a roomful of monks playing counterstrike

Mar 22, 2003 11:49pm

Thanks for all the emails, I do appreciate them. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of the internet in China, it’s taken me over 3 hours just to access my account and read them. So this will have to be my reply for now.

From Huashan I caught another sleeper train to Lanzhou, in Gansu. The landscape was like a giant slab of caked dust, eroded by human and natural action into countless criss-crossing valleys, many terraced with crops. It’s hard for the eye to make sense of them as they flash past the window. Into the sides of most of the terraces are caves – homes carved out over the centuries. Many are still occupied today; apparently there are more than 100 million cavedwellers in China.

I spent a day in Lanzhou going from hotel to hotel trying to find some other laowais to share the cost of a tour to the Bingling Caves, a series of Buddhist grottoes hidden three hours by boat up the Yellow River. I failed. It seems the only foreigners in Lanzhou at the moment are American businessmen who’ve never heard of Bingling. “Bingling you say? I might check it out next time I’m in town…”

I tried getting there myself by bus, but various delays meant I ended up abondoning the idea and going on to Xiahe. It meant a six hour drive became 12, but it was an interesting trip nonetheless. Part of it involved crossing the Yellow River by ferry. The river was so wide you couldn’t see the other side, something difficult for this Australian mind to fathom. Also amazing to think it’s the same river as the one just outside Jinan, a brown line snaking through a riverbed.



I was only suppposed to be there for two days. I ended up spending twice as long. It’s a fascinating place. As I said, Xiahe is a Tibetan monastary town. According to the map it’s in the province of Gansu, but just try telling a local that you’ve never been to Tibet and you’ll soon be corrected. It’s easy to see why – it feels like you’re in a different country. World even. It’s quite an experience to look around a crowded restaurant and realise you’re the only one not wearing crimson robes.

Tibetans are wonderfully open people. When one looks at me I can’t help smiling and saying hello (“tashi dele”), whether they’re a child or a bent matriarch. They’re also even more curious about you and where you’re from than the Chinese I used to speak to at English Corner. One big and very noticeable difference is that not once have I been asked what I think about Tibetan people or culture.

They’re not only incredibly thirsty for knowledge of the outside world, they’re the keenest students of English I’ve met. One day I went out to a Tibetan primary school in a nearby village, at the invitation of their English teacher, Namjeel. The 170 students go to school in darkness, because the clock runs according to Beijing time. I taught a class “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and they picked up on the pronunciation right away. It’s great to look around a small cement room and see a couple of dozen very poor children beaming back at you. They sang me a couple of traditional Tibetan songs in thanks.

Namjeel writes poems comparing them to flowers in a small garden plot. Another one talks about the freedom of a World Cup player on the field. I had lunch with him in his room, heated over a yak dung stove (dooma: yak butter, dry flour and bits of cheese, which was hard to stomach), and he kindly translated my latest poem into Tibetan script. He has a poster of Michael Jackson on the wall and English pronunciation tapes are playing all the time in the background.

I visited the staffroom and, throuh Namjeel, the teachers fired questions at me. Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Is it true that there are lots of sheep in Australia? How much does one cost? [Does anyone know??] What do you do if you don’t like your job? How long are you allowed to stay out of your country?

The questions about freedom were the most difficult to answer, simply because I couldn’t understand what they were asking; we were on completely different wavelengths. It’s quite humbling to realise how much you take your freedom for granted. One Tibetan, Konchok, told me that Tibetan government officials in Qinghai were granted holidays for Tibetan New Year for the first time this year … he said he was going to be happy for the rest of the year.

Not surprisingly, people want to get out. The owner of the guesthouse I was staying at is lucky – his wife and children are in New York, and he can visit them whenever he wants. He says he prefers peace to prosperity, but America is a better place for his children, even though he thinks Tibetan culture will be gone in 15 years. Others are not so fortunate. The male teachers promised to find me a nice Tibetan girl if I could introduce them to some Australians. (Interested anyone?) I must admit, I’m quite taken with Tibetan women. If I’m not careful someone will flash me her smile, and flick her thick braid at me more than once, and I’ll be smitten.

Aside from the general ambience of the town – pilgrims in traditional dress, prayer wheels, mountain scenery, the monks – the best part of my visit was definitely the Labrang Monastary. Entry is by tour only, but it was the best 23 kuai I’ve spent in China. There was just me and my guide, a monk who spoke English and answered all my questions as best he could. We wandered through a vast, labyrinthine complex, full of pilgrims and monks worshipping and purposefully going about their daily routines according to timetables unknown to me.

The main Prayer Hall was overwhelming. A great dim forest of brightly coloured columns, with hundreds of monks sitting cross-legged on the forest floor, facing each other in long rows and chanting in deep, resonant voices. Wow. I could’ve stood there in the darkness for hours, just listening. It was a very powerful experience of the sacred.


So much more to tell, but that will have to do. From Xiahe, I took another bus to Xining, in Qinghai. If I had any doubts about being in Tibet, they were erased. Alpine grasslands and barren brown and white mountains on a grand scale, populated by huge power lines and the occasional goat or sheep grazing on rocks. The scenery was accompanied by the violent sounds of a Hong Kong gangster film and the smell of bile from motion-sick Tibetans hanging out the windows.

Unfortunately I won’t have time to go out to Qinghai Hu, China’s biggest lake, so I’ll miss out on all the migrating birds returning for the breeding season. Next time. I did have time to go to another Tibetan monastary, Kumbum, founded in 1577. I spent this afternoon soaking up the atmosphere. Tomorrow I depart for Dunhuang, in northern Gansu. I’m going by bus. Hopefully there won’t be any delays this time – it’s a 24 hour journey…

Happy as a text messaging monk,

p.s. Counterstrike is a shoot-em-up computer game. As are Half Life and Diablo2. I never thought I’d see a monk pull out his knife and hack somone to death because he’d run out of ammo… 🙂

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One Response to a roomful of monks playing counterstrike

  1. hydrolith says:

    In a curious post-script to this old email of mine, it turned up in a google search last week and I was subsequently interviewed for an article about the Counter-strike playing monks.

    The article is here: http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2008/03/12/in-chin

    I hadn't thought about Xiahe in a long time, but then a day later I heard about it again: news of China sending the troops in to the monastery town, because those same monks were protesting against the government — a much more serious, and potentially fatal, game.

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