Category Archives: on the road

The Mens’ Room

Today was a day of remarkable privilege! But first let me say that last night I was not allowed out of the house. I could hear festivities broadcast over the loudspeaker, and Samtso’s nieces were dancing. BUT, the celebrations were for the officials from town: the government. It turns out that should they find out there is a westerner here they will levy a hefty tax!!!!! Whoa, pardner…

The morning here is bustling with everyone getting dressed in traditional garb, and the arrival, with according hospitality, of out-of-village guests, also traditionally attired. I met two of Samtso’s dad’s brothers and a sister. One brother is a well-regarded Tibetan doctor in Labrang. He looks, it, too. Especially when he cleans his glasses, which he does a fair bit. ______________, Samtso’s brother who speaks a some of English, arrived and bestowed a warm hello. It was fun to see him again, especially as he cuts a mean figure in his Tibetan habiliments.

Food is served, and it is seen to, midst the buzz, that I am fed.

We all trundle off in the freshly snow covered morning to the community meeting hall. A beautiful new structure, it replaces the one built in the 1980s, and this is the first series of events celebrating a town structure that they have had for some 35 years. It is a big deal. Guests from other villages are invited to participate in the feast, tables laden with carefully stacked piles of apples, canned beverages (including Red Bull), boiled mutton, bread, nuts. We, and this is where it gets unusual, enter into the primary feast site, passing through an outer room with similarly laden tables. I follow Samtso, with her brother and her father and his relatives to a long table at the back of the room. I try to gracefully lower my self and fit onto the rug on the floor, and just as I am about in position, we are asked to move. So, of course we do. Now, my back is to everything, and I find the change less than desirable, but hey!, I am a guest.

Samtso, says to me, ” Get pictures, because this is very special.” Then, I realize, we are the only women in the room. And it is true, we are inside the House Tameran (sp), (a place where women are not allowed in the bronze-age Sepik River cultures of New Guinea — very similar to the Bohemian Grove), and we are being tolerated very well. Plates of dumplings are served by teams of young men, along with milk tea, and a wonderful dish of sweet rice and special Tibetan grassland nuts. A bit later, a stew of glass noodles, mutton and vegetables is served, the broth of which, by the way, is delicious. I am somewhat bewildered as to why the family was adamant about my eating before we left the house.

Meanwhile, we are being entertained by Tibetan song and dance. Encouraged by a host with a microphone, various villagers perform songs of praise: for the mountain gods, for the wonderful people, for their beautiful land, for this new building, etc. Being up close and personal, I realize how intricate the vocalizations are. Rarely is a sustained note held, rather a series of trills is passionately expelled, often with great force. There is a relationship to the yodel, in that one can imagine them calling across a valley.

It is with these performances that women are permitted in the inner sanctum. Dancers, in groups of four, perform intricate and varied movements. The girls and women, are graceful and expressive, and their choreography is lively. This is in contrast to the placid, almost disinterested demeanor that seems most preferable with the female Kham dancers. My guess is that it is because their dance is one of courtship, and the ladies do not want to look too anxious.

The men’s dance is quite like the movement of a bird, and I am reminded of the Native American dancers I saw up near Lake Wallowa, in Eastern Oregon. In fact, the more I hear the language in conversation here, I think it sounds very similar to the Ogalala Sioux I heard spoken at Sabrina’s home. (Sabrina is my niece Kristina’s Native American sister-in-law.)

This spectacle goes on for quite sometime, many singers, complimented by a few dances. Mid song, and rather abruptly, an entire table of men arise and leave, as though by design. It’s just that they have to pee. I know this because when Dolma’s brother left, I asked if I was supposed o follow. LOL.

Also, a ritual of drink is enacted. An elder carrying a tray with three small glasses, followed by attendant holding the bottle, offers each and everyone, including me, a glass of hootch. The glass is accepted by all, except we girls, and a finger is dipped in the drink, then drops flicked. Three times this happens, then, which is impressive, most of the men refuse the drink. Even when beer is offered, most of the local villagers do not partake. If it is the same with visiting guests, who are on the other side of the hall, I do not know.

Now this brings up another interesting point. This building is being feted, and people from other villages are invited to this opulent celebration. They arrive in cars and taxis — and all are men. Not a single woman, other than Drunter Ja’s sister. When they leave, there is a receiving, or in this case, departing line out by the entrance to the village, waving them all off with great fanfare.

Another seeming incongruity is that VERY LITTLE of the food was consumed. Nothing of the careful stacks was touched, except for the dishes of pumpkin seeds. Those were unabashedly molested. No drinks were opened, and, dang, not even the Red Bull that kept calling my name. It wasn’t hard to get the message to refrain. No one touched the stuff. Not even the heaping plates of steaming momos (dumplings). What was consumed was only the tea, the stew and, for only a few, the rice. I was feeling kinda uncomfortable about the whole thing, some how embarrassed for the elaborate effort that was being ignored.

