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Published: November 4th 2005
After rushing from Serta to get to Xining, I arrive at Qinghai Nationalities University to study the Golok dialect only to find out that the university has two weeks of vacation: "sports week" where classes are suspended and then the national holiday. I decide to use this time to explore nearby Tibetan areas and to return to Golok, this time from the north. Golok is home to eastern Tibet's warrior hero, Gesar, whose image is ubiquitous and whose former palace site houses maginificent statues of Gesar's warriors as well as the kings of Shambhala. The Overnight Bus
The overnight bus is an experience not to be missed! Most travelers encounter this experience when they travel overland to Lhasa via Golmud. But other trips over 12 hours may have an overnight bus. Passengers are packed into snug bunks, about half the width of a twin size bed and too short for the average Westerner. The bunks overlap somewhat leaving little room to sit up. Despite this and the usual delays from washed out sections of the road with their thick mud tracks, amazingly, you can get a good night's sleep and arrive at your destination ready for action.
night, we leave three hours late from Xining for the first leg of our trip, a 14 hour jaunt to Tawo. First the driver has to wait for another "connecting" bus and then with a full load of passengers he pulls off the road to do repairs. We get waylaid by another hour in the middle of the night when a minivan ahead of us gets stuck in the mud. Glimpses of the Amnye Machen range greet us in the morning. One of Golok's sacred mountains, Amnye Machen is home to the protective deity, Magyal Pomra, and rises over 21,000 feet. Seven years ago, I trekked halfway around this range with TO and our guide LJ, who accompanies me now along with my colleague AM. The snow-capped peaks are stunning in the distance as the sun reaches up from the horizon. Not a Cowboy Town
Tawo was a bit of a disappointment. Seven years ago, due to permit complications, we had to hustle back to Xining after our Amnye Machen trek and missed Tawo. I imagined an old Tibetan town, much as Kandze used to be or even Manigango today, a one-lane dusty town in Kham that seems
right out of Wild West (horses, cowboy hats and all). Instead, Tawo looks generically Chinese, newly laid out along a main street. Apparently, not much was here before Tawo became the administrative center of Golok prefecture.
We have good luck contacting ND, who meets us for lunch. He is well-spoken and aristocratic in demeanor, related by blood to the famous nineteenth-century Nyingma scholar Ju Mipham. ND writes me a letter of introduction for Wayen Monastery in Darlag and offers to help me arrange a stay with a family there in the spring. My other mission in Tawo is to find the poet JK to deliver editions of the Latse Journal
, a publication of the Latse Library in New York, specializing in modern Tibetan literature. But JK has just left town for a remote part of Darlag called Wangkor, so this errand must await another trip. Ritual and Study at the Gompa
After lunch, we are off to Darlag through the rolling grasslands of Golok, past yak herds and nomad encampments, through the town of Gabde and finally across the headwaters of the Yellow River into the town of Dar. I cannot wipe the smile off my face
as I encounter the highlands of Golok once more. After settling into a slightly rundown guest house, we call LB, the geko or disciplinarian at Wayen Gompa. Fortuitously, he is in Dar doing errands and offers to bring us to the monastery.
Wayen Gompa is perched on a hilltop overlooking the town of Dar at the heart of Darlag county. The name Wayen is Mongolian in origin and derives from the hill behind the monastery. With only 68 young monks and boys studying classical Tibetan and performing daily prayers, the monastery's facilities are modest. The boys in each age group sleep together in one large room, where they also eat and study. There is an assembly hall for the monks at the top of the monastery and a Tara lhakhang
(temple) for the laity below. The buildings seem recently constructed/ refurbished with murals by Rebkong artists ornamenting the walls.
