Friday, February 28, 2014

Tso Pema/ Relwasar Part 2: Around the Lake

 After our expedition to the caves, we headed over to the town of Tso Pema to continue our exploration of this holy town. Our first stop was Zigar Drukpa Kagyud Monastery. This is a new temple dedicated to Padmasambhava. The big guy behind me in the photo, is of course Padmasambhava, which as I mentioned in my last post is considered a second Buddha.This giant statue is quite new, it was just completed in 2011.

The temple overelooks the lake, Tso Pema, where Padmasambhava supposedly was reborn in a lotus flower (Tso- Lake, Pema- Lotus). The lake is quite small, it takes just 10-15 minutes to circumambulate.

Circumambulate, by the way, was a word I've had to learn here living with Tibetans (Kora in Tibetan), which means to walk around a temple or holy place in a clockwise motion, something which is always done whenever possible. We generally walk around our temple after meals as a general sort of habit. Someone suggested to us that we circumambulate the lake in Tso Pema fifteen times. However, we actually did it just twice, mostly incidentally because we were walking around the town and trying to visit all the temples.

There was something poetic about these tiny little boys riding their bikes in front of the "Danger: Non-Ionizing Radiation" sign. Not sure what that means, and I'm guessing it's not particularly dangerous, but it just looks and sounds scary...

The next temple we visited was very special. This temple is called Zangdok Palri Palace Monastery and my Tibetan co-teacher belives it to be an actual 3-D mandala thanks to it's seemingly purposely colored walls of blue, green, white and red; and its temple upon temple upon temple construction. The palace is actually three temples stacked on top of one another. 

Red and green (blue?) walls of the palace monastery

Buddha of the main hall in the Palace Monastery

In fact, just around the lake, there are at least four Tibetan temples and monasteries. The photo above was taken in the last one. While here the architecture was not as spectacular as some of the other temples, they did have prayer wheels around the whole exterior of the temple. There is something really great feeling about spinning a wheel, which may or may not have something to do with the Buddhist mantras inside that activate for your salvation when you spin them. 

But as I mentioned before in my first post, Tso Pema/ Relwasar is not just famous to Tibetans, it is also important in Hinduism and Sikhism. Here, above, you can see one of the many Hindu temples around the lake. I don't know much about about these temples, but they are sure fun to look at and walk around!

To get here, we rented a private taxi to pick us up early in the morning at 6:30 am and take us there and back. This was convenient to visit the caves and do everything within a few hours as we only had one day. The price for the driver was Rs1,900, or $30USD to take us from Chauntra (between Bir and Joginder Nagar) to Tso Pema. However, there are public buses which are much cheaper that can take you as well. The town is just 30 minutes from Mandi, a moderate sized city in Himachal Pradesh.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tso Pema/Rewalsar part 1: Caves and Hindu Temples

For my second day trip, my Tibetan co-teacher and I headed out to a very holy town for not only Buddhists, but also for Hindus and Sikhs. The area is called Tso Pema in Tibetan, but you may also hear it called Rewalsar in its Hindi name as well. Tso means lake and Pema means lotus, so it is actually Lotus Lake.

According to Wikipedia:
The famous Rawalsar lake ('Tso Pema' to Tibetans) is associated with Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche), who is recognized as a second Buddha. One version of a legend has it that the king of Mandi had Padmasambhava burnt alive after rumours that the Guru had attempted to teach his daughter the Dharma, which was not accepted then. The pyre burned for a full week, with great clouds of black smoke arising from it, but after a week, a lake appeared at the spot where he was burnt and Padmasambhava manifested himself as a 16 year old boy from within a lotus in the middle of the lake. The king, repenting his actions, married his daughter with Padmasambhava. It was from Tso Pema that Padmasambhava went to Tibet to spread Vajrayana Buddhism.

However, our first stop here was not the lake, but the caves in the mountains nearby which make this area so famous for Buddhists. It was here in these caves that Padmasambhava found enlightenment. Padmasambhava is considered a second Buddha and the one responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet. There are four important caves here, although, from the outside you would never know that they were caves. Outside of the caves, houses and roofs have been constructed and inside the caves the floors have been tiled and stairs have been put in, so actually they have become caves converted into temples or shrines.

Inside the first cave: A portrait of a famous lama

 Some cave-like walls still remain...

 Butter Lamps

My co-teacher showed me these lamps. They are called "butter lamps" and you can buy one to make a prayer or offering. They cost around 50 rupees for one medium sized one. Some temples have special rooms just to burn these lamps, while other temples will let you burn them in a special area in the temple. 

 Burning butter lamps

However, the most famous cave here is the small one containing the supposed footprint of Padmasambhava. My co-worker was a little surprised when he saw it, he thought it was too big to really be his footprint....

