The Great Mosque in Lhasa: Photo of the Week.

Photo five of the Muslim Hui community in Lhasa taken in the Muslim quarter outside the Great Mosque: Qing Zhen Da Si 清真大寺

清真大司寺 The Great Mosque in Lhasa
清真大司寺 The Great Mosque in Lhasa

For the other pictures in the series click here:  1 & 2 & 3 & 4

清真大司寺 The Great Mosque in Lhasa

Exploring Gyantse:

One of Tibet`s most traditional towns. You’ll find fantastic architecture, amazing back streets and lots of cows.

Gyantse

We visited Gyantse on a three-day trip by mini-van that also included Shalu monastery and the town of Shigatse. We reached Gyantse after a long eight-hour ride, made even longer by our detour to see Yamdrok-Tso Lake.

Yamdrok-Tso Lake

From the Kamba-La Pass at 4794 metres, there are spectacular views over the turquoise waters of the lake. However, due to road works (expected to be finished next year), it wasn’t possible to continue along the old road to Gyantse, so we had to turn back and rejoin the new road.

Yamdrok-Tso Lake

The final part of the journey took us through fertile and idyllic fields, full of grazing animals and harvesting farmers.

Rural scenery near Gyantse
Rural scenery near Gyantse

The approach to Gyantse is truly spectacular: the ruins of the fortress, the Dzong, destroyed by Younghusband and his British troops, set on a steep, rocky hill, stand out against the azure sky and the golden roofs of the monastery gleam in the sun.

Gyantse Fort in the late afternoon

Gyantse itself is rather more prosaic; it is basically a scruffy one-street town (2007: has expanded now) with an interesting, traditional Tibetan quarter.

Gyantse Fort in the morning

We had just enough time to visit the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery complex, situated dramatically at the foot of the barren mountains and surrounded by a brown wall.

Traditional buildings in Gyantse

The highlight of this place is the Kumbum, an 8 storey chorten, topped by a golden roof and umbrella, apparently the best- preserved structure of this kind in Tibet.

The Kumbum

The 8 floors contain 108 chapels, all covered in frescoes and many holding statues. The outside is painted a dazzling white and decorated with colourful stucco, as well as four huge pairs of eyes, which survey the surrounding countryside.

The Kumbum

Though most of the frescoes are hidden in darkness and many are damaged, we managed to make out some frightening demons, adorned with necklaces of skulls, fine many-armed Buddhas and delicate maidens.

The Kumbum

The chapels which are set at the corners are the best, as they are two storeys’ high and contain a variety of large statues.

The Kumbum

On the sixth floor we emerged onto an open platform, level with the painted eyes, from which we could observe the other monastic buildings, the walls, the mountains, as well as the Tibetan old town.

Gyantse Old town seen from the Kumbum

The next day we visited the old fortress, or Dzong, and explored the Tibetan quarter.

Gyantse Old town seen from the fort

As we mentioned before, most of the Dzong is in ruins; thanks to Younghusband and his men who came riding in from Sikkim to ‘open’ Tibet to trade… They are, however, quite atmospheric ruins. One of the highlights is a grey memorial stone with the curious inscription ‘Jump off the cliff’

Directions or an order?

However, this isn’t an exhortation to visitors, but rather a commemoration of an act of bravery committed by the outnumbered defenders.

Gyanste Fort seen from the old town

The old Tibetan quarter, lying at the foot of the fortress, is another gem that takes you right back in time.

Gyantse Old Town

Along the main street, there are placid cows chewing the cud in front of every household, while pigs and sheep rummage around in the gutters.

Cows in Gyantse Old Town

People gather at the communal pumps to draw water, wash their clothes, hair or rinse dyed strings of sheep’s wool.

Gyantse Old Town

Inside the traditional stone houses, Tibetan ladies work the heavy wooden looms to weave cloth or colourful Tibetan carpets.

Gyantse Old Town

A peaceful, mellow village ambience reigns and life continues, unhurriedly, as it always has done.

