Tuesday, September 30, 2014

And God Smiled on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Wake Up To Beauty

View from the Park Lake
To wake up in one of the most beautiful settings on earth is startling. I looked out the floor to ceiling glass doors in front of my giant bed strewn with rose petals and could see the rugged snow-covered peaks of Jade Dragon Snow capped Mountain as the sun rose over with another Wow moment. Apparently no one had seen the peaks in weeks, much rain and cloud cover keeping them out of sight, but today, the sun chose to shine. A good day, our guide Holly claimed. 

We set off early from the exotic, one-storied, rambling Banyan Tree Resort with its pools of carp, giant weeping willows, and incredible views of the mountain. Our stop was a public park to die for - Black Dragon Lake Park. What an

With the Girls at the Park
environment around a small lake. Visitors were going ga-ga taking fotos of themselves with the Jade Dragon mountain in view behind. It was a good omen. The pathways are cobbled (I wore my cobble shoes today, finally) and we too posed with the magic mountain (the sun had also shown for the first time in weeks in Beijing on the day I met Ai Weiwei the artist) and also beside three pretty girls in local Maio and Hui to the hilt costumes, and wandered through overhanging trees and touched the “Ma Jong Tree” whose bark was blocks like ma jong tiles - rub it if you want luck at ma jong, so we did - and suddenly we came to an easy

open space where a group of Tibetans in costume formed a big circle for a morning Taiche dance on one side, and a group of scattered old folks on the other side, some sitting, some standing - following a leader in facial massage for head muscle movements to keep from having strokes. This included squats, some leg shakes, hand wringing, knee rubbing, sinus pressure, head pressure points, rubbing face, rubbing eyes, pulling ears, massaging neck, massaging head points, - it gets you going. I joined in, although I was torn between the two.

Touching the Ma-jong tree
Morning Movement
What a great environment. We finally wandered further around the lake and could hear a symphony of birds all at once. Apparently, it is cricket for men to have bird cages with pet thrushes (singing birds) and they walk them to the park, hang them in a tree, then sit down with fellow males and share the day’s news while the birds sing back and forth to each other. There were probably a dozen hanging bamboo cages. And we continued to “aaahhh” at the mountain always in the distance, always in view, showing it’s snowy skin on this beautiful, cool fall day.

Close to the park was a museum where ancient manuscripts that survived the Cultural Revolution are being transcribed by a shaman. The Damong Culture which includes many minorities is fixed on a belief in animism and the wisdom and presence of ancestors. They worship the earth and the sky, and I can see why. They say the “borrow the landscape” to live in and must keep it holy. Fifty-seven per cent of the Naxi are of this faith and try to keep it alive, although the majority of their manuscripts and temples were crushed by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Luckily, some of the manuscripts had been sent to Harvard University, others to the British Museum and some in Hamburg Germany, so all was not lost. Most of the rest that was not hidden, was burned by the troops. To the Damong, shamans are priests, fortune tellers and herbalist. It is a family thing: the grandfather to the father to the son is the way it is passed on. In 1999 at an international Damong  festival there were 130 shamen, now only about 60 but their holy manuscripts are protected by UNESCO. 
Sharing with the Damong Shaman

Birds in tree, Men on bench
An American Joseph Rock assisted in saving some of these papers so now the local shaman is translating them into Mandarin Chinese. That Damong shaman I had the pleasure to meet, (He is 73 to my 75) once performed 120 types of ceremonies, his son carries on 30 of them since he is only able to do four: 1) Worshiping Heaven, 2) Worshiping Earth, 3) Worshiping Nature and 4) Worshiping the Water Spirit, which is very important to them.  The shaman often make sacrifices of fish and animals. Our translated conversation was about hope and peace and he presented me with an inscription in Naxi which he had written. (Naxi is the last pictographic language in use). We agreed that if we could all come together in peace and friendship no matter what our particular religion or philosophy, if we could quit being so critical and greedy for power, then the earth would survive, and we shared blessings with each other.

