Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mundon: a dreary hamlet?


Mundon wide ??, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Some time around 8pm we finally saw a faint light ahead. Mongdong! This was "Mundon", the "dreary Hsifan hamlet" where Rock stayed in 1928.

A cluster of shadows loomed out of the gloom – buildings? In the darkness we gathered outside the locked wooden gate of a Tibetan house on the hillside, and an incredulous old man's voice from within eventually replied to shouts from Wang Qi and the handlers. A dog barked, a faint light went on inside and a torch shone out in our faces.
The old man mumbled the Tibetan acknowledgement of "Oh-ah-uh" and let us in.

Hauling our weary saddlesore limbs up another notched log from the muddy courtyard, the handlers took care of the horses. Within the smoky dark scullery we huddled around a wood fired stove as Pema's uncle cooked us a late dinner of fatty yak meat, boiled potatoes and sour yoghurt. This was the house of Pema's father and uncle and they had a lot of news to catch up on. Recognising that the foreigner could not stomach much of the tough yak meat, they cooked me some baked potatoes.

The villagers pored over the old photographs that I had brought with me.

Wang Qi's grandfather told us he well remembered the visit by Joseph Rock to their village. As a five year old he had been intrigued by the silent foreigner, and was curious to hear how he spoke. So when the explorer bedded down for the night, he and his older brother laid a trail of dried leaves near his bed and set fire to it. Unfortunately, this worked better than expected, setting fire to Rock’s sleeping bag. The westerner jumped up, shouting at them as they hid behind a nearby bush. He spent much of the next morning sewing up his sleeping bag.

Later, when acting as a guide to the botanist, the young lad also tricked Jospeh Rock out of his camera. Finding it hanging up on a tree branch, he hid the camera in some bushes. Jospeh Rock became distraught when he could not find it and paid a handsome reward it was “found” by the young uncle, actually kissing the camera when he had it back in his hands. But the uncle was not to profit from his trickery. Unaware of the true value of the silver dollars he had received as a reward, he exchanged them on a visit to Muli for four sets of working clothes.

Perhaps it was the altitude, but I felt dozy and dizzy and lay down on some yak hair blankets on the floor, pulling my sleeping bag around me. The walls of the room were covered in posters of "Distinguished Animals and Birds of Ganze Prefecture" and an official notice with a Tibetan monk on that pronounced "This is a Safe and Civilised Household".

The others soon joined me to bed down on the floor.

“If it wasn’t for me you’d still be here digging up spuds,” Wang Qi teased Pema in the dark.

“If it wasn’t for you we’d have been here half a day earlier. You’re so fat your horse needs a rest after five steps,” Namu teased her father.


The following morning I rose before the sun came up, from among a pile of snoring bodies in the wooden room. Our party of eight had quite taken over the Mongdong uncle's house. Tottering round in the cold, with my legs and thighs aching from the previous day's long hours in the saddle, I somehow managed to find a flask of hot water
(kaishui) to wash with and put my contact lenses in.

At the time of Rock’s visit there had been no water here at all. It had to be “carried by the women from a thousand feet below”.

This time there was a little, thanks to a diverted mountain creek, enough to make a weak cup of Nescafe to warm me up as I stood on the balcony and watched the sky lighten and reveal the Muli mountain ridges. To my surprise the string of lights I had seen the night before were not houses along the river, but belonged to a settlement only half way down the canyon. This really was a massively deep gorge!

As the others began to rise, Pema’s cousin, a rugged but cheerful looking Tibetan, climbed up from the cow yard clutching a flapping rooster by its legs.

"Morning!" he hailed, and pulled himself out a stool to sit on. Before I could react he had slit the bird's throat and was directing a stream of steaming dark blood into a bowl as casually as if he was pouring red wine from a casket. I moved away as he efficiently started to pluck and wash the now lifeless carcass, that looked a very unappetising greyish white.

Joseph Rock described Mongdong (Mundon) as a "dreary Hsifan hamlet". But as the morning sun rose over the peaks it seemed to me anything but dreary. The views across the gorge were superb and this collection of four family houses seemed to be a cheerful little community. Drawn by the sound of chanting and the throbbing of a drum, I visited the small Black Hat Buddhist temple next door, outside which in a stone shrine some burning juniper branches sent up a trail of smoke into the blue sky. Within the dark and dusty interior a couple of old men in ordinary clothes were conducting a morning blessing, impervious to a young boy and girl toddlers who gambled around them. The bumpy surface of the whitewashed interior wall was covered with colourful Buddhists frescoes. On an exterior wall at the entrance there were more beautiful pictures of Buddhists figures in delicate faded sky blues, yellows and pinks. All their faces had been scratched off during the Cultural Revolution.

"Tai Yihan" (What a pity) said Wang Qi, by my side.

Back in the house there was a shout of "Breakfast!" and the whole household and visitors were soon slurping bowls of fresh chicken stew with potatoes, bones and all.

1 comment:

fern said...

Thanks Michael. I'm really enjoying reading this. When and where are you publishing your articles?