What I didn’t realise when I set out for Lo Manthang was that I would be visiting Tibet. I may have read that Upper Mustang was culturally Tibetan, that they speak a dialect of Tibetan, and practice Tibetan Buddhism, but it was only visiting the monasteries day after day, hearing their low chanting from somewhere in the village, and being blasted out of bed at six am by horns and clashing cymbals that really brought home that this place was not Nepalese. But being in Nepal is what has saved this small pocket from the Chinese.
I think it was when I showed my photos of Mustang to our guide in Tibet (on the side of a mountain, far from the ears and eyes of anyone else, in one of the few places not under constant surveillance by cameras) and he exclaimed, “This is Tibet!” that I fully realised.
No doubt Mustang, so close to the Tibetan border (Lo Manthang is just 20kms), is under some influence from China. People report being forced to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama in exchange for food; there are rumours of Chinese spies; the Chinese installed a (now defunct) solar plant in 2015. But these Tibetans are still free to practice their religion and to travel because they are Nepalese citizens.
So that original journey, to see the mediaeval city of Lo Manthang, has morphed into an exploration of Tibet, or “Tibetaness” and the question that keeps coming to mind is: what is the real Tibet? Is it a place or is it an ideal existing in the hearts of those who identify as Tibetan or who practice Tibetan buddhism and venerate the Dalai Lama?
Having seen how Tibetan’s must live in their country after “liberation” by the Chinese, constantly under surveillance, being unable to trust anyone, even other Tibetans, with no access to the internet, unable to obtain passports, and severely restricted in their movement within Tibet, I decided I needed to see what life is like for those who have managed to escape. So two weeks ago I went to Dharamsala to witness the main Tibetan community in exile.
Unfortunately, it was a short visit; I plan to return and spend some time, but I was able to speak to some about their experience of leaving Tibet and how they felt about their country. I asked the young men working in the restaurant at my hotel whether they were born in Dharamsala or came from Tibet. All of them told me they had fled at varying times, more then ten years before, taking the treacherous journey across the mountains. I asked them if they wished they could go home. I thought they looked nervous when I asked this. Maybe it was my imagination, but having come from somewhere where anyone can dob you in to the Chinese I expect paranoia is hardwired. They said no. They were happier in Dharamsala. Some were hoping to move on to other countries.
One man told me how he hid in his uncle’s truck. His uncle was a business man, able to cross the Nepalese border. The man was just five. He told me he was happy in Dharamsala too. I asked whether if the Chinese left Tibet whether the Tibetans would still want to return. He said that of course this was “the dream” but they aren’t naive enough to expect this to happen, certainly not in their lifetime.
I met with a man named Yeshe Lhundup, who founded Tibet World, an organisation that provides education to Tibetans in Dharamsala in languages and various skills like computer programming and film-making. It provides a sense of purpose and community to those who have fled and helps them settle into the Tibet in exile.
Yeshe fled Tibet in the late ‘90s, walking across the Himalayas with a group. He went back to Tibet couple of years ago to visit his family (everyone I spoke to has left family behind in Tibet). I asked him if this wasn’t risky. He said the Chinese are allowing anyone who has been gone for 18 years to return in safety, but he knew there was a risk he could be detained. He kept to his village, avoiding Lhasa, but told me of his surprise at how the Chinese police constantly patrolled the village, stopping to question him and two friends talking in the street. He said he was surprised he wasn’t detained, having been part of protests before he left, and had written anti-Chinese content. I asked Yeshe if he was happy in Dharamsala. “It is an oasis,” he said. He missed his country and his family, but he too was realistic, saying, “We have lost our country. But there is hope,” which is what our Tibetan guide told me when I asked him about the future of Tibet. I asked Yeshe what he thought would happen when the Dalai Lama died. He agreed things would then become uncertain.
The walls of the hotel where I stayed in Macleodganj were covered in scenes from Tibet. They are the idyllic Tibet: the muscled nomad leading his wife across a stream as she rides a yak, surrounded by mountains; the Potala palace as it was before it became surrounded by roads and buildings and Chinese monuments. And without the Chinese flag perched aloft.
Perhaps this is the only Tibet that will survive, an idealised version, gone forever.
When I first saw the Potala Palace I cried; firstly because I had long dreamed of making the high-altitude train journey to Lhasa and seeing the Potala, and secondly because it was obvious Lhasa is rapidly being turned into another Chinese city, replete with identical high-rise apartment blocks.
We were met at the station by our guide who greeted us with “Tashi Delek!” and the traditional silk katas, which he draped around our necks. Close by was a Chinese soldier armed with a large rifle. Once in the car we were told that we would see many police and soldiers on the streets of Lhasa but that we must not photograph them. Sure enough on the corner where we stopped and were led to our hotel, several police with full riot gear ready to go stood surrounded by Tibetans going about their business. In front of the stony-faced police, smiling Tibetan faces said, “Welcome to Lhasa!”
We followed our guide through the narrow winding streets of what is known as the Tibetan area, as though the whole city weren’t Tibetan. It is the original part of Lhasa and surrounds the most holy of Tibetan Buddhism’s monasteries, the Jokhang. Women in traditional Tibetan dress–a wrap-around pinafore over a blouse and with a colourful striped apron at the front– and some men wearing the traditional Chuba–like an over-sized dressing gown worn with an arm in only one sleeve–walked in a never-ending stream fingering their prayer beads and murmuring prayers. At each corner a camera watched them.
A welcome lunch was provided in the dining room after we stowed our bags and had time to catch our breath. My head was swimming after the jump from 2200m in Xining to 3800m. We were advised to rest that day and not to shower to give ourselves time to adjust. I didn’t need any encouragement to rest although I did try to shower and found the hot water refusing to arrive so gave up.
As we sat at lunch two well-dressed Chinese women came in. My first thought was that they were office workers on their lunch break; they didn’t look like tourists. But it occurred to me that it was strange that such women would come for lunch in a boutique hotel dining room, tucked away in the Tibetan area. I looked at the man behind the bar and saw him looking at them. His face was serious. There was a young couple also having lunch. They looked like backpackers. The barman didn’t stare at them. So my next unsettling thought was, were these plain-clothes police?
And so began nine days of guarded conversation and careful photography. The oppression of constant surveillance cowed my usually adventurous husband. On every other trip we’ve done he strides out early in the morning, often before I’m awake, to explore the area and get his bearings. He made one furtive foray that afternoon and afterwards was too afraid. He became sick and twitched nervously every time I took my phone out to take a picture in the street.
I, on the other hand, was not the slightest bit afraid. I was instead angry and sad that people as gentle as the Tibetans obviously were, had to live this way and that I too had to be intimidated into pretending that China isn’t systematically undermining Tibetan culture. It continues to make me angry because for fear of endangering our guide, I still can’t speak freely.
What I can say was that the Dalai Lama is conspicuous by his total absence in conversation and by being the only high lama whose picture is never seen. Photos of the previous, 13th Dalai Lama, are displayed in the monasteries, as are the Karmapa Lama and controversial, Chinese appointed 11th Panchen Lama, but the only reference to the present Dalai Lama was when we saw what were once his living quarters in the Potala.
I saw the ruins of old houses next to where new buildings were going up. People picked through the rubble. We drove past the new “education precinct” where boarding schools are being built for Tibetan children from other areas of Tibet. Here they will be educated away from their families, taught only in Mandarin from as young as grade three. An enormous portrait of Xi Jinping greets the students at the entrances.
At each entrance to the Barkor, the area that surrounds the Jokhang, police are stationed. All bags must be screened and once we had to produce our passports and were asked which hotel we were staying in. The Tibetans have to produce their ID cards and were frequently questioned. Once inside you step into the clockwise current that sweeps around the monastery, clockwise being the traditional, respectful direction. Shops and restaurants line both sides so you can break off to do some browsing. Police are stationed at regular points and in the square outside the entrance to the Jokhang are firefighters sitting ready. There have been several self-immolations by monks in protest against Chinese controls. Lighters and matches are forbidden in the Barkor.
The Tibetans ignore the police in riot gear, the armoured vehicles, the soldiers marching in formation, and continue in their clockwise pilgrimage. Some perform prostrations as they go, lying face down, getting up, walking a couple of paces, then lying face down again. They wear knee pads and blocks on their hands. The police look on, faces impassive.
