Four Tongren Monasteries

We took a local bus from Labrang to Tongren, another Tibetan monastery town. The bus was packed to the brim with mostly Tibetans, filling the aisles and all possible seats. We have noticed they have a strange habit of boarding the bus, taking up all the best seats, then proceeding to be kicked out by ticket holders. It's somewhat annoying, but we suspect that passengers pay less if they pay the drivers directly, who get to pocket the money themselves (a win-win situation for the mostly poor Tibetans). We didn't mind the crammed bus ride, even the strong smell of yak butter emanating from most passengers. We passed on the fresh yak yogurt at the pit stop and witnessed our first snowfall of the year as we crossed over the mountain pass separating Gansu and Qinghai provinces.

A traveler we had met earlier had warned us that Tongren was an ugly Chinese city, but this didn't dissuade us from visiting. He was right, Tongren is an ugly Chinese city. But with a little searching, we were able to find what people came to the area to visit. Six kilometers from town are the Upper and Lower Wutun Monasteries, famous for their thangka art schools. We have come to the obvious conclusion that the less visitors to a monastery, the warmer the welcome you receive. At the upper monastery, we were greeted by a young painting master. He phoned the various temple caretakers and managed to get us into one of them, he was exceedingly apologetic that he couldn't track down the key to the main temple hall. We then had hot yak's milk, Tibetan flat bread, biscuits and fresh fruits in his monk's quarters. We were surprised by his luxury apartment, complete with television, DVD player and stereo system. He proudly showed us his ticket stubs from various monasteries around China. The upper monastery is famous for its thangka paintings and art is commissioned for monasteries all over China and Tibet, probably creating a more than decent income for the resident monks. The lower monastery is larger than the upper one, but their painting school is apparently less highly reputed. But the money still seemed to be flowing in, with huge new temple buildings and stupas being constructed when we visited. Both monasteries are painted in bright colours most with yellow and red outer walls (in contrast to the sombre coloured Labrang buildings in Xiahe). From the Wutun monasteries, we crossed the river and headed to the third monastery of the day. The small (40 monks) Gomar Gompa is built around what seemed like an abandoned medieval walled village. The only people we stumbled upon were two young girls praying outside a crumbling temple. A monk waved at us from his quarters and we thought we could make out the faint sounds of prayers from one of the temple buildings. The next morning, before leaving the city we payed a visit to the main Tongren monastery, the Rongwo Gonchen Gompa. The huge maze of monastery buildings covers a large section of Tongren and we followed the streams of pilgrims and monks doing their morning kora. The kora climbs up the side of the mountain, around the monastery, and is more difficult than some that we had seen. That didn't stop the mothers with babies strapped to their backs and the hunchbacked old folks (simultaneously spinning their hand held prayer wheels) from completing their daily spiritual duty. Everyday Tibetan life continues despite the Chinese city encroaching on it.

1 comment:

mom said...

The mother and baby picture reminds me of that one Charlotte has of the Inuit mother and baby.