Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Life among the Lamas of Choni" (Zhuoni, 卓尼县禅定寺))

After a decade of pondering and a year of planning to go to Choni monastery in Gansu, I was only able to spend about an hour walking round the place when I eventually got there in May 2012. This was because I was detained by the local police almost as soon as I got off the bus in Choni. Fortunately I’d gone straight to the Chanding monastery on my arrival in ‘Zhuoni’ (卓尼) as it is now known, and was able to spend a short time walking round the various monastery temples snapping a few pictures before I was nabbed by the Public Security Bureau. There wasn't much to see - the monastery complex was like a ghost town, with few monks in evidence and all the temples locked up.

Back in the 1920s, Joseph Rock had received a slightly warmer reception in Choni and had struck up a more cordial relationship with the local authorities. He befriended the local prince – the tusi – an ethnic Tibetan but Chinese-accultured herditary ruler who was the latest to succeed to the post that had been passed on for 22 generations since the 1400s. Even into the 20th century, the potentate ruled by grace of the Qing dynasty and its successors in the new post-1911 Chinese Republican movement. Prince Wang Chi-Ching, as he was known in Chinese, was a suave character who liked dressing up in Chinese silks and stylish Tibetan boots. He was both temporal and spiritual head of the small Tibetan enclave of Choni, acting as both prince and head lama. However, he was not an independent prince. He had to pay tribute, obeisance - and taxes - to the Chinese authorities and warlords who held sway in Lanzhou.

Joseph Rock with the Prince of Choni

At that time, Choni was the cultural and political centre of this ethnic Tibetan corner of south western Gansu. Unlike most of the arid and flat province of Gansu, Choni was mountainous and fertile, with the river Tao river helping to irrigate rice crops and support a mixed population of Tibetans (known locally as Tebbus), Muslims and Han Chinese.

Joseph Rock’s pictures show a busy and active monastery of about five ornate temple buildings, and scores of resident monks involved in all kinds of strange ceremonies and rituals. Rock was so impressed with Choni that he selected it as his base for exploring the Qinghai grasslands - and it became the springboard for his ultimate visit to Amnye Machen. He was to stay at the Prince's Choni yamen (compound) almost two years from 1925-26, thanks in part to being on friendly terms with the local prince.

Lamas assemble at Choni (Zhuoni or Jone), Gansu, 1927

He describes the place briefly in his National Geographic article about his Amnye Machen expedition ("Seeking the Mountains of Mystery"), but writes a lot more about Choni in a separate article entitled “Life Among The Lamas of Choni”. In this latter article he describes the lifestyle and many of the customs and clothing of the local Tibetans in Choni. He spends most of the article describing the intricate and lengthy ceremonies of the local lamas, and also something of one of their major festivals.

Accompanied by many early colour Autochrome pictures of the Tibetan “devil dancers” at the monastery and their costumes, Rock's article gives a lengthy description of the annual Mystery Plays and Butter Festival ceremonies held at Choni. Some of the 'devil' dancers are dressed to look like skeletons, animals such as deer, as well as some traditional Buddhist deities and demons. One of the most interesting performers was a monk wearing a papier mache mask that looked something like the head of one of the ‘jolly Buddha’ icons.


This performer was meant to represent a oafish Han Chinese monk, Nantain, who was bested in debates by Tibetan monks, a figure of fun for the Tibetans who was the butt of many physical and verbal jokes and mockery during the comedic ceremony. It is all rather reminiscent of one of the modern day “cross talk sketches” as shown on Chinese TV, a kind of music hall act in which the characters exchange banter and mix this in with slapstick comedy and double takes.

According to Rock, the public mockery of the Chinese went down well with the Tibetan spectators, as there was little love lost between the Tibetans and Han Chinese at the time. The Han Chinese were heartily despised and the Tibetans loved to make fun of them.

However, there was also a darker side to the devil dances, with the Tibetan sorcerers supposedly summing up and exorcising demons. The scholarly Joseph Rock was skeptical and dismissive about the supposed effects of these devil dances, until he found himself severely disturbed during one such performance at the neighbouring Hochiassu monastery near Choni.


While watching the dances he noticed that some of the crowd of local onlookers appeared to have become possessed by spirits and were flailing about. Other spectators laughed at these possessed until they too became infected and equally manic. Rock and his missionarly companions then also started to feel queer. "I began to feel a bit uneasy ... and Mr McGilvrey felt terribly oppressed," Rock wrote later.

"At that moment I felt a most peculiar sensation, as if I was giving way to some unknown force, and I felt myself become powerless. I managed to say 'I must go, I cannot stand this' .. and left the chanting hall as quickly as I could."

He felt slightly better when he moved away from the devil dancers, but had a second 'attack' when he settled in a nearby room:

"I had hardly sat down when the powerless feeling came over me in a few minutes, and my sight was practically gone. I could ill distinguish things. I tried to repress this feeling and started taking deep breathing, but every second I felt myself going and I came to the conclusion that if I did not leave immediately I would be unconscious the next minute."


Rock only recovered when he had fled from the monastery, and was left shaken by his experience. Despite his self image as a man of science, he could only conclude that "There is a power or spell of some kind..."

"I may say that never in all my life have I felt in such a sudden manner my willpower and my control over my being leave me ... It was like filtering of something though one's body which took charge of one completely. It was the elimination of self and the control of self through another force, which I fought, but to which I would have sucuumbed. The lamas explained this as the god of the monastery taking possession of one's body."

Nevertheless, with the aid and hospitality of Prince Yang, Rock settled in Choni and installed himself in the yamen there while he prepared to mount his much-anticipated plant collecting expedition to Amnye Machen. And as a preface to his future anthropological and cultural studies of the Nakhi in Lijiang, he also made many observations about the customs and people of Choni. The monastery was famous for its library, which contained rare copies of the two major Tibetan classical sacred texts: the 108 volume Tandjur and the 209-volume Kandjur. It took a large team of monks about a year to print just one set of all these volumes, and Rock was able to buy a complete set and pack it off to Washington, where it was lodged with the Library of Congress.


During his time in Choni, Rock seemed to get along well with the sinicised and relatively 'modern' Prince Yang – going to him for advice about how to travel to Amnye Machen and even borrowing money from him when his funds from the US failed to come through on time.

However, like the King of Muli, Prince Yang could also be a cruel and despotic local ruler. He had several wives who he kept in servitude and with bound feet. One of them he had beaten severely after she tried to leave without his permission to visit her ailing mother. The wife hanged herself shortly afterwards

Even Rock acknowledged that Yang was a bad sort, noting that he was not popular with his local ‘subjects’. To maintain his grip on power the prince kept a network of spies and informers in addition to his own local army of enforcers. He imposed fines on the local people and 'squeezed' businesses for his own income. According to Rock, the prince was only tolerated because he was seen as a buffer between the locals and the even more hated Chinese.

My own journey to Choni started at Labrang (Xiahe). The locals told me there was no direct bus to Choni, but that I could catch a bus to the town of Hezuo an find one there. According to my map it was only about 70km to Hezuo and a further 100km to Choni, so I hoped I might do it in one day. I didn't want to have to spend a night in Hezuo - there didn't seem to be much there apart from a reconstructed nine-storey temple that Rock had photographed back in 1925, when the town was know as Hei Tso.


As things turned out, I didn't need to stop over in Hezuo. When our bus trundled into town mid morning it looked like any other nondescript scrappy provincial Chinese town - a mix of concrete high rises and garage-front stores. A friendly Tibetan sat behind me on the bus pointed out the street corner where I should catch the Choni bus, and I jumped off the Xiahe bus just as the Choni service was departing. I was able to flag it down and jump on without having to buy a ticket.

The ride to Choni took us over rolling dull grassland and a couple of gentle passes. There were a few Tibetan herder's houses en route, quite basic concrete blocks, but all of them seemed to have glassed-in 'conservatories' in front of the living areas. This seemed to be a standard feature of the Gansu-Qinghai grasslands.

Before we reached Choni the bus descended into Lintan, another scrappy town with a large Muslim population and many prominent mosques. This was the old "Taochow" that Rock had written about - but he never mentioned the obvious Muslim character of the town. After a tedious hour long wait during which time I attracted many stares from bemused locals, the bus started up again and took us the final hour's drive down to the riverside town of Zhuoni.

I felt a certain excitement on arriving in the town. Choni! I was here! I immediately took a taxi from the simple courtyard bus station up the hill to see the Chanding monastery. Zhuoni was a busy little town with really just one main street running up from the Tao river. There were a few modern shops, restaurants and hotels by the riverside, but otherwise it was a quite unremarkable place. It didn't appear to be Tibetan, and most of the locals looked like Han Chinese or low key Hui Muslims.

About a kilometre up the hill we turned left into the the entrance of the monastery. As I walked through the main gate, I recognised the layout of the place from one of Rock's old photos, but the buildings were not the same. They had been rebuilt in a similar but not identical style. I started to wander about the buildings and take photographs, and it felt strange because there was hardly anyone about.

Choni monastery, Gansu

Apart from one or two Tibetan monks that I glimpsed walking about, I had the place to myself. The temples were all padlocked and there was nobody about to ask about having a look inside. I tried to catch the attention of one monk but he scurried off, unwilling to talk. I eventually found myself at the highest part of the complex, stood in front of one of the larger temples. It had started to drizzle with rain and it all felt like a bit of an anti-climax. A group of local people emerged from one of the outhouses and peered over my shoulder at the copies of the old Rock photographs of the place. The pictures barely rated a murmur, and when I asked one of the older men in the group about the pictures he just said "kanguo-le" - "We've seen them before."


I don't know what I'd expected to find at Choni, but this was quite underwhelming. I'd known that the original buildings would no longer be there - Rock himself had heard that the monastery had been almost completely destroyed after his departure by Muslim forces during the sectarian fighting of the late 1920s. According to Rock's biography, Prince Yang of Choni had abducted, raped and murdered some women related to the Muslim General Ma. In retaliation, the Muslim forces had ransacked Choni and slaughtered many of the locals. Prince Yang escaped the killings, but when he returned to take up residence at his yamen in 1928 he was set upon by his on servants and lynched in a nearby riverbed. Well, that was one version of his sticky end - I was to hear another version later in the day.

It was mid afternoon when I trudged back down the hill in the rain towards the town centre. I was hungry and was also anxious to find somewhere to rest up. After devouring a tray of steaming xiaolongbao in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant I walked into the modern town square - complete with massive video screen - and entered what I thought was the main hotel for Choni. It was a mistake. The stark interior appeared to be a deserted office complex. A man emerged from a side doorway and asked tersely what I wanted. When I said a room, he just gestured in that Chinese way with his lips and chin that this was next door. When I re-emerged into the daylight outside I read the sign and realised that I had just been trying to check in to the town's Communist Party Headquarters.



The hotel was actually next door, but I didn't even get chance to check in. At the reception I had just asked the female clerk for a room when I was approached by two young uniformed cops and a humourless-looking Chinese guy in a suit. One of the cops ostentatiously showed me his official badge in a leather wallet, and held it under my nose for my obvious perusal, as if to emphasise that there was no possibility that he might be an imposter. Then he uttered one word in English: "Passport." As the guy in the suit leafed through my passport, I was politely ushered to sit in one of the voluminous leather couches nearby. Without any prompting, I launched into Chinese, to make an explanation of what I was doing there.

I told them I was a tourist and that I had just come to visit the Choni monastery and take some photos because I had seen some pictures of how scenic it was in an old magazine. I took out the pictures of Rock to show them. The cops' stiff and formal attitude loosened a little when they heard me speak Chinese, and they gave me the almost reflex compliment for a putonghua-speaking laowai: "You speak Chinese so well". I babbled on, telling them that I was just here for the day and planning to leave the next day to go back to Lanzhou. "How did you get here?" they asked. When I said I had come on the bus from Xiahe, they frowned and corrected me - "You mean from Hezuo?". I said yes, and told them how I had swapped buses there. This did not compute, and I was told that "foreigners are not allowed to travel on the bus from Hezuo to Choni." I could only presume that the bus station in Hezuo had been instructed not to sell Choni bus tickets to foreigners, and that I had evaded this by jumping on the bus as it left town.

I made what I hoped sounded like a sincere and humble apology and promised that I would leave town as soon as possible. I showed them my return bus ticket that I had bought for the next day. Seeing all my camera gear, the older man in a suit asked if I was a journalist. I said no, and that I was a pharmacist - which was not untrue in that I had trained as one. He walked off with my passport and left me in an awkward silence with the two young cops.

Choni (Zhuoni), Gansu

I was feeling a bit nervous and my mind was racing through the possibilities of what might happen to me. Arrest? Put in a cell? A fine? Deported to Lanzhou? The one thing I really dreaded was having my rolls of film confiscated, and I cursed myself for not concealing them. I continued babbling on, trying to reassure them that I was just a regular tourist. I told them that I had just arrived in China from Australia and had already visited the big monastery at Xiahe, and therefore assumed there was no problem in coming to see the smaller monastery at Choni. One of the cops said that I was not able to visit Choni because it was ... he struggled a moment for the right word ... "sensitive". Speaking in an official tone he said that due to the current situation relating to minorities, it was not safe for me to be there.

The older cop returned with my passport, which he had photocopied, but he didn't give the passport back. He repeated the question about how I had got to Choni, and I repeated the answer I had already given. He then asked again whether I was a journalist, and I repeated that I was a pharmacist. He then pulled out what looked like an iPhone and tapped something on the screen. He showed it to me and it was a Google search on my name. The first entry was of the medical newsletter website that I worked for, and my title "Michael Woodhead - Editor". "Is this you?" he asked. I could hardly deny it - it had my photo there. I mumbled something about being a pharmacist who worked for a medical information service, but I could see they had already made up their minds. "Zou!" (Let's go!).

Choni (Zhuoni), Gansu

I didn't ask where we were going, but just accompanied them out of the building and along the street, one cop on either side of me. One of them solicitously insisted on carrying my backpack. I was taken into a courtyard next to the Party HQ and we entered an unmarked building that had a similar arrangement of corridors and apparently deserted offices. A police station? Or Party offices? Up the stairwell to the second floor, I was ushered into a room with a leather sofa, a coffee table and a couple of chairs. It could have been a doctor's waiting room. And there I was left to stay for the remainder of the day, with the two young cops for company. When I asked what was going on I was again told that "foreigners were not allowed in Choni" and my situation "was under consideration by the relevant authorities."

The older cop had disappeared with my passport again, and I was brought a cup of green tea and told to "rest a while". And there I "rested" for the remainder of the afternoon. After the initial shock of being detained had worn off, it was very tedious. Outside there was a constant hammering and crashing from a construction site, but otherwise there was nothing to do. I tried chatting to the two cops, but their thick local accents made it difficult for me to understand what they were saying. They were polite and friendly, but a little distant. To try break the ice a bit more, I told them a bit about myself and my family, how I was married and had two kids and we often visited China to see our Chinese relatives. In turn, they asked me what Sydney was like, and a few questions that revealed how little they knew about the outside world. Did we eat rice every day in Australia? Do they have many Chinese in Australia? And what kind of cars did the police drive in Australia?

Huofo a Living Buddha in Gansu province, 1927

All this time the door was always open, but it was quite obvious that I wasn't going anywhere. I tried to pass the time by pacing the room, looking out the window at the builders and then reading a bit of my Eric Newby book, Love and War in the Apennines (in which he had to work out how to pass many long hours in captivity). Late in the afternoon, I asked the cops if they were hungry. As if the thought had just occurred to them, they turned the question back on me - Was I hungry? Would I like to go out and eat something? When I said yes, they simply replied "OK - let's go ..." and we headed out and back downstairs. It was as if they were making it all up as they went along.

Not knowing how this would all pan out, and not wanting to push my luck, I suggested the first restaurant that I saw on the street outside, which inevitably was a Lanzhou beef noodle place. I went in and ordered the standard bowl of noodles from the Muslim chef-owner, but the cops didn't have anything. They just sat around as I ate, and said the same things that all Chinese do when around a foreigner eating. "Oh, you can use chopsticks! What do you think of our Chinese dishes? Nice? Can you stomach them?"

On our return to the 'waiting room' in the government building we were met at the door by the plain clothes cop. He returned my passport and just stated the obvious. "Tomorrow you are taking the bus to Lanzhou." I wasn't sure if this was a question or an order, so I just replied "Yes".

Choni (Zhuoni), Gansu

He then said vaguely that I could rest where we were and take the Lanzhou bus in the morning - it departed at 6am. One of the cops took me down the corridor to a smaller corner room that had a single bed with a bed roll, a chair and a table on which was a massive TV that seemed to take up half the room space. Down the corridor was a poky bathroom and squat toilet. Next door to me was a similar room with an earthy middle aged guy wearing a tatty suit in residence. He seemed to be the caretaker/doorman. His room also had a kettle and he spent most of the evening watching TV, smoking and cracking melon seeds. The two cops said they were going to leave me there, but first they would have to take my photo. I assumed they meant I would have a mugshot taken for their records, but instead they both pulled out their smartphones and took cheesy self-portraits of the three of us, instructing me to say "cheese" each time. One of them gave me the parting advice to "go to sleep early, you have an early start." The other added that I should drink more kaishui because I probably wasn't accustomed to the high altitude.

And so it was that I was apparently left to my own devices in the room. Was I still in detention or could I go out if I wished? I wasn't going to try find out. I turned on the TV and surfed the usual range of channels, but soon got bored of the Women's Channel, the Army Channel, the Kid's Channel and the Learn American-accented Chinglish channel. There seemed to be more ads than programmes. Then I decided to take the cops' advice and drink some water, but the flask in my room was empty. I went next door to ask the caretaker if he knew where I could get hot water and he jumped up to get me a filled flask from the several he had arrayed in the corner of his room - as if having a foreigner to live next door was the most normal thing in the world.

He asked the usual questions that I got asked all the time by Chinese when on the road in China. Where was I from? Was I here travelling? Was I alone? How long had I been in China?

I told him that I had come to see the monastery because I had been inspired by seeing pictures of it in the old days. He seemed puzzled as to why anybody would come all this way to see Choni monastery, and said that Labrang (Xiahe) monastery was "more fun" to visit. I told him that I had heard about the old Prince of Choni and that I had hoped to visit his old yamen or quarters. The caretaker then became quite animated and started telling me that there was now a memorial in town to the old Tusi. His old mansion had been turned into a primary school, he said, and there was a big memorial built there.


I told him how Joseph Rock has lived in the area for two years, but the caretaker had never heard about Rock and didn't seem interested. Instead, he said the "Choni Tusi" had become a hero of the Red Marchers because he had aided them when they had passed though the area in the 1930s. That made me stop and think - because this contradicted what Rock's biographer had said about the Prince of Choni being killed in 1928. The caretaker then recounted to me the story as if it had been told many times before, almost like an official history.

He said the Prince of Choni had been warned by his Chinese mentors in Lanzhou to be on the lookout for the arrival of the Red Army marchers in the early 1930s. The Chinese warlords in Lanzhou were affiliated with the Kuomintang (KMT) anti-communist Nationalists and wanted to prevent the Long Marchers moving north through a narrow defile called Lazikou near Choni. The Long Marchers had already won a victory by capturing the Luding Bridge from KMT forces in the now legendary battle that enabled them to cross the Dadu River and escape entrapment. The next barrier that Mao and his marchers faced after the Snowy Mountains was gaining access to the grasslands via Lazikou. According to the caretaker, the Choni Prince had been told to gather his local Tebbu Tibetan fighters and use them to help block the Lazikou gorge at a narrow bridge over a river. The steep-sided Lazikou gorge was a great obstacle and could easily be defended against thousands by just a few hundred armed men.

However, the Long Marchers such as Mao and his army chief Peng Dehuai had good intelligence about the Lazikou pass and its would-be defenders. They sent runners ahead with letters to the Choni Prince, saying that they were just passing through and would not occupy Choni or make any demands on the local people and their resources. The envoys stressed that the Long Marchers were an anti-Japanese force, and a friend of all the minority peoples.

Whether through patriotism or political calculation, the Choni Prince decided to defy his KMT sponsors and side with the Long Marchers and allow them passage through the Lazikou gorge. He instructed the Tebbu Tibetans to assist the Long Marchers and act as guides. The Red soldiers still faced a tough battle at Lazikou against KMT forces, but with the help of Choni Prince's guides they were able to outflank the defenders and make a breakthrough and eventually reach the Gansu grasslands and go beyond to establish their new revolutionary base in the loess caves of Yanan.

The general commanding the local KMT forces was humiliated by the defeat at Lazikou and would exact his revenge on the Prince of Choni for his treachery. According to the caretaker, several years later, after the Long Marchers had passed through and KMT control was re-asserted, the general returned to Choni and attacked the Prince's compound. The Choni Prince was captured and executed, but his son managed to escape.

