Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To Amnyi Machen - via Ragya monastery


Joseph Rock starts off his article about his 1926 expedition to the 'mountains of mystery' - the Amnye Machen peaks - with the now familiar litany of outlandish and colourful claims. It is a remote and unexplored region, he writes, forgotten by time and peopled by warlike and nomadic Tibetan bandit tribes who know nothing of the outside world. An arduous journey across bleak grasslands is needed to reach this unknown mountain, which he says is 28,000 feet high - "almost as high as Everest" (it is actually only about 25,000 feet in height).

His article continues in this vein for several pages, perhaps to make up for the fact that he achieved so little. His generously-funded and extravagantly mounted expedition did not get anywhere near the mountain, despite two years of trying. After floundering about in the gorges and canyons of the upper reaches of the Yellow valley, Rock only managed to get a glimpse of the Amnye Machen range from a distant mountain pass 30 miles away. This seems especially odd to the modern reader as these days the mountain is easily accessible and can be circumambulated in a few days by backpackers. The terrain in the immediate vicinity of the mountain is bleak but poses no particular deterrent to the competent and prepared traveller. So why did Rock spend so long faffing around in the labyrinths of the Yellow river gorges - especially (as he admits himself) the area is so disappointing from a plant collector's point of view?


Perhaps it is easy with the benefit of hindsight and the images of Google Earth at one's fingertips, to forget how difficult it must have been to approach Amnye Machen in the 1920s. The area had been visited earlier by several western and Russian explorers, but it was still very much an unknown region. The main barrier to any curious outsider must have been the hostile Ngolok tribes who lived in the area and who violently repelled any intrusions by outsiders. And yet Rock had already dealt with a similar situation when trying to visit his so-called "Holy Mountains of the Outlaws", the Konkaling mountains near Muli. This time however, the scale of the country was much greater, and his friendship with the wily Prince of Choni was of little use because the prince held no influence over the distant Ngoloks in another province.

Nevertheless, Rock took the advice of the Choni prince, who told him that the best way to approach the Amnye Machen mountain would be via the small monastery of Ragya (or 'Radja' as Rock calls it) on the upper reaches of the Yellow river.

Rock expedition

With a commission and a large cheque from the Arnold Aboretum to conduct a comprehensive plant hunting expedition in the botanical 'virgin territory' of Amnye Machen, Rock set off in the spring of 1926. He didn't travel lightly. In addition to his 12 Naxi helpers, he had 34 mules and 60 yaks carrying five months of supplies. As if this wasn't enough, he also hired a mob of surly and cantankerous local Tibetan horsemen, known as 'Sokwo Arik' to act as a bodyguard on his journey across the grasslands from Labrang to Ragya.


This was also one of the few trips on which Rock took along another westerner. Although he doesn't mention him by name, Rock brought along the American missionary William Simpson "dressed in Tibetan garb", to act as a Tibetan translator. As already mentioned, Simpson had been working as a missionary in the Labrang area, but Rock soon found he disliked the missionary's "do gooder" ways and lack of firmness with the natives.

Their journey from Labrang to Ragya took them westwards over bleak and boggy grasslands, peopled only by a few itinerant nomads living in black yak hair tents. Rock's photographs portray the Tibetan nomads as wild and magnificent people, but in his writings he dismisses them as ignorant, superstitious and filthy.

On one occasion he looked on with disgust as an old woman pulled out a dirty bowl for him from on top of a heap of dung, wiped it with her filthy fingers and greasy clothes and then filled it with a hunk of yak butter that had the imprints of many other soiled fingernails scraped into it. Rock made his excuses to leave by saying that he had to take photographs outside.


According to Rock, this was a land that time had passed by - the local people had never seen a car or could conceive of a train. They had no concept of electricity or modern appliances and believed the world was flat. Things had not changed since the time of Marco Polo, he wrote. He played them records by Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba and they marvelled at the music produced by the "Urussu" (Russian) - their local word for all foreigners.


The landscape they travelled across was 'dreary' and disappointing, not just to the eye but also from a botanical perspective. So instead of plants, Rock noted the many types of wildlife in the region - marmots and pheasants, blue sheep and rabbits. There were tame birds that had never learned to be afraid of man. But there were also wolves, following the expedition caravan at a safe distance and watching them from the ridgelines.