As wonderful as it was to go inside the Potala and the Jokhang and wander the narrow streets of the Tibetan area, it was hard to enjoy being in Lhasa, and even as we journeyed south, where the surveillance was only marginally less (we had a camera in our car!) we could never relax and began longing for escape across the border to Nepal, like so many Tibetans who will never have that opportunity. It was like an inevitable punctuation to the end of our trip when our China Lonely Planet guide was confiscated at the border. We bought it in Australia and had used it throughout our three weeks in China but they took it at journey’s end. No books, no maps to be taken out. Paranoia and stupidity combined.
Nevermind. As we walked across the bridge to Nepal, which can’t afford bag screening machines so instead has a quick feel of your bags outside a rough hut, and climbed into a jeep for the bone-jarring ride on the roughest road imaginable to Kathmandu, we still had our Tibet Lonely Planet guides and Pocket Maps stored in our iPads.
A photo of Tsarang is on the front cover of my copy of Michel Peissel’s book. When I showed it to Jit he said, “I think you will see more trees now.” He was right. The village in Peissel’s picture shows numerous, bright green, walled fields but few trees, but now trees grow all through and around the village. Two buildings dominate Tsarang: the monastery and the huge, five-storey, palace.
Michel Peissel spent a lot of time in Tsarang where he stayed in the monastery at the invitation of the abbott. The abbott was the son of the Raja of Lo; he left his monastery to marry and had a son. His wife died when the boy was only four-years-old and the monk decided to return to his monastic way of life, confining himself within the royal apartments of the Tsarang monastery.
…he took a vow to devote himself for three years to solitary meditation, and to study the Tantric paths of enlightenment in atonement for his past behaviour. He also vowed that he would not eat during daylight…
The son was living there with him and about a dozen elderly monks when Peissel came to stay. That boy is now the Crown Prince of Lo, or Gyalchung, as the current Raja* has no surviving children, and while he is often described as being the Raja’s son he is in fact his nephew.
We climbed the rough stone stairs of the old palace and a monk unlocked a wooden door. It had been one hundred years or more since the Raja of Lo used this palace as a residence and it is all but a ruin. Still, the chapel has lamps lit and the seven bowls of water set before its golden gods each morning. I marvelled that it hadn’t fallen down in the earthquake and prayed there would be no tremors as we clambered up a rickety ladder and onto an internal balcony which railings were long gone (if they ever existed). The whole place was dirt, dust, and crumbling stone walls and timbers. One room appeared to have been the “bathroom”, two timber-framed holes in the floor falling the three storeys to the ground below—the traditional style toilet still used by Loba, the waste mixed with hay to become compost. I followed Jit into an adjoining room but he quickly turned and ushered me out saying,
It stunk, and not of animal dung.
The monk then unlocked a door to another small chapel filled with ancient, mediaeval-looking weapons all hanging on the wall or sitting on dusty shelves as though they’d sat there since being put away after the last battle. In 1964 Michel Peissel visited the same room and, from the way he described it, nothing about it had changed. To my amazement even the most gruesome object was still there:
Fumbling around the altar among the swords, our guide eventually gave me a dark brown object that to my disgust I recognised—by the light of the small window—as a dried up human hand!
Hanging on a hook alongside some of the other implements was indeed a black, shrivelled human hand, its dirty, yellowed nails curved, hard and smooth. Peissel was told, or assumed, that it was the hand of a thief which had been cut off as punishment, but when Jit asked the monk he had a different story.
“One who is building this, err, working,” Jit attempted to translate, “then, err, same king is thinking—this very bad thinking—same palace not other place, err, build. For that they cut so after he is not going to work other.”
“Oh, they cut off the builder’s hand so he couldn’t go away and build another palace for someone else?”
“It must be very old,” I said.
“Yes. Not less than, err, more than two centuries old.”
Very bad thinking indeed.
Neville had found a box covered in skulls and asked Jit what was in it. Jit asked the monk.
“Somethings very dead,” said Jit, and laughed.
Hanging on the wall above was a suit of chainmail and I lifted part of it. It was very heavy.
