Monthly Archives: January 2012

No expectations

If anything this whole documentary filmmaking journey has trained me to be, is to never ever expect things to happen the way I envisioned and learn to make peace with anything, good or bad coming my way.

The monk’s gathering lasted a few days – 15 I think. One of the days the debated lasted until deep into midnight. I didn’t know all these until …

In the morning, I followed the crowd again to the monastery, and to the main praying hall. The monks’ debate was on in full swing. There were less spectators this time and people could get in much closer to hear the questions and answers. So, I inserted myself close to a heatedly debating group and filmed some.

The pilgrims were a curious bunch and a few of them wanted to look through my view finder. So I moved to another group.

“Come over here, Comrade.” Someone padded me on my shoulder and said. It was one of the helpers with name tag. With perfect Mandarin, he was apparently not a Tibetan.

“Where are you from?”

“Where is your registration paper?”

“You need registration paper.”
“Oh, where do I get that?”
“Go back to the gate. Don’t let us see you here again.”

I didn’t bother to argue. Seemingly, nearly every pilgrim with a camera phone was recording.

Stuffed my cameras in and I stood a bit more just observing. A little while, another hand on my shoulder with the same question set. It was clear I had to leave now. I did know a path from the hill from behind though.

Going against the main traffic, I walked toward the entrance. Right outside the gate, I saw a familiar face. It was the first village chief I ran into at my filming site, the head of Gasha. I walked over to him, took my sunglasses off, and was greeted with the firmest handshake. Zubaji still remembered me and he was one of the helpers.

I described to him what happened and he dragged me back in to the monastery. “Follow me”, he said. So I did, back to the action, took out my camcorder, and filmed a bit more. I didn’t want to cause trouble for Zubaji and he was expected as his post at the entrance so we walked out shortly after. We made plans to meet for tea after he finished working.

With the light of the day so beautiful, I opted to take another walk to the Kham side of the monastery. Hardly a soul there with all the action on the other side of the river. A treat for me. Revisiting a place is always a luxury and a test to the eyes — what’s still fresh that inspires artistic pondering?

Some of the monks were working on a new roof for a big, golden temple. It was to the point they need to put three giant prayer’s wheel like caps on the top of the roof. I watched. When they were almost done, one of the monks posed by it and his friend took pictures.

A pack of jeep zipped by me to the courtyard of the monks’ quarter and out came some government officials delivering some goods to the monks, rice and stuff. A camera crew followed the action. All good deeds need to be recorded; it’d be on the evening news I bet.

Tea time, Zubaji called.

We met at a dingy tea house in the town center, him and two of his friends, one of them, Shiketa, ran a horse trekking service for tourist in the summer. Shiketa had a rugged look, chain-smoked, and spoke fairly good Mandarin. He claimed to know everyone in town and promised to find me a good translator I had been searching for in vain who could transcribe what I recorded, and hopefully for my later trips too.

Tea house seemed to be a place for men and I seemed out of place there, which was something I’ve gotten quite used to. Our conversation carried to dinner at a Muslim noodle shop and Zuba offered to take me back in to the monastery the next day.

Came the next morning, I went to the monastery entrance again and called Zuba, but no answer. I waited for about half hour and eventually he came out, also along with Daerji, who came down to help as well. With Zuba wanted at the gate, Daerji walked me in.

Less than two hundred meters when we walked together in the monastery, two monks stopped me.

“You can’t come inside. Go out.”

Daerji was not in a position to make opposition. And I didn’t want to make my curiosity a trouble for my friends. They asked Daerji in Tibetan, but I could make out the same question.

“Where is she from?”

I was glad I had a clever friend.

Daerji and I stopped shortly to talk to Zuba, who was a bit nervous looking and started mumbling scripture. Causing trouble to him was the last thing I’d want to see so I quickly walked away.

Not knowing if my continued staying here would be a good idea for my friends, I called Shike and told him about my concern. An hour later he came to town and we met in another tea house, along with a Hui man, Old Ding. Eventually Shike did get to talk to Zuba and all seemed to be okay. Old Ding was from the earliest and still biggest Hui muslim family in Langmusi. The two of them sure knew so much about this place than anybody else. The friction between the two monasteries, what happened during the cultural revolution, Shike’s story treating tourists’ high altitude sickness, the foreigner’s ban, the self-immolation of the lamas two years ago, the living buddha’s secret visit, etc., etc. Here a Buddhist Tibetan, a Hui Muslim, and me, an international wanderer sharing stories that could be very big or very small. Why I ended up here? How come my fate brought me here to meet these people? I’m amazed at all the serendipities in my life.

Next trip should be really interesting.

Monk’s Conference

A couple of days within I got in to Langmusi, there was a big gathering of monks and lamas and living buddhas from monasteries around the region.

The one and half street became busy. The early arrivals, mostly young monks perused the few shops. China Mobile office seemed to be a favorite among them. They also bought big quantity of rice and noodles and vegetables to bring to the monks’ quarter in the monastery, on the Si’Chuan side.

