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Published: March 19th 2018
Image at tonight's stop
It is surrounded by flowers and numerous pilgrims conduct repeated prostrations before it.
Our excellent hotel has franchised the breakfast service to a neighbouring establishment, which provides a shocking breakfast, chipped plates and a depressing ambience; Kevin went to so far as to leave a note of this for the hotel manager as, in every other way, the hotel was fine.
We are now in the hands of Frank and a driver, Mr. Shen, for a four day trip into the highlands of Qinghai. In a nutshell, Xinjiang is the most westerly area of China, bordered on the south by Tibet; to the east of Xinjiang lies Gansu, a peanut-shaped area bounded to north and south by mountains and populated by mainstream Han persons. South of Gansu is Qinghai, which (like Xinjiang and Tibet, partially embracing it) has minority ethnic populations and significant cultural and religious elements. Later we will edge into Sichuan, to the southeast, and finish our main trip at Xi’ an, the ancient capital of China, in Shaanxi area (which also includes the Ordo, the great bend in the Yellow River).
The drive is fast, along excellent roads, through majestic mountain scenery. We notice the abandoned terraces on the hillside, as the rural population migrates
The Yellow River
I am told this is between 150 and 2000 km from its source, and it has a long way to go.
to towns and cities; we also notice numerous new, handsome and clearly highly-valued mosques, built with the finest of materials. Clearly Islam flourishes and we can see the workers in the fields, ladies with pink headscarves, men wearing white skull caps with crocheted (rather than embroidered) detail. This is the 4th
largest province and the government is investing very heavily in infrastructure and specific incentives to keep people “on the land” or at least in a populated rural environment. We keep climbing and at 9,000 feet run into a light covering of snow. Tibetan villages also show great signs of religious solidarity, with prayer flags, stupas, chortens and monasteries, as well as distinctive painted decoration around the head of the compound-walls. Below us winds the mighty Yellow River, apparently 1500 kms from its source and already an impressive feature of the landscape; but it is affected by a dam upstream, and also the colour at this time of year does not yet reflect the name. In a few days time we hope to see it some hundreds of kilometres further downstream.
Useful tip: the local (white) spirit is called “Ching-ker-du”, must try to find some. Made perhaps
At Baoan we visited a Buddhist monastery, of the Yellow Hat persuasion, the reformed branch founded in the 14th
c. by Tsongkapa (and which, in Kevin’s faltering opinion, has some faint parallels with Christianity, as interpreted by Jesuit missionaries). Notes as to divinities etc. I will not reproduce here, sufficient to say that buildings and values which suffered badly in the Cultural Revolution have substantially been restored, a process that began about 25 years after the tumultuous period. Sadly, this cannot be said in respect of the somewhat similar Reformation iconoclasm throughout Europe, although some 500 years have already passed.
Our guide was well-informed and able to answer most of the questions which arose; we are all vaguely familiar with the Buddhist ethos and practice, but it was nice to have information about specific details. Incidentally, our guide gave us to understand that Yellow hats (Dalai Lama etc.) are fully committed to the tenets and practice of their faith, being celibate and devoted to a life of prayer and the pursuit of enlightenment. By contrast, Red Hats are inclined to have other, secular, employment, to have a wife and family and only
Just a fraction, perhaps one tenth, of the prayer wheels.
to don their robes and exercise their faith more fully when they attend religious occasions; this sounds a little like the gross division in Christianity to the lay person, with Red Hats tending towards the Protestant wing, and maybe approaching the Methodist or Baptist way of life?
After that visit, we moved a few kilometres further on, to our hotel at Zhangren, the Ziangyun Pinzhi; this is rather good fun, modern and well equipped, with well-furnished and comfortable bedrooms. We had lunch in the tea-restaurant, which was rather special. It had a little bridge, three steps up and down, which would fox most disabled folk, and tables were in almost Moorish side alcoves or little rooms, closed off by sliding, nicely panelledhighly-decorated wooden doors. The ceiling of our booth was graced by a vigorous Gainsborough of a young lady, in a recessed section above the chandelier; the opposing walls had two scenes from Holland, one was fairly innocuous (a street scene) and the other was a scene with windmills etc., rather as one might encounter in the setting for a game of Crazy Golf. The staff were attentive and very charming, one young boy was a special
hit with a wonderful smile and the perfect chubby, rosy cheeks which are so much of a Tibetan feature.
After an excellent lunch we went to see the very substantial monastery in the town (AAAA official grade), which was very busy with genuine pilgrims. We were not sure if it was always as busy, but numerous persons were prostrating themselves repeatedly before images, altars and even prayer wheels. We were able to view the extensive establishment without incommoding the worshippers, and indeed numerous pilgrims and monks were kind enough to greet us and to ask us to pose with them for photographs. It would seem that the Tibetan for “Ni Hao” or “Hello” sounds like “Demo”; at least that is what we tried and it seemed to be acceptable.
This too was a Yellow Hat establishment. We asked the difficult question – in the Cultural Revolution, was the physical activity of “reform” conducted by Red Guards from elsewhere, or was it carried out by the local population in their enthusiasm. We gathered that this being such a remote place, the activity was locally inspired and conducted, and it is the local community who (since
the 1980s) have helped sponsor the restoration work, assisted by government funding (in view of the tourism significance).
We walked back to the hotel, about 2 km, along a street that included vey many establishments selling the offerings and other items required by pilgrims (as at Rome, Walsingham, Canterbury etc.). There were many other shops as well, and (once again) one could see that the Buddhist and Moslem communities appear to live in perfect harmony. We had a good cup of coffee in a “western” coffee shop (£2 a head) and passed a motorbike repair shop playing “Country Road” with gusto.
Two extra notes: we were interested to see that the Dalai Lama’s photograph is displayed openly in places of religion, whereas it is popularly believed in the west that this is forbidden. Also, we were very impressed to see that colourful and slightly idiosyncratic traditional dress survives as a regular feature of normal life; amongst a myriad of styles of dress, it seemed that our own was the one that attracted most attention.
After a pre-prandial, we had dinner in our hotel, which had been so good for lunch. It
Head of a Tibetan Wall
The uppermost section is traditional constructed of heavily compressed tamarisk stems, as can be seen here. In modern restorations, the same effect, en faux, is created but this example is genuine.
excelled itself and as Christa said: "I think it is one of the nicest places I have ever dined, such very nice, genuine people and the food was exceptional, the service and surroundings were perfect".
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