Impressions before the Mountain

Hundreds in Dance
t was a perfect appetizer for what came next. We drove out of the city closer and closer to the Jade Dragon Mountain, in fact around one side of it, passing mani-pani stone offerings near the many small lakes (stones mounted upon stones for prayer - you pick a stone and from a distance toss it at the top - if it stays, a good fortune; if it falls back down, not so good.). And in the middle of nowhere, is another Impression extravaganza by the acclaimed Zhang Yimou (Beijing Olympics guy) but this one is the day time (i.e. decent photos) and this time the landscape is the spiritual Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. To boot, the sky was so blue it must have come from the stole of our Virgin Mary. There is a tall set with zig-zaging pathways and a bridge made of white and grey sticks. Every inch is put to use by the  500 performers and 200 horses. Truly, it is breathtaking. 

God Smiled on Jade Mountain

Into the Crowds they Come
The powerful drumming with flute and local instruments play typical music of the minority tribes, all accompanying a story about young love, with a table stomping segment when the men get dunk. Just the coming and working together of so many different tribal groups is miracle enough - Naxi, Yi, Tibetan, Bi, Pumi, Lisu, Miao, Mosuo - most are men in rough-hewn wool and fur outfits, all in boots, and the women are elaborately dressed in their tribal costumes. The steeds that canter along the top of the stage and around us are shaggy ponies, Mongolian type. The singing soars through the air like peace birds and one minute the cast is running behind you and the next is climbing the long pitches to the top of the set. The audience is mostly Chinese, there are 3 shows a day, but a few westerners were sprinkled in.

We sat in the top few rows and were given a black silk cap to keep the sun from roasting us. By the end of the performance, we were drawn into the spirit of the singing and waving and praying to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and all that surrounded us. The men’s strong choral groups claimed God Smiles on The Mountain. As I looked up into the blue sky, I felt a great peace because I knew my mother was near. It caught me off guard so the event was very emotional for me, as I had been warned by Holly. No one gets away without having some sort of spiritual experience. 

Ponies at the Top

Table Dancers
As we drove back to town, we passed women in bright colors picking herbs and roots for medicinal purpose (Chinese). I’ve always believed God provides a cure in all his nature and that artificial chemicals only lessen our strengths. At 10,000 feet (on these mountains) there are at least 120 herbs that are useable, so the local tribes pick, clean an prepare them for market and make a bit of extra income. We did visit a Chinese herbal store in the Old Town where a strikingly young doctor prescribed a tea of snow mountain fungus to help get rid of my post-nasal drip. The process of making the tea is a wonder to behold - and all I can tell you is you need a bronze frog that the dirty water can be poured over (the herb must be cleansed a couple times with hot water.)  I love these places because they are so unique. We found red saffron (very expensive) and the most expensive of all is corsedyps (dried worms casings) found up on these mountains. It is supposed to make your health brilliant ($100 for an ounce.)
Mu House 

Indigo Dying for Tribal Dress

Believe it or not, the day was only half done. Back near the city, we passed the air strip where the Flying Tigers flew from during World War II. They’d never recognize it today. We reached the old village of Baisha, center of the area’s silk embroidery, for more than 500 years, and the streets are crumbled as backhoes dig up walking areas to install up to the date plumbing pipes.  Silk embroidery has a 1500 year old history brought here by the Han migrants during the Ming Dynasty.

Step over a “ghost stop” panel into a traditional home or store and there is usually a spacious patio and garden and fascinating architectural delights. On the streets, in spite of dust and jack-hammers and other disturbances, venders offer every kind of embroidery, scarves, antique pick-me-ups, anything that could earn a rmb (Chinese money). We stepped into a family palace (don’t think big, but modest) constructed in the 16th century as home for the “Mu” ruling family to see a half dozen large murals which had been saved by the local people when the Cultural Revolution ravaged the town. Locals plastered over the treasures and then hung posters of Mao ZeDong over the top and somehow, the rampaging soldiers believed the trick and so the valuable Buddhist art works were saved. On resurrecting them again, some of the plaster damaged spots on the murals but truly, they are special. The place remains from the reign of the first king of Lijiang (Mu), said to be the child borne of a liaison between a Tang dynasty princess Wen Cheng (7th century) and the general of the Tibetan army sent to Xi’an to fetch her and escort her to Lhasa where she was to marry the great Tibetan king, Songsten Gambo. Like all histories, there are a thousand legends. We were standing where one happened. 

