Monday, November 28, 2011

The "Holy Mountain Of The Outlaws" Revisited: A Journey Through Modern-Day Konkaling

In my head, Konkaling was “remote” even for Tibetan standards. If somebody had told me we would be going there this summer - yes, that very place Joseph Rock went to survey for the National Geographic ages ago and at the peril of his life – I would have replied: “No way, not with kids, and not on this trip, maybe some other time.”

But there we were, the whole family driving along to Konkaling described in old travelogues as “holy mountain of the outlaws”, a dangerous, lawless place infested with bandits; a godless area where even the Buddhist monks pillaged, plundered and - hold your breath – murdered!

When I was a little girl, my grandpa would sometimes tell stories about how the infamous Konkalingpas would raid towns and caravans along the old trade routes and how as a child he would hide for days in a monastery or in the mountains fearing for his life. 

Konkaling, July 2011

When I grew older I discovered books written by early travellers about the area. It became an interesting past-time to sit with my Pola in his room and cross-check what some of them had written in their accounts. He had a hell of a time whenever we talked about it. Often he could confirm points such as the name of a bandit chief or the raid of a specific town. His memory was amazing. He would recall things with such clarity as if they had happened just yesterday. He would even know what this person wore and that the pants were patched or something, down to such detail. Perhaps his memory was so sharp because he couldn’t rely on taking notes: He could neither read nor write as so many in his generation.

Konkaling, July 2011

Later I came across more recent publications such as “Khams pa Histories – Visions of People, Place and Authority”, which proved useful in explaining the origins of the communal banditry and lawlessness so prevalent in this corner of Tibet too far for from Lhasa's reach and too wild for the Chinese empire to control. The book outlined “the bigger picture” that helped put my Pola’s stories into a historical context.

He was always surprised at the accuracy in these accounts: What those chigyal (“foreigners”) were doing, what they knew and where they all went. Sometimes, when I summarised a story, he would interject: “Woyah, see? It always comes out! All the sordid details and the negative deeds they committed have now come out for the whole world to see!”

I didn't get it back then. Now as I’m older, I think these “Woyah” reactions were a confirmation of his belief in Ley Gyudrey or the Buddhist law of cause and effect: Even if you got away with your evil deeds in this life, there was no escaping Leydrey, it would take care of everything after all.

Daocheng County (Dabpa), Ganzi Prefecture, July 2011

If my grandpa were still around I bet it would blow his mind that I’ve been to Konkaling with his great-grandchildren. I miss the old man for not being around anymore.

Konkaling today is located in the south of the Kardze/Ganzi Prefecture in Dabpa/Daocheng County. Our first stop on the journey was the main monastery of the region, Konka Gompa. Back in the old days, Rock warned against visiting it because its monks were “notorious criminals” who went on looting expeditions between prayer sessions: Dollars to doughnuts that if you were insane enough to come here, they would rob and may even kill you.

But when we showed up almost almost a hundred years later, everything was peaceful. The monastery lay before us in tranquility and solitude. Nobody would ever have guessed its calamitous past from what they saw before them.

Gangkar Namgyel Ling or "Konka Gompa"

The formal name of the monastery, Gangkar Namgyel Ling had an innocent, quietly soothing, almost angelic ring to my Tibetan ears. The place was idyllic surrounded by lush green forests, and comfortably accessible via a decent road. Two elderly monks were sitting on a bench at the entrance gate with their Trengwa (“rosary”) reciting Mantras and observing the sleepy square.

In the old days, Konka Gompa was reportedly a “co-ed” monastery housing 400 members of the Sangha. But the two elders looking after the site were the only ones we saw. The head Lama or Gondag was Konka Lama, a 12-year old boy residing at his home nearby. Konka monastery also had quite a few monks studying in India, one of the elders said, but he kept his voice low.

To my surprise, a Chinese tour bus showed up out of the blue. 

Between Daocheng and Sumdo

The next moment a bunch of tourists armed with parasols and fans swarmed into the monastery’s courtyard starting to take pictures everywhere. We hurriedly did our rounds inside the prayer hall. Chances were that once that noisy group was inside, it would get difficult to do Chonjay with them walking all over the place and the local Tibetan tour guide in a funny Chupa hurling the names of the various deities into a loudspeaker. You could see this display of irreverence and ignorance in places of worship all the time.

When we were about to leave, several fancy off-roader jeeps drove into monastery complex: More Chinese tourists, this time decked up with high-tech trekking gear. Strange that these people come here, I thought. Were they maybe on some kind of “Lhasa-To-Shanghai” car rally?

Although we weren’t delighted to spot Chinese tourists so deep in Tibetan country, the monasteries reportedly do not dislike them completely. Chinese often “donate” well. They would generously cram notes into the donation boxes you’d find in front of all the statues. Once in a while you could spot some genuinely pious looking people among them as well. Western visitors were perhaps more welcome, but they did not leave a financial impact worth mentioning, and monasteries too had their expenses. 