Samtso later explained that in Amdo, one doesn’t accept that which is offered. This is NOT like Kham, where it is “eat, eat!” Here it is considered uncouth, indeed, to chow down when a guest. So, what happens to all that food (prepared by, you guessed it: the village women, who also have clean-up duty)? Well, the feasting goes on for several days, during which it is distributed to the villagers. (I’ll check the logistics out with Samtso.)

Immediately after leaving the ceremonies, we are now gathered here, at the house and out comes more food. Dumplings, mutton, drinks, candies, yogurts….and all is consumed with gusto! Appetites are happily satisfied in the privacy of one’s home, just not in public.


Also posted in Pugdê, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

The kindness of strangers

Xi’an 2

For some people, pantomime works, but for others, I am simply a goose flapping my wings. When I try to tell the driver to turn around, he not only completely ignores my efforts at communication, he he makes disgusting sounds. It finally dawns on me that I should call Dolma to translate. After quite a while thinking about my dilemma, I decide to have the driver continue to my original destination, the famed Ball tower. This way, the money, time, and trauma will not have been for naught. I want him to wait, as my visit will be brief, then take me back where he found me. Once there, I am pretty sure I can navigate back to that hotel.

Ha! He grunted and yelled at Dolma, for a long time. The short version is that he does not have time to take me back, and will not. I will have to get another cab. Mind you, he is the only person in the world who knows basically where I need to go!

I am now settling into a real funk: no power cord for my laptop and I am up shit creek with no paddle in Xi’an, which is miles from where all my belongings are. And to top it off, when we finally reach downtown Xi’an, the traffic is horrific. People here drive like they are the only children that, in fact, most are. Aggressive, unyielding, rude. Causing gridlock is of no concern. Neither is consideration. So now my driver is heaving big sighs, and cursing. One need not comprehend the language to know what he is saying.

Turning past some truly magnificent, very old, very large buildings, we go through what was once a gate to the walled city and are now in the old town. Xi’an is a tourists’ mecca.  Lordy, there is a Walmart!!!!! This is a first, for me, and like all Walmarts, it is huge.  I have only seen them on the outskirts of somewhat rural towns in the US. This one takes up a whole city block in what looks to be very expensive real estate. The Colonel is also here and so is Starbucks. Midst a bunch of shops with funny English names that don’t quite work, I spy a Samsung store with, yes, an Apple symbol!

About a half mile further down the street, traffic is completely clogged. I am tired of this. Much to the astonishment of the cursing driver, I thrust the full are at him and jump ship. His parting look, somewhere between confusion, “no, we are not there yet”, and embarrassment somehow amuses me. This is good, to be amused, given my predicament.

I must find someone who speaks English, and hoof it back to the Apple store with high hopes. No one speaks English, but they do have my coveted cord, and the young clerk translates my pantomime with ease. I purchase it without caring how much it cost. Oddly, with the power cord in pocket, I am actually happy. I will be able to continue my journaling, which has become surprisingly important.  Now, I just have to figure out how to get back to my stuff.


I have decided that the thing to do is find somebody with a working internet that I can use to access my account, thus finding out the name and address of my hotel. Thank the lord for, and that I actually used it in the wee hours of the morning to make hotel arrangements for Xi’an.  On my flight here, I was thinking that had been a waste of time.  Now I am thinking differently.

Across the boulevard, I see what looks like to be a possibility. A large sign above a massive building, says, after a Chinese name, “International Hotel.” I cross the street (scary) and locate the entry. The hotel is so fine that there are flower arrangements that circle with me as I go through one of those grand revolving doors.

I am greeted by a very elegant, soft spoken young Chinese man, who asks if I am staying with them. “No,” I reply, ” but I have a problem.” He speaks very little English, but is in earnest in trying to understand, sensing that I am in distress, but managing to keep my cool.  He escorts me to a beautifully carved “throne” and indicates I should sit. Using the little flip phone, I dial Dolma. The first question, the answer to which I am sure is “no,” is to see if I can use their computer to look up the place I am staying. Unbelievably, he says “yes”.  I am relieved and amazed. This is a very exclusive, luxurious five (at least) star hotel.

He leads me to his elegant desk in an alcove in the foyer, and opens the computer for me to use. Of course it is in Chinese, but, once again with the help of Dolma, we manage to get to My reservation comes up––for a $22 room in a slum near the airport. I see a very subtle flash of acknowledgment cross his face, though he doesn’t pause. In fact he is very considerate, treating me as though I am a guest in his formidable establishment. Again I am guided back to the gorgeous chair to wait while he places a call to my hotel. Upon hanging up, he asks if I would like him to call a cab. I can hardly contain myself.  But I do.

