October 10, 2011

October in Amdo, Part 1

Chinese National Day is a magical time. Contrary to the name, it’s actually a week long, and with a little bit of class rescheduling I was able to get that up to 8.5 days. Figuring out where to go wasn’t even really a decision- I knew it was time to get back to Labrang, where I had planned to spend a few weeks this summer before the visa fiasco reared its ugly head.

The area I did end up visiting this summer is called Kham, one of the two major regions of Tibet separated from U-Tsang (sometimes referred to as Central Tibet) by Chinese redistricting in the 1950s. I spent National Week week in Amdo, the other victim of Chinese cartographers. Today most of Amdo falls into Qinghai province, with the rest lying in parts of Gansu and Sichuan. Culturally, linguistically, and ethnically it’s one cohesive area, but if you looked at a Chinese map you’d never know it. Famous Amdo Tibetans include Tsongkhapa (the Martin Luther of Tibetan Buddhism) and the current Dalai Lama.

Originally we had a group of 6 people ready to go, but when we reached go time we were down to three- two other Americans I met through my friends and myself. We ended up getting along pretty well, which is good because we were in close quarters the entire time and other foreigners were few and far between.

The departure from Wuhan was a hectic dash from my last class on Thursday back to my apartment to pick up my things, and then a cab ride to the new Wuhan train station. By the time I woke up on Friday morning the landscape had changed from the Yangtze River area near Wuhan to the loess plains of the Lanzhou and south-eastern Gansu. It was still pretty green, as a picture through the dusty train window shows:

On arrival in Lanzhou we wasted no time in getting on to the bus station. Lanzhou doesn’t have much of note besides an outstandingly filthy horizon, practically brown in the afternoon sun. The one real draw is Lanzhou beef noodles, which are hand-made in the restaurant and put the imitations found across China to shame. Upsettingly delicious.

The original plan was to hop in a bus and go straight to Labrang, but National Day struck us for the first time. Throngs of Chinese tourists had already bought out all the Labrang-bound tickets for the day, and the ticket office was one or two shouting people away from being a legitimate riot. I felt lucky to snag tickets to Hezuo, the capital of the Southern Gansu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Just an hour from Labrang and three hours from Taktsang Lhamo, it would do.

I’ve actually been curious about Hezuo ever since last year, when I almost accepted a job at a college there. It’s downright tiny by Chinese standards, with 90,000 or so in the municipal area. It proved a pleasant place, with a wide central square featuring this enormous yak statue:

Getting a hotel was a bit of an ordeal- we went from place to place being told that they didn’t accept foreigners. Finally at a business hotel north of the square I answered the apologetic “we aren’t licensed to accept foreigners” with a “well we won’t tell the government if you won’t!” That did it- a room was secured off the books. It was a nice room, and the only twist came when we were walking out of the room to check out the next day- we opened the door to see a policeman walking down the hall. The door was quickly shut, we occupied ourselves quietly inspecting the finer details of the room for ten or fifteen minutes, and then we carefully snuck out of the place.

The number of monks ambling around town got me curious about Hezuo Monastery, called Tso Gompa in Tibetan. It was supposedly the most beautiful monastery in the area before the Chinese army arrived, but it’s lagged behind others in rebuilding. As far as I know it only had ten or twenty monks just a few years ago, but this time it was noticeably bigger than it was when I last passed through in late 2008. A monk on the grounds said that these days the numbers are recovering and that there are currently 160 monks in residence. There were quite a few pictures of you-know-who in the temples:

A butter lamp in one of the chapels:

After checking out we secured tickets to Taktsang Lhamo, coming up tomorrow.

No comments: