Thursday, March 31, 2005

"Taking shelter in a bandit monastery"

Chongu, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

This is the "bandit monastery" of Chonggu Gompa - or Tsengu Gompa as Rock called it back in 1928. It was then the base of the gang of renegades who robbed and murdered throughout the region. Only the kingdom of Muli remained safe from these bandits, as the king there had a deal with them to allow them safe passage - so they could sell their looted wares in the larger towns further afield in Sichuan and Yunnan!

This is what Rock wrote about the monastery in 1928:

The lamas were ignorant as to the age of the monastery, but said it was well over a hundred years old, for this was the third generation of their living Buddha. With my lama guide I visited the monastery, armed with silver half dollars, which I distributed as gifts among the monks. The main buidling contained four rooms, one housing an obscene, many armed image [see the contemporary image below]. Outside, tied to posts, were all kinds of offerings, left there by perambulating pilgrims - bracelets, rings, beads, feathers, bells - even hairs. There was nothing beautiful wahtever, only filth and evil smells. The few praying lamas were dressed in rags shiny from yak butter, for their robes served as towels as well as hankerchiefs."

Konkaling bandits, 2001

yading6, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

Well, no. Not bandits. Nowadays these Yading locals actually welcome tourists like me to take horse rides on tours of the three scared peaks: Shenriezig, Jambeyang and Chandorje.

Mani stones at Konkaling, 1928

Mani stones at Yading, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

As Rock wrote:

A huge beautifully arranged scripture monument. The upper structure is composed of circular rock platforms on whihc rest the laboriously carved schist slabs. The moounted Muli kutsau [king's representative] who erected this sacred pile is at the right. Compare it to this more recent Mani stone edifice seen near Muli:
Mani stones near Muli (Chang Haizi)

Mani stones at Konkaling today

yading5, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

Konkaling development

yading4, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

The Konkaling peaks have become a major tourist attraction for Chinese trekkers. It's China's version of Yellowstone park, and even featured in China's version of the reality TV programme Survivor. One of the downsides to this is the hasty and not very pleasant development that is taking place - such as these dormitory shacks thrown up around the Chonggu monastery.

I can't complain though - I stayed there.

Konkaling monks today

yading3, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

These monks at the Chonggu Si were excited to see Rock's photographs of their own area as it was 80 years ago.

Young monk at Chonggu Gompa, Yading

yading2, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

Chonggu Gompa interior, 2001

yading1, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

Mural seen at Konkling monastery, 2001

fresco, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

I think the deity seen here is the same "Queen of Hell" as shown earlier in this blog being acted out by lamas in costume at Muli and Yongning.

Tsongkapa mural at Tsengu Gompa, 1928

trinity, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

This colour autochrome by Joseph Rock was taken at the Konkaling monastery.

"Here Tsongkapa, founder of the Yellow reformed sect of lamas, is seen with a favourite disciple on each side. Above, to the left and right, are his four manifestations."

Bridge near Konkaling, 1928

bridge, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

This cantilever bridge spanned the Shouchu [Shuiluo] river at Shendzong, down from mt Mitzuga, half way between Muli and the Konkaling peaks. It was swept away by flood waters shortly after Rock took this picture - meaning he had to make a long detour on his return.

Bridge at Konkaling peaks, 2001

Chonggu bridge, originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.

Tibetan bridge building hasn't changed much in the last 80 years! This is the bridge over the stream to the Chonggu Si monastery at Yading.

Lama of Chonggu Si monastery, 2001

Lama of Chonggu Si monastery, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

Here's what Joseph Rock wrote about the Chonggu Gompa during his visit in 1928:

I was led over a steep stairway to the left into a fairly good room - for that part of the world. It was the best the monastery could afford and was evidently the quarters of a living Buddha. The ceilings and walls were painted, and at the head of the room was a throne and bed, above which hung some Tibetan scrolls representing Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow sect."
To my left a door led into a tiny private chapel, wherein reposed the tutelary demon of Buddha. From below juniper incense seeped through my glassless and paperless window and through every crevice in the floor.

Whatever happened to that "bandit monastery" at Konkaling?

Chonggu Si, Yading, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

After many days of difficult travelling from Muli over passes and through barren canyons, Rock finally made it to the bandit monastery of Konkaling, where he came face to face with the bandit leader, the notorious murderer, Drashetsongpen.

