Just felt like posting this nice pic of some local visitors who were there the day I was there in May.
Friday, July 20, 2012
And again by Carl Mydans: And 60 years later, a bus breakdown between Dali and Lijiang on our 1998 Muli trip:
Sunday, July 15, 2012
After my run-in with the cops at Choni I didn't rate my chances of getting to Ragya monastery because of its previous history of Tibetan troubles. After all, Choni was a quiet and obscure backwater, far away from the turmoil of Sichuan and Qinghai. Ragya, on the other hand, had already had 'uprisings' by local Tibetans. According to reports in the free Tibetan media, in 2009 a riot had developed in Ragya after a Tibetan flag was displayed at the monastery. Police arrested and beat a monk they suspected of hiding the flag, and the monk reportedly drowned while trying to escape by swimming the Yellow river. This prompted hundreds of locals to surround and stone the police station at Ragya, leading to scores of other arrests.
So I wasn't too hopeful of getting there - and even if I did manage to get a bus ticket, I feared being kicked out of town, just as had happened in Choni. Well nothing ventured, nothing won, so I tried my luck at the chaotic ticket hall at Xining coach station. The bus station was a throw-back to the old China of the 1990s - a dark hall containing long lines of unwashed nongmin all pushing and shoving towards ticket selling windows clutching their wads of renminbi.
On my first attempt it took me half an hour to reach the tiny window, only to be told to go to Window Number 7, where the line was even longer and wilder. I braced myself and after another tedious and tense wait, fending off would-be pushers-in, I got to the window and was able to buy a ticket to Dawu, the nearest major town to Ragya. The only problem was that the ticket was for three days later - a Saturday. And the bus departed at 11.30 am, rather than the usual sparrow-fart crack of dawn departure time. The woman told me it took only seven hours to Dawu, but that seemed optimistic given my experience of the roads so far in this part of the world.
Anyway, I had three days to kill and to mull this over. Three days. I nearly went mad. There's only so much you can do in a provincial Chinese city like Xining. Visit the museum, wander round the market, visit some parks and try a few day excursions. By the third day I was thoroughly bored of Xining and the Lete hostel. As I've said already, this hostel was a pleasant and well run place, but it had the usual quota of creepy and cringeworthy westerners. There was an older English gent who seemed to spend every day sat in the common room/bar tapping away at his laptop and striking up conversation with any strangers he was able to make eye contact with. Nothing wrong with that, but he was a bore who loved the sound of his own voice, spouting the usual bar-room reactionary world view. He proclaimed that he had been able to retire from his work in the "financial sector" and was now able to travel at leisure. Like a lot of expats, he had only bad things to say about his home country and how it had gone to the dogs. Travelers who he buttonholed would initially gave him the benefit of the doubt and a sympathetic ear, but soon acquired a glazed look and made their excuses to leave. The old bore would then start to regale the Chinese girls working behind the bar with the same stories and conspiracy theories, and they would nod politely but awkwardly, barely understanding a word of what he said.
The sad thing was that I felt the same way myself. I'd hardly spoken any English during my week on the road and I craved conversation. And yet I did not want to end up like the bore, so I just sipped my beer and read my new copy of 1984, purchased at Xining's Xinhua bookstore.
I found it hard to cope with nobody to talk to. Going a whole day without using your voice is odd - and after three or four days I started to think I was losing my grip on reality. I started singing to myself, just to hear English words. Then I started talking to myself and having conversations with imaginary companions. If I was feeling this desperate for company after just a week, how did Joseph Rock manage for months on end in the wilderness with just his Naxi 'boy' assistants for company? Did he not care for companionship and conversation? No wonder he was so cranky.
Saturday 5th May found me at the Xining bus station, looking for the coach to Dawu. I was expecting the usual long distance coach and was surprised to be ushered towards a minibus already bursting with Tibetans and their luggage. But they were a friendly and cheerful lot and I managed to squeeze onto the last seat near the door, and soon we were crawling through the gridlocked traffic and road of Xining. I found myself sat next to a couple of Tibetan teenage girls, the one nearest me having angelic looks and pouty lips.
However, as soon as we got going she started to play rap and hi-energy music on tinny speakers plugged into her mobile phone. And so as the bus strained over the first mountain range and into a barren eroded loess valley, my attention was distracted by an LL Cool J song that seemed to consist of the phrase "Shut the F### Up" repeated ad nauseum.
The landscape around the first town of Guide (pronounced Gwee-duh) was a weird arrangement of serrated and eroded red soil mounds and ridges, with not a blade of grass in sight. However, in the town itself, and along the banks of the Yellow River, the land was irrigated and marked by its vivid green grass and trees.
We continued south and up onto a bleak grassland plateau. This was where the Tibetan nomads had once roamed, but now they had been corralled by the Chinese government into grim settlements of identical small houses arranged in neat rows.
The Tibetan nomad now used a motorbike instead of a horse, and was confined to the road festooned with powerlines and mobile phone towers, with the occasional dirt track leading to more remote settlements.
There was little to see out of the window, and I soon settled into a bored stupor. Then, as our bus pulled up and over another bleak grassland pass I was surprised to see a late model black Range Rover abandoned by the side of the road, with a goat chewing grass next to it. As we passed it saw that the axle was bent and one of the front wheels had been twisted at an unusual angle, rendering it undriveable. Why abandon such an expensive car out here? Was it because no breakdown truck would venture this far into the wilderness?
The road was smooth and we made good progress. I dozed off for a while, and woke up at a dogleg in the road where it turns 90 degrees to the west. This was a feature that I had seen on Google Earth when planing the trip and it was surreal to now find myself 'in' Google Earth, or rather the real equivalent.
The road ascended three more undulating passes, each higher than the last, before we started a long and twisting descent towards the Yellow River and Lajia.
At this point I should have been in a state of wonderment and excited anticipation. I was about to reach my much sought-after destination. But the Tibetan girl next to me was still playing her irritating tinny gym music and someone else at the back of the bus was playing jaunty Tibetan disco-style karaoke music at the same time. I was fed up and just wanted to get off the bus. We passed through a dramatic red canyon and then suddenly emerged onto the main street of a small Tibetan frontier town of Hebei ('North of River'). The town seemed busy - perhaps because of all the construction activity related to the building of the Maerdang hydro dam and power station, which was mentioned on a big propaganda poster just outside the town.
Downhill again, I readied myself for getting off at Lajia. I hadn't told the driver about getting off here until the last rest stop, because I didn't want to risk being refused boarding for the bus or getting kicked off at the nearest PSB station - but he only seemed bemused by my request.
And then suddenly we were there. I recognised the huge distinctive cliff face, below which were clustered many monastery buildings. But Lajia had sprawled since Rock's time, and there were now many more modern buildings and streets on both sides of the river.
There seemed to be a festival or fair on in town - the road was clogged with cars, vans and motorbikes, and there were crowds of festive-looking Tibetans and monks milling about the roadside. As we hit this gridlock, the driver signalled me to get off. I hauled my bag onto my back and jumped out of the open door, right in front of a policeman. My heart sank and I expected a quick rebuke and apprehension, but he just looked right through me. Not interested! Before he had any chance to think further, I legged it down the road through the crowds, towards the bridge.
According to my guidebook there was only one guesthouse in town and I was worried that with all the Tibetan festival visitors it would be booked out, especially this late in the day. And sure enough it was. The manager of the Muslim guesthouse near the bridge just waved me away. I sauntered over the bridge in a desperate, pessimistic mood and walked into the 'new' part of town, and was fortunate to find a place called the Rujia Guesthouse that took me in with no qualms. The place was overseen by a fey teenage kid with a camp vibe and bizarre stuck up hairstyle, who just shrugged and said 'dunno' when I asked him why there were so many people in town.
The hotel was right next to the Yellow River and by the time I had unpacked my bag and had something to eat it was dark and did not see any point in going up to the monastery. Instead I sat in my room, trying to read 1984 and dreading the prospect of a knock on the door from the local PSB. They never came.
I was up bright and early on Sunday, eating one of those Greek-style yoghurts that are so popular in Qinghai, and swilling it down with a cup of tea made with the kettle in the room. It was only just light and still something of a gloomy dawn when I set off back up the road to go see the Ragya monastery. As I got closer to the river I couldn't help grinning at the sight of the towering cliffs, appearing just like they were in Joseph Rock's photos.
However, intruding into the view in the 21st century was a newly built petrol station, of the appropriately named U-Smile franchise. With no other shop open so early in the morning I wandered in to buy a drink. The layout was the same as petrol stations the world over. A couple of fridges containing drinks and ice creams and a few shelves of snacks, motor accessories, magazines and maps. The barcode scanner beeped as the sleepy assistant scanned my Ice Lemon Tea and I headed back out into the vision from the past.
It was still only 7.30 in the morning and there was nobody else about except for a lone Tibetan woman scurrying up from behind me. She was wearing the usual long skirt and chunky jacket, along with some agate bead necklaces, a scarf wrapped around her face as a mask against dust, and a bonny sun hat. She overtook me as I sauntered over the bridge, and as she passed me she turned around and said a cheery "Hello! Good Morning!" I was taken aback. I had hardly spoken any English in the last week and now I was being hailed in fluent English by a wild looking woman in the middle of nowhere.
I muttered a surprised "Good morning" in return, and the Tibetan woman asked in faintly-accented English if I wanted to see the monastery. When I said yes, she bade me follow her and said "I am going there also." Then I recognised the accent - Indian. The woman explained that she had spent several years in a Tibetan community near Dharamsala, but she had now returned to live in "Golog" as she called this part of the world.
Without saying anything else, she led me into the monastery complex and ushered me though a doorway, shielded by a heavy canvas curtain. It was one of the main prayer halls and inside there were about 30-40 monks all sat in rows and chanting away. They looked up in surprise at my arrival, and started nudging each other and gesturing at me. The chanting continued, although it seemed to miss a beat. The Tibetan woman smiled and then disappeared through another dark doorway.
I hung around in the prayer hall for a while, trying to take a few discreet photos with my Rolleiflex without a flash. There was a whole row of candles down one wall, which seemed like a major fire hazard given that the whole building was made of wood!
The chanting was overseen by a senior monk, who periodically put on his yellow "cock's comb" lama hat and blew on a conch shell, to the accompaniment of a drum and some cymbals. Then after about half an hour some young monks emerged with kettles full of butter tea, and they scampered around pouring the thick tea into the bowls of the monks sitting in rows. I was surprised to see a large image of the Dalai Lama on display, given his pariah status with the PRC government as a separatist. Perhaps Ragya was just too remote for the authorities to pay much attention.
After an hour or so I headed back outside and found there were more Tibetan visitors milling about the place. Many of them were circumambulating the prayer hall or other temples within the complex. I ascended to the highest temple, which many Tibetans were circling, and I looked beyond, higher up the hill, to see if there was a way up to the summit of the crag. All I could see was another clutch of prayer flags and a strip of white material beneath the crags.
I set off up the hill, along a faint track, and after much huffing and puffing at this altitude, I reached the "white line" which turned out to be a plastic water pipe. I followed it around to the right as it wended higher up the hill. The track petered out and the terrain became more difficult, covered with thick spiky bushes as I passed directly under the crag. There didn't seem to be any obvious way up to the summit, and the water pipe disappeared into a narrow defile between two almost vertical rock faces. I squeezed through and followed a little further up this mini-canyon but the terrain soon became impassable - I had reached a dead end.
I turned back and skirted round to the right even more, heading up a gentle grass slope riven with small gullies created by erosion. As I rose higher I attained a grand view of the side of the Ragya crag, and I could see this was one of the sites from which Rock had taken a photo of a group of tents.
Now the landscape was devoid of any tents - just a couple of Tibetans further down foraging for the lucrative congcao fungal caterpillar.
