The Tibetan town of Dege is a treasure hidden in the mountains of Western Sichuan. Disobeying the laws of time, it hides at the end of the world, keeping only a faint connection of dirt paths with other cities in the area. Enthusiastic, we hitchhike one of them, anticipating views, usually reserved only for trained mountaineers. The road curls dramatically through a sea of bald hills as it ascends towards the 5050m pass at the feet of the forbidding mount Chola. The way seems longer than it is, with stretches of gravel, bumps and puddles alternating on a muddy black road. Remorselessly, like in a cruel game, the curves compete in sharpness threatening to throw any inattentive car off the board. Luckily we have been picked up from the roadside by Grant and his brother-in-law, who drives with mastery a grey 4×4 jeep, while we calmly accommodate ourselves in the back seat, enjoying the abrupt beauty of the Tibetan landscape in between photography breaks and travel stories. Grant is a US adopted Scott, who crossed Asia overland in the 90’s and keeps in his drawer a book of adventures we would have liked to read. We spend a few hours delighted with the tales of his route, moving at the rhythm of the Medieval stories that made us travel the same roads and that, in one way or another, had brought us all the way here. Unnoticed, the night falls and spreads a curtain of drizzling rain, slowly turning into a typical high altitude summer storm. Without a stop, we keep on travelling pass the steep shadows of imposing hills. The slippery road winds ahead, narcissistically requiring our complete attention. We have no time to wonder what sort of town lies in such isolation, neither for more basic issues like where are we going to hide from the rain or what shops can supply our empty backpacks in the middle of the night. Undeliberatly, tired and excited, we ignore the signs from the road, the hints that suggest that Dege does not only hold a benign picturesque beauty in store for us.
In the dark and under the rain we grope about for well over an hour, threading our way through dogs, stumbling into broken pavements and tripping over open ditches with a battery-less flashlight, hunting for the cheapest hostel, or at least one we could afford. A tatty little room on the last floor of a guesthouse, its window with a view to a 1 sq m dark hole decorated in several tones of mould, and smelling of fifteen years of smoked cigarettes, for the price of our daily budget of 6 Euros a day, is good enough, what else could we ask for? Takeaway food from a night stall brings about the inevitable consequences of refried oil and chilly sauce. A squat toilet without light and a few hours of burning stomach in between scattered dreams. We open our eyes under the morning command of somebody who seems to be shouting “Wake up! It’s 7.30!” while abruptly opening the door of the room. “No, the shower does not work, but you can wash your face and feet on the tap in the main hall”. Sometimes when we get to a town, or when we leave it, we share passing thoughts, words that do not speak of the place by its width or length or population density or pollution or number of museums or the quality of them. Words that define it by the impressions (the first, the second, the fifth, the last…) that we know are as true as they are false, but that are always valid in their subjectivity. We give names to the cities by the sensations they bring about. In Dege we coincide, the town is dark. It carries the mysterious air of someone you find interesting, and would like to meet, but who simply turns its gaze away. It looks as if the town does not want us there, but we are decided to get at least one date, and meanwhile try to find a good camping spot.
On the pilgrims road to Lhasa, embedded in a gorge at 3100 meters, Dege is a historical town of the Tibetan Kingdom of Kham,. It is famous for being the home of an 18th century printing monastery (Derge Parkhang), where over 200,000 wooden blocks neatly organised cover the walls, storing the largest collection of Tibetan historical, religious and cultural heritage. A wooden library that keeps the tradition of woodblock printing both safe and alive, where letters are written in a mirrored way and need the artisans’ finesse to turn around the sacred texts they contain. Walking around the dimly litten corridors lined in dark wood gives one the impression of being buried under silent words, underneath the history of Tibet, by its mantras. Marta tries to get a shot of the scene, one single photo that would capture that feeling, but an attentive guard rushes to ask her to delete the picture and put her camera away. It’s understandable, she says, flashlights may damage the oldest pieces, tourists may obstruct the craftsmen at work, imagine all the undesirable poses and selfies all around… but the reason they give leaves us jaw-dropped; it looks like, in China, seeing photos of one place do not make people rush to see it with their own eyes, but they rather contend themselves with the virtual experience instead, and the guard explains they are afraid nobody is going go down the 6 hours of hell road to see Dege’s printing-house by themselves if they can comfortably explore it from the screen of their Iphones. (?!?) Even if that could make sense from the local point of view, as a lover and sharer of artisan’s work, Marta can’t help but think it’s simply well-rounded non-sense and stays behind the group with the excuse of sketching the men at work in her notebook. “They won’t let me take pictures, but I can draw” – she says with her most stubborn tone.
