Wednesday, January 26, 2011

XIAHE - Run to the Hills Part 2

January 12-13, 2011
Eng: Xiahe, Gansu, China 
Chn: 夏河,甘肃省,中国
Tib: Labrang, Amdo
Written by Em

Day 2 
   Today, much to Dan’s chagrin was shopping day! We figure we should probably buy some souvenirs for people before we leave the area.

We started the day with an enormous breakfast: milk tea (a tad bitter this morning Dan thinks due to the yak milk), apple pancakes for Dan, a veggie omelet sandwich for Em, one hard boiled egg each, and a bowl of yak yoghurt with honey and banana. After stuffing ourselves, we began the dreaded process of shopping in China.

I’m quite certain we walked up and down the sole street in Xiahe over 20 times. Souvenir shopping in China is a long, drawn-out battle that requires much patience, hand gesturing and great acting. We were dreading it.

I’ve had my eye on these Tibetan monk boots from the moment I saw my first monk. From the outside they look really warm and comfy. God knows I can use it because my toes always feel like they’re verging on frostbite no matter how many socks I wear inside my Nikes. I should mention here that Dan gave away my booties to the family we stayed with in Wutun in Tongren.

The day we left, the girls came over to our room, inspecting our belongings as we packed. They were very intrigued by my booties and thought, much like we did, they must be super warm. Dan encouraged them to try on my booties and said, “Oh great, they fit! Keep them!” The girls smiled and ran back to their house. I stood, stunned. Dan continued packing his things, with a little smile until he looked over at me. “Oh. Uh, was that okay? Do you want me to get them back?” Yeah, like I can take them back from a young mother who lives in the middle of nowhere, has 2 kids, spends most of her day cooking, and only showers once a month in wintertime. Instead, I gave away his booties to the grandpa.

Okay, back to the boots. Every time we see a Tibetan monk they seem to be unaffected by the cold. They are dressed in thin robes with a slightly thicker wool shawl and tall black boots with a bit of red trim. Their robes can’t possibly be that warm, so I figure their boots must be incredibly warm and comfortable. I was determined to buy myself a pair and hey, why not get some for my dad. Who doesn’t need a good pair of boots?

Excitedly, we enter the small shop front with boots hanging in layers from the ceiling. I take a breath and finally touch a pair, expecting to feel a thick, soft and cozy lining. I feel nothing. The boots are actually quite light and have no lining at all! I figure they must be warmer once you put them on. I put one foot in and find it’s actually quite uncomfortable. There are no insoles in the bottom of the shoe and they’re quite tight. I ask the women if these are an unfinished pair she had me try on for size. The saleswoman assures me that they are indeed finished. I can’t believe it.

    I express my surprise to the saleswoman who laughs. Apparently these boots are one of many disciplines for monks, an element of their austere lifestyle. They are supposed to be uncomfortable and not all that warm so the monks learn to mentally overcome the pain and cold of winter. So when Dan asked me how they felt, I said, “Not bad, but I think I need a bigger pair.” I took the insoles of my Nikes and put them inside the slightly bigger pair. Not really a huge difference, but much more tolerable. I figure I could use some discipline in my own life and since my Dad is always telling me to think about what Buddha would say, these might help him do some thinking of his own. Either that or he could hang them on the wall. Dan just shook his head.

We spent what felt like an eternity trying to find some real jewelry for our moms. Unfortunately, we have no idea how to tell real turquoise from fake and couldn’t even distinguish what the other stones were. I finally found a pair of earrings that looked fairly decent and weren’t too expensive. I turned them over and saw the back. The back of the stud looked like the head of a large wood nail. All of the earrings were like this. We looked around and noticed that Tibetan women have stretched holes in their ears. The saleswoman tried to convince us that as long as we helped our moms, we could push the earrings through. We laughed and walked away, knowing full well our mothers would slap us.  

Completely spent from a somewhat unsuccessful day of shopping, we stood at the end of the street and stood in silence. As if they were ninjas, a group of young, smiling monks had surrounded us. They were students in the monastery’s philosophy college and were on break in-between classes. They spotted us and wanted to practice their English. We sort of reluctantly agreed to meet them later than night for tea, thinking they were “scam monks”. I’m not even quite sure what that means, but after living in China for 4 years, we obviously have very little faith left in people.

After shipping souvenirs and unneeded winter coats and boots back to America via the slow boat (2 months), we met them in a smoky teahouse filled with other monks and Tibetans, sipping mug after mug of sweetened red tea while watching Tibetan music videos. Our companions were 2 monks, named Adam and Victor, and Adam’s younger brother Christophe. (These are their English names.) I should also point out that Adam, 23 years old, spoke the best English. Victor, 17 years old, only spoke Tibetan and Christophe, still in high school, could speak and write a bit of English.

 Our topics of conversation included, but were not limited to;

·        India
o       Adam, “I want to go to India, but because the Chinese government doesn’t allow Tibetan’s to have passports, it’s impossible. The only way is by secret.”
o       Dan now whispering, “By secret?”
o       Adam leans over, “Yes. We walk from Lhasa to Nepal and then into India. But now, for one person, the cost is rmb 10,000!”
o       Dan, “Oh! That’s not too bad.”
o       Adam, “It’s a lot for a monk though.”
o       Dan, “You can’t have a little business on the side? Or a job?”
o       Adam, “No, we can only work for the monastery or teach, but I have to finish college first and even then it is not much money.”
o       Me to Dan, “We can’t sponsor him.”
·        Monks, Exercise and Fighting
o       Dan, “If someone attacks you, can you use self-defense?”
o       Adam, “No! We just use compassion. Even if they hit us over and over, we only do compassion.”
o       Dan, “What about sports or exercise? Play any basketball?”
o       Adam, “No. We can’t exercise or run or anything like that.”
o       Dan, “So if you’re late you can’t run?”
o       Adam, “Right.”
o       Dan, “And if something is really heavy, can you carry it? You know, use your muscles.”
o       Adam, laughingly, “No, we just leave it where it is.”
·        Dan the funny man
o       Amidst lots of giggling and Tibetan Adam says, “Oohhhh, Dan! You are such a funny man!”
o       This is repeated many times throughout our 3 hour tea session
·        Meditation
o       Dan, “Is it true that monks can meditate for months on end? In Thailand we saw older monks in glass enclosures that looked almost like statues.”
o       Adam, “Yes, some monks can go for months without eating, drinking or going to the bathroom. Well, maybe they eat or pee a little bit, but not much!”
·        Michael Jackson
o       Adam, “I like Western music. Like Michael Jackson. Well, I used to like Michael Jackson, but then he changed his face. Why did he do that?”
o       Dan, “Yeah, he got weird. You know he’s dead now.”
·        Choosing to become a monk
o       Dan, “Why did you become a monk?”
o       Adam, “Every foreigner asks me that. At 15 I decided I wanted to become a Buddha, so I became a monk.”
·        Traditional Tibetan dress
o       Dan, “Why do the robes have such long sleeves?”
o       Adam, “it’s fashion.”

    So after much enlightenment and entertainment for all, Dan and I returned to our hostel to snack and pack before heading to bed. Tomorrow we have to take another 4-5 hour bus ride to get back up to the nearest city in hopes of catching a train down to Chengdu in Sichuan province so that we can fly out to Shenzhen. We’ve given ourselves 6 days to get to Chengdu in case we can’t get train tickets right away. We will let you know what happens.

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