Dirty, ink-stained fingernails and a printing process which predated Gutenberg by centuries! I am in my element! I am not standing in a pressroom filled with Heidelberg web presses, I am standing in the Dege temple mesmerized by the frenetic activity of seated men printing Tibetan sutras and other “books”.

Just inside the temple gates, men sit washing red ink off the wooden printing paddles.

The Dege temple is not the biggest temple on this journey by any stretch of the imagination. It is painted a deep red and has an orbiting parade of worshipers walking the temple grounds in the typical clockwise direction. Together with the worshipers, dogs, delivery vans and motorcycles add to the activity on this wonderfully sunny cool morning.

Passing through the entrance gate of the temple, you arrive in a sunlit courtyard where men wear waterproof aprons and wield plastic scrub brushes as they clean long wooden rectangular blocks of wood. Getting up close and risking being splattered with the soupy red-stained water, you see the wooden “paddles” are intricately carved in rows of text. The language is Tibetan and the paddles are the blocks upon which the pages of books are printed.

A closer shot reveals intricately carved Tibetan scrip which is carved in reverse for printing.

The men scrubbing the paddles pause and allow me to move in very closely with my wide-angle lens. The carved words, carved backwards of course, are works of art in themselves.

Upstairs and lit with natural light angling down from an open roof, there are two rows of printing stations. A station consists of two seated men, facing each other. One holds a wooden printing paddle between his legs while securing the other end so it does not move while inking the surface with an inked wad of folded rag. The other man lays a paddle-length slip of paper over the printing surface, then runs a roller over the paper before pealing it off and putting the freshly inked paper aside, ink side up to dry.

It takes two people to print. Left - One holds the paddle and inks it, while, Right, one lays down a fresh sheet of paper and rolls it over the inked surface.

Carefully cleaned and stored, thousands of paddles are stored for future re-printing.

This process requires agility, speed, accuracy and precision. Now imagine how long it takes to fully print one side of a slip of paper. I tried to count, but gave up! But I would say, when the two men are motoring along, it takes about one second per sheet of paper. And to keep them in a groove, they often chant and bounce their upper-bodies in time with their tasks. It is physical poetry and it is something one could watch all day. In fact, a group of older men have just arrived, cups of tea in hand and have sat to watch.

Two more men print another book

I’m not clear on what it was the men were printing, but some were using red ink while other groups were using black. Some of the texts being printed are religious in nature, but also printed here are medical books and cultural and historical books. These books are not bound like the books we are used to seeing, rather, the long slips of paper, about 10 cm x 80 cm are bundled in course paper and cloth for shipping and then stored in wooden boxes with angled lids where the sheets are read, taken out of the box and put aside to read the next sheet.

Up on the roof o the temple, a man sits chanting sutras and spinning his prayer wheel.

Leaving the printing area up very steep wide stairs, the sun blazes as I come out onto the roof of the temple. From here, Dege surround the temple. The town is nestled in another valley. House stacked up in tiers on the hillside are on one side of the temple while on the other, you can follow the snaking road out of town until it vanishes around another hill into the next valley.

Before leaving for the day’s drive, I sit outside near the temple wall with my camera positioned close to the ground to get some low-angle footage of some prostrating pilgrims. The now-familiar site of these worshipers still intrigue me. The stand-clap-kneel-slide, stand-clap-kneel-slide motion is something I want to capture on video. I can hear them clapping their wooden blocks over their heads from around the corner. I’m ready to start filming. Since I am a rare foreign visitor, I draw a crowd  when I do anything out of the ordinary. Sitting on the ground waiting is out of the ordinary and a group of monks crowd in behind me and almost on top of me to get a close, very close look at what I’m up to.

OUCH! A monk tugs at the hair on my arm! Something they never see!