Of course, I try to give him some money, but he absolutely refuses. Instead he wants to know if I have enough money for the cab!

The cabby, upon getting directions from this truly kind hotel man, charges five times the inbound fare, but who am I to argue!? He does have difficulty finding the place, and I am starting to worry. But find it it he does. And he is actually good humored, a first for cab drivers in China for me.

Upon entering my room at the Xi’an Xianyang International Airport 168 Express Hotel, a perfectly lovely, convenient place to sleep, clean with western toilet and good shower, I am greeted by the business card I had picked up with the hotel name and directions on how to get there. It is lying on the end of the bed, where I had put it while hurriedly donning my sweater.

And that was my day in Xi’an in 2015.

Also posted in STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015), Xi'an


When the Chinese acrobats come to Klamath Falls, I always go see them. But now I realize I haven’t seen anything at all! The acrobats on the Chinese extravaganzas make any of Olympic gymnasts look like novices. I am guessing it holds little prestige in the world of performance to travel to the U.S., as the troops I have seen appear poor and 3rd rate, relatively.

Of course with TV, one can do a lot. Their staging is stunning and very complex, as is the camera work. I am watching one of the most exquisite avlokitshvara (sp (do I have the right god?)) performances possible. The many-armed deity, realized by a line up of twenty or more dancers, with only the front person fully visible. The coordinated arm movements are much more complex and beautiful than any I have seen, even on youtube.

Modesty prevails in the performers, dancers, singers…all. They are very expressive with their costumes. A few seem to fancy stunning simplicity, but most like frou frou. Some emphasize ethnicity, while others glitter in the lights, and there are those, quite a few, who, to my Western eye, appear ridiculously garish. But no matter the attire, there are no lewd body gestures nor revealing or even suggestive clothing. With singers, for example, emphasis is put on the voice, and it is that quality that is showcased. And, of course, his or her outfits. There is a lot of old fashioned glamour, and a lot of airline stewardess smiling.

The filming and playback here is very sophisticated. Lots of razzle-dazzle, hi tech stage sets, freeze frames, slo mo replays, and graphic intervention to maintain interest. Keeping people entertained seems a great priority.

They also seem to be hooked on competitions. Be it Tibetan singing contest, or professionals vying to get the most votes for a particular charity, it is always about competition. One popular show pits people doing the strangest things: juggling a running chain saw, throwing it it as high as possible and catching it without cutting off a body part; or tossing back one’s head to open the gullet, then pouring an entire liter of liquid down without a moment’s pause and see who does it fastest. Or popping the caps off of the most bottles of beer, in a given amount of time, using the spokes of a mountain bike’s front wheel as the opener mechanism. OMG! it is the Guinness Book of Records show/competition. Ha! Well, no wonder it is in both English and Chinese.

The final observations for this post, is that they are really into cute. Also flying martial arts women. And when they do have dramas, they go on FOREVER.

Also posted in STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

The monks hut

This morning I hiked up to the winds, and brought them back down the mountain with me.

The Monks' Hut, Pudgé Village

The Monks’ Hut, Pudgé Village

Nestled high above the village is a little white hut, used over the years by monks to live in isolation. Now it is empty. The weather this morning was still, so carefully following the steep sheep paths, I slowly made my way to the hut. It is difficult country to walk over if you are not used to it, but well worth the effort for the views and the solitude. Wind cresting over the mountain tumbled down to where sat for my snack, blowing my orange peals down the slope.

There are a few holes burrowed in the ground, maybe foxes, maybe marmots?, and I saw four crows, but that is it for wildlife. On the other hand it is a pleasure watching the village activities from this distance; hearing the songs waft up the gullies and the smoke from the celebratory firecrackers drift in isolated puffs across the valley. I think about Wanma Dun Drub’s traditional herding life, imagining a day in the field with him: finding enough forage in this dry winter for his sheep, leading them to water, protecting them. Walking, walking, walking in wind, rain, snow, heat.

Descending the hill is pretty tricky. The ground is covered with loose rocks scattered over narrow sheep tracks. I didn’t quite realize how steep the incline till I set down my borrowed bamboo walking stick. Off it went. Dang thing just skied down the slope, managing to find a direct route down a sheer drop to a deep gully. I would be using my cool hiking stick that I brought from home, with wrist strap, thus avoiding such a mishap, but I inadvertently gave it to Dolma’s mom, Ah Mo, in Hongpo Village. She twisted her ankle, so I offered to loan it to her so she could walk to that evening’s dance. Next thing, I hear from Dolma that I gave Ah Mo a wonderful cane. Well, of course I did, right?

