Friday, November 24, 2006

Pelpung, Kham Province, Days 15 and 16





After checking out the printing monastery we wandered around Derge for a little while. Like Ganzi, Derge was divided into a Chinese section that served as the town's commercial center and a more run-down Tibetan section. The town was ethnically even more Tibetan than Ganzi, and much smaller. Every once in a while someone would drive a herd of yaks down the main street. The most interesting part of the Tibetan area for me was a monastery school that was in a state of total bedlam. The kids, mostly young monks and of a wide variety of ages, ran around, played games and fought with no evident supervision. Eventually I noticed a teacher, a middle-aged monk, watching from above.
Thomas and the Chinese couple were in a rush because they had to get back to work soon, so instead of slowly taking in Derge for a day they wanted to explore some of the sights outside Derge as soon as possible. The valleys to the south of Derge were full of monasteries that were culturally and relgiously important, as well as some nature preserves that the Chinese said were supposed to be like Jiuzhaigou (of course, I had heard that one before). Thomas particularly wanted to see one monastery called Pelpung that was said to be famous for its thangkas, or Tibetan religious paintings. That sounded good to me and the Chinese.
We spent an hour hunting down a driver to take us to Pelpung. At this point I started getting annoyed at the Chinese couple. The day before, when we were on the bus to Derge, we had met a monk who suggested that we go to Pelpung with him. The monk would know the proper price for a car to Pelpung, so we wouldn't have to worry about being ripped off, and might be willing to show us around when we got there. Daniel thought it was a good idea, but his didn't like it for some reason and they argued loudly for five minutes before she finally, grudgingly approved. However, when the time came to meet the monk the next day Daniel wanted to take pictures and then have lunch before looking for him. By this time he had already left. It was no big deal, but I felt it was a bit inconsiderate of us to tell the monk that we would want to go with him and then not show up.
The owners of the restaurant we had lunch recommended a driver to us. The driver they recommended was a Tibetan who wanted far too much money. After I saw the Chinese couple try to bargain with him I started wondering if travelling with them was really a good idea- they had none of the skill and good humor that Li Tong usually had when dealing with people. For one thing, they were bent on trying to see as many places as possible, even though it was clear there wasn't enough time to see more than one in the amount of time that they had. They only backed down after the driver repeatedly told them what they wanted to do was impossible and Thomas and I told them to give up. Also, they simply did not know how to bargain. They seemed to only get annoyed and demand that the driver lower his price.
After watching Li Tong skillfully get excellent deals from almost everyone we dealt with- with the exception of the tent owner at Dangling- I thought I might as well give it a shot myself. Chinese people are often dismissive of foreigner's bargaining skills, but I was fast realizing that Chinese people rarely lived up to even their most practical ideals. I suppose that's why Chinese culture has to emphacize things like politeness and patience- because they are so rarely seen in reality. I'm no expert at bargaining, but at least I've realized that people will be more willing to work with you if you aren't annoying or confrontational towards them. Many Chinese people's bargaining skills don't extend much beyong demanding a lower price.
I offered the driver a cigarette (Li Tong recommended plying anyone you are dealing with with cigarettes), and explained that if we couldn't find a lower price then we wouldn't go anyway, all the while smiling and trying to be as friendly as possible. He lowered the price a little, but not nearly enough, so we simply headed off to find another driver.
Eventually the Chinese couple found a Han driver, while Thomas and I talked with the Tibetan owners of our hotel, who recommended another Tibetan. When things didn't seem to be going well with the Chinese driver Thomas and I suggested that we try the Tibetan driver, an idea the Chinese dismissed outright. "A Han will be more trustworthy," they told us. In the end the Han driver gave us a reasonable deal, so we set off with him.
To get to Pelpung monastery we first had to go south along the Yangzi River. Across the Yangzi from us was the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which is what the Chinese government considers to be the "real" Tibet. Thomas and I could not legally cross the border without a permit, which was not obtainable in Derge. The TAR did not seem too stunning from where we were, and I knew that in reality western Sichuan was actually part of Tibet, whether or not the Chinese wanted to acknowledge the fact. But nonetheless, the fact that it was forbidden and less than a hundred meters away made it all the more enticing. When we passed the bridge into the TAR the Chinese couple asked the driver to cross over, just to say we had been to "Tibet" and to take a few pictures. There weren't any cops around, so it was safe for me and Thomas. Thomas thought it was a little shallow, but I have to admit that I thought it was fun to be able to say I went to Tibet at least once on this trip. It would be, I assumed, my only oportunity to go to the "real" Tibet for a while to come.
After going into the TAR for a few minutes and then crossing back into Sichuan, we kept travelling south along the Yangzi, until we reached a turnoff into a valley. The roads in this valley were even worse than what I had seen on the way to Dangling. Several times we had to repair bridges across streams ourselves, by moving large rocks to fill in gaps. Driving was painfully slow and bumpy. I could see how the Khampas were able to hold out for so long against the Chinese- the valleys we were driving through were perfect for guerilla warfare, and felt supremely isolated.
