Translation: Back to Lhasa (Part II)
Return to Lhasa (6): Drinking with the sky burial masters
North of Lhasa, in the Nyangri mountains, is a famed temple named “Pabongka.” Located on a turtle shaped stone, the temple surprisingly receives few outside tourists these days. According to legend, Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wen Cheng once lived there. The temple is also the birthplace of the Tibetan language. Stored in the temple are the earliest stone tablets of carved Tibetan alphabets known. Although the temple is small, it occupies a special place in Tibetan hearts for its historical importance both in the context of Tibetan language as well as Tibetan Buddhism.
Part of the charm of the Pabongka Temple is the fact that there are so few tourists here – and hence no need to purchase admissions tickets! The old Lama in the temple is very friendly and warmhearted. He even ordered an apprentice to take us to see a cave (normally locked up) where Songtsen Gampo and other Buddhist master had once studied. We felt a special energy here at the Temple. In contrast to the stern life at other monasteries, life at Pabongka seems warm, harmonious, sociable, and even friendly.
After visiting the Temple, we decided to return by descending a steep, unpaved road through a ravine. As we descended, we could see in the distance Nyangri village at the foot of the mountain. Further on, we saw four people – two male and two females – sitting by the side of the road drinking beer. As we got closer, they loudly beckoned for us to join them and, before we had a chance to really greet them, quickly handed each of us a bottle of beer.
Random acts of kindness are not surprising in Tibet. Being offered beer is just another example of Tibetans’ generosity and warm-heartedness. (A political side note: while there are often talks of ethnic tensions between Han and Tibetans, I personally feel the politics of this tension can be overblown. In my experience, Han-Tibetan relations are built, like all other relations, on the edifice of mutual individual respect and friendship. The old saying that the thoughts of Tibetans are pure is not that far off; if you are good to a Tibetan, he will wish you well ten times in return. Walking down a Lhasa street, you might get curious stares if you look to be from outside the area. But if you return their stares with a smile, the stares will quickly turn into smiles and welcomes that are warm, heartfelt, and genuine.)
It turned out the two Tibetan women do not speak Chinese Mandarin well, so we spoke mostly with the men. The two men told us they were just settling down to relax and drink after a day’s work. I asked – perhaps somewhat carelessly – what kind of work they did. The older one replied, “sky burial.”
I thought I misunderstood and so I asked again.
“Sky burial,” he repeated.
Seeing my disbelief, one of the two men went to the vehicle to get his sky burial license to show me. I was still shocked. The two men were dressed in a rather pedantic manner, completely different to what I saw at Drigong Ti Temple five years earlier.
I would learn the older of the man is a sky burial master and the younger one of his disciples.
The younger of the two men spoke the better Chinese Mandarin, having actually joined the army in 1987. After serving four years, he had to find work by himself after retiring from the army. According to the man, since Chairman Mao’s death, the army no longer took responsibility for finding them jobs when they returned to civilian lives. It was then that the younger man became an apprentice of the Sky burial master, , and in this way joined the sky burial ranks. Many Tibetans have a deep reverence for Mao Zedong, and the two with whom we were talking were no different. The older man beamed, in somewhat broken Mandarin, “It would be good if Chairman Mao were still alive!”
The sky burial master and his apprentice described for us in colorful and vivid details a recent event involving a sky burial by a Japanese woman who wanted to know what it was like to be buried celestially. After making arrangements with the sky burial master, she ran up to a sky burial platform, and took all clothes off to lie down. Fresh raw meat and internal organs of a bull were poured over the woman’s body. The vultures from the mountain canyons were aroused by the stench of blood; a few even came close enough to snatch pieces of the meat and organs from the woman. After the burial ceremony was over, the woman got up – with blood and entrails falling off her body – and walked to take a shower. In all his years of service, the Sky burial master had never seen something like this, and both he and his apprentice were excited to retell the story. The imagery and details of this story chilled us both to the bone.
When our conversations turned to topics other than sky burial, the Sky burial master and his apprentice became more like ordinary human beings. We learned that the younger of the two men – the apprentice – liked Korean pop stars! On his cell phone, one screen saver is set to display the Tibetan Buddhist symbol and another to display South Korean star Chang Nara. “She is so white! Her eyes are so big! She is so beautiful!” the younger man said as he looked adoringly at his cell phone screen. The man quickly turned solemn and philosophical, however, observing that “having too much money is not good, but having too little money is also not good; the trick is to have a peaceful, ordinary life.” More local wisdom trickled out during our conversation. “Women who are too rich are not good.” “Being a housewife should be considered a job.” “When the wife quarrels with the husband, the husband should not fight back; he should take a stroll outside and give things a chance to calm down, then things will be good again.”