“Is iron, I think so,” said Jit.
Next to it was a helmet and then what looked like a breast plate made of some kind of thin bone.
“Yes I think so one, ee, animal,” Jit tried to explain. “What calling, err, maybe this area I don’t think so. This found, err, lower place.”
“Is it shell?” I asked
“This, you know, err, is skin. Is out of skin this kind of, err, things.”
“Like a crocodile?”
“Err, not crocodile. Other is, this kind is very similar. Is walking like the crocodile in the forest. In some place they find now also. From our village also they found also, mm, like a lizard.”
“Like a big lizard?”
“Like the, err, I don’t know so English name.”
I really had no idea. Nepal has a creature called a gharial that lives in the jungle rivers. It is just like a crocodile, but has a long, very narrow snout with a bulbous growth on the end. Maybe it was a gharial skin.
The monk told us it was too dangerous to visit the rest of the palace and anyway, Jit explained, there was not much else to see, just a whole lot more empty, dusty, rooms, but we were allowed to climb up to the next floor from which we’d get a good view of the village as long as we didn’t stay up there too long. We were now on the fourth floor and through frameless window holes we could see all of Tsarang spread out below us, its neat white-washed houses, their roofs lined with stacked timber, surrounded everywhere by green trees. We even looked down now on the monastery over on its high ridge. On the far side of the village was the large entrance chorten from the cover of Peissel’s book and, beyond this, brown plains where the wind was whipping up the dust towards the dull hills beyond. Jit told us we would be heading that way the next day. He then pointed out a hole in the floor where the earth was crumbling away, and so we quickly climbed down and out.
*The Raja of Lo (king of Mustang) sadly passed away in December 2016, aged 86.
With apologies for a long hiatus, here is the next post:
We were about fifteen minutes into our trek to Luri Gompa when I realised I had left the pouch I always carried with my passport and phone, back at the lodge Yara, where we were staying a second night after Luri. I needed the phone for photos and I never liked to be without my passport, no matter where I was. So Netra, generous and tireless soul that he was, went back to get it for me.
Jit called, “Bistera, bistera,” to Dabendra as we continued on—“slowly, slowly,”—to give Netra time to catch up, but we’d been travelling for about half an hour and he still hadn’t appeared.
“Rose, you are sure it is in your room?” asked Jit.
“Yes. It’ll be on my bed.”
And we ambled on. I got off the horse, because my knees were killing me, and walked for a while. We were travelling upstream along the northern bank of the Puyung Khola which joins the Kali Gandaki at Dhe and Surkhang. It was just a thin trickle in most places. There were many caves high up in the cliffs, as well as at ground level with dry stone walled enclosures built around their openings. There were also some freestanding enclosures with very basic, rough shelters attached, which I imagine are for goats or sheep and their shepherds to take shelter.
We reached Luri and still no Netra, but neither had the guy with the key arrived. Jit found he had phone coverage over on the rise above the river so walked over to call him. Meanwhile, Dabendra mounted the brown horse, bareback (it was carrying no packs because we were returning to Yara for another night), and took off to find Netra. He found him waiting at the small village of Ghara. Netra had taken the high road and, not being able to find us, had decided to wait there. And he had my pouch. Having found Netra, Dabendra turned and rode back to Luri, while Netra walked, arriving at the same time as the key holder. Jit, Neville and I were sitting on the ground waiting when Dabendra came galloping at full tilt. He pulled the horse up sharply and, with no saddle to hold him, pitched head first over the horse’s head and onto the hard, rocky ground. We rushed over to see if he was ok, but he promptly picked himself up, tossed his head and said he was fine. He spent the next two days limping.
While Dabendra slept on the ground by the horses, the man with the key took us first to a small gompa on the flat ground high above the river. Strings of ragged prayer flags criss-crossed above it and fluttered in the breeze. Jit told us this gompa was only about one hundred years old. The guide unlocked the door and we entered a dimly lit room. It was like the other monasteries we’d visited but clearly little used. Statues stood at one end and in front the altar were butter lamps and bowls of water. The guide lit a butter lamp and quietly intoned some prayers. Jit told us that someone comes early every morning to do this, or if there are visitors, will wait and do it then. After a quick look inside we followed the man out and waited while he lit a small fire in the courtyard using some of the aromatic plant that grows all over the hills, and said some more prayers.
