At 11am on Saturday, after finally starting to feel at home in Darlag because of the residents’ uncommon friendliness, I hopped on a bus and left. My destination was Banma (Pema), the neighboring county to the southeast, where the bus station attendant was kindly holding a sleeper-bus ticket to Xining for my eventual purchasing. While in the area, I wanted to explore some of the monasteries, which (after reading Andreas Gruschke’s great work The Cultural Monuments of Tibet’s Outer Provinces: Amdo) I was particularly interested in seeing for their unique architectural features and religious traditions.
From Darlag, the bus trundled through a beautiful wide-open valley liberally sprinkled with shaggyhaired yaks (many of whom wandered onto the road, infuriating the driver) and dotted with the occasional white nomad tent (which, for the time being, stayed put). The valley, flat-bottomed and arrowstraight, stretched far into the distance towards taller peaks dappled with snow. We climbed out of the valley and onto a ridge where snow mountains, jagged, looming, were visible in the distance over the vast barely-green grasslands. Crossing a pass, we careened along mountain slopes, up and down barren silently remote valleys before plunging into a deeper valley through which a river rushed unhindered. Downhill, along the river’s curves, the road swooping majestically through the landscape, we finally arrived at a crossroads where the driver ordered the Banma passengers off the bus. We all got into a 面包车 (literally “bread-car” or van) which, after the bus driver paid for our ride, would take us to Banma.
The minivan driver, as soon as he noticed me, gave the classic expression of shock before bellowing forth a “HELLLOOOOOOOO!!!!”, as always proclaimed at the top of one’s voice and followed by a laugh. Mildly irked as always, I returned the favor.
But then the driver, a smallish guy of about my age, started talking turkey: “Where are you from?” he asked in English, “and what are you doing in Banma?”
It was my turn to be shocked. “You can speak English!” I said, unconsciously imitating the Chinese people I talk with who, ten minutes into a conversation (in Chinese), ask if I can speak their language.
“A little,” he said. “I studied three years in India.”
And we chatted for the 18-kilometer trip down to Banma, the rest of the passengers silently staring on in confusion. The driver, who was also a yak herder in the town of Dogongma, spoke surprisingly good (if not fluent) English – though no Chinese at all out of personal choice. The conversation, as you might have guessed, quickly got extremely political, and so I put on my best diplomatic behavior and made peace right and left. Thank GOD the conversation was in English so none of the Chinese-speaking officials in the backseat could understand.
After we exchanged contact information, I was dropped off in the center of town and decided to wander around for a bit before going out of town to check out the monasteries. After visiting my fair share of Western China’s county towns from Xiangcheng to Xinghai and from Dawu to Huzhu, I feel qualified to judge Banma; how it stacks up to the rest in size, quality, and atmosphere. Situated at the bottom of a narrow river valley, Banma is surprisingly small; it felt more overgrown village than town. The residents were majority Tibetan, but most of the people I saw in town (this is something Banma has in common with other county towns) were visitors, nomads or farmers from nearby stocking up on essentials. But the town was surprisingly friendly and relaxing, in no small part due to the government’s farsighted initiative to plant conifers along all the streets. Trash-covered streets and filthy sewage ditches are so much more beautiful when shaded with the graceful, scented boughs of a spruce.
After exploring for a bit, I wandered out of town, walking downvalley towards the area’s major monasteries. At the edge of Banma town is a massive (50-60 meters high) stupa which completely dwarfs all of the other man-made structures in the area. Though constructed in the 90’s, it is still an astonishing and beautiful sight, and – as it was built using traditional materials and methods – manages to convey the aura of age.
Crossing the bridge over the river, one of the major sources of the Dadu river (in turn a major Chang Jiang tributary), I passed by a hillside literally smothered in prayer flags, at the bottom of which was a small mani temple with a strange display of dead dogs at its entrance. Less than a kilometer later I arrived at Jangritang Gompa (江日堂寺), a Nyingmapa monastery known for its towering Zangdok-Pelri temple. I had no idea what this TibetanBuddhistarchitectural term meant until I visited the place. I still have no idea what it means exactly, but I think it refers to a temple constructed in a manner to represent a mandala of some kind, with three floors representing the body, the speech, and the mind. And whatever this truly means, which is beyond my capacity to comprehend, is profound, but what I know is that the structure is completely impressive.
Strangely, though, this monastery was totally deserted, except for several exceedingly cute lambs and quite a few exceedingly frightening stray dogs. Escaping the dogs, I continued down the road, which led further down the beautiful river valley.
