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New York Times Travel Section, Sunday, March 19, 2000
STOREHOUSE OF TIBETAN CULTURE
It takes pains to get to Dege, deep in the mountains of western Sichuan, but that's a big reason this little town still produces texts of Buddhism
by Peter Hessler
Danzhu Langjia, a 40-year-old Tibetan monk, knows all about difficult journeys. From Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province, he has traveled south by foot and ramshackle bus across the arid steppes of the Tibetan plateau. After five days, he has arrived at the sales counter of the Dege Printing House, where he reaches into the folds of his crimson cloak and counts out 153.2 yuan -- about $18.50.
A clerk hands over a stack of texts about traditional Tibetan Buddhist debating. The monks smiles triumphantly. The next day, he will start the long journey back to Qinghai, but that night he can rest, knowing that his book-buying mission was successful.
"This is the heart of Tibetan culture," says Se Jia, the director of the printing house in Dege, a remote town in western Sichuan province. "If you want to go to the heart of the Tibetan religion, you go to Lhasa and places like the Potala Palace. But Dege is the heart of the culture."
Since Dege (pronounced DEHR-geh) is in a county with only 61,000 residents, Se Jia's claim might seem pretentious if not for the example of the monk standing before him at the largest traditional press in Tibetan parts of China. Dege's reputation has likewise inspired me to make my own pilgrimage, traveling about 560 miles with a friend, Mike Goettig, for 47 hours on rough buses from Chengdu, the Sichuan capital. It is a journey I won't soon forget - especially the previous day's stretch over the 16,128-foot high Tro La (la means pass) - where the lower reaches of Highway 317, a one-lane dirt road, were strewn with the tangled skeletons of trucks that had rolled off it.
The danger of the Tro La is only one of the reasons this part of western Sichuan province, known as Kham, was closed to foreign tourists until early this year. There were also political reasons, including the fierce resistance by local Khampa Tibetans against Chinese occupation in the 1950's.
The trauma of Tibet started in Kham, where the Chinese first began to redistribute monastic lands forcibly, driving Khampa refugees toward Lhasa. There, they contributed to the resistance that culminated in the Dalai Lama's 1959 flight to India. The ramifications of this chain of events are still unfolding, and for nearly half a century these wild mountains have been closed to the world.
Now, they are open once more. Roads are being improved, including the stretch along the Tro La, and all last summer the first adventurous travelers made their way west along Highway 317, which links Sichuan and Tibet. No special permits are required only fortitude and patience.
The reward is seeing in Kham some of the most intact Tibetan culture in China, which may seem surprising given the history of the 1950's. But this is one of the most remote parts of the country, and since 1959, the high passes and bad roads have protected Kham from the fate of more accessible political centers like Lhasa. In this sense, Kham is a contradictory region, having been both a political hot spot and, more recently, a repository for a substantial part of the culture that has survived the political upheaval of the last half century.
Even before our arrival in Dege, the bus journey revealed an area that is markedly different from Tibet proper. The architecture along Highway 317 is striking, houses of wood and stone with brilliantly carved Tibetan windows, and there is no sign of the heavy Chinese migration that has changed so many Tibetan cities.
In Luhuo, where our bus stopped for the second night, I was surprised to find that the monastery was full of prominently displayed photographs of the Dalai Lama-- on the main altar, in the visiting rooms, even mounted on the front of the monastery's truck.
Such openness is unimaginable in Lhasa - but you can fly to Lhasa, whereas a place like Luhuo, lost in the wilds of western Sichuan, is easily forgotten. The monastery here still has a beautiful room reserved for the Dalai Lama, its tapestries, shrines, and photographs waiting patiently in case he returns for a visit.
In Dege, we tour Dege's massive printing house, which is open to visitors. "About 80 percent of the Tibetan literary culture is stored here in this complex," Se Jia says. "Our customers are monasteries, Buddhist study centers, libraries, and Tibetan colleges."
Less than 20 miles from where the Yangtze River, known here as the Jinsha, marks the Sichuan-Tibet border, Dege has a major monastery, several temples and an impressive hillside of traditional red-and-white Tibetan homes. But the town has always been known for its printing house, a three-story wood structure that was constructed from 1729 to 1750 and still serves as a sacred destination for pilgrims who walk clockwise around the building, prayer wheels in hand.
More than 210,000 hand-carved wooden blocks of text are stored on the premises, and the press attracted monks and scholars from all across Tibet until printing stopped in the early 1950's, when Dege was brought firmly under Chinese rule. Previously, the region had spent most of its recorded history as a kingdom independent of both China and the Dalai Lama's Tibet, with Dege's local ruling clan maintaining control through 47 generations.
Dege chafed under Chinese rule, and as a result, local policies were particularly restrictive. The printing press was converted into a hospital, but the locals found ways to guard their literary treasures, some of which had been carved in the 1600's. But preservation became much more difficult during the Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976.
"Most of the important buildings around Dege were destroyed," Se Jia tells us. "The monastery was badly damaged, and the king's palace was completely ruined. But Zhou Enlai commanded the Red Guards to protect this printing house because it was so important, just like he protected the Potala. A few murals were damaged, but everything else survived."
In 1979, the press was allowed to resume operation, and 10
years later, the government helped restore the building. Today it functions more
or less as it always did, relying on the simple labor of more than 100 workers
who are unassisted by machines or even electric lighting.