I strolled in as usual among pilgrims, now in much bigger number. The Si-Chuan side of the monastery was split in half by a warm stream coming down from the mountain. The main praying hall on the north side, a main temple directly across. One of the earlier afternoons, I saw a few monks practicing drumming and dancing in the big open square in front of the main praying hall. Now strangely, the square was all quiet while the streets and the streams full of life. I asked a young monk when they would start, “4 in the afternoon”, he told me.

Back to the street with more monks and cars. Near the entrance was a small line-up of about 50 monks. Before I realized what was happening, a motorcade rolled in and the monks started throwing paper prayers into the air. At the end of the motorcade was a good sized truck with a blissful monk standing in the back bed holding a Sony Ex1 on a tripod. He would have some nice footage from that high point.

Close to 4, I returned back to the main square, now filled with pilgrims and the monks were sitting in the center. A lot of them held their yellow high hat in their arms. Many photographers were busy occupying the best vintage points. I got pushed among the pilgrims and couldn’t move much.

Through the loud speaker a very assertive voice started making announcement in Tibetan, followed by another very assertive voice saying something very important. Helpers with name tag hanging on their neck kept people from rushing too much into the center. A few of the pilgrims prostrated on the ground, a lot more were mumbling.

As soon as there was some space in the crowd, I squeezed through to the side and caught a few shots of the sitting monks in the setting sun. It got really cold so I walked back to my hotel to add another layer. By the time I got back in, the lecture was just over and the monks rushed to find any corner they could to release themselves.

People didn’t move, so I stood around as well.

Shortly after the break, the monks came back to the center square and formed groups of threes, one sitting, one standing across, and one on the side. The one standing would say a few words, then clapped his hands in front of the one sitting, the other one monitored. Sometimes it sounded like a command, sometimes it sounded like a question that demanded, hopefully, enlightened answers.

I was not the only one amused by the scene. A few took photos and some had their camcorder out among the crowd. Even some of the pilgrims used their cell phone to record.

The night started to fall but the monks had no intention of stopping. The actions and discussions were heated among them and some bigger groups formed when I believed a question became worthy of more listeners to answer.

As I moved as discreetly as possible among the monks’ groups, I came upon an older monk who was also an onlooker. With the shadowy mountain as the backdrop and the low and high waves of shouting debates as the background, he pulled out an iPad2 from his robe and started recording the actions. Most of the monks kept on their routine while a few turned their heads in amazement. I’d say, Glory to Steve Jobs.

I walked away not knowing when the monks would call it their day. Only the sound of the stream rushing through the rocks could be heard once I got on the path toward the entrance. It was another gorgeous night.

Nothing is sacred; everything is sacred.


The mountain path from Maqu to Langmusi was magnificent even in silhouette, I only wish I had more daylight to see it — it was pitch dark when I got into town.

Langmusi town looked much smaller than what I imagined. One and a half street and that was all. Almost all the shops had shut the lights off, which made all the winter stars above the mountain peaks looked ever so bright.

I could very well be the only guest in the hotel, so the owner was particularly nice to me. It was almost surreal to enjoy a quiet night in the mountain in the luxury of a nice bed with clean sheets and heated blanket.

The next morning, I took an early morning walk to the monastery on the Kham side. Hardly any tourists come at this time of the year so nobody bothered to stay at the ticket booth. I just strolled in like any other Tibetan pilgrims.

The main stupa glittered in the sun. One old lady sat in the room pushing a big prayer’s wheel. The bell from her constant spinning sounded especially crisp in the quiet morning. Inside the main praying hall monks and lamas were having a lecture session. Their black cotton boots spread outside the courtyard. The bright orange walls with boldly decorated window frames caught my attention especially. In the highland plateau, sunlight must be the the most heavenly thing to worship, to me at least. And maybe that’s why the orange color? The door frames were also quite interesting, most contain the wooden carving of an elephant head. I’m not that versed in religious history to know enough about the significance of elephant in Tibetan Buddhism, but for people in a snow-covered world tower to keep that tradition around after so long, the elephants must be something particularly sacred.

Maroon-robed monks appeared here and there. Most looked really young, like teenagers. When the morning session was over at the main praying hall, young monks rushed out in groups to their nearby living quarter. One boy monk somehow stayed behind. I caught a picture of him looking up to face the oversized drapes with paintings of the Tibetan Eight Treasures.

The whole monastery looked too new to me.

At the corner of a small temple stacked a few abacus looking “device”, wooden frames with beads threaded through either a string or a small stick inside. I liked the weathered-look of them. Curious why they were there, I waited for some pilgrims to come over, and soon realized the purpose of them: a counter to remember how many circles people have walked around the temple. It’s quite important for the pilgrims to move in clock-wise direction. How they pushed the prayer’s wheel, the way they circle the temple, even their path inside the monastery. Me, on the other hand, often find myself on the a wandering path.

The highest building in the monastery is the residence of the living buddha. I tried to walk up but was stopped by a “Stop, Be aware of dog” sign.

Prayer’s flags in the thousands flapped in the wind on the high hill. I walked a small snow-spotted path to see them. Sky-burial site should be somewhere close by as well, though I didn’t intent to look for it. Small paper prayers littered the ground like snow flakes. Aimlessly, I walked the ridge following the prayer’s flags, enjoying my day among the mountains. I like Langmusi much better than the town of Zoige.