I passed another monastery across the river, this one under construction but massive in scale. While walking, I was thinking that the thing most amazing to me about the valley was the scale of the religious infrastructure that existed: four monasteries (with another under construction), five hillsides covered in prayer flags to an elevation of at least 800 feet above the valley floor, fifteen or more hermitages, tons of stupas, countless prayer flag clusters; not to mention the birthplace of the 11th Karmapa Lama, which was a few kilometers below Jangritang. I felt like I was in a gigantic living Buddhist museum.
And the feeling was only heightened by the time I wandered my way around a rocky spur protruding into the valley, forcing the river into an inconveniently sharp (rather than lazily winding) curve to the north, and arrived at Achonggya Gompa, a Jonangpa monastery about eight kilometers below the county town. The Jonangpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism , which was persecuted by the 5th Big D, was thought extinct by generations of Tibetologists until “rediscovered” in the 20th century in the remote valleys of northern Sichuan and southeastern Qinghai – modern day Dzamtang, Aba, Banma, and Jigdril counties. And here I was visiting a monastery from an “extinct” “rediscovered” tradition. And, no less exciting, the monastery was full of life compared to Jangritang; evidently, it did not know that its tradition had been declared “extinct.”
It was raining by the time I arrived, so I took shelter in a small shed, which happened to also be sheltering a large extended family of locals. After trying out my pidgin Amdo (I’ve been taking lessons) and communicating the fact I couldn’t really speak Tibetan, it turned out that a few of them could speak excellent 普通话. They took me under their wing, offering me milk tea and buns, and then asked what I was doing here.
“Not much,” I said. “I just came to see the monastery.”
“Why don’t you join us?” a woman said. “We’re circumambulating a stupa; we have to go around it 500 times today. We’ve already done 300; why not join us for the last 200?”
Why not indeed. So I joined them in their seemingly endless circling, and embarked on what was for me a surprisingly spiritual experience. The activity was meditative; the meditation was broken by bouts of conversation with a mother and her twelve-year-old child, who told me quite a bit about life in Banma; racing a surprisingly fast three-year-old girl around the stupa also provided a break from the intense meditative atmosphere. I was surprised to truly enjoy the experience; I’m not going to go into detail about the thinking I did while circling, but it was – for me, at least – profound. And for me, it is precisely the most profound things that I don’t go spouting publicly; one must have thoughts privately, ideas of one’s own, if one is to remain an individual.
By the time we finished the two hundred circles, night had fallen; only the faint reflection afforded by cloud cover prevented the night from being pitchblack. The family kindly offered to drive me back to town and take me to a guesthouse they knew. After a flat tire, and subsequently some cautious driving on rainslicked roads, we finally arrived in town, although it was hard to tell when we had arrived as there were no lights visible anywhere. All was dark; darker shadows wandering the streets were the only signs of the presence of people or dogs.
“We haven’t had electricity for six days or so,” said a woman in my car. “We don’t know when it will be back on.”
Oh. I looked in my bag for my headlamp, which I had last used 24 hours ago in Darlag – and it was gone. Lost. How convenient.
We pulled up at a signless house, a structure which looked just about average, and a man in the car took me inside. “This is a guesthouse,” he said. “The woman here is a friend; it’s 15 kuai per bed.”
I agreed to stay and the family said their goodbyes and left. The woman provided me with a candle and took me up a flight of creaky, wood-plank stairs to the second floor, where she opened a sliding door which sounded like all the banshees of hell set free simultaneously and showed me into an dirty, unlocked, five-person room. Spiders crawled along the floors, dirt caked the walls, and even the faintest noise floated up from downstairs. The nearest bathroom (not really a bathroom at all) was the construction site across the street; you simply pissed or shat in some unfortunate family’s future kitchen. But the room did have amenities: a wood stove, clean beds with comfortable mattresses and thick blankets (a rarity!), and a window with (I was to discover the next morning) a beautiful view of snowcovered mountains. Despite everything that should have drawn me to the contrary, I quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke up to find that snow had coated the mountains outside my window to within a few hundred feet of the valley floor, transforming the valley into a beautiful alpine paradise straight out of happy-happy-every-day (to take a phrase from Chinese construction sites) aryan fairy tales. And the landscape worked its magic: I woke up surprisingly cheerful and refreshed, and wandered out into town to find a light snow falling, happily humming a Tibetan pop tune. In time to quickly run into a woman who spoke excellent English, and who was entirely too curious about me.
“What are you doing here? Why have you come to Banma?”
I explained that my purpose here was simply buying bus tickets to get back to Xining, and complimented her on her English.