After driving down the valley for a couple of hours we ran into a construction crew repairing the road. They told us we would have to wait until they finished before letting us through, so we had to wait for about an hour. By this point the sun was setting, and it started getting very frigid. Several Tibetans, most of whom could barely speak any Chinese, came out to talk with us. One of them showed us a picture of the current Karmapa, leader of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and its third-highest ranking lama, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The old Karmapa died in Chicago, and the Chinese chose a new one (who the Dalai Lama approved of, oddly enough), but the new one fled to India. After a little while the Tibetan who showed me the picture teased me a bit about how obviously cold I was, which I found a little annoying. After being stuck in a small car for hours, getting a little carsick and being very hungry as well as very cold made me that much more humorless than usual. Thomas was at least a little warmer than me- he had gotten a very cozy-looking sheepskin-lined Tibetan jacket the last time he was in a Tibetan area.
As we waited Daniel chased several Tibetan kids around. After he got bored with that he decided to climb up to the home of one particularly friendly Tibetan boy. Somehow going to see someone's house uninvited didn't seem particularly wise to me, and I told this to Daniel.
"Oh, don't worry, it's ok," he cheerfully reassured me.
I wasn't convinced, and Daniel started climbing up. The boy began talking anxiously with his mother and I became even more unsure- again I told Daniel that it was probably a bad idea, and that the Tibetans didn't seem happy that he was going to their home uninvited. In the end, though, Daniel still insisted on going, and the boy had to run up the house to greet him. When Daniel came back down he told us the boy had given him some very salty yak butter tea.
By the time the construction crew let us through it was already dark. We careened over the bumpy road for another half hour, at one point crossing and recrossing a stream with no bridges six times. The monastery was pitch-dark when we got there, and I could make out the silhouettes of wild dogs that watched us with curiosity. Several monks came out to greet us and take us to the monastery guesthouse; as we passed the dogs I tried to keep the monks were in between me and them. The room they gave us contained the usual Tibetan-style beds and had cloth-covered windows. It was freezing but luckily I had brought a sleeping bag. The most interesting feature was the bathroom. It wasn't really a room. It was outside, on a balcony overlooking the valley below the monastery. There were excellent views of Pelpung village and the valley below the village and the monastery. The good views, however, didn't quite make up for the bathroom itself. Though it appeared clean, we simply couldn't figure out how to use the damn thing. I posted a picture above so you'll see what I mean. I would have prefered to be given a convenient and hidden bit of forest to do my business rather than struggle to figure out how to use this weird setup.
Before sleeping the monks brought us dinner- salty tea, tsampa and hard bread. Tsampa is the staple Tibetan food. It is roasted barley flour, usually combined with yak butter, and is served in a variety of ways. The "classic" way of preparing tsampa- and the way I had it at Pelpung- involves adding yak butter, a little sugar and some water, and kneading it into a small ball. I had had this form of tsampa before at Labrang Monastery in 2004, and thought that while at first it tasted good, it got disgusting fast. Yak butter can be pretty pungent stuff, and while the barley flour tastes something like cheerios, after having a lot it starts sticking to your mouth. This time we were supposed to make it ourselves- the monks simply gave us the basic ingredients. I wasn't able to get the mix right though, and couldn't figure out how to knead the stuff, so one of the monks made a very large lump for me. I was able to go for three bites before I really started feeling disgusted. I made my way through most of it before giving up and throwing out the remaining two or three bites worth. The stuff sticks to your stomach anyway, so I didn't need to eat much before feeling full. Despite my giving up the Chinese were very impressed. Luckily the hard bread wasn't bad, especially after being soaked in some tea. When I finally got to sleep my stomach felt pretty queasy- then I was worried that the tsampa might have been dirty because the monk used his bare hands to knead it for me (I'm not certain Tibetans wash their hands regularly) but I later found out that gas is always a consequence of eating tsampa. You feel bloated for hours after you eat it, which I guess makes it a great hardship food because you don't need to eat again for a while after a few bites of tsampa.
Thomas and I got up very late the next day. We were both exhausted after all the travelling of the last couple of days. The two Chinese, however, were up very early, and hiked over to a nearby hilltop to see the sunrise, so Thomas and I spent the morning exploring the monastery and the surrounding town on our own. The monastery reminded me of a castle, with thick, windowless walls and placed on a bit of land jutting into a valley. The inside of the monastery wasn't too special, though it was somewhat more pretty than average, and felt a bit more medieval than most Tibetan monasteries. We hunted down a thangka painter, who we were told was the last in Pelpung. However, he didn't have any interesting thangkas for sale, and told us that he hadn't painted in a while. A monk later told us that another monastery near Pelpung, called Dzongsar, was the real center of thangka painting in the region. We also encountered some French people who apparently had trekked to the monastery, and who appeared to be very annoyed to find other foreigners there. We didn't talk to them, and Thomas wasn't eager to let them know that he was also French.
To get to Derge before dark we had to leave Pelpung at noon. Our driver had to leave even earlier to get the car past the construction site before they started work. We had to walk to past the construction ourselves to meet him. Soon after leaving the monastery Daniel's wife wanted to take a very steep shortcut down to the road, but Thomas and I wanted to stick to the main road. We agreed to meet them at the bottom. However, when Thomas and I got there, the Chinese weren't anywhere to be seen. On top of that, we weren't sure which way to go. One direction seemed more likely to us, but some locals by the road kept telling us to go the other way. After waiting for half an hour we decided to try the direction the locals told us to go in, but after walking for fifteen minutes it became obvious that it was the wrong way. We turned around and finally knew we were on the right road when we reached the place where a stream crossed the road six times.
It was another two and a half hours or so until we finally got to the construction site. By that point we were pretty annoyed at the Chinese for not waiting for us, but anticipated, correctly, that they would blame us for being late. I was particularly annoyed after Daniel smugly bragged about walking faster than us.