Most of the time roads were in good condition, this section was
under construction when we passed

We hit the road before Konka Gompa would become a Chinese circus, driving ever higher into the mountains hoping to catch a glimpse of the three holy peaks that symbolized the Buddhist trinity of Avalokitsvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. The peaks were considered the guardians of this region. Locals called them Konka Phun Sum (“Three brothers of the White Snow) or Ri Sum Gonpo (“Three Mountains Protectors”). 

I still couldn’t believe where I was. It felt like Alice walking through wonderland. I had literally arrived in the place of my childhood stories.

The peaks finally came into sight when we reached the top of the pass where an observation deck had been built that was covered with prayer flags and where we did a Sangsol smoke offering as Mount Avalokitesvara – Chenrezig emerged out of the clouds on the other side of the valley. Below, a small village appeared with a narrow trail leading up the valley to Tsonggo Gompa, a small monastery nestled on the lap of the holy mountain. According to Rock, after each of their raiding trips, the bandits would withdraw to Tsonggo Gompa. Neither the Tibetans nor the Chinese would dare to persecute them.

Nyithen with trail leading to Tsonggo Gompa

The village in the valley below was Yading, known in connection with “Yading Nature Reserve”, which is listed as a site of UNESCO world network of biosphere reserves  Actually Yading itself or Nyithen as was its Tibetan name, turned out to be nothing more than a hamlet with a good road through it. We guessed that they must have taken the name of the hamlet and applied it to the whole region known to old Tibetans as Konkaling and now marketed under “Yading Nature Reserve”.

Historically Nyithen or Yading couldn’t have played a big role. It had to be a recent creation with the nature park. I couldn’t remember having seen the name in old books nor could I remember my grandfather mention the name, nor have I heard of any famous or infamous Tibetans who hailed from “Yading” - Konkaling yes, but not Yading.

Now it was no longer surprising to have encountered a Chinese tour bus at Konka Monastery: Yading was famous in China! Along with Jiuzhaigou/Dzitsa Degu in Sichuan (troubled Ngaba County) and Shangrila in Yunnan (“Gyalthang” in good old Tibetan), it was one of the few Tibetan places apart from Lhasa that received plenty of “domestic” tourists. This is from a Chinese tourist guidebook about Yading we found in a shop in Daocheng:

Every place is a "Shangrila" or a "Shambala" - we may think
it's naive, but it works to target the Chinese tourist market

Surprise, surprise: Just like us, the Chinese tourists also wanted to go up to Tsonggu Gompa. In the old days, no Chinaman, it is said, dared to set a foot onto these lands, and no Tibetan from outside the area either for that matter. But there we were both walking around freely going wherever we wanted - as tourists. And while their ancestors robbed caravans and plundered villages to make a living, the descendants of the historical Konkalingpas now sold overpriced entry-tickets to Chinese tourists and took them on horseback to Tsonggu Gonpa charging them an exorbitant 200 RMB for a 20-minute ride up and down - robbing people the modern way!

I was pretty sure that without the facilitation of Dorje, a friend who hailed from Nyithen and volunteered as our local guide, his fellow Kongkalingpas would have extorted our little group without the slightest Bodrig Punda sentimentalities. We would have had to pay the same exorbitant prices as the Chinese tourists for accessing the Nature Reserve, parking fees, accommodation, food and horse rental. It was every man for himself.

End of the pony trail, from here to Tsonggu Gompa
 it's on foot even for Chinese tourists

People seemed somewhat reserved: Not too friendly, not too hospitable which is surprising for a place that lives off tourism. But maybe that’s the general mentality of folks who live rather cloistered lives in the mountains? When we were about to enter Lithang Dzong earlier on the journey, our guide urged us: “When you’re asked where you’re from, just say your grandfather was from Lithang.” - Why? Lithangpas could sometimes be a bit “suspicious”of outsiders, the guide said, and establishing some kind of connection would only help. Well, in Konkaling it was similar. Some kind of connection was indeed helpful.

When walking through the woods up to Tsonggu Gompa, Konkaling reminded me of a Tibetan type “Sherwood Forest” where whoever passes through, has to pay a tribute. Maybe this was an inherited trait from their bandit forefathers and maybe also contemporary, mainstream Chinese culture of everyone-cheating-everyone was rubbing off.

Hiking up to Tsonggo Gompa through "Sherwood Forest"

The kids had their fun on horseback while we adults, as proper pilgrims, hiked up. I was the slowest in the group taking almost an hour for the short distance: Plenty of time for reflection. If my Pola could see me! He would shake his head in disbelief how times have changed: His granddaughter with her children on an easy-peasy Sunday stroll through a place whose name alone put the fear of god into the people of his generation!

Locals make a living by renting out horses to tourists

Although it was a foggy and drizzly day in Konkaling when we reached the Tsonggu Gonpa, the surroundings were magnificent. We could have been somewhere in the Rockies. Tibet had so much to offer in terms of experiencing nature. With all the densely forested hills around us, the place would be a symphony of colours in autumn, and in springtime, the meadows would be dotted with flowers and children wearing self-made coronals would run around barefoot.  