Atop the crags I could just make out a nest of prayer flags - but how to get up there? The sides were far too steep and covered with brambles. How had Rock managed to get to the top? There must be a path somewhere. Just as I was wondering about this I sensed I was being watched. I looked up and there on the skyline in the distance above me was a man in a suit stood gazing down at me. For an instant I jokingly thought it was the ghost of Joseph Rock, then whoever it was turned around and walked away behind the ridge, out of sight.
I started up the hillside to where the figure had been - following a faint path up to a notch in the ridge. When I got there some ten minutes later, there was nobody around, but I could see a long roundabout way that might lead up to the top of the crag. I skirted the side of the hill, following the contour line and into another new valley. Again as I got higher the sides became steeper until near the top the track became very exposed and the sides of the hill gave way to almost vertical stone faces. I picked my way carefully up the trail to yet another ridge - which proved to be another false summit and led to yet another ridge.
After much more scrambling I finally topped out on a grassy platform amid a maze of ridges and steep slopes. I was level with the summit of the crags now, but it seemed even further away than ever, and I was separated from it by several huge gullies. This wasn't the way to the top.
However, I had great views over the surrounding hills. This hillside was the place where Joseph Rock had been brought by the lamas of Radja to celebrate the feast of Amnye Machen.
They set up tents, picnicked on butter tea "the usual unpalatable Tibetan delicacies" and burnt juniper twigs on a makeshift altar as an offering.
"After final prayers, the Buddha left riding a beautiful horse with its saddlecloth and trappings of gold brocade and sheltered by a big gilded umbrella. When he was safely out of site the lamas played hilarious games and frolicked to their heart's content in a very childish manner..." Rock wrote.
No such splendour or fun and games for me. Unable to reach the crag summit, I reluctantly turned around and shimmied my way cautiously down the slopes, feeling rather scared of the steep drops on either side and taking great care with every foothold and handhold above the rock walls.
Back down at the first ridge, I was startled by a flock of sheep that came around the hillside. And there with them was the man in the suit I had seen earlier - a Tibetan shepherd. Not the ghost of Joseph Rock after all.
When I finally got back to the monastery, it was thronging with visitors - whole Tibetan families on a day out. Some were doing circuits of the buildings while others queued up to enter one particular room which contained a sacred circle or mandala.
After queueing up myself for fifteen minutes I managed to get in to see the mandala. I'd expected a pious atmosphere of reverence and solemnity but all the Tibetans in the room were coo-ing, smiling and taking photos of it, as if it was a rock star.
I started to take a picture myself, when suddenly the room went quiet and the temperature seemed to suddenly drop a few degrees. I turned around to see an old and very serious looking monk, who everyone else was deferring to. He gave me a puzzled, disapproving look, wrinkled his brow and then walked out again. Not sure what it was all about - very odd!
Outside, there were quite a few monks about now - their chanting duties over for the time being. One was exceedingly tall and looked like the James Bond villain Jaws. He told me he was an ethnic Mongolian monk and was well over two metres tall.
I was surprised by the number of monks who came up to me and welcomed me in English and asked if they could be of any help. This level of English language ability was quite extraordinary for China. Then one of them explained that there was a local school that had been set up independently to teach Tibetan and English. They had certainly done a good job, but I had to wonder how long this would last in the current environment of control in Tibetan areas of China. I later read several news items about similar independent schools in Qinghai and Sichuan being shut down by authorities.
For the time being, though, Radja was a pleasant and friendly place. It was not on the tourist map and so people were open and natural. On this Sunday afternoon there was almost a festive air, as families and friends milled around, chatting and catching up with each other. A few people roped me into have photos taken with them, while others just patted me on the back in a comradely way, as if to congratulate me for making it to Radja.
It was all quite a contrast to the image of Radja painted by Joseph Rock in 1923. As he bided his time here waiting for an opportunity to evade the Ngolok tribes and visit Amnye Machen, he was scathing of the local monks for their filthiness and ignorance.
"Few in the outside world know that Radja Gompa exists. Life here is unbelievably crude ..." he wrote. He noted the many hermit monks who lived in tiny chambers on the hillside below the crags - structures that were still there. He also bemoaned how the water supply had to be brought up to the monastery from the Yellow River in buckets. Even after being filtered it was still as thick as pea soup, he observed.