When I asked what happened to the Prince of Choni's son, the caretaker said he became the new tusi until the Liberation, when his father, the late Prince, was declared a revolutionary martyr by none other than Zhou Enlai himself. Hence the local memorial. I found it grimly ironic that the Han Chinese authorities portray the non-violent Dalai Lama as an evil serpent, and condemn the 'old' Tibetan society as feudal and barbaric, citing examples of child sacrifices and serfdom. And yet here in Choni they put up memorials to the despotic local 'Prince' who had raped and murdered women and brutally taxed and oppressed the local people. I was later to see similar memorials to the savage Muslim leader General Ma Pufang in Xining. In China, political expediency can turn monsters into masters - and vice versa.

Interestingly, I also learned form the caretaker that the grandson of the Choni Prince had also grown up in the area, become a magistrate and was still alive and carrying on the family tradition, he added.

So it seemed that for once, the visit of Joseph Rock to an area and his acquaintance with local nobles was just a footnote in local history rather than a defining moment as it had been for his Shangri-La inspiring travels in Yunnan and Sichuan.

I retired to my room and tried to sleep, even though the construction hammers on the building site outside my window continued to clang until late into the night. I was worried that I would sleep in and miss the bus out of town but I needn't have worried. In the early hours I was woken by a young Tibetan woman night clerk who rapped on the door at 5am. I was ready to within a few minutes, but oddly found I had no escort. The young woman sleepily - and with a hint of sullen resentment at being woken so early - unlocked the thick bike padlock chain around the handles of the main glass doors of the building and released me like a bird into the cold dark morning of Choni.


I made my own way down the main street towards the bus station, humming to myself and wondering what would happen if I turned round and made a last visit to the monastery. Would anyone be watching to stop me? The streets were deserted except for a couple of old ladies sweeping up dust with those crude stick-and-branch Chinese sweeping brushes. I bade them a hearty "good morning" in English and strode across the bridge to the waiting bus. Already a few would be passengers were stood around the locked and darkened bus, stamping their feet and smoking in the nippy morning air.

They looked at me with curiosity and I smiled back stupidly, happy to be "out of jail". At five to six the driver strode up, opened the bus door and started the engine. I took my place on the half empty bus, which suddenly filled to capacity with babbling passengers who seemed to come out of nowhere at the very last minute. I looked out of the grimy window at Choni as the sky just started to lighten. A woman came down the aisle to check everyone's tickets, and then when I turned again to look out of the window, there was a tiny police van pulled up next to the bus with my two cop friends stood next to it. They didn't acknowledge me, but as the bus pulled out I looked back and saw them still stood there, watching my departure from Choni.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Seeking the Mountains of Mystery" Part 2: Labrang (Xiahe)

Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

I arrived by bus in Labrang on a sunny but cool Saturday morning in May and the local Tibetans and Hui Muslims seemed to be getting along just fine. A bit of an improvement on Rock's time, when he arrived just after a bloody battle between the local Tibetan nomads and the Sining Muslims for control of the town. The Muslims had won:

"Frightful indeed was the aspect of Labrang after the fight. One hundred and fifty four Tibetan heads were strung about the walls of the Moslem garrison like a garland of flowers. Heads of young girls and children decorated posts in front of the barracks. The Moslem riders galloped about town, each with 10 or 15 human heads tied to his saddle..."

Rock explained that the Tibetans were fiercesome fighters but disorganised. They had charged the Moslems troops on horseback, impaling many of them with long lances "like men spearing frogs". But they were outnumbered and defeated by the Moslems, who were more disciplined and better trained. When they caught any Tibetans, they hung them up by their thumbs, disembowelled them alive "and their abdominal cavities were then filled with hot stones."

But in 2012, the former enemies seemed to have forgotten their differences. The Hui were indistinguishable from the Han Chinese, wearing modern clothes with just a skullcap or headscarf to show their faith. They were the proprietors of many of the beef noodle shops that lined the single street of modern day Xiahe. The Tibetans, however, were flamboyantly different. The young men swaggered along the main street, sporting chubas wrapped around their waists and shoulder length hair. Tibetan women wore long skirts and cowboy hats. Both males and females wore scarves around their mouths and noses, presumably to ward off the ever present dust, not to mention the chill wind. In some parts of town it was if you had stepped into a live fancy dress competition, with almost everyone living up to the cliched ethnic stereotypes for the cameras - Tibetan cowboys and kids with shiny red cheeks alongside austere Muslim old men in Mao suits and old fashioned ground glass round spectacles.

I had not been sure whether I would be able to visit Xiahe. As one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China, I had worried that it might be caught up in the recent waves of Tibetan protests and self immolations. But I was able to buy a ticket for the four hour bus ride from Lanzhou with no problems, and there didn't seem to be any obvious tension on the streets or signs of any additional police presence presence.

And so after checking in to the Baoma Hotel, I walked to the end of the road and entered the massive monastery complex to have a look around.When Rock got to take a closer look at Labrang during more settled times, he was awed by its size and the sheer number of monks in residence. He took photos in the 30 large buildings that served as chanting halls for the 5000 monks, and he marvelled at the huge kitchens with their five large iron kettles designed to make butter and and rice gruel to feed thousands at one sitting. He was less impressed by the dirtiness and squalid living conditions of the monastery and what he perceived as ignorance of the the Tibetan monks. He noted that the floors were caked in spilled rice gruel and butter tramped hard underfoot and now "many inches thick." And while the Abbott who welcomed him appeared wealthy, he was almost child-like in his ignorance of the outside world. The head lama told Rock how he knew there were people with the heads of dogs and cattle living in foreign countries "Our books tell of such people ..." He also told Rock that of course the world was flat, and the sun disappeared behind a big mountain that was situated at the centre of the earth.

