I’m giving up (for the moment) on catching up, as it appears we have another day or two of heavy-duty traveling ahead of us. It’s frustrating to me not to have time to write – I’m totally unused to traveling on someone else’s schedule, and we’re busy from dawn to dusk on most days. I have a spare hour or two right now, so I’ll talk about Xining.
Xining is the capital of Qinghai Province, in the northwest of China on the Tibetan plateau. There are, not too surprisingly, quite a few Tibetans living here and so the focus has been on Tibetan things: we went to a museum about Tibetan carpetmaking, thangkas (Buddhist religious paintings), and Buddhist sculpture. We visited a grand mosque (not very exciting), a park (even less exciting), and the Tibetan Kum Bum monastery, which actually was exciting – perhaps “fascinating” would be a better word.
The Kum Bum monastery is one of the major monasteries outside Tibet – the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism, and a former residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (i.e. the current Dalai Lama). It has nine temples, of which we saw three or four. The first one was the Lesser Temple of the Golden Roof, which was fascinating – inside the courtyard (no photos allowed, alas) the second floor balconies hosted nine or ten taxidermied animals – bear, goat, cow, and yak among others – which represented the animals that the Buddha tamed. (I may have this wrong, our guide’s English was not the world’s best, and it was so noisy with the pilgrims and other tour groups that it was sometimes hard to understand him.) The scent of Tibetan incense was in the air, reminding me of my trip to Dharamsala in India. It’s a pleasant smell, sort of like woodsmoke with a hint of sandalwood, and I really like it.
The second temple we visited was the Great Hall of the Golden Roof, which was gigantic, and unfortunately so dim that it was hard to make out the beautiful Buddhist tapestries and Buddha sculptures in the hall. It was packed with pilgrims, and I found it hard to really appreciate given the press of people (a pickpocket would have had a field day).
The last temple we visited (I’m skipping a couple of temples that, while beautiful, flatten out when trying to describe them) was the Hall of Butter Sculpture, which featured sculptures and tableaux made of colored yak butter.
You are probably thinking of this as some sort of curiosity, like those little decorative butter pats they have at fancy hotels. No, this is closer to Art. The sculptures were every bit as detailed and gorgeously painted as any other Buddha statue I’ve seen – they were simply made of yak butter. (Yak butter, which comes in three grades – one for lamp oil, one for eating, and one for religious use – is a considerably harder fat than cow butter, so is pretty solid at room temperature.) You’d never know it was yak butter if someone didn’t tell you – “waxworks” would be more appropriate a term than “butter sculpture”.
A brief word on yaks. They are cute. Damn cute. I mean, really really really “take me home and feed me” cute. I saw one up close (and paid to take a photo with one) at Sun Moon Mountain, and if I could figure out how to get it home, I would have bought it on the spot. I have no idea what their temperament is like (considerably fiercer than cows if I remember correctly), but they are just adorable. Viz:
Not the best photo, but I haven’t had a chance to dig into Mike’s considerably better collection of photos yet.
We then stopped by a model Tibetan village, where I came across this “woodshed” full of yak-dung patties:
They are used for fuel (of course), but according to our guide yak dung is also used to clean food dishes while on the move, since there isn’t much water available. I don’t think I buy this, but it’s what the guide says. *shrug*
I almost forgot! Before the lamasery, we stopped by Yet Another Jade Shopping Opportunity, where we were herded into a small room and harangued at length and with great enthusiasm in Cantonese, by a guy dressed like a Vietnamese pimp, with no translation since our guide didn’t speak Cantonese. I figured he was simply selling us timeshares in South Florida, but it turned out that he was a jade wholesaler and was trying to convince us to become retailers for him. (My mom understood most of what he was saying, but refused to translate, because, as she said, “I’m not going to make his sales pitch for him.”)
So anyway, that was the cross-cultural surreal moment of the day. After the lamasery and the Tibetan village, we went to Qinghai Lake, the largest salt-water lake in China, which was both freezing cold and thoroughly unexciting. From there we went to a hot-pot dinner restaurant, and thence back to the hotel.
Tomorrow morning we fly out early to Xian, where we’ll be visiting the terra cotta soldiers and getting some kind of cultural performance in the evening. Hopefully, we won’t get any more Cantonese timeshares in South Florida, but you never know.