Gyantse Old Town

Gyantse Practicalities:

Accommodation:

We stayed at the Jianzang hotel which lies on the main street of the modern part of town (Yingxiong Nanlu) and is certainly one of the nicest places we stayed at in the whole of Tibet, or even China. The hotel is embellished with bright, colourful murals and lovely potted plants and flowers, while rooms are large, clean and comfy. We paid 180 Yuan for a double with bathroom, though there were cheaper rooms and dorms as well. The hotel also has its own rooftop restaurant and staff are very friendly.

The Kumbum

Food:

You will have no trouble finding several places to eat along the same main street. The Yak bar and restaurant, for which you have to go upstairs, is a pleasant, laid-back place with Tibetan sofas and low tables, specialising in western-style food such as chips, pizzas and burgers. There is a large Chinese restaurant, a few doors away and identified by a green sign, where we had an excellent meal.

The Muslim Hui in Lhasa: Photo of the Week: Photo 4

Fourth photo in a series of photos featuring the Muslim Hui community in Lhasa.

Muslim Hui minority noodle Sellers in Lhasa 卖面条的回族女人在拉萨

Click here for Photos 1 & 2 & 3

The End of the Small Shop (Xiaomaibu 小卖部) Landline Telephone.

Once ubiquitous and now no more: the red landline telephone in your local shop.

During my many visits to Beijing over the last 20 years, I was always struck by how convenient it was to make a landline phone call from just about anywhere in the city, and especially in the hutongs. Just about any small shop 小卖部, be it a liquor store, veg or meat shop, dumpling store or dry cleaners, they all had one or two red telephones on the store counter from which you could ring anywhere in China very cheaply. You just asked for permission, picked up the phone and paid the store owner a few Mao 毛 at the end of the call.

Over a period of just a few years, the Chinese started embracing smart phone technology to a degree that leaves many western countries lagging far behind, scenes like the one in the photo above have ceased to exist. The last time I visited I couldn’t find one single shop that had a landline phone outside, and with my mobile not working; I was quite desperate!

The Muslim Hui in Lhasa: Photo of the Week: Photo 3

Third photo in a series of photos featuring the Muslim Hui community in Lhasa.

Hui Minority in a Street in Lhasa: Photo 3

Click here for Photos 1 & 2

The Thangka Painters of Tongren 同仁 Qinghai Province 青海省

Tongren is a great off the beaten track destination in China’s Qinghai Province. There is great scenery, Tibetan culture, and the opportunity to watch the world’s best thangkas being painted in front of your eyes.
A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Thangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display. (Wikipedia)

Tongren 同仁

Map

The early morning bus, packed to bursting point with predominantly Tibetan passengers whose clothes exude a penetrating smell of yak butter, climbs cumbersomely out of the monastic town of Xiahe and up onto the wide open grasslands that separate the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.

Xiahe to Tongren 同仁

Up there, everything is wetness, emptiness and desolation; the sodden yaks and horses look decidedly miserable, but resigned.

Xiahe to Tongren 同仁

The only sign of human existence are the roaming Tibetan nomads wrapped tightly in their fur-lined greatcoats, their faces swaddled in scarves, their cheeks red and chapped by the biting wind, the rudimentary settlements and the odd small monastic town, which somehow manage to survive in this harsh but stunning landscape.

Xiahe to Tongren 同仁

On approaching  Qinghai province, huge snow-capped mountains loom in the distance, forming a daunting barrier between the two provinces, and this was only September. Suddenly, when it looks as if our poor old bus will have to scale those giants, the road drops into a dry and barren valley, where herds of goats and yaks often block the way.

Goats blocking the road to Tongren 同仁

At the bottom of the valley, along the river, the barrenness gives way to fertile farming land, dotted with neat and prosperous farms and white Stupas. The climate has undergone a dramatic change too and we can see people harvesting everywhere under a warm autumn sun. After about 30 minutes of this rural bliss, the bus rolls into Tongren,  a neat and organised modern town.

