What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This was originally written on October 16 and sent out October 26.
Day 5: Muli Monastery – Wachang
I wake up to a loud voice: “Jasper, Jasper!” It takes me a little while to sort out where I am. The off-white sky crossed by two black stripes; the cocoon of impossibly perfect warmth. “Jasper!” I sit up and unzip the tent and then the condensation-damp fly. Outside Jasi and Tsien-lu are bundled up against the pre-dawn chill. “Do you want to have butter tea with my uncle?” I agree and wrench myself from the sleeping bag. We walk up the broad staircase to the main monastery building, listening to the early chirp of birds and the gravelly drone of monks chanting in the temple. Jasi tells me that the very tall building behind the main temple has been built to house a seven-story copper Buddha just being finished. The monks are busy working on the Buddha, consecrating it, and filling it with holy scriptures and relics. Part of Jasi’s reason for making pilgrimage this fall, beyond sharing his heritage with Tsien-lu, is to place a large piece of jade in the Buddha. The piece of jade was belonged to Jasi’s grandparents and was kept as a holy relic. These grandparents’ parents helped build the original Muli Monastery, but they also watched it be torn to the ground.
On the third floor of the monks’ quarters we find Jasi’s uncle’s apartment. It is dark. We sit on carpeted benches and drink butter tea and fresh yak cheese, which is remarkably and thankfully feta-like. We wait for the water to boil in a tiny rough clay teapot that the uncle puts directly on the electric heating ring built into his low table. Jasi and Tsien-lu struggle to explain why the uncle had become a monk. Finally they point at his phone: “Wine-cup bearer.” I say, “Oh, he’s an alcoholic,” and they nod. Cupbearer actually has a different meaning in the West, but that’s okay. He was an alcoholic, and the family paid for him to become a monk. Now he hasn’t touched the stuff in many years and instead carries out his ritual functions in a supportive community. It strikes me that as far as rehabs go, becoming a Tibetan monk is probably pretty effective.
The water boils; the green tea leaves all foam up and threatening to overtop the pot. The uncle deftly moves it away from the burner at the last moment. Then he takes out a device that looks like a very tall and narrow mortar and pestle or a tiny butter churn. An eighteen-inch wooden tube with a plunger of the same length. From a tub that sits on the floor he scoops a generous spoonful of butter and drops it into the device. Then, holding the device with his left hand, he pours the tea from the teapot. Now begins the exciting part: he deftly in-outs the plunger again and again, making an exciting noise and each time the liquid threatening to spurt out onto the wall. The uncle is a deft practitioner in the art of making butter tea, however, and after a few minutes of sucking and plunging, if you will, the tea is ready. He pours it through a sieve into another pot and then distributes hot butter tea to the three of us. The emulsion is perfect –– no pools of butter form on top to stick in your moustache. It’s delicious. Savory, rich, and a spreading warmth in your stomach. Soon it’s time for round two and then three. In between rounds we eat yak cheese and a flattish corn cake that given another thousand years of culinary evolution might become a fine tortilla.
After breakfast, Jasi and Tsien-lu leave me to my own devices. I walk a kora of the monastery, circumambulating it in a clockwise direction. Then I walk up to a hilltop adorned with prayer flags. I think to myself that it was from this hilltop that in 1924 Joseph Rock took the first photograph of Muli Monastery. If you will indulge a few sentences of poorly-researched historicizing, I will now tell you about Muli and Joseph Rock. Rock was an Austrian botanist and adventurer as well as correspondent for the National Geographic Society. He chose an adequately remote part of the globe to explore: Muli formed the outer reaches of Tibet and was accessible only through a perilous series of deep gorges. Marching a military force to Muli would be difficult — to administrate it from afar before the period of the internal combustion engine must have taken a reasonably strong government. The late Qing Dynasty was unable to hold Muli as a vassal: indeed much of Sichuan was under the control of various warlords, and Lhasa had never had control of the far-flung county. Instead, Joseph Rock found a lama king ruling a very modest kingdom from his seat at Muli Monastery. Rock ended up making friends with the minor potentate, and even today he’s a kind of folk hero in Muli County — the First Westerner. (When Marijn, Talita and I were eating yucky yak cheese dumplings in the new city also called Muli, a Chinese girl tried to recruit us to take a busride to “Joseph Rock’s house,” which I guess there’s an outside chance actually still exists.) (Most of my information here is coming from Michael Woodhead’s blog, josephrock.net, and any errors are my own fault.)