Embroidering with a Student
From here we visited Bai Sha Village Embroidery Academy and Workshop - since needlecraft was one of the reasons for this lengthy trip - and what a treat was in store. Although a young student showed me around and gave me a lesson in the basic stitches of their embroidery (never seen such a thin needle with such a tiny eye), and I pulled a few threads trying to not mess up her work, which she was allowing me to practice on, and she kept saying “very clever” as I chose where to put the long stitches. I had to laugh. Then her Master Teacher, (takes a minimum of 3 years to become a master), one of the stars of the academy, came to see and give me more information about various stitches. She allowed me to sit in front of two of her masterpieces in progress and showed me how to make flower stitches, and knots and other things similar to needlepoint, but much finer and harder. The finished pieces of embroidery art from this workshop were some of the most unique that I have seen in all the “shops” we have been through. 

Although his forte is block printing, the head designer of the art work the students and masters interpret, also came to shake hands and when we said we were off to learn ma-jong, a broad smile crossed his face. He is a master of ma-jong
Learning from the Master

Ma Jong - The Table
too. So when Holly took us to a private home of a friend who “loves” to play ma jong, as do most Chinese people - it’s a passion everywhere - the ma-jong master insisted he wanted to help. So we had two teachers and an expert lady around the table. Now the table is what did it for me. It is a square normal card table but in the center is a electronic dice thrower which determines who goes first and where the first draw of the tiles will be. I didn’t see any tiles and wondered when they appeared. Push of a button, and everyone’s set of tiles rises up from under the table already stacked and lined up perfectly. (They had been electronically shuffled and put into place. Wow!).  Learning hard and after four games, slowly so I could get it right, I felt we had a small idea of the fun. Everyone laughs and enjoys. Usually money is involved, but we are amateurs. Now if I can just find three ma-jong players in Memphis.......and that table!

As we crawled across stone and rock and through dirt to get back to our trusty van, I was charged up by this day’s experiences. Last night Holly had taken us to the Old City markets which are so entertaining. Lots of jade (it’s jade country), silver is 99 per cent silver but not sterling, woven shawls, machine embroidered bags and baby-carriers, Mandarin dress and shoes, combs made of bone, Chinese zodiac figures and silver eating bowls that come with silver
Interviewing Namu
chopsticks and soup spoon, silver knives, antiques - the shops were absolutely filled with shoppers at dusk into the dark hours. Tonight, we are scheduled to dine with the famous Muoso woman Namu, whom we had met in Beijing and is internationally known as a singer and one of the last of the matriarch queens who does not believe marriage is the answer. She has no children, and a fascinating history, being the first woman to desert her hometown, at age 13, and to set out to seek fame and fortune. Yunan Province is her homeland and here in the Old Town she has a famous bar/dining space, small, intimate, decorated with paintings of her, and extreme art and giant pillows and sofas in glorious fabrics. She welcomed us with sunflower seeds and white mountain tea in tiny glass cups. Then on the large low table in the dining area was a Hotpot dinner that wouldn’t end. She fed vegetables and other exotic foods into the boiling broth which had an amazing taste, and I had my first confrontation with Sichuan pepper (it tingles on the tongue but doesn’t burn). We also sampled her own homemade Shangri-la red wine and framboise ice wine (i.e. champagne) and a special end of the dinner drink, Namu’s flower drink, created from mint, lemon, fresh orange juice and Mama’s tears (corn liquor). Well, I only took a sip. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tiger Leap Gorge, A Bend in the Yangzee and Minorities