Tsonggo Gompa, Joseph Rock's "bandit monastery"

The caretaker monk said the monastery houses around 40 monks with only one or two to be seen. Maybe they were all indoors studying? It was pouring with rain. The caretaker said Tsongo Gompa traditionally had no Gondag or Head Lama. I never knew there was such a thing. I thought every monastery had to be “owned” by some Lama.

The place was clean and tidy. Apart from the absence of a Sangha, which was more the rule than the exception in the monasteries we had seen so far, everything looked in order. The main images in the prayer hall were the Gelugpa trio Je Yabsè Sum. One side-chapel contained images of Dharmapalas, the other contained a large statue of Padmasambhava and Tara.

In the past, I’d never pay attention whether a monastery was this or that. Now in the age of Rimé political correct Buddhism almost the first thing that came to mind, whenever I met someone in robes or visited a new monastery was what Buddhist order they could be connected to.

Konkaling, July 2011

So this was the monastery where the lawless bandits used to hide after their raids? If the surrounding rocks could speak! There was no visible trace of the turbulent history of this place. There only was a plate at the entrance of the monastery saying Joseph Rock was here. It was so peaceful and serene up here, for a moment one could forget the political problems Tibet had.

I wondered whether the monks of Tsonggu Gompa knew that a fellow monk up in Tawo in the north of the Prefecture had set himself on fire only a few days earlier. We heard the sad news the day we left our hometown for Konkaling. A monk had told us secretly. We checked the BBC and found the headline but the article itself was blocked.

"Risum Gonpo" on a drizzly, foogy day in July 2011

The holy peaks kept hiding behind the clouds. In spite of the rainy weather, the surroundings were exquisitely beautiful. Konkaling was the perfect place for trekking and camping or go on “Kora”. The children would have loved the idea: Hiking around the peaks with pack animals, camp out overnight, eat meals cooked over an open fire and brush teeth on the banks of a clear mountain creek. We knew it was not possible this time, but we had received a foretaste.

Dorje said people were either herding cattle in the higher lying summer pastures, working in the woods or working in a government office in town at this time of the year. But during Saka Dawa everybody would be up here for circumambulation.

I could vividly imagine them racing happily and light-footedly around the peaks in record time.

Once I was on a Kora around Mt. Kailash: Equipped with the best of mountain gear, physically fit and mentally motivated. Still I was regularly overtaken on my walk by old, wrinkle-faced Molas and Polas in cheap Chinese rubber sneakers and thin nylon socks. Not only did they overtake me, their breath was so long they kept reciting Mantras while walking past me. Plus they had enough energy left to give me smile, do the rosary with one hand and turn the prayer wheel with the other. By the time I reached the summit of Dolma-La, the highest elevation of the Kora at 5,500 metres, the Molas and Polas had long been up there drinking tea and chatting. It took me two days to complete the Kora. The old folks finished in one.

Given my Kora history, it would take me weeks to complete the circumambulation around Risum Gonpo. But I knew I would come back here one day on a Saka Dawa and go on Kora around the holy peaks together with the other pilgrims. My Pola would have liked the idea too.

Lhagyelo! – Victory to the Gods!
Mountain Phoenix

Wild Iris, Konkaling

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Please Stop Killing Yourselves!

The stories of self-immolations from Tibet are blood-curling and leave us all horror-struck. But are the public reactions to these suicides or attempts at suicide not just as shocking? All we do is use these sacrifices to attack the Chinese. There is no appeal to the compatriots in Tibet to please, please stop killing themselves for our greater good. Instead the public discussion focuses on the motivation why these mostly young people set themselves on fire.

We can argue till our mouths hurt that they set themselves on fire over “independence” and not “autonomy” or the other way round; we can also say it was for “altruistic” reasons and that they didn’t commit a “sin” in Buddhist terms; and the Chinese can argue until kingdom come that these were “illegal acts to disturb the social order”.

But all these discussions are perverse because they do not waste any words about the basic wrongness of suicide. Our silence gives Tibetan society a fundamentalist touch: We accept violent suicide as a justifiable act.

Is this really the message we want to send to young people in Tibet? That it’s “heroic” to violently kill yourself for idealistic reasons? Is it okay for the political groups on the Tibetan side to use them as cannon fodder to advance their political aims?

If the politicians and activists among us are unable to bring themselves to speak out against suicide, shouldn’t at least our religious leaders take up position? Isn’t it their responsibility to persuade our young that killing yourself is not what’s required?

Where is everyone?

Where is the Dalai Lama? Where is the Karmapa? Where is the Sakya Trizin? Why for Buddha’s sake are our religious leaders silent? Please speak to the people in the homeland that you do not approve of this act. Please tell them that we Tibetans must survive. Not speaking out against the self-immolations means tacit agreement. Blaming the Chinese and lobbying for Western support over these acts while not speaking out against them means tacit agreement.

