Chimpu Hermitage Tibet 11.04.11

Chimpu Hermitage Tibet 11.04.11

(Pictures at

It has been a remarkable day Tashi bless him actually got up and gave me a 7.30 call, we are working it out. I had had a sleepless night. A man dressed in light came to the room stood by my bed I had a feeling it was my Dad it made me jump but I saw his light and calmed down just long enough to understand he was looking over me before he left. I tried to put off climbing out of bed but thought if I didn’t I would never live it down from Tashi as he’d got up to wake me the day before but had knocked on the wrong door, he’d made a point of getting it right today. I got quite a bit of work done though the room really was freezing. I also washed my hair under a freezing cold tap it sure does wake a person up, yes siree.

They were up at 9.00 as arranged and we were all sat in the freezing restaurant attached to the hotel. It had snowed the night before but the restaurant had the doors open with a really cold wind blowing through that nobody seemed to notice except me. I waited sort of patiently for hot noodles and hot milky tea. Then when it arrived every one spread their legs, lowered their heads to just above table height and then the great slurping began. It still makes me blink. The noodles were delicious, well they were hot. Tashi is fond of quoting the Dalai lama or ‘DL’ as we’d agreed to call him in public said

“Any food tastes good to a hungry man” he said as the TV played the most awful pop music, I have to say here that Chinese pop music is just the worst, sorry but it is, Tibetan pop music is sweet innocent state sponsored blah and I’m afraid Tibetan Opera.? Nope!! I have apologized to ‘Tanden Geb’ the man who is credited and immortalized in many of the temples and monasteries with inventing the Tibetan opera and various other brilliant things, I have said to his grey haired and distinguished image time and again. I said

“Tanden mate, I’m sorry but you don’t rock”

I spent the time after breakfast noodles trying to drain the huge flask of milky tea and trying to seem casual as I looked around the room at the wild looking faces of the Nomad pilgrims dressed in their thick coats. The men with one arm hanging down their back leaving their right arms free to eat with play cards or swing there prayer wheels. They are mostly quite short people though the nomads are famously a little taller. They seem mostly to wear dark clothes but it is just at the end of winter. The women wear woven stripped woolen aprons over long thick dresses, have two long black braids that are tied with braided colored cotton at the ends and down their backs. Most wore beanie hats though some had fur and in the towns the men wear a kind of trilby with the front turned up they mostly looked pretty cool. All dangle prayer beads from their hands, but most of all they just have remarkable faces, that you know when ever you see them. They really do resemble the native Americans, wide cheek bones, wide flat foreheads deep brown eyes and dark skin that sets off their silver turquoise and amber jewelry. A lot of the old people I have seen have faces weathered like ancient trees and when ever I caught them looking at me, which was often, as I think I was certainly a curiosity up there, I’d say.

“Teshi Dele” and they beam wide bright smiles and instantly start laughing. It wk it must as great, every time I said those words people would start laughing, I think it must sound strange with a Lancashire accent. There is no chance that I can talk with them, but it is all in the eyes and I think they saw that there was joy in mine, just being there amongst them.

Tashi told me today that the Chinese Matraiya (Future Buddha) is always depicted as being fat so I quipped

“Well what if he comes back as thin, nobody in China will recognize him” I don’t think he was amused, I thought it was funny. Oops!!

Another bit of wisdom to share too, I recon every mouthful eaten with chop sticks is a victory for perseverance and the food that makes it into the mouth is definitely more appreciated, as I was eating today it crossed my mind that perhaps that is why they were invented, so you appreciate your food. A spoon and a fork are far more practical, and even a knife is a good thing so there has to be a reason for them as it’s said the Chinese are have reasons for most things.

Well, philosophy aside and out on the road we went, it was about 18klm to the Chimpu Hermitage though it didn’t look that far from up on the hill yesterday afternoon, but mountains and valleys can be very deceptive. The road was absolutely mental I have rechristened it the Kundalini highway due to its spiraling upward switchbacks and turns. Then to my amazement there was a fully loaded local bus just ahead of us, we were crashing and banging about like a small boat in a big storm so it must have been really bad on the bus. Sotim actually managed to over take them at one point and he has my undying admiration for it, I would have awarded him the ‘Leonm kamin Medal’ for reckless but brilliant driving had I had one on me. It was a stunning bit of driving.