I creeped down the hill, often resorting to butt slides, and into the gully to retrieve the stick, and by the time I found myself back on the track to home, the wind had picked up substantially. The good thing is that it will help my clothes dry. I did a hand wash yesterday, and when I left this morning, they were still wet. Last evening, when I went to bring them in—jammies in particular—everything was stiff like cardboard. What on earth was in the soap? Maybe I used starch instead of detergent? Then I realized they hadn’t dried and were frozen!  So I slept in my clothes, like the Tibetans do.

Samtso spoke to me of Drub’s shoes.  They are not very good, and do not keep his feet dry.  This really causes problems in winter. One can only imagine! Samtso would like to get him a pair of good breathable hiking boots. His feet are too wide for Chinese boots, and even the local cobblers won’t make a pair to fit him. We just have to figure out his size so I can help her. I decided to photograph his feet and draw their outlines on a piece of paper. But paper is not readily at hand. In fact, it is scarce! I finally use a sheet I brought, printed both sides with travel information. This lack of paper, even scrap paper, is quite humbling.


Wow, the fog has descended. I am glad that Samtso’s house is cozy.  There is a coal fire in the living room stove that keeps the room quite warm.  It also keeps the tea water at the ready any time anyone should want some.  Later one of the the women will bring in milk tea, and keep it warm on the stove as well.

Samtso had to go into Labrang to take care of her brother’s new baby, and will be gone a few days. So, since last night, I am once again in a house where verbal communication is impossible. It’s fine. They are all very busy with the festivities, and I have my stories to write. Plus the cat and dog are good company. They both speak English!

I met this little guy eight years ago, when he was a ferocious guard dog. We made friends then and, amazingly, he remembers me.


My sleeping partner.  When not in the dust outside, he is in the coal bin! But he is a warm little thing, and likes to purr.



Also posted in Pugdê, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

The dump, Fudi Village

It seems most, if not all, Tibetan villages have a landscape sacred to them. In Hongpo Village, it is Dralha Chonyi, the mountain from whence the village water supply comes. In Fudi Village, near LaBrang , it is a beautiful, small valley, where animals graze peacefully in an unaltered environment. Because it is sacred, nothing is ever put there, nor is anything ever taken out. Great care is taken to insure this home of the mountain gods suffers no trespass. This fastidiousness engenders peace and assures that babies are robust, livestock is healthy, and crops are plentiful.

Well, that is how it is supposed to be, but the Chinese government paid an expert to come to the region and decide where best to put the township dump. The site picked out as the one least compromising to the environment, a great concern to the ruling class, was, yup, you guessed it: Fudi’s sacred valley.

The villagers got together to present their case to the county government, to no avail. In fact, they were threatened for their outspokenness. In a final attempt, the men of the village went again to plead their case, telling the officials how important the site is, giving their reasons. The officials retorted that they were not going to pay an expert to come out again, and the villagers should stop being so superstitious. Two of the entourage, arbitrarily picked, were thrown in jail. Released a few days later, the incident was so frightening that the villagers signed a ten year contract.

The dump site is a repository for everything from the sizable town: garbage, toxic chemicals, hospital waste. To facilitate disposal all this effluent, a large roadway wide enough to accommodate three vehicles at a time was graded and paved. Truckloads are brought in everyday, mornings and afternoons. The bucolic valley is defiled, and the peace of the region forever disturbed.

But that is not all. Some very strange things started to occur as the mountain gods cried out loud. The first anomaly was to manifest itself in the teeth of the cattle grazing on their traditional feeding grounds in the valley. They turned black. A few months later most of the animals were were dead. Autopsies revealed guts full of plastic.

By the second year the dump was active, it was worse. Two children of the village were not developing as they should. They had both been fed milk from cows known to be grazing near the dump. One of the children has a cousin of the same age living elsewhere. When the cousin came to visit, the grandparents were disturbed at the comparison: the village child’s growth was considerably stunted. They called in a doctor, who after testing, concluded it was definitely something in the milk. Now, cows are not allowed to graze in the sacred valley.

But it doesn’t stop. By the third year, sudden blindness was afflicting villagers. At first it was just the oldest, those in their 80’s, but gradually the condition struck younger and younger people. Last year, the seventh of the existence of the dump, a 37-year old villager lost his sight in one eye. The blindness manifests itself in anywhere from a week to three weeks after the first symptoms occur. Ten people in a village of 50 households have gone blind.

Adding even further insult to the situation, the government contract stipulates that the trash will be covered with fill dirt with every load dumped. That has not happened, and now plastic trash flies everywhere, especially in the winter with the winds that accompany that season. Flies, too, proliferate. Lord knows what they are carrying around.
The villager’s beliefs were validated last year as the mountain gods spoke loudly. Every year these gods in any Buddhist village are honored with the planting of auspicious arrows by the village men, creating a labtse, which can have hundreds, maybe thousands of arrows. Since before communism, Fudi Village has maintained their labtse, and the site stands straight and strong all year. In 2013, for the first time ever, it tilted to a very noticeable angle. This is a very direct indication that the gods are distraught. And, of course, so are the villagers. The government offered money to rebuild the site, but the villagers are righteously annoyed. From their viewpoint, all of the problems would be solved if they would just close the dump, and that money that they were willing to give could be put to use for a truly meaningful project.

