Friday, December 01, 2006


Sticky notice! Fellow travellers: the book about my hitch-hiking expedition to Middle East has just been published under the title “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Visit my online bookshop. Order a copy and keep me on the road!

On the way to the monasteries of Gurgam and Tirthapuri we were surprised by a heavy snowfall and draw back to a teahouse in nearby Namru. There we had an instructive afternoon looking how the two enormous Tibetan women that ran the teahouse constantly fighting with the local bunch of drunks who even tried to play snooker under the snow. Well, I understand there is not much to do in a place where the absence of agriculture turns laziness into a natural state of the soul. While we drink our yak butter tea, the daughter of the cook enters the room shyly, looking at the ground, clearly intimidated by our presence, and wearing a kid’s size Chinese Army camouflaged jacket. Every day, images as such let us thinking in the strange way in which the past has coagulated for Tibetan people.

The next day, after spending three long hours throwing stones to empty cans of “Red Bull” (the problems of urbanization have arrived to Tibet way before urbanization itself) we boarded a little truck towards the town of Montcer, crossing a heavily snowed pass. We were almost ready to start our trek to Tirthapuri when Pablo realized he had forgotten his sleeping back in the truck. The pink bed dress he bought as a substitute in a local, poorly provided shop, made him worthy of a list of unprintable adjectives which entertained us during the 2 hours long walk towards the monastery.

Action in Tibet, we understood, happens more outside than inside the monasteries. The pilgrims execute the circumference of a holy place, known as kora, performing a repertory of meaningful rituals. They follow a predetermined path along the monastery which is once and again celebrated by colorful tarchoks or Tibetan prayer flags, maybe the most famous element of the Tibetan religious paraphernalia. Tarchoks are colored pieces of fabric stretched in ropes tended over roads, mountains passes or even houses in order to purify the air. Buddhist sutras have been printed in each flag, and some of them bear the “Lung Ta” the winged horse whose job is to spread the teachings of Buddhism. Another of the religious devices the pilgrims meet in their kora are the manikhors, golden cylinders that enclose kilometric rolls of prayers, and which the faithful spin clockwise, promoting around the cosmos the Buddhist teachings and adding points to improve their karma. Many monasteries accommodate corridors with dozens of manikhors in their perimeters. Definitely not a place for Jim Morrison, who had said: “I cancel my subscription to the eternal life”.

We waited until the next morning’s prayers to attend the action within the yellow walls of Tirthapuri. Three monks of different ages, including a boy and an old man, sing and punctuate the melody with drums of different sizes. Seated ahead of an archive with Buddhist ancient texts, and highlighted in spite of the enclosure by the beam of light of a carefully placed skylight, the monks accomplish in loneliness the task of praying for al the beings of the universe. The polyphony created by a premeditated asynchrony gives the chant a depth that reminds of a chorus. Suddenly, the celestial character of the image is interrupted by a mighty snooze of the old man. Against the bets, the four of them look each other with complicity and laugh, without stopping singing, revealing in my opinion that they articulate with our mundane reality in a more honest way than our Christian priests. Under the holy purple garment of the boy is with some effort visible an NBA T-shirt…

After saying goodbye to Akatsuki, who hastened his steps towards Nepal where he planned to make a marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Pablo and I walked down the Sutlej valley towards the outlying Gurgam monastery. Hair-to-ground yaks graze calmly by the narrow fertile green strip at both sides of the river. When our presence sends them trotting away we notice that they move their tails in a very doggy way that hardly matches their prehistoric dimensions. Never such a sturdy looking animal was so harmless. The yak is sacred in Tibet, and their horns ornate the doors of each house of the hamlets we let behind. Undoubtedly, this is due to the syncretism between Bon, the animist local faith, and Buddhism. Some say that every Tibetan is a Bonpo at heart, what would explain the large number of superstitions and icons that have survived from a theoretically displaced religion. Something like the worship of Pachamama in the South American Andes, which has somehow be incorporated into the Christian calendar.

Half way to the monastery we eventually got a lift in a truck carrying pilgrims, just when the 3 PM snowfall was beginning. The men, with their wide curved wing hats, seem nothing but cowboys. The women try to protect their cutis from the elements by wrapping their face with colorful scarves that could be the flags of inexistent psycodelic republics. As if the colors were not enough, each married woman wears a pandem, or striped pattern cloth stitched to their skirts. Many pass the beans of their rosaries, and all of them laugh at the two unexpected pilgrims.

The Bon monastery of Gurgam was almost identical to the Buddhist ones, which is understandable, since the Bonpo teachings were reorganized to resist the challenged posed by Buddhism almost to the point of coincidence. The little differences with the Buddhist system seem primarily the offspring of pride: the swastikas decorating the Bon monasteries rotate in the opposite sense, and bonpos do their koras and rotate the manikhors anticlockwise.

At one point, the pilgrims we had met in the truck invite us to follow them. Logically, we don’t know where to. All the group climbs to a chapel built in a cave on the mountain slope; they take out their shoes, and enter the cave one by one. What’s inside? –we ask each other. Pablo bids: Elvis Presley? It would have been nice, but no: an old Lama lays seated cross legged in the center of a constellation of candles and images. He must have spent there a life time already, that man who didn’t wait for us. Without much a clue of what to do, we knelt down and bow our heads in universal sign of reverence. Spying under our eyelashes we realize the old Lama doesn’t know how to handle us neither. He looks around as asking to the metal Buddha at his side what to do next. He finally sips slowly his tea and starts a chant with such pusillanimity that it sounds like he sings along to a song whose words he has forgotten. Even if we secretly expected from him the wisdom to transcend the cultural differences and communicate without words, the emotions of the old Lama were only obvious when he discovered the note we had left as donation was a 5 Yuan one. Exiting the cave, all the pilgrims exploded in a thousand laughs…


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