We pulled up where the road ends and the walk to the monastery begins, we were apparently booked at the guest house down there. Tashi said

“Bad news mike”  I suspected there was a little touch of glee in his voice but it turned out to be good news as things turned out

“The man who runs the guest house has gone to Samye and we don’t know when he’ll be back which means we have nowhere to stay tonight”

I suggested that we waste no time then and go up to the Hermitage and have a look around and if it turned out the place has digs, electricity, and an open fire. The three things I had wished for then maybe we can stay. They say when making wish to be very specific and I had forgotten to mention running water to have a wash with and a toilet inside the Hermitage walls. But until night fall none of these things crossed my mind but stay we did and though it was freezing it was dreamy and like nothing I have ever experienced before, which is of course what I had been hoping for all along.

We set off walking up the sandy snow sprinkled path with the bus load of ancient Nomad pilgrims in close pursuit. I said earlier how ancient some of them looked and to watch them making their aching way up the very steep dirt snow covered path was remarkable, they are a tough bunch, I could see the determination on some of the old ladies faces, they had said they would go to these places and go they would, remarkable, a life out doors obviously has its pluses.

As we were approaching loud tuba like horns could be heard but it wasn’t till we got there that I realized what they were. We stepped inside the main monastery building to be met with the most amazing sounds. It seemed there was a service going on. The nuns were gathered and were in full flow so to speak. It sounded again like Native American drums, women’s voices chanting words rhythmically at full speed, words I had no idea of, they were just sounds and tones set with blaring trumpets of various pitches that shook the air. I was stopped in my tracks it was so completely unexpected.

A Nun signaled for us to walk around the back down a narrow corridor which led you around and right out in front of the Buddha and the room full of shaven headed burgundy robed nuns sat cross legged on rows of cushions on the floor in full musical flow. Everybody moved on through but I hadn’t understood and stood transfixed in the entrance hall, until I saw Tashi reappear in the hall itself.

The trumpets sounded unworldly like lambs crying, long bass tuba like trumpets shook the air, cymbals crashed like ice and snow, great drums beat out the time, it would reach an intense crescendo then fall away into almost silence then the drums would come in again slow and dramatic like great lumbering painful giants footsteps.

When I came entered out from out of the passage into the hall I didn’t dare look up I went across to Tashi and asked him if he would ask a nun at the doorway if I could sit a while and listen. She said yes, so I quickly but quietly sat on a row of cushions at the back whilst Tashi and Sotim went off to smoke and talk.

I have to tell you that again that I became chocked up at the beauty and the orchestration of the sounds they were making. This wasn’t a simple prayer meeting, this was drama and beauty and they ‘Definitely Rocked’. Their voices speeded up and down first like a chattering flock of roosting birds then back down to a hypnotic hum and murmur, bells rang out of nowhere cymbals muted kept time then crashed chaotically with the strange earth shaking trumpets, wailing strained clarinet sounds and bass drums. All this was punctuated seemingly randomly with little hand drums that were twisted with the wrist and set up strange counter rhythms and somewhere far away in the middle of it was a small triangle beating out rapidly and constantly 1234,1234,1234, 1234. Tibetan Bon jazz I called it. Fantastic.

I loved the dimness of the place too, the glossy multicolored murals and candles flickering right around its circumference, the way they have seemingly positioned the windows so shafts of light would penetrate and illuminate certain spots creating a glow rather than a dazzle. Sage and juniper smoke drifted through the beautiful room highlighting the shafts and making them solid, their scents mingling with the strange warm butter smell from the candle bowls. After my eyes had got used to the spectacle I leant back and opened up, well it was so obviously designed for it and I was so unbelievable lucky to have just stumbled into it high up in a monastic mountain retreat with a pair of Tibetan characters who were fast becoming friends. There were around 60 nuns in total split into two halves facing each other, I could sense and see the circle of sound they were creating I closed my eyes and was just lost to it for a while.

It was when I came out and over to the kitchen area that it dawned on me just what a remarkable place we had arrived in as we had sort of rushed there and been thrown around in the 4×4 on the way up. The monastery was sat between the cleft of two mountains in the last place to be reached by the morning sun. The ground was still peppered with the snow from last night but at Samye it had begun to clear as we’d left. The whole valley was covered with brown scrub bush and rocks. All across the mountain side behind the hermitage was awash with a hundreds if not thousands of prayer flags that reached right up to the lip of the dark mountain. Dotted in amongst all of this was a community of 2 to 300 Hermits monks some who lived in a small monastery in amongst the scattered tents, huts caves and leaning shacks dotted across the mountain side where the larger number of hermits lived. At a quick glance their homes looked just like the prayer flags but there was really a rather large village sort of hanging onto the mountain side.