"After an arduous, cold wet march, we reached Tsengu Gompa, a small and dilapidated monastery situated at the comparatively low altitude of 14,120 feet, on a spur near the junction of the Bonquende and Shindze rivers. We were ushered into one of the stone buildings, black and dingy, word having been sent by Drashetsongpen to take us in and extend such hospitality as the place afforded.
The caravan unloaded in the tiny courtyyard in the pouring rain, while we entered the old building through a dark, narrow corridor. On both sides opened small dingy, smoke-filled rooms, in which Tibetans were cooking over damp wood fires."

Now the Chonggu Gompa - as it is known in Chinese - is a base camp for Chinese trekkers who come to circle the three peaks. The monks are friendly these days, if sometimes overwhelmed by the numbers of visitors. They have erected marquees as temporary accomodation and will fry up some rice and spuds with chillis and yak meat for you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

En route to Konkaling, 2001

Lovely weather
Originally uploaded by sydneyphoto.
Here I am about to set off to do the Konkaling circuit from Chonggu Gompa, in Yading National Park - the modern name for the Konkaling area. Now it's just a two day bus ride from Kangding via Litang and Daocheng. There are no longer any bandit robbers, although some might disagree when they see what they're being charged for a mouldy bunk bed in a freezing marquee at Luorong.

En route to Konkaling - the Shuiluo river

shouchu, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

To get from Muli to Konkaling, Rock had to cross the great canyon of the north-south flowing Shuiluo river. He describes how he had to pass from freezing mountain passes to the oven like temperatures within the deep canyons.

Joseph Rock's party en route to Konkaling in 1928

cairn, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

In the picture can be seen his nervous lama escort, provided by the king of Muli, who was not looking forward to visiting the mountain lair notorious for its murderous bandits.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

To the Holy Mountain of the Outlaws

mitzuga peak, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

On his first trip to Muli in 1924, Joseph Rock caught a tantalising glimpse of a distant trio of peaks known as Konkaling or the Konka Risumgongba peaks. They were said to be in the territory of intractable outlaws, and off limits on pain of death not just to Chinese but even to their immediate Tibetan neighbours in Muli and Yongning. The peaks were a sacred trio, and hence Rock gave them the more romantic label of the Holy Mountain of the Outlaws. The outlaws in question - the Konkaling Tibetans - were notorious for their raids on neighbouring villages, where they would plunder and kill without mercy. And yet they were on "friendly" terms with the Muli, and would leave his subjects in peace while slaughtering those in unlucky villages nearby that lay outside his territory. It was also said that anyone who encroached on their scared territory would be shot on sight.

The irony was that these bandits were led by a former monk, Trashi, who when not out murdering and looting, maintained his devotions at a small monastery nestled within the three peaks.

Thus in March 1928 Rock set out from Kunming [then known as Yunnan-fu] with his Naxi "boy" assistants and made his way first to Muli via Dali and Lijiang.

Rock was intrigued by the "blank on the map" where the Konkaling peaks were, so he persuaded the Muli king to vouch for him and provide a "laisser passez" with the Konkaling bandits. He smoothed the way by presenting the Muli king with a gold American $20 coin, and more importantly, copies of the National Geographic magazine, in which the king's portraits featured prominently.

While talking with the Muli king, he was asked to explain a little more about world events. He became apprehensive when told that the Tsar and Germany's Kaiser had been de-throned, wondering if he would meet the same fate [he would, by an assassin's bullet, within ten years]. Rock then tried to keep a straight face when the king asked him about a picture of Puss in Boots, and where this strange animal kingdom might be. But perhaps he was not so stupid. When Rock told him about aeroplanes, he asked why Americans did not fly to the moon!

Leaving with the Muli king's blessing in late from the monastery of Kopati, Rock ascended up through the pine forests to the peaks of Mt Mitzuga, heading for the Shuiluo river that marked the border between Muli and Konkaling territory.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Mural at Muli monastery, 2003

mural at Muli

Hsifan [Pumi] women, 1924

hsifan women
These two Pumi women accompanied Joseph Rock when he left Muli and started riding back to Lijiang. They help set up the camping ground in the fir forest some 12,000 feet up above Muli.

Kulu monastery [康乌] near Muli

Kulu monastery
"Thrives in its mountain fastness" - 1924

Friday, March 25, 2005

One of Joseph Rock's Naxi bodyguards, 1924

soldiers, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

The black satin jacket is fleece lined and trimmed with otter fur. The hat is mad eof panda skin.

Kulu [康乌]monastery, 1928

kulu, originally uploaded by jiulong.

