From Xining to Zhangye

Xining: Tibetan Medicine Museum

Earlier this autumn I made a weekend trip to Xining, taking the 70 minute bullet train. Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, and the gateway to areas of China with heavier Tibetan influence.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM.bmp

I was there to visit the Tibetan Medicine Museum of China to see the Great Thangka. A Thangka (tangkasnet) is a Tibetan Buddhist painting done on cotton or silk. In this style of art, there is always one large figure in the center, surrounded by dozens of smaller demi-gods, animals, and monks depicting a Buddhist story. Here is an example, courtesy of Wikipedia:Fullscreen capture 11212017 62554 PM.bmp

The thangka is always colorful and ornate, meticulously painted with layers of blue ocean waves, deep red temple facades, and gold or silver lining saved for clouds and deities.

What makes the Great Thangka special is its sheer size and length – this is a scroll painting 618 meters (2,000+ feet!!!) in length and 1,000 kg in weight – which took 300 artists over 25 years to complete. Walking into the exhibit was a mind-blowing experience.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14042 PM.bmp

Wall after wall, room after room, was this never-ending scroll painting as far as the eye could see. Every square inch of visible surface-area was covered in colors and stories- there were elephants, tortured human skeletons, vultures, blue-skinned fire demons, dragons, and historical figures important to Tibetan Buddhism.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14029 PM.bmp

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I had the entire exhibit to myself. In retrospect I should have requested a guide to help me further appreciate the artwork, to better understand the major themes and fables depicted. Fullscreen capture 11212017 14035 PM.bmp

Had it not been for the green arrows on the floor guiding visitors through the museum, I definitely would have been lost at some point. The experience was similar to wandering through a corn maze, only slightly more artistic and lacking screaming children.

Here is a floor map of the exhibit; from above it looks a bit like our large intestines (I drew a yellow line to helpfully indicate the thangka snaking through the museum).Fullscreen capture 11212017 62604 PM.bmp

I am really curious about the logistics of outlining, painting, storing, transporting, and installing the Great Thangka. Researching this might just be my Peace Corps secondary project, instead of fixing up the dreaded “Book Nook”.

Zhangye: Danxia Geopark and the Giant Buddha

Several weeks later I again headed north-west from Lanzhou for three and a half hours via bullet train, this time to Zhangye.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM_1.bmp

Zhangye is famous for the Danxia National Geopark, a rock formation landscape similar to the Grand Canyon. With good weather and angled sunlight, the rich colors of the earth streak through the mountainside in reds, yellows, cream, and every color in between.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14301 PM.bmp

Danxia is about forty minutes away from Zhangye downtown by private car. After arriving at the geopark, I hitched a ride on the park bus that came every ten minutes or so, stopping at each viewpoint to admire various rock formations.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14253 PM.bmp

Chinese love giving ridiculous, long-winded names to odd shaped rocks on mountains and hills- the Danxia Geopark is no different. Below are some fancy titles for the sculpted landscape, and if you squint hard enough, maybe you could see a scallop or monkey, but I honestly just saw dirt-colored cliffs.

  • Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus
  • Colorful Meeting Fairy Deck
  • Spirit Monkey View Sea
  • Supernatural Tortoise Looks at the Sky

Also worth noting that every image on Google has been photoshopped and saturated beyond reality, and what I saw with my eyes looked nothing like what a visitor may have expected, if they were to believe Google.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62548 PM.bmp

The other must-see landmark in Zhangye is the Giant Sleeping Buddha (张掖大佛寺). This slumbering sculpture is the largest of its kind in China – and thankfully, has barely been touched since its creation in the Western Xia Dynasty 900+ years ago.02-20121111-08_cn-sleepingbuddha-sml

The Buddha is held together by a hollow wooden frame coated in a layer of clay, and painted over. A panorama shows its true scale: 157 feet long x 24 feet wide at its highest (shoulder to shoulder). He is guarded by ten disciples behind him, and two on either side of his head and feet.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62530 PM.bmp

No photography was allowed inside, so these are Google photos. Behind the statue on the wall were Ming Dynasty murals retelling scenes from Journey to the West (interestingly, the wall paintings were completed before the book 西游记 was written, so many of these tales about the Monkey King existed along the Silk Road well before they reached the rest of China!). There’s also a legend that Kublai Khan was born here, but so far there’s little evidence of this.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14214 PM.bmp

The temple exterior is unadorned and unpainted. There are banners along the entrance pillars with a beautiful poem, written in traditional Chinese characters:

Sleep Buddha, long may you slumber
Sleep 1,000 years
Slumber forever, do not awaken
Those who ask, question forever
Question 100 centuries
Never ask, and you will never know

Of course I made a sketch of this too, with the poem written in gold ink glimmering against a black midnight sky, overlooking Zhangye’s Giant Buddha. May he sleep for another 100 centuries!Fullscreen capture 11212017 62540 PM.bmp



Qinghai: Canola Flower Season!

