Yushu, the place we would always leave tomorrow
They say that Spanish always postpone action till tomorrow. “Mañana, mañana”. No matter where you are, if you are Spanish, that is probably the way that your foreign workmates will wave you goodbye while closing the door of the office. Well, there is some truth in that they are the product of a laid back culture, but this stereotype has always gotten on Marta’s nerves. She says that “there are things for today, and others for tomorrow”, and maybe only Spanish know the truth behind these categories. But in any case, leaving Yushu would always fall on the second box, and we know well that tomorrow is a cunning concept in the wheel of time, that is always about to come but is never here yet.
But where is Yushu? In the southern corner of Qinghai, a sparsely populated chunk of deserts and mountains, nestled in between round smooth peaks and at 3700 meters above sea level, Yushu is a city in the autonomous prefecture of the same name, and as near as we could get to being in Tibet without an expensive Chinese approved guide and permit. We did not believe Lonely Planet when it said that this was “one of the remotest corners of one of the remotest areas of China”, and although Yushu was not the little colourful town that this sentence evoked in our minds, after 8 days without any other foreign faces than our owns, we concluded that the guide was right, at least this time. Hit by a 7.1 earthquake in 2010 the city was lowered to the ground, and by now its Tibetan wooden buildings have been replaced with concrete constructions, which only retain buddhist iconography as a continuation of tradition. The old Jyekundo, the Tibetan trade center in its origin, is buried under new pavements or in history books, but its contemporary sister keeps the charm of Tibetan life running through its streets.
Yushu is a jewel hidden in a lotus of mountains. Grassy fields run down spectacular slopes embracing the city in a green velvet coat. Webs of prayer flags and mantras engraved in the hills dress nature in cultural garments. Yaks, just like an odd hairy version of the mountain goats, perch undisturbed high above the houses grazing calmly under a transparent veil of high-altitude haze. And the clouds, whitewashed like Tibetan clothes on Sundays, appear unexpectedly from in between blocks or hills, racing on the blue sky in sunny days, shaping their monochrome abstract paintings at the wind’s will. But is it only the magic stick of dazzling views that enchanted us and compelled us stay in Yushu, unable to set out?
There is a monastery crowning the city. A site under construction, home to workers and dogs instead of monks, a work in progress, where one can already see the art of Tibetans growing through the walls and get lost in colours and details. The walk through alleys and uphill streets takes you pass the monks’ prefabricated dwellings on to what is to be their home and their house of prayer. It is hidden as you climb up panting looking for the way, but is somehow always present in the city, watching over the rightful devotees of the buddhas that will soon inhabit its rooms.
Just a short walk out of town is Seng-za Gyanak Mani Wall, Tibet´s largest gathering of prayers in stones and a place that kept us in awe for a few good hours or days. We had seen mani stones piled up in small or large humps planted around Qinghai, but the practice here takes on its full-scale meaning. The Mani wall is an spectacle of devotional engraving, sculptures and movement where Ohm Mani Padme Hum (Hail to the jewel in the lotus) resonates in two billion pieces. A 15 minutes walk around it takes pilgrims of all ages on a long kora for hundreds or thousands every day and every hour. At small steps or a fast pace, alone or in family and counting beads on their rosary or reciting their mantras by mobile phone, they circumambulate over and over again, like prayer wheels spinning around a sacred center, always in a clockwise direction, always on their way to the right path. Grandmothers hidden under pink hats, men in cowboy ones, monks under their robes, kids running around with umbrellas and Boris and Marta unprepared for the sun, all joined together in movement.
And a million questions keep us in Yushu as we wonder who set the first stone, and how did all of the rest followed, and who carves and carries each prayer to the site and on which occasion to they add a stone to the billions that already rest there. How many times is auspicious to go around the place and how many days a week, are some of the questions that we brought back home to our hosts. We read that, history or legend, a lama from Chamdo called Rtogs ldan is at the origin of the place three centuries ago, and that the carving, buying, selling and piling of mantras flowed with locals and pilgrims joining the collective prayer in their path of karma. We hear about the importance of the process of carving as a prayer in itself, or art and beliefs merging in six syllables. They say that traditionally the stones are carved in winter, when the Tibetan shepherds spent their days at home, but that nowadays is a trade for specialised artists and any season or day is good to add a mani stone to the growing pile, so we could buy one too if we wish. They tell us that simply clockwise direction is the way to keep up with the rhythm of the universe, or just the right way to walk towards Buddha.