It is our responsibility to do anything it takes to prevent compatriots from committing suicide for Tibet’s greater good. Would we ever tolerate if our kids intended to do that? Along the very same lines, we must discourage the young in faraway Tibet from killing themselves for the sake of our country. This is not the way to go.

People in Tibet know this is not the way to go. On High Peaks Pure Earth some of their voices are translated. They express what many people there feel: No matter how difficult the situation, “do not offer your body, the base of the mind, as a butter-lamp offering”.

Whatever the intention behind the self-immolations, it remains a misguided and wrong act. We must speak out against suicide. Tibet does not ask its people for a blood sacrifice. She needs each and every one of us to stand by her side – alive!

Om Mani Padmé Hum
Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ain’t Nothing But A Bubble

You know how they say women are better at multi¬tasking. I only know it is not my preferred mode. I like to do one thing at a time. But daily life can sometimes become so busy, you end up multitasking without realizing it - like the other day, when I rushed back from work for an appointment I had in an hour. But before I could go, the kids had to eat dinner.

I was certain I could finish the dinner in time: The pasta was cooking and the sauce – prepared ahead the other night - simmering, ready to be served. Everything was moving quite smoothly and I called the kids to set the table.

But just when we were about to eat, my partner pinged me from Tibet. Time was ticking and we hadn´t talked for few days so I had to let the kids skype with their dad.

Then, the phone also began ringing. I tried to ignore it but it kept ringing incessantly - halleluja! Welcome to Samsara! My stress was perfect. Nerve-wracked I gave in.

The Lord of Death strikes when you’re least prepared: One of my mom’s friends had passed away; she had terminal cancer.

Yama sent my whole stress dissolving into a vacuum.

Initial shock gave way to reflection: I remembered my own mortality, the limited time I have to practice Dharma while trying to be in a good relationship, raise children responsibly, succeed at the job and look after my Tibetan heritage. What would I like to see towards the end of my life looking back?

I cancelled the appointment and took time to eat dinner with the children. Then I enjoyed an extensive chat with my husband.

The lady was 65 years old. She came to this country in the early 70s where her husband died when the children were very young. She struggled as a single parent for many years before she accepted to remarry so her children wouldn’t have to grow up without a father. The new partner was also her late husband’s younger brother or nephew and more than 10 years her junior. My mom said a lot of people at the time found it strange that an ancient Tibetan custom was replanted into a modern Western country. How could one practice “taking-over-the-widow-by-a-relative-of-the-late-husband” in a place like this? What would the neighbours think?

But whatever the original intention of the custom, her new relationship worked out fine. Alas, her newly found happiness didn’t last long. Only a while later she was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of the last twenty years, she battled and subdued it twice. When the cancer attacked her again the third time, she decided it was time to leave the stage and passed away without much suffering and in dignity. The last thing she wanted was for her to become a bed-stricken burden for her family.

In the Lamrim prayer Yonten Zhi Gyurma where people request the teacher’s blessing so strength, wisdom and compassion may grow in them, there is a stanza about life being so short and insignificant like a swiftly perishing bubble of water and when you die, your negative and positive karma would follow you like a shadow, involuntarily determining your next existence.

When I looked at Acha Wangmo’s life, the verse rang so true. What a life! Born in Tibet into an extended family before the Chinese takeover, left everything behind, traumatic escape as a teenager, marriage in India, then move to the West, become a parent, become a widow, remarry, in and out of cancer and then eventually die from it.

Her death was also a brutal reminder how lonely it was becoming with the two generations above me gradually taking the exits. All the elders in my grand-parents’ generation were no more. Most people in my dad´s group, including my old man, were gone too: As heavy drinkers and chainsmokers many died prematurely. Now also more and more ladies of my mom’s generation were beginning to pass away.

With those representing another era and serving as the bridge to my Tibetan roots gradually all vanishing, my own peer group, the first with no direct roots in Tibet, would soon accede as “the older generation”. How skillful will we be at maintaining and developing the culture? How successful will we be at passing on this heritage to our children? What does the future hold for Tibetans? Will the language still be spoken in generations to come? Will our children’s children still dream of self-rule when they grow up or more basic: Will they even think of themselves as "Tibetan"?

I can vividly imagine the pressure on so-called “Lineage Lamas” who carry the responsibility to fully master a certain type of knowledge and then have to ensure it is passed on into good hands. But the difference between a Tibetan lineage Lama and a Tibetan parent is that the former can come back in a new body to continue their unfinished work whereas we folks can't be sure we come back in a human existence, let alone a Tibetan one :--)))

The funeral rites for Acha Wangmo were graceful and moving. About half a dozen Buddhist monks lead the prayers with almost the whole crowd of around 150 mourners reciting along. It was a wonderful sight to have old-established Tibetans, new arrivals from Tibet, Tibetans from India and people from whatever Tibetan Buddhist schools and all walks of life, pray together side by side. For a moment, Acha Wangmo’s funeral bound us all together. This was a precious moment before we would all run off again to our samsaric hamster wheels.

