The monks of Manigango

At 7am we caught the very bumpy public bus back over the pass towards Kangding. And when it stopped at Manigango for lunch, we were the only three not to get back on.

Manigango is one of those one-street towns from out of a western, and seemed much poorer than anywhere else we had stayed. The “central square” was a muddy patch of cross-parked cars and shaky beggars. As we ate our fried rice opposite, at least eight different old ladies came in asking for money, one of them dragging a small girl of about seven. The public toilet was guarded by another three weather-wrinkled women, one of who had red-yellow eyes and expert reactions for spotting and extracting money. We decided to leave immediately.

Except there was no public bus heading in our direction that day, and to hire a minibus would be prohibitively expensive. After hanging around the “hotel” in the “square” for a while bargaining, we struck lucky. A young local guy said his friends were going to Yushu (the biggest city in southeast Qinghai province and our next destination) the next morning, and would take us for 150 yuan each. Given the drive takes at least eight hours, that’s not a bad deal. And since the main attraction near Manigango is a lake 13km away, he and his pals would take us there this afternoon.

Sun’s pals turned out to be two very smartly dressed monks with a slick and shiny broken-down Japanese car. They were stuck in Manigango until the car was fixed, and when the spare wheel arrived tomorrow they would be driving us to Yushu. In fact, we later discovered that they were not just monks but “living Buddhas” and one of them was of a very high rank, having been personally discovered by three top Buddhist leaders before he was even born.

When we arrived at the lake, it turned out to be beautiful, icy and full of reflections. It was also long and rocky, with most of the large rocks carved with detailed Tibetan scriptures. A group of Chinese tourists made butter tea and ate shao kao (barbecue) while dodging from the mosquitoes, and wanted photos with the monks and detailed conversations about Budhhism. These are my favourite kind of Chinese tourists!

The mozzies were absolutely dreadful, and the local remedy was to rub ice tea all over your face and arms. It worked to some extent, but we also ended up very sticky indeed. Ge (the highest ranking monk) pulled his red robe high up over his head and hat down so only his sunglasses poked out, lying on the rock like a huge overgrown cocoon. Snow (the other monk) wanted lots and lots of photos taken of him posing in front of the glacial background.

They sang some beautiful Tibetan songs, shouted at me when I accidentally trod on the carved scripture on the rock, copied the scripture into my econometrics textbook for me, and had an argument after Snow threw a plastic bottle into the lake. It all felt really surreal. The guys are all around the same age of us, with just the same sense of fun on a day out, but they are holy monks who have given their lives to the Buddhist religion, living in a distant monastery in the Tibetan highlands.

It was growing dark when we back to the hotel, and Ge invited all of us – plus a Malaysian hitchhiker we had picked up – for dinner. This involved enforced singing and drinking huge quantities of Coca Cola. (Just because the monks don’t drink alcohol doesn’t seem to be a reason not to drink lots and lots). Ge sings fantastically well and sang some long, plaintive Tibetan folk songs.

They told us enthusiastically about their hopes to travel abroad, and how they all really want to learn English. Ge has already travelled abroad before with monk-related work, and hopes to study in Swizterland in the future. Sun kept going on about how much he likes foreigners.

It is a bit of a hazard travelling in small places in China that you get forcibly adopted and made best friends by eager locals who want to practice English, take photos with you, and be paraded around as a foreign friend. It can be very difficult to escape politely. But in this case it seemed genuine. The three, especially Ge, had met enough foreigners already for it not to be such a novelty. And we talked until late about interesting and personal things, not just cultural stereotypes. I felt that we were really lucky to have met them.

And the next morning we were to get up early and drive together to Yushu. Or that was the theory.


One Response to “The monks of Manigango”

  1. David Cox Says:

    Hello Ellie, Hope you are well, Sarah said you had a blog, which I’ve gooled. Kathryn and Becky say hello. Kathryn is disappointed that she has never met you, but was pleased to see your picture. Must read your blog now, about a very fascinating country. David

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