The income of sky burial masters is decent. But if a poor family could not afford the service, not only would the sky burial masters refuse payment, but they would also use their personal money to subsidize the ceremonies for the poor. All souls should be allowed to ascend to the sky, the celestial master explained. “Success and failures belong to the material world, but so far as the heart is concerned, all humanity is the same.”
As we drank, all of a sudden, a black automobile sped down the mountain road toward us. The car abruptly stopped just as it was passing us. A Tibetan man whom we had seen earlier in the Temple above stepped out. We remember him clearly in part because of his attire, which appeared magnificent, expensive, and definitely not common. Earlier in the temple, while most of the others took out one or two pieces of bills to place before the altar, the Tibetan man and his family instead had taken out huge wads of bills. We remembered him well, having referred to him as “the rich man.”
The rich man greeted our Tibetan friends warmly and gave each a Tibetan hada (long piece of silk used traditionally as greeting gift, for more, click here).
The man also took out some bills and offered them to the Sky burial masters. The Sky burial masters did not decline, and the group continued to exchange more greetings. The rich man paid no attention to us until he was about to leave, when he turned around and smiled to say, in perfect Mandarin: “so you two are here drinking.”
After the rich man has driven off, upon seeing our curious facial expression, the Sky burial master told us: “he is from the People’s Political Consultative Committee.” Suddenly I understood. The rich man did act like a government official. It used to be that no party member, even if he were a Tibetan national minority, could go to the temple to pay respects. It appears they are making exceptions these days.
The topic of our conversation soon turned to Tibetan jewelery as I took note of the beautiful jewelery the Sky burial master and his disciple were wearing. Suddenly, the disciple stood up and said: “you wait for me” and rushed to his vehicle. I thought ominously: is he going to sell me jewelery now? I had heard a friend recount to me how he had once praised the jewelery of a Tibetan lady in Lhasa, after which the Tibetan immediately took off her jewelery and offered my friend the jewelery for “20,000 Yuan!” Knowing how expensive Tibetan jewelery can be, I began to feel a little anxious.
The disciple soon returned and handed me a necklace, saying: “this one is a gift for you. I have another one that looks exactly the same.” He explained that the necklace is a traditional charm amulet that is not sold in the market. Hang the charm amulet around the neck to attract luck and avoid disaster, he instructed me. I expressed my gratitude repeatedly, even as I felt deeply ashamed inside for mistrusting these friends in the first place.
After the last bottle of beer was finished, we set out to leave. Our friends insisted upon driving us down the mountain. We accepted but soon recognized that we had a problem: the seat in the front were taken by the Sky burial master and Mingji, and the back seats were already occupied by the two Tibetan women. Where was I supposed to sit? Just then, the Tibetan women in the back gestured and grinned for me to sit on their knees! So that was the solution? I was embarrassed, but there was no other choice. With some more encouragements, I hopped on, and we slowly but surely made our way down the rough mountain slope.
Return to Lhasa (7): Diaries from Tibet
Perhaps the most unexpected surprise I came upon during the trip was ethnic Tibetan’s affection of “Diaries from Tibet”, a book that Mingji and I have written about our love story.
After I gave a copy of the book to my friend Ah Gang, the owner of Spinn Café, the book was immediately borrowed by a Tibetan female worker from the local Aids and Control Center. Though the worker returned the book within three days, another Tibetan employee from Spinn Café soon borrowed the book – followed by a member of a Tibetan song-and-dance troupe. So all through this time, Ah Gang had not even had the chance to take a look at the book!
Gyang Zong is a third year student from Tibet University, and works in Spinn Café during winters break. She likes “the Diaries from Tibet” so much that she talked with us about it every time we met at the Spinn Café. “The book is just like Korean drama,” she would say (to our dismay)! She recounted plots and scenes from the book in detail. Gyang Zong has an inquisitive mind, with a heart not just set on reading books, but intent to travel and see the world.
La Zeng and Gyang Zong are close schoolmates, but their two personalities could not be any more different. La Zeng is shy, and her head is almost always lowered coyly when she talks. Meanwhile, Gyang Zong is open and opinionated. Asked if she had a boyfriend once, she replied, “we just split.” But she said she had no fears, because to her “there are always plenty of good-looking Tibetan boys in Aba county of Sichuan.” La Zeng and Gyang Zong get off work at 10:00 pm. When we leave, it’s not uncommon for Gyang Zong to holler loudly for her boss Ah Gang to return: “Come back before ten! And don’t be late!”
Gyang Zong can be measured at times though. One evening, we noticed Ah Gang did not come out to the front to receive guests. This was quite rare. We had heard incessant pounding on the back door that day. When we inquired, Gyang Zong only said, grinning, “the kitchen door is broken, Ah Gang is repairing the door.” As it turned out, a thief actually tried to break in, breaking the door and lock in the process! Gyang Zong did not want the visitors and guests to worry though, and hence, omitted certain inconvenient details of the story so we wouldn’t be worried.
