China’s West is far less modernized than the Eastern coastal cities. Besides the intense cold, what struck me when I arrived in Xining, Qinghai province’s capital, was that I was completely alone, surrounded by people: I couldn’t find one single person who spoke English and my Mandarin and Tibetan skills where just like the temperature, below zero. This city serbves as a base to visit the Kumbum monastery, where Tenzin Gyatso, the dalai lama (who was born nearby), spent his childhood, and somehow I managed to make my way there. Founded in 1560, this complex of temples, residential and administrative buildings is the main Buddhist-Lamaist pilgrimage centre outside of Lhasa. There were visiting urban Chinese, sporting Armani sunglasses, Louis Vuitton handbags and fine leather coats; Tibetan peasants in traditional costumes of rough black and white wools and light coloured fabrics (in their facial features, you could see the high-mountain cold beautifully traced, whereas the city dwellers’ skin looked well-cared for with creams; the latter prayed standing and properly behaving, the former were endlessly repeating a procedure, raising their hands to the sky, bending then their bodies, lying on the ground and hitting it with their hands); monks, many teenagers and a few older ones, protecting themselves from freezing with light red robes; and only one other foreigner, enjoying the ease of an expensive private guided trip.
For my photo gallery on Kumbum, click here. http://www.flickr.com/photos/temoris/sets/72157615095033698/show/
The main temple was easily recognisable among the other buildings, bigger and with a massive golden roof, and it’s by far the most popular. A major part of its interior is off-limits and most of the faithful pray outside, where there were dozens of persons. A young, long-haired Tibetan male, in Western clothing, practised the exhausting postrations demanded by religion. So did whole families, including cute three- and four-year-old girls. Others, holding rosary-like necklesses, walked tirelessly around the temple, auspiciously swinging ritual cilinders attached to the back of the building. This particularly amused groups of children, who were always cautious not too disturb those in oration. That, in contrast to the Hugo Boss Buddhists, who were coming and going as mobs, jumping over the postrated devotees. The streams and water sources were still icy, but many bodies were stretching on the shaded frozen floor. When I saw a space on a little wooden bench, under the sun, I quickly sat there (don’t forget I’m a tropical little foreigner). I was welcomed by the kind face of an older woman who was sitting on it and said something to me. I replied with a gesture I practise here about a hundred times a day, shoulder-raising and helpless smiling. She kept talking until a young monk, who had been circunnavigating the temple for a long while, went to seek the solar warm and sat in between. They exchanged phrases for a minute and then I realised that they’d adopted my attitude, raised shoulders and helpless smile… they didn’t understand each other! Could it be that the lady spoke Tibetan and the kid, Mandarin? Or Uyghur? Or they used mutually unintelligible Tibetan dialects? From somewhere in his robe, the monk got a rough pencil, a piece of paper and a little bell, and wrote something. He showed it to the lady and rang the bell, and she laughed. He wrote something else and rang again, and the lady laughed even more. He then turned to me and swong the bell. But all I could see was Chinese characters which refused to reveal to me the secret of laughter. I raised my shoulders and smiled helplessly.
West from Xi’an, I entered the kingdom of incommunication. There are some lovely people who try to help me beyond the language barrier (as two young blokes who went great lengths –more than was needed– to make sure I took the right train to Xining). Others seem annoyed for having to deal with a barbarian who doesn’t speak the common language. Quite often, when the person finally admits that I don’t understand what they say, they resort to write it down for me, maybe the name of a place or instructions to do something. A girl wrote a long question. All in Chinese characters. My first reaction was: Can’t they understand that this is as opaque to me as their language? The second one: I know the Chinese are a huge lot, but aren’t they aware that the rest of the world doesn’t use these ideograms? But the monk-and-lady scene gave me a clue. On TV, Chinese movies are subtitled in Chinese characters. What is that for? For the deaf? In fact, in a 1.3 billion people country with 5,000 years of development, expansion, conquests, foreign invasion and poor communication, linguistic unity is fragile. The TV uses the Beijing’s Mandarin dialect, which they can’t understand in many regions. And there are more languages, as Cantonese and those of the many subjugated peoples, say Tibetan, Uyghur, Kazak, Tajik, Miao and more. By force of school, nonetheless, ideograms are widely understood and have the same meaning for all of them. They aren’t phonetic, that is, they don’t represent sounds, but ideas (such as “house” or “rising sun”) which can be pronounced in many ways (that’s why it’s unproper to call it an alphabet, it doesn´t have any letters alpha and beta). The Tibetan and Uyghur languages have scripts of their own, but all children must learn to use the Chinese ideograms. That’s why, when one deals with a person who can’t understand what it’s said, it is all so normal to resort to write it down in Chinese (yet, they don’t even imagine that we don’t use it).
