Yamdrok Yutso Lake
Whew! What a relief to wake up feeling relatively normal. We still couldn’t believe the dramatic effect of the altitude on our bodies.
Chum Zhun picked us up after breakfast, and Feng Shifu drove us out of town. Puffy white clouds floated in a sapphire sky, bluer than I’d ever seen in China. Our van climbed twisty roads in the barren brown mountains. Yaks and sheep wandered the vast hillsides, searching for clumps of vegetation. Farmers in brightly colored dress worked in the fields. Villages zipped by. Homes were made of mud brick and stone with many pots of blooming flowers and ornately painted woodwork around the doorframes and windows, contrasting with the drab backdrop.
The Tibetan word for yak translates to “treasure” reflecting the animal’s value to farmers and nomads. Yaks help with all the manual labor in the fields, and Tibetans use every part of the yak after it’s slaughtered. They get wool and leather from the skins, make traditional medicine out of the hooves, and eat everything else. Chum Zhun told us that her mother lives in a small village, where she owns a yak. One year, wolves killed the family’s yak, and they were forced to depend on neighbors to help with the farming until they could save enough to buy another one. A single yak can cost more than $500, a fortune to tribal farmers.
Our van pulled in to a parking area overlooking Yamdrok Yutso Lake. Cath and I climbed up a path in our quest to reach 5,000 meters, but Chum Zhun chased after us to say we had wandered on to a military road. Not a good idea in this region of unrest.
Nestled in the monochrome mountains, the turquoise lake appeared luminous. Low-lying fluffy clouds drifted by, revealing snow-capped mountains in the distance. Prayer flags fluttered from every structure as people sought the highest possible point to release their prayers. The flags, pre-printed with Tibetan prayers, come on a string in five auspicious colors: blue, white, red, green and yellow. Chum Zhun tied up a string of flags to pray for her niece, who was taking the elementary school final exams today.
We drove a little further to a more isolated spot overlooking the lake and enjoyed a picnic lunch on the steps of a Tibetan home. Unable to eat everything the tour company had packed, Cath and I gave our extra food to the family’s little boy, who ran in to the house, calling to his mother and referring to us with the Tibetan word for “older sister.” Two massive mastiff dogs, wearing collars of shaggy sheep’s wool dyed red, stood guard and watched us eat. They happily gulped down our chicken bones.
A yakherd stood nearby with his yak decked out in colorful gear, so we gave him a little money to pose with us for a photo. We both got a bit more than we bargained for when he copped a feel. Tibetans don’t have much junk in their trunk, so you can’t blame a guy for checking out a couple of western booties when he gets the chance.
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Following our intimate encounter with the yakherd, we drove a few more hours to the town of Tsetang, checked in to a hotel, and took off to visit Yumbulagang, the first palace in Tibetan history. The palace is located in Lhoka Province, which is considered the cradle of Tibetan civilization. During our brief stay in this province, we saw Tibet’s first palace, first temple and first monastery.
We had the option to ride a horse, yak or camel (?!) to the mountaintop palace, but we opted to walk. We purchased prayer flags from a villager at the base of the hill. Cath had performed a rain dance a few times, which Chum Zhun found hilarious, so we were not surprised when rain began to fall during our ascent. The thirsty crops glistened in the sunshine that filtered through the rainclouds.
After visiting the palace (first constructed in the second century BC), we bought strings that had been blessed by the palace monks. Chum Zhun told us to wear the strings around our necks for three days to get the full benefit of the blessings. As Cath was digging in her bag for a donation, she held our prayer flags between her legs. The monk laughed and said something to our guide, who gently reminded Cath that the flags were holy and maybe that wasn’t a very dignified place to put them. The monk smiled at our apologetic self-conscious giggles.
At a stone fire pit, an old lady showed Cath how to make an offering: toss a bundle of herbs (sage, I think) onto the fire, then throw in a handful of barley, and finally sprinkle a little water on top. We turned the big metal prayer wheels and climbed higher up the mountain in the blustery rain to hang our prayer flags. Chum Zhun, Cath and I tied all our flags together to make one long string of 15 flags. As Cath secured one end at the top of the hill, Chum Zhun told us to take a moment to say our prayers (and she urged us not to limit our prayers to just one wish). Unlike birthday wishes, it’s customary to share your prayers with each other, so we all did just that. I had said prayers for more rain to end the drought, Tibetan independence, and safe and happy transitions for all my friends who are moving this year.
(I felt a lot of pressure! In retrospect, I would have liked to spend more time up there to cover all my bases. However, the wind was getting pretty scary.)
Then Chum Zhun took the other end of our string, climbed down the hill and up the other side to pull the flags across the chasm. As soon as she tied the flags, a strong gust of wind lifted them up high, and we couldn’t help but feel our prayers being released into the heavens. It was a powerful experience.
As we walked back down the hill, we greeted people in Tibetan: Tashi dele! They loved it, often stopping to smile, putting their hands together in a prayer and bowing to us. Many laughed in surprise to hear us experimenting with their language, but they always replied with a joyful “tashi dele” of their own.
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Our next stop was nearby – the first temple in Tibetan history. The wife of Tibet’s 33rd king apparently told him that the country was shaped like a female monster, and he needed to build temples all over the land to “pin down” the ogress. Among the 12 temples he built, Jokhang Temple (back in Lhasa) was constructed on the monster’s heart, and this one in Tsetang was built on its left arm.