From Labrang they passed through the Sang Chu valley, still littered with the bones of Tibetans slaughtered in a recent battle with the Muslims. Traversing grasslands dotted with the black tents of nomads, they crossed a 13,000 foot high pass - in a blizzard in June - to descend towards the Yellow River. The 'unruly' Sokwo bodyguard were then paid off to return to Labrang, "without a word of farewell or the slightest sign of interest in me".


It is here that Rock makes another "first white man" claim - this time, to be the first to explore the steep canyons of gorges of the Yellow River, which he says are at least 3000 feet deep.

"It gave me a peculiar feeling in this lonely wilderness to be the first to look upon this mighty river flowing through hitherto unknown gorges," he writes.

Yellow river

After exploring several sheer-sided tributary valleys of the Yellow river and killing a pair of eagles ("now in the museum at Harvard"), Rock made a brief stop at a monastery called Dzangar, before continuing upriver to Ragya monastery.

Once again he was both enthralled and disgusted by the extremes of a remote and secluded community. "Few in the outside world know that Radja Gompa exists ...Life here is unbelievably crude ..."

One of the strange things he encountered at Ragya was a room room full of clocks and timepieces collected by the Abbott of the monastery. It reads like a scene from a movie.

"From floor to ceiling, clocks and watches of every description and size were ticking away, each keeping its own time regardless of the actual hour. Clocks struck at various intervals, some in unison, others in quick succession."

Rock added to the collection with the gift of a watch.


After the long journey, Joseph Rock settled in to quarters at the Ragya monastery, and prepared for the next phase of the expedition - the approach to Amnye Machen though Ngolok territory. However, the officials of the monastery warned him against taking his expedition into Ngolok territory, saying the tribes would probably murder them. If he was to go, he must make a quick dash on horseback, before the Ngoloks knew of his presence, they advised.

Rock demurred and asked the lamas to send an envoy with requests to visit - and accompanied with generous gifts for the Ngolok chiefs. He had not come all this way for a brief visit, and he wanted to spend an extended period collecting plants and viewing the mountain. While waiting for a reply from the Ngolok, he explored the area around the monastery - photographing the stupendous cliffs under which it sat, and the tiny hermit residences on the hillside, where lamas lived on nothing but nettle soup.

He observed the daily lives of the lamas and again was scornful of their superstitious and feudal ways. One lama was observed 'printing' Buddha images on the surface of the Yellow river by slapping a board onto the water carved with a sacred image. "He occupied himself in this way for hours," Rock observes drily. Rock also recounts cynically how the Living Buddhas always seemed to be found among the offspring of families of high lamas and officials - how convenient!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A new exhibition of colour photographs by Joseph Rock ...

Exhibition is at the Bulger Gallery, Toronto. Wish I could attend! Thanks to Keith Lyons in Lijiang for the tip.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Kumbum monastery, 1925

Kumbum monastery, 1925, originally uploaded by jiulong.

As witnessed by this photo, Joseph Rock made a visit to Kumbum monastery in September 1925 but it doesn't rate much of a mention in any of his articles in the National Geographic. It's surprising because Kumbum was then one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries in the Tibetan-speaking world. Perhaps it didn't rate a mention because it is so close to 'civilisation' in the form of Xining (then known as Sining) the provincial capital of Qinghai. Kumbum was often the home of the Panchen Lama - then as now the great political (and more pro-Chinese) rival to the Dalai Lama.

Kumbum These days, as the guidebooks note, Kumbum seems to be as much if not more of a museum piece than a real spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is also virtually a suburb of Xining - you can catch a local bus from just near the youth hostel and it takes only about half an hour to get there.
I spent a pleasant morning visiting Kumbum, and even in May it was quite busy with tourists. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant place, and had a fair number of genuine Tibetan pilgrims doing a circuit of the monastery, prostrating themselves all the way.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,

One of the odd things about Kumbum monastery is that it is situated in the middle of what seems to be a predominantly Muslim town. When you get off the bus and walk the half a mile up to the monastery, most of the people you see are Hui Muslims. Anyway, here are a few pictures that I took of Kumbum and the people I saw there.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, This is the main entrance - obviously a work in progress.

