December 4, 2011

It's a nice day for a... Chinese wedding

Yesterday an American friend got married to his Chinese fiancée. They had a modern Chinese wedding, which takes random elements from traditional Chinese weddings, Western weddings, and whatever else they felt like to create something... interesting. It was held in a large restaurant near his university campus which specializes in weddings and has one each night in their large dining room.

The best man gives a speech in English- and then gives it again in Chinese. The grooms brother would later try to do the same thing by writing out his speech phonetically, much to the puzzlement of Chinese guests:

The bride and groom escort each others parents to their tables in the front, before hopping up onto the stage:

Next the bride and groom exchange vows and each give a short speech. Unintentional hilarity ensues when the groom, trying to give his speech in Chinese, accidentally says tongxing instead of tongxin- therefore describing his relationship with her as gay, instead of "with one heart." Chinese guests gasp and then laugh, foreigners hide their chuckles. Also a bubble machine is blowing bubbles over them the entire time, because....????

The spread- ranging from ordinary dishes like fried beef and peppers to delicious ones like roast duck to odd ones like red-braised turtle. As soon as any given dish was close to finished it was whisked away and replaced by a brand new one, until everyone at the table conceded defeat.

My old roommate and his girlfriend, enjoying the feast. The woman on the right is the owner of an Italian restaurant in town known for delicious paninis and pizza- I still have no idea where she learned to cook them or why her English is so good:

Us with the groom:

November 20, 2011


From a few weeks ago, but I've been having trouble with accessing some sites recently. Anyway, my students had a bunch of questions about what Halloween is, which led to me declaring a special Halloween class on the week around Halloween. I told my students we'd be having a costume contest, play a few games, make jack-o-lanterns, and generally have as good of a time as English class allows.

They did a great job- here are a few pictures:

October 27, 2011

October in Amdo, part 6

Facing one of the monastery walls is a row of art studios, where Tibetan artists paint thangkas. A thangka is a wall scroll, painted in Tibetan style. We stepped into a few of them and saw artists working on thangkas ranging from the size of a large postcard to ones that where 10 feet tall and 15 or so feet wide. Even a small one can take weeks to finish, and groups of three or four painters working on a large one might need months. One of the artists let me take a picture of his half-finished thangka:

The colors are really bright, which seems to be an ongoing theme in Tibet. A market by the side of the monastery:

The one street in town:

Because there's only one street taxis are pretty easy to arrange- they just trawl up and down the street, picking up anyone who signals and letting them off before turning around and going back up the other way. There's a flat fee of one yuan per person per ride, which could spoil you pretty easily. We kept running into the cabbie who took us from Taktsang to Labrang, honking and waving whenever he passed. Eventually we flagged him down and asked about if he wanted to give us a ride to Tarzang Lake, and he ended up giving us a really good price (and jumping out at a stall to buy tea for everyone!).

Tarzang Lake is a small one, sitting high in the mountains above the road. It takes about 15 minutes to reach the turnoff from the main road, but then there's another 10 or 15 minutes of going up a winding dirt road. The lake is considered holy by the locals, who are waived from the 20 RMB entrance fee. The lake is almost hidden from the entrance by a huge prayer flag array:

The side of the lake:

Looking across:

Back in town we promised to give the cabbie a call next time we end up in Gansu. Later we found a way into the yak butter sculpture hall without joining a tour, which is supposed to be impossible but actually turns out to be quite possible if you chat with some monks for a few minutes. A flower made of yak butter:

The next morning we had to get on a bus and head back to Lanzhou, descending into the haze and smog of Real China along the way. Next time, a few random pictures.

October 19, 2011

October in Amdo, Part 5

The last time I visited Labrang was December of 2008, 9 months after the 2008 Tibetan Uprising saw a wave of protests, demonstrations, and riots break out across the Plateau. Restrictions against foreign travelers had only been lifted a week or two before I arrived, and would end up being re-imposed weeks after I left. Between closed hostels, shuttered restaurants, and an elevated Chinese paramilitary presence, the mood last time was very different than the tourism extravaganza of National Day 2011. Troupes of Chinese photographers like our friends from back in Taktsang besieged Labrang this time. Hotels were open- but sold out. We reluctantly booked a dorm room at the Overseas Tibetan Hotel, whose gross dorms I had hoped to avoid this time.