Beyond the mani stones, all around Yushu, Tibetan iconography takes over the streets and lurks in every corner. Buddhist symbols, demons and dragons or lions and peacocks clutch on every door and every window. In the mornings we take some new steps into a visual culture that is as intriguing as it is alien to us, and then walk around town pointing at the pictures that we can now name: “the clockwise spinning conch” “the never-ending knot”,the white lion of Tibet and a creature with face and hands but no body that walks along us wherever we go – now we can hail him “good morning Zi Pa Ra” and know he is a reminder of our gluttony, as we munch sweet butter buns on the way to our friends. Yet, we are still lost in the large pantheon of Tibetan buddhas, of all colours and natures and of different names. In the evenings, their alphabet of elphic shapes reveals a whole new universe of sounds we cannot hear, a door to the mantras we cannot sing. We enjoy the pleasure of following traces in a calligraphy book, one by one , like in school, while people come in an out of the cafe where we sit, smiling at our lousy attempts, and art students share their careful work and correct our hand movements, letting us see that the Tibetan path to aesthetic perfection is arduous and long.
In unison with their surroundings, the people of Yushu did not fail to catch our eye with their fairytale fashion. In every corner a lady with a hundred plaits, her beauty crowned with turquoise and coral, or another one with mask and a hat, the long sleeve of her Tibetan woolen dress elegantly falling down her back. Men dressed as local cowboys or carrying straw hats that hide their muslim self underneath, gather in a square selling a local type of caterpillar with some magic or medical properties, we probably will never try. Young mothers hide their kids under umbrellas, and older ladies smile as we pass. Marta points at the red folded hairstyle of a motorbike man, while he opens his mouth in surprise staring at Boris’ growing dreadlocks. At least, in this part of the world, long hair is the right hair. One can count the years of the ladies in the length of their plaits and the taste of the men in their colourful extensions. And if one wonders where do their garments come from, in Yushu he can find a curious market where to get disguised in local robes or buy himself self a fringe or a plait if his hair had not grown enough for the local fashion. Going in a out of shops stuffed with colours and smells we collected memories that will always transport us to this world, to this faraway land of Tibet.
In between all of the people and all of the concrete houses of this newly built city, uphill in a little alley, behind a red door and adorned with flags, a door is opened for us with kindness, a den for a week of rest in our Asian odyssey. We are offered a place to hide from the blazing sun or the pouring rain, to catch up with thoughts, to write this post or that other one. It was not the annoying voice of the neighbour screaming for good morning that made us feel at home, but maybe it was her joyful character and tasty tsampa or her husband’s jokes that welcomed us to rest. We loved waking up every morning with the scent of freshly made incense, from the workshop next door, and discovering that a monkey lives in the yard, and shaking her hand for the first time, and watching her jump around breaking crockery with joy. We loved coming back at night, our steps merging with the solitary sounds of yaks munching rubbish in the corners, taking detours to avoid the barking doors, peeping into people’s homes through their lit windows. And, grateful, we sink into the delusion of having a local life for a few days.
But above all the wonders of this town, Nuo was the only true thing that made us stay. An invitation to his home and his caffee, a guide to his culture, a local friend. It was his wife, Yangzom, and her momo and her soup, and the morning rice. It was all the new flavours and recipees. It was saying “vegetarian” and being understood. It was the chance to share, to bake oven-less pizzas for those who wanted to learn a new dish, to mix their flavours with ours, to try things out. It was Nuo who said every day “maybe tomorrow” and we, Spanish at heart, stayed for many “mañanas”, until the town was ours, the baker greeted us as we passed, the neighbour’s kid forgot his shyness and we knew the best place for watermelon. We stayed watching the folk coming in an out of Nuo’s place, we stayed listening to refugee stories and to tales of mountain passes to Nepal, to beliefs and to a tiny radio singing mantras all day long. We stayed until the dogs did not bark us anymore on the way home.