Printing sutras in Dege
On the second floor, two Tibetans are printing pages from the Kangyur, a 600-year-old Tibetan Buddhist text whose wood blocks were carved in the 17th and early 18th centuries. "That's one of our most valuable books," Se Jia says. "And we still use the real cinnabar ink, because it lasts longer."
One of the workers spreads the bright red ink on a wood block while the other presses the paper. They work quickly, printing a page every four seconds. But the Kangyur is 33,050 pages long, and the press requires about three weeks to produce five copies of the book. This simple process - one man rubbing ink on a block, the other adding paper - says something profound about the survival of Tibetan culture.
Se Jia notes that the press is free to print anything from its stock, and he emphasizes that there is not a single Chinese on staff. The main government concern, he says, is that the brittle building be protected from fire.
"We also have problems with thieves stealing our blocks and selling them as relics," he says. "A lot of it comes down to money. The economy here in Dege isn't good, and we're supported entirely by our own business. And after 270 years of history, the press is so dry that the risk of fire is incredible."
After two days in Dege, we start a trek. In recent years, this region has been explored by an American woman, Pamela Logan, who traveled in Kham before it was officially opened, publishing a book about her experiences. She also started a nonprofit organization called the Kham Aid Foundation, whose Internet site includes a basic trekking guide, which we relied on.
Having brought a tent, we decide to hike southeast, where it's possible to break up a trek either by camping or staying in monasteries. We follow a fragile strand of modernity - a telephone line that starts at Highway 317 and heads east toward the monastery towns of Babang and Maisu. The trail runs beside the telephone poles, which serve as a reminder that we are to some degree linked to the China we left behind in Dege.
But everything else slips away quickly. Most of these regions have no electricity, and the trail is too rough for vehicles; the Tibetans travel on stocky Mongolian ponies. We pass only a handful of travelers, and a dozen or so herders. The homes are impressive, sprawling compounds of wood cut from the heavily forested mountains.
The magnificent peaks rise as high as 20,000 feet. On our first full day, we cross the Ngosen La, a 15,200-foot pass, and the weather is perfect. It is late August, perhaps the best time to be here; the rainy season has just ended and the hillsides shimmer with bluebells and edelweiss. Local barley racks are heavy with freshcut crops, and red-turbaned Khampa herdsmen in the high pastures drive yaks that are still short-haired from the summer,
We fall into the routines of a long trek: the early mornings and the early nights, the hard ascents and the relief of reaching a high pass and seeing a long decline ahead. At these altitudes - 10,500 to about 15,000 feet at the passes - we average about a dozen miles a day. After crossing the Ngosen La, we spend a night at Babang Monastery, which, like all the monasteries in this region, offers travelers basic lodging for a small fee, about $4 or $5 each.
The monks provide us with simple Tibetan food: dried yak meat, butter tea and tsampa, or roasted barley flour. Tibetan fare is not among my favorites, but a day of trekking at this altitude can make tsampa and butter tea a feast.
Time no longer seems to matter, because nothing in these mountains moves quickly. At Babang, we decide to head south to Baiyu, whose monastery is famous for having some of the best preserved traditional Buddhist murals in Sichuan. The detour is substantial - four hours down the valley, four hours back - but in a place like Kham, it seems reasonable to walk eight hours to look at some paintings.
It would take even longer to untangle the stories captured in the 300year-old mural, which stretches 233 feet around the monastery's main scenes from the life of Buddha, depictions of bodhisattvas, portraits of demonlike dharmapalas trampling human bodies (covered chastely by silk, lest viewers fail to realize that the scenes represent the defeat of ignorance).
PERHAPS the most vivid figure is that of Sarasvati, a Hindu goddess who was adopted into Buddhism and appears on Baiya's mural as the sum of many parts: a Hindu-Tibetan religious icon with a Chinese face and a pose that is distinctly Nepalese. The painting is a testimony that Kham was always a border region, and that cultural exchanges were taking place in these remote mountains three centuries ago. But it is also a sad reminder that for many decades such exchanges stopped - the mural survives only because of Baiyu's remoteness.
On our third day, we climb east over the Ha La to Maisu, the most strikingly beautiful town of the trek,where we meet a group of local elementary school teachers. Half of them are Chinese, half are Tibetan; they seem completely comfortable together and they invite us to dine with them at the single local restaurant.
Dzongsar Monastery, in Maisu
The restaurant owner is a Chinese man from the lowlands of central Sichuan who somehow found his way to this 11,811-foot-high monastery town, where he married a Khampa woman with turquoise braided in her hair and eyes the color of smoke. A day later, we meet two more Chinese men who have also married local women. It's as if the people in this forgotten valley have also forgotten to dislike each other.
Maisu, with its green mountains and towering monastery, is simply a long way from anywhere. And this is the final problem of our trip, because at Maisu we run out of map: our materials don't continue farther east, and we don't want to backtrack. From here, it's all uncharted territory.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the solution is both Chinese and Tibetan. One of the 15 Chinese residents of Maisu is Liu Bing, a carpenter who married a Tibetan woman. He promises us that for $12, their son, who is working in the fields, can guide us northeast to Highway 317. It will take two days of hard walking, but it will save us from returning the way we came. The 20-year-old boy knows the mountains from hunting, Mr. Liu says, pointing proudly to a six-footlong wolf carcass on the wall of his home.
The wolf is a good sign. We pay the $12. The son comes back from the fields and leads us over the mountains to Highway 317. But before all of this happens, we spend a night camped on Mr. Liu's threshing platform, looking up at a sky so deep and brilliant that it seems the stars have also lost themselves in this forgotten valley.
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