 Padmasambhava's Footprint

 Butter lamps outside of Padmasambhava's Footprint

Shops before the temple selling many offerings to leave at the Hindu temple 

As we continued to hike up the mountain here, we came across a very big and beautiful Hindu temple. Though we didn't know much about the temple or Hinduism, it was still fun for me to walk around. One thing to note, that when you enter the grounds of a Hindu temple, you must remove your socks and shoes, even when walking around the outside of the grounds. Fortunately it was a warm and sunny day, so it wasn't a problem.

Inside the temple was smokey from all the incense burning. Around the perimeter of the inside of the temple, there were bells hanging every meter or so. As we and the other visitors walked around the temple, we rang each bell as we walked by. Very fun. Not sure about what the meaning of it is, but there is something about ringing a bell that makes you feel good.

After checking out all the caves and the Hindu temple, which took about 2 hours, we got back in our cab and headed to the actual lake itself. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will introduce the rest of the holy places!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Up to the snow: Birling, Himachal Pradesh


On my first day off, my boss decided our staff should have a staff lunch, and we figured before lunch we’d make a quick stop to check out the view from Birling, a small settlement at the top of a local mountain which also happens to be one of the world’s top spots for paragliding. We knew there would be snow up there, so we figured it would be fun to play in the snow (down here in Chauntra it never gets cold enough to snow) and see the view. So, before going to the restaurant, which was near the bottom of the mountain, we jumped in two cars, one of our staff member’s cars and one taxi and headed up the mountain. I kind of felt like I was on a Korean ‘MT’.

The mountain road was a little scary at times. The road was only wide enough for one car (as most roads are here), though it of course supported two way traffic, which made passing both oncoming traffic and slow traffic ahead of us difficult, and at times scary, since there were rarely barriers protecting us from the steep mountainside next to us. 

However, things were going along smoothly until we reached the snow line on the mountain. Here we quickly realized that our little ultra compact cars could go no further in the snowy and icy conditions. Clearly no one up here owned anything like a snow plow. 

But, we figured we’d just walk the rest of the way up. It was only 11am, and our lunch reservation was for 2pm, so we figured we’d have plenty of time. The local folks from our staff assured us that we were just a quick hike from the top.

We found a small path on the sunny side of the mountain with not so much snow and started our assent. Some members of our staff were not prepared with proper shoes for hiking...

I'm not sure if it's a Tibetan thing, or a mountain people thing, or just a human nature thing, but we found that, just like in China, whenever we asked the locals "How much further?", they always reply in a way that makes it sound like you'll reach your destination in 10 minutes. However, just as in China, this hike took us much longer than expected. We finally reached the store near the top at 1:30.

Here we collapsed and had a cup of chai with some chips and cookies... and lots of water...

Around this time we called and informed our restaurant that we would be a bit late, to which we got a very angry response and hung up on. But, there was nothing we could do, so we continued our way up to the top of Birling.

Me and my co-workers at Dzongsar Monastary

Finally we made it to the top. There was some pretty fantastic views and despite all the snow, we felt quite warm. I've never had a snowball fight where I didn't mind picking up snow with my bare hands or wanted to take off my jacket before...

After throwing snowballs around for a little while, we made our way down, this time along the switchback roads, back to our waiting taxi. Then we headed back down the mountain to Bir for our, now very late, lunch. 

Upon arriving at the restaurant (which, by the way, is a very special restaurant owned by a German-Indian who accepts only advanced reservations and has a wood fired oven in which he makes pizzas totally from scratch using whatever ingredients are available in the morning market), we were told by the owner's assistant that we were too late, that we could not eat. We sadly walked out and wondered where we should eat when the woman came back out and informed us that, actually, she had already made our pizzas that we had pre-ordered, and if we didn't mind that they were now a little soggy, she could heat them up in a pan for us. We jumped for joy that we hadn't completely missed our meal and headed back in to enjoy our pizzas. 

After our late lunch, my boss took me for a little tour of her 'neigborhood' in Bir, which was basically a house in the middle of a field. But, the terraced land sure was beautiful.... 

I got back to the monastery where I'm staying just in time for dark, and was a good first introduction to the area...

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Yunnan Part 5: Upper and Lower YuPeng

A view from our window in Upper YuPeng, Meili Xueshan National Park, Yunnan, China

Ahhh .... the best part of Meili XueShan National Park... Yupeng (pronounced we-pong). We still, 4 months later, talk about this place nostalgically... Nestled in a valley just before the great snowy mountains lies this little Tibetan town. Two little Tibetan towns to be exact. It's kind of like stepping back in time to some mythical village. No car roads lead here so anything that is here is brought in by donkey. Apparently they have only had electricity here for a year or two.