Tibetan woman, Kumbum - by Rolleiflex
This woman was one of two Tibetan old women begging outside the main temple. I gave them both five kuai each on the understanding that I could take their portraits, but she was very miserable about the whole thing and the other woman reneged on the deal and buggered off with the money. Bad karma on you, missus.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
This is a picture of the main temple complex. As you can see, much of it is being re-built or refurbished. Note also the many new saplings planted on the hillside above the town.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, This is the view looking down back towards the town, which encroaches right up to the door of the monastery.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
The golden roofs of the monastery are quite striking and stand out from the surrounding gloomy grey landscape.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
You have to pay something like 50 kuai to enter the monastery these days, and for that you get a colourful ticket and a mini-CD (or was it a mini-disc?) to take home and play. Or throw away.

Kumbum There aren't many monks at Kumbum, or at least there don't seem to be many. They are outnumbered by the many visitors. None of whom can be seen in this picture.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
Here's a pilgrim doing her prostrations on the 3km circular track around Kumbum. She was getting a bit cheesed off with me snapping away with the Rolleiflex.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Most of the time I found it quite easy to get people pictures with the Rolleiflex because you don't have to poke a big long SLR telephoto lens into someone's face. The Rolleiflex has a silent shutter and you look down into the camera at the screen so that people often don't realise you are about to take a photo. specially when you're behind them.

Kumbum monastery, near Xining The monks at Taer Si (Kumbum) belong to the 'yellow hat' Gelugpa sect.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, These guys were just sitting down outside one of the Kumbum temples shooting the breeze.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Inside, where it was supposed to be strictly "No Photography", I managed to take this pic with the Rolleiflex - because I had the place to myself.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Time for a Rock-related picture. Offerings on a rock at Kumbum.

Kumbum monastery, near Xining It's odd to see the image of the atheist Marxist 'People's Dictator' Mao used as holy offerings to the sacred Buddhist deity. Nice karma for a guy who ruthlessly suppressed 'superstitions' like this.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Inside the main building the monks chanted and recited their sacred texts.

Kumbum monastery, near Xining Some are chanting, some are plumbing.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Meanwhile, back down in the town, life went on as usual for the Hui Muslim majority. The old guys sat outside the supermarket, passing the time of day.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, The Hui Muslims have a long history of living in Tibetan communities, where they have traditionally taken up the tasks such as butchery that are anathema to sentient-life-sensitive Buddhists.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, I took a hike up the small hill at the head of the monastery valley, but the view wasn't that great from the prayer flags.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Interlude in Xining

The bus from Choni to Lanzhou went through unexpectedly marvellous scenery. I'd thought it would go back the same way as I had come - on the good but boring road via Hezuo. However, I found that instead, the bus took a more direct but uncomfortable route northwards back to Lanzhou over some dirt roads that went over some high passes, into spectacular limestone gorges and also through some interesting Hui Muslim towns.

The first stop was in another grotty small town, known simply as "New Town" and which seemed to be predominantly Muslim. After that the tarmac road deteriorated into a rutted dirt track and the bus trundled along for mile after mile until it went over a high pass and into a limestone gorge similar in appearance to the countryside around Muli in Sichuan. This was the Lotus Mountain (Lianhu Shan) district, and it culminated in a small town called Yeliguan, which was surrounded by steep sided rock walls. The bus threaded along a narrow gorge from here, but I noticed that a tunnel was being bored through the mountain to improve access from Lanzhou to this town, which appeared to be being groomed as a tourism centre.

Emerging from the gorge, we rolled out into a flatter landscape dotted with small Muslim settlements, each with its own distinctive mosque. These Chinese-style mosques all had triple golden crescents jutting from their roofs. It was a straightforward drive back to Lanzhou from here - delayed only by a busy market clogging the road in one of the Muslim towns near Kangle.

Muslim market, Kangle, Gansu

Back in Lanzhou, I found the place quite overwhelming. It was noisy, pushy, crowded and very rough around the edges - quite unlike the more sophisticated and flashy cities of eastern China. Again, the Hui Muslim presence was very marked, and sometimes even made me forget I was in China. I checked into another grubby hotel near the station and bought a soft seat ticket to Xining for the next day.

