TRAVEL: Pilgrims of the moon

For 40 years, politics prevented monks in a remote lamasery in Tibet from holding a proper full moon festival. This year, for the first time, a few Westerners joined the throng of worshippers
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The Independent Culture
IF GENGHIS Khan had ever decided to lay on a rock concert, it might have looked like this. It seemed that all the tribes of Central Asia had descended on this remote valley in eastern Tibet to celebrate the full moon festival. Thousands of pilgrims had journeyed for days or even weeks, from Amdo in the far north, from Lhasa, from Kham in the east, to this spot. And here they had created a tent-city around which their yaks and ponies were grazing peacefully, storing up strength for the return journey.

In the centre of the encampment, at the confluence of two streams in the upland valley, stood a great blue and white canopy beneath which perhaps 400 monks were chanting. The air was thick with smoke: dried yak dung burning in braziers with sweeter smelling branches of sacred juniper. High above the throng, a thousand prayer flags had been strung between crags so they spanned the entire valley. A devotional hum rose from the pilgrims as they processed clockwise around the chorten, a circular shrine containing the relics of holy men.

Normally, the mountains here are deserted, except for the occasional marmot. On the hillside stands a smallish monastery, daughter house of the important kagyu or "red hat" lamasery of Drigung, which lies about six hours' drive east of Tibet's capital Lhasa. Hemmed in on three sides by mountains, the site was chosen for its remoteness. But in certain years, beginning at the start of the tenth Tibetan month and culminating on the night of the full moon, it becomes the focus of a great pilgrimage.

The road from Lhasa ends in the main valley bottom. The final ascent to the monastery is possible only by foot or pack-animal. It takes three hours, and my rucksack full of provisions seemed to grow heavier the higher we went. At nearly 16,000ft the thin air made my lungs ache and my legs feel like lead. It was time for a rest.

A patch of soft turf beneath a chorten, a wayside shrine covered in prayer flags, was irresistible. Below us a swift-running stream threaded its way past boulders and clumps of juniper. Above, the mountainside rose sheer and naked towards ornamental clouds that seemed so close that you felt you could reach out and touch them.

No sooner had we halted than a circle of inquisitive faces surrounded us. There were nomads from the high plateau and majestic, big-boned Khampas - until quite recently the most feared brigands in Central Asia. Both the men and women of this tribe wear their hair long, their tresses bound with scarlet tassels, and earrings of turquoise and coral. Some had portable shrines of finely worked silver around their necks; others were counting the beads of their rosaries as they looked on in fascination.

Even with China actively promoting Tibet as a tourist destination, Westerners are a rare sight in the remoter regions. Few of these pilgrims had ever set eyes on a "long nose" before. Official policy restricts foreigners to "open cities" like Lhasa and Shigatse, and going off alone into the mountains is discouraged. Any local caught providing foreigners with transport is liable to a stiff fine, even imprisonment.

So strange did we seem to these Tibetans that an inquisitive 10-year- old approached and stroked my forearm - to confirm stories he had heard that Western "monkeys" are indeed covered all over in hair.

Most Tibetans are quite shy. They are also remarkably hospitable. An old woman, her deeply-lined face testament to many winters passed on the wind-blown plateau, insisted we each accept a small round loaf of bread. Then a young mother, baby slung across her shoulders, drew a small parcel from the folds of her shawl. It contained tiny dried yak cheeses which resemble French crottin; but try and bite into them, as I did, and you are likely to crack a tooth. My mistake caused much giggling before I was shown the right way to tackle this "delicacy". You shove the cheese between gum and cheek and suck on it like a wad of tobacco.

I rejoined the procession as it wound up the mountain. There was a special excitement about this festival because it had not been held properly for almost 40 years. Since then, the event had twice been sabotaged by political interference - once in 1967, when Tibet was going through the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and again in the early 1980s when there had been a clampdown by the Chinese authorities. So the last time pilgrims had attended in anything like these numbers was when the Dalai Lama still ruled over Tibet from the Potala prior to 1959. Nor, to my knowledge, had Westerners ever witnessed these ceremonies before.