On the first floor, the younger ones reproduce mantras to the rhythm of their words, working in pairs perfectly coordinated – ink, paper, press, ink, paper, press. On the second floor, a couple of veteran workers specialize in printing intricate images of Buddha and Bodisshatvas that, in paper or cloth, will go on to adorn the homes, shops, temples and streets of Tibetan towns. The group keeps on moving towards the rooms where other men revise, cut, gather and pack the texts, while Marta steals – now that she knows it’s forbidden – a couple of pictures from the workers, who smile satisfied at the blurry images and her dubious sketches of their hands. “Buddha will not care” she thinks while hiding back her camera and continuing her way. Just outside we come across a crowd of local pilgrims that tirelessly walk round and round the sacred library in a clockwise direction. Attracted by some colourful flowers and pots we had seen before we head towards the back of the monastery taking the shortest way, in the opposite direction to the pilgrims, while grandmas turning their prayer wheels try to tell us that we should be walking backwards. “Whatever – says Marta – Buddha will not care”.
A barking dog seldom bites. But what about those that do not bark?
Dege is a wonderful place. Past the hideous Chinese-style city center, its red wooden Tibetan houses adorn the slopes on which the city sits, temples crown the longest slope in town, prayer wheels and stupas and doors hide tiny streets and corridors and steps towards more pretty houses with colourful windows and flowers in pots, with tiny gardens, ladies that wash, kids that play with sticks and stones. Reconciling ourselves with the first impression – of darkness we walk up and down enjoying the mid afternoon sun and taking photos like it was our first travel destination. But there were dogs, big angry dogs like disco bouncers that tell us with their gaze we should not get mislead or mistaken, we are not welcome here yet, at least not in their territory. “Whatever”, says Marta, while advancing a few steps in the directions of the dogs – “There are kids with sticks, what could happen?”. Everything could happen. Growls moving towards us, Boris shouts, “hey!”, kick in the air, teeth and blood and tears. The incident has now turned all dogs in town into silent enemies. Somebody comes out offering vodka to clean the wound, a lady gives us a broom stick and kid a pebble from the yard to go back home, while Marta cries and thinks that maybe in the end Buddha, like the Christian god at home, punishes her disobediences “without a stick and without a stone” (Spanish saying).
It is not so bad, a couple of injections and water with soap in the health center of the first corner. Everything seems fine until we are told that the according to the local system we can buy 4 shots of the rabies vaccine in a box, inject the first two and carry the others for 21 days in a little bag with ice, but keeping in mind that they should be stored at a stable temperature of between 2 – 8ºC. Awesome! Thats a real challenge! Not the easiest of tasks while backpacking (and hitchhiking) with no fridge. No matter how much the nurses smile while proposing the idea, we dont buy it, and decide to stay one more week in Dege – now we are definitely gonna get to know the place! – writing and drawing in our dark room while waiting at least for the second dose. But alas, things could not be so simple, at least not this time. Having spent most of our Chinese money in the vaccine, we have enough to last for a couple of nights, but no banks or ATMs would respond to our cash requests or would be willing to exchange dollars. In Dege, it seems, we can’t get any money, and we walk, this time limping, over and over the same streets and corridors as the first night, asking shop by shop for anyone who could do with a handful of dollars. Mey yo – Mey yo, is the uniform response wherever we go, nobody wants American notes. And Marta gets more and more worried about the idea of travelling with an ice bag, of having to leave straight away back through the hell road to reach any town with banks or hospitals on time. ‘Mey yo’ lurks behind each and every corner. Discouraging and frustrating, it starts echoing in our heads. And just when we are about to give up trying and to embark on a long swearing tirade of helplessness ( that would anyway be doomed to provoke more awkward, confused smiles ‘mey yo’-ing without a break), a kind lady tries to help, but things get even more complicated. She takes us back to the health center, insisting that Marta needs a vaccine straight away. Unable to read the Chinese note that we are waving which states the vaccine is already taken, she apparently sees only the hospital sign on it, which strengthens her conviction that we need immediate health assistance. She calls her cousin by phone, who repeats in English once and again that it’s dangerous to stay one day longer without vaccine. Desperate, worried, tired, dirty and misunderstood, Marta sits down by the pavement , and overwhelmed, starts crying.
