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Published: January 1st 2011
Three mountain ranges emerge out of eastern Tibet into what is now northen Yunnan in China - known as the area of the three rivers, for these mountain ranges hem in the Yangtze, the Salween, and the Mekong; or as it's called here, the Lancang Jiang - the Turbulent River. As the name suggests the Mekong, here in it's infancy rumbles and roars through gorges and canyons, and to us at least, is largely inaccessible. We content ourselves with getting a feel for the river, getting to know something of it's character in the cool high conditions before joining the Mekong in Jinghong and making our way down it's waters into Laos.
A Little Bit of Tibet .... Songzanlin Temple.
Ganden Samtsanling (as the Tibetans call Songzanlin) was once one of the great monasteries in Tibet. Two thousand monks lived within it's walls, it owned huge amounts of land worked by the local peasants and ran it's affairs independantly of Lhasa. It possessed special facilities for study and was able to award advanced degrees to the most learned of monks. This system ended with the arrival of communism, but it was the Cultural Revolution that really
sounded the death toll for the monastery. Brutally destroyed, it met with the same fate as thousands of other Tibetan temples and monasteries, it was emptied of monks and raised to the ground.
Today Samtsanling is being rebuilt. A collection of buildings once again rises up over the hillside, with it's white washed walls, and tiled red rooves, their golden ornaments glinting in the morning sun, Samtsanling, nestling in the mountains and reflected in the waters of the lake, is once more a sight to behold.
We climbed a steep flight of stone steps to reach the main temple complex, pausing often for breath. Exertion at an altitude of 3,300m is not easy. But the effort was well rewarded. The two main assembly halls contained Buddha statues so immense that at first sight only the torso draped in silks was visible. Moving closer, the benign face, with hanging earlobes came into view. Tibetans, old men and women with thick black plaits hanging down their backs offered their respect. Clasping the palms of their hands together, fingertops pointing heavenwards, they touched their hands to the crown of their heads, to their forehead, and chin, before kneeling and bringing their
Sunshine Yellow and Heavenly Blue.
Roof decorations on the monastery.
forehead to the floor. This was done three or four times, in a fluid motion, rapidly and with grace. Only then did they move off to begin a clockwise perambulation around the treasures of the interior. Rows of gods and goddesses flanking the walls, jostling for space with images and photos of revered lamas. Each with offerings of fruit, plastic flowers, drinks (both cordial and alchohol) and money. Banknotes littered the benches on which the effigies sat; some were rolled into tight little cylinders and pushed between extended fingers, others lay strewn in holy laps. Some lit yak-butter lamps to bring good fortune to family members, the deceased as well as the living. The altars were a blaze of soft golden light, tiny flames dancing in the breeze. Every inch of every surface was a riot of brilliant colour. Wall paintings in vivid hues, ceilings painted sunshine yellow and adorned with flower prints, geometric patterns stenciled around doorframes, on eves and supporting struts. White prayer scarves tied in great billowing clutches to red wooden columns soaring endlessly upwards. The longer we looked, the more we saw. Burning incense stung the nostrils, giving off a sweet cloying perfume. Shorn monks in
Lion guarding entrance.
thick sleeveless maroon robes chanted and intoned from long narrow oblong scriptures, rocking back and forth slightly as they did so. Pure spectacle, but there was nothing theatrical about it, the faith was palpable.
The calm of the temples, the belief of the people and all the religious ritual filled me with wonder. A ruthless attempt had been made to obliterate a whole culture. The Chinese still exercise strict control over Tibetan Buddhism, but as we wandered up and down steps, through wooden gates and amongst walls of pressed earth; and as drills and diggers competed with the clash of symbols and blast of horns as young monks played music and danced in the main square, there was some hope that this hadn't entirely been achieved.
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