Sunday, January 21, 2007

Reting Monastery, or, Attack of the Tibetan Deer

After my second week in Lhasa both Zoë and Kamal left. Kamal had been in Lhasa for a month, and had to go meet in-laws in Yunnan. Zoë was going to Nepal to look into business opportunities- she had quit a boring job with Intel in Shenzhen to do this. She had told me that a lot of her friends thought she was crazy; Jasmine suggested that she would like to do something similar herself if she could afford it.
By the time Zoë and Kamal left I was ready to do one last trip, this time to see some of the sights outside Lhasa. However, to visit most sights outside Lhasa you need to hire a land cruiser, and to do that I needed travel partners. Luckily during breakfast one day I heard three guys sitting at the table next to mine talking about doing a trip similar to what I wanted to do. One of them was an American man named Kirk; he was one of the very few non-Asian Americans I met. He had just met the other two, who were Belgian. In the end Kirk and I decided not to go with the Belgians, since the trip they wanted to would have involved spending most of our time in a car. We decided to do a three day, two night trip up to a couple monasteries to the north of Lhasa, and found a Dutch woman named Erica who was interested in doing a similar route to split the costs of the car.
On the day before we set off Kirk and I had breakfast in Lhasa’s only French restaurant. (It was surprisingly good.) We ended up talking to an older-looking couple sitting at the table next to ours. They were Canadian, and the husband worked in an oil company. The most interesting and weirdest part of the conversation was when the man told us about how his friend, another older white man, got married to a young Chinese woman near Chengdu, with a traditional, rural wedding ceremony. He had met her online, though I don’t remember if they had met face to face before they got married.

The driver was supposed to pick us up around 7:30 in the morning on the next day, so I dragged myself out of bed and into the frigid Lhasa morning at around 7:20. Dawn was just breaking, and I was the only one outside. As I waited school children and street sweepers came out, until finally around 8 the driver came. I was quite pissed and very cold.
We picked up Kirk and Erica, and then drove out of Lhasa and along the Lhasa River. Once we crossed the Lhasa River there was only tan-colored farmland and hills, with the occasional small tan village. It felt a lot less lush than Kham, with its green grasslands and forests, and its red and white painted stone and wood houses.
After an hour and a half we passed our driver’s village. Our driver, whose name was Losang, asked us if we wanted to have some yak butter tea at his house. This made us feel a little better about being made to stand in the cold for half an hour, and we all agreed.
The yak butter tea and tsampa deal was familiar to me by now. I had gotten over my overdose from when I was in Duobugou and actually kindof missed the stuff against my better judgement. Luckily Losang knew to add a lot of sugar to the tsampa, presumably because he had had a lot of foreigners over to his place before. Kirk and Erica had the usual reactions to the tsampa and the tea though they managed to get down a lot. After the tsampa we took a quick look at the extremely small village temple.
Before we left Losang asked us if his brother could come with us to Reting Monastery, the first stop on our trip. The contract we had signed with the travel agency stated that the driver was forbidden to take other passengers, but we figured that since we had enough space to fit one more person and since Reting wasn’t too far away anyway we might as well let him come. His brother was a monk, and we thought we were simply helping him get to Reting for his duties.
To get to Reting we had to go over a 4000 meter pass. A month before, when I went over my first pass just after leaving Chengdu, I would have found this exciting, but by this point it was just another pass- my 9th or so since my trip began.
Reting was largely in ruins. Most monasteries in Tibet have been restored since they were sacked during the Cultural Revolution, sometimes to the point that you can’t even tell they had been attacked. Reting may not have been hit harder than other monasteries in Tibet but its restoration had certainly progressed less than most. The setting, in a small juniper forest, was however very pretty. Aside from the ruins and the forest the main point of interest for me was what my guidebook claimed to be a mural of the current Dalai Lama. How the Chinese could allow this was beyond me; my only guess is that they did not know. It is currently illegal to possess any images of the current Dalai Lama in Tibet. I could tell that the mural was certainly of a Dalai Lama, but there was no way to tell which one, so I asked a couple of friendly-looking monks who it was. The second the question was out of my mouth the monk’s smile dissolved.
“What who? Who what is?” he snapped.
“Who the person in this mural is,” I asked again.
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
After that I could only assume that the mural was indeed of the current Dalai Lama.

Before leaving Erica and I began walking the kora around the monastery. Kirk had gone up the hill behind Reting on his own and had run into some monks who were in the monastery’s debating hall. Rather than debating, he told us, they were tormenting a deer which in turn chased them around. About halfway around the monastery Erica and I heard some shouting and clapping, which usually accompanies Tibetan Buddhist debating. It was almost time for us to leave Reting anyway, so we decided to not finish the kora and to quickly check out the debating instead before meeting Kirk and Losang at the monastery’s front gate. As we were going around the corner of one building on our way down, however, our way was blocked by a large, beautiful, antlered deer- presumably the one the monks had been “playing” with.
“Oh, I’m not very brave in this kind of situation,” Erica said, as she began trying to walk past the deer. “Neither am I,” I thought, secretly happy that Erica was in front of me. If I was in front I would probably have tried to do the same thing.
For a second it seemed like she would make it past the deer. However, when she was right in front of it, barely a foot away, it slowly began walked towards her. She
backed up against the building, and the deer stopped and stared for a few seconds. It then slowly put its antlers against the wall, with her between them.
I couldn't quite believe what was happening, especially since it all seemed to happen so slowly. Erica put her hand out toward the deer, as though to pet it. I thoughtlessly said, “don’t play with it!”
“I’m not, “ Erica replied, in a stressed and annoyed voice. I quickly realized how dumb I had been, but I simply did not want to believe the deer was attacking her.
After half a minute the deer tried moving its antlers back and forth, still somewhat slowly, and Erica had to take hold of them and struggle with it to avoid getting gorged. The deer seemed to get more forceful after Erica took hold of its antlers.
I felt panic sinking in. I couldn’t believe I might actually see someone get gorged by a deer. I had no idea what to do.
"You want me to get someone?" I asked.
"No.. don’t go," she said. "Try throwing rocks at it."
I didn't like the idea, but I threw a few anyway. The deer didn't move.
“Alright,” Erica said, when it became clear the rocks weren’t working. “I’m going to make a run for it. Maybe you should back off.” I backed off about twenty feet away. As the deer swung its antlers to one side Erica managed to get through the space between the antlers and the wall. Once she was away from the deer she slowly kept backing away. At first the deer walked toward her, but it soon stopped. The deer’s antlers had pulled her necklace from her neck, but she managed to get away with only a nasty scrape on her hand.


Jake said...

Hi. I just read your lonely planet forum comments about going over the Sichuan-Tibet highway through Dege into Tibet. I speak Chinese, so communication won't be a problem. Can you give me advice on the logistics of it and what permits, if any, I ought to have- specifically what did the Chinese tourists that helped you do that you couldn't have done on your own. I would really appreciate some advice. Thanks.

J said...

For starters you can read my entry on sneaking into Tibet- I explain everything there. If you go through Derge you basically have to sneak in, unless you're going with a landcruiser trip organized in Chengdu. So, there are no permits.
There are 2 things that I don't think I mention though- don't let the PSB know you can speak Chinese if you get caught, and you might be able to hang around Chamdo for a day - I am told though I don't know for sure that the cops won't bother you if they just see you, only when you are trying (and most likely failing) to get on a bus or to get a hotel room. But again, I can't confirm that.