Saturday, March 21, 2009

A trip to ཨ༌མདོ (Amdo) - Addendum

Our trip to Amdo was so impressive, I practically forgot to write about our very last stop, the capital of Qīnghǎi (青海) Province, Xīníng (西宁). We only spent one night there, having arrived late from Rekong (རེཔ་གོང/Repkong) after the Ch'am Dance (ཆམ) ceremony I talked about in my last post. It was, needless to say, a completely different experience: wide avenues, tall, modern buildings, a mostly Hàn Chinese population (which spoke a remarkably different dialect of Mandarin, though). We were quite ready to just stay in the hotel, do nothing, and rest, after all the wonders we had experienced. BUT, on the way to the hotel, we had passed by the People's Park, and they had an Ice Festival going on so... curiosity won and we headed there.

And it was perfect: it wasn't too cold, there were quite a few ice sculptures, but not too many to make it tiring, and it had AN ICE MAZE! If you know me, you'll know I find myself irresistibly attracted to any place that looks mysterious, half-hidden, untrodden... and a maze is something I simply can't say no to. It was good fun, going around, up, across bridges, into dead-ends, and finally finding the exit only to realise the steps down had half-melted and required a good dose of balancing and skidding! That was definitely the icing on the Tibet-cake for me.

And with that, I WOULD finish my posts on that trip, except that, lost in all the excitement of the incredible things we saw, I forgot the less charming sides of it. Yet, they are so complex, I've found myself writing and re-writing these paragraphs, again and again... since they're not feel-good comments, I find myself rather reticent to publish them, but this blog is about sharing experiences, and it should include both the good and the not so good, so here they are:

- Illiteracy. Too many of the people we met were not only not proficient in Mandarin (without which higher education and economic progress are basically beyond your reach), they couldn't speak English either, nor could they read or write in their own mother tongue, Tibetan. If education is a key tool for the advancement of a people, these people were seriously ill-equipped as education and literacy policies were obviously failing these people.

- The force of tradition. I feel guilty for saying this, but the glory of the rituals we saw (and loved) was thanks to the hold of tradition and religion which, though wonderful for creating stunning images and sounds, probably limit philosophical, sexual and personal freedom at the same time... What a contradiction, being so in awe for the traditional cultural expression of a group, while at the same time being an advocate of non-traditional values that would, if carried to their natural consequences, spell deep change for those cultural expressions.

And with this, I finally conclude the Amdo Series.

Friday, March 20, 2009

a not too shabby vegan dinner, right?

See? I may not be a good cook (in fact, I'm the worst one, hands down), but once in a while (like once in a lifetime?) I can come up with something that's actually tasty! and vegan! and even raw! Green soup, sprout and veggie makis, chocolate covered dates... The habibi ate this with gusto. Success! Oh, yeah, I know, the wine's not raw. But I didn't make it myself either, so whatever.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A trip to ཨ༌མདོ (Amdo) - Part V - Dance

Our last day in Tibet was, like all the other days, way more special and rewarding than we could have expected. This time there was only one event: a "Ch'am" (ཆམ) masked dance ceremony. I can't say much about it because this kind of dances, though present in most Buddhist areas from Nepal all the way to Mongolia, are also very regional and their style and content vary from place to place. I haven't been able to find any specific information about Rekong's Ch'am ceremony, so all I have is what our guide told us: this was a ceremony to dispel evil, to chase away the demons, so the new year can start well. It's probably over-simplified, superficial, and maybe even plain wrong, but that's all I can say about the history and content.


Of course, no event with a decent climax would start right away, and this would be no exception. We had to wait long, as people gathered at the temple, and as monks started their preparation rituals both inside the temple and outside.


Then, something strange, two skeleton-demons came from within the temple, and started doing some ritual around an offering (which, apparently, represented a human sacrifice). Once they were done, an amazing array of demons/spirits started coming forth from the main temple, accompanied by horns, coming out in groups, and starting a rhythmic circular dance around the offering. The costumes were truely mesmerizing, and the repetitive character of the dance added to the feeling of otherworldliness...


After what must have been no less than 5 cycles of dancing around the offering, a monk came out, stepped right behind it, and started a most complex exchange with one of the dragon-masked characters, where this demon-like figure would take one particular object offered by the monk, dance away, dance with the rest of the group, and approach once more, until it had collected all 6-7 offerings. This part of the ritual, like the previous one, took quite a while to complete, yet was utterly fascinating nonetheless:


And then, the monk stepped back. The demon-being took a knife. The sacrifice was butchered. Pieces of it were thrown around, a crow-like demon went after them. The horns rang, the demons recommenced their cyclical dance. We knew next to nothing about what was going on, but the images were surely strong, bordering on disturbing.