Across the river the high red cliffs had been eroded into sharp pointed flutes, the eroded earth piled against the base and falling away into the narrow gorge. They resembled giant termite mounds. Caves dotted the lower parts.
“Ah!” cried Jit, pointing at a very sharp, high flute. “I see this when I come here last time, but I thought in the earthquake maybe it has fall down, but still there.”
The flute had a flat disk-shape that appeared to balance on top. It protruded high above the rest of the cliff. The guide looked up as well and then spoke to Jit, explaining something. Jit translated:
“He says, mmm, there was very powerful lama living in a cave here,” he said, and turned to point at the many caves in the cliffs behind us. “Every morning, he is fly across the river, and build this, ee, stone here on top.”
I pictured the lama calmly leaving his spartan cave each morning and flying across in the thin, cold air, his maroon robes flapping, to place another piece on the point he was building.
There was a stone wall enclosure that had been built out from the base of the cliff on our side of the gorge, which Jit said had been used for monks who wished to meditate for long periods. People from the nearby village would bring food each day. The walls were now crumbling, the stones falling away down the slope.
“The monks looking for the quiet place with nobody disturbing. And ça monks are powerful,” said Jit with awe.
We now began the climb to the cave gompa. We passed three crumbling chortens with poles stuck in their tops and prayer flags strung between them. Little remained of the paint and engravings on the sides. One had completely collapsed and was just a mound of yellow clay with some stones sticking out. A square red building sat perched high up on the cliff but the gompa itself was inside one of the many caves. To reach this we had to follow a steep track up and across a metal bridge, covered along its length with prayer flags, and then up higher still until we reached a cave below the building. We entered and climbed a wooden ladder. Beside the new ladder sat the old one, a notched log such as we had seen in Lo Monthang and many other villages. We huffed and puffed in the thin air.
We entered a small cave where there were several smallish statues set against the back wall. Behind these were silk thangkas. In front was an old cabinet along which were some small bowls, and beside this a low table with a couple of butter lamps on it. On the left was a small chorten. Large tea pots and other vessels sat on other tables and on the uneven floor. Everything was grimy with dirt and soot. The guide lit the lamps and stood chanting prayers in a low voice while we waited quietly. He then unlocked a door on the left and we entered a small cave that was almost entirely filled with a polished, ornately painted chorten. Jit pointed to the outer wall where there was a section made from mud.
“This was open, but now block,” he said, “because people is coming to take things. Maybe Khampas. This area many Khampas. Maybe Khampas destroy and find the gold or something.”
“Gold?” I asked
“Inside the chorten they put in there normally gold or many valuable things. And mantra also.”
Michel Peissel describes how on leaving the chorten cave, which he likened to “Ali Baba’s cave” they were indeed “assailed by the ‘forty thieves’—some two score Khampas, who wanted to know if we had arms, saying they ‘needed them badly’. I persuaded them with some difficulty that I had none.”
Of all the chortens and paintings we had seen in the monasteries we’d visited, this one was unique. It is known as the “Hundred Thousand Dragons Chorten”. Luri belongs to a sub-sect of the Kagyu school of Buddhism, a sect which came after the Nyingmapa and Sakya sects of Lo Gekar and the monasteries of Lo Monthang and was established in about the twelfth century. The Kagyu sect has a heavy emphasis on tantric meditation, believing that enlightenment can be reached in one lifetime if meditation is practiced enough, which I guess explains the meditation cell and the possibility of powerful flying lamas. Nobody knows who built Luri Gompa but it is estimated to have been built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The paintings on the highly polished chorten and on the domed ceiling and walls around it resembled the art of central Asian countries and was quite different to that seen in the monasteries of Lo Monthang and the other monasteries we had seen in Mustang. Images of high lamas were painted on the domed ceiling above, and below these were white flowers, something like chrysanthemums, on curling stems and with white leaves on a green background. At the very top of the ceiling above the chorten was an intricate mandala. The chorten itself looked and felt more like enamel than the clay from which it was built, so smooth and polished was its surface.