For my good luck, and that of travellers by China, the country has adopted Arabic numbers. In Mao times, the government fruitlessly tried to replace the old characters with an alphabet based in the Latin script, the Pinyin, but now it only subsists as an official Romanization for Mandarin (that’s why Beijing and Guanzhou are no longer Peking and Canton, written in the old, improvised European spelling). The only thing people kept was the Arabic numbers: it is easier to do math with those simple scribblings than with the complex traditional graphics. Furthermore, those numbers adapted well to the Chinese mindframe, for they are ideograms too: in the West, you see a 4 and can pronounce it in any way they like, quattro, vier or four, we all understand what it is. So, we visitors can at least get what’s the price of things or when we have to run to catch the train. I was seating there, with the monk, his piece of paper and his bell. He kept ringing it in search of my laugh. I gave it to him in the best way I could, though I felt fake, he seemed happy. So I was for having figured out the answer to this enigma. But then I understood that, before the eyes of the less educated people here (another huge lot), unaware of the world’s linguistic and graphic diversity, I’m not only a barbarian mumbling senselessly, but an illiterate unable to understand the common script. Then I felt like joining the postrating devotees in the cold, or to walk and walk around the temple: this time, my reasonings would provide me no consolation. Better to pray for it to the Buddha. *** A little political debrief: When I was leaving Xining to Lanzhou, Gansu province’s capital, back to the Silk Road’s main branch, I had to go across three police filters at the train station. They all requested my ticket. The last one was particularly difficult and they only let me go after getting an officer to escort me and make sure that I was taking the train to Lanzhou and not in the opposite way, to Lhasa. I didn’t know at the moment, but Tibet was closed to visitors, foreign above all.
It was March 8th. This time, every year, is tragic in that “Autonomous” region. On March 10th, 1959, a popular uprising against the Chinese rule ended in bloody repression. Every year, Tibetans demonstrate in remembrance, the authorities respond with force, many are jailed, sometimes people are killed, and these become new motivations to protest next year. The government has staged a show calling the invasion of Tibet a “liberation of the serfs”. In a country where obbeyance to the leaders is a fundamental mindset principle since Confucious times, and where media are strictly controlled by the State, it’s no wonder that most Chinese actually resent what they see as the ingratitude of Tibetans, to whom –it is consistently told– the motherland has given freedom and wealth. The “Hanification” (the minorities’ demographic and cultural assimilation by the Han majority) process in Tibet is in full swing and seems difficult to revert. The dalai lama’s peaceful stance is losing ground among Tibetans, with the more violent tendencies having shown themselves up last year, killing many Han Chinese in riots. He even looks as losing hope. To the unbelievably pragmatic attitude of the Communist Party, whose officials controlled the panchan lama’s (second place in the Lamaist hierarchy) reincarnation-finding ritual (giving birth to what I’d like to call Karmatic Materialism), an aged dalai lama, fearing that his reincarnation will be also chosen and controlled by Beijing, responded with equally surprising and heterodox proposals: to elect his own reincarnation by a popular referendum (Democratic Theology?) and to find him (his reincarnation) ASAP, while the dalai lama, the reincarnating being, is still alive (simultaneous double-life, an unsuspected mystical strain of SciFi). While attacking an insulting the dalai lama (to the satisfaction of the Chinese crowd, who truly believe the dalai lama is a hand-blooded thief and that the lama monks hide weapons –not bells– under their robes), Beijing does as if it was willing to reach a deal with him. It’s a game for the masses, to play the well-intentioned before the international community, but nobody actually believes there will be any concession, ever. There is no force that could extract anything from this overwhelming rising power. On March 10th, although he insisted in his “middle way” (not calling for Tibet’s independence, but for a “greater” –some would say just real– autonomy) and repeated his offers of friendship, the dalai lama went out of his normal discourse and bitterly denounced that Tibetans “live in constant fear, and the Chinese authorities treat them as suspects all the time. The Tibetan people are seen as criminals due for death penalty”.