I learn that soon after Losar (the Tibetan new year) begins a Tara prayer festival for the monks and local community in Darlag. Sounds like a good opportunity to mingle with locals and practice the Golok dialect. I ask if I can attend part of the ceremonies and am
warmly welcomed. Meanwhile, a khenpo from Serta will arrive this fall to begin teaching the basics of Buddhist philosophy to the oldest group of monks. The youngest group of 30 boys, who are encouraged in their studies and supported by SMR, have not yet become monks and are now just learning to read. A Palace of Gilded Images
Escorted by LB in his jeep the next day, we visit the Gesar Phodrang. Located at the site where the palace of Golok's warrior king Gesar is thought to have once stood, the phodrang
stands in the middle of large, open grasslands surrounded by rolling hills. Not a tree in sight. Here one can vividly imagine warriors in heavy armor galloping on steeds across the plains as depicted in murals, statues, and celebrated in one of the classics of Tibetan literature and performing arts, the Gesar epic. There is an annual Gesar dance or cham here in July.
Nextdoor to the main shrine to Gesar is a Shambhala Phodrang housing large gilded statues of the 7 dharmarajas and 25 rigdens, rulers of the mythical land of Shambhala. Above the entryway is a mural depicting the peaceable Shambhala kingdom and its impending battle with invading barbaric forces. In 400 years, according to lore, barbarians will overrun the world causing plague and warfare, finally threatening the isolated and idyllic kingdom. At this time, the 25th Rigden king will lead the warriors of Shambhala in battle against the barbarians and, once victorious, will thereby establish peace on earth.
There are a host of small shrine rooms in this complex, and the gonyer
or caretaker escorts pilgrims into each one, unlocking its door and describing its images. One houses statues of Gesar's retinue and another has murals of the 84 siddhas
(a set of accomplished tantric masters from medieval India) in exquisite detail, the handiwork once again of Rebkong artists. There is even a small museum, containing armor, weapons, ritual objects and other materials, traced to Gesar's era and milieu. Vultures, Prayer Flags and Sawdust
In the afternoon, we visited Traling Gompa, the largest monastery in Darlag with a sky burial site looming on a nearby hill above the main grounds. Daily rituals are conducted for the dead from this region. Because of a shortage of trees and hard (often frozen) soil, Tibet has a unique means of disposing of the dead, other than cremation or burial. The corpse is chopped up and fed to awaiting vultures, and the remaining bones are ground and fed to dogs. We arrived in time to see the dogs licking up the last blood and bones from the morning ritual. For those who witness a sky burial, it is a potent reminder of the Buddhist truth of impermanence.
Prayer flags of all kinds hang dramatically around the monastery. Some are stretched across long lines near the sky burial site, like sacred laundry swinging in the breeze, disseminating prayers with each gust. Others are planted on the incline of the sacred hill rising behind the monastery proper, small stand-alone flags in brilliant hues. Others are hoisted on poles like victory banners, and still more drape from a string between trees and above a row of chorten
, the Tibetan word for a stupa
, the quintessential Buddhist monument that often contains relics and other sacred substances.
Like so many monasteries across eastern Tibet, the smell of fresh-sawed wood is in the air. The main assembly hall at Traling Gompa is almost complete. Astonishing hues of red and gold decorate the double-story columns interspersed with draping chandeliers and colorful banners. Enormous gilded statues of Manjushri, Padmasambhava, Tara and a series of Buddhas stand at the front of the hall. Along the walls are brilliant Rebkong murals, each with a central figures surrounded by smaller ones: a mix of Indian and Tibetan masters, both ancient and recent, monastic and yogic. Along the balcony of the main hall on a mezzanine are a series of shrine rooms. Workers and artisans, still camped on the monastery grounds, now concentrate their efforts on these small unfinished sections of the building. Travelers to Darlag:
The overnight bus to Tawo (85 RMB) should take 9 hours once the bridge is repaired below Chabcha. From there, you can catch a shared ride in a minibus to Gabde (20 RMB) or Dar (30 RMB). To hire a car costs 300-400 RMB and is only worth it if you want to make a side trip to monasteries outside of Gabde. There is also supposed to be a direct bus to Dar. Once there, you'll need to hire a car to tour the Gesar Palace and Traling Gompa, both outside of town along the same dirt road. You can walk to Wayen Gompa from town by crossing the bridge over the Yellow River.
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