Tiger Leaping Gorge
Steps to Go
         Leaving Shangri-la is not easy - the cool mountain air, the peace, the fascinating Tibetan culture and architecture, the gold topped monasteries overlooking life from its mountain side perch, and good hotpot dinners. A rough day was on tap after early breakfast. Let me say one thing about breakfast in China - every hotel, no matter how small or big lays out a feast for breakfast unlike anything in my travels - salads, all sorts of beef, bacon, hams, Tibetan favorites, Japanese sushi and miso soups,  Chinese spicy meals with noodles, beans, fried rices  and lots of condiments, attempts at Western style breads, including donuts and French fancy stuff, desserts in tiny tiny glass jars or cups, pancakes, waffles, omelettes, fruit juices in glass pitchers, various coffees and teas (try chrysanthemum, snow mountain, crabapple, rose or fresh ginger tea) - and its included in the room fee.        

Our task to day was to reach the Tiger Leap Gorge about two hours a way. I’m not much on the arduous challenge of crossing mountains 11,000 feet and then dropping down in a whirl of curves to 2000 feet on two lane cliff-hangers, broken up now and then by fancy new tunnels constructed by the new Chinese powers that be. It would take two hours to go about 50 miles. Sigh. The mountains are close together with narrow valleys and the brown Yangzee River running through them. A few small villages cling to the mountainsides to provide living quarters for those working in the silver and copper mines and the enormous hydro-electric complexes.
Where the Rapids run rapid
Chinese lunch

There is, of course, a monument with a tiger leaping, and a legend about two angry tigers fighting and one got away by leaping across the narrow gorge. When we finally reach the gorge, I had to admit it was impressive. Jim, who has traversed most mountains and valleys in Asia and other places, stated it was the most impressive rapids he had ever seen. Any boat trying to pass through would become mush. And the government has built an appealing, multi-leveled overlook to accommodate the thousands of Chinese tourist who visit and take selfies in front of the rapids, but, holy hannah, you must tackle 1500 steps from where the buses drop you off to get a close encounter with the rapids. That’s one-way down. Up again is the second part. There are men willing to take you in a sedan chair that look more scary than the rapid, so I declined to tackle it at this altitude and after taking photos, rested in the van while Jim took the climb down and up. 
Bone carved like walnuts
Bright stools

         Of course, having come out this far, we had to go back that far, but we stopped in a village (only as wide as the road) to have a really honest Chinese on the spot meal. This usually means spicy pork fried in a wok with string-beans, bell peppers, carrots, lotus root, pea pods, a mountain of garlic, onion, celery, and soups and pickled cucumbers and four or five more plates of wok stuff. Dumplings for me. (The spiel about me is: vegetarian, no hot spicy, no rice or noodle, no tofu - breast cancer no-no - and no fish with bones). Am I picky?  But there are so many fresh vegetables familiar with a wok that one never starves. Fried string potatoes were edible. Mushrooms fascinating as this is mushroom country. Now as to sweets, there’s a problem on the road. If you are lucky, you can find an ice cream freezer  in some shop and it will have somewhat of a selection of wrapped cones and bars. I’ve tried taro root ice cream and this day it was corn ice cream. Not bad.
End of the Long March

Long March Marker
        After saying goodbye to Mima, our handsome Tibetan guide who taught me so much about Buddhism, and who shared the karma moment with the Little Buddha, whom he had never seen, we headed for Shigu, a small town in corn and tobacco country, once a bed for poppies until Mao wiped that out,  and famous for it being on the corner of the first bend in the Yangzee River, the point where the Yangzee stops flowing south and starts flowing north-east so it never leaves China, though other rivers go on down to other countries to get out to sea. Here we met a favorite guide, Holly, who immediately got us enthusiastic about this spot. A stroll through country markets always gets me enthused because I see such unique things - like woven bamboo footstools or low sitting stools with bright colored fabric tops, and rolling stones - take two and put in hand and try rolling then around - this is not as easy as you think, but is darn healthy for arthritic hands - and if you prefer, you can get two balls the size of walnuts carved from bone to look like walnuts, used for the same thing. 