Before the dump, none of these problems existed. All this, I was told.

Fudi Village needs Erin Brocovitch.



Also posted in Pugdê, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

Ah, Amdo

Amdo. It is still here! The ride in from the Xiahe airport was refreshing with vast grasslands and herders, and hardly any development for the 30 km drive. LaBrang town has changed. It is no longer a provincial hamlet, but a booming urban center revolving and evolving around the big monastery. Despite its modernization, the place FEELS Tibetan. A young, soft spoken Chinese woman who came in on the same flight as I also needed a ride to LaBrang, so we shared the taxi Samtso hired. Once in LaBrang, this young woman couldn’t believe she was in China. She was enchanted, and that was nice to see.

It was a sad ride out to the village, because it was on this leg that I encountered the large hotels, humongous residential projects, government buildings and widened roads where I didn’t want to see them. But once turning into Fudi Village, time and concern evaporated. Of course there are changes, everyone is seven years older, for starters, and Samtso has a 15 month old girl.

Probably the most extraordinary reunion was with the little dog, who is no longer tethered. I am surprised he is alive, and so pleased that he remembered me! Rather remarkable that he does, and he even wanted his hand out. That was our thing. He was a ferocious protecter, tethered near the two-plank. Every time I went out to use it, I would bring a piece of bread. In the beginning, I would toss it to him, as he was really a formidable presence, good at his job. But within a day he stopped barking at me and by day three, we were buddies — like, I could pet him! I have his picture in my office at home.

The hearthside welcome was warm, and Samtso and I visited like we were sisters.

I caught up on the scuttlebutt about the nunnery, sad but not at all surprising. The head nun, the fat one with the scheming eyes, has indeed, ascended to her self built throne. For herself, she has built opulent chambers, replete with servants. Meanwhile, she kicked out all of the older nuns and recruited new ones who are under her sway. They live in little tiny rooms. She would not report to Samtso, who had worked very hard getting and supervising a grant helping the nunnery build the much needed temple. The head nun shined Samtso on, saying that her group’s donation didn’t amount to anything anyway. She, the nun, said she had much richer friends who donated ever so much more. So, no accounting was ever made. Altho Samtso is certain there is money left in the coffers from the grant, she feels it has gone to line the sleeves of the head nun. Samtso does not know what has happened to the beautiful nun, nor, of course, he “youngest”, both of whom I photographed on previous visits. I was hoping to see them, but the women have dispersed with the winds to places where they can stay for little or no money…which is what they have.

Speaking of money, I gave Samtso the donations I gathered for her bakery, and it sure is a relief to get that wad out of my belt. We spoke a bit about her ideas to get the business off the ground. It will be really great if she can succeed, not only for herself, but the idea of an independent Tibetan business that furthers the self sufficiency of Tibetan women is terrific. She has trained her niece in French style baking of pastries, so that ultimately Lhamo can be the head pastry chef, training others. The equipment is in place, and her plan is to start small, serving tourist hotels that cater to western guests, enhancing her presence with a small outlet in the historic center.

I have no doubts that Samtso is up to it, and she has been working hard developing the idea for a couple of years. But there is one serious problem, not at all in her control. A year ago there was a huge fire in Shangri-La that burned the entirety of the the old town business thoroughfare.
I went there. It is devastation full blown. The government is rebuilding, and they are doing a nice job, but it is no longer OLD. It is a reconstruction, and the vibes aren’t there. That said, forgeries in China are remarkably deceptive. Still, for Samtso, the new rents are prohibitive. She is trying to figure this one out.

Now let me tell you a bit about Kelsang Pudrun, whom I call Padoon, cuz that is whatI thought they were saying. She is a doll! Fifteen months old, smart as they come, and with a disposition so delightful that she is a true joy to be around. After the spending time with the naughty Lhasand Dundrup, Dolma’s boy, the idea of children in the same room with me for any length of time was, mildly put, off putting. Padoon is simply fun. She laughs at about anything, and warms instantly to whomever enters the house…me included.

Also posted in Pugdê, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

Hongpo tidbits

There is much that doesn’t make sense about Hongpo, till one hears the story. Hongpo is very pro Chinese, and they truly embrace the improvements from the government. Not so long ago, they were under an oppressive war lord’s authority. Mao freed them from his domination, and they worship him still. They are anti Big D, so much so that followers (only six families), even though villagers, are pretty much ostracized. It is getting a little bit better, I am told. I did hear drumming one morning, and later visited the home from whence the sounds had come. It was the home of a very beautiful woman I had seen at the community center. Her brother is a yellow-hat monk in Deqin. She appears to be an active member of the community, but admittedly, with the exception of Dolma’s family, all of the people at her lunch were from the six aforementioned families.

