SYNOPSIS:  About an excursion into the Grasslands, a visit at the Tseway Gompa Bön Monastery, and another Tibetan Buddhist monastery.  About a photographic treat,  a living Buddha, an ancient city, and a short hike into a gorgeous gorge. 

I did not see much of my driver since his face was mostly hidden behind a face mask, and he did not speak a word with me.  Only when he smoked a cigarette did that mask come off.  These masks are quite popular here.  I am not sure why.  You can buy them in all kinds of styles and fabrics to match your clothes.  In Japan, I had encountered them as considerate measures to not infect others, when you had a cold.  Here, it might be to prevent you from inhaling too much of the smoke produced from all the temple offerings; who knows?  Only at one point did during the trip could I not stop myself from reacting.  That was when he rolled down his window to throw out two plastic bottles and the rest of the trash from his car, right into the rolling landscape!  I gasped and threw my arms up in the air.  But the stoic he was, he only shrugged his shoulders. 

I had hired a driver today to make an excursion into the surrounding grasslands.  Two things seemed particularly interesting:  a Bön monastery, and a 2000 year old adobe city, similar to Gaochang, which had been appropriated by local farmers.

Bön (pronounced Boen as in Moeven Pick), is the indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of the region.  Nobody can quite figure out what the original Bön religion entailed.  What has come down to us, is a variation of Bön, heavily influenced by Buddhism.  That’s perhaps, what I took away most clearly from this visit:  If you had not told me that this was a Bön place, I would have never guessed.  The religious symbols, architectural styles, even worship practices look Buddhist.  Some of the temples are dedicated to Buddhist deities. Only one was dedicated to the founder of Bön, Shenrab Miwoche.

But then… perhaps it is the other way around?  Perhaps, it is from Bön, that Tibetan Buddhism inherited the drumming, the idea of wrathful deities, the trapping of bad spirits, the sky burials, the flagpoles, and who knows what else?  What is most clearly distinguishable is the direction of circumambulation, and the turning of the prayer wheels which is counter-clockwise. 

The temples of Tseway Gompa were all closed, but a big flagpole atop a mountain behind the monastery beckoned to be reached.  And so I mustered some extra energy and climbed.  I am only at 2900 meters here with much more to come in Tibet, but even at this altitude, climbing is a challenge.

To reach any of these sites, you will pass through the Ganjia Grasslands.  At some point of the year, these rolling hills must be green to deserve the name.  This time around, it felt more like driving through the desert.  The grass was brown and no longer than a centimeter off the ground.  Yet, herds of sheep, cows and domesticated yak (much smaller than the rare wild yak) could be seen “grazing” everywhere.  Adobe stable areas were set up here and there, and soon, the yurts of nomads following their herds might be seen as well.

Trakkar Gompa was another stop on the road.  Against a stunning backdrop of cliffs, splitting into two halves that form a deep gorge, a small Buddhist monastery is nestled.  Less than a hundred monks live here and as my luck would have it, one of the monks was about to open the main hall, or dukhang, to set it up for one of the daily prayer sessions.  Not only did he allow me in, but he allowed me to photograph!  I did not want to use a flash, and in the low light of these halls that complicates things.  But there finally is a good visual of these spectacularly decorated halls.  Tangkhas and religious wall paintings fill the walls top to bottom.  Pillars support the hall, which is filled with rows of low benches facing each other for the monks to sit.  This hall has only 16 pillars, and room for about 80 monks.  Imagine the ones with over 100 pillars!

Without anyone around, I only ventured into the gorge for a short while.  I would have had to balance slippery stones to cross a stream and even though from a distance all these rocks looked so easy to climb, upon closer inspection their distance was farther than expected and the thought of me and my camera tumbling into the ice-cold water was just not an appealing one.

Up in the mountains there are sacred caves.  Some are empty and believed to contain the spirit of a deceased holy person. In one of them, a female saint still resides.  In fact, she is considered to be a living Buddha.  The story goes that in her mid-twenties, she retreated there, and has not come down since.  She is now in her 80’s!  The monks provide her with food and on rare occasions, she receives visitors. 

The area is stunningly beautiful.  The stream is powering several prayer wheels and on significant corners flag poles, or darchen, have been set up.  In typical Bön-Buddhist fashion, mani stones have been piled up to protect the land and its visitors.

Our final stop were the remains of an ancient, 2000 year old Han Dynasty village known as Bajiao.  Unlike Gaochang, or Jiaohe, which have been abandoned at one point or another in history, this Han village seems to have been continuously occupied.  Ancient walls are the backdrop for new construction.  Some houses are built using some of the ancient remains and fitting the new materials right into them.  I saw more animals than people, but it was clear that this town was on the upswing.  Plumbing channels and solar street lights were a quaint oddity next to drying piles of yak dung.  They all seemed to get along.

Another day in the Tibetan highlands went by.  I did not have time to explore Xiahe town fully.  I regret that.  There were lines of Tibetan handicraft stores, and the Muslim neighborhood  probably features some culinary delights.  But even with more than two months of travel time, corners have to be cut.

And so I will enjoy my soft bed at the Nirvana Hotel, outfitted even with an electric blanket — a real treat in this climate — for one last night.

Sweet dreams!