       We climbed a few steps (inevitably there are steps) up to a special park not only to get the tourist view of the bend (like an Ox-bow), but to encounter the Red China’s famous Long March in 1930ties when Mao’s army had set up a provincial government in Nanjing (long ways away - north of Shanghai) and together the Nationalist and Communists
At the First Bend of the River

Old rooftops at Shigu
had helped to removed Japan from China, with many atrocities in that story. But the Communists set up their base in Nanjing, and the Nationalists (Chiang-kai-shek) defeated them and put them on the run. This began the long march (on foot) that took five years, but gaining strength as they marched through the countryside, and people joined their five armies, basically hoofing it all over China. So one army reached Shigu, crossed the Yangzee so arrived in Tibet and regrouped in Shizhuan, and they defeated the Nationalist army which got pushed into Taiwan, abandoning China and taking with them all the gold, art and treasures they could. One scam was the Nationalist had enticed the people to put all their gold in the bank and receive one copper coin which they could redeem for their gold back again. But it was a farce. And the Defense Minister of the Nationalist, once fled, became one of the wealthiest men in the world in those days.

       So, we climbed up to see the monument - one a concrete tower with a red star on top, and the other a statue of a Red army and a boatman on the river. There is a mini-museum which has some history there if you can read Chinese. From the viewpoint, you could look out over the tiled roofs which reflect history  at the bend in the thick river and there is also a legend about a stone drum. 
Long March Propaganda

Banyan Tree Resort entrance

       Another hour on the road and we arrived at what became one of the best cities on our China safari. Lijiang in the Yunnan Province. Although it has grown by leaps and bounds, its center is still full of old town character and this is a popular place with Chinese tourist. The population is 100,000 in the town, but they get 14 million visitors a year, 95 per cent Chinese. It breaths of stylish young people mixed with minorities in their tribal dress. And their Old Town is one of the most fun, though cobblestoned, areas to walk and browse through. 

Chinese Chess at Market
 The primary minority group here in Lijiang is Naxi (Nashi) and there are the Bi, the Yi, the Pumi and the Yao, whose women embroidered and needlepointed coded messages on their clothing to communicate with other women without anyone knowing what was being said. Our guide is a Naxi.
Girls at Old Town
She set one thing straight - when the one child policy was commanded (not by Mao who said people are power and so wanted more) but by Deng Xiaoping, head of the communist party in the ‘80s succeeding the Gang of Four,
  the only ones who got off the hook were the Minorities. If both parents were minority, they could have unlimited children; if one parent, two or three were allowed. But minorities make up a very small portion of the Chinese millions. The one child was prescribed for the Han people, the majority of the Chinese and is still in effect.  However, if both parents had been only children,they can have two children. The point was to stabilized China’s population.They have enough to take care of already and more buildings built that have empty rooms to spare. Construction is everywhere, whether changing sewers so western toilets can be added or topping off
Hot Sauce Heaven
another skyscraper or group of vacation homes.
  China puts all its people to work. Poverty is not evident. Homeless don’t roam the streets and crime is under pretty good control. People seem to thrive, have a happy and positive attitude, and have great hope to reach their goals. It’s a pleasant atmosphere. 
Prayer offering for My Precinct

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mandalas, Pots and a White Yak

Dangzhulin Monastery
The Tibetan Mandala is a sacred thing of beauty and the highest of Tantric meditation. Although the world thinks anything that's a circle is a mandala, that's a long ways from the origins and purpose of the real Mandala and for the first time in all my travels through Buddhist cultures (Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India), I saw 4 real sacred three-dimensional Mandalas in the very remote Lama Monastery, Dongzhulin Monastery, a good two hour drive up and down mountains away from Shangri-la. This Monastery built in 1667 near Benzilan, a small mountain community, is set on a bluff at about 10,000 feet altitude. It has been residence of over 700 lamas of the Gelugpa sect since the 19th century. This temple too suffered the destructive measures of Mao Zedong's washing away of all things holy. But has been restored and is the center of many ceremonial celebrations and dances through the year.