I had been hyping up this reunion for the longest time- between Ana and Monique (from Taipei) – and Monica and Fox (based in Lanzhou). We talked about this for months and months, as the girls met years ago in Thailand and hadn’t seen each other again since.

Our plan was to hangout for a weekend in Lanzhou before I took the girls from Taiwan on a trip to Qinghai

As luck would have it, the first evening Ana and Monique arrived in the city, I was about to have dinner with my relatives, Fay and Ma Qiang. They were thrilled to invite the girls to eat 涮羊肉 (thin-sliced, rapid-boiled mutton) with us, so the girls hustled into a tuk-tuk(ish) car-thing to get to the restaurant ASAP.

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Ana, awkwardly sequestering herself away from the rest of us. im holding a bowl of San Pai Tai tea, a Lanzhou specialty

It was all very, very delicious, and I’m always amused at the ways in which various social circles can collide and expand in the most unexpected circumstances!

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lamb on the left, pickled sweet garlic below (next to the cilantro), tofu and veggies to the right

The next day, we meet with Fox and Monica and do the foodie tour of Lanzhou – the beef noodle soup, the fermented barley milk tea, the kebabs and baked bing bread.

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hugs all around

We talked about Monica and Fox’s impending wedding, my very important and unorthodox role as best man, and the generally crazy-but-hilarious lives we have all been living and enjoying in Taipei and Lanzhou.

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enjoying fermented barley milk tea
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kebab 羊肉串, baked bread 烤饼, and potato slices 土豆片. everything in lanzhou is so salty/ spicy/ sour, and im kind of over it. but the girls from taipei love this stuff, since the food in taipei is much lighter in flavor

The next day, Ana, Monique and I set off to BianDuKou via express train to see the canola flowers there. Mid July is the perfect time to see these flowers in full blossom, and if you are lucky you will see an unbelievable site- miles and miles of flowers that blanket the earth in a sea of yellow and gold petals.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123536 AM.bmpIt turns out, this year MenYuan (not Biandukou, where we were headed) had the highest concentration of canola flowers, so the view from the train was the best of all! I’ll be back next year…

At Bian Du Kou, stopped to take some gorgeous photos of wildlife and nature at its finest– with mountains in the background, some Chinese tourists in the front (dressed for the occasion), and a field of flowers throughout!

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some girls came ready for a photoshoot!

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Here are some yurts we could have rented for a night, if we had more time
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Happy visitors in BianDuKou

The field mice in the grasslands were so cute! But, they have a devastating impact on the soil here and lead to soil erosion throughout the region.

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sheep crossing

The next day, we headed to Qinghai lake from Xining. Our driver Stone was a French and English speaking tour guide who gave us ample time to stop at the best sites- including a Tibetan temple midway between the provincial capital and the lake. I was able to take some incredible photos there…

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prayer flags set up behind the temple. Tibetan prayers are written on each flag, and as the wind blows, the prayers are carried away into the wind
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“give me serious”

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We stopped to have lunch at another grassland, and ate outside yogurt and nang bread outside the yurt of a nomadic family.

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lunch break!! picnic in the middle of nowhere

We also fed their baby goats – poor thing is tied to a post – that quickly sucked down a bottle of milk.

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Finally, after a long day of driving we reached the lake in the mid afternoon. Qinghai Lake is impressive for being the largest body of water in China, and in July it is even more impressive with much of its circumference colored by a ring of gold canola flowers several kilometers wide.

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Vogue Qinghai

This of course, makes for another great photo session!

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squatting in a field of canola flowers (not pooping- i promise!)

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Interesting fact: Tibetans do not have a culture of eating fish, so the massive fish population in Qinghai Lake had never been harvested by humans for centuries, or maybe millennia. During the great leap forward, when the rest of China suffered from great famine and disaster, large-scale fishing in Qinghai Lake sustained the entire population of Xining and spared hundreds of thousands of people from starvation.

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