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Published: August 6th 2007
It's 3pm. We're passed in a flurry of maroon robes as a group of tardy monks hurry past; they're late for the afternoon debate. In the garden courtyard we're confronted with a staggering sight - hundreds of seated and standing monks in various clusters are engaged in heated debate. Topics unknown. We can only surmise - perhaps they're discussing divergent schools of Buddhist thought, whether the butter lamps should be animal or vegetable based, or the quality of yesterdays meal?
The scene is Sera Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa and the monks here have developed a unique method of debating. Here the final point of the closing argument is punctuated by an exaggerated and animated slapping of the hands to signal that the point has been made, conversation over.
Throughout the garden the slapping resonates loudly, hushed murmurs follow, daring monks deliver carefully deliberated retorts and proponents reiterate their argument in loud voices and sweeping gestures. One seated monk (presumably a hardened debater) finds himself the centre of attention of three monks who are all trying to outslap each other in order to claim victory. He seems unmoved, calmly delivering his rebuttal causing his opponents to unleash an
Monk making his point during debate at Sera Monastery, Lhasa
animated and verbose round two.
There are some definite show ponies here, hamming it up for the throngs of tourists lining the courtyard. An exuberant monk pauses just before he launches his sweeping slap, eyes gleaming as he looks directly into the camera lense.
North of Lhasa at Ganden Monastery we perform the kora, walking around the 4500m high circuit that surrounds the monastery. The terrain is steep and rocky and at some points really narrow so we're astounded to come across a prostrating pilgrim. He's performed the whole circuit on his hands and knees and is covered from head to toe in dust and looks exhausted. He smiles and waits for us to pass before laying his body head first down a steep set of stairs to continue his pilgrimage.
Tibetan culture is alive and thriving at the Barkhor and it was impossible not to be swept up in the throng of pilgrims as they made their morning kora around the holy Jokhang temple. Over 1300 years old, the Jokhang is Tibet's holiest temple and was packed to overflowing with yak-butter toting pilgrims who lined the walls chanting and waiting for their glimpse of the revered
statues. Sadly in stark contrast the Potala Palace high on the hill forlornly overlooking Lhasa, resonates with times past. Formerly the seat of the Tibetan government and residence of the the Dalai Lama, now the palace remains empty apart from the odd pilgrim, visiting monk and curious tourists.
Apart from the largely Tibetan area surrounding the Bharkor, we're overwhelmed at the Chinese-ness of Lhasa. It's a thoroughly modern city - solid apartment blocks, wide boulevards, department stores, supermarkets and designer clothing stores form the basis of the urban form. Han Chinese have cornered the market in retail and services, and Chinese is spoken widely; unfortunately for us English is not. We've had many failed attempts at communicating but Mandarin is a tonal language so even our best attempts have been simply ignored, or met with either blank stares or unbridled laughter. For example "ma" depending on the tone can mean mother, horse, hemp or indicate a question. Clearly, you can see our predicament.
Suz is standing in the store trying to select some vegetarian noodles which proves difficult due to the lack of English and unhelpful pictures of unidentifiable foods on the noodle packet:
Suz: Holding up a
bowl of noodles - 'soo shir?' (Vegetarian?)
Shopkeeper: Responds with a blank stare
Suz: Not sure how to imitate an inanimate object such as a vegetable decides on a process of elimination, - arms flapping wildly and clucking "brook brook bruuuuuk" - (Chicken?), emitting a long loud "mooooooooooo" - (Yak?)
Shopkeeper: Smiling she catches on ... "moooooooooo" (Yes, it's Yak)
Suz: "brook brook bruuuuuk", followed by "moooooooooo" and a covering of the mouth with the hands. (I don't eat chicken or yak)
Shopkeeper: Stares blankly
Suz: In an attempt to convey vegetarianism, "I'm Buddhist"
Shopkeeper: Another blank stare
Suz: Plucking imaginary food from the garden and eating it, (hmmm, these vegetables are delicious) followed by more chicken and yak antics "brook brook bruuuuuk", "moooooooooo" and an exaggerated covering of the mouth with the hands (but I don't eat chicken and yak).
Shopkeeper: Laughing she selects some vegetarian noodles from the shelf
We have a winner!
Whilst in Lhasa we also enjoyed the company of Coen and Marten, a father-son combo from Holland whom we first me while travelling overland to Lhasa. Marten is a pretty inspirational guy. At just 23 years of age whilst studying Spanish in Guatemala
he started volunteering at a local school and discovered that the majority of children were unable to attend school and meet basic living standards. Marten decided to do something about it and his vision has evolved into a charitable NGO that plans to build their first school in May 2008. Those interested in volunteering opportunities in Guatemala or donating to this worthy cause should check out the Ninos de Guatemala website.
It came time to leave Kat and Mike as we headed into China proper. We boarded the "Sky Train", named because it traverses the world's highest railway. Running from Lhasa through to Qinghai the track crosses the Tibetan plateau, over half of the track is above 4000m, and three quarters of the tracks are laid atop permafrost. We were heading to Chengdu which is east and roughly parallel to Lhasa but the railway runs north for several hundred kilometres via Golmud before heading east to Xining and then south in a long loop, making the trip 3,369 km and taking 45 hours.
The time flew. Our four cabin mates were all Han Chinese returning home to their homes in Sichuan province and were all friendly and respectful,
we communicated through the universal language of laughter and sign language. They shared their fruit, tomatoes, pickles and donuts with us, and wisely declined our offers of our soap flavoured fake oreo biscuits. We soon met the three other foreigners on board, a reclusive Swede, and two Dutch guys with whom we shared a meal in the dining cart. The trip was awesome (especially for a self-confessed train geek like Suz) but even Dave was impressed with the facilities on board, and the scenery along the way.
TIBET:Lhasa > CHINA:Chengdu via Golmud, Xining, Lanzhou without stops (by overnight sleeper train)
Tot: 3.028s; Tpl: 0.053s; cc: 37; qc: 164; dbt: 0.0904s; 2; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.7mb