Religious Yak Butter offerings
Inside the major temple which was filled with praying and chanting monks (they sounded like a group speaking in tongues) I saw the most incredible colorful yak butter art I've ever seen. The chrysanthemums were so real you thought you could pick one. There were scenes and assistants to the buddhas depicted in yak butter, surely mixed with sugar since there was a glitter to it all. No one is allowed to photograph these or the interiors of this temple, but we were given permission for one photo. These sculptures are offerings to Buddha and follow certain forms and rules, since there is no self-expression in Tibetan art.

A 3-D Mandela City
What took the cake was, after climbing up three floors of narrow steps, we reached the Mandala room. A Mandala is a city with many floors representing the pathway to teaching which allows the dedicated to travel into the imaginative world through meditation. Four enormous ornate gold structures that looked like the White House gone wild. It is bordered by people animals and objects of clay representing temptations. But the primary part is the steps to the holy area which the monks and lamas must take through study and meditation to reach emptiness, the highest spiritual home, and then paradise or enlightenment. When you see a mandala created out of sand - always according to certain guidelines - these are temporary and are used for focus and meditation. But the golden mandalas are the real thing and they are impressive, complicated and very very ornate.

Old woman toting Yak food
Out guide Miman is a devout Buddhist who tried his best to explain the power of the Mandala in the constant pilgrimage of the monk deciples to reach enlightenment. It takes at least 21 years for the most dedicated scholars to be trained by their teachers. Teachers are the Lamas who have spent their lives interpreting the 108 books of Buddhism and translating them to students who are taught how to debate the issues and questions. During their studies, there are constant debates. This is a skill that must be learned. It would be like studying a chapter in the Bible, for instance, and then debating it with fellow students in a round-table moment. It doesn't change anything, but it takes the teachings to a higher level.

Tibetan Tsampa Bowls made from 
Rhododendron root
The goal is to become a teacher as well. The highest level is the Rimpoche, and there are many Rimpoches in the Buddhist realm. I've met and been blessed by a number of them in my travels. They are happy, welcoming men (women do study but do not reach the same levels) who are good examples of the Buddha ideal. The order of rank is "senga" or disciple, Darma (way of teaching), earth Buddha (re-incarnated forms of Buddha) , then Teacher, the highest level.

Each student has a certain path he takes once he has identified what he believes his task on earth is - wisdom, compassion, mercy, powers, strength, are some of them. This would be his focus. (For instance the 14th Dalai Lama focuses on compassion and wisdom). Once a student discovers this essence in himself, he employs that as the stimulus for study and pathway toward enlightenment.

Black pottery from special kiln
If this sounds complicated, it is. Because through it all the lamas and monks aim to completely empty themselves so they carry no baggage with them that would prevent them from passing through hell into the world to which they belong. Emptiness is forgetting about self, throwing away all that is habitual and distracting about self. The more empty you become, the higher your level of place in the afterlife. There is the Wheel of Death which shows the pathway through the six stages of hell to reach the best of the best. These too are usually found painted on the walls of temples sort of to remind the holy ones what is to come, like our resurrection scenes in the Christian church art and often seen in typanums over the entrances to churches.

Street sweeper in Shangri-la
On the way to the temple, on a cloudy rainy day that awakened the sun by afternoon, we stopped at two villages which specialize in making products Buddhist use, particularly those in Llasha, Tibet. At the Naxi village where houses are rammed earth architecture, stomped into shape using mud, and always in a trapezoid shape, a Khampa Tibet village, is the center of black pottery, popular for hotpots and also tea pots often decorated with broken pieces of white china.

 The second stop was at Gongzhou Village, near the river by that name, with a unique microclimate at 6000 ft., and this area is known for wooden 'tsampa' bowls which are prized for traveling, so you have your own bowl when you eat. But a highlight of the day was I sat on a rare white yak posing for a foto in Shangri-la.

