BATANG – CUO PU VALLEYBy
Like a Christmas morning as a child, I was excited for today to begin. I learned a bit more about the Tibetan opera in town. It’s a big deal! Actors, tents, costumes, food and good times!
As usual, I study the view outside my window each morning. My views have ranged from the spectacular to the downright depressing and ugly, with grilled windows keeping the ne’er-do-wells out and trapping the occupants – and their flowerboxes, in. Today’s view spanned a wide economic swath beginning with mud & wood shacks and their few rows of corn, to a lovely, whitewashed four story building complete with ornately painted window frames, tended garden and shiny vehicles.
Beyond the homes, about a kilometer away, massive green hills rose up and disappeared into thick cloud. One of the lesser hills looked to be on fire, with smoke billowing from it’s top. Following the smoke down revealed again, ore prayer flags and a large structure, most probably constructed from rocks but was far away so I could not be entirely sure. The smoke rose and mixed with the cloud creating a beautiful scene.
Breakfast was pretty simple as usual, I was having a little trouble with the heavily spiced food laced with chilies, so I would just order bland meals of dumplings or noodles or, in this case… pastry and yoghurt! I was in heaven!
The opera and festival was just five minutes outside of town. This will probably be the shortest drive to a destination my whole trip! The give-away is the city of drab green military-style and bright white & decorated family tents surrounding the huge central big-top tent in the middle
where the Tibetan opera was to perform for the next eight days. The festive atmosphere was heartwarming. Little girls were dressed in their best silk dresses; boys were dashing in their pinstriped suites and running shoes. Moms, dad, and grandparents – all were here to watch the colourful performance. The actors all sang and danced and acted out periods of Tibetan culture and history.
I was able to get inside the building where the actors were putting on their costumes and makeup. What a treat. There was a feeling that these actors were rock stars. And they deserved the feeling of pride. This was a big deal!
To one side of the large performing tent was another large tent closed on three sides, but open on one to view the show. This tent was full of monks lined up, shoes off and holding water bottles and cell phones!
I sat to film the monks chatting before the show but my concentration was broken by a tap on my shoulder. A tall, good-looking policeman asked in very good English what I was doing here. A fare question. I explained I was a tourist and was
interested in this festival. The local police department, also on the main street as my hotel, never was told a foreigner was in town. Typically, all foreigners fill out a form at the front desk of their hotel at check-in, and the form is passed to the police. I was never asked to fill out a form. After scanning my passport and noting all was in order, the officer and I chatted about cameras for a while. I had my Canon 5D with the 70-200 lens, he has a smart looking Sony slung around his neck! Clearly, despite being here in an official capacity, the festival was an event not even he could miss!
The performance was a series of songs, which were sung by the actors walking about under the big-top and carrying the occasional prop. Between songs, they would file out, back to the dressing room, then reappear to sing another song. To my ignorant western ears, the singing sounded more like high-pitched, affected squeaky voices. But this is traditional operatic singing. Think the famous Beijing opera – same sort of voices. Obviously I had no clue of what they were singing about, and by scanning the crowd, I wondered if the audience also knew. Maybe the older ones, but the younger ones were more interested in the flashy costumes, hanging with their friends and eating the internationally ubiquitous candy floss.
Later, as we made our way back to the car, Su and I were invited for tea from almost every tent we passed. It would have been nice, but to do each one justice, we would have been there all day, but we had a day of driving ahead of us, and a stunning valley to find.
The drive to the Cuo Pu Valley was chilly and rainy and passed through ever-changing areas distinguished by the changing style of homes. It seems one can define an area by its architecture. In Yajiang for instance, the homes were large block-like buildings with three floors. The ground floor is where cattle lived or farm equipment was stored. The ladder-like steep stairs to the second floor is where the kitchen and living spaces were decked out in bright colours. The equally steep stair leading to the third floor revealed bedrooms and a toilet. Missing was showering facilities. There is a river for that if you wish!
The homes in this area were also three floors, but rather than the top floor being closed in, two sides of the floor looked formed an L-shaped covered roof, open to the rest of the floor which is exposed like a large uncovered dance floor. Often the uncovered area was used to store hay and other plantings. This is harvest time, so a lot of harvested plants were hauled up to this floor to be dried on racks leaning against the two sheltered sides.
Getting to the Cuo Pu Valley was just 20 kilometres from the highway. Before setting off, we stopped to eat at a roadside truck stop. The plan was to stay at the truck stop for the night after taking in the sights of the valley. However, as many things go in this area, plans are rarely set in stone.
The 20 kilometres to the valley took several hours. The road was almost impossible to drive due to the potholed dirt roads. Along the road we followed another river belching steam and sulfur every so often. These were locations where very hot water rose from deep within the ground and made their location known with huge amounts of steam.