In modern times, the Abbott no longer lived at Labrang, but was said to have an official residence in nearby Lanzhou, some four hours drive distant. And despite its size and hundreds of monks, the monastery seemed to be a little subdued. Perhaps it was because many of the "Tibetan' monks were not Tibetans, but ethnic Chinese. I overheard a few monks talking and had been surprised by their fluent colloquial mandarin. At first I presumed this was because they lived in close proximity to a modern city like Lanzhou. Then when I looked at them more closely, I realised they were Han Chinese.

As I toured the monastery complex I recognised a few of the larger buildings from Rock's pictures. Many of the smaller buildings were more recent additions or renovations, and the extensive living quarters for the monks now had satellite TV dishes ad a similar mirror-tiled satellite dish contraption that appeared to be used for making boiling water. And like the rest of China, much of Labrang appeared to be a work in progress, with older buildings being torn down and newer ones being built. The sound of modern Labrang was not the conch shell or trumpet, but the hammering of wood and iron, and the put put of the tractor carrying bricks and cement.

I was later to read that the Chinese government has just approved a massive new re-building program for Labrang, which would provide for renovation of many of the temples. This was, according to an Indian journalist writing in The Hindu, part of the PRC government's carrot and stick approach to preserving harmony and stability on the Qing-Zang (Qinghai-Tibet) plateau and winning the hearts and minds of the Tibetan Buddhists. It wasn't entirely successful. In a local cafe, I was accosted by a very laid back monk 'with attitude' who spoke halting English. He had learned the language, he told me, during the couple of years he had spent in India, where he had gone to study Tibetan Buddhism and pay a visit to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. I hadn't wanted to broach the subject of Tibetan politics with the locals I met on this trip, and I kept my answers neutral and to the minimum as the young Tibetan posed question after question about how Australia was independent and how he knew many Tibetan exiles who had moved on to places in Canada, Switzerland and Australia.

I took a clockwise walk around the circular kora circuit of the monastery, walking alongside many Tibetan pilgrims. Some were obviously just there for the day - mums and dads with their kids who had come by car or motorbike. But others were more devout - old grannies who shuffled along and young hardcore pilgrims who were prostrating themselves on the ground every two or three steps, which would seem to take them more than a day to complete the 3km circuit. The path climbed into the hills to the north of the monastery and I got spectacular views over the whole complex - and of the more mundane concrete sprawl of Xiahe beyond. Across the valley and over the Sang Chu river there was the hillside covered with trees - " a forest of fir and spruce. It is of miraculous origin, say tradition. Long ago a famous monk, the founder of Labrang, got a haircut. His hair, scattered over the hillside, took root and produced this fine forest," according to Rock. This appeared to be the vantage point from where Rock had taken his panoramic photographs of the monastery, but I found it was now difficult to get there.

The next day, after the usual fitful high altitude sleep, constantly waking up with a dry mouth (Labrang is 8,600 feet above sea level) I tramped out in the early morning to try ascend the hillside. However,a the new road running through the valley had been carved out of the hillside, which left a steep cutting that was impossible to climb up. There was a new condominium block that was being constructed on the hillside with no doubt idyllic views over the monastery, but I was waved away by the construction workers. So I ended up at the big square thanka display area further down the road, the tourist viewing point overlooking the big golden pagoda. While most people took in the view and turned back here, I carried on up a dirt track to try climb the much higher ridge to the south of the monastery. At first, it was a pleasant stroll through rolling grassland. I was soon all alone and I spotted a couple of marmots, whistling and rushing to their burrows. Rock had seen marmots during his trek over the grasslands and recounted how his dog ran itself ragged chased them, sometimes catching them, and sometimes getting a nasty nip from their sharp teeth.

As I ascended the grassy ridge the incline got steeper and steeper, but I seemed to be no nearer getting an unobstructed view of the monastery. It was only when I reached the summit ridge that I realised why nobody came up here - the view was blocked by the trees of the sacred forest! What a waste of a morning! And then I also had to face a much more scary descent down a steep gradient, which hadn't seemed half as steep on the way up. I was glad to get down in one piece.

I spent another lazy afternoon in sunny Xiahe, idling in the Nomad Cafe and watching the street life. Tibetans seemed to like to sit in cafes too - sipping butter tea and chatting away. I chatted to the owner of the Overseas Tibetan Hotel and asked about how to get to Choni. No direct buses, she told me - but get an early bus to Hezuo (Gannan) and you can get a Choni bus from there, she said. And so on to the next part of my quest. PS: I didn't do any direct "then and now" comparison pictures at Labrang. However, the building (and tree) in the background of the photo below taken by Rock in 1925 appears to be still standing, as seen in the picture at the bottom.

Labrang in 1925

Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Seeking the Mountains of Mystery" - Part 1

Of all the places that Joseph Rock visited, I was least enthusiastic about going to Choni monastery and following in his footsteps across Gansu and Qinghai to see the mountain of Amnye Machen. Why? On the face of it, his description of his two year sojourn in the area from 1925-26 sounds fantastical and is almost unbelievably eventful. The National Geographic article reads like something from a Boys Own adventure. He befriends a local prince and takes up residence in his little principality of Choni. A local war rages in the district between Tibetans and Muslims, with bodies disembowelled and decapitated heads displayed on the town walls. He visits nearby monasteries to see the "Devil Dancers" and falls under the spell of sorcerers to experience a weird and disturbing trance.