Up on the hillside I try, without having the original as a reference, to take a picture from the same vantage point. Unfortunately I totally fail. Nevertheless, I think it’s instructive to compare Rock’s shot from 1924, Michael Woodhead’s from 1994, and mine from 2015.
Back at the tent, I eat some cookies for lunch and write for a while. Eventually Jasi comes by and tells me he has found out some things about my situation. For one, there is a bus from the crossroads below the monastery to a town called Dongla in Tibetan. From there I can take a bus to Daocheng. But, he suggests, I might follow him and Tsien-lu to the town of Wachang, just up the road. Maybe another, even better solution will present itself there. I write for another few hours and then take one last tour of the monastery.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are almost always spectacularly beautiful. This beauty comes not just from the architecture, though there is something very pleasing about their unfolding geometries, the fractal adornments around every opening and under every eave (eat your heart out Christopher Alexander), and the traditional barrier wall surrounding the sacred space and separating it from the profane. Even better, though, are the people actively using the space: the saffron-robed student monks and the old pilgrims wrapped in heavy nomadic robes, the elderly abbot and his attendant walking their twice-daily kora, even the Western and Chinese tourists turned momently inward by the space. (I’m not speaking here of the Chinese guys with fantastically phallic photographic equipment, standing at the very center of the courtyard, shouting for the monks to pose.) But I would argue that the very best, most soul-stirring thing about Tibetan monasteries is their siting. They almost to a one stand in outrageously beautiful locations: the south faces of hills looking out at beautiful snow-capped mountains; the center of great grasslands ringed by farming villages and, beyond, great peaks; or even at the base of jagged-toothed mountains, looking thousands of feet down at dramatic gorges.
This last is the site of Muli Monastery, a great upgrade on the city of Muli, which before it was elevated to be the county seat had been called Bowa. Before I leave the monastery, I take some pictures of the great tarps laid out in the courtyard before the main temple to facilitate the drying of barley and corn, the two staple foodstuffs of the community. In the background is holy Mount Mitzuga, in which the local god lives.
An hour’s walk later I am in Wachang, formerly known as Muli township, now literally “Shingle Factory.” It’s a small town around a few bends in the hill from Muli Bompa. I can’t find Jasi and Tsien-lu, so I sit at the top of town, on the ledge in front of an old, traditional Tibetan building, and write a letter. I’m interrupted after maybe half-an-hour by my very generous friends from before. They’ve found on my behalf a group of teachers that is leaving in two days for Dongla, and these teachers have offered to take me with them in a spare seat. In two days time I am to wait at this exact spot at seven in the morning and in such a way I will be given a ride. It seems that God or gods or perhaps just the universe smiles on my journey. Jasi asks if I know where I’m sleeping, and when I say I don’t he secures permission from the local elementary school — across the street — for me to camp on their grounds. Jasi and Tsien-lu are in a rush, though, to find a hotel for themselves, and they ask me to meet them at the school in an hour.
