Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Dzongsar- hikes and thangka hunts

My first night in Dzongsar was pretty tough. The guesthouse I was staying at was freezing- like Pelpung it only had cloth windows, though at least there were wooden shutters. Also, throughout the night I could hear the wild dogs barking and fighting outside. During the day they were quiet, and spent most of their time sleeping. During the night they took over the street. They would howl, snarl, whimper and screech at each other, or maybe at the moon. Some of them didn't even sound natural, more like broken car alarms than dogs. I was tired enough that I managed to get some sleep anyway, but when I woke up the next morning, after sleeping on and off for about 11 hours, I was still exhausted.
The Chinese student had told me that I could find a ride to Duobugou in the town, but when I looked around I didn't see any cars, and couldn't find anyone who could speak Chinese. The owner of the guesthouse I was staying at told me he knew someone who could take me, but I told him I wanted to think about it first. Living in China has taught me that it is best to maintain as much independence as possible, since you never know if someone is going to rip you off. In this case that meant I felt morer comfortable finding someone to drive me myself, though my hotel owner probably meant well. I decided the best thing to do was just walk toward the main road and try the next village, where there was a police office compound- police offices were almost always in walled compounds, presumably for protection. Once there I finally found someone who did speak Chinese, and told me he knew a driver back in Meisho. He drove me back on the back of his motorcycle.
Negotiations with the driver were tougher than I expected. He at first suggested that I do an overnight trip, which I didn't feel too keen on. The Chinese student told me it was possible to see Duobugou in a day on horseback, and I figured I ought to do what he suggested rather than listen to a driver who might be out to make me spend more time- and therefore pay more- than was really necessary. Eventually he understood that I only wanted to do a day trip, and he found a guy with a motorcycle who was a native of the village closest to the entrance to Duobugou. However, soon after we set off, his motorcycle broke down. I tried to ask him if we'd be able to go that day, or if we could go the next day. Working through his bad Chinese it took me about 10 minutes to figure out that it was not possible. I had no choice but to trudge back to the village and think of another plan.
Back in the village I couldn't find the driver, so I figured I might as well hunt down those elusive thangkas that were part of my reason for being there in the first place. The owner of my guesthouse directed me to a painter next door. The painter had a large workshop where we was working on some massive thangkas with a bunch of apprentices. Some other apprentices were sitting on the floor doing sketches. I was told that the huge thangkas were ordered by monasteries all over Tibet, to be hung in their assembly halls. The painter claimed to be one of Tibet's most famous thangka painters. I asked if he sold thangkas- it felt a little tactless asking directly, but remembering my experience at Repkong in 2004, when virtually anyone who saw me asked me if I wanted to by a thangka, I figured it couldn't hurt.
The painter's answer was a little odd- "Yes, if you're sure you want to buy one."
I assured him that I was.
His daughter and one of his apprentices- both of whom could speak Chinese- took me to see his collection of thangkas for sale. He was indeed an excellent painter, but when I asked how much they would cost I was truly shocked- 3,000 RMB (US$375) for a medium sized painting. In Repkong I had paid 50 RMB for a small and relatively pretty thanka- I would have assumed something like what they were showing me wouldn't cost more than several hundred. I asked them if they had anything cheaper.
"It's already pretty cheap!" the apprentice told me, with a slightly annoyed tone. "Lots of foreigners come here and pay that much for these!" I told him that I certainly wasn't as rich as those foreigners, and anyway I didn't have anything close to 3,000 RMB with me.
The painter's daughter, who seemed to want to be a little more polite, stepped in. "Yes, it is expensive," she said. "But that's the best we cad do."
Before leaving I asked if there were other thangka painters in the area. The painter's daughter started saying "yes" but then stopped herself.
"No," she said. "My father is the only one."
I smiled, thanked her, and left.

Obviously there were others in town, but every time I tried asking someone they would direct me back to that one painter. It seemed that he really was the most famous painter there, and that while there were others they were not as good as him. I walked down the road in the opposite direction that I had walked earlier in the day in search of a painter, but every time I asked anyone where I could find a painter no one, except for little kids, could understand, and the kids didn't know. One very loud woman who was going in the same direction as me kept trying to ask me questions in Tibetan, and occassionally would just yell "hello! Tashi dele!" at me at the top of her voice, apparently to amuse the kids who were watching me.
I soon gave up on my thangka hunt but there were still a few hours left to the day, so I decided I would climb up to the monastery and try climbing the hills next to it. It was a tough climb past the monastery as there were no paths, and a lot of the hills were made of sharp rocks and shards, but the views looking down were pretty impressive. Going down was even tougher than going up; at several points I was afraid I would slip down to the bottom- a fall I would certainly not have survived.
On my way down I figured I'd see if the main assembly hall had been opened. A monk I had run into earlier told me that it would open in the evening, so I figured it was worth another look. When I got there I was surprised to find another foreigner who was also waiting for the hall to open. He was a Frenchman who had hired a car and a guide for an extended trip in Western Sichuan, and who had in fact already travelled through much of China and Asia. He worked as a geologist for an oil company in Borneo, which he told me was awfully boring. "Other than a few villages on the coast there's only jungle," he told me. "You can take the road inland for maybe twenty kilometers, and then it ends." To allay his boredom he often took these long trips.
The two of us and his guide chatted for about half an hour, when they finally gave up waiting and headed back down to the town. I waited for another fifteen minutes, before giving up myself.

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