The temple was under renovation during our visit, so several sections were torn up or covered with scaffolding. As we arrived, the workers were leaving, so they all filed by with friendly waves and smiles, yelling out, “hello!” or “tashi dele!” Beautifully painted Tibetan furniture – the kind we paid lots of money for in Shanghai – sat in the courtyard, exposed to the elements. A big attraction at this temple is the Compassion Buddha thangka made out of about 30,000 pearls, so we filed up some stairs to see it. Very impressive.
Tibetan Funerary Customs
On our way to Tsedang, we pulled over to the side of the road to take photos of prayer flags hung on a tree beside the Brahmaputra River. As we stood at the peaceful spot, we had a confusing conversation with Chum Zhun. Although she spoke excellent English, we sometimes had to decipher her accent or unusual word choice. We thought we were encountering the language barrier when she looked around and pointed to the remains of a campfire. “There was a body here,” she said.
Me, assuming she meant someone had just left: “You mean, somebody was here?”
Chum Zhun: “No, there was a body here.”
Cath, thinking she must have heard wrong: “There was a party here?”
Chum Zhun: “No, a body. There was a water funeral here.”
Whoa, Nelly! A body? A water funeral? And thus began our gruesome (by Western standards) introduction to Tibetan customs regarding the disposal of a dead person. If Patricia Cornwell novels or episodes of CSI make you nauseous, you may want to skip the rest of this post.
Chum Zhun detailed the five most common methods for disposing of the dead. This used to be based on the status of the deceased, but now Tibetans do whatever is the most convenient or desired, she said.
(1) Stupa – These above-ground fancy-schmancy tombs are reserved for kings or dalai lamas.
And here’s where it gets interesting. The last two options start with the same procedure. This information is quoted from the a website that confirmed what Chum Zhun told us:
A complete set of funeral procedures should start while the person’s life still lingers. The family members would feed the dying person with a tablet made of rare Tibetan herbs mixed with burnt ashes of the drapery, hair and nails of Living Buddhas, which is said to be able to help the dying person cut off some intrinsic qi, i.e. the human appetites, and let the soul leave peacefully. Meanwhile Lamas would be commissioned to chant scripture, so as to help the dying person to get rid of anguish and fear at the last moments. Notably the ladies and children generally are not allowed to approach the dying person, because it is said that will disturb his mood and influence his smooth transmigration.
As soon as the person dies, a piece of white cloth will be used to cover his face, and nobody is allowed to touch or move the dead body from then on. At the same time, Lamas will be commissioned to hold a ceremony called Paowa, that is said to help the soul’s exodus from the skull and rise to heaven, instead of expelling it from the asshole and falling to hell.
During the funeral preparation period, a pottery jar will be hung on the doorway of the dead person’s home as a sign of mourning. Meanwhile some cypress branches will be burned in the jar, adding in some tsamba, cattle or sheep’s blood, meat and fat, as well as the milk, cheese and butterfat, a way of serving meals to the dead. Throughout this period, all friends, relatives and neighbors shall not sing, dance or make any fun. Cats, dogs, and other livestock are to be strictly kept away from the dead body.
Wizards are also commissioned to divine and select appropriate time of the funeral, which is usually at 4 or 5 o’clock in the early morning on the fourth or fifth day after the time of death. The body is bent into a shape like a fetus in pregnancy, with his arms and legs being bound together. The body, covered with a white tweed, will be carried on back of a family member, and moved towards the funeral yard for a certain distance, and then be handed over to a professional body carrier, but by no means will it be placed on the earth on the way, or else the soul of the dead will wander about there.
After all that takes place, a professional body carrier takes the body to the riverside for a Water Funeral or a mountaintop for a Sky Funeral.
(4) Water Funeral – The body is carried to the banks of the river, where it is ritually chopped into pieces and tossed in the water. “I am looking at the current, and it seems that body parts would wash ashore,” Cath said. But Chum Zhun assured us that men are hired to stand along the water’s edge with long poles to push any wayward chunks back out into the river. When we expressed concern about swimmers potentially encountering a finger or face, Chum Zhun pointed out that fish rapidly consume the body parts.
(5) Sky (or Celestial) Funeral – The body is carried high up the mountain to a sacred platform near a temple (only a few locations have been sanctioned for sky funerals). An appointed sky funeral wizard removes the body’s organs and cuts all the flesh from the bones. Then he crushes the bones into a powder and mixes it with barley to make balls. Vultures then enjoy a feast of bone-and-barley balls, followed by flesh, and lastly, the organs. Any bits that escape the vultures must be burned.
Tibetans carefully screen their funeral officials because a sloppy funeral could prevent the spirit from moving on, Chum Zhun said. The procedures – especially for the complicated water and sky funerals – must be followed meticulously.
She said Tibetans grieve privately because public tears rain on the path of the deceased’s soul. They believe that a person’s soul is released from the body when you die, so the shell that remains is nothing special and should be used to make a final religious offering. By feeding a loved one to the fish or the vultures, you complete the circle of life and honor Buddha.
We saw lots of prayer wheels during our stay in Tibet – from tiny ones on a keychain to gargantuan ones that took all our strength to turn. Check out this website to learn more about them.