China good? China bad?

Nothing is simple in Tibet.

By Hank Hyena
Published August 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Uuugghh! Blechchch!"

Gagging, I spew out the tsampa -- roasted barley meal -- that I'm sampling on the balcony of a Tibetan cafe, in Xiahe. It lands ugly, near the bowl of yak butter tea that I've already sipped, and rejected.

"Tibetan food is repulsive," I grumble to my wife. "They're lucky the Chinese invaded -- now they can get decent meals."

Carol frowns, horrified.

"Food imperialism is not the same as raping nuns with a cattle prod," she rebukes me, between tasty bites on her Sichuan bean curd.

Xiahe is ensconced high in the southern mountains of Gansu province, in rugged central China. It belonged to Tibet's eastern Amdo region until the 18th century; today, it retains a 45-percent Tibetan population. The town's centerpiece is the gold-gilt Labrang Monastery, which sequesters 1,700 monks and attracts hordes of Gelukpa (Yellow Hat Sect) Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims each year.

Carol insisted that we add Xiahe to our China tour itinerary because the "Lonely Planet" guidebook describes it as "one of the most enchanting places ... Outside of Lhasa, it's the leading Tibetan monastery town. Indeed, in some ways it's better ... "

"Xiahe?" Dr. Ming Hu questioned us the previous morning, as our crowded diesel train screeched into Lanzhou -- the Gansu capital. "Pardon me, but ... why do you want to go there?"

Hu is a gray-suited Han physician, schooled in both Western and Chinese medicine. We've been chatting with him since he boarded in Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia.

"We want to see Tibetans," I reply.

His brow furrows in puzzlement and disdain.

"Why are the Chinese in Tibet?" I quiz him. "Why did the Chinese invade?"

"Tibet belongs to China," he answers, abruptly. "We help them progress; they are behind."

"Is Tibetan Buddhism persecuted?" I ask him, knowing we both know the answer.

"It's a ... religion," he grimaces, pronouncing the R-word as if it's an obscenity. "Primitive. Superstitious."

Smugly, I turn to Carol with an expression that says, "See? I told you so ..."

Truth is, I agree with Hu's analysis -- unlike Richard Gere, the Beastie Boys and my wife, I am not sympathetic to the Dalai Lama's agenda. I've adopted, instead, the Marxist attitude of my grad-school mentor, an ex-Jesuit who despises all clerics.

"The Dalai Lama," he grumbles, "is a political leader; nothing more, nothing less. He's trying to manipulate world leaders with his faith, to regain his sovereignty."

The bus ride from Lanzhou up to Xiahe's 10,000-foot elevation is a terrifying, nine-hour winding climb. Barren hillsides stripped of all vegetation allow us easy views of the shattered vehicles lying twisted below us in remorseless ravines.

When we arrive at dusk in Xiahe's humble town square, grinning, dirty-faced boys wheel us in dilapidated bicycle carts past hairy yaks, emaciated dogs, wild chickens and nomads burdened with enormous bundles of wood. Traversing the Daxia River via a rickety ridge, we enter the Labrang Hotel grounds, festooned with Tibetan prayer flags.

That night, I toss and turn feverishly, plagued by the dizzy symptoms of altitude sickness and the adrenaline rush of arriving at this hot spot of exoticism and strife.

"I'm not impressed!" I sniff the next morning, as we tour the rancid gloom of Labrang Monastery's inner chambers. The 300-year-old edifice is adorned with damp tapestries, religious paintings and, most odoriferously, yak-butter sculptures of the myriad demons and deities that populate Tibetan Buddhism's cosmology. Burgundy-robed monks meditate all around us; their ages range from pre-teen to ancient.

"Tibetan esthetics are lush and sincere," my wife argues. "Gothic, in its rich colors and detail ..."

"That makes sense," I grumble. "It's from an ignorant, feudalistic, cleric-infested culture, similar to Europe's Dark Ages."

"And the yak-butter statues look like marzipan cake decorations," she drools.

In the monastery's courtyard afterwards, we watch three young monks-in-training furtively take turns waging battle on a Game Boy that they've smuggled in.

"Poor boys," I mutter, remembering my own Catholic childhood. "Their parents stick 'em in here with a bunch of boring old men. Doomed to a life of useless prayer and wretched celibacy, unless they all become gay."

"A life of the soul." My wife is unflinching in her approval. "What's wrong with that?"

The three boys suddenly hide their Game Boy. Laughing, they flee from a wrinkled, wild-eyed monk who's hobbling towards them, intent on confiscating their toy. Realizing that he can't catch them, the old monk turns toward us.

"German?" He asks.

