by Carla King

Hohhot: Monks in Mongolia
The Inner Mongolia Museum

7 May 1998
Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia

7:30 am

Today began, as usual, at 7:30 a.m. with a sledgehammer under my bed. No matter that I had asked five times at the front desk if the room was QUIET. Yes, she said. VERY quiet. No hammering? I asked. No... of course not...

So when I went running downstairs yelling at the floor girl to please make it stop make it stop she was understandably shocked and confused, after all, a manical blond woman running barefoot downstairs T-shirt with hair all over the place yelling in English isn't something she faces every morning. She took the situation in hand admirably, grabbing the toilet plunger and taking off up the stairs ahead of me.

I caught up with her in the bathroom where she was poised above the toilet, plunger half raised. The language barrier seemed suddenly too great to try to explain and besides I was very awake. So the floor girl had another weird foreigner tale to add to her list, and that was that.

I showered and dressed to the sound of sledgehammers and pickaxes and was at Inner Mongolia Museum by 8:30, a modern, sterile place chronicling the geology, geography, animal and human history of the place, with lots of focus on how the Mongolians were so glad to united with China. I hadn't really heard that so far, but it was right there in English, under Mao's photo with lots of happy-looking Mongolian people.

Motorcycle Maintenance

The main man, left

Just friends, looking on

Pan Hui and sons

7 May 98 11 am

Since I'm not a palentologist it was all just enough after an hour, and anyway I figured I'd better deal with the bike, so headed down to the spoke shop, bought 20 short spokes, and pushed the ignition button. No response. I knew the battery was a problem, but none of the 50 people standing there would believe me so I let them prime the carbs and kick it over a hundred times and then somebody figured it out. They push started me down the street.... a spectacle that literally stopped traffic ( I'm getting so used to it that I only notice in retrospect) and then I kidnapped the spoke lady. She seemed to be the only person who could understand what I was saying.

She poked at me from the rear seat til we got to the next shop where I was relieved to see that a guy in his 50's was in charge. I remembered that Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, had been relieved as well when there was an older guy in charge, no rock music blaring, and concentration on the job to be done. He immediately took out the voltmeter, made some checks, educating his young apprentices all the while, and discerned that it wasn't the generator, thank goodness, but the battery was indeed dead. A new one plus labor plus foreigner price gouging cost me 300 yuan but I figure it was worth it because he had to stop all his other work for this crazy foreigner... we're really a problem with our language barrier and all the attention it takes away from the day's business as usual. Plus, there was no way he was going to back down in front of 50 witnesses to the transaction.

I invited the spoke lady and her two kids to have lunch and we ate next door to her shop. She could understand a lot of what I was saying and I could understand her, too, though we each spoke about 20 words of the others' language. This is a phenomena that I never experienced in Europe when I could pick out some words. When I can't pick out ANY words I've found that if I concentrate on expression and eye contact, and if the other person does the same, we can say anything to each other.

Her kids were very enthuasitic about lunch, one meat dish after another, I think one was lamb shanks, which was actually very good and not fatty at all, but I kept having visions of a guy on a bicycle I passed on the way here -- his front bicycle basket was full of lamb heads, their eyes just beginning to sink into their skulls.

Then we were served a dish of strings of meat with red and green peppers and onions which the kids fought over so I left pretty much alone, and to top it off there was a shiny glazed pile of some other kind of meat with some kind of sweet and sour sauce. The meat was half gristle and it was difficult to swallow but the spokes lady obviously ate here every day so I had to swallow great lumps of it like chewing gum.

Then the owner brought tea. I saw her take four glasses from some customers who had just left, swish them out in dirty water and put them in front of us. The water for the tea was boiling though, so I swished it out in that and then let it sit for a while, thinking how glad I was to have had those hepetitis shots before I left.

The spokes lady, locally known as Pan Hui, has two boys, 9 and 12. I wondered about the one-child policy, but maybe Mongolians are exempt. However, when a group of about 500 (no kidding) school kids streamed by on their way to some kind of organized gathering I noticed that Pan's kids, and some other kids in the neighborhood, were not in school. The students all wear athletic suits and some kind of scarf around their neck and hats when they're out with a group. I don' know who decides -- parents, or the government. Her kids were certainly bright, neither were afraid of me and they both knew some English -- counting, their ABC's, how to say “what's your name” and “how are you” and things like that. But other kids I met that day of the same age could speak whole big sentences.

In the Old Town

The tea man

The candy man

7 May 98 2pm

Finally I broke away and rode down to the old town, very happy with my new battery and that the bike had been checked out and to have had such a wonderful lunch with pleasant people.

The old town center was full of these kids on their way to the gathering, and the vendors were doing a brisk business in frozen cola pops and candy.