Next, the skeleton-beings took hold of the sacrifice (with great difficulty, as it seemed to somehow burn them or cause them pain), a collecting of donations started, and the host of demons and monks exited through a gate opposite the main entrance to the temple and unto the street, in a procession that would, as we found out later, take the sacrifice up the mountain for another ritual...

We were exhausted, both physically and emotionally. There was just too much to take in, and we were totally unprepared to absorb everything. Plus, we were supposed to catch a plane back to Beijing which, due to the length of the ritual, we missed. And it was all so well worth it. This was the most amazing way to conclude our magical trip to Tibet, and we were definitely grateful. ཐུགས་རྗེ་ཆེ་ཨ་མདོ།

This video is a bit over 3 minutes long. I definitely don't have the knowledge nor the ability to properly convey all we saw, and here more than in any other post my best bet are my pictures and videos. Do watch them.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A trip to ཨ༌མདོ (Amdo) - Part IV - Art, Peace and Prayer

Monday (February 9th) we were supposed to have a relaxed day. A visit to a Monastery where nothing special would be happening, skipping a Buddha procession at Rongwu Monastery 'cause we were awfully satisfied with the one we'd seen at Niantog Monastery, and at night a bonfire ritual. Of course, things developed different, and fortunately so.

First thing in the morning we visited a local artist's house. Now, I don't much about thangka painting, but those things require skill and dedication and, when possible, we like buying from the artists themselves. And this guy's place was amazing, with tons of thangkas everywhere! So, I set myself on "intuit mode", let my eyes wander around freely, and chose the first thing that lit up the "that's the one" neurons in my brain. Crazy thangka, black background, blue deities, dragons... if you'd described it to me, I wouldn't have bought it. But you had to SEE it. Hopefully, I'll post a pic once we get it back from the framer.

The house was right next to the Upper Senggeshong Monastery (སེང་གེ་གཤོང་དགོན་བ/Seng-ge-syong Dgon-ba, 吾屯寺/Wútúnsì). It was really quiet, with all the monks at Rongwu Monastery preparing for the Buddha procession ceremony. After all the crazy activity of the previous days, it was refreshing to see both parts of the monastery (it's divided into Upper and Lower monasteries) in perfect calm, with just the blue skies, the incense burning, prayer flags, stupas and a pilgrim or two keeping us company. It was a welcome time for silent reflection, to just sit, and appreciate it all, and feel grateful.

Mind you, after that, we would have happily gone back to the hotel, but the guide insisted we just give a try at the Buddha procession in Rongwu Monastery (རོང་བོ་དགོན་བ/Rong-bo Dgon-ba, 隆务寺/Lóngwùsì). We accepted. And darn good we did: the monastery packed with pilgrims. We found a spot, at the back, against a wall we could lean on (these things, remember, are long and drawn-out affairs), next to a group of old ladies., who were very excited that a Lama Rinpoche was presiding (and, supposedly being an incarnate lama, why shouldn't they be excited!). It was impressive (had we seen anything yet that wasn't so?), and I offer you these images instead which will convey that much better than I can:

Alas, not all is bliss. On the walk back to the hotel, we came across this poor creature tied outside a house: a yak. It's eyes were fixed on us, staring... it looked so defenseless, and its life seemed so wasteful. For itself, of course, as it was useful for the owners, but the idea that this beautiful animal had become just a machine to be exploited until it'd be worth more dead than alive left me with a truely sad feeling. How ironic, given Buddhism's teaching of compassion for all sentient beings.

Anyhow, that night was a full, beautiful, huge, bright full moon. And yet, the Tibetans decided they were not going to do their bonfire leaping ritual, as a sort of mourning for last year's violent events in Tibet. Nevertheless, and hoping that maybe some Tibetans would celebrate, we decided to go for a walk around the old town that night. And then, we saw them: a group of people jumping over a bonfire in one of the streets! But then, something else: we heard them speaking Chinese. It was a real shock. Here they were, ethnic Chinese doing a ritual that the whole Tibetan community had renounced to in order to mourn. Were these people unaware that Tibetans were mourning? were they THAT disconnected from the reality that surrounded them? Or even worse, were they aware, and simply didn't care? were they THAT disconnected from the feelings of the community around them? I didn't feel like asking WHY they were doing it; after all, they were in the middle of something important to them, for sure.

So, we left, and followed some Tibetans along the winding, narrow streets all the way to Rongwu Monastery, where everybody was gathering to pray (since they were not lighting any bonfires that night). That was yet another beautiful experience; the night was quiet, the only noise being the people chanting and praying, and we stayed there, just watching, until the cold became to much and we went back home, unaware that next day would bring something that would surpass all our expectations.