Rolling into Tongren 同仁

Like most Tibetan towns in Sichuan and Gansu, Tongren is made up of two virtually separate towns; the modern one, housing most businesses, shops and hotels, and the monastic one, centred around the temples.

An Amazing door at Longwu Si Tongren

In most cases, this separation also marks the division between the Chinese and Tibetan populations. However, the authorities in Tongren seem to have avoided this kind of cultural apartheid and they have managed to incorporate a large part of its Tibetan population into the modern town

(the modern town has expanded dramatically in recent years).

Longwu Si 隆务寺

Longwu Si 隆务寺

The Longwu Si, or monastery complex, of Tongren is only a short stroll away from the modern centre.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

It’s surprisingly large, perhaps as big as Xiahe, but we have it all to ourselves. You can spend a good few hours wandering about this atmospheric place.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

The temples are a mixed bunch of old and new as the complex, having suffered extensive damage during the Cultural Revolution, is currently undergoing some massive restoration.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

Highlights are the gruesome paintings and carvings of scenes from hell, vividly depicted skulls, heads with the eyes popping out, fearsome monsters, demons and such, which decorate some of the oldest temples. Click here for more gruesome photos of Longwu si.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

And on a more spiritual note, the small footprints and soft round dents, worn into the wooden floor in front of a particularly venerated Buddha statue by an elderly lama prostrating himself thousands of times…

Longwu Si 隆务寺

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

Although the Longwu Si on its own warrants a visit, the main reason for coming to Tongren is to see the Tangkha painters at work in the village of Sangkeshan, some 10 kilometres out of town, and particular in the Wutong and Gouma Monasteries.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

Tangkha’s are Tibetan paintings, mostly of a religious nature, and usually mounted on embroidered and decorated pieces of brocade.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

The Tangkha painters of Tongren are rated as the best in the Tibetan world and their art, known as Repkong Art (Repkong being the Tibetan name for Tongren), can be found in the monasteries of Lhasa, Xiahe and many other great Tibetan monastic towns.

Wutun Si 五屯寺

Some of the painters are monks, others are laymen, but they work together in teams, completing orders from far and wide.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

On the day of our visit, some painters at Wutong were working on a large piece for a monastery on Wutai Shan (one of the Holy Mountains of Buddhism), while others were completing an order for the Ta’er Si temple near Xining, the capital of Qinghai province.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

Meanwhile, some of their colleagues at Gouma were finishing a Tangkha for the Yushu monastery, in the remote northern part of Qinghai province.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

Apart from offering you a chance to see the painters and their apprentices at work, and to buy one of their smaller pieces, both monasteries are well worth having a look around.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

The main hall of Wutun Si 五屯寺is a splendid affair which houses three large golden statues, dressed in colourful embroidered robes, as well as many valuable paintings.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

The monk showing us around explains how they managed to save these paintings during the Cultural Revolution by turning the wooden panes around, hiding the valuable paintings at the back and displaying some newer, relatively worthless ones for the Red Guards to destroy!

Other prominent features of the Hall are the fierce dragons coiling their bodies around the pillars and the heavy entrance doors, exquisitely restored and decorated in red and gold by a trembling octogenarian monk with his glasses tied to his head.

As we had already witnessed at Longwu, renovation, restoration and even expansion are at full swing at the Wutun Si monastery 五屯寺: a new Stupa is being erected, as well as a new temple hall.

A group of workers is busy assembling the central clay sculpture, which has not been painted yet either.

This whole process of temple renovation and revival is evident all over China; on the one hand many people are returning to their former beliefs, while on the other hand the government once more tolerates Buddhism and even encourages the restorations, as another way of obtaining tourist revenue.

Gomar Gompa

Gomar Gompa

The likewise brand-new and shiny Stupa just outside Gomar Gompa, a few kilometres away on the other side of the valley, is a colourful multi-tiered structure that stands out against the barren hills.

