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Thursday, September 14, 2006


The Modern Monk

Young hairless monk in training
in internet cafe amazed by Jon's arm hair

We are writing this entry in an internet cafe packed with Tibetan monks playing Warcraft and Doom. We are in Xiahe, the home of the Labrang Monestary, the second most important monastery in the Tibetan Buddhist yellow hat sect. There are over 1200 monks studying various religious and philosophical displines, but it seems that almost all of the religious youth are playing video games, talking on their cellphones, and hanging out (just like any teenager). It is a bizaare sight to see a monk dressed in traditional garb mow down a bunch of enemies with a submachine gun!

Tibetan pilgrim lady taking a break from spinning prayer wheels

We spent a few very nice days here soaking in this unique atmosphere. For a long period Tibet was its own country, and the region retains a unique feeling. This particular town is about 50% tibetan. Not all of them are monks, many are dagger toating, sheep jacket nomads (though now they wander with a motorcycle). Others are pilgrims who traveled thousands of kilometers to spin the prayer wheels of the monastery, hoping for a better present or future life.

Happy Yak
We have had the chance to interact with the locals on several occasions. In the monastery, while grabbing a bite to eat, buying art, and of course, in the internet cafes. Initially we were a bit hesitant to interrupt their holy pursuits, but once we started talking with them we realized they were more interested in Kobe Bryant, the NBA, their dislike of China, and our digital camera, than in spiritual discussion. We tried the local cuisine, once. And it was enough. Yak, or in Chinese literally hairy cow, makes for better warm sweaters than tasty food. Fortunately, a local place serves up Nepali curries and yummy western style breakfast that attract all the backpackers who cant handle yak dumplings (mo-mos), yak soup (jaathik), and yak butter tea. To the monks, Yak butter is a holy item, and even sniffing the yak butter candles in a temple can render them impure. To us, it is a stinky delicacy that is to be avoided at all costs.

Fixing the flat

We spent a day exploring the town, a day exploring the environs by bicycle, and then headed to Tongren, a Tibetan town known for its artistic monks. According to my GPS, it is only 34.5 miles away. The bus takes 4 to 6 hours, depending on whether you get a flat from the unpaved road (which we did). There we met several monks who eagerly invited us into their living quarters to show off their art, and in many cases, their international notoriety.
One particular proud monk that we will never forget spent half an hour showing us newspaper articles, a writeup in Chinese Elle magazine, and multiple tourist business cards. To be sure, the art is incredible, some of the most detailed work we have ever seen, with incredible colors and surreal Buddhist scenes.

Kim and Tashi Tsering, an artistic monk

It felt awkward to bargain with monks, but some of the prices they quoted were incredibly high. Our impressions of contemporary Tibetan religious culture have been turned upside down; People are people and so are monks. In fact, the only truly pious monk we saw was the one who gave us the tour of the Labrang monestary, and this might be clouded by the fact that he was the most handsome local we've yet to see. Ask Kim, she's got a big crush on him. Its a good thing that we're leaving tommorow for Kunming, and travels to Southeast Asia.

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