These days, urban China is made of people, cars, and ubiquitous green scaffolding and yellow-orange cranes flying the red Communist Party flag over construction sites. Everywhere you look, edifices of glass, concrete and stone predominate. By day, construction; through the night, construction. It stops for nothing, not even torrential downpours so heavy that the cab of the crane can’t be seen from the ground.
In western Sichuan, the rains have fallen particularly hard this year, causing floods and mudslides that have killed several dozen people and blocked key roads.
One of those key roads is the one that takes you from Chengdu, where I’ve spent most of my time in China, to Lhasa, the epicenter of Tibet, which is just now laboring under its 59th year of Chinese occupation. It’s rugged country, and the Tibetans are rugged people, accustomed to harsh conditions and high elevations.
There wasn’t time to get to Lhasa on this trip, especially given the condition of the road, so we went as far as Kangding and then on to Lhagong (Tagong in Chinese, and meaning “the holy hill,” or “where the gods want to be.”) in a region the Tibetans refer to as Kham. One of the most important monasteries outside of Lhasa is in Lhagong, and Buddhist monks and nuns are as common as townspeople on the streets. The faces of many of the monks and nuns are so beautiful and elemental in their grace that I can’t help but want to know what’s under their robes. I imagine loosening a belt and crimson cloth falling away to reveal an undeniably numinous body, or a ghostly riot of doves.
It was muddy as all hell in Lhagong after days upon days of rain. Prayer flags, bright traditional clothing and cylindrical copper prayer wheels shocked color into things on the streets, but we were eventually cowed by the rain and retreated indoors to dry off when, unexpectedly, the rain stopped and a golden hour arrived. Seizing the moment, we took the road out of town, towards a golden stupa, passing townspeople who were mostly on foot or horseback. As we left the town proper, the stupa looked like a small red structure with a golden peak, situated in a rolling valley.
As we drew closer, it grew, and by the time we were standing next to it the massive scale of it was boggling. The outer wall was topped by ornate stone spires that are, I think, called crenellations, at least when they appear on the walls of medieval castles. There was an even higher wall, also topped with these spires, behind the first one.
Being in China, thinking about the Tibetans while the sun went down glorious, I couldn’t decide which idea held more magic for me: that this was a giant fortification full of monks and nuns who, not fearing death, were more than a match for any earthly army or floodtide of settlers or, alternately, that this was an immense palace full of exquisitely beautiful people of belief, happily lashing their souls to some great transcendent hum.
Then again, In Tibet, where the Buddhist monks are often the fiercest resisters and leaders of militant uprisings and clashes, the idea that ferocity can’t co-exist with love, beauty and faith is, quite clearly, false.
[In the demonstrations depicted in the video above, other ethnic minority groups displaced or discriminated against in Han-dominated China were also involved, but around 300 Buddhist monks kicked things off.]
- Link: Visit Friends of Tibet: People’s Movement for an Independent Tibet to learn more about Tibetan independence efforts.
- Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Brian Awehali.