Gyang Zong had asked us where she could purchase “the Diaries from Tibet,” but since we happened to have brought an extra copy, we decided to give it to her. No surprisingly, before Gyang Zong had the chance to read the book, the book was lent first to her friend Agulanzi, who worked in a local travel agent office. When we met Agulanzi later in Spinn Café, she smiled at us: “I read your book. . .the story had made me feel somewhat melancholy. . .”
We sympathized with Agulanzi’s feelings as we knew her story. Agulanzi had met a young guy from Hong Kong called Michael, who was then on a three month trip to Tibet. They quickly fell in love. Michael had returned to Hong Kong just a couple days before we left for Lhasa and had promised to return to Lhasa soon again. It’s an enchanting story. No doubt the relationship will be subject to all sorts of tests – distance, differences in nationality as well as culture, among others. I can imagine the challenges they will face will be many times what Mingji and I faced five years ago.
Nevertheless, while love may be blind, and love may not be easy, we send lovers everywhere like Michael and Agulanzi the very best of wishes…
Return to Lhasa (8): Visiting a Local Technical Welfare School
In the aftermath of March riots of 2008, my husband Mingji had caught the name of a technical welfare school (Xizang Pande Targye Vocational Technical Welfare School, 攀德达杰职业技术福利学校) on the news. As we were finally back in Lhasa, we wanted to pay that school a visit.
We contacted the founder of the school Zhang Li (张莉), but she told us she would not be in town when we visited, though she would ask the Tibetan superintendent to give us a tour instead.
It turned out the school is an outstanding professional technical welfare school located just outside Lhasa. The entire compound spans six courtyards. Accompanied by a stern-looking superintendent, we visited each compound one by one. As we toured the school, we saw that there were many classes, with each class focused on a single subject area, such as Buddhist weaving, gold-silver engraving, knitting, and so on. The age of the students range from the young to old, but whatever the age, they all appeared very engrossed in and dedicated to their learning. The superintendent told us there were more than 100 students here, most of whom were from orphanages; some were mildly disabled. The school was created in part to help pass on traditional Tibetan culture and arts and in part to provide some of the less privileged children here with a basic education. The school hires some of the best Tibetan traditional arts practitioners from the area. The school also hires teachers who teach Tibetan, Chinese Mandarin as well as English.
As we entered the last courtyard, we could hear the clear, unadulterated sounds of children reciting. When we entered one class and saw the innocent-looking children learning, even the stern-looking superintendent had to smile. After we greeted the children, the children greeted us back by calling out to us in almost perfect unison, in Mandarin, “Ni Hao Ah!”
After touring the school compounds, we arrived at Zhang Li’s office. One thing we noticed first about the office was that there were many pictures, most displaying children from the welfare school. In the pictures, Zhang Li wore simple shirts and jeans and appeared to be younger and more attractive than I had imagined. If pictures can paint a thousand words, they revealed clearly that Zhang Li adored the children, and that the children loved her back.
I know of other professional technical welfare schools in Lhasa that were in actuality facades for sweatshops that exploit child labour. But Zhang Li’s school is different. While the students’ works are often displayed in exhibits, the products are never sold.
Using a few years’ savings that she had, Zhang Li built up this school bit by bit. The school is non-profit and does not depend on charitable foundations for support, yet children can attend free of cost.
More than 100 students attend the school at any one time. Not only is tuition paid for, but so are food and lodging expenses. The superintendent told us that the students here are vegetarian. Nearby residents will sometimes deliver rice, oil, and other goods. Friends and neighbors of the school will sometimes contribute clothing for the students. The government also helps out, although what they get from the government is never enough to sustain them.
We had prepared some money beforehand, and wanted to give the superintendent the money to buy the children something good to eat. However, the superintendent refused. If we wanted to donate, we had to go through formal channels, he told us. So instead of donating, we bought several boxes of milk, fruit and candy the next day and delivered them to the school as gifts. Immediately after the taxi with the goods arrived, the students rushed out to help. The children were shy and didn’t have too many words for us. But from the silent looks of gratitude, we didn’t need them to say much for our hearts to melt. I suspect this is part of what has motivated Zhang Li to start and continue running the school for all these years.
[FM’s note: This is the second part of the two part photo journal written by Zhen Fu. We at Foolsmountain want to take this time to thank Zhen Fu gratefully for sharing with us her beautifully written entries. We also want to take this opportunity to wish everyone -especially our Tibetan friends – a Happy Losar and a healthy and prosperous New Year!]
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