The man with the candy cart had all-natural candy... chunks of some sort of spice that he urged me to taste. It was like cinnamon and cardamom mixed together, not at all sweet, but kids were buying chunks of it and popping it into their mouths. He also had red dates and some other kind of dried fruit that was mostly seed and tasted sweet-salty. There were dried apples, too, and some black stringy mess I can't even begin to describe. No taste, just texture.

The guy next to him was mixing tea, a specialty of the area with green tea and fruits in it. They were both pleased to have their pictures taken. The tea guy had a little sparrow in a cage. The sparrow was just dying to get out but the cage was so nice and clean and there were four little pots of seed and water for him, all decorated like ming vases except for one white one with a tiny yin-yang in yellow and pink.

Weighing it out

Xiletuzhao Temple

The New Temple

Reading English!



7 May 98 3 pm

The school kids kept saying hello how are you and finally a woman came up and began to speak to me in English. She was from Dongsheng, the place I'm going tomorrow, and she and her friends were on their way to see the nearby Xiletuzhao temple, would I join them? Of course I would. She chattered all along the way about how she was in teacher's school and how they just got a new teacher from America named Johnny who was over 2 meters tall. The temple was just around the corner, I don't know how I'd missed it before, and before I knew it we were inside and she and her sister, brother in law and boyfriend were running around taking photos and giggling. As in Yungang they were hardly aware of what the place was all about and this makes me think that the Chinese in general are bereft of spirituality but I know that's not true. Maybe only the ones I've seen on vacation are acting like this. The temple is a beautiful quiet Tibetan temple and one of the men ran up to the altar and bowed ten times while the other giggled and took pictures. The Mongolian priest tapped the donation box and they all stuffed one yuan notes inside and ran off, giggling again. I was looking at a painting of the Buddha on the wall and I had to tell her who it was.

There was lots more to see but they were late for an appointment and that was that. I was glad to be left alone. In the shop I bought some fabric and met one of the monks, who had been studying English. Though he knew how to write in Tibetan and Chinese he was having trouble with the English alphabet, but then he had only studied for 3 months. He was glad to practice his English and took me around to show me the back temples. "The front one is for the Chinese," he said.

In the back rooms there were many very old tapestries and paintings and books. The front, in contrast, had been very new, very bright. These rooms had soul. The wood was dark with use and there were wonderful large statues of Buddhas everywhere.

On the wall I saw a fat woman with large round breasts and asked "who's that?" He laughed and said "The Buddha," and I told him about the breasts, the artist really had painted big fat round breasts on it. We went to the next room and there he was again, pink breasts and cleavage and everything. Behind me I heard the monk snicker and then he let out a big guffaw. I turned around and we laughed together for a long while, he so hard that his cheeks streamed with tears, I have never seen someone enjoy laughing so much, but I wondered if he'd ever be able to pray in that room again.

Later, in his room I asked him how he'd come to be assigned to Mongolia. "I was walking to India," he said, "and the police drove me back to here."

He'd wanted to go see the Dali Lama but got busted at the border, basically. His passport was thrown away and he was brought here. But he will go back to Lhasa. And he will walk for a month in the Tibetan mountains with twenty others. He has no money, the monastery gives him 100 yuan a month to eat. And he broke his foot the last time he walked the Himalayas.

7 May 98 7 pm

"Will you take me for a motorcycle ride?" he suddenly asked. Certainly I would. I think it would be bad karma to turn down such a request, and anyway, I liked him immensely.

We went tearing out onto the highway around the city, as fast as I could go, and then we crisscrossed the whole town twice or more so he could see what it was all about. He'd only been there a month, without wheels and a lot of praying to keep him busy, so he was as lost as I was. We whizzed by nightclubs and restaurants, department stores and hotels. An hour later he was satisfied, and we had to find our way back to the temple, getting stuck on bike roads and in alleyways and laughing every time we hit a bump.

Once back he talked in rapidfire Tibetan to the other two Tibetan monks he shared quarters with, laughing and making vrooming noises like an excited boy. He was an excited boy and wouldn't let me thank him for the experiences he'd given me. "Thank YOU," he insisted. "No... thank you. Will you come back tomorrow?"

I want to come back tomorrow, but tomorrow I am going to Dongsheng.

How joyful to look uponthe awakened
And to keep company with the wise.

Follow then then the shining ones,
The wise, the awakened, the loving,
For they know how to work and forbear.

But if you cannot find
Friend or master to go with you,
Travel on alone --
Like a king who has given away his kingdom,
Like an elephant in the forest.

If the traveler can find
A virtuuous and wise companion
Let him go with him joyfully
And overcome the dangers of the way.

Follow them
As the moon follows the path of the stars.

(from the Dhammapada,
translated by Thomas Byrom)

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