Tibet (Day 10) – Drikung Monastery, Hot Springs, & a Nomad Tent 30 June 2009
First full day in Drikung – waking up to dogs barking, yak bells tinkling, and a great breakfast of fried egg sandwich between a lovely chapati- or naan-like bread made with onions, and bananas, watermelon, and apples. And surprisingly, the instant coffee is quite good!
Today we visited the Drikung Til Monastery, one of the oldest still functioning in Tibet. Buddhists believe this valley to be one of the power centers of the world with 108 sacred springs, and it is also the most sacred sky burial site in Tibet. Those who can afford the time and expense bring the bodies of their loved ones from the far corners of Tibet.
But there were no burials today – it is the 8th day of the 5th month, a special day in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar, and the monks were chanting from dawn until dusk in a tent near the burial site. We drove the steep road to the monastery, and then hiked up from there – to about 14,500′. As we got out of the van, Achi’s cousin Chodrub (right) passed us on his motorcycle, touching his tongue to his chin in the traditional greeting with a large grin…I had read of this custom, but it was the first time I had seen it. He was our special guide today. As a teenager, Chodrub spent some time at the monastery studying and meditating, and is now an accomplished artist, and an incredible wealth of information about Drikung, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. On top of that, listening to him speak (with Achi translating) was fascinating; Chodrub’s voice has the quality of an ancient story-teller – exquisitely modulated and colorful, accompanied by graceful and animated hand and arm gestures, to the point where you can almost figure out what he is saying.
We traversed the side of the mountain along the base of the monastery (left) and then literally huffed and puffed up, up the wide sandy path, stopping to catch our breath frequently while enjoying the expansive views of the surrounding mountains and the valley and Drikung River and village below. As pointed out by Chodrub, when viewed from high on the mountain across the valley, above Achi’s home, this ridge looks to the viewer like the head and shoulder wings of a vulture, with the sky burial site located at the vulture’s heart. Near the top of the ridge, we followed a line of wind prayer wheels (‘manilunko’) to the stupas (memorial tombs), noticing one of the sacred springs, and meditation caves and nomad tents on the far side of the ridge, and from all directions, vultures taking off, landing, swooping, and circling. The vultures are HUGE creatures — some probably have a 6-foot wingspan, and according to Achi, do not feed on anything else and know to take their turn during the burials.
We made our way to the chanting monks, and after requesting the monks to offer three prayers on behalf of our group, we were invited to sit inside and observe. It was quite an experience to let the chanting swirl around us – the monks seemed not the slightest bit fazed by us, and even nodded and smiled to us, one monk gesturing that he liked my glasses (or hoped I would donate them?)! It was not the very deep-throated chanting you may have heard in the movies (that is only done on high ceremonial days and is a special skill), but was wonderful to hear…after a time we could hear individual voices as they read/chanted the long paper scriptures. We were also intrigued to notice that they were being fed butter tea, yogurt and tsampa, and to our great surprise and interest, money was changing hands everywhere. This is because pilgrims visit every day and offer donations of specific amounts for the monks’ and monastery’s sustenance — sometimes an amount specified for every monk, sometimes an individual monk, so change was made for the specified amounts! Occasionally instruments were played as well, like this beautiful drum with the crooked stick (right, see the stick below his left knee?).
On our way back down, we visited part of the monastery, then were invited to visit more relatives and served the traditional milk- or butter-tea and freeze-dried yak and other delectables. After a short nap to recover from our high-altitude hike, we headed for a nunnery down-valley that is famous for its hot springs. What a delight!! The only problem was that we had to walk down a *very* steep road, and many more steps, which meant coming back up! This altitude is definitely a challenge.
And as if that weren’t enough for a day, Lester and I had taken up the offer of sleeping in a yak tent! So after dinner, as it was getting dark and starting to rain, we all headed that way – it was a short drive (about a 30″ walk) to the hanging bridge, then a 5-minute walk. A guest tent, and associated toilet tent!, were all prepared (actually used by previous tours), near the ‘permanent’ tent of his family which is surrounded by the traditional rock wall with fuel on top. After – yes – more tea in the family’s tent, and Achi’s niece Chotsomo demonstrating the yogurt churn, we were taken to our tent: well-furnished in traditional style with two beds (not cots), covered in luxurious, thick, soft wool mats, sheets, pillows and blankets, two love seats, and a cabinet-table! There was no flooring, but the grass was thick and soft, and dry despite the rain outside. We were wished good sleep, and shown how to tie the flaps together to prevent wind blowing rain inside. Except for a few splashing sprinkles from the pole-hole above us, were were amazingly cozy. Exhausted sleep was only interrupted by barking dogs, tinkling bells, and snorting yaks… We are adjusting to the altitude.