70 % of Tibetan traditional literature

The printing press in Dege is my favourite building in China. Officially. And we came to Dege specially to see it. Actually I wanted to come here the very first time I came to Sichuan, during a cold January in 2006. Then we were told the road was closed due to ice, and the two-day journey over the highest pass in Sichuan (over 5000m) would be impossibly dangerous.

But now it was a warm, fuggy summer, and the glaciers were dirty and distant. I wouldn’t even have noticed the pass if it hadn’t been scattered with the usual pieces of charm paper the Tibetans throw out of the bus windows as a prayer at the top. At first sight, Dege seemed a bit disappointing. The hills on either side were steep and sort of enclosed the town, the communist banners and military the most visible thing about it. Within ten minutes of arriving, a convoy of at least 20 police and military vehicles had blared past with sirens and lights on, heading southwest towards the Tibetan border. We booked into a slightly scummy guesthouse full of monks and with a hole in the toilet door, and had a well-deserved sleep.

We came to the printing press in the morning. It apprently houses 70% of Tibetan traditional literature, and has been around for several hundred years. It narrowly escaped getting destroyed in the CR (but was converted into a hospital for a while) and is now back to churning out large quantities of Tibetan scriptures with official blessing and a hefty entrance fee of 50 yuan.

The building was slightly smaller than I imagined, on three storeys made of wood, with a red templish feel about it. The entrance area was full of people washing the wooden printing blocks – each block is about 50cm long and 10cm wide, with about 12-15 rows of Tibetan writing. They scrubbed off the red or black ink in huge basins and left them to dry in the sun.

On the next floor up, and the floor above that, they store the blocks. Shelves are jammed from floor to ceiling in dark, winding corridors, and each block is double-sided with a well-worn handle to pull it out. A book might be made up of 50 or so wooden blocks, and this building houses thousands and thousands.

Obviously fire is a huge hazard. There was a ginormous stack of fire extinguishers. We had to squeeze up a narrow, rickety ladder to the next floor, where the printing was taking place. Pairs of workers – all men aged between about 14 and 50 – sat opposite each other with a stack of printing blocks on each side and a block between them.

One would roll the block with ink from a bucket, the other place a strip of paper on it, the first roll the paper to make the imprint, the second remove the now damp strip and place it on his knee. After five strips they turn them over and print on the back, then place them on a wooden plank above and move onto the next block, so they are printing 5 books at once. They moved in a mechanical, nodding way almost like a factory, sweating and gasping, printing one page on average every few seconds. Exhausting but skilled work, in which they obviously take great pride.

One guy grinned at us and printed a page for each of us to keep as a keepsake. I don’t normally keep souvenirs, but I’ll treasure this. On the next floor they were drying the wet pages, as well as storing loads more prints. There was also a room for printing pictures and prayer flags, using a similar but more careful technique. This room was full of stencils of pictures of Buddhas being printed onto homemade paper as well as yellow and white cloth. I wound around a corner and down a half-staircase to find a room the others missed. Here two ancient monks with even older-looking spectacles were checking the bundled pages, linking their fingers to sort them properly, then binding the finished books with white paper and string and packaging them up in brown packages to be taken away.

I felt a real throbbing magic of being at the centre of Tibetan culture. Once again, I desperately wished I could read Tibetan. The only part left to see of the printing press was the roof, where we stood in the sun amongst gleaming gold decorative work, and looked out over the town.

This is slightly higher up, and suddenly Dege seemed a less enclosed and more exciting place, bathed in sunlight with steep wooded slopes rising up towards the mountainous skyline. We spotted some crumbling red-earth watchtowers on a hill above and decided to head for them. This turned into a race-to-the-skyline game, and Nikolai kept walking uphill for almost 4 hours until we reached the top and could see a spectacular view of snowcapped mountains to the east, and distant black speck of Tibet to the west.

It was an exhausting walk up and my shoes broke on the way down so I had to walk in bare feet and avoid the wild dogs. We were very happy to eat a ginormous dinner and rehydrate with gallons of ice tea. At night we went for a walk and lay on the ground looking at the stars by the fresh rushing stream. Locals driving past thought we were insane. We also tried Tibetan sniffing tobacco. It is vile and made my snot black. Not cool.

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