On the way back to Derge the Chinese wanted to find some fish from the Yangzi for dinner. Fish from this section of the river were famous; Li Tong had recommended it to me back in Danba. It wasn't easy to find a fish- most places had sold out pretty early- but we eventually found a place that had some. Daniel went in to buy one, and came out with a three-pound fish in a plastic bag full of water, which he handed over to me. I assumed the fish was dead when I took the bag, but I soon discovered that it was very much alive. Luckily there was some space between the door and the seat that I could hold the fish over so I didn't end up soaked and smelling like fish when the inevitable happened. The thing spent about half an hour thrashing around on the floor of the car before it finally died. Daniel was a little amused- especially as I yelled "wo kao!" (fuck!) when the fish flopped near me. As it flopped Daniel asked me to pick it up and put it in a new bag. I didn't like that suggestion at all.
"You wanted fish, you pick the damn thing up!" I told him.
Finally the driver picked it up and put it in a new bag, but it didn't matter, the thing kept flopping until it came out of that bag too. When we rolled up to a restaurant in Derge one of the waiters had to pick it up from the van floor- by then it had finally died. Thomas and I had hoped they would resist the usual Sichuanese inclination to cook just about everything in chilli and oil, and while our hopes were predicatbly shattered, they at least toned it down enough that we could taste a little of the fish's original flavor. It wasn't the best fish I had ever had, but it was pretty good nonetheless.

2 comments:

Pam Logan said...

That's a monk's toilet, designed for people wearing skirts to pee standing up.

Pam Logan said...

That's a monk's toilet, designed for people wearing skirts to pee standing up.