The other remarkable thing about the place was the amount of bird life there was there, it was literally singing with different types of birds, all hopping around the bushes, the roofs, the courtyards, in fact everywhere, it was a joy to see and hear, none of them seemed particularly shy and I had never seen any of them before.

I found Tashi and Sotim sat in the tea room smoking of course. Apparently I’d been in there for a good hour and a half. Tashi asked

“Well Mike what do you think, do you like it here”?

“I love it, and what about you guys, are you ok with it”?  I asked with questioning raised eye brows.

It was agreed that we were all happy and that we’d staying for the 3 days I’d asked for. It was such an out of the ordinary thing to be amongst Tibetan Nuns in their burgundy robes, cooking for us in an ancient, soot soaked kitchen. Whilst across the way musical genius was being performed for the Buddha, the gods and the deities who I knew they were loving it just as we were. We were told that in fact there had been a community of nuns out here even before Samye. I supposed that in fact that is why the site for Samye was chosen. In the tea room just through from the kitchen there were three long benches and tables set in out a letter C shape around the walls, pilgrims sat around leaning against the yellow and burgundy walls, stripes of green red and blue running around the middle, pots and pans hung from the ceiling and some huge urns sat in the corner on a huge old stove that was used on special occasions to feed the whole monastery.

People are people and no matter what you try to do, that will emerge. In a monastery the idea is that all is uniform, heads are shaved, identical robes are worn so the personality is subjugated and (or at least I had thought and presumed so) becomes part of the group, but as we sat there slurping and smoking I could most certainly see a little touch of individuality in the Nuns as they passed by. A little pair of pink slippers, a hat worn slightly cock eyed, a little neck scarf, just little feminine touches, and a couple of them who were very definitely sassy and cheeky. I loved it here.

After we had been down to the 4×4 to pick bring the bags back up. I decided to do a little writing and on the way out of the tea room we’d passed a Chinese girl. I took no notice except to say ‘tashi dele’

“She’s Chinese” Tashi said. (So wouldn’t understand Tibetan) A few minutes later I was tapping away when she appeared at the door and brought her bags into the dorm room, she spoke a few broken words and asked if it would be ok to sleep in here, I said no problem to me but the nuns might not like it. She said something that I was sure meant ‘well that’s too bad’. She turned out to be very funny and was a blast of fresh air. She carried with her a little pocket computer that translated English into Chinese or visa versa so she would hand me the little white device with her question on it and I would type back my answer. It bugged me for a little while as I was trying to get some work done, that was what I had come for wasn’t it. After a while she left me to it and I got some things done at least until the lap top battery had run out.

A little later on I decided to go for a walk as it seemed a shame to be here in the wilderness and not make the most of it. Selka as she was called tagged along and brought her little translator with her. It was actually very funny as we walked up the steep rocky path she wasn’t even looking around at the hills as she was typed. It was a real tonic actually and we had a good time and a laugh. Then at one point she typed

“Perhaps we are affected by the poisoned that is going on here”

I was shocked, I had heard that the Chinese taught their people anti religion and promoted ‘government has all the answers’ type doctrine but I hadn’t taken it very seriously.

I stood a moment and thought this is a moment to demonstrate the energies and that is what I did. I indicated to her to hold out her hand, I held out mine and just let a little flow to her. The interesting thing was she instantly got it. I asked to borrow her translator and carefully chose my words

“When your conscious of it, you feel it and it feels you, it is real”

I could see it had provoked a lot of thought in her. Also the energy in the air was very active there, I pointed it out to her, she saw it too and became quiet.

“We need its love and it needs ours” I typed “There is no poison here”

We walked on up the mountain a little with her typing away, met a few of the hermits some who spoke Chinese, a few of them invited us in but it was getting late and I didn’t want to be stuck out there in the darkness so we walked back down made it back for Tea sat with Tashi and Sotim had noodles and salt tea again. They had butter tea, Tashi said the butter was good, and I’d quite enjoyed it in Lhasa, but here it was way to rich and verging on sour and I really couldn’t drink it. It really is like drinking rich thick warm butter, it was quite nice with the ground powdered barley that they mixed in with it to a paste or biscuit for breakfast, a bit like ready break, rich and warming, but I couldn’t drink it and I’m usually pretty good with strange foods, it would take a while for butter tea to grow on me, but here at Chimpu I seemed to have really arrived in Tibet and was allowed in and she came to rest comfortably in my heart, like a dear old friend I have been looking for, for quite some time now.

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