“I studied at the Xi’an Police Academy. I’m a police officer here.”
Oh. The woman was wearing plain clothes; I wouldn’t have known.
“If you need help,” she said, “please let me know.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I speak some Chinese; I think I’m just fine.”
“Oh, you speak Chinese,” she said before switching into her native tongue. “What are you planning to do today?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have a bus at 3:30, so I’m basically waiting for the bus. I might visit the monastery first.”
Evidently, this was a misstep; it sent her into a minor tizzy.
“You are not allowed to go to the monastery on your own; you know, this is a closed area. You must ask us first.”
“No,” I said with genuine surprise. “I thought it was open, that’s why I came. When did it close?”
“Very recently,” she said. “Maybe yesterday. But if you’re leaving tonight, that’s OK.”
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe I will just stay around town until my bus.”
“That sounds great,” she said. “Goodbye, have a great trip!”
I left the conversation slightly shaken; my first real police interaction in China. I had seen countless police cars during my time in Golog, but this was the first time I had been bothered in any way. And to avoid more of these interactions, I immediately flagged down a monk on a motorcycle and hopped a ride a few kilometers out of town.
I decided to go on a hike to get away from town and use up the remaining few hours before the bus, so I wandered up a trail which started near the Jangritang monastery and led up into the hills. Passing towering white stupas, placidly grazing yaks, clifftop hermitages, scurrying marmots and nomad tents, I felt like I was almost in a caricature of Tibet; this was only reinforced by the appearance of a hilltop monastery guarded by mastiffs, whose monks were collecting water from a seemingly sacred (if measured by the mass of the surrounding prayer flags) spring whose waters seemingly flowed from the slowly melting snows above. I wandered up into the snowy meadows, passing another magnificently perched hermitage before climbing to a small pass and finally to a hilltop, where a brief spot of grass amidst the morningfallen snow allowed me to sit comfortably.
I wrote in my journal, studied some Amdo, and drank in the view. Snowcapped mountains rolled oceanlike into the distance, encircling and enclosing the narrow Banma valley below, which was dominated (aside from the mountains) by the massive white stupa. Wide, glacially carved valleys plowed through the mountains with a linear strength into the distance, where they finally ascended into higher and higher mountains. Prayer flags and lhatse topped the highest, most seemingly inaccessible peaks; such being the realms of the mountain deities, the places touched by mankind only once per annum. Mountains dominated the landscape, monasteries the world below; from afar, the two worlds seemed to be peacefully in order; once you looked closer, however, you could see the erosion of the hillsides wreaked by the yak and pika, their vociferous appetite for grass defoliating entire mountains; the tumbledown grasscovered stupas (some just stonepiles on the ground) and empty monasteries, the hideously brutalist concrete apartment blocks recently put up on the edge of town, transforming Banma into a strangely urban village, the recently logged forest; all the problems of real life that one can not truly perceive while in a high place, but for which one must descend to the world below. I could not truly escape the police, the soon-to-be-leaving bus, or other problems which mar the absolute perfection of the world (or do they complete it?); thus, I descended to meet life in all its awesome confusion.
And, as luck would have it, I had another two police encounters after arriving back in Banma from my hike. Both officers, plainclothed, were extremely friendly and polite, yet firm; I needed to get out, my time was up. So I did, boarding the 4:00 pm bus to Xining. After an eventful argument on board our bus at the town of Dogongma, where a recently-boarded passenger-with-ticket was arguing with a less-recently-boarded passenger without, an argument which came to blows (thankfully blocked by the driver) and nearly ended in something truly bad and held us up for an hour, we were on our way, stopping in Darlag for dinner and then, again, trundling shiplike through the open ocean of the vast Qinghai grasslands towards home.
What I neglected to say in my mentions of Banma town was the degree to which it was, in all senses, a village. By my second day, I was greeting (and was greeted by) people on the street whom I had talked to at length the previous day – and many with whom I hadn’t talked, but who knew not only of my presence but who I was. I saw my driver-friend a total of four times, a woman from the stupa-circumambulating family three, and shopkeepers dozens. And the same was true in Darlag; when my bus passed through for dinner on the way back to Xining, I debarked and left the bus station courtyard to be immediately accosted by a facemask-wearing young lady saying “Hello, teacher!” I guess I said “Hello” a little too unfamiliarly because she immediately took offense: “It’s only been two days and already you don’t remember me?”
I corrected my misunderstanding by saying I couldn’t see her face due to the mask (which was true), but all the while feeling heartened and comforted: I had found a place here where, instead of being a foreign stranger as alien as if from another planet, I could be at home.