should be recognized by his monastery as the incarnation of Shechen Kontrtul Rimpoche. Whaa? I hear you say. Ok, a little bit of backgrounding is in order- I apologize. There are a few concepts here that may need explaining. So, I will try to make this all as simple as possible.
Day one, and it all starts to go wrong… Well, off we go to our trusty Indian travel agent in Dehli (who shall remain nameless), pick up our Chinese Airline tickets, and get ready to leave. From Dehli G and I headed off to Bangkok, where we succumbed to a 24 hour binge of the cultural, culinary and night -life delights of that wonderful city. After our brief sojourn there, we caught our flight to Guangzhou, which, as can be expected in that year, was a rather dreary place on first examination, and sampled out first taste of chinese communist hospitality. Day two saw us heading for the airport in the late afternoon to catch out domestic flight; on first examination an ex-Russian Aeroflot ‘Concorde’ with bald tires, with a penchant for letting the clouds enter through the barely pressurized windows during takeoff. Gesar and I smiled at each other- nothing to worry about, all was going well….
Three foreigners, dressed in various combinations of monastic robes, made steady headway out of Sikkim’s Capital and towards a long sought after rare chance appointment. One intrepid traveller in the group was a strapping New Zealander, one an Scottish ex-nun, the other a soon to de-vow monastic (i.e. me), all trudging steadily up the steep hills out of Gangtok and towards the old royal Sikkimese compound.
The weather was fine and clear, and the beautiful Himalayan countryside almost leaped out of the thin blue sky as we walked. All of us shared the same thought- would we be able to get past the guards and into the main compound to visit Khandro Tsering Chodron, once consort of the great Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and renowned real life yogini…
Khandro became Jamyang Khyentse’s spiritual wife in 1948, at a time when he was in poor health and many of his disciples were urging him to take a consort to prolong his life. For the next eleven years she served as his attendant and devoted companion, receiving countless teachings and transmissions, requesting practices and prayers and travelling with him all over Tibet and following him to Sikkim on his escape.*
We had all heard of numerous failed attempts by other western devotees to get in to see her, with the gatekeepers more often than not turning everyone away in order to keep the premises secure. So, we decided to walk up to the Tsuklakhang compound rather than jump in a taxi, and do our best invisibility attempts to get past the main gate and find her.
The cool Himalayan air was no obstacle whatsoever, we chatted as we walked, taking in the countryside around us. finally we breasted the last rise and saw the gate clearly ahead of us. Walking on the side of the road farthest away from the guard house, we made ourselves appear as monastic as possible, and walked at a steady pace forwards. As we breached the gates the guard looked up for a moment, we nodded to him briefly, and just kept on going. Without so much as a glint of recognition, he was back to the pages of his book in an instant.
I remember clearly the grassy hill in 1998 that the temple sits upon, and the huge wave of elation as we started to approach. Finally, to meet a spiritual practitioner of such high regard and link to the Tibet that once was. We knocked on one of the temple doors politely and an attendant came out. With our best Tibetan, we explained our reason for the visit and the desire we had to meet Khandro.
If you ever get a chance to visit this temple, it is an incredibly beautiful sight. Imagine the high Himalayan peaks wrapping around you as you stand on a grassy hill, with a panoramic view of the countryside around you. Steeping through the tall doorway, you are struck with the feeling of antiquity of the place and that you stand upon very hallowed grounds, as Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro’s Stupa and relics are stored there. I was struck by the quiet feeling of vastness as we walked quietly down the hall towards a closed door, which we knocked on gingerly, and then were ushered through. Inside was a vast shrine room, dimly lit, empty of all furniture with a highly polished wooden floor, like dark glass. At the far end of this room, sitting on a cushion and appearing so diminutive, was Khandro herself, looking quizzically at the arrival of these three foreign guests.
At that point, the three of us lost any composure we had managed to have up till then, and fell over ourselves to offer prostrations of respect to her and offer silk khata. A smile appeared on her face as she sensed our discomfort, and with a smile beckoned us to sit. We sat there for a short interview, our nun doing her best to translate our thoughts into Tibetan, as she looked at us and smiled a deep, loving smile. I think having finally achieved our goal we were all at a loss as to what to do or say, and feeling too overwhelmed at the energy of sitting close to this woman, we got up and sat a little distant , in order to just remain in the space with her for as long as we could.
All three of us were lost in thoughts and practice, but the energy in the room belied a sense of power much greater than this kind little woman sitting before us. I first tried to do my mantra practice, but my mind was completely restless, so I just settled for shamatha/vipassyana, and allowed myself to gradually tune in to the room around me. It was cavernous, with a high ceiling, with the walls covered in various tangkhas and other religious paintings and artwork. Khandro just immediately returned to her practices, which in many ways encouraged us to do the same. We must have stayed in there with her for an hour or two, and through the whole time I was struck by how this woman just radiated energy.
At one point as my vipassana gradually expanded out further and further into the darkened space around me, I felt as if the highly polished wooden floor beneath me became instead a sheet of glass, and below that the darkened planks in fact a vast and empty space. Literally, I felt the world as I was accustomed to it fall away into nothingness, which struck me with a sense of awe.
My feelings of being overwhelmed with the situation were not alone; my two companions at some point signalling that they too felt profoundly affected by being in her presence. An attendant came in to see her, and we took our leave, leaving her, as I remember, still quietly sitting on her cushion, smiling and chanting some mantra.
Emerging outside into the still bright sun, we stumbled onto a grassy patch and sat down, knocked out by being in her presence and needing time to recover. I dont remember the contents of the conversation, but we all had felt an incredible power surge just by being near her. We made our way down the winding road and out the gates, proceeding to walk back down the hill from whence we came.
Suddenly, one in our party started laughing. I dont rememer who it was, but it soon infected the three of us with the same effect. Within moments, without any knowledge of why we were doing so, we were all laughing and completely out of control, laughing and stumbling, howling at the energy release that had just occurred.This lasted a good fifteen minutes or so and would not be controlled no matter what we tried. A site we must have been for all who passed us, their eyes curious as to what had struck us as so funny, where in fact there was no cause that any of us knew of.
Khandro was a living example of how important women practitioners are to the Buddhist faith, and that her attainment as a practitioner was unparallelled. I will never forget her.