In Lhasa there had been feverish anticipation of the full moon festival, which was being celebrated in various monasteries around the country. The more adventurous tourists wanted to junk their official programmes and join a pilgrimage. The lobby of the Holiday Inn, Lhasa, was full of foreigners importuning their tour guides to "make an exception". A French group arranged to be taken to Ganden - once the largest monastery in Tibet until it was almost completely destroyed by Red Guards. (I later heard that this semi-official visit did not go well, the French pushing in front of Tibetan pilgrims and disturbing the ceremony with their cameras and flash-guns.)

Our situation was slightly different. We had entered Tibet from Nepal as part of an organised group - this being the standard requirement for obtaining an entry permit. For five days our bus had traversed the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, a stunning drive past the north face of Everest with stopovers at the ancient cities of Shigatse and Gyantse, before finally reaching Lhasa. While most of the group were flying back to Kathmandu, my wife and I were going on into China and were therefore able to obtain "Aliens' travel permits" which extended our stay in Tibet. So when our offical guide ruled out any change to our fixed itinerary, we checked out of our hotel a day early and moved into a Tibetan-run establishment.

The Yak Hotel is a haven for independent travellers. Everyone else had entered Tibet from China. Some had flown in from Chengdu. Others had come in overland from Golmud, far to the north, on buses or trucks - some of them walking around police checkpoints along the way. This road traverses the Changtang, the vast, cold desert where there are no real towns, only the black tents of yak-herders. It is the highest trunk road in the world. The air is so thin and the light so clear that you can see a lone horseman five miles away. Large herds of Tibetan gazelle still roam this wilderness in search of new pastures.

At the Yak Hotel we met two Western academics, here on an approved trip to study the Tibetan language. They had heard about the festival at Drigung, and saw it as an opportunity to further their knowledge of dialect. We decided to go to the festival together, and set off early next morning in the local transport they had arranged.

Everywhere you go in this part of Tibet, police patrols and roadblocks are conspicuous. Given our "unofficial" status, we were lucky not to encounter any - though this wasn't entirely down to chance. We left the main road long before the point where we knew the most established roadblock to be.

From the main road, we travelled down ever smaller tracks into the mountains. Even as we climbed the final section on foot, past natural hot springs where weary pilgrims eased their aches and pains, there was an unspoken fear that we might still be spotted by the authorities and turned back. After climbing for three hours, however, I had ceased to worry about officialdom. The track was so narow in places that whenever a train of shaggy Tibetan pack-ponies clattered past, the greater danger was of being jostled over the brink. "Not far now," said a youth who was studying English at school. And sure enough, moments later, the gorge opened up into a sunlit valley carpeted with blue and white tents.

That night we slept in the prayer hall of the monastery. It was cold and the floor was hard, but we were none the less privileged guests. As bedtime approached, the resident monks calmly stretched out on their low bunks, casting only the occasional glance in our direction as we struggled into sleeping bags. On my right the two academics - both Buddhists - murmured their mantras and twiddled their rosaries, while on my left the irretrievably irreligious member of our party was already fast asleep, leaving myself as a vaguely agnostic buffer zone. When I woke up in the night I saw a solitary monk tending the butter lamps beneath the golden figures of buddhas and incarnations.

The monks woke us well before dawn with bowls of yak butter tea - a thick, slightly rancid brew which, once the initial nausea has been conquered, is remarkably sustaining. Outside, the vast encampment was beginning to stir. Two young monks blowing on conch shells announced the beginning of the day's ceremonies. Laymen and women removed their customary homburg hats and other bizarre headgear, baring their heads in reverence as the abbot and other dignitaries processed behind an orchestra of trumpets and gongs to the blue and white pavilion where the assembled monkhood sat intoning. Their day was divided loosely between "dry ceremonies" of prayer, meditation and teaching, and "wet ceremonies" in which the monks took refreshments of tsampa (a sort of barley porridge) and butter tea.