While waiting for the head lama to arrange passage through hostile Ngolok territory, Rock stayed in the Radja area for more than a month, making side trips into the Dakhso canyon of the Yellow River and an 18-day trip northwest to the Jupar mountains. He then grew impatient and threatened the Radja lamas that he would seek help instead from the Muslims instead. Perhaps this was why the monks sent him on a wild goose chase through the canyons of the Yellow River. They said he could make a quick dash to the mountain from the camp of the nearby Dawu clan. Rock concurred, and took only horses and a minimum of supplies to ensure they could ensure a highly mobile party. They would need to be quick to escape the hostile Ngoloks, he was told.
"I had come to the conclusion that to work at Amnye Machen peacefully would be out of the question. It is feasible to get there, but to stay and work is another story. It would mean either keeping a large well-armed party for one's protection or else depending on the friendly co-operation of all the Ngoloks."
He did not get the friendly co-operation of the Ngoloks, and was told bluntly by a local relative of one Ngolok chief that the Ngoloks were expecting him and planned to murder him if he intruded on their territory.
Rock decided to chance his hand by skirting the edges of Ngolok territory on a quick trip escorted by Gomba, the chief of of another local Tibetan tribe, the Jazza clan.
From Radja monastery they crossed to the west side of the Yellow river and headed for a small peak called Amnyi Druggu, from where he hope to be able to see and photograph what Rock still suspected and hoped would be the highest mountain peak in the world, Amnyi Machen.
Rock found that in terms of flora and fauna, the western side of the river was quite different to the barren eastern grasslands.
He found the region to be "one great zoological garden" abundant in blue sheep, deer and wapiti, as well as bird life - much of which he shot and despatched as samples back to the museums of Washington DC. And in the region of another friendly tribe, the Yonzhi, Rock at last found many flowers - blue poppies, primulas and forests of junipers.
After several day's journey, they eventually ascended Amnyi Druggu, and Rock got his long awaited view of Amnye Machen. However, he says little of his first glimpse of the mountain, saving his praise for a better viewing he obtained through his telescope from a peak in the nearby Tarang valley a few days later.
"I shouted for joy as I beheld the majestic peaks of one of the grandest mountain ranges of all Asia," he effused. And still he believed the mountain to be as high as Everest.
"We stood at an elevation of nearly 16,000 feet, yet in the distance rose still higher peaks - yet another 12,000 feet of snow and ice!"
He was completely wrong. Rock says that without a theodolite he could not measure the exact height of Amnye Machen, and yet he still concluded it was higher than 28,000 feet (its true height is 20,610 feet). His wild overestimate was to fuel speculation for decades to come about whether Amnye Machen was a contender for the highest mountain in the world. During WW2 some American freighter pilots flying the Hump route into China claimed that they had been blown off course near Amnye Machen and estimated its height to be 30,000 feet. This later proved to be a hoax.
But Rock was never taken to task for his surveying gaffes. He left the mountain with the usual sentimental odes of triumph and romantic lament:
"With difficulty I tore myself from that sublime view - a view of the eastern massif of the mountain from the west of the Yellow River which no other foreigners had ever had. I remained for some time alone on that isolated summit, lost in reverie and easily comprehending why the Tibetans should worship these snowy peaks as emblems of purity."
He returned to Radja and after some extended wandering to the north to visit Lake Koko Nor, he eventually made his way back to Choni. looking back on his trip, he acknowledged that it had been botanically disappointing - and he blamed this on the high altitude and year-round cold climate that did not support plants or trees.
My own return from Radja more than 80 year later was a lot easier and rather mundane. After another night at the Rujia Guesthouse I hopped on an empty coach that made the return journey on the smooth highway all the way back to modern Xining in a single day. As we crossed over the high pass above Radja I looked back and saw the snow peaks of the Amnye Machen range in the distance. Ho hum. Give me the Yading peaks or Minya Konka anyday.
You can see more of my Ragya photos on Flickr here.