A lesson of compassion
Compassion, a synonym of Buddhism, is what takes over the lady who, still with her cousin on the phone, starts straight away a rescue mission and improvises a whip-round on the street among the passers-by, collecting notes from monks or mums, single men and grandmas that crowd around us in a blink, turning their prayer wheels and smiling with satisfaction for the good action that should dry Marta’s tears. Papers with the face of Mao pile speedily up in front of our dazed eyes. Shocked and disbelieving we try, in vain, to return their money. Boris runs after the crowd with many Yuan in his hands, but it skillfully disperses just about when he is getting hold of it. Two monks lift him by the armpits and sit him back on the pavement. “No!” – the plainly explain. Meanwhile, Marta cries louder and waves the dollars we have been trying to exchange. But it looks like this only inspires the spectators to give more and more money… Only a young entrepreneurial Chinese girl smells a business opportunity and decides that she can finally fix her own exchange rate. Quickly, she is chased away by the monks and a choir of disapproving chants. The crowd grows and a man that approaches the pile of money with 50 yuan and takes 30 back, smiles innocently and asks “alright?”. Marta laughs in between tears of impotence and shame and surprise and that feeling of incomprehension that only grows with their kind response. As far as we can remember, there might have been 20 or 30 of them when the police arrived, telling us off for stirring people up in a public place (but it wasn’t us!). Once the situation is explained, one of the officers translates that the people around are all happy to help, and that when we don’t need the money any longer we can just give it to Buddha. We ask for an exchange, but they are decison is taken. It would not be true help if they received something in exchange – she says – you better give it to the temple – she insists while taking us away. Help comes wrapped in surprising Tibetan ways. Karuna, compassion in Pali, the language of Buddha, is not just a noble feeling or an attitude but rather a virtue to be cultivated that, we are told, actually translates as compassionate action. It is an offering help to relieve others of their suffering that one walks in the path of earthly happiness and towards heavenly rebirths.
Hiding our shame, rethinking values.
We are ashamed, we must confess, we can’t help but want to hide. We are ashamed of receiving something we did not want, with so many people in need all around. It is not us who should benefit from such compassion, who should take their yuans. But we are. And so much generosity and such a response make us think for hours during the two days that we spend hidden in the guesthouse. We think about those who beg for what they need and are given what we think is good for them, with good intentions and incomprehension, about those who give without expecting anything in return, about those who believe that sharing is the way to salvation. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, people… how much we have received along the way? We think about tramps and travellers and tourists, about fears, needs and wishes and comfort, about gift or exchange as two sides of a coin. We discuss and write hidden in a room that, for the same price, now has golden walls, wifi and tv, and window with a view to an apple tree. Mysterious are the ways of compassion – of the guesthouse owner that decided to give us a better place when we saw Marta limping up the stairs. We decide that Buddha’s money shall be divided in between the temple and the people in need, but we see nobody, because we only get out in the dark to buy packaged food from the shop below and we only look at people from the safe distance of our window, letting two days pass while healing and learning how to look at the experience with perspective. Finally we decide to give the town another chance and walk to the market in daylight. The first person that recognizes Marta as the girl with the dog injury makes her blush, but after a few days she learns to take comments as light as they are and smiles gratefully around, not knowing who she should really be thankful to, but simply thanking Dege as a collectivity.
The town of Dege as a pilgrimage.
Every day we take a bit longer walk around town. First surrounding the market, then one street further, on to the large prayer wheels and up the stairs, or to the end of town where there is a relief of Buddha carved on stone. Always attentive to the dogs and to the signs of people walking in the opposite direction. We walk alongside a lady while she send mantras to the wind and visit a little prayer flags printing shop and finally discover where do the craftsmen that carve the wooden boards for the printing monastery hide(Grant had told us about this place the first day), we make friends in the market and watch the neighbours cutting down our beloved apple tree. The days pass, and slowly we get used to the town and it gets used to us. On the last afternoon, when we thought everything had been visited and seen, probably hypnotized, we follow two ladies with long plates swinging rhythmically just above the floor. Walking towards a tiny stupa, we did not suspect that the 20 meters separating us from the shrine are actually going to transform in a walk all around town. A pilgrims tour surrounding Dege, behind the red houses, on to the colourful flags and the Mani walls that store prayers and past the ladies that rest while reciting, up and down stairs, passing by the dogs that some days before so ferociously guarded the secret of this place – Dege is a labyrinth that opens its way to the pilgrim of good intentions, a circunambulation that invites to movement. After more than a week, Dege reveals to us its charming heights.
- Dege is a place totally worth visiting. Do not be put off by our first impression. It´s much more colourful than dark.
- Do not be afraid, but be careful with the dogs in Tibet.
- We do not truly believe that Buddha wanted to punish us for walking around the monastery anti-clock-wise. It could be because of stealing photos, but that’s improbable too. Although it’s Buddhist logic that we are the causes of our own suffering, so maybe Marta, annoyed as she was with the restrictions and laws simply punished herself.
- Let’s not let superstition take over common sense. But in any case, if you want to visit Dege the way locals do every day, follow any pilgrim walking clockwise all around town. The views of the gorge and town are worth the walk.
- If you visit Dege, or Qinghai and Western Sichuan in general, take some extra cash. ATMs often do not work, no matter how many visa and mastercard stickers tell the opposite. We had a friend who ended up hitchhiking
700400 km to get some cash and then come back to where his girlfriend was waiting (!) (Downhill from here, we are pointing at you to tell that story)
- And whatever you do, take your time, Tibet (and not just the Autonomous Region) is a wonderful place to travel.