Monking About

Intrepid Travel Competition Entry

(630 words)

By Russell McGilton

Surrounded by smiling Tibetan monks Russell McGilton felt finally at home in China’s Yunnan Province.

On a cold mountain pass flapping with prayer flags, I swung off the bike, took off my shoes and massaged my feet. I couldn’t feel them anymore and they looked like they had been mummified without my prior consent. A van whizzed past then skidded to a halt. A fat German man with a white beard jumped out, ran up, whipped out his camera and madly clicked away.

‘What the – ‘

‘You are at 4,560 metres!’ he shoved his altimetre watch in my face. ‘I am doing a book on ze source of ze Yangtze River. Last I did ze Yunan Province. Goodbye.’

He shook my hand, ran back to the van, jumped in and sped off.

Unlike my ‘Nikon Raptor’ friend it would be my baldness that would endear me to another culture rather than a six by four celluloid print.

Burrowed in the Tibetan hills of the Sichuan Province of Southwest China I arrived at Santway, a ‘Wild West town’. The streets were wide, unsealed and raw. Dust devils whirled around the skirts of Tibetan grandmothers and gentle smiling monks, while broad shouldered men swaggered about in wide-brimmed hats. I missed the sound of spurs and a bar fight.

Smudged-faced kids bounced bottles off my bicycle tyres as I sat in a restaurant stuck together with newspapers, slurping down a bowl of meaty stew. From a window I caught sight of three white stupas in the distance. Soon I was walking towards them.

It was the cacophony of drums and horns blasting away that I found myself in the dark behind a gold pillar. Young monks chanted over yellowed scriptures while rimpoches sat higher up on platforms, their faces glowing amongst a ring of candles.

For all its supposed formality, this Tibetan monastery had a very relaxed air about it. Monks slurped their butter tea, hacked off chunks of cheese and nibbled at round loaves of bread while flipping over their sacred texts as if they were reading sports pages in a tabloid.

Catching sight of me an older monk walked over and I expected to be escorted out. But instead, he pointed to my bald head, chuckled and then gave it a literal thumbs up. He took off his maroon robe, put it round my shoulders and offered me a seat by the horn players. I sat down.

Admiring my baldness, an adolescent monk proffered a five foot long silver horn. As the drums flurried he prompted me to play. I let rip a colourful medley something near ‘Cherry Pink’. Their faces broke wide.

Perhaps I should’ve told them that I used to play trumpet for four years and that my embouchure was still in fine form. I smiled weakly before the monk snatched the trumpet off me and collapsed it like a telescope. Fearing that I had broken some sacred tradition (namely, doing James Last impersonations in dark Tibetan monasteries) I felt that it might be best that I quietly vanish but the young monk intimated that the prayers were simply over. The other monks gathered, admired my splendid dome and soon I was led into a small kitchen and filled with copious amounts of butter tea that could re-hydrate a yak.

I waved goodbye to my bald monk friends and I walked back along the dusty road toward Santway. Tibetan women were washing their clothes in the afternoon light while their children played, one making off with an empty Sprite bottle from jacket pocket as I passed him.

As I looked back mandalas billowed in the breeze while a giant prayer wheel was being turned by an old Tibetan couple.

A scarf of dust headed towards me and a van stopped. It was the Nikon Raptor.

‘I try make photograph of Monastery but ze monks don’t allow. You get somezink?’

‘No. Nothing at all,’ I said and pulled my woollen cap over my head just as the sun winked out over the bare bald hills.