Saturday, January 15, 2011

TONGREN - Em takes charge, just this once

January 9, 2011
Eng: Tongren, Qinghai, China
Chn: 同仁,青海省,中国
Tib: Rebkong, Amdo
Written by Em

   Lin Sai, (the super cool woman from the hostel in Xining), told us
to make sure and let the bus driver know we wanted to get off just
before the main town at the small village of Wutun Shang Si. She
set-up a home-stay for us with a Tibetan monk named Jiao Ba Jia, who
is a Thangka artist at the monastery. Though there are no showers or
heat, she assured us his family's home was much more comfortable and
cleaner than any of the hotels located in Tongren. Since we're on
"Epic Adventure", we jumped at the opportunity.

   You can ask Dan to describe the bus ride from Xining to Wutun,
which is said to be by a, "road that zig-zags along steep mountain
sides, descends into precipitous valley floors alongside raging rivers
and passes through undulating verdant grasslands … sure to keep you
awake and looking out the window."

   I'll be honest; I've fallen asleep on every train, bus and taxi
we've taken. It drives Dan nuts. He insists, much like the guidebooks,
that I'm missing some of the best scenery in China. Judging from the
pictures, I know he's right, but every moving vehicle lulls me to
sleep. I'm pretty sure it's a rare form of narcolepsy. With all these
long bus rides, I must be the worst travel companion!

   Anyway, following a relatively short, 3.5 hour bus ride, we made it
to Wutun. At least that's what I thought. Back in Xining, I was the
one who told the bus driver where we wanted to get off since Dan now
bans me from the window seat. I had him repeat 'Wutun' twice and was
assured he knew where I was talking about. After our pee break, this
time on the side of the road just before the actual toilets, we rode
for another 10 minutes before hearing, "Foreign people. Get off." The
driver double checked that this is where we wanted to go. I said, "Yeah, its okay, we're meeting someone here."

   We were in the middle of nowhere, but I was positive this was Wutun.
Dan phoned Jiao Ba Jia, who then told us he was on his way to meet us.
We stood around shivering a bit, watching various minivan taxis pull
up. We declined their advances, assuring them our 'friend' was coming
to pick us up. It seemed to take awhile. And then Dan asked a driver,
"this IS Wutong Si, right?" The driver smiled and shook his head, no.

NO! Oh shit. We were roughly 10km or so from Wutun. Right at that
moment, a crazy Tibetan woman, clearly having a bad day with a messy
ponytail and bent glasses missing one lens, wrapped in an old
comforter came towards us yelling and shaking her finger. Dan just
turned and looked at me. I burst out laughing!

   This is why I don't get to hold the map.
   Another quick call to Jiao Ba Jia and everything was settled. The
driver dropped us at the real Wutun, which has a giant gate, a long
row of prayer wheels and a towering Tibetan Buddhist stupa that is
clearly visible from the road. This made more sense.

This stupa is actually at the lower Wutun monastery, but just to give you an idea

   We phoned Jiao Ba Jia, assuring him we had actually arrived. Within
a minute he appeared, wrapped in a crimson robe with bright red
Ferrari sneakers. He walked us through the maze of rammed-earth houses
to his younger brother's home. Since I'm a lady, I cannot actually
stay with the monks.

   Their house is set-up around a courtyard. Last year they built a
total of 9 rooms not only to accommodate guests, but also their
growing family. While Jiao Ba Jia lives just around the corner, his
mother, father, sister, 2 brothers, their wives, 4 children, 2 cats
and one dog all live in the same compound. We dropped our bags in a
very spacious room, built entirely of wood with a platform bed, coal
burning stove and giant TV. We crossed the courtyard to the communal
kitchen that was small, but cozy.

   The youngest child just over 1 year old, took one look at Dan and
burst into tears. We sat on small stools around the stove, watching
them prepare dinner. Dan convinced them to let him have a go pulling
the noodles into small chunks and tossing them into the soup. Everyone
laughed as the women gracefully and quickly went through 3 strips of
dough, while Dan managed to finish one, dropping a few noodles on the
stove. The soup was great and surprisingly very filling; small chunks
of beef stewed with nappa cabbage and the hand-pulled squares of
noodle. Dan's noodles were a bit bigger than the rest, but delicious

Tibetan noodle "chip" soup

   After two bowls we sat and chatted a bit. We expressed our
excitement to see the Thangka artists at work the next day since Wutun
is considered to be the best place in the Tibetan world to see and buy
Thangka paintings. Jiao Ba Jia, between slurps of soup casually
mentioned, "Oh no. Not tomorrow. No one can go tomorrow. You have to
wait another day because the monks will be praying all day. Men can
go, but no women." Dan and I looked at each other and shrugged. This
seemed to be a very calm and relaxing place that we wouldn't mind
staying another night in. And then we saw the bathroom.

   Grandpa led us through a small wooden door into the back courtyard.
He pointed at a small rectangle cut out above the ground with two
slightly raised platforms for your feet. No doors, no walls, no roof,
no toilet paper and no handles. I looked up and not more than 3 feet
away was a dog, tied-up, barking and growling. It was freezing but I
sucked in some breath, pulled my pants down and peed. Or tried to. I
think it's harder than one might think to pee while looking in the
eyes of a dog who is barking like crazy.

The dog that let the entire village know every time we peed 

   Dan quickly changed into pajamas, wrapped himself in his sleeping
bag and started to watch Chow Yun Fat's "God of Gambles", the only DVD
with English subtitles. I was slower to change, since my bum was still
a bit frozen.

   I took my pajamas, also from Uniqlo, this time Japanese technology
quick-dry material, out of my bag. They were ice cold so I started to
warm the top just above the stove. I then put my pants on top of the
stove and not 10 seconds later started to smell something odd. I
quickly grabbed my pants but I was too late. The stove was so hot (or
rather the Japanese quick-dry technology was too quick) that a huge
hole had already burned in the thigh area of my pants. Not only that,
but the melted material left a dark, sticky and smelly stain on the
brand new stove. My mouth fell open and Dan burst out laughing this

   I tried to wipe the sticky mess with a cloth, but that only made it
worse and also stuck to the cloth in giant clumps. I started to sweat
and Dan assured me it wasn't as bad as I thought. We would tell them
tomorrow and buy a new cloth. I put my pants on, with a giant hole
just above the knee and my booties, insisting I wasn't the least bit
chilly. We watched the rest of the movie in silence and then climbed
up onto the bed beneath a mountain of 6 blankets and a heating
blanket, promptly passing out.

Our lovely abode

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