Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ganden Monastery- climbing and koras

There are three major monasteries in the Lhasa area- Sera, Drepung and Ganden. I went to Sera with Jasmine and Zoe to watch the monks do their afternoon debate, but since we weren't willing to pay the entrance fee and couldn't find a way to sneak in we simply did a kora and then climbed the hills around Sera to check out the views.
Later I went to Ganden with Zoe. Jasmine was visiting other towns with Jared, and since Zoe hadn't seen Ganden yet she came with me. Ganden is the chief monastery of the Dalai Lama's order of Tibetan Buddhism, and is a one and a half hour drive from Lhasa. To get there we had to take a pilgrim bus which left Lhasa around 6:30. The night before it had snowed, much earlier than usual in the year for Lhasa. I assumed that it would warm up later in the day since the past few days in Lhasa had been quite temperate, so I dressed lightly.
That turned out to be a bad idea. It started snowing soon after we left. Ganden was on top of a large hill, at an altitude of around 4,200 meters, to Lhasa's 3,600, so the snow got heavier as we went on. Eventually the snow got so heavy that the bus couldn't make it around the sharp turns on the road up the hill, and the driver told us we would all have to get out and walk up.
The scenery was stunning. The hills around us and plains below us were covered in snow, and clouds floated level with us several miles away. The sun was just peaking out over the hills and the clouds and peaks glowed yellow and red. It was beautiful, but with the sun still below the horizon it was also freezing. I was only wearing a t-shirt and a fleece.
Instead of following the road up to the monastery, the pilgrims cut a more direct path up the hill. Zoe and I followed them. The path was pretty steep and slippery from the snow; several times I almost slipped all the way down to the road. The Tibetans were clearly better adapted to this than I was, though several elderly pilgrims were also having a lot of trouble. I gave my bottle of water to one of them.
Eventually the sun finally peaked out from behind the hills, and I took a break to enjoy its warm rays. After around forty or fifty minutes of climbing we finally made it up. We were totally exhausted- in any situation such a climb would be tiring, but the altitude left us totally out of breath. My hands were totally numb from the cold. On top of that, we hadn't eaten any breakfast in our rush to get to the bus. After taking a quick five minute break we began checking out the monastery.
Ganden was certainly the most impressive monastery I have ever seen. Its main halls were massive and beautiful. In one of the halls was the tomb of Tsongkapa, the founder of the Dalai Lama's sect. During the Cultural Revolution his tomb and been broken into and his remains destroyed. Afterward the monks gathered what was left of his remains and reinterred them.
Once we had seen all the halls Zoe and I grabbed a quick lunch at the monastery restaurant. I was eager to do the kora, said to be a highlight of the monastery, but Zoe was so exhausted that she only wanted to rest. So I went off and did the kora myself.
The kora was indeed very stunning. It followed a narrow path that hugged the back of the hill and overlooked the Lhasa River, whose many deep-blue channels wound along the tan-brown valley below. Along the kora were the usual piles of stones marking holy spots and prayer flags, as well as some shrines.
After walking about a third of the kora I ran into two male pilgrims, one of whom looked middle aged and another who appeared older. They appeared to be father and son. They were slowly working their way through the kora, praying at the appropriate shrines and throwing pieces of prayer paper and saying "sosososo" at particular holy spots. Several times they would stop in front of a large rock or boulder and pray, though I couldn't figure out why they would pray at those particular boulders. Like the pilgrims in the Jokhang they showed me what I was supposed to do at each spot.
At several places we did karmic tests. A couple involved squeezing through the spaces between boulders. We all managed to get through one successfully, though another was a bit too tight for any of us. The hole looked big enough, but there was this one bit of rock that jutted out that you somehow had to twist your body around. When all three of us gave up the two pilgrims talked to each other a bit, shook their heads, and then turned to me and said, "the three of us are no good," (我们三个都不行) presumably referring to our obviously bad karma.
There were a couple of other karmic tests to do. For one we had to stare at a smooth, shiny bolder. If we had good karma we would see visions. None of us did. For the final test we had to listen at a small cave for a thumping sound. None of us passed that test either. The two pilgrims were very disappointed.
Before we could finish the kora we heard the bus honking its horn far below us at the bottom of the hill. Instead of finishing we cut a path through the forests on the hill to the parking lot at the very bottom, where the bus had gone to wait for us. The forest was filled with low-hanging branches so I had to spend most of my time bending over. Several times we had to go along ice-encrusted cliffs, and much of the rest of the path was treacherous with lose rocks and ice. Any time we walked anywhere where I might slip the two pilgrims held my hand- it was obvious that I was a lot less sure-footed than they. For most of the way down they mumbled prayers, though occassionally they stopped to tell me that I should never try doing a kora like Ganden's alone. There were several points where they avoided a safe-looking path because it was strewn with prayer flags and prayer paper in favor of a more treacherous path, which I found a bit maddening.
At one point the older pilgrim turned and asked me a question:
"Do you have a luopo?"
I couldn't make out and told them I didn't understand. It sounded to me like they were saying radish. When it was clear that I wasn't getting the idea the older pilgrim made a sign with his hand that seemed vaguely obscene. Finally I realized what he was trying to say: laopo, or wife.
"Oh, no, I don't," I told him.
"Hmm... how old are you?"
I'm guessing he thought that I was a little too old to not be married. Later on we passed some local girls who were going up the mountain. The two pilgrims, who were leading the way, stopped, turned around and pointed back toward them.
"What's up?" I asked.
They motioned for me to go back. "Go talk to them," the older pilgrim said.
"Um, no..." I stuttered. "Not right now."
The pilgrims smiled and we started walking to the bus again.

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