The lady was really a piece of work. I would only see her once or twice a year at some social gatherings. She was always cheerful. She never gave the impression of someone who was going to die soon. With her deep, smoky voice she would crack jokes – often dirty ones – and slap herself on the thigh laughing out loud entertaining all the ladies at the table. Not very lady-like, but everyone knew what they would get if they dealt with Acha Wangmo. She was strong and straight as an arrow. When we would exchange a few words, she would often say ya, ya, tsering, ama’i - ”bless you my dear”!

That was the only side of her I knew.

I never knew the extent of her illness. Even one of her siblings whom I spoke to at the funeral seemed surprised that the illness was terminal. She kept the suffering and the worries all to herself not wanting to burden others or allow that ruin her positive attitude towards life.

When I was a little girl, I thought she looked like a Tibetan version of Angie Dickinson, that blond US actress I remembered from Western films with John Wayne that my dad enjoyed watching so much. But driving home after the funeral, suddenly Yadong's song Ganglha Metog (Snow Lotus) came to my mind. He sings about this woman who is likened to a snow lotus which, against all odds, withstands the harshest conditions and breaks through the thick snow cover to greet the sun in full splendor. Here's a link to the song on Youtube.

The snow lotus is not a beautiful flower aesthetically speaking. It reminds me more of a vegetable (cauliflower if you want to know the specifics) than a flower. Also in Tibet, they use it as a medicinal plant and make all kinds of things out of it such as tea. But the symbolism is exceptionally powerful: As with the Lotus flower that grows out from muddy ponds and doesn’t touch the dirty surface, Ganglha Metog is understood as an inspiration for humans to outgrow themselves.

Yes, life ain’t nothing but a bubble and we shouldn’t get all absorbed while we’re in it, that part I understood. But you still must give 100 % because, ironically, the very bubble is also your only ticket leading out of the crazy cycle. That part I frequently forget. Acha Wangmo helped me remember. She was a great lady. We will miss her humour, her directness, her warmth.

May she have a good next life and continue to inspire people.

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sleepless In Lithang

I’ve always been dreaming to go to all those “legendary” places that I´ve marked in my Tibetan world. Over time, it was indeed possible to visit many of them such as the remnants of the palace in Guge or the fabled Mili kingdom of old. But this summer, Tibet was beyond my wildest dreams.

Everything started out normally with us planning to visit our relatives and friends. We weren’t sure until the last minute whether we would get to spend our summer family vacation in Tibet at all. Entering the country was the usual gamble with flight tickets all purchased but no visa in sight until the final hour. In the end, the god of good fortune was in charity with us: We were free to go.

With Lhasa closed until the end of July due to the “60 years autonomy” anniversary and security forces watching over parts of Eastern Tibet due to renewed protests, there wasn’t much choice with regard to where to go. Panda-watching in Ngapa County would have been lovely for the kids - especially with “Kungfu Panda - Part ll” being out this summer – but Ngapa, too, was in the heat with dissent and simply risky with children.

So this time our little family travelled overland across the southeastern section of the Tibetan plateau with Bathang and Lithang, two historical trading towns,  among the highlights.

Immortalised by Dalai Lama number six in the folk song “White Crane”, Lithang was a place I really longed to see. It also looked very doable with children since the roads were in excellent condition. And although Lithang is another Tibetan area with “secessionist tendencies”, we were assured it was open. 

Motor road across the stone desert of Haizishan

Lithang produced outstanding religious and secular leaders such as the 7th Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Kelsang Gyatso, and the founder of the Tibetan resistance, Andrug Gonpo Tashi. It had special meaning in Tibetan national memory.

I was so excited about the prospect, I kept singing the line from “White Crane”  in the car, all the way to Lithang Dzong with a faux, exaggerated eastern accent: Tharong jong-la mendro, Lethong kooné lewong yeah! – “I’m not going far, only up to Lithang, from there I shall return”.

After we finally made it to Lithang, I couldn’t fall asleep at night.

Maybe it was altitude insomnia, I had that once before.  Or maybe it was simply my hyper-excitement about finally being in Lithang: Too drunk from the grandiose visual feast of driving across the alpine grasslands. I never saw a more majestic plain than the one about an hour’s drive to the west from the County seat or Dzong, which the locals call Bonyokthong.

"Bonyokthong", Lithang

Or maybe plain and profane, I simply couldn’t sleep because of the noisy room at this awful hotel, Shen Di (“Sacred Earth”)? With 260 RMB per night, it was by far also the most expensive hotel we stayed at. It was located in the middle of an intersection and almost falling apart. When I closed my eyes, I had the impression my bed was right in the street below on a pedestrian crossing with the traffic lights switching from red to green throughout the entire night although no pedestrians or cars were in sight.

