Lanzhou, Taersi, and Qinghai


Click on the pictures some will enlarge

 At the airport in Lanzhou I was received by a China-Travel-Service woman who took me to my hotel. I dearly paid for her kind services and swore never to employ CTS again, which proved difficult. On the following day I spent 4 hours at the their office trying in three languages to negotiate an air ticket to Dunhuang and back and a sleeper to Chengdu before understood that I could order any tickets no earlier than two days in advance, could only book one-way at a time, and pay twice the regular Chinese price.... The latter was not a serious drain on my finances, but an insult, because I would get the same seats and services as the locals.


 Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu, the farthest northeastern corner of the Old China "within the GreatWall." It is the last city you would want to get stuck in. (to see where click on the map). Lanzhou, a vast industrial wasteland, had 2 million inhabitants, mostly Hui who are a Chinese-speaking Moslem minority, in it 83 it harbored the rusty Chinese atomic industry. This picture was taken in the old quarters on the right bank of the Yellow River. A Mosque in the background and a mother accompanied by a "barefoot doctor" carting her sick child to the hospital. They were horrified by the Westerner taking their picture, a bad omen. I had to disappear fast. 

 Two Hui women and their goat. They thought I looked very funny, but I soon learned to photograph very fast before my subjects could realize it.


 Hui Moslems, to judge by their scull caps, buying peppers from a farmer.


 This little girl comes from the "air-conditioned toilet," a hole in the roof of the square building in which the feces are stored to be used as fertilizer.... True organic farming! and the ultimate reason that all food in China is fully cooked.

 This sly man tried to sell me his hot spices.


 The original library on wheels. The squatting man travels by bicycle towing the library shelves and the little benches on a trailer. The books were "comic or anime" books with subtitles. A delighted Chinese-American friend later told me that this had been the way how he had learned to read...

 Fluffing the wool-filling of the bedding. The two hold a barely visible string between them which the man would tighten with the "fishing rod." When he released the rod the string vibrated with a deep hum and fluffed the wool. In one way or another this method is in use from China to Nepal and beyond.

 I had noticed them already in Canton, the cobblers with their portable sewing machines. The customer sits on the little stool, takes off his shoe, and it is repaired on the spot.

 This pretty cobbler had two PLA-customers wooing her. (PLA —Peoples Liberation Army)


 And here are Adam and Eve after eating the Apple — only that in China it was candy! He is sucking one in his cheek while she unwraps the next.... In this way they will acquire the worst teeth in the world. Notice the Donald Duck pants little Eve wears. It took me some time to figure out that their parents sewed them in a local factory — for the American market!



I had met Zhu Xingshi, a very intelligent Chinese physical chemist, on the conference in Canton. He invited me to Xining the capital of Qinghai where to he had been "rusticated" after the Cultural Revolution. This was a great temptation, because Qinghai is Tibetan Buddhist country — the Dalai Lama was born there — and Xining is the gateway to the road to Lhasa.

 I bought a ticket at the Lanzhou railroad station circumventing CTS — a major victory — and set out by train climbing higher and higher through the fantastic Löss country southeast of Lanzhou. In this part of the country, because both winters and summers are fierce, people used to live underground in troglodyte dwellings dug into the soft soil. In the past two decades new housing had been built above ground. From the air one can see the "cavities" of entire collapsed villages dotting the landscape.

 Xining's markets were a new world. This man is testing tobacco.


 Like everywhere in China the hotel had exact eating hours, if one was late there was nothing one could do: No food. Eat in the market! I was told. Hungry as I was, I watched for a while this noodle man spin one noodle free-hand out of a piece of dough. He then threw this many meters-long spaghetti into a cauldron of boiling broth, and when it was finished he put it with some of the broth into a bowl, added some condiments and a pair of chopsticks: ready was one's meal. I dared. He smiled and looking at me and pointed at the condiments. I nodded. One spoon brown powder, one spoon green cilantro, and then he threw in two of a reddish sauce. Meanwhile, some fifteen people had gathered around me to watch the foreigner eat. How to eat noodle soup with chopsticks? I finally stuck the pair in and twirled the noodle into a thick packet. No, this is not the way to eat noodles. I was told by one character. "Ha," I said to the man with the folding-glasses, "let's have a contest." Which, fired on by the crowd, I won. But there was still the soup. Breathless silence descended. I expected the broth to be hot, this was Mongol Land, but it nearly blew my head off when I drank it! The crowd broke out in cheers, and I felt quite heroic.


Zhu had awaited me at the station. Pushing my luggage on his bicycle he took me to the only foreigner hotel in town. "Can one get a permission to go to Tibet?" I asked him. He shook his head, "There is a bus to Lhasa but they will pick you off at the next check point. But we can go to Taersi together, it is the most influential Tibetan monastery in China. The Lama Temple in Beijing is subject to the abbot of Taersi." I had never heard that name. From pictures I eventually figured out that the West knows it as the Kumbum, the large Gelugpa establishment where Alexandra David-Neel spent years as Buddhist nun. I got very excited. And we set out by bus one morning taking along a small group of teachers from England whom I had befriended on the train. Among them was Cynthia, whom Barbara and I visited a couple of years later in Canterbury

 It was the October Holiday weekend and the Tibetans had come from all over Qinghai to stock up for the long winter, like this woman who wears two hats and carries another one. The lusty Amdo man is also noteworthy. I was soon to find out that these are the most belligerent Tibetan tribes, Gologpa and Amdopa who fought the Chinese right up to the fifties.

 Cynthia, with white hair, had set her mind on a small Tibetan rug and Zhu with raised finger — you must ask permission before you take a picture — had come to her rescue. I laughed, too late. But it was to be the only picture I ever took of him. I would accidentially run into him in Chengdu, where he originally came from, a couple of weeks later, and he once visited me in Pacific Palisades.