It is situated in a valley three days journey east of Muli, at an elevation of 12,400 feet. The Muli king's palace is to the left on a hill. The long buildings in the centre are chanting halls. - Joseph Rock

Residence of the Muli army chief

lakangting, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

Trashi Konser is 11,000 feet above sea level. It is named after another famous Tibetan building which it resembles.

Nashi bodyguard

leopardskin, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

Another one of Rock's "Nashi boys", who escorted him on his many trips. The robes are made from the skin of the leopard, which then ranged around the hills of this corner of China/Tibet.

The three monasteries of Muli: La Kangting

djago, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

In Muli the king divided his time between the three main monasteries at Muli-Wachang, Kulu [康乌] closer to the Yalong river, and Waerdje [瓦尔寨]further north up the Litang river valley. This is the king's palace near La Kangting.

Muli 1924: the Lama King's Secretary

Lama King's Secretary, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This is the king's personal secretary who saw Rock off when he left Muli to return to Lijiang.

"He brought as a parting gift from the king a bag of mandarins and walnuts, and despite his poverty, presented the leader of the expedition with two brass ladles as a personal token of esteem."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The explorer's entourage, 1924

porters, originally uploaded by jiulong.

As is now widely known, when Joseph Rock went on the road, he went in style. Taking his folding bath tub and table, cutlery and a lot of photographiuic and plant pressing equipment ... on his Muli trip he took about 10 mules and 3 horses. Not to mention all the porters and soldier escort.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

"I decided to make a dash to Muli ..."

Muli 2003, originally uploaded by jiulong.

In January 1924, the botanist Joseph Rock made his first visit to Muli from his base near Lijiang.
"Almost nothing has been written about this kingdom and its people who are known to the Chinese as Hsifan, or western barbarians," he wrote.

Two years after sending his visiting card to the king of Muli, he received an invitation to go there. But it was Chinese new year and the trails of Yunnan and Sichuan were at their most dangerous as bandits roamed about. Many people turned to highway robbery at this time so they could pay off their debts in the traditional way for New Year and not lose their reputations.

Rock set out from his base near Lijiang with an escort of 10 Naxi soldiers, mere boys, armed with muzzle loading rifles made in Austria in 1857. His escort was worse than useless, according to Rock: plundering the villages they pased through.

"They settle on a village like flies on a pie, and rarely pay for what they eat, but bully the farmers ....".

His caravan consisted of eleven mules and three horses to ride.

On the 11-day trip to Muli he encountered no Han Chinese, but a scattering of Pumi, Mosuo, Nashi and Yi tribes [then known as Hsifan, Lushi, Nashi and Lolo].

They crossed the Yangzte at Fungkou ["where no white man has trodden ..."] and made their way to Yongning and Lugu Lake. There they learned that the old king of Muli had died of dropsy the previous year and his younger brother had ascended to the throne. He was said to be more amiable and hospitable.

From Yongning, Rock passed though Wualapi and Lijiatsun [see my previous entries] and into Muli territory.

Here in the fir and hemlock forests ["No woodman's axe has ever echoed here ..."] he had an amusing encounter on the trail with a Tibetan nobleman travelling in the opposite direction:

"Hark! A cavalcade of 20 men approaches, clad in brilliant red garments and gold brocade jackets. They ride on red saddle blankets trimmed with leopard fur. Each carries on his left side a miniature Buddhist shrine of silver, a reliquary for protection on the journey.

A lama of lower grade stops one of my men and roughly demands to know whither we are bound. Before an answer can be given, the priest motions my man to get of the path as the king's brother is approaching.
The Nashi curtly answers "Get off yourself, for my master is behind me."
I now take part in the interchange of 'civilities', giving the lama a lecture accompanied by threatening gestures. Out comes the priests tongue in deference, which, with upward pointed thumbs, denotes the most humble mode of greeting where Tibetan customs are in vogue.
We pass the cavalcade without a sign of recognition by either party."

lama with beads
A Tibetan lama who Rock met on the trail to Muli.

To get to Muli, Rock had to cross a mountain pass about 15,000 feet high – the Gibboh Pass. As always seemed the case when crossing high passes, his caravan was hit by a blizzard near the top: he and his escort made a makeshift camp in the snow and spent an unsettled night with leopards prowling about. But they woke to a beautiful clear morning “but the cold was so intense that hot water froze on my face and hands when I attempted to make toilet”.

His party reached the Gibboh Pass, where he worried he would be attacked by bandits:

crags of mitzuga

“We reached the pass, 15,000 feet above the sea in gorgeous sunlight. To our right was a line of crags snowcapped and glistening like diamonds. The pass is supposed to be infested with brigands, but we were not molested.”