Lithang was breathtakingly beautiful and often seemed untouched by modern civilization. A historic place for the Tibetans, and there we were standing in the middle of it all, breathing the pristine mountain air and gazing upon endless wide pastures.


The Dzong, on the other hand, was depressing. It looked scruffy. There were a lot of metal workshops and a few Chupa shops along the streets as well as the usual Sichuanese restaurants. The whole town was explored in about an hour on foot. Often you would find a Xinhua bookshop with maps and some books about the local history in a County seat, but Lithang didn’t have one or it was closed down. There was nothing much going on in the Dzong it seemed.

View from Hotel Shen Di, Lithang

Yet all these young men standing around on the sidewalks in the middle of the day with broad rimmed glasses, some hooting around on colourful motor cycles with speakers - didn’t they have jobs? Or was there something going on, we didn’t know? On the main street it all seemed like something imminent was going to happen. We didn’t dare take photos. People somehow looked wary.

Police monitored the little town from small booths erected every twenty meters or so along the street. Police cars patrolled up and down. From my hotel room with huge windows and a lot of draft, I saw a small group of Western backpackers being quickly dispersed as they started a conversation with locals. It all looked surreal. Was this daily life or was this exceptional?

We hesitated to visit Lithang Gonchen close by. The atmosphere in town just seemed too tense. It was a shame. How can one come all the way here without paying respect to this famous monastery? We already missed the annual horse race which everyone said would begin as usual on 1 August. It should have been the first official festival held since 2008. But instead of the normal multiple-day festivities with the real party only getting started on the second day, it was a crippled version cut down to a single day – with us unfortunately arriving too late.

But things looked better the next day and we could visit the grand Lithang monastery after all. I was very happy.

Lithang Monastery

There was a lot of construction work going on at the monastery and many of chapels were not open. The international Buddhist flag was fluttering from the roof tops. An official announcement at the gate said there was an interregional religious gathering taking place. Was this the reason for the conspicuous police presence in town?

We also saw another, not so official-looking announcement posted at the entrance gate about the importance of the Tibetan language. It hung right next to that official announcement, which was kind of contradictory. But then as so often, things are difficult to interpret and understand since Tibet is not an open society:

Announcement on a "clean father tongue"; seal unclear

We managed to go for Chonje in the assembly hall. Although the dominant image was a gigantic statue of Je Tsongkhapa, we almost overshot it due to the many photos of the current Dalai Lama. You wouldn’t believe! And not just tiny photos hidden away, but large, poster-size portraits in full display, many of them taken around the time when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Every other meter there was a shrine with His Holiness’ picture. Was his picture not illegal here? Or did the monastery simply defy official orders? And why so many pictures? It sure looked a bit obsessive to me.

Afterwards, the monk-on-duty gave us holy water and Jendu. Then he asked about our Phayul or where we were from.

Among Tibetans living abroad, asking this question is considered politically incorrect by some. You are not supposed to think of your Phayul, you are supposed to think big. Every Tibetan kindly had to have only one Phayul and its name was “Tibet”. Digging deeper was unsolicited. 

On the ground in Tibet however, it’s perfectly natural to ask people where they’re from since it is self-understood that every Tibetan in Tibet is also automatically from Tibet. And since speaking Lhasan or high Tibetan, as it is a practice among the Tibetans abroad, is not the norm here, where one is usually betrayed by one’s native accent anyway, holding back information about one’s Phayul could come across as weird.

We would have liked to interact more with people, especially the nomadic Lithangpas whom we met along our driving journey. We could often see their camps from the road. To help start a conversation, we would offer biscuits and noodles as a friendly gesture. Sometimes they would invite us into their Banak or black tent made of yak hair and serve fresh milk.

Nomad camp at Haizishan, Lithang

An unexpected problem was language. Heaven knows how Tibetan nomadic speech or Drogkay works. It sounds like Mongolian or something. They spoke differently from the Lithangpas in the Dzong whose Tibetan we could slowly follow. A friend said even he as a semi-nomadic Samadrog Lithangpa doesn’t understand them. Isn’t that strange? He said the Lithang nomads spoke the same language as the nomads in Amdo.

As picturesque life in the grasslands appeared to me, to tell you the truth, it would be very hard if I had to live here. I wasn’t keen at all on going into those tents. I’m probably getting old and fuzzy, but I can’t stand the smell of the smoke – whether from a wooden fire or a dried yak dung fire – all your clothes smell sour from it and perspire for the longest time. Their children often don’t go to school. The wind blows incessantly and it is cold even in the summer - virtually no child without a runny nose. Everyone sleeps, eats and prays in the same tent.

Inside a Banak in Lithang

Honestly, having to live like a Lithang Drogmo would be like being condemned to hard labour in Siberia. If the Chinese offered me one of those new row houses along the roads built to resettle nomads into communal life, Buddha forbid, I would probably go for it.