 Along the road to the monastery we passed the Dharma smith...


 ...and his bright daughter. These were the first craftsmen I had seen in China.


 As we came closer to the Kumbum we passed a group of mothers who supervised their daughters. approaching the sanctuary by prostations

 The Kumbum lies in a shallow valley, unusual for Gelugpa monasteries, which in Tibet are usually castles on a hill. They must have felt safe in this part of the country. This is the bus stop and entrance to the large compound.

 Meanwhile the mothers and daughters had caught up with us. The way to the sanctuary crossed the muddy parking lot, but never mind the puddles, the ritual must go on: Stand up touch your forehead, throat, and heart and throw yourself onto the ground with stretched out arms. Walk to where your fingertips had reached and repeat the procedure. A strenuous exercise. "Aren't they disgusting?" asked Zhu quietly. "Such a display of emotions in public! No Han Chinese would ever do that." — A first insight into the deep revulsion even educated Chinese feel towards Tibetans. Five weeks later in Beijing, at the end of my trip I would be told worse stories by another Chinese intellectual. "You are enamoured with the Tibetans?" he said. "Do you know that they sacrifice children in their rituals and drink their blood." I protested vehemently that I had heard that fable last told about the Jews in the Russian Pale. "You don't know them. They use scull cups filled with blood in their services. They are barbarians." No argument could change his prejudice. This story had an even more astounding aftermath when I told these stories in presence of a third-generation Chinese-American colleague — a Ph.D. from Stanford — in Los Angeles. But it is true! protested he and was nearly lynched by another colleague, a Japanese-American Buddhist....

 This touching picture I only recovered recently from an underexposed slide. A father helping tie Little Brother to the back of Older Brother, the aspiring Lama.

 A row of Chörten — containing the ashes of meritorious Lamas — at the entrance to the Kumbum...


 ...where we met this half-crazed itinerant beggar. He wears a sea-shell on a string, one of the sacred Buddhist emblems.


 Zhu was very patient with me. He did not, but the Chinese guard of the group of English teachers fainted from the smell of the butter lamps — fueled as I was to learn only in 1987 by whale-butter, a gift of the Norwegian Nation for which the Chinese had no use — in one of the temples. Eventually Zhu asked, "Haven't you seen enough of this? I last took my MIT professor here. He left after two hours as disgusted as I am." I knew him well the professor, he was a well-known Jewish homosexual — another mystery to Zhu, and the subject of a long conversation between us. — No, hungry for the colorful emotional life I had found, I stayed for another two hours and felt richly rewarded.

 The golden roofs of the Kumbum Lakhang — its main prayer hall.


A group of Tibetans from the High Plateau, the second from the right is a Tibetan nun. Their likeness to American Indians is intriguing.

 Too hot in their heavy winter clothes these three girls are taking a breather. The two on the left had prostrated themselves at least part of the way.

 A photographer had set up his camera at the Chinese-Tibetan historical marker to take group pictures of pilgrims. One family is paying him, a second awaits their turn. A wonderful opportunity to take pictures from behind the man having his head in the huge box camera.

 The official photo. The children accompanying Grandma on her last pilgrimage. The left side of the plaque is written in Chinese characters, the right in Tibetan script.

 And an unofficial one of Grandma in all her finery — including her PLA cap. The long sashes decorated with silver buttons hold her braids.

 I took this picture of a young monk for Cornelius, over whose bed hung an enlargement for many years.


 A young monk leading his aged Lama — the scene reminded me of Dutch Renaissance paintings.


Qinghai Hu — The Great Salt Lake Expedition

A few days later Cynthia and her group rented a bus to drive to Qinghai Hu—Kokonor, the Great Salt Lake on the 3500- meter-high Tibetan Plateau. Cynthia's Chinese hosts allowed me to join them, charging me a salted fee afterwards... Despite its size, the bus driver never found the lake, instead we ended in a settlement — recently set up by the Chinese to control the unruly nomadic Tibetan tribes.

 While everyone was having butter tea I slipped out to explore the place, and suddenly stood before this woman at the settlement's supply store.

 A group of women sacking up flour. They giggled but at first took no notice of me, only the sinister-looking man watched me closely.

 Suddenly, laughing hysterically the store keeper came charging from the dark interior and for all purposes attacked me, first pulling my beard, then grabbing me between the legs — was I for real? I was completely taken off guard, but then join her mad laughter. It helped. I was finally rescued by the appearance of the English teachers. Only then did it occur to me that these were the dreaded Gologpa who for two centuries had robbed and killed all foreign caravans that had tried to cross their land. Their interest turned to Cynthia's white hair and earrings, and eventually peace was restored by the Chinese bully who accompanied their group.

 We were even granted permission to photograph the lady and her daughter. The girl in the yellow jacket, the daughter of a Japanese teacher in Cynthia's group, steadfastly refused to be photographed with the strange barbarians.

 In the ensuing confusion I sneaked away again and found this family living in a traditional tent surrounded by their yak herd. They invited me for tea and after that hospital gesture I succeeded to lure them outside for a group picture. Look at their teeth! No candies on the plateau. The old woman turned away, because she was nursing the infant. Her child? or was it her grandchild? I was never to find out.

This was be as close to Lhasa as I was able to get. At night at the hotel I ran into a 70-year-old German woman who told me excitedly that she had just persuaded the officer of a PLA convoy to take her along to Lhasa. I couldn't afford to take such risks with the Chinese Security Bureau, and it would take another twelve years, before I was to reach Lhasa. But I always wondered whether the German lady did make it. I never saw her again.