7-7-7 – maybe that’s a lucky combination, although I’m not feeling lucky right this moment. I’m in Ganzi, with eyeburn, headache, and heat exhaustion. The County Government Guest House, recommended by my travel guide, is a pit, or at least the “cheap” wing where I’m lodged. I’m bargain hunting, and 50 yuan a night seemed about right. My small room has lovely carved Tibetan furniture, but there’s no running water anywhere for washing, and the toilets are among the worst I’ve ever seen.
It’s been a long day, starting with my 7:30 am departure from Dege, and I’ve made an unpleasant discovery. I can’t cope with the strong high-altitude sunlight of the Tibetan plateau. The day had begun auspiciously, but turned horrendous. The sun beat down without mercy, and as I left the horrid hotel I was depressed, tired, and feeling slightly sick. Walking around made it worse. Until this afternoon, the days had been partly cloudy, but now there was nothing between me and the ultraviolet rays. Even sunglasses and a hat aren’t much protection.
I’m now in a pleasant 2nd-floor Tibetan teahouse overlooking a busy Ganzi street, waiting for the sun to go down. The staff didn’t seem to understand my order for “Tibetan Tea,” which is strange, so I’m drinking jasmine tea. Go figure. Maybe later I’ll head to Kandze Gompa (Ganzi Monastery). I’m drained.
Let me backtrack. The bus ride here was exquisite. Climbing toward the Que Er Shan pass, I aimed my camera out the window, hoping for some good shots of rocky mountains and glaciers. We had some unplanned entertainment: the man sitting next to me chanted rhythmically, then after a while broke into song. The higher up the mountain we got, the louder he sang. He ended up standing in the aisle and belting out what sounded like patriotic songs. From time to time he would recite speeches. Other passengers looked at him with amusement or disbelief. When he was quiet, he chain-smoked, leaving my throat feeling raw. I think I preferred his singing.
A couple of Tibetan passengers seemed to be fresh-air fiends, and insisted on opening the bus windows, leaving me to shield myself with all available clothing from the cold blasts of air. At least it kept me from looking out my window, straight down into nothing but sheer vertical drops as the bus wound its way toward the heavens.
I love the way that the architecture changes with the landscape. I’ve noticed 3 or 4 distinct building styles thus far: stone buildings, log cabin construction, a combination of both, and my favorite, the rough masonry and “adobe” buildings that begin about 50 kilometers before we reach Ganzi. The earth-colored walls of the houses seem to undulate and to have an organic life of their own. Most of them are accented with vertical white stripes, which I assume correspond to their local Buddhist sect. We pass some beautiful monasteries and ruins of old buildings.
Ganzi leaves me cold, at least the modern commercial part of the city. It’s surrounded, though, with spectacular scenery, from snowy far-off peaks to burnt greenish-brown velvety mountains. It’s a long town, north-to-south, with an ugly narrow polluted river running through it. It seems to be a center for custom-made Tibetan clothing and furniture makers. The smell of cedar is pervasive; it seems to be the preferred wood for home furnishings.
This evening I walked around for an hour trying to find a restaurant – they were all the same dirty hole-in-the-wall places. I ended up at a semi-clean one and ate some cold beef slices (like corned beef) and rice for dinner. It was better than nothing.
I decided to head for Ganzi Monastery at sundown, about a 2-km walk from the town center. The climb, through the twisting streets of Ganzi’s old town, was arduous, but the “Tibetan Village” was a marvellous discovery. From the monastery above, I heard the call of long Tibetan trumpets from the rooftop; there was something important happening. Depending on the lung power of their players, the trumpets sound either like haunting, faraway horns or a herd of yaks farting. For some reason, the Irving Berlin tune Blow, Gabriel, Blow kept going through my head.
As I got closer to the monastery, I cringed. Its roofline was lit up by strings of gaudy, flashing lights; this was certainly overkill. The event was a Tibetan Buddhist debate. I stood with sweat pouring off of me as I watched a team of animated monks throwing challenging questions to a couple of monks seated on a high dias or throne-like chair. The distinctive gesture of this debate is made with widespread arms, then bringing the palms together in a challenging clapping sound. A crowd of hundreds of people watched, enthralled.
After the debate ended, the crowd flowed into the darkness down the steep, uneven concrete stairway, which seemed an invitation to disaster. Were it not for a few flashlights, we would have been in complete blackness. I inched my way down the steps, fearing for the safety of some of the old women making their way home. Miraculously, I didn’t see anyone fall. Sure-footed people, these.
As I approached the Hotel Hell, I saw lightning flash over the mountain tops to the east. Later that night, there was a thunder shower.
The following morning, I went back to the monastery (in a taxi), when I took these photos.
The lavish interior of the main hall. From the outside the monastery is disappointing, much of it apparently “modern” new construction. The exterior walls of the main building are clad in ugly, cheap commerical tiles, of the kind found on business buildings in town. The inside tells a different story.