"American," we reply.

"U.S.A.!" he exults, giving us an exuberant "thumbs-up" gesture that seems inappropriate in a cleric -- like the Pope flipping someone off.

"OK," we agree. "U.S.A. ... Thumbs up!" We do the thumbs. Delighted, he grins widely, revealing all seven of his teeth.

"Dalai Lama," he continues, with both thumbs up now -- executed with gusto.

"Dalai Lama," repeats my wife, "Thumbs up."

I remain quiet, my thumb wagging a little more limply.

"China," says the old monk in a bitter tone, after glancing around, wary of Chinese policemen. "China" -- his thumb stabs downwards now, aiming at Hell.

Carol repeats both the word and the gesture.

"This is rather simplistic, isn't it?" I complain. "What happened to shades of gray in world politics?"

"Don't interrupt!" she says, and glares. "I'm having a conversation."

The old monk pauses dramatically, before delivering his summary -- "China ... bad ... here ... here ... " he says slowly, pointing first at his heart, then at his head.

"How interesting," Carol gushes. "Evil emotions, evil thinking ..."

"Yeah, well, we've really got to go now," I snort impatiently.

Before leaving, the monk insists on giving us each a huge hug -- to my surprise, he emits a sweet baby-powder scent, instead of the stench that I feared.

"You're so arrogant," Carol scolds me later, as we stroll on the dirt road to Xiahe's marketplace. "Tibetans have the right to live the life they want, even if you don't approve."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah ..."

Suddenly, her face collapses. Two diminutive Tibetan girls, no more than 5 or 6 years old, are staggering toward us, their frames weighed down under huge dung-filled wicker baskets. The girls are barefoot and exhausted.

"Give them money," I suggest. "Like you always do."

My humanitarian honey presses into their fingers all the yuan she is carrying. They stare at the bills, stupefied.

"They're too tired to smile," I suggest. "I just hope their parents buy a big yak with the cash, instead of wasting it all on the monks."

My wife's too distraught to reply.

"Those poor tiny girls ... I hate child labor ... we ought to adopt them ... childhood should be carefree ... what is dung for?"

She frets -- incensed, worried, grieving -- as we pass by the shops on Xiahe's main street. Tibetan fabrics, silver-work, amber and handicrafts are displayed -- there's also a smattering of wild-animal hides.

"Aren't Tibetans all Buddhists? Vegetarians, like me?" asks my wife. "It looks like ... they trap and kill."

"Sorry to pop your bubble," I inform her sadistically. "They're actually poaching endangered species like snow leopards and panda bears, to finance their resistance against the Chinese."

"Pandas?" she gasps, her face ashen with shock.

When we arrive at the market, I smell trouble. My wife's acting explosive, and there's surely a barbarity here to ignite her. I've watched her erupt repeatedly on our "vacation," usually about restroom conditions.

Sure enough, an event is unfolding that's tailor-made for a tantrum: a "hurdy-gurdy" Central Asian carnival man is urging his pet dog and pet monkey to fight.

The skanky terrier is eager for combat -- but the simian with the tender, pink face is shrieking in ear-piercing terror.

The audience, 80 weather-beaten Tibetans with the same fatigued expression that the little girls had, is slowly breaking into a smile. A handful of giggling monks is also present.

"Stop it!" Carol yells. "Don't you dare hurt those animals!"

The crowd's gaze swivels towards the big-haired white lady with the face glaring like a rabid Pekinese.

"Carol, don't!" I hiss.

The terrier lunges towards the monkey, the monkey screams and Carol flies to the rescue.

Bolting into the center, my sweetheart situates herself -- like a boxing referee -- between the two frenzied creatures.

Emphatically, she informs the hurdy-gurdy man in Mandarin, "Bushi! Dong ma? Bushi, bushi!" ("No! Do you understand? No, no!")

The standoff lasts interminably for this embarrassed husband, who is proud of his super-wife for suppressing all violence, but unnerved by the imposition of her cultural values on a poor horde who deserve respite from their tedious lives of agrarian labor.

"Bushi! Bushi! Dong ma? Bushi, bushi!"

Eventually, Carol wins -- the entertainer secures his monkey safely in a cage, to the chagrin of the disappointed peasants. Everyone disperses, pitifully ...

"Carol, you freak!" I admonish her. "You're gonna get us killed someday!"

She stutters, inaudibly, before bursting into big salty tears.

"Sit," I whisper, as I guide her crumbling form to a bench.

"It's beautiful here, but weird," she snivels. "Very complicated; not thumbs up or thumbs down."

I nod, realizing that this is the first time we've agreed on anything since our vacation began.

Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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