On Thursday we woke up and had breakfast in the hotel. Just next to our table stood a statue with a giant erect penis and big boobs. I can’t figure out who he/she is but I remember my mom and sister taking lots of pictures of him in Katmandu so he/she is obviously important. That hardly registered as interesting by the end of the day.
Our Mongolian guide arrived to pick us up at 9 in a van with a driver. Three months ago the 1970’s van that looked like it would barely make it around the block might have set off alarm bells. But as long as I didn’t have to get on a cable car I was fine. Heading out of town we passed the weekly cattle market and eventually arrived at Zhiyun Montestary. The budhists here practice a sect of Tibetan Buddhism knows as “Red Hat” Buddhism. Originally built in 1727, it had thirteen courtyards, most of which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. We pulled right up to the temple, which was at that point completely empty. As we pulled up we saw two hundred year old trees covered with Prayer Flags; each little flag carries a prayer spread through the world by the wind. The brightly colored cloths blowing in the wind entranced the kids, and, in fact, the whole thing had a silencing effect on them. Visiting a giant Buddhist temple is not unlike visiting the Vatican with Jewish kids; the little synagogue in C’ville seems pretty boring by comparison. We walked through a number of courtyards inadvertently following the sound of Tibetan monks giving “singing lessons” to “baby monks.” My mind is not easily quieted; it takes usually a good hour and a half of yoga to do it but there is something essentially peaceful about an almost empty Tibetan Monastery in the Himalayas with a view of snow capped mountains and valley lakes. The kids loved the prayer wheels, though they experienced no real quieting effect. Eli ran through them, making them go as fast as he could occationally chanting either “ohm shanti shanti….” Or “sun yat sen sun yat sen” Like the prayer flags, the prayer wheels carry mantras which spread through the motion of the wheels.
In many ways this place represented the western fantasy of a Buddhist temple; gorgeous, quiet, almost empty. Even I, who can’t sit still, could imagine sitting for a long time there just listening and looking. We’ve spent a lot of time in Buddhist places this summer, and I have to disagree with White Buddhists friends who say it’s a philosophy and not a religion. There’s no doubt that the Buddhists here think of it as a religion where prayer to a god yields some tangible benefit. For example, we saw a painting of The Buddha of Wealth, whom people pray to so they can make more money. There’s no doubt these Buddhists are doing quite a bit of unabashed idol worship. I also got a kick out of the Buddah of Hooch (baijo). He had a bottle of the ever-present hooch, which the monks refill every day; when you pray to him you supposed to take a swig. The kids liked the idea of a protection cord, which you also purchase. We did not. Doing that in a sacred space seemed a little like taking communion in a Catholic church—don’t do it if you don’t believe it because it’s disrespectful.
We then hiked up a mountain path to the “new monastery” which is being built predominantly as a tourist trap. Along the way our driver picked mushrooms and berries for the kids to eat. (they refused) We arrived huffing and puffing at a construction site. In addition to the usual scaffolding, dangerous construction implements, etc., it had Tankas and Buddhas in varying states of completion. Watching the temple painters was truly fascinating. It’s easy to forget that all of those gorgeous multicolored walls require precise hands to create. They had a huge palate of colors and worked with tiny brushes—the kind I think of as useful for individual canvasses, not mammoth walls. Thanks to the fact that temple construction sites in China pay no more attention than bullet trains to safety we got to climb around the whole thing and at each level of the building saw new and exciting things. We all liked watching the guy who sketches the paintings for the entire thing. He did with a super fine brush and black ink. We hiked to another courtyard, which will eventually house two fertility Buddhas; a male one and a female one. The sight of a ginormous raw uncut Buddha came off as somewhere between grotesque and profane; yet completely fascinating.
As we hiked back to the entrance we came upon a group of baby monks on break from school. Let’s just say that they made me feel much better about the sometimes-violent tendencies of my boys as none of the peaceful side of Buddhism had affected them yet. They were running around, screaming, hitting, tackling, and pinning each other down. Rebecca got herself right in the middle of the action and made sure the monklets all noticed her, while Eli and Jonathan stayed far out of the way. As always, there is a slightly darker underbelly to the young boys in monk garb inhabiting a gorgeous place. The education system in the monasteries is pretty terrible and caters predominantly to very poor families and orphans who have absolutely no other option besides starvation or street life. As our guide said, being a monk is pretty good job.
We hoped back in the van and bumpety bumped down a very narrow muddy mountain pass. The bumps and heights bruised my butt and made me totally nauseous. Little did I know this was just the beginning… We finally arrived at a little outpost in the middle of nowhere, which is a 1400 year old village, where we mounted horses. Yes all five of us got on horses and proceeded to ride them for TWO AND A HALF HOURS. The good part of the riding thing was that, given the altitude, we never would have made it that high on foot and the view was truly spectacular; mind boggling clear. We had been reading and hearing about how the region are Lijiang was very poor, and we saw that clearly as we rode. The only source of money for the villagers are these tourist horse trips, and they grow most of their crops to feed to their horses. Almost none of the kids here go to school. The two dominant crops are corn and a mystery green, both for horses. There was also rape, which they use for oil, and white bean, which they eat. They intercrop sunflower with the bean and corn, but it grown more for fun. Pot is an important cash crop, and we saw a lovely little stand, but given the penalties for possession here, neither of us was tempted. (At the end of the day we learned that the Canadian our guide had planned to go into business with was currently sitting in a Dali prison for pot)
Rebecca LOVED riding a horse and charmed the guide, who claimed that she is a natural. Jonathan told me that the horse idea was the worst idea I’d ever had. Part of me agrees. I pretty much hate riding horses. Eli rode with the guide and Jonathan rode with me. Given that two years ago we could barely get Jonathan on a carousel, he did remarkable well. Again, I recommend a summer in China as immersion Occupational Therapy. If your kid has vestibular motion problems stick them on a horse that cantors up steep slopes. My and J’s horse seemed to be channeling us when at moments it simply stopped and refused to go and every time I heard the guy yell at the horses I imagined us all careening to our death down the mountain side. The horse guide had a lovely voice and treated us to some nice Naxi tunes as well as the Naxi mountain greeting which is kind of like a yodel. Manuel, who had never before been on a horse, claimed to enjoy it, but I am skeptical. He was, however, the only one of us did the whole ride without a guide leading his horse.
On the way back to the hotel we were supposed to stop in a Naxi village to admire frescoes and Tanka paintings. We did stop, but by 4:00 with a monastary and horse ride behind them and no lunch, the kids pretty much busted. We zipped through the master embroidery lady’s studio in about three minutes and piled back into the van. We arrived back at the hotel at 5 and collapsed.
As a side note we were all pleasantly freezing all day. The temperature was in the 70’s. I know we’ve missed the heat wave of the century on the East Coast, but in the jungle the temperature has been above 90 with 100% humidity every single day since May and we have no AC during the day.