A road full of prayers

It was a funny convoy that drove out of Manigango that drizzling late afternoon. A huge police jeep with flashing red and blue lights and a smartly uniformed driver with hair combed like a Hong Kong movie star. A swish black car with two orange-red robed monks, three foreign girls, and a 20-pack of red bull.

It had taken ages to set off, with visits to Sun’s fantastically cosy house where we were served tea by his sister and enjoyed decorations of a massive Mao poster with bowing goats and yaks on each side. We also stopped at the house where their car broke down two days before and they’d been hosted by the almost destitute family – now they brought them an armful of vegetables and food to repay their kindness. Once we finally hit the open road (read mud track with ocasional potholes) the two brothers – the policeman and the living Buddha – kept chasing ahead of each other in their cars, playing crazy loud music of Ge’s own CD with the windows open.

After about an hour we arrived at their monastery. It was set in an enclosed valley, which looked almost deliberately designed like an oyster shell swallowing it secretly out of sight. The town around the entrance was poor and 100% Tibetan, including the two police stations. When we drove into the valley, we could see the monastery glinting up on a hill to our left, surrounded by a bees-hive of monks homes. Ge seemed to be a local celebrity because everyone seemed to know him and want to chat, wave, or give him their phone number.

Snow took us to see his living quarters. It was a bit reminiscent of a boys’ bording school. He shared a reasonably comfortable-looking room with a smiling, balding young monk with missing front teeth. The room was decorated with Buddhist prints and stacked with Tibetan books. There were two pictures of the DL, including one of him shaking hands with the head of the monastery. This seemed to be regarded as totally normal. The policeman didn’t bat an eyelid.

It took ages to finally leave the monastery, which was actually a Tibetan scriptural school with several different colleges. Ge had graduated from every level here before leaving – he now lives in eastern China and only comes back for occasional visits. At last we left Snow behind with his friends, forgot stuff and had to came back, Ge said hello to lots of people, passed workers sweating away moulding concrete for a new pagoda, forgot stuff again, waved to more people, went to the shop, more talking, and finally drove onwards for Yushu. Again the progress was slow. Ge’s brother was exhausted from having spent all day driving, and they kept stopping to get out of the car and take photographs. The policeman was obviously a keen photographer with several bulky-lensed manual cameras, and they would squat down to photograph close ups of flowers along the roadside, and distant hazy mountains. It was a surreal to see the two of them almost side-by-side, in their representative and very differently emotion-invoking uniforms, photographing flowers in eastern Tibet/northern Sichuan province. It was blatantly clear we would never make it to Yushu before night fall.

I sat in the passenger seat –  which was a good opportunity to chat to Ge, who is a very interesting guy. He spoke passionately about Tibetan culture and religion, while his perfect Mandarin and ease with Han people showed him as someone comfortably adapted to the political situation. He complained about monks and peasants causing trouble and giving Tibetans a bad name, and said the main difference between Tibetans and Han Chinese was simply religion. He talked approvingly of the usefulness of the Chinese language and the possibilities offered by the spreading higher education, but complained at the way riots and trouble caused by individuals might be dealt with.

His overall summary seemed to be that a living Buddha should focus on his religion, and that politics was a dangerous distraction. Certain figures outside of China (for he was a proud Chinese citizen) might be spiritually lofty, but did not understand the current situation. Oh and by the way we may not make it to Yushu tonight, we’ll have to stay in Shiqu. Where he would have to leave us, because he had business tomorrow. But he refused to accept money and sorted us a place to stay where we’d get woken for the bus the next morning. I was sorry to say goodbye.

The next morning we were woken at 6.30 by a hammering on the door and had to leap into our clothes and appear blearily into the freezing dawn. A little minibus was parked outside, with a capped driver, bossy-looking old man, a monk, and two extremely bedraggled looking Tibetan nomad ladies. We all piled in, Miriam and I squeezed next to each our own smelly lady. I don’t mean to be rude but it was clear they hadn’t bathed or washed their hair in a very, very, very long time. One felt car sick, both were constantly hacking and  coughing and producing slimespit, bumping up and down. It took over half an hour to finally leave, and then only forty minutes into the journey we stopped …

… outside a monastery. Everyone got out. “We are going to pray, there is a living Buddha here”. They all rushed off to do a kora around the outside – that means circling it clockwise while pushing the prayer wheels. The car was locked so we went in search of a toilet. There was none, only a dead dog in the road, which someone had stubbed a cigarette out on. After asking several people we discovered this town has no public toilets. The monks just sort of position themselves and pee downwards, laymen pee against a wall, and women just nestle down between their skirts on the mud patch outside the monastery. Do they not wear underwear? I decided to save the question for later. Eventually we had to pee in an alley, standing watch in turn, and then wait for ages and ages in the freezing cold eating vacuum packed bread.

Finally the driver came back, shrugging his shoulders when we asked about the old ladies. It must have been almost an hour later when we finally hit the road again… only to stop at the next hilltop so that prayer pages could be thrown out. When we arrived in Yushu we were cold, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower. Our fellow passengers did not seem to share this desire.

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