Last week, Zhang Ze (café owner) says he’s going to Gannan and invites us to join him. He is a quarter Tibetan, and he makes an annual pilgrimage to HeZuo to pray at the Tibetan monastery complex there. Though it’s freezing now in Gansu, I’m always up for an adventure, and the weather is set to be sunny so I’m happy to go. Two guys dropped out last minute, so it was just three of us meeting at the bus station Saturday morning at 9:30AM
We arrive in HeZuo, Gannan around 1PM and are picked up by two of Zhang Ze’s friends, De Ji and Zhuo Ma. Zhuo Ma is one of the most badass girls I’ve met in China. She drives up to the bus station in a Land Wind, which is an identical knock off of a Land Rover. She hops out of the car to greet us and is wearing a black Adidas track suit, with matching Adidas sneakers, and has all sorts of Tibetan prayer beads/ coral/ turquoise stones hanging from her necklace. Though her English is pretty much limited to “Hey, Man!”, when we get in the car and she is blasting RICK ROSS. True HeZuo BADASS.
De Ji and Zhuo Ma have been to the Tibetan temples a million times so they drop us off and will meet us for dinner. Zhang Ze, Wu Qian and I walk up to the Tsoe Gompa and Milarepa Lhakhang monastery complex.
It is incredibly impressive- a set of deep red temples built into the hill, each topped with a glimmering gold roof, and some surrounded by ornate walls of gold and red with white and brown stripes. The tallest temple is anywhere from 9 to 13 stories tall (Zhang Ze says 9, wikipedia says 13; I didn’t bother counting). Most of the temples have been restored after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
We followed Tibetan customs and circled around Milarepa temple three times [clockwise] before entering (shoes off, and no photos allowed) The interior was lined with bronze cast Tibetan gods- most with fierce expressions to ward off evil spirits. The air smelled like salty butter, since all the candles burning inside were made of yak butter.
Outside, we spent two hours walking around and I took some neat photos with the dSLR camera. A lot of elderly men and women were here to pray, and some were happy to pose for photos.
Afterwards we hiked up the hills behind the monastery. At some point there was a wire fence covered in Tibetan prayer flags, left behind by worshipers. Whenever the wind blows, the scriptures written on the flags are lifted into the sky and bring peace and blessings to the surrounding land.
We head back down to the temple complex and Zhang Ze tells me more about Tibetan culture. For example, there is a specific Tibetan flute made out of the leg-bone of 14 year old girls. Zhang explains that for religious Tibetans, the body is merely a vessel for their spirit, so if your 14 year old daughter happens to die, it’s an honor to have her leg bone turned into a flute for lamas to use. Also, when Tibetans die, there are “sky burials” where their bodies are hacked into small pieces for vultures to eat; it is a way to share your body with other living beings.
Zhang also says some monks will have their bones turned into jewelry, like bracelets or necklaces, and these can be worn by other high ranking men of religion. (At this point Zhang is throwing shade at our friend Jerry, who loves showing off his Tibetan bone bracelet, despite being secular Han Chinese. Cultural appropriation and microaggressions reach Gansu!)
At sunset the girls come and pick us up in the Land Wind SUV. For dinner we go to a courtyard home and head to a room on the second floor, which has been converted to a restaurant. We get a D.I.Y. appetizer: a big bowl of flour, a medium bowl of yak butter and a small bowl of sugar. Zhuo Ma mixes the ingredients together with hot milk tea, and then uses her hands (“I just washed my hands, okay?”) to form them into logs of sorts, for us to eat. Tastes like salty nothing.
I’m glad the main dishes were stronger in flavor- roasted lamb, sliced cow stomach, and some root vegetables. We spent the night drinking unsweetened milk tea and san pao tai tea, and the girls brought out a Bluetooth speaker and we enjoyed Bob Marley and the Beatles (I swear, everyone is cooler than me…)
The next day Zhuo Ma takes us to lunch and then drops us off at the bus station. She tells me she will add me on weChat and I tell her to come visit us in Lanzhou. Later on the bus, I get a friend request notification on weChat. User name: “JAMAICA BIG MONEY”
Disclaimer: All opinions shared in this blog are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of any outside organization, including but not limited to the United States Government and the Peace Corps.