Lithang was breathtakingly beautiful. But it also came across as raw and archaic. The nomadic way of life is authentically Tibetan, no doubt. It’s the archetypical Tibetan way of life. If there is one thing we long for it’s the freedom and the simplicity of nomadic life. But does it hold a future for the people? Their whole world revolved around their animals.The people we saw in the streets of the Dzong looked out of place. 

In Lithang you could see how the Chinese and the Tibetan worlds clash. The Chinese have no idea how to bring these people into the mainstream other than by using repression and violence. The Tibetans don't know how to make themselves heard other than by taking to the streets. They looked like extreme opposites with no common ground.

Nomad kids, Lithang

I had to think of what a man from neighbouring low-altitude Bathang had said about the Lithangpas. He said Lithang folks valued things such as big jewellery and impressive saddles. Comparing the two areas, he said: 
“A Lithanpa would say: Look at this family’s son, what a magnificent horse he has! A Bapa would say: Look at this family’s son, what a good education he has!”
He also said people in Lithang felt insecure when having to deal with Chinese people. Bathang people, in contrast, knew no inhibition.

Were these the general differences between nomadic, high-altitude Lithang and agricultural, low-altitude Bathang? Did the Bapas really have an advantage because they had been brought into contact with the Chinese earlier than most other Tibetans in this area? Were the nomads of Lithang really too limited in their worldview, not flexible enough? Or was this the statement of a prejudiced, self-enamoured person from Bathang?

I wasn’t at all interested in going to Ba or Bathang. If the other counties further north of the Kardze Prefecture had been open, we wouldn't have gone to Bathang, that's for sure. A place like Dege was worth visiting. It had culture, handicraft, local architecture, and the famous printing press. But backcountry like Bathang? Please!

From Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal’s autobiography written by Melvin Goldstein and books like “Khams pa Histories - Visions of People, Place and Authority”, I imagined it to be a very Chinese town with lots of sinicised Tibetans and nothing interesting to see. Well below 3000 meters altitude, it was also lower than most other places: I bet elsewhere in Tibet, you won't see many men and women walking down the street in sandals with nylon ankle socks on. Just how hip is that?

But I must say Bathang was a positive surprise in other aspects.

In terms of architecture, the rural area outside the Dzong was as Tibetan as in any other place we had visited before. It was interesting to observe that every region had its own particular building-style. The farm houses near the Dzong were brown rammed-earth buildings with flat-roofs and colourful window frames.  Further south along the Drichu, houses were painted white.

Traditional Tibetan houses along the Drichu, Bathang County

Traditional Tibetan houses at Bathang Dzong

The first thing we noticed when we entered the Dzong was how relaxed people were, and how friendly the police could be. We stopped by the road to look for a hotel. When I saw the police approaching, I immediately felt uneasy.

When we were only one day’s journey away from Lithang, a police car with four police officers inside blocked our passage at the intersection in Sumdo Township. They refused to let us continue claiming Lithang was closed although everyone else including the United Front people had said southern Kham was open. It smelled like corruption and police arbitrariness all over the place, but what to do?

My partner kept assuring me they would let us through. It would just take some negotiation. I should keep cool. It was one of those unpleasant situations you encounter in Tibet.

After a while, half a dozen curious Sumdowas had gathered at the intersection. In the course of the afternoon, we became friendly and one of them was really sweet. He said: “If these Gong An don’t let you through, come to my house, I’ll prepare tea for you.”

But luckily someone in our group knew somebody higher up in the local government whom he called up on his cell phone, who then rang up that nasty police officer in charge. After three nerve-wrecking hours in the middle of the intersection we could finally continue.

So when those Bapa police officers came over to our car, I expected the worst – like being made to leave the city at once. But then they only said we were not allowed to park there. When we told them we only needed five minutes to check out rooms at a nearby hotel, they said we could get the best rooms in Bathang at the Garden Hotel for 180 RMB per night. Wow, what great service and tourist information from the Gong An! And reliable at that because we did get great rooms with functioning toilet and a bathroom with plenty of running hot water!

The town was in a valley about the same size as the Dzong in Lithang, but it had more inhabitants. We hardly saw any tourists, Chinese or Western. Bathang looked like a sleepy, provincial town.

We were told all local cab drivers were Tibetan – in other Tibetan towns they were often mostly Chinese. Apparently, the local traffic bureau gives away cab driver licenses only to Tibetans telling Chinese candidates that their application is incomplete. The vendors in the local vegetable market looked Tibetan too. Usually, the local market is Chinese turf. Where were all the Chinese you’d always find in a Tibetan County seat? Where were all the descendants of those Chinese who were settled in Bathang by Zhao Erfeng, the butcher? People didn’t wear Chupa like in Lithang, yet the cityscape somehow still appeared Tibetan.

In Lithang and other places the government building is usually cordoned off by a wall and a gate. In Bathang, however, it was completely exposed with the stairs to the building being used as part of a public square where people would gather in the warm evening sun after a day’s work.