Still, the biggest presence at Labrang, by far, is that of Tibetans themselves. Pilgrims circle the monastery constantly, orbiting it in a clockwise flow that starts before the sun rises and continues until it sets. Some aren’t content to merely spin the prayer wheels and walk the trail- they prostrate their way around the entire place, a 3km ordeal that sees them touch their head the ground, stand up, walk one body length forward, then throw themselves down again. Others go even further, essentially doing it all sideways. They face the center of the monastery at all times as they work their way around, taking only a small step sideways each time. We watched from a restaurant by the side of the monastery as one such pilgrim finished his circuit of the monastery at 3:30 in the afternoon, presumably having started long before any of us woke up.

The prayer wheel trail- one man steps out and takes a break while others keep spinning the wheels:

The eastern end of the monastery:

Monastery goat:

One of the buildings near the center, where we briefly got lost in a maze of courtyards and halls:

The Gungthang Stupa. The boy on the stairs is carrying lunch for the monks, who were working up a storm of chanting on the inside:

This unfriendly-looking fellow was painted on the doors of the neighboring Red Hat temple. The skulls on his crown seem to be pretty outgoing, on the other hand:

Another monastery goat. A little girl had been teasing this one with the packet of food- until it (gently) butted her with the horns, and she ran away screaming:

I find that people who speak ill of Tibetan food tend not to have ever been there. Our favorite was the Nomad Restaurant, a third floor restaurant overlooking the crossroads at the eastern end of the monastery, where a constant flow of monks, nomads, pilgrims, and merchants mix it up all day. An all-Tibetan meal we had consisted of, from left to right:
1. Tsampa, a staple made of roast barley mixed with butter, sugar, and a little water. It’s then compacted into cubes and eaten, and tastes a little like cookie dough and a little like what I’d imagine raw Quaker Oats Squares cereal would taste like. Delicious.
2. Fried momos. Tibetan dumplings can be pretty different than their Chinese cousins. These ones were meatier, with a little bit of soup on the inside. It seemed like they were steamed first, and then quickly fried at the end to give them a crispy exterior. I’ve had some good momos in the States, but nothing near as good as these.
3. ‘Nomad’ grilled lamb with bell peppers. I don’t know if nomads actually eat this one, but it was heavy on cumin and garlic. If nomads do eat this I might have to reconsider my line of work.
4. Vegetable pakleb. A fried bread filled with minced green vegetables and a little bit of ginger.

Not pictured- yak butter tea, and my Tibetan black tea. It’s a confusing drink, made of rock sugar, dried fruit, and a mess of sticks and tea leaves that give it a smoky flavor.

Next time- the rest of Labrang, and our side trip to Tarzang Lake.

October 14, 2011

October in Amdo, Part 4

Not much in the way of words for this one- the first picture is from the main highway near Luchu, and the rest are from the old road to Labrang through the Sangke grasslands. Small villages, nomads on motorcycles, enormous herds of yak, snowy mountains beyond the grass. Very possibly the most scenic ride I’ve ever taken:

October 13, 2011

October in Amdo, Part 3

The weather got better day by day. In the afternoon the countryside around Taktsang looks like a painting:

The town mosque, which serves the Hui Muslim minority:

Later it was my turn to play photographer, catching these Tibetan women who were taking a break from spinning prayer wheels. After I took it I showed it to them, prompting them to break out into laughter and make jokes about each other:

In the afternoon we decided to hike up to the top of the red cliffs which tower over the town. It ended up being quite a hike, with the altitude and steepness of the first part catching us off guard. Luckily the view was worth it:

Wildflowers on the top:

The cliffs from halfway down the slope. Note the large herd of sheep in the middle right of the picture for scale:

That afternoon we were approached by a man who introduced himself as Sonam and offered us a chance to go horse-trekking for what seemed like a suspiciously low price. Two and a half hours for 100 RMB? Huh… Still, one of my travel companions was excited by the idea and we decided to go for it. We showed up at 9:30 the next morning after a surprisingly authentic apple pie breakfast and were somewhat surprised when Sonam actually showed up, blasting down the road on a motorcycle. He beckoned for us to follow him, and we walked a short ways out of town to find two guides and five horses milling around. Apparently the fact that we aren’t all experienced equestrians wasn’t communicated to them, because the extent of my training was being thrown up on the horse and told to go for it.