I was perplexed at the dances to see so many animal skins, especially big cats, as Bid D has made it very clear that the use of animal skins for decorative purposes is no longer an acceptable practice. But, now that I know of their distaste for Big D, it all falls into place. There is also a lack of basic spiritual celebrations. Yes, we walk around the stupa daily, and chanting is a continuous background sound, but mostly Losar is a lot of visiting and eating.

In some way Hongpo feels like a secular village. Perhaps it is the extensive atheist Chinese presence that contributes to this sense, but, it is also capitalism. I was told there are quite a few very rich people in the village. They, for, the most, part keep it pretty low key, visually. Attitude? That is a different story. Only one family seems to have come into their money by merit. Not far from Ah Mo’s house, a familial dwelling is owned by a very prosperous couple. He is a sought after traditional painter and stupa builder. His wife is a doctor, and she and their daughter, also a doctor, have a clinic in Shangri-La. They are now building an enormous, Chinese-style (cinder block, covered with stucco-like stuff) hotel in the village, which has altered the scale and authenticity of the community. The family spends most of their time in Shangri-La, so, I guess it is just progress.

Most notorious of the wealthy is the self- proclaimed lama of the monastery. He recently declared the nearby healing hot springs as his, charging people to go there. His son is placed well as one of the town’s high officials, so the lama is now well situated to maintain his personal interests. His daughter sounds kind of interesting. She has gotten her Phd, and it is in something that, if I recall correctly, is rather noble. Wish I could remember.

Dancing, eating, drinking, cards (for a few) and TV are the main preoccupations outside of circumambulating the various stupas. The TV thing is pervasive, and deserves its own post. But the most popular wherever I have visited are the traditional Tibetan singing and dancing shows, Chinese extravaganzas, and the Guinness Book of Records competitions.

Probably the singular most surprising thing I learned about Hongpo is that it is OK for a woman to marry brothers. This situation is not unusual, and occurs when one brother is away a lot. So one might be a farmer staying in the village and the other a driver, like a long distance taxi driver. It is not at all acceptable for one man to have two women, emphatically. Remember, it is the women who do the bulk of the work.

Also posted in Hongpo Village, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

Uh oh…

Xi’an 1

Have you ever had that feeling in your gut gut that something is amiss? I don’t mean the big adrenaline producing “thunk”, more a gentle “oh, you hoo…” So that you are inclined to not pay attention, even though? That kind.

A few minutes later, like five, and five more miles down the highway, the “you hoo” gets so agitated so that now it is an “uh oh” and you are moved to action. Because, a nano second before “you hoo” became “uh oh”, you KNEW exactly what the problem was going to be. And it’s a doozie!

But let’s back up. I flew into Xi’an this morning, and found the little hotel near the airport that I booked on in the wee hours of this morning. It’s fine, although a bit tricky to find, tucked into a project looking neighborhood. But it is near the airport. The reviews online were favorable, and since I need to be at the airport by 6 am, it is perfect. The couple who run it it are both helpful and nice…and, as it turns out, they will drive me to the airport for free in the morning. Can’t beat that!

One of the first things I do when near electricity is start charging batteries. It seems to take forever to charge here, and no time at all to discharge. So, because of this ritual, I immediately figured out I left my iPad cable in Lijiang. Un-fucking-believable! I probably have about two hours left on my iPad for the rest of my trip (more than two weeks). So, as you might imagine, this has put me in a boohoo kind of mood.

It is only noon, and since I am near to this wonderful old city of Xi’an, a place which has nice memories of going to see the astonishing terra-cotta warriors, I decided to make something of my layover. After weighing the complications of getting the right buses when I cannot read Chinese, I decide to hire a taxi to drive into the heart of the city so I can visit the Bell Tower. From there I can just mosey around till I need to catch a cab back out to the burbs.

I grab a card from the front desk that has the name, address and telephone number for the hotel. The hotel owner has offered to take me to a place where I can get a cab, so we head out, but once the front door opened, I realize I better add a layer. It is cold. I return to the room, don my wonderful alpaca sweater, and off we go. I am so glad I brought this sweater. It is a keeper.

Getting a cab here is a strange event. The owner drove about a mile, then we got out and crossed a very busy intersection with a lane like a free way exit that we had to navigate. After a few more such crossings, we end up actually on the freeway a bit down from that exit, so that now the only cabs passing us will be headed toward Xi’an, which is about 25 km of heavy traffic away through ghastly industrial development. Three cabs pull over to vie for the fare, the hotel man acting as my agent. After sending those away, a forth comes and the price is right, 60 Y, so I get in.