"We descended through a steep forest of spruce and fir, with rhododendron trees as underbrush; lichens and mosses covered trunks and boulders. All was hushed.”

And later his soldiers suddenly pointed out the city on a hill. It must have been an even more splendid sight then as the ruins had been for me:

“One of my soldiers took me to an open spur and pointed north, where upon a sloping hillside lay Muli, bathed in the sunlight. I also looked upon a sea of mountains, range after range, like furrows in a field, with a deep ravive from north to south down which runs the Litang river.”

Before entering Muli, Rock pitched camp nearby and sent a soldier in to the walled city to deliver his visiting card to the lama king. He wanted to make a grand entrance. While waiting, he met the first Muli people – some Pumi women who came to trade barley for his horses to eat:
pumi women

“Their wealth of hair, a good deal of it false, was decorated with garlands of gilded Szechwan rupees, a coin common in this region.”

mosuo woman

The next day he rode up to the walled city on the hill. On his arrival he was greeted by a Tibetan lama in a crimson robe who bowed deeply and made a formal speech of welcome after presenting the king of Muli’s card. The stranger, Joseph Rock was invited into the king’s domain.

Passing pyramids of mani stones on the way, Joseph Rock made the grand entrance to Muli that he desired:

“A row of courtly priests stood in waiting and bowed at my approach. I was conducted along the wall to a new house with a terrace, outside of Muli proper, and when I was comfortably settled I was asked when I wished to see the king, who was anxious to see the stranger.”

Rock changed from his riding wear into something more suitable for meeting the regent or Gyalpo of this tiny kingdom. He took with him his Thai boy servant, Tibetan cook and two Nashi servants, dressed in their finest, and carrying his gift to the Muli king: a gun with 250 rounds of ammunition.

In the palace square he heard the weird sounds of trumpets, drums, gongs and conch shells emanating from within the main temple. He entered via an imposing gateway flanked by two large bundles of whips and was led inside, up a dark staircase and into an anteroom guarded by a greasy curtain “black from the marks of buttered fingers”.

From here he was taken into the brightly lit reception room to meet the king himself. Rock’s description of his first meeting sounds like the scene in Apocalypse now where Willard finally meets Colonel Kurtz:

“On my approach he rose, bowed and beckoned me to a chair next to a small table loaded with Muli delicacies. He occupied a chair, facing me. I had great difficulty in distinguishing my hosts features as he sat with his back to the light coming from an open bay window, while he watched every muscle of my face.”

The 36 year old king, Chote Chaba, - or “Hsiang tzu Cheng Cha Pa” in Chinese - was a heavy, rotund man with weak muscles – "as he neither exercises nor works". And yet his manner was “dignified and kind, his laugh gentle and his gestures graceful.” The king wore the traditional Tibetan lama’s red toga-like garment, which left the left arm bare. Beneath his tunic he wore a gold and silver brocaded vest, and had a rosary beads clenched in his left hand.

King of Muli

The king was accompanied by his two brothers: the younger one also a lama, the elder a “coarse individual who looks more like a coolie than a prince”. There were also several lesser lama servants in the room, cringeing with bowed heads and clasped hands, waiting deferentially for the next royal command. When dismissed, they left the room walking backwards, bowing and gesturing in acquiescence towards the king

When Rock began to speak with the king, he quickly discovered how little this all-powerful ruler knew about the outside world. The king did not know who ruled China, and asked whether he would be able to ride on horseback to Washington DC. He asked to borrow Rock’s binoculars, which he believed could see through mountains. The king also believed that thunder was made by dragons within the clouds.

And yet there were a few odd western touches to the King of Muli’s living quarters. A row of kerosene lamps had been hung up for decoration [there was no kerosene for hundreds of miles: “no matches or candles could be had here, and the black greasy necks of the lamas – including the king and Living Buddha – showed that soap was not in demand”] Some modern coat hooks hung on the pillars - “like you would expect to see in a cheap German beer garden”. And the king summoned his servants to bring a collection of old photographs depicting scenes from the White House, Windsor Castle and Norwegian fiords, for which Rock tried to explain the meaning.

Later Rock was to discover a room full of photographic equipment, all completely unused, as the Muli lamas had no idea how to operate it. It was a gift from a wealthy Chinese trader. Rock advised the king to use the glass photographic plates to glaze his windows. And at another nearby monastery he stumbled across a room full of clocks, all ticking away, and yet none of the lamas could tell the time.