It worked out alright- although I was never sure how to make him stop walking and instead relied on his gluttony to give him pause eventually. Our guides were friendly guys from the town who may as well have been born on horses, it seemed. This is where the weather finally turned over for good- the rest of our trip would take place under brilliant blue skies. The one picture I took of my horse, who earned a nickname I shan’t repeat due to his predilection for gassiness (alright, it was ‘Captain Fartsalot.’ He earned that rank):

Trying to handle my camera while also dealing with aiming the horse in a generally acceptable direction was a bit nerve-wracking, but I got a few more of the grassland we went through:

During a break our guides relaxed a bit:

It was a fun two hours, for sure. When it was done we checked out of the hostel and were walking to the bus area when fate finally made up for all the ticket nonsense earlier in the trip: a cabby from Labrang had just dropped off his fares in Taktsang, and wanted to rustle up some passengers for the return trip in a hurry. We ended up haggling him down to a mere ten yuan more than the price of bus tickets would have been for the three of us. As an added bonus, he even suggested taking the scenic route instead of the main highway. Pictures from the trip tomorrow.

October 11, 2011

October in Amdo, Part 2

Hezuo wasn’t that much colder than Lanzhou- t-shirts were fine during the sunny afternoon, although the night air cooled off quickly. As we got on the bus to Taktsang it was drizzling, which quickly transformed into snow as the bus climbed mountain passes and entered the broad grasslands of eastern Amdo. It was nice to finally see the Land of Snows in the snow, but I was starting to wonder if it would turn into a white-out:

I was also getting worried, because most of the stuff to do in Taktsang involves hiking or otherwise being outside. Luckily it seemed a bit clearer by the time we got to town, where we rushed to secure our hostel room before mobs of Chinese tourists could claim it. That afternoon we checked out Sertri Gompa, one of two major monasteries which dominate the town. Their stupa and prayer hall in the snow:

The one street, with snowy red cliffs in the back:

Back in the hostel common room that night we were drying off our shoes and playing a game of cards by the stove when I started to notice something was awry. You develop a sense here that tells you when people are taking your picture. I can be walking down the street and suddenly sense that someone is leaning out a fifth floor window to snap a shot, spin around and give them a thumbs up, but this was different. It turns out that a marauding band of Chinese photographers, lured by the “Switzerland of Asia” tagline that promotes the region, had come back in for the night and found the exotic sight of three foreigners playing cards irresistible. Two had set up tripods, and up to six of them at a time photographed us, each shooting with professional cameras worth more than my annual salary here. At one point I stood up and photographed back, catching the three on the right side of the room as they snapped away:

One even came over later and offered to drive us to the first bend of the Yellow River the next morning, apparently so that he could photograph three random foreigners in front of an otherwise non-descript river bend. His driver had apparently already started to arrange a larger car to make it all work out, but we had to turn down the offer- four hours each way seemed like a tall order after an incredibly long train ride and two lengthy bus rides over the last two days. It’s too bad, too, because I’ve always wanted to be photographed with two other foreigners in front of the first bend of the Yellow River by a $10,000 camera.

The next morning we awoke to find that more snow had rolled in overnight. We walked through Kirti Gompa to the gorge behind it, where the entrance is marked by an enormous prayer flag vortex and a stream of early-morning pilgrims giving way to mid-morning tourists:

The higher you walk up the gorge, the thicker the snow gets. Beyond where I turned around two years ago was this field where the trail forks, which we called Snowman Field:

Hot springs feed the White Dragon Creek, which runs through the gorge:

A carving etched into the cliff beside the gorge:

Back in town things were beginning to clear up (click for a full-size view):

The rest of Taktsang to come tomorrow.