Feeling quite together in terms of my little day adventure, I settle in for what turns out to be a really long, unpleasant ride. For starters, on the back of the front passenger headrest, leaning about a foot from my face, is a monitor—dead. All I see is my face reflecting back––very close. Yeah, there is the ugly stuff flashing past the side window, but is not worth a kink in the neck to look at. So I find my self looking down, which pretty much sends me inward.

I begin pondering my memory blips and this is a scary place for me.  Yesterday, when were driving from Hongpo Village to Ligiang, a Beatles song, sung in Chinese, was playing on the radio. It was a really famous, very familiar one, for which I couldn’t for the life of me remember any of the lyrics, or, for that matter, the title. Freaked me out just that I was struggling so hard. Breathe, and let it go. Later, as I was trying assiduously to practice non judgement regarding my painful observations of what is going on here in terms of development, Let It Be came into focus. Kinda perfect, eh. Anyway, it is at this moment, thinking about memory, that the little “you hoo” is morphing.

Oh shit! I start looking through my wallet, my phone purse, my pockets and then I search again.

Have you figured it out? Yup. I am flying down the highway, with a taxi driver who speaks no English, in a huge city where English speakers are rare, and I neither speak nor read Chinese, nor do I have the card with the hotel name and address. I couldn’t identify one road from another let alone direction. I only have my cash wallet, my hidden money belt, my flip phone, and my little camera. I am traveling light, for once. Too, light.


Also posted in STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015), Xi'an

Mama Espinosa and My Arrival in Hongpo Village

Dolma arranged for me to ride with a distant cousin, who was coming from Lijiang, through Shangri-La and going to Hongpo Village. How fortunate for me. No changing buses in Deqin, and there is the possibility of photo stops. His charge is about $50, but for a private car taking me the seven hour drive straight to the village, it feels like a deal.

Once again, I find myself with a slow driver. I glance at the speedometer to see exactly how slow we are traveling, but it’s needle lay peacefully on zero, and doesn’t budge no matter our speed. I am embarrassed to say I called Dolma because I thought he was tired. It turns out he just likes to drive slowly. Of course, I am a pedal to metal the person, so it is exasperating to go so slowly. In reality, no car sickness, and I can see a lot.

The trip is a hard one.

I cannot ignore what the Chinese are doing…just about everywhere. It is actually infuriating me. Dolma told me the road to Deqin had improved and now it is very good. Even the dangerous road to Hongpo is paved and stable. A light should have turned on when Dolma mentioned the upgrade, but it didn’t.

Vastly improved in terms of ease of travel is an understatement on par with saying there are a lot of people in China. The countryside is basically unrecognizable from my previous sojourn on the only road to Hongpo. Since the road has both been straightened and leveled, the terrain has had to make the adjustments…to hell with any natural beauty or the fact that people live in the area. Just put up a giant bridge over a gully and let the people continue to live there, never mind they now live like trolls under the bridge looking at piles of gravel. No big deal. Nobody is displaced.

Even the wonderful loop in the river that I photographed the first time around is now walled off so no one can see it unless they pay the exorbitant entry fee. The river is an extraordinarily beautiful jade green, and I have been looking forward to rephotographing this scene ever since I saw the color. It would have been a stunning image and in reality worth the entry fee. But, I’ll be damned if I am going to support the bastards who deny the public such a wonder.

Improvements on the main road to Deqin and  Hongpo Village. Hmm...any erosion induced problems on the horizon?

Improvements on the main road to Deqin and Hongpo Village. Hmm…any erosion induced problems on the horizon?

The further we travel, the more angry I feel. Gorgeous Tibetan dwellings, with terraced fields cascading down the steep mountain slopes, once looked out across the river to a mountain side marred only by a few people trails and a thin shelf for the rural highway. Now it is nuts. Rubble and tunnels and mudslides and ugly bridges and ridiculous massive landslide control contraptions and dugout hillsides, many blasted with some kind of binder (bentonite?) greet them when they look outside. There is no getting away from it. This work goes on for the entire the length of the new road (hours of driving). It is the price to pay for ease of travel. 

The time and expense has been enormous. Mountains sliced and ground, wherever the need, then an attempt is made to tame the shale-like, unstable insides so that the main feature of this region are the containment structures. The remaining rubble from the demolitions are left in place,  enormous piles of ugliness. Did I mention this is the Snow Mountain National Park? It should be spectacularly beautiful.

Mine, but what kind I do not know. I saw at least seven of these huge operations on my drive out.

Mine, but what kind I do not know. I saw at least seven of these huge operations on my drive out.

And then the slag heaps. Ah, the slag heaps. Of course! Mining. Thus the destruction of an extremely beautiful—and very Tibetan— world. There is gold in them thar hills. And other valuable minerals.