Bathang County Government, traditional Buddhist symbols
decorating the entrance

For Tibetan standards, the place looked prosperous. Agriculture was the main sector as in most Tibetan areas but with the lower elevation, harvest was better. I also realised Bapas are better educated than your average Khampa. Not only are they on par with the Chinese regarding education and training, but they also managed to preserve their Tibetan identity in the pursuit.

Many are proficient in Tibetan. They may not be up to the Amdowas, who seem unrivalled in this field, but among the people of Kham, Bapas are probably among the top, working in fields such as journalism and academia. Not surprisingly we learned that the head of Kham TV, a new television channel broadcasting to the Tibetans in Sichuan and Yunnan, hailed from Bathang.

We also learned that there haven’t been any protests in Bathang. Could it be that there was a correlation between open political protest and poverty? Could it be that Tibetan areas that did economically better such as Bathang were likelier not to have protests? Another place in eastern Tibet that hasn’t seen open protest is the Dechen Prefecture in Yunnan, which also does comparatively well mainly thanks to tourism. And does refraining from open protest mean people are happy under the Chinese?

A Bapa friend said Bathang folks are too smart to openly protest against the Chinese. Open protest meant risking to lose all the smaller and bigger freedoms they have acquired over the years. They may not be fond of Chinese overlordship but pragmatic enough to realise that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

When you think about it: What could the Tibetan leadership in India do for them? Would you risk your job and lifestyle over a beautiful dream, Tibetan self-rule? Maybe Dharamsala has to work harder to convince Tibetans like the Bapas that it would really be able to provide a political alternative?

Then there was the monastery.

Many monasteries in this part of Tibet have impressive-sounding names just like Bathang Chode Gon Ganden Phendeling. But they didn’t impress me: Many simply looked splendid on the outside but were void of content; monks were part-time monks, part -time nomads and family people, chopping wood, trading, picking mushrooms and so on and so forth. With many of the senior teachers and great masters either deceased or expatriated, it was also difficult to ensure the quality of the Buddhist teaching. And the closer a monastery was to a town the likelier the monks would be distracted - Bathang monastery was right in the middle of town.

Bathang Monastery

Boy was I wrong about Bathang monastery!

It is a jewel with no equal in that area. When we entered the courtyard, we heard loud voices of young novices chanting and studying Buddhist texts. There must have been over several dozen if not one hundred. I felt transported to a Tibetan monastery in India. Finally a monastery that was not only a splendid building but that was alive!

Lots of little monks studying, reciting and learning at Bathang Monastery

Then we went to pay our respects. Accompanied by a monk we were allowed to enter a few smaller chapels on the second floor which they opened specifically for us. Even here they had pictures of His Holiness. Not nearly as extravagant as in Lithang, but they did have them and they did display them openly. When it was time to leave, the monks invited us for tea into the monastery kitchen.

Bathang had a vibrant monastic community. We heard it was due to the influence of some monks who returned from India. That explained the similarity: Bathang monastery looked like a “monastic college” in Southern India with dormitory-style housing where four monk-students shared one room. The international Buddhist flag was also fluttering from the roofs.

"Monastic College", Bathang Monastery

After we left the monastery to go for circumambulation, we saw that the place also had a practicing lay community going for Kora and doing Mani. There were old folks in Tibetan clothes, youngsters in Western attire, and people that looked like they worked in some government office. Everyone seemed to be there in the evenings. It felt almost like Boudhnath, Nepal.

The Lingkor at Bathang Monastery

I was surprised Bathang didn’t have a square for public dancing. Most Dzongs had such a square which was lively used. After all, this was Bathang, the place that gave the popular folk music genre Bashè its very name. But my partner jokingly replied, people here don’t need to go for dances in the evenings because they have better things to do: They practice Dharma!

Public square with Tibetan dancing in Dobba Dzong (Daocheng);
Replica of the three holy peaks "Risum Gonpo" in the background

Yes, Bathang was a pleasant surprise and I was glad after all we didn’t skip it on our journey.

A friend told us, the future would not be so good for Bathang since there were plans to build several hydropower stations, as well as a cement factory. 15,000 Chinese would be moved to Bathang, she said. Terrible prospect! But if anyone can somehow handle this renewed assault on Tibetan identity, it should be the Bapas. To an accidental external observer, they have done a pretty good job to maintain their Tibetan identity all the while integrating into the Chinese mainstream, obtaining a modern education and running their County well. I can only hope they will be able to cope with the new challenges ahead.

It was nearly five o’clock in the morning by now. Still no trace of sleep.

I decided to get up and prepare myself a cup of instant Nestlé “Red Cup” coffee. Before long, the kids would be awake. It was always better to be one step ahead of them.

As I was getting up, I heard a motorbike with speakers rush by. Phurbu T. Namgyal's Jelyong was echoeing through the empty streets of Lithang Dzong: "We shall meet again, my brothers and sister, we shall meet again; the time will come when all Tibetans will be united again…” 
Mountain Phoenix

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