White Yak moment

Friday, September 26, 2014

From Urban Low to Tibetan High in Shangri-la

Oversized Airport Kunming
After 24 hours in Kunming walking in the rain to places that had closed down, as the bird and flower market which had a pretty jolly description on the itinerary, but on site, no flowers and only two stands of parakeets, rabbits, kittens, pigs and mice, then a trip to a suspect "leather carving class", only to discover it was some guy who was copying cowboy belts and purses one gets in America, we felt gloomy, even though the Green Lake Hotel was a true Chinese hotel, the usual "large" but offered high tea in three different areas and, get this, I was able to watch the current The Voice on TV in English.

Cages of animals for sale
Another early morning departure, still raining, foggy, cooler, and another mile walk through a "new" airport bigger than most airports in the US, and finally we rose above the clouds and saw sunshine. There is hope, I thought.

Songzanlin Monastery in Shang-ri-la
When we arrived in Zhongdian, there was Karma in the air. It was clean. Altitude was high. The airport was small and to the point, with all the warmth of Khampa Tibetan culture.The Chinese call this city Shang-ri-la, just like the movie. We are close to the Tibetan border here in Yunnan province, and the architecture is all that makes Tibet so appealing. Here they can use wood and brick to build the quaint colorful structures because of the abundance of wood that doesn't exist across the border. And gleaming over all the city (no skyscrapers, at last) is the Songzanlin Buddhist Monastery with its gold trim and black curtains of yak hair with symbols on them. Somehow I felt at ease with familiarity. But also out of breath. We were at 9000 feet high in a snap. The lungs need time to catch up, especially after the days of breathing deep pollution.

Waiting to arrive at gate
Our very first stop was at the Monastery. Busloads of Chinese were unloading tourists. This seat of Tibetan Buddhism was first built in the 17th century under the hands of the fifth Dalai Lama. Our current Dalai Lama is number 14. The name Dalai Lama means "Great Sea of Learning or Wisdom" and was a political title set up by the Mongols to keep control of Tibet. Now it has more religious connotations and mysticism, and means the highest incarnation of the Gelugpa Sect which now dominates Tibetan Buddhism. Like so many cultural institutions, during the Cultural Revolution of Mao ZeDong, the place was razed to the ground, and 4000 monks fled or were killed, totally devastated, so unfair to history, which Mao tried to wipe out so as to not to interfere with his dreams.In 20 years, construction and power of 800 monks, many originals who suffered the persecution under Mao and fled to India, have returned to rebuilt this powerful palace of worship, study and meditation.

Yak haor curtains and steps to climb
As we walked under the Arch, in the distance I could hear the chanting prayers of some of the 400 monks stationed here today. But the challenge was to climb about 150 stairs, which I rose to with enthusiasm until I got to about step 10. Whew. Had to stop and rest. And I did this about every ten steps until, praise the Lord, I made it to the top. In store was another amazing experience, thanks to the persistence of our guide (also a Tibetan). We had been promised an audience with the "Little Buddha", It was a no, that's impossible, well, let me see, I'll call my friend, to our guide beckoning us up a few more stairs and a right turn into sort of a backyard area to a small room. I had no inkling of what a "Little Buddha" meant, but I figured it was major. And when we removed our shoes and entered a tiny room, sitting on a bed with the rust red and gold blankets and robes wrapped around him, was this precious child.

Monkship starts at 3
Somehow I was shocked to see a child, who is the same age as my grandson Henry, 7. Standing beside him was his very handsome teacher, who has the responsibility of not only familiarizing him with Chinese and Tibetan languages (these come first with writing), but also the wisdom, history and powers of Buddha. In the room were the usual paintings and wall hangings of Buddha and in corners, boxes of toy cars and trucks. Immediately we offered the white Katas (holy scarves) to him with two hands, getting on our knees (ouch) and bowing properly like one would for royalty, and he put the scarf on my neck and patted my head and I groaningly stood up and moved to a floor pillow on the side. The Little Buddha went from serious to smile to sometimes boredom to wrapping and rewrapping the robes. He was playing with an eraser. And his teacher had him in his eye the whole time. Yes, the Little Buddha does get time to see his Mom and to play on trips home. But his task is a serious one.