When my husband was traveling in Baja, Mexico in the 1980’s, there was a gas shortage. The hangout was Mama Espinosa’s, where the best lobster tacos in the world could be had. A giant RV pulled into her gas station, and insisted on getting gas. The driver argued that she surely has some she was holding onto for herself, and when she refused to sell him any, because there was none, he drove off in a fury, She turned to Tupper and said, “When we had bad roads, we had good people. Now that we have good roads,we have bad people.”


Once in the village, I feel a shift. Hongpo is far enough up the mountain that the destruction below can be left below…at least for now. The new paved road doesn’t lead all the way to Ah Mo’s house, but the driver stops a (curious) villager and asks after her. Soon Yangtso and Yongdon Drolma (now very tall) appear. I get my money ready. I have decided to pay him a bit extra as there were no passengers to pick up in Deqin. Picking up an extra person traveling a short distance is how drivers plump their coffers. I present him with the bills, but he won’t accept them! I am flabbergasted, but such a fuss is being made of my arrival and my giant suitcase, that I rush off to help carry my burdens.

It is delightful to be here, and memories are flooding back. The season for my visit is different, but as we traipse down the little alleyways, things feel familiar. Except the house is so different that I do not recognize it. We enter from a different side, down concrete steps to an enclosed courtyard. The once great room, with the stove that had the pipe ending about seven feet from the ceiling and a dirt floor, is now three rooms, fully floored and there is a grand entry. The kitchen has the stove, but with proper ventilation. WOW!

They have waited for me to arrive before eating, so as soon as I freshened up (used the TOILET, a real porcelain squat toilet instead of the field), I am ushered into the kitchen and treated to boiled mutton, tofu and rice. It’s not bad at all, in fact the meat is quite tender.  Since there is no one who speaks English here, there is no after dinner conversation for me. I am tired, and a bit sick from the altitude, so I am pleased to be shown my quarters. I have a room to myself, and it is the same room where Dawa Drolma, Dolma, and Yongson Drolma and I slept on my first visit.

Very nice to be “home”.

Also posted in Hongpo Village, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)

Harbin, day 1

A force to be reckoned with, I once again was overwhelmed by the prevailing winds. I think in the long run, all will be well, but for now, I am still recovering from both WN and Harbin. Do I say it was a grand mistake? Well, it simply is what it is, but I would certainly not (NEVER EVER) duplicate the experience.

I cannot blame it on WN, as all of the tours booked the same venues. I had concluded that, since I had communicated that I only wanted to see the ice sculptures, and that I wanted time to photograph them, and that he kept pushing all of the other venues, it must be a government thing. He must HAVE to stick to the established tour route. maybe, but I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a kickback involved at the shops, or that somehow favor was gained. I will never know. I do know that I spent most of my time, and a lot of money, going places that not only did I not want to see, they were devastating to my sensibilities. Usury, of both human and animal worlds.

WN is a fairly good sized man, not fat at all, but thick and muscular, and relatively tall. I neglected to ask if he is Chinese, now that I think about it. He certainly acted quintessentially male Chinese, as my prejudices define it. Very dominant, very forceful, very talkative, very loud, and very pushy. The first thing we did was go to the bank, where I changed my money. Then before a step further was taken, he had me pay him IN FULL. Hmm, this is the guy who was counseling never to pay anyone in China up front. He had an itinerary and all of the gate fees figured out. the gondola to Sun Island, where we were to see the Russian village. As it turned out, only the Russian village, then right back over on the gondola to see the ice swimmers. “Wonderful, yes. Very good, very good.” Three, maybe four, swimmers came out and dove into a seriously cold body of water, one that freezes over when the circulating pump is off. That was it, except for a bathing suit attired couple with whom one could pay to have their photo taken. It was a freak show. The best part was the roasted sweet potato. I bought the steaming tubers, one for each of us, altho I did not see WN ever eat his!

Now, it is important to mention that WN was charging $90 for each day, which would have been just fine if he would have done what I wanted. Also, I believe he was honestly well intended and he was truly helpful in practical matters, like going the next day to get my real train ticket without the burden of dragging my luggage. However, the next day after a couple of hours of some actually interesting sightseeing, he told me he had to leave because his boss called. When I suggested that I should not pay the whole day rate, ” my goodness, my goodness, look what I have done for you. I got your ticket.” occurred. Here again, not really black and white, because he made himself available by phone, and once back in Beijing, he was very helpful in getting me to the correct airport. But I am certainly getting ahead of my story.

Did I mention the van? $100/day for a heated van. I now know for sure, the driver did not get all the money, but, hey, a guy’s gotta make a living! Really. I agreed, and that is fine. The van was there when we needed it, and it truly was warm. Mind you, the temperatures were -14F. Fortunately it is a dry cold.

Also posted in Harbin, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015)