I find a likely camping spot on the hill above the basketball court, but I’m too shy to set up my tent while kids are running up and down the steps that lead I think to the high school. Instead I sit on my bag and wait for the inevitable crowd to form. Soon it has; beautiful Chinese people about my own age, trying to communicate over our linguistic gulf. After a long while of pointing, smiling, and looking at my phrasebook, I understand. There’s food to be had up the hill. I join them and soon am in the middle of a great Tibetan rehearsal dinner. The groom’s father is running around, dispensing loose cigarettes and bottles of baijiu. A team of boys is bringing out dish after dish after dish. I try some of them, though I’m not sure everybody understands that not only do I not eat meat, I also don’t eat white meat, don’t eat fish, don’t eat clams, don’t eat chicken.
After having a good time for a while in the silence of the deaf mute, I am led to understand that a group of boys want to play basketball with me. I say yes — this is my rule, to always seize an opportunity, and it serves me well. I carry my bag down the hill and get ready to kick the kids off their court, but it turns out the Tibetan and Chinese boys want to play somewhere else, down the street. Then we have to do a dance where I explain that I’m waiting for my friend to come back. Eventually we use someone’s phone to call Jasi, and five minutes later he comes out of breath up the street. He apologizes for being late — they had found a hotel and ended up needing just a little nap. The apology is totally unnecessary. We go back to the school and set up the tent together. Jasi is smitten with the flimsy plastic and mesh cloth and aluminum poles that miraculously become a domicile in just a few minutes. He says he’s going to get one for himself. I should also mention that this delightful soul wrote his final paper in college on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and he likes talking to me about Alan Ginsberg and Bill Burroughs and the whole Beat Movement. I tell him that if he comes to California I’ll take him to City Lights in San Francisco, the Potala of the Beats. We finish setting up the tent and say goodbye. The tent is in a typically beautiful setting.
Then I race down the hill to play some basketball. I find everyone playing in the court behind the police station. There’s a wide range of ages and physical abilities. One more chunky fellow is in the business of aggressively fouling anybody about to take a shot. Another kid is lanky and quick, wearing an Allen Iverson jersey. He and I form the core of a team of four for a while, handily defeating all takers, even when I get cramps from the exertion and the altitude. There’s one good shooter on the other team, a handsome Chinese kid about my age with a killer midrange jumper. After a while they want to mix up the teams. I’m stuck with the worst players, against the best. This is the only time in my life I’ve been compared to Kobe Bryant. My guys are playing utterly stupid defense. They keep dropping coverage on the other team’s stars, expecting me to run out and contest shots on the perimeter, when my skills are undeniably in the key. (Especially here, where I have six inches on most of them.) Somehow, though, we gut out a victory. Afterwards I wash my face and arms by a spigot, and the best players linger. I gather them around and try to run a little sign-language basketball clinic. Takeaway: when you’re playing defense, you havealways to keep your arms above the waist. The handsome kid with the good jumper seems to absorb the lesson.
I return to my tent and lay down for a minute, ecstatic from the exertion. I write some very happy, optimistic drivel in my journal. Then I freshen up for the wedding, put on my nice gray knit sweater, and walk back up the hill. The feast has shifted into a different gear, with a handful of tables full-up and surrounded by people watching high-pace card games. Although part of me would rather sit at one of the empty tables and meditate on the meaning of life, I find one where I recognize a few of the faces and pull up a stool. For a while they play cards: a crazy game where the whole deck is dealt and then they take turns slapping pairs and straights and full houses on the table, screaming in Chinese. After ten hands it’s no clearer to me what makes a winning hand. Nevertheless each hand moves twenty kuai, more than three dollars, from each loser to the victor. Most of the teams are male-female pairs, with one running off to chat with friends or drink a toast and then returning to relieve the other to do same. One Chinese girl, though, playing alone, seems to be winning hand after hand.