Little Buddha of Shang-ri-la
I asked if he knew what Legos were (since that is a big part of my grandsons passion) and the teacher said no. So I am bound to send him some Legos for building and entertainment. The teacher gave each of us a can of milk with a cartoon character on it, a gift from the holy child. I asked if we could take a photo, and it was allowed, but then Jim and the child had a joyful time playing with the camera. (This made us remember, afterwards, how the current Dalai Lama and a famous newsman, Lowell Thomas, had built a relationship around a camera gift.)

Hanging with Good Karma
 Eventually the living Buddha will be a source of blessings and mercy for the monks of this temple but also for all followers. It is a huge responsibility and this child was chosen right from a few blocks away in the village when he was age 4 as the reincarnation of the deceased Rimpoche, who is considered a living form of Buddha who left the earth centuries ago, but has reincarnations to continue to do good and show mercy on earth. I guess it is like being a teacher, a guru or a prophet. When I was at Mt Kailash a year and a half ago, it was the time of the year when Buddhist celebrated this ascension.

Teacher and Little Buddha
So as not to confuse, the Buddha reincarnations are not the same as the 3 Lamas who are the political and religious/spiritual leaders of the faith: The Dalai Lama (Tibet), the Karmapa Lama (in India) and the Panchen Lama, also Tibet. Since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and cannot return there, he resides in Dharmsala, India, right on the border with Tibet. He has recently relinquished his political powers and is concentrating only on the spiritual ones, and even considering resigning and naming his own replacement (re-incarnation) so there won't be a free for all when he dies.

Momo at Tara's Traders Stop
As we exited our charming meeting with the Little Buddha (who has no given name), we went to the main temple (there are 5) where beautiful chanting was flowing. Just as we were about to peek in, it ended and a swarm of monks came from behind the curtains as if they were ready for a game of soccer. One monk, tall, thin, shaved headed, handsome, looked just like Kobe Bryant. I told him so, he laughed - Bryant is a super-hero in China.

Uttara and guest
He led us around what to me was the most extraordinarily ornate and moving temple I've ever been in. There was not a space anywhere not decorated with fabric or Tanghka or statues and tons of lighted yak butter candles. I wanted to light a candle for my mom and so I accepted the one the monk suggested (large candle holder), and we went to the altar and lit it. And later I found some antique wooden prayer beads which "Kobe" blessed. Meanwhile a few of the monks were blowing the long thin horns which are set up permanently on the balcony of the temple. It was such a joyful group all in dark rust red robes and running shoes for the most part.

Shopping at Farmers Market
Time for our descent. The moments had been powerful. Now reality returned dealing with the altitude. Down is better. and we headed a few blocks to the town proper to an ancient trading house on the tea and horse trail for 250 years, the owner being a lady named Uttara Crees, from India, who knew Jim and had come here in 1980s when foreigners weren't allowed, loved the place, and returned when doors opened. It is a restaurant, complete with the ghosts boards one climbs over to enter any threshold. She has a collection of Tanghkas and a wonderful porch where neighborhood ladies wearing elaborate hats stop to rest from time to time.

Veggies at Farmers Market
Lunch here, all made on the spot, was probably the best meal I've had on this trip, homemade momos (dumplings), eggplant dip for homemade flat bread, hummus, curry, wok-fried cabbage and potatoes in tumeric, the favorite spice. In January of this year, there was a major fire (mid-winter, snow, no water) that burned 300 homes, including Tara's hotel. The town revives day by day and hopes for better tourism again. It's worth the trip.

Cross-stitch on the streets
To round out today, we visited a Tanghka art school, everything must adhere to Buddhist principles and styles that have gone before, much like Catholic Icons. Then strolled through the enormous all day farmers market, discovering unusual vegetables and a major offering of slabs of bacon, giant slabs, people eat it raw to keep energy up in the cold. Dinner at the hotel was the traditional Tibet Hotpot dinner in a metal pot where broth is boiling, cooking various veggies, tofu, beef and noodles, sort of like a fondue situation in Shang-ri-la.

View from the hotel