Along the inside wall something had been painted in large Tibetan script.
“Is this ‘om mane padme hum’? I asked Jit.
He consulted with the guide who read the script quietly muttering some ‘oms’ and ‘padmes’ under his breath. He then explained to Jit who translated:
“Is different mantra. ‘Om mane padme hum’ normalment but little bit mixed.”
Next to the door a sequence of vertical lines had been painted, like someone keeping tally and the guide said he thought it may have been someone keeping count of the circumambulations of the chorten, but he really didn’t know.
Stooping through the low doorway again, we returned to the room with the statues. Opposite was another small wooden door.
“What’s in there Jit?” I asked. He spoke to the guide then turned to me.
“This is a little dangerous,” he explained in a low, serious voice. “When-ça ceremony time they open, but is, ee,…like the goddess.”
“It’s dangerous for us because the goddess doesn’t like to be disturbed?”
We climbed another ladder and emerged onto the roof of the red building to find a small solar panel. From here we looked down through a hole into an adjoining cave where the guide had again lit a fire in a small hearth in the middle of the room and was intoning more prayers. There was a shallow depression in the inner wall that looked like a small fireplace but with no chimney, which would explain the blackened walls and ceiling. Above it a ledge had been cut like a mantlepiece, and on this sat some rocks and a tarnished vessel with a very narrow neck. A copper bowl sat on a battered, broken, wooden, table, which had a thick coating of dust. More caves could be seen through holes in this cave. The cliff was honeycombed with caves.
“I think so, many house before; many room, many house,” said Jit.
He was guessing. Not much is known about any of Mustang’s caves. They’re estimated to be around 3000 years old and it’s assumed people lived in them at some time. Maybe Luri’s caves were inhabited by a community of monks, maybe the monks took them over after they had been long abandoned. I like the fact that the caves, the monastery, the extraordinary chorten and the unusual paintings are still a mystery.
We joined Dabendra, lying on the rocky ground enjoying his sleep, and ate some of Netra’s dried fruit and nuts and I pulled out the apple I’d save from Dhi. I ate half and gave the rest to the white horse. There was not another soul around. The guide had locked up and gone back to his village. We sat and relaxed in the sun. Across the gorge, the sharp fluted peaks that formed the cliff were topped with a completely flat, plain. There were many of these plains high above the river gorges and Michel Peissel described them as being “so level that a large aeroplane could have landed without so much as one stone needing to be moved out of the way.” The barren hills rose beyond them rolling away to the south in yellow-brown waves, and far away on the horizon, peaks topped with patches of snow.
The next day, we rode north to the area of Chhosar and the village of Garphu. We followed a rough sandy track, on the western bank of the Kali Gandaki. Here it was much narrower and quite dry. Its vertical banks were a long way above the small rivulets, timidly snaking their way at this time of year. Around us the land spread out, dry and barren but for the patchy clumps of spindly grass. High on rounded hills stood the ruins of forts. I read that sky burials were performed in this remote place.
Our arrival at Chhosar piqued the interest of three small grubby children who stood staring at us, fingers in mouths, thick streams of snot heading south, outside the one shop, which doubles as a cafe, selling warm Coke and cans of Budweiser with Chinese writing on the sides, Lhasa beer, juice poppers, biscuits, noodles, chips, strings of beads, shampoo, vaseline, phone recharge cards and anything else a village might need. A radio blared “I’m a gangsta baby!”.
We followed Jit on foot across a hard dirt soccer pitch and up to the Shija Jhong caves.
Holes could be seen going up about five levels. A set of stairs had been constructed for easy access to the entrance, but once inside it was extremely cramped and difficult to get around. The main entrance cave was about the only one with any space for more than a couple of people and in which anyone could stand comfortably. Here an old woman in grubby traditional dress sat on a bench, smiling a toothless smile. It was her job to guard the caves but there wasn’t a lot to steal. Against the inside wall was a glass-fronted cabinet containing dusty clay bowls and flasks, a few broken saligrams (Ammonite fossils revered by Hindus as incarnations of the goddess Shiva), a couple of traditional animal skin shoes and one gold Buddha pendant on a chain. On another wall hung a filthy striped apron, torn and fraying, a few small canvas bags, and some white and yellow silk katas had been strung across the ceiling. All of the blackened walls had been graffitied, with things like “Ganesh” and “Jomsom” and things in Devanagari script, the traditional script of Nepal. The ceilings were as though covered in black diamonds, hard and shiny, presumably blackened by centuries of cow dung fires.