Up close, you can appreciate the intricate decorations in bright red, blue, green and yellow colours.

Gomar Gompa

The monastic buildings are right behind the Stupa and if you wander around its quiet streets for a bit, you are most likely to be invited into one of the intimate courtyards where the painters work.

Gomar Gompa

Besides Thangkas, the monks, artists and artesans of Tongren also produce clay sculptures, as well as hand-sewn cloth wall-hangings and cloth frames for the paintings.

Sewn Wall Thangkas

Some of these wall-hangings are made up of countless, brightly coloured cloth circles that are held together not only by sewing, but with the help of glue and staples as well.

One of the best places to witness the creation of these curious  pieces is the Nian Tou monastery, a few kilometres outside Tongren.

Tongren Scenery

In the Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, all around Tongren County, there are many other remote monasteries, some of them only accessible with a four-wheel drive vehicle. Locals even told us about a monastery, some 40kms away, supposedly inhabited by a sect of long-haired monks! Whether this story is true or not, the area most certainly has plenty of places left to explore.

Practicalities:

Gomar Gompa

Where to Stay and Eat:

We stayed at  Huang Nan Binguan, an old but cosy hotel set in a shady courtyard, where we paid 100 Yuan for a slightly worn, but clean double. Incidentally, the new Huang Nan, a glass-fronted dark monstrosity on the main road, is infinitely worse than its older counterpart. There are several other, cheaper options in town too.

Sha Guo

For food , try the “Sha Guo” restaurant a few doors down from the hotel. A “Sha Guo” is a delicious clay pot soup, which can have many different ingredients, such as meat, fish, vegetables and eggs. Washed down with a couple of cold beers, they make for a satisfying and filling meal after a long day sightseeing.

Getting Around:

Hiring a taxi to take you out to Wutun Si 五屯寺 monastery costs about 10 Yuan. Getting between the various monasteries, or back into town, there are plenty of mini-vans plying the route.

Coming and going:

In 2004 (was still the same in 2012), there was one bus a day leaving Xiahe at  7.30, plus another one with a similar timetable coming from the other direction. Leaving from Xiahe, it may be a good idea to book a day in advance, as our bus was absolutely packed. The journey takes about 5 hours and the scenery on the way is spectacular. Beware that the weather can be cold and treacherous; we even had snow in early September.

Moving on, there are numerous buses leaving for Xining throughout the day. The journey, which is fairly boring, takes between 5 and 6 hours.

Old Photos of Mao during the Cultural Revolution From the Pingyao Newspaper Museum

Mao watching supporters in Tiananmen Square during Cultural Revolution

We stumbled upon the Newspaper Museum (not sure of its official name), close to our favourite little restaurant. The rather shabby museum holds some fascinating clippings, articles, and photos from the last century and the beginning of this one.

Mao parading in Tiananmen Square during the Cultural Revolution

The highlights are some great photos of Mao and other communist party leaders during the Cultural Revolution. Even in the 1960s one can appreciate the efforts of some sophisticated photoshopping (without photoshop to help) that make the central characters appear more powerful and larger than life.

Mao’s Supporters during the Cultural Revolution

It’s curious to see the old papers, printed in vertical columns and read from right to left. There are papers in Uygur, Tibetan and Mongolian script and a triumphant cover showing the hand-over of Hong Kong. There are articles about the Cultural Revolution, Mao, Ethnic Minorities, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, as well as foreign news and adverts.

Crushing the old ways

The collection was apparently started by a Chinese farmer who is also an avid newspaper reader and collector who wanted to help his fellow farmers learn about the world.

Different murals in the Newspaper Museum

The earliest newspaper in the collection was Shanghai-published Shenbao in 1872. The shortest lived newspaper featured is Xibao which was the first and final publication (info taken from China.org.cn)

The Chinese. “LaoDao Pai” or “Old Knife Brand” (老刀牌) 

Old adverts are also featured in the exhibition. The use of traditional characters probably means that the advert is pre-revolution 1949. . Here is a link to the history of Pirate Cigarettes in China.

