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A little more Tibet

Nora left this morning, bright and early, as the monastery horn was
bellowing from the hillside behind our room.  The curly horned sheep had
already been moved over the ridge to a sunny pasture on the other side,
even though it was barely 6am.  

I only met Nora yesterday morning on the spectacular bus ride to
Langmusi from Xiahe - 4 hours of high passes, wide grasslands and pretty
lakes surrounded by nomad tents - but I am still sad to see her go.  She
was going to do the horse trek with me starting tomorrow, so I would
have some English speaking company along the way.  Now it's back to just
me and the nomads, hand gestures and smiles.  Which shouldn't be
underrated, but which definitely have their problems...  

Nora got a spot in a rented cab to Songpan with some other foreigners, 9
hours closer to Chengdu, rather than sticking around and riding public
busses there (which will take a couple of days minimum and may involve
waiting by the side of the road to flag down passing busses).  She left
the 15 quai for our room with me, since the owner wasn't around when she
went out.

As I'm stretching out with my book, still not long after 6, relishing
the thought of a lazy morning in this room with the incredible view, the
guesthouse guy comes in bustling in without knocking and starts
stripping her bed down.  Damn happy I didn't sleep in the nude!  'Excuse
me?' I say to him in CHinese, and he smiles and says in English 'today
your friend go, you move down hall, 25 quai'.  Hmmm, a price jump?  This
is peculiar.  'Big group call, need room' he says.  I pull the covers up
a little higher, making an effort to show him that I am still sleeping. 
Maybe he didn't notice that I'm still in bed?  When I ask him to leave
he just looks at
me blankly and continues his work.

It takes some shooing to get him out the door, which I firmly lock, but
I can't concentrate on my book anymore.  I put on some clothes and pad
down the hall to talk to the boy who rented us the room about the price
for the night.  'Good discount for you, since your friend go - only 20
quai' he says in English.  When I tell him that we were only paying 15
the night before his face goes white and he says 'no 15, 50'.  In
Chinese I say pleasantly thatwe discussed it in English and Chinese, we
agreed 15.  He gulps, starts talking louder, 'no no no 15, 50, 50, 50'. 
Smiles and gestures in this case seem to have failed us miserably.

So there was a misunderstanding (an explanation which I much prefer to
the alternative purposeful rip-off theory), I hand over a wad of cash
for my bed and the difference on Nora's from the night before, being
thankful the amount we're talking about it just a couple of dollars. 
After a very long, very confusing, very gesture-heavy conversation with
the room-barger.  I shift my stuff down the hall to the room with no
view at all.  Sigh.  Head for the hills.

If Xiahe was charming, then Langmusi is simply divine.  Tiny and remote,
with an eclectic mix of Tibetan, Muslim, Han Chinese and assorted
foreigners all doing their thing side by side, smilingly, and a ring of
rugged mountains all around, it looks like something out of a swiss
postcard and an old west movie combined.  The main street is dirt,
fronted by a single row of flat-fronted, 2-storey buildings, and
frequented by Tibetans in heavy robes on motorcycles, nomads on
horseback, tractors, pedestrians and livestock (some actually alive,
much of it not).  The hillsides house a collection of monasteries with
glimmering silver roofs, a mosque with a bright crescent stretching up
into the bright blue sky, and rows of wooden shacks with heavy rocks
holding down their shingles and mirror-mosaiced, discarded sattelite
dishes which focus sunlight onto giant tea kettles suspended above them
to boil water for tea.  A pair of streams dance right through the middle
of it all.

In one direction, a trail leads through a narrow gorge full of caves and
eventually out onto the grassland.  The hike is easy and stunningly
beautiful.  Fat mice play in the wildflowers, and ravens circle lazily
overhead.  In the other, atop a bald peak, sky burials are carried out
every morning.  Dead bodies are brought up wrapped fetally in white
silk, then ritually carved up, bones smashed, by monks who leave the
remains for the vultures to eat.  Considering how barren this area would
be in winter, and without the benefit of thawed ground to bury bodies,
the rationale behind returning the bodies to the local circle of life
(especially considering Buddhist beliefs about impermanence) is not hard
to grasp.  You can apprently climb the hill to watch from a distance,
but I think I'm okay just knowing it goes on nearby.  Appreciating the
ritual and actually witnessing it...I'd like to keep enjoying my yak
burgers at lunchtime!

In the afternoon, it rains.  A pair of friendly monks in a small office
shelter me and the older Dutch woman I am out hiking with.  She is an
anthropologist, studies Tibetan refugees, and is an old friend of
theirs.  We spend several hours sipping 10-treasure tea without being
aware of any time passing.  The tea is a collection of auspicious things
for your good fortune and health - dried fruits and flower blossoms, tea
leaves, berries, huge rocks of crystal sugar - over which you can keep
pouring water all day.  It gets better and better the longer we drink. 
One of the monks has a stomach ache and spends the whole time smiling at
me and grimmacing at his robes.  The other chats animatedly about local
goings on through Nellie, who doesn't seem to mind translating.  I ask
him if he's ever been inside the mosque, which is literally 3 steps
away.  He gives his head a fractional shake and says 'We are friends,
but we are different.' 

Over a steaming breakfast of stewed tomatoes and soft-boiled eggs (mixed
together), sopped up with crusty muslim bread, I eavesdrop on the
conversation of a group of apparent christian missionaries at the next
table.  We are the only ones in the restaurant and they are loud,
English, and hard to ignore.  Plus I am fascinated by their talk, in a
horrified, train-wreck kind of way.  'Every time I meet an Israeli I
want to tell them how ignorant they are, misinterpreting all the
biblical signs...clearly this war is the Lord ending their hold on the
Holy Land as prophesied...'  Nora is Israeli.  I hope she didn't run
into these people yesterday.  

A youngish girl at the table with them asks brightly 'Is this Gansu
province?'  She's lived here a long time, and can't even say where it is
she lives.  An older man ignores her, tells them all that he had a dream
last night in which the Lord imprinted a message into his mind that
clearly spoke to him of the need to change the heathen ways of the
locals before it's too late.  I think of the monk's friendly acceptance
of the muslims on his doorstep, of the delicious food cooked up by the
Hui woman in this very restaurant and her Tibetan helpers, and I cringe.
 These do not strike me as a people who need a lot of changing.

And now the sun is fully over the ridges and it's time for me to
explore.  The monks have invited me back for more tea during the
inevitable afternoon rains, and Nellie may be game for a hike to the
nomads tents in the valleys beyond the sky burial.  Several of them are
friends, and they like to relax in the heat of the day while their yaks
graze, after the milking is done. 

I hope you are all well!!  Much love!  Roberta