Ok, let's be clear about one thing, though. While these towns may have always been here in some shape or form, these two towns have certainly grown substantially with tourism. Houses here have clearly been built with the idea that they would be guesthouses. But don't let that turn you away, most residents that we met come from just on the other side of the mountain in Ninong (I'll get to there in another post) and as you can see in the photo above, all the buildings have been built in the typical Tibetan style. Thanks to the money from tourism, the locals can actually afford to do that. Here in India where I am now, while there are hundreds of Tibetans living around me, it's nearly impossible to find houses built in this style, probably due to lack of funds and lack of experience in building these homes.

Building a new, traditional style Tibetan house. 

But life here in Yupeng is good. Though it is located some 2,500m above sea level, its location so near the tropics (just a hop, skip and a jump from the border of Myanmar and about a day or two drive from Vietnam) so there is never any snow.

View of the glacier from Upper YuPeng

The view from our bedroom window in Upper YuPeng afforded us a beautiful (though often covered by clouds) view of the glacier in the mountains nearby...

Cooking dinner in Upper YuPeng

Cooking out here is done the old fashioned way, on a wood stove. It was fascinating to watch this woman, who was our guesthouse owner, run the kitchen.

Dinner in Upper YuPeng

Food here was mainly Chinese style. We kept asking around for Tibetan food, but everyone looked at us a little strangely and couldn't understand why we would ask for such a strange thing. So, we mostly ate lots of fried vegetables and rice. Fortunately we like fried vegetables and rice.

Maybe breakfast? in Upper YuPeng
Preserved meat in Upper YuPeng

With no car access, anything eaten here must either be grown here or lugged in on a mule or backpack. Meat, of course, could not be sealed and stored in refrigerators as it would be in developed places so meat was salted and preserved and kept on the wall, as you can see above. I'm sure the salting process is not too unlike that which Americans used many years ago. When we ordered food with meat in it, she would just take down this salted pork from the wall and shave off a few small slices and add it to the food.

Dali Beer

We did enjoy a number of these 大理啤酒 (Dali Beer) on our trip, it seems to be one of the only beers available in many rural areas of Yunnan Province. However the beer is quite weak, just 2.5% alcohol... But, I suppose we should not have been drinking it at all as it had to be carried in by mule and hopefully the used bottles were also being lugged out by mule. The price was several yuen more than what it cost in restaurants in the city.

Drinking with the locals

Another exciting moment for us with the local cuisine was sampling the local liquor. We had chatted with this woman, the one with the black vest in the center of the photo, earlier in the day and she told us that she makes her own, homemade, liquor. We told her we wanted to try it later, so around 8pm that night we headed down to her restaurant in the dark and inquired if she were open. Of course we were the only ones in the deserted restaurant but she was excited to show us her liquor and we were excited to try it. We wanted to try both her wine and her barley liquor, so we ordered one of each. However, it was far too much alcohol to drink for the two of us (you can see the containers, the barley liquor was probably 40-50% alcohol...). So, we started recruiting locals to drink with us. Once the woman sitting next to me wondered in, completely drunk, it wasn't hard to get the rest of our drinks drunk as she was more than willing to help, plus getting others to join her in her drunkenness.

Mules in front of traditional Tibetan house in Upper YuPeng

Life in YuPeng runs at a slow pace. There are animals roaming the streets in all directions. While a lot of the local economy is now supported by tourism, it still logistically makes sense to keep up the agricultural way of life as everything here still needs to be brought in by horse if it's not made here.



 Pet monkey?

Not sure what's up with the pet monkey, but it was a little scary and tried to attack us... I think...

Our accommodations in Upper YuPeng

Accommodations here were rustic and simple, as one would expect when trekking I suppose. But, we thought this place was quite nice and clean for $3 USD/ person/ night (20 yuen per night). Not really what most people imagine when they think about honeymoons... but, it was a different kind of romantic I suppose...

Our lovely hosts in Upper YuPeng

After two nights in upper YuPeng we sadly left our guest house and said good bye to those working there and headed down to lower YuPeng for the next night. Lower YuPeng seems to be a more popular place to stay because it has a slightly better view of the Meili Xueshan mountain. However, considering the fact that the mountain is nearly always covered in clouds, or at least it was when we were there, we found life in upper YuPeng much more enjoyable. Fewer tourists, friendlier people, and cheaper accommodations. We went around to several guesthouses before we were able to find one that was both cheap and had a good view. But we paid for it with bedbugs...

Our accommodations in Lower YuPeng

Temple in lower YuPeng

View of the mountains from Lower YuPeng

A moment of clear skies in Lower YuPeng. 

Overall, both Upper and Lower YuPeng are beautiful, fantastic places which have been relatively untouched by modernity. They are fantastic places to find traditional architecture, good meals made with fresh ingredients, kind people, and fantastic views. The husband and I, even now 5 months later long to return to YuPeng...