Story from Xinjiang in Uighur

This is something you won’t see much of in China at the moment. Articles published in the Uighur language using the Arabic script.

Science article in Uighur 2002

And with the recent distubances in Inner Mongolia over the increased use of Manderin Chinese in the province, you might not see many more articles like the one below in the Mongolian script.

Mongolian Script 2002

So with so much to see and do in Pingyao, you might be tempted to give the Newspaper Museum a miss. If you have any interest 20th century China: don’t!

Signing the handover of Hongkong to China 1997
Different murals in the Newspaper Museum

The Muslim Hui in Lhasa: Photo of the Week Photo 2

Second photo in a series of photos featuring the Muslim Hui community in Lhasa.

Hui Minority market in Lhasa, Tibet. Photo 2

Click here for photo 1

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

Visit Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao. An amazing temple where in winter you can visit the place without another tourist in sight. That is if you can bear minus 10º.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

At half past 9 in the morning, when we get out at the Shuanglin Temple (Shuānglín Sì or 双林寺), we’re in for a bit of a shock: though sunny, it’s bitterly cold! Our breath’s coming out in large white clouds and the thermometer has plummeted to minus 10º.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

With one of those great Chinese understatements, our driver concedes that it’s yidian leng (a bit chilly)! On the positive side, this means we have the temple almost entirely to ourselves.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

The ancient and venerable temple complex – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 – is renowned for its over 2,000 painted clay sculptures, made by skillful craftsmen from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (12th to 19th century). Though once painted in vivid colours, many of the sculptures have since faded to red, earthy hues.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

From the outside, the temple complex appears rather like a fortress, as it is surrounded by a high compound wall with a gate. Once inside, there are ten halls to explore, set around three courtyards.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

The first Hall is guarded by fierce warriors. The sunlight, slanting through the protective bars that surround them, hits their orange clay faces and distorts them into frightening grimaces.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

In fact, all the sculptures are arranged behind bars, against backdrops of swirling water or clouds, mountains, gnarled trees, towers, buildings and other decorative elements.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult to fully appreciate them in the dusty half-light of the halls. We wish we’d brought a torch!

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

The sculptural themes focus on representations of the BuddhaBodhisattvas (divine persons who have attainedEnlightenment, but postpone Nirvana in order to help others reach salvation), Arhats (Buddhists, especially monks or nuns who have achieved enlightenment and at death pass to Nirvana), Warrior Guards, Heavenly Generals, but also some common people.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

There is even a statue of the husband and wife who took care of the temple during the Cultural Revolution.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

One of the halls to look out for is the Arhat Hall (Luohan Ting or 罗汉厅), with its 18 life-like and somewhat sinister Arhats, whose black- glass eyes seem to follow you around the room.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

Don’t miss the Bodhisattva Hall (Pusa Ting or 菩萨厅),with the sculpture of a young, attractive, female Bodhisattva, with twenty arms and  many more hands, dressed in richly decorated clothing.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

Last but not least, the many inhabitants of the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, one of whom is seated on a coiled dragon, are considered masterpieces of Ming dynasty Buddhist sculpture.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

At the back of the last Hall, we climb up onto the compound wall in an attempt to find out where the music we’ve been hearing is coming from.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

Turns out, there is a primary school right behind the temple and all the little kids are made to run around the schoolyard before class. Frozen as we are, we could do with a bit of running ourselves! And then there were the poor pigs; off to the slaughter house, just outside this spiritual and peaceful place.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao
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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

The Muslim Hui in Lhasa: Photo of the Week: Photo 1

First photo in a series of photos featuring the Muslim Hui community in Lhasa.

A lady from the Hui (Muslim) minority cycling in the old section of Lhasa; Tibet.

Hui Lady in Lhasa (taken in 2007) Photo 1