In places the caves formed corridors along which other caves led off. There was nothing in any of them except piles of feathers on the loose dirt floors. They gave off a cold dusty smell. We stooped our way through them and up and down ladders, puffing heavily in the thin cool air.
After the caves we headed over to the Nyphu monastery. It was perched above a small collection of houses, all joined together. We stopped to look south.
Cirrus clouds feathered across the hard blue sky and in the gap between the barren hills which sat either side of the village, the snow-capped Annapurnas could be seen once more, far to the south now. The place seemed deserted except for an old woman who came walking up the side of one of the houses, hands clasped behind her back, the coloured stripes of her apron dulled by layers of brown dust. Her head was wrapped in a green scarf, black leggings emerged from the bottom of her equally dusty bukkhoo and she wore white joggers on her feet. She gazed up at us then turned to see what we were looking at.
As we walked up the stairs to the monastery door, a goat went ahead of us and stood with us on the front porch as we waited for someone to bring the key. At last one of the monks appeared and, after shooing away the goat, unlocked the wooden door with much creaking and scraping. As he pushed it open, the smell of incense rushed out. It was a small monastery, 700 years old and of the Nyingmapa sect, the oldest one, established by Padmasambhava the same as Lo Gekar. The wall paintings were in very bad condition, blackened and fading as in the monasteries of Lo Manthang. Gold Buddha statues sat complacently behind glass, one holding a pearlescent lotus flower, the other holding two of its hands in a prayer position while the other two hands were held out to the sides, fingers and thumbs curled toward one another.
Garphu monastery sat in a small courtyard amongst the houses. Atop its entrance were gleaming golden statues of two deer facing the Dharmachakra or Dharma wheel. This is a common image above the entrance of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. These mythical deer, a male and female, representing peace and compassion, have just one horn and are known as Tibetan unicorns, magical creatures that manifest only in the presence of great teachers. They raise their eyes to the Dharma Wheel in aspiration to reach Dharma or Nirvana.
Back at the shop-cafe we ordered fried rice and Jit and Netra sat and drank warm Budweiser. Many people came into the shop and bought Coke. While we waited, we watched the TV, on which men with perfect hair and heavy eye makeup chased each other along some busy Indian street, and laughed along with the others. We couldn’t understand a word of the Hindi movie, but there didn’t seem to be much of a story anyway.
As we wandered the streets of Lo Manthang, we kept passing a tall red building, solid and windowless. There were rectangular holes cut into the lower part of the walls and I put my eye to them but felt only cold blackness. I turned the torch on on my phone and shone it through the hole, but its feeble light was no match for that darkness.
There was one thing I was determined to see in Lo Manthang, and that was the enormous statue of the Buddha that Michel Peissel had come across in his explorations, and I suspected that this dark building was where it sat.
Jit arranged for us to see the three monasteries of Lo Manthang. We first visited the Chode monastery where the monastic school is located and heard eighty-three small monks reciting their scriptures. Next to the monastery was a chorten that contains the body of a powerful lama. It also contains a relic from an abbott who had died twelve years before and the guide told us that when he died, snow fell in Kathmandu for the first time in sixty-two years.
Another guide, Tashi, carrying a large torch, led us along the streets and into a courtyard. We climbed some steps to the walkway above and he unlocked the padlock on a heavy, carved wooden door. The sound echoed as in a large cavern and we stepped into the gloom. As my eyes adjusted, there opposite, rising up out of the gloom below, was the great, golden statue of the Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come, at once benevolent and forbidding. For 600 years, since the founding of Lo Monthang, it had sat there. On the altar against the railing before it, as well as butter lamps and bowls of water, were offerings of rice, money, biscuits, a juice popper, and a cylinder of Pringles chips. A woman stood, fervently intoning prayers.
