Chapter 20 – Tibetan Hospitality
On the afternoon of my first full day at Zhilom Hostel in Kangding, China, I sat around chatting over tea with a couple Welsh chicks who’d been accompanied by one Welsh dude. Somehow we ended up discussing a trip to India they’d taken several years beforehand.
“We were all kinds of sick in India,” one of the girls said.
“Yeah, so sick – shitting our pants on the bus and so forth,” the guy chimed in.
“Like, pretty much everyone we met there had gotten sick.”
“Except that one fat girl, remember her? Well, she did end up getting sick in the end I suppose.”
“Oh right, right. I forgot about her,” she nodded. “So, we met this group of three girls – I think it was in Chennai but don’t remember for certain. Two of them had been pretty skinny as it was and the third had been quite a bit on the chunky side. And while they were travelling around, the two skinny ones had gotten sick and were losing a bunch of weight and getting supermodel thin but the fat one didn’t and she got jealous about it. So, what she did was lick the bottom of her shoe – because it’d been in contact with diseased excrements and what-not in public restrooms – to purposely get sick so she too could go on ‘The India Diet.’”
“Holy shit. More like the diarrhea diet,” I laughed. “Did it work for ‘er?”
“Well, she was still quite fat when we met her, but I think it was a work in progress as she seemed to be as violently ill as everybody else.”
“Oh man, that’s pretty desperate,” I said then guzzled down the rest of my tea. “So what are you guys doin’ today? Any interest in checkin’ out any of the local temples? I’m headin’ off to go have a look at ‘em right now.”
They told me that they’d already had other plans and I told ‘em I’d see ‘em later.
After walking for about twenty-five minutes along a narrow path on a mountainside which had been carved through patches of fresh, freely growing cilantro, I ended up at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of which I never caught the name.
As I began wandering around the place taking photographs, I walked through some long and dark hallway with dorm rooms on each side in which monks had been resting. When I came out on the other end, I found myself in a courtyard with what looked like the main temple straight up ahead in front of me. It was quite large and seemed to have more monk dormitories on both the right and left sides of the building which formed a square around the courtyard.
I walked up to the door of the temple which was slightly ajar and could hear strange Mongolian-throat-singer-sounding chants coming from the inside. Just to the left of the door had been a circular painting – they actually appear on the outside of all Tibetan Buddhist temples – of what’s known as a “bhavacakra” or “wheel of cyclic existence.”
The symbolism of the bhavacakra is extremely deep and is meant to convey all aspects of human life but to someone not in the know, the paintings come across as goofy and perverted as well as – from the voice of the good little devout Catholic I was raised to be – grossly and unacceptably pagan. What was depicted on a few wedges of this wheel had been naked humans being tortured by man-beasts whose hair looked like it was on fire. Some of the people were being impaled on tree branches, some boiled in a giant cauldron and some were getting chopped up with a hatchet. It even showed some naked chick with blood bursting out her crotch as she gave birth to a child in the doggy-style position.
As I’d been photographing all this unbelievable shit on the wheel of existence, a monk came and poked his head out the door of the temple through which he must’ve seen me standing out there and urged me to come inside. I was a bit apprehensive but accepted the invitation nonetheless.
After ditching my shoes, I stepped into the temple which had been as colorfully painted as the wheel on the outside. In the center of the room, a bunch of monks who were wearing bizarre hats that looked like Spartan battle helmets with the Mohawk in the middle had been making strange groaning noises while women in traditional Tibetan clothing sat around the outer edges of the room praying. Whereas most of them just stared at the white boy in confusion, wondering what he’d been doing there, some ladies just to the left of the entrance non-verbally caught my attention and suggested that I sit down next to them. I nodded “okay” and one of them moved a bunch of shit just to accommodate me. I thanked her with a smile and popped a squat.
The lady immediately to my left liked talking to me very much even though I did not understand a word she’d been saying. After every phrase, I’d just smile and shrug. While she continued jabbering at me, I took in as much of the scene as I could for the next five minutes – it was beautiful by the way, a truly unique experience that can never be replicated – and then bailed on the temple.
Back out in the courtyard, as I once again took to wandering about, I made eye contact with some twenty-year-old Tibetan kid who – judging by his street clothes – had not been a monk and nodded at him. He nodded back in my direction in a way that said “follow me” and started walking away.
After I hustled a bit to catch up, he briefly turned back to look at me and said something that I did not understand then kept walking. I shrugged and said “tashi delek” – which is Tibetan for “hello” – and continued to follow him. He walked up to a building that was entirely covered in scaffolding that looked like it had been made of scrap wood hastily pieced together. There, he clambered up a ten-foot long plank positioned at a forty-five degree angle that’d had bent nails sticking out of it which he stepped on to keep his feet from slipping out beneath him. I was hesitant to follow.
From the next level, he looked back at me. I pointed at my chest then at him, making certain he wanted me to tag along. He nodded and waved his hand. I decided to walk the plank.
On the next level, along the outer edges of the building, I tried to keep up with the kid as he walked with complete trust along some thin-ass two-foot-wide boards that sagged down in the middle between support beams that I was terrified were going to give out on me. When we got to the corner of the building, we turned right and continued along the shaky-ass planks until we hopped onto a roof of a lower part of the building where several guys who’d been painting the exterior walls stopped what they were doing to stare at me.
“Tashi delek,” I said and they just glared on.
I continued following the leader and, from that lower roof, he then climbed up a relatively sturdy makeshift ladder that led into the temple or whatever that building had been, up to a rickety temporary floor made of plywood that’d been situated about five feet below the ceiling. Using this floor as a base, a handful of Tibetan dudes and one chick had been painting the whole fuckin’ ceiling like Michelangelo had in the Sistine Chapel.
Upon taking notice of my presence, everyone stopped working to look at me. After walking over, an older guy imitated someone hitting their head on the low bridge and made a “dush” sound, warning that I be careful and don’t smack my dome. With a smile, I thanked him for the heads-up.
After I’d gotten the safety instructions, the dude who I followed up there indicated I sit down on a bucket he’d overturned for me near the other side of the room. Like the boards balanced on the scaffolding had, the shittily-nailed-together, overlapping pieces of plywood comprising the floor – due to their lack of support – sunk deeply down in the center with each step I took.
Having made it over there without falling the three stories to my grizzly death, I sat my ass down and watched the kid get to work. With a handheld cup of sky blue paint into which he dabbed the watercolor-sized brush, the kid brought to fruition several intricate swirls and flower patterns on the side of one of the ceiling’s support beams as he occasionally looked over at me and grinned. I smiled back and enjoyed what he wanted to show me. Eventually, I tiptoed around and checked out what everyone else had been working on as well.
Once I’d satisfactorily basked in the splendor of the artful birth, I thanked the dude in Mandarin with a hearty “xie xie” for sharing his experience with me then made my way back across the floor and over to the ladder which I hopped back on and began climbing down.
Few photos from that day in Kangding…