While waiting, they notice something about me. They notice that unlike them or anyone they know of, I am hairy! I have a beard, which is odd enough, but what proved to be irresistible was the quite hairy arms I have! Being curious, one of them reaches and between his thumb and forefinger, grabs a tuft of arm hair and yanks it! Ouch! He tugged the hair for a while as if to see if it was really real! I have had this done before by teenage school girls at the Terra Cotta  Warriors in Xi’an! Both the girls in Xi’an and this monk today laughed and giggled!

One thing we in the west treasure, and its something to give up when visiting China, is all sense of personal space! There is none! But you just laugh and smile at the innocence. It makes for wonderful travel memories!

A woman walks around the temple spinning her prayer wheel.

The drive to Baiyu, from Dege took about 5 hours, a bit more than the three-hour trip we were told it would take. But then if one is cautious, things take longer. The road, if one could call it that, is like many of the roads I have taken – totally neglected for the most part, save for a handful of road workers filling craters with dirt from the sides of the. To be fare, these are such amazingly remote areas, it would just be too costly to create a paved and maintained asphalt roadbed for the relatively small amount of traffic.

28 kilometres before reaching Baiyu, we stop to admire the view. We have been following another fast flowing brown river for hours. At this point, we are still in Sichuan. On the other side of the river is the province of Tibet.

Having stepped out of the van, my foreign presence is noted by the police in a nearby hut. A pleasant looking young man dressed in a blue t-shirt, rolled up blue pants and sandals asks us to come with him. In the hut a police office – this one in uniform quickly gets off his bed where he has been smoking and watching a soap opera. My passport is again looked over, forms filled out and the atmosphere is once again light and filled with smiles and waves as we continue on.

Baiyu's main street

Baiyu sneaks up on us slowly. Quiet little house hug the river and then we round a corner and the long, dusty, tree-lined main street of Baiyu stretches out before us.

Something big is going on in this town! A walk down the, tree-lined street filled with life reveals a large crowd ahead. As the only foreigner in town, if not in the region, I move to the other side of the street and observe from a safe distance. There is a huge group of monks and others gathered, and an almost equal number of police, some with shields and riot masks. Nothing happens, the crowd and the police are all smiles. Better safe than sorry I suppose!

Shot from the opposite side of the valley, this is the huge temple in Baiyu.

The town of Baiyu is very pretty but I doubt it is the reason why there is a huge 20-day ritual being held at the massive temple complex. The streets are filled with monks chatting, joking, shopping, and of course, on their cell phones.

Baiyu again, is in a deep valley and the sun is setting quickly. Before the sun sets, I must shoot the massive temple – much bigger than the town. The only problem is that to get back far enough to shoot the hillside temple complex, I have to get up high on the other side of the valley. This means another nerve-wracking drive up the side of the cliffs! Not again! With eyes tightly clenched, and Su in the front seat of the local driver’s van, I eventually insist that we stop. I am high enough and I just don’t think I can take it any longer. I even half consider walking back down. But that would be just too dramatic!

Along the road, a very common site are small landslides. One like this can cripple traffic for several days, cutting off needed supplies to villages.

The view was (I quietly admit) worth the drive. With the cliff fac at my left elbow, I can just fit the temple complex on the opposite side of the valley into my camera’s viewfinder. The complex is a tiered city of monk’s residences, administrative buildings, small gardens, gold-capped temple buildings and other structures. A city in itself.

A man drags a fresh yak pelt along the sidewalk hoping to sell it for 80 RMB (about $12 cdn)

Once down on the main street again, I walk to the hotel and am amazed at the number of monks in town. The streets are full and have a bit of a festive atmosphere. A group of people squat on the sidewalk around a man demonstrating the power of a battery. He slowly fills the cells of a battery and as the last cell is filled, the attached light comes to life. The effect was like magic! Further along the sidewalk a man is trying to sell a fresh and bloody yak pelt. One side a luxurious furry black, the other a red and bloody. The price? 80 RMB. A steal!

Categories : SICHUAN


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