Leaning over the railing, I peered down into the lower floor where the base of the statue sat. Beyond the base, impenetrable darkness.
I asked Tashi what was in the floor above and he told me it was a Mahakala room and therefore dangerous to enter. Mahakala is the fierce protector god.
Tashi then took us to the Tubchen monastery. We entered what I can only describe as a vast cathedral. Great pillars, thirty-five of them, the width of whole tree trunks held up the roof, almost eight metres high, the floor space 28 by 18 metres. The brackets atop the pillars were intricately carved and around the edge of the skylight recess were snow lions, mythical creatures of the Himalayas symbolising fearlessness and unconditional, youthful joy.
Tashi was one of a group of artists working with Italian experts to restore the Jampa and Tubchen monasteries. In both, the paintings had deteriorated from age, soot from the butter lamps and incense, and water leaking from the ceilings. The walls had been cleaned and, in some places, resurfaced and new paint added. In some places, whole new paintings were being added to replace those completely lost.
Thousands of dollars of foreign money is being spent on the restoration, but younger Lobas are leaving and those with money invest it abroad. In a place that has no health facility beyond a health post staffed by the equivalent of a paramedic, there is tension about the money being spent on the restorations. While some people feel it is important to maintain their heritage and culture, others feel it is the foreigners who really want it. There is speculation that the palace will not be restored before the Raja is too old to return and that it may become a museum.
Will Lo Manthang eventually become just one great, remote museum for foreigners to visit?
From Tragmar we climbed steeply between the red cliffs and, after stopping to catch our breath, set off across gently undulating country. The yellow, grey, and white of the Tibetan plateau stretched before us, shadowed in places by heavy, dark clouds.
There were no villages now before Lo Manthang, but at morning tea time, we descended a gentle slope to the ancient monastery of Lo Gekar. Also called Gar Gompa or “house monastery”, Lo Gekar means “pure virtue of Lo”. It sits on a rise above a stream, surrounded by trees. The horses were let free to graze on the green grass that stretched away to the edge of the stream, while we explored the monastery.
Jit led us into a small building where we turned the large prayer wheel three times, then we climbed the steps and entered through a heavy brown wool curtain into the gloom of the monastery. Lo Gekar is 1300 years old, the oldest monastery in Mustang, and was established after Padmasambhava stopped there to meditate on his way from India to Tibet where he introduced Buddhism. It smelled of smoke and incense. Small paintings of Buddhas covered two walls and set in an alcove behind glass, were life-sized statues of two goddesses, one seated on a cow, the other on a horse. David Snellgrove identified the one on the cow as “Fierce lady with Good Things”; our guide told us she was the protector goddess, which I guess amounts to the same thing.
After lighting a butter lamp for our safe journey, Jit called me over to one corner and we crouched down to see a small image of the Buddha carved into the stone wall. It was about a foot high, worn smooth over time; in the creases were remnants of gold paint.
“Tara,” the guide said.
“Tara?” I replied.
“Ya, Tara.” I had no idea what he meant. I later learnt that Tara is a female incarnation of the Buddha. Jit searched hard for the words to explain.
“This is, errr, nobody is, err, it’s a-come just out like that. Maybe when some, errr, meditation, err, Padmasambhava it comes like that.”
I had been concentrating hard to understand him, then realised what he meant.
“So it just appeared?” I said
“Yes!” replied Jit.
“So it just appeared in the stone?”
“Ya,” replied Jit and the guide together.
It was a “self-emanating” Buddha, of which there are apparently several throughout Mustang and Tibet.
I needed the toilet and after following the directions found a free-standing building perched above a steep drop that fell away down to the river. It was a rough squat toilet, just two boards set into the floor with a gap in the middle. I tried to ignore the enormous pile of excrement underneath. I stood up and looked out the small square window. The view to the east looked over the terraced fields of the village of Marang, pink and fading green, edged with dark green trees, like all the other villages, defiantly brimming with life as the desert mountains jealously closed in around them. Craggy bare hills stretched away, and to the south, white peaks guarded the horizon.
After sweet tea in the dining room upstairs, we set off once again crossing the rocky stream via a small wooden bridge, before climbing to the next pass and on to Lo Manthang.