And ultimately he embarks an epic six month journey on horseback across unexplored grasslands and lives among the primitive but noble Tibetan nomads clans who have never before seen a white man. He plays them Caruso and La Boheme on the gramophone and shares their wormy food. They warn him about their murderous neighbours, the Ngoloks, who do not permit outsiders to stray into their territory, and yet he presses on regardless and eventually gets a glimpse of the mighty peak, which he believes to be as high as Everest. And on his travels he is the first to see the epic canyons of the upper reaches of the Yellow River, and he stays in remote monasteries where life has barely changed since the time of Marco Polo - the lamas keep scores of clocks ticking away in one room and believe that men in foreign countries have the heads of dogs.

So why was I not so keen on exploring this area? Well partly due to the landscape. Unlike his travels in Yunnan and Sichuan, most of the areas he traversed were scenically and botanically dull. Joseph Rock himself was frank about the dreariness of the grasslands and their lack of flora and fauna. Unlike the valleys and forests of Yunnan and Sichuan, the Qinghai plateau was relatively barren - there were few settlements and the only people he encountered were yak herding nomads and traders plying caravans across the high plateau. And even Choni, the place he chose as a base for his two years spent botanising in Gansu and Qinghai, seemed very ordinary. A small town characterised only by its monastery and a few rice terraces. If it was a dull backwater in 1925, what would it be like in the 21st century with the advent of cars and concrete? I imagined it to be just another dismal Chinese small town. But for the sake of completeness, I felt obliged to check out what Choni was now like.

In 1925 it had been a thriving monastic community, with hundreds of monks in residence, and a cultural and religious centre for the Tibetans of Gansu province. Rock described the Choni ceremonies and festivals in great detail - and I was curious to see what had become of this once great monastery. But I was really more interested in getting to the smaller and more scenic monastery town of Radja in Qinghai, which he used as a jumping off point for his incursions into Ngolok territory around Amnye Machen. The monastery seemed to be situated in a grand setting, at the base of some high cliffs on the banks of the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

And so it was that I flew into Lanzhou in early May of 2012, exactly 86 years after Rock made his visit, and a year later than I had originally planned. I had been all set to go in mid 2011, but just a few days before departure I had a collision with a car while riding my pushbike home from work. I sustained complicated fractures of my leg and ankle that left me on crutches for three months, and after much physiotherapy only still slowly recovering eight months later. I was left with a limp and metal screws in my knee and ankle that set off the metal detectors when passing through the airport security check - I had to roll up the leg of my pants and show the scar to the girl with the metal detector wand. My gammy knee meant I was not fit to do any serious trekking, but I envisaged that most of the trip would involve travel on buses, with perhaps some day walks and overnight stays in remote areas.

I flew into Lanzhou via Guangzhou and was unpleasantly surprised by the level of culture shock I experienced. After my many visits to China I had presumed that it would almost be a second home for me by now, and was rather overconfident when I hopped on the airport shuttle bus to travel the 70km into what some have described as one of the most polluted cities in China. Deposited in the crowded and noisy downtown area at dusk, I struggled to get my bearings and to find a taxi to take me to the Friendship Hotel. This was the recommended cheapo hotel in the travel guides, but despite all my homework researching where to stay, I found that it had shut down several months previously. I only discovered this after I had abandoned my fruitless quest for a taxi (I hadn't realised there was a taxi strike on) and taken a long ride stood up on a crowded bus across town to the western outskirts. Lanzhou was not a tourist city and I felt intimidated and lonely as I stood on the dark street where my hotel should have been. I tried a few other hotels nearby but got the standard response of "bu she wai" - we're not allowed to accept foreigners. After trudging round five hotels and guesthouses, I eventually got lucky when the old geezer manning the desk of the rather shoddy and empty Electric Company Hotel took pity on me and allowed me stay unofficially, without registering. Cash in hand and be gone in the morning.

After dumping my bag and washing my face, I hurried out again to the western bus station to see if I could buy tickets for Labrang the following day. No luck. The bus station proved to be much further away than it appeared on my photocopied LP map, and by the time I arrived it was shuttered and dark, closed for the evening. I would just have to try first thing in the morning. I ambled back along the dark and dusty streets and felt like I had gone back in time to 1990s China. Everything was shoddy and crude, the locals were still in the habit of hoicking and spitting, and they stared. The Lanzhou air was thick with smog and dust, and the cars sounded their horns in an almost continuous cacophany of white noise. Just like the old China. The novel thing about Lanzhou was its highly visible Muslim population. These were ethnic Han "Hui" Muslims rather than the Uighurs or Xinjiang, but they were still distinctly different from Chinese I had seen elsewhere. The man had white skullcaps and the women covered their hair with a loose scarf. Not exactly Taliban country, but this quiet but firm assertion of separate identity was something I had not encountered in Han China before.

I went back to the hotel to spend the first of what was to be many lonely nights with only Chinese TV for company. I had forgotten how isolating and solitary feeling it can be in China when you are travelling alone in China. And I also quickly realised that my four paperback books were unlikely to last for the two weeks of travel I had planned. I was reluctant to start reading them - I would have to ration myself to two or three chapters a day! So instead I pulled out all the maps and documents I had assembled for this trip and started to read again about Joseph Rock's travels in 1925.