When the road looked to go off in the wrong direction, and the arrow on a sign hung down, no longer pointing in any direction, Su set off to ask directions. We were afraid the road would take us in the direction we did not want to take – through a river! The recent rains have soaked the ground to a point were the ground could no longer absorb the water. This meant there were several new rivers following gullies in the ground.
Su returned with a smile and said something and pointed in
that direction, through a river! I crossed the river first on some slippery logs, which were lashed together and crossed a narrow point in the river. Across now, I kneeled down and began filming video of Su’s van as it slowly dipped down the bank of the river, creating a bow wave in front, then emerging up the opposite side! Our first river crossing!
For the next while there were no roads. We were going overland on the plateau, following other tracks left before us. It was pure guesswork now and luck. We slowly drove, sometimes sliding sideways on the wet grass and mud – but we eventually made it to a road. More like a two-rut track.
The track at this point headed into a forest surrounded by pine tress and you guessed it, more prayer flags! Eventually, after another river crossing, this one more narrow, but deeper and filled with very fast running glacier run-off, we emerged victorious and in the shadow of a spectacular sight.
Dwarfing us, were souring grey mountains so vertical as to box us in. Their cliff faces and tops were angular and knife like. The mountains disappeared and reappeared through the clouds. This was a living Chinese painting. And at the base of the mountains, a neat and tidy small temple painted deep red with its typical bright yellow/gold roof. The scene was complete.
We slowly drove up to the temple, looking about for any sign of life. Nobody. After a while, a man wearing black street clothes came to greet us. What, no saffron coloured robes? He was the maintenance man. Su was at his best, explaining to a growing crowd that we had driven from the highway and took a long time doing so. It was decided that we should stay the night here; it would be too dangerous to try to return to the main road.
Plans change! Tonight I was going to sleep in a temple, surrounded by sutra-chanting monks! This is definitely going to be crossed off my bucket-list!
Su, who looked tense and concerned during much of the off-road portion of the drive today, was in his element! We felt instantly at home at the temple. We were shown about and introduced to many of the monks. The grounds were a simple square-shaped arrangement of sleeping cabins all connected, with a large grassy square in the middle. At the present time, one very wooly, horned sheep occupied the square! Curious about the newcomers, the sheep trotted up and to us and showed it loved being patted and scratched just like a playful furry St. Bernard dog! And as such, he followed us, being scratched until we climbed the exterior metal stairs that led to the top floor of the main building in the temple. Inside, we dropped our bags and met the head monk. He
explained that the head lama was away in another town for several days and he is in charge. He is more like an administrator, but also acted as a teacher and mentor.
The evening was surreal! Here I hung out with monks lounging on the floor watching a Jackie Chan movie on a portable DVD player! The senior monk’s small room was now filled with people. Our presence was a bit of an occasion! It was getting late and dark. To be polite, I stayed up and watched the movie, pulled out a hand-held video camera which the monks took turns playing with and trying out their skills at cinematography.
Gracious hosts, the monks offered dinner. I accepted the butter tea and nursed it along for as long as I could. The tea is whitish and thick with yak butter. It was faintly sweet but turned a little off-putting if I took anything larger than a sip. At one point, my gag reflex almost kicked in. I froze – it would not be cool to throw up in the monk’s bedroom! Small sips. Small sips.
Someone left the room and uncovered a lump of something from under a towel, put it on a plate and picked up a knife. Yak butter! And a big chunk of it! Almost to the door and the yak butter rolled off the plate and landed on the wood floor with a solid thud! No problem, after dusting it off with his robes, all was good!
I declined to kind offer of the injured butter and of the refill of tea. Making gestures that I had eaten my fill, they tucked into their meal. There was also a bowl of grayish powdered meal that made Su’s eyes light up! Su was in heaven! Finally, nothing but traditional Tibetan food! I watched as he added yak butter to the meal and formed it into slightly dry balls that resembled cookie dough before it is flattened. Popping the balls into his mouth, washing them down with more hot butter tea brought a face cracking smile and grown of contentment to Su’s face! The end of a stressful day! It just doesn’t get any better than this for Su!
I was eating less and less and loosing some weight. Just try this diet plan Jenny Craig! For me, I had tummy issues so went in search of facilities. None. But there was the river.
Before turning in, I watched a group of 20-or-so monks sitting cross legged on the grass in the square. This was the evening entertainment. A monk, standing in the middle of the monks was doing some sort of stand-up act. He would tease and cajole some of the seated monks and elicit a response. The monk who reacted the most would then be picked on to perform next – but not before getting a head-but by the curiously trained pet sheep!