Pilgrims came and went as they pleased, slipping off to take food in their tents or to do some shopping at the market stalls around the main enclosure. As a foreigner, I was constantly asked for pictures of the Dalai Lama. There appeared to be no rigid order in the round of prayer and rest. I was astonished to discover my wife hunkered down with a group of dop-dop, or "discipline monks" - fierce-looking giants with long staves and shoulder pads like American footballers who, by tradition, are entitled to police religious events. Our two Tibetologists were as surprised as I was by this unusual display of intimacy.

The dop-dop had been brewing up some tea and had asked her to mix together the tea, salt, boiling water and yak butter for them - a gesture of courtesy to one of the few Western women they had ever seen. Her attempt produced roars of laughter: she had forgotten the yak butter. One of the monks intervened: seizing the Thermos of tea, he gathered a fistful of blue- veined butter and forced it down the neck. After adding salt and shaking the Thermos like a cocktail shaker, he poured the tea into bowls. It was a particularly buttery brew. "To keep up their strength," I suggested. Two hours later I saw their formidable prowess in action.

The incident occurred just as a bespectacled youth, dressed in an embroidered robe of red and yellow silk, began dispensing blessings to the crowd. He was the Incarnation of an ancient Tibetan saint, one of many such Incarnations in the complex Buddhist hierarchy. Eager to get close, some pilgrims rushed forward. But in doing so they were crushing those already in the front rows. The discipline monks swung into action, laying into the crowd with their 10ft-long staves. They were soon joined by stick-wielding Chinese police, who had until then kept a low profile - quietly going about their business of levying taxes on the holy offerings.

From where I stood, it looked as if the discipline monks were handing out the heaviest blows, singling out troublemakers and forming a protective ring about the Incarnation. Then, as swiftly as it had begun, the trouble ended. The discipline monks continued to look threatening and prodded the occasional transgressor. Some pilgrims appeared to accept the monks' blows almost as an honour, but I had seen the darker, feudal side of Tibetan religiosity.

I also saw the more spiritual, mysterious aspect of Buddhism as practised by the unreformed "red hat" sect (as opposed to the Dalai Lama's more recent "yellow hat" order). The full moon festival culminated in a ceremony reserved for spiritual adepts who, through intense meditation, attain a higher state of consciousness. One of the Western academics explained that these practices involve a strong vein of tantricism (the channelling of sexual energies); for the unprepared, they can result in physical convulsions, even despair. After the ceremony, the exhausted adepts had to be carried off to meditate in isolation. This ceremony drew a powerful response from the crowd.

Despite 36 years of Communist rule, it was obvious that Buddhism remains a living force in Tibet. But it was not the arcane practices of the monkhood which conveyed this most forcibly. It was the simple faith of the ordinary pilgrims. Many of them were completing the kora, the prescribed route around a sacred spot which pilgrims tread, always in a clockwise direction, in order to gain merit. In this case, the sacred site was a cave high up the mountain face where Guru Rinpoche, one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century AD, is believed to have meditated.

Some of the pilgrims making the kora were old enough to be great grandparents, yet they had climbed 2,000 feet over the shoulder of a mountain to visit the cave. As they passed us, the clack of rosaries measuring each step of the way, they murmured "tashi delek, tashi delek", a traditional greeting meaning "good fortune". Then another group of nomads - from the northern province of Amdo, to judge from their hats - passed by. Again we foreigners were met with a chorus of greetings. I smiled back. But when I tried to reply, a thin, rasping noise came out of my mouth: "Tah-shah-dah-lah."

The altitude and lack of oxygen had me gasping. Yet it did not seem to matter that my accent was atrocious or that I probably sounded like an asphyxiated android: the magic formula brought forth smiles or polite giggles.

So, as another group of pilgrims approached us, I wished them tashi delek for what may have been the 175th time that day. It was rather like telling the beads of a rosary; only the effect was more human and more immediate. !