At that time, Rock had already had some success in plant collecting in China on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture. He had sent back tens of thousands of plant samples for the to the Smithsonian Museum from his travels around Yunnan and in particular from his forays to the kingdom of Muli and had thus made a name for himself as one of the leading international plant collectors of the day. He had obviously made a good impression on the elderly Charles S. Sargent, director of the Harvard's Arnold Aboretum, who commissioned him to mount a three year expedition to Qinghai on behalf of the Aboretum. The Boston-based botanical institute had plenty of plant samples from temperate Sichuan and Yunnan, and now they wanted more hardy cooler climate plant specimens from further north that might be more suited to the New England conditions.

Rock was given a budget of $14,000 for the first year. To put that in context, it was more than ten times the average US salary of $1200 a year, at a time when a new Ford would cost $300. In today's terms, he was being paid half a million dollars to explore remote areas of China, where the US dollar could buy an awful lot more than it could in Boston or Washington DC. No wonder he could afford to hire twenty soldiers at a time to act as bodyguards, not to mention his retinue of ten Naxi 'boy' assistants to do his cooking, domestic chores and to perform the menial tasks of plant collecting such as sorting, drying and packing specimens.

The China that Rock was travelling in was a strange, anarchic place in 1925. The Qing dynasty had been overthrown in 1911 and it was a time of warlords, such as Yuan Shikai who wielded power in Beijing. Chiang Kai Shek had yet to mount his 'northern expedition' to exert control of China on behalf of the Kuomintang, and in western China it was the Muslim Ma clan whose armies held sway over Xining and arts of Qinghai. They were in constant conflict with a deposed Beijing warlord, Feng Yuxiang, the so-called "Christian general" whose troops controlled Lanzhou and Gansu. At the same time, the local Tibetans were answerable to none of these warlords. In these borderlands they lived side by side with Hui Muslims and fought bloody battles with Muslim forces and bandits for control of monastery towns such Labrang.

As a foreigner, Rock would in theory still enjoy the benefit of "exta-territoriality" by which foreigners were to be protected and not subject to Chinese law. In practice, much of the territory outside the cities was lawless and subject to attacks by bandits, renegade soldiers and armed gangs of local tribesmen. Rock was justified in filling his travel articles with tales of woe about the dangers of roaming bandits. While he escaped unharmed from several encounters with bands of thieves, a one-time American travelling companion and translator was less fortunate. Rock could speak fluent Chinese but not Tibetan. He therefore took along an American missionary, William E. Simspon, who had been trying to spread the word among the Tibetans of Labrang, to act as translator for his Amnye Machen trip. The arrangement did not last long because Rock had little time for missionaries and quickly came to despise Simpson for being too soft and a do-gooder. Simpson returned to his proselytising, but was murdered several years later, in 1932, by renegade Muslim soldiers who hijacked a vehicle he was travelling in to Lanzhou.

W.E. Simpson (3rd from left), shortly before his murder in 1932

Nevertheless, Rock was able to mount a well-financed, well-equipped long-term expedition to lawless and virtually unexplored Qinghai in 1925. Eighty six years later, I was sat in a Lanzhou hotel room with 3000 RMB and a small backpack in which I carried little more than a change of clothes and lots of old camera gear. This looked like it was going to be my last trip with film cameras. While the rest of the world had moved on to digital, I was still attached to my film-using Leicas and Rolleiflex. For this trip I had brought along a sturdy Leica R3 SLR and a selection of 28mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses. They weighed a ton. But pride of place went to my Rolleiflex 3.5F, the camera that produced gorgeous images with 120 slide film. I had brought along about 40 rolls each of 35mm and 120 Kodak Ektachrome colour slide film. A few days before my departure, Kodak announced that they were discontinuing all slide film. So this would be the end of an era. [To be continued] ...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Radja monastery, Qinghai: 1925 and 2012

I'm now in the process of writing up my chapter on Choni and Radja monasteries, comparing what I saw and experienced with Joseph Rock's account of his 1925-26 expedition as described in "Seeking the Mountains of Mystery" in the National Geographic (Feb 1930). It took him four years between visit and write up - I hope to be a little more timely than that.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Choni monastery, Gansu

Choni monastery, Gansu, originally uploaded by jiulong.

I didn't spend long at Choni - it was a bit of a mundane place and the monastery was like a ghost town/museum - few monks in evidence. Nothing like what it must have been in its heyday. Besides, I was apprehended by the PSB and kicked out of town within an hour of arriving - luckily I had gone straight to the monastery to take a few pics first!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Just back from Radja ...

Well I made it! Two weeks in Gansu and Qinghai, during which time I managed to get to Choni (Zhuoni), Labrang (Xiahe) and Radja (Lajia - see old pic above) monasteries. I only managed to spend 30 minutes looking around Choni before I was nabbed by the local PSB, who came knocking on the door of my hotel and subsequently deported me from the county! But it was long enough to take some before and after pictures (they didn't realise I had already visited the monastery - they thought I had just got off the bus) - and to see that the place is now pretty much just a ghost town. The monastery was all but deserted, with just a few monks in residence, and had none of the vibrancy of Labrang or Kumbum. I was booted out because of the 'sensitivity' over Tibetan self immolations. Which is weird because there had been recentdisturbances at Radja (Lajia), which I was able to visit quite freely, in full view of the local cops. Radja was great - a very vibrant little monastery community in a spectacular setting, and the monks and locals were very friendly (possibly because many had spent time in India and a few could speak English). Also, they had a great locally-run independent school set up by Tibetans for Golok people there. Anyway, I will report more once I have my pictures developed.