Rock dined with the king of Muli that day bit found the food did not come up to the standards of the plates it was served upon. Muli delicacies served on golden plates included rancid yak cheese complete with bits of yak hair, and the usual butter tea [“like liquid salted mud”] served in exquisite porcelain cups with silver filigree. Rock was later given some of the choicest items from the king’s larder, which included a wormy ham that literally walked around by itself, propelled by “squirming maggots the size of a man’s thumb”. Rock had his servants throw it to some Muli peasants waiting outside his room, who fought over the rotten meat like tigers.
Muli beggar

In return, Rock gave the lamas and king’s servants some silver coins and bars of soap.

And while he listed to the drums, gongs and the deep bass voices of some of the lamas reciting their prayers, he read the king of Muli’s card. His full title was “self existent Buddha, Min Chi Hutuktu, , possessor of the first order of the striped tiger, former leader of the Buddhist church in the office of occupation commissioner, actual investigation officer in matters relating to the affairs of the barbarous tribes; honorary major general of the army and hereditary civil governor of Muli.” Honorific: Opening of Mercy.


During his first stay at Muli Rock made formal photographic portraits of the king using his large and cumbersome Eastman Kodak box camera on a tripod. I think this is one reason why Rock’s pictures are so good: every photograph is well composed, an “occasion”, he was more akin to a portrait painter than a photojournalist. And later when he travelled in the company of a young American he ridiculed his “rushing around snapping at everything without a tripod”.

Rock visited the king’s residence at the top of the Muli compound, known as the Churah, where he took pictures of the king on his throne, covered with ornate blankets and with his three King Charles spaniels shooed away at the last moment. In return for taking pictures of himself and his lama officials, the king rewarded Rock with some pulu bolts of cloth and the rosary that had been wrapped around his left wrist.

Later, Rock also photographed the king’s bodyguard in their ceremonial robes, and the Living Buddha of Muli - a boy of 18 - in his splendid robes, mounted on a specially decorated horse.

The next day Rock was invited to a special banquet of hotpot and vegetables, with a dessert of pure cream, which the king lapped up from the bowl with his tongue.

On his last evening in Muli Rock was treated to a special dusk ceremony to ward off devils. Just beneath his residence the lamas gathered in a circle around an oak brush bonfire, which they set alight and cast on images of devils which they wished to banish. Amid beating of drums, crashing of cymbals and the blowing of the bass notes on huge 12-foot long trumpets, the 40 yellow crested lamas, lead by a Ghiku – abbott – dispelled the demons were driven into the flames, and night fell on Muli.

Early the next morning, Rock again met with the king of Muli, said his farewells, because he was going out into the hills to pray. He presented Rock with a tray loaded with gifts – among which were a golden bowl, two buddha statues and a leopard skin.

He saw Rock to the gates of his palace – and his appearance caused the lowly folk of Muli to flee in terror. The officials, magistrates and lamas of this self contained town formed a line to the gate and bowed to Rock as he departed before sunrise.

As he ascended into the hills, he marvelled at the “vast sea of ranges, pink and yellow, with black slopes indicating fir forests … the deep valleys lined on both sides with snow-capped crags.”

Muli lay on the hillside below him, “beautiful in the morning sun, an oak forest surrounding it like a sombre garland.”

“A peculiar loneliness stole into my heart as I rode through the firs draped with long yellowish lichens. I thought of the kindly, primitive friends who I had just left, living secluded from the world, buried among the mountains, untouched by and ignorant of Western life.”

Rock’s party ascended up to a camping ground at 12,000 feet amid a fir forest, as they prepared t recross the Gibboh pass.

“There I let my dreams take me back once more to Muli, that weird fairyland of the mountains, where its gold and riches of the Middle Ages contrast with butter lamps and pine torches.”

Mt Giboh forest
Joseph Rock near the Giboh Pass, 1924

Mt Gibbo brolly
My guide near the Giboh Pass, 2003..

Muli monastery, 2003 木里大寺

Muli side view, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Scenes from Muli, then an now

Looking up to Muli from the Litang river, 1927.
muli from below
The same view today.

A view along the Litang river valley near Muli, 1927.
litang river
Litang river valley 2004.
muli road
Litang river valley last year.
wachang to muli
A contemporary view of the Litang river valley looking from Wachang towards the monastery [hidden]

A corner of the rebuilt monastery and the remains of the old one.

The holiest place: the upper temple of Muli in 1928, which was the personal shrine of the ruler of Muli.

A cantilever bridge over the Litang river below Muli.
muli bridge
Modern bridge in the same spot over the Litang river, 2004.
Muli today