Xining was a revelation after Lanzhou. Where Lanzhou was oppressive and congested, Xining was light and open. The air felt fresher and everything seemed quite green and new. In fact, it almost had the air of a midwestern US town - this was the Chinese frontier and the Han Chinese here had all moved from the east. The buildings were modern and not very Chinese, and the roads were wide and the traffic flowed freely - quite unlike the congestion and confusion of Lanzhou. I was a bit worried when the train whizzed through the city centre without stopping and continued into the no-man's land of the western suburbs. Then it was announced that the train would be terminating at Xining West station because the central station was being rebuilt. It had only taken a couple of hours or so to make the journey from Lanzhou.

Our train pulled in next to a long distance train that was marked as "Shanghai to Lhasa". The very idea made my mind boggle. Could Joseph Rock and his contemporaries ever have imagined there would ever be a rail link between Shanghai, the urbane "Paris of the Orient" on the Pacific, and the remote Lhasa, 'forbidden city" on the roof of the world in the Himalayas? I noted that the carriage opposite me was a hard seat. Who would ride a hard seat from Shanghai to Lhasa - and how long would that take?

Xining 西宁 Qinghai

Everything about Xining seemed to be positive. The people seemed open, friendly and down to earth. I had an honest taxi driver take me to the city centre, and I checked in to the wonderful Lete Hostel, situated on the 15th floor of a high rise just south of the town centre. The hostel was run very efficiently and affordably by a young Chinese woman who had worked in hotels in Switzerland. Something of the Swiss approach must have rubbed off - the hotel was clean and well organised and had a neat little bar-cafe where you could eat her home made pizza and drink a Qingdao beer for only 40 kuai. It was odd to be back among other laowai again. Even more odd was the fact that they all had laptops or iPads and spent all their time gazing at them and tapping on them. This is the "new normal" for travellers in the digital age, but it made it hard to start conversations and chat. When I did get talking to a few other guests, it appeared that most people at the hostel were using Xining as a staging post to get to Lhasa on the train. When I mentioned I was heading down to Amnye Machen nobody had ever heard of it.

I was worried about whether Ragya monastery would be another too-sensitive "closed to foreigners" area like Choni, but had no problem buying a bus ticket to nearby Dawu - apart from a bit of a jostle with the usual would-be queue jumpers. With a couple of days to kill before my departure for Ragya, I took a stroll around the "Muslim quarter" of Xining around the grand mosque. It was an interesting area with varying degrees of adherence to Islamic dress codes. Some young girls wore just a loose headscarf with flashy Chinese clothes, while others wore a veil that covered their mouth and a full length skirt that went right down to the ground. It was interesting to see that Muslim women dressing this way also attracted stares of bemusement and puzzlement from Han Chinese as well.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
And in this way I spent a whole afternoon just mooching round the area near the mosque, people watching, perusing the market and stuffing my face at one of the many great Qingzhen (Muslim) restaurants there.

This is the Dongguan Grand Mosque of Xining, supposedly dating from the 14th century, but mostly built in the 19th century and rebuit as late as the mid-20th century.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
Xining Muslim market Xining Kids at the Xining market

Xining Any old iron?

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
I just love this picture of the little dumpling restaurant at the market which I used as a hide to tryand take candid pictures from the window.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
This was the only picture I was able to get from the cafe window. The guy then came in to the cafe for his lunch and gave me the evil eye.

Xining Chicken in the raw.

Xining Not sure what these are. Something red. Artichokes?

Xining Tea. Lots of it. No teabags.

Xining I always wonder where all this fresh fruit comes from in such an arid part of the world. Where DO they grow pineapples in Qinghai? Or are they imported from tropical Hainan?

This old guy knew how to get about. I could have used a bike like that after walking around Xining all day and getting blistered feet.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
Street hawker. Business a bit quiet.

Bread - as used by the hostel woman to make pizza!

Headwear is a big part of being a Muslim, in China as elsewhere these days.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
One of the things about China is the way people just run their businesses on the path.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
Ditto - metal bashing again.

Thinking of some corny line about chicks hanging out with a guy ...

Xining Muslim scholars heeding the call to midday prayers.

Xining Muslim men near the Grand Mosque at midday.

Xining A pretty typical Xining Muslim family.