Eventually another course comes out from the kitchen and the cards disappear. We peel boiled potatoes and eat them from our hands. Someone pours me a paper cup full of beef broth and I drink it, disgusted. They make fun of me for not eating meat, and we raise many toasts of thin Chinese beer, and then they try to get me to play the age-old Chinese game of choose-the-prettiest-girl. First I choose an older Tibetan lady, resplendent in all white. She’s overjoyed at my discernment, but the others are disappointed. The Tibetan woman is married and so they can’t try to set me up with her. I shake her husband’s hand and compliment him on his good fortune. Then the others want me to play again. I refuse several times. Though one Chinese girl is really lovely, my Western sentimentality — loveliness is something more internal than external, and moreover it’s cruel and ungentlemanly to insult any woman’s beauty — proves firm. The table is disappointed and gradually loses interest in the bearded foreigner.
Around this time a girl from the group of teachers comes up to me and tells me that they can’t give me a ride after all. One of their drivers has had an emergency and had to go home. There won’t be any room for me. I ask her about the bus to Dongla, but she says there isn’t one. She asks what I’ll do, and I say I don’t know, probably walk. At this, she tells me that I should at least wait a day, like I was planning on. They might be able to find another driver, and they’ll come tell me if they do.
The forced bonhomie of the wedding turns metallic in my mouth. The cheery sentiments I had written in my journal after the basketball game seem dumb or at least naive. This is what I had written: “New idea — Trust fall the world. Be perfectly defenseless, incapable, powerless — and let the world catch you. Remember the kindness of strangers. Be reminded of it.” It’s not that there isn’t truth there, but it was a kind of laziness for me to think I was incapable or powerless. I have legs, a tent, a few days worth of food. I might have to make my own way to Daocheng. The thought is scary. I drain my beer and walk down the hill to my tent.
Day 6: Wachang
I wake to the sound of rain on my tent fly, and I let myself fall back into a sweet half-sleep, like taking a bath. My sleeping bag is very warm, and I am content. Eventually I hear again the call, “Jasper, Jasper!” I unzip the tent and the fly to find once again Jasi and Tsien-lu. They are bundled up and look cold, but they wanted to see me one more time. We say our goodbyes, and I promise to write. Jasi tells me that if I have any problems I should call him. I think about the problem that arose last night but say nothing — they’ve already been so generous to me. They wave a final adieu and go to stand under their umbrella and wait for the bus back to Muli. I zip the tent back up and go back to sleep.
I finally pull myself out of my sleeping bag when my bladder won’t let me wait a moment more. I pee behind some bushes and crawl back to my cocoon of warmth and personal, private space. I read the entirety of the one book I brought, The House of 20,000 Books by Sasha Abramsky. I had started it in the airport in Hong Kong and then lugged it all the way to Wachang. In this manner I spend the morning and early afternoon in a creaky old house in London with a singular expert on Marxist and European Jewish book collecting. This man, Chimen Abramsky, shows me the great gems of his collection, and he also invites me to the salon he and his wife hold in their dining room and kitchen. Books, well-loved books, line almost every wall. It’s like the dream of being home, or of being at a learned friend’s house, and it lifts my soul. Then I read a long paper by one H. Taubes about village fortification in northern China. A lot of it goes over my head, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.
At some point a group of Tibetan and Chinese schoolgirls assembles on the terrace below my tent. They titter when I respond to their timid halloes, and eventually they muster the courage to ask me how to pronounce a word from their primer: “Competition.” Later they bring me a big handful of walnuts. As it turns out I have camped beneath the branches of a great walnut tree. Kids climb the tree with a big stick and whack its branches so that their friends can collect what falls. The walnuts are perfectly fresh and delicious. The girls who bring me walnuts as if I were a mendicant are horribly embarrassed when I try to take their photograph.
Eventually I run out of reading material. Lonely Planet China is so breezily researched and scattered in its approach to Chinese history that it annoys even me. The Kindle that Virginia kindly lent me for the trip is out of power. The stuff I wrote in my journal a week ago even seems obnoxious. So instead I spend the evening trying to write part of my novel and failing. The whole day has gone by and none of the teachers have come to update me on my ride situation. I eat a dinner of candied peanuts and shrink-wrapped tofu. Then I set my alarm early for the bus and fall asleep.