August 2nd: Tagong (塔公) to BaMei (八美镇)

From Tagong we moved on to Bamei, Jeremy had really wanted to see this town more closely since his previous trip out into western Sichuan. Like most specs of civilization in this part it was a one street town with a few hotels, restaurants, and the unofficial bus station, where they are all too interested in where you want to go. Every hotel in the city, there is about three of them, charges 120 kuai a night for a room with double beds, and they will not bargain on this. Jeremy said that there was a temple close by that I may enjoy, but first we wanted to get something to eat. Like most small restaurants in this area there is no menu or the sign out front has what they serve but with no prices. The Mandarin out this far starts to deteriorate into a local dialect, but is more like a separate language. Luckily I had picked up some of the local dialect from two Sichuanese locals who were dating my coworkers, which helped a little when it came to food. After finishing our meal we asked the restaurant boss where the temple was and what it was called. A driver would actually come into the restaurant as we are asking for information trying a make some money by driving us out there. We would hire the guy to drive us out there for 80 kuai round trip for the both of us. We would find out that this was just kind of the going rate for all outsiders. As we are going down the road the driver told us about the rain that had made the road to the temple and to Danba AWEFUL. This road was in horrible condition because it was dirt and a major route going north to south. We arrived at HuiYuan Temple (惠远寺) and began to walk around and noticed a gambling event going on, it looked like craps but instead of using numbers they were using six different animals. I need to clarify that this was not inside the temple but within the residential area that surrounded the temple. Our driver not too long after arriving told us that he would be waiting for us close to the front gate and not too far from the Chinese zodiac craps game. We walked around the area and saw many prayer wheels and the new temple that was being built behind the old one. We walked around for about an hour until it really started to threaten rain and we walked back to where we found our driver laughing it up while sharing a beer with some other drivers. On the way back to Bamei our driver told us that that today was the first day of a three-day festival. The following day would be monks doing a mask dance and the day after would be the horse race. Our driver dropped us off at another temple that was right on the outskirts of town and we walked around there taking pictures. Jeremy ran into some oh so wonderful people from Shanghai. Luckily I wasn’t there for most of the conversation, but from the things I did hear, this kid from center of Chinese westernization was so enlightening. He thought that it was really cool that we were traveling like locals in Sichuan even though we didn’t speak Chinese…(妈的种族主义者呆比). He told us that the mask dancing would start around 06:00 since his vast experience in Buddhist studies led him to believe that their festivals would start early due to their trained discipline, he also said that “Buddhist believed in Buddhism for no reason,” oh Chinese educational system you have done wonders with this part of your future. When we returned to Bamei we went to go eat at the only real restaurant in town, most of them were just little whole in the walls with grease lining the walls.

3: Bamei (八美镇).

We got up and left the hotel around 08:00, we ignored the advice of our local Shanghaiese travel guide mainly because we had asked someone at the temple about the start time and they had told us that it would begin around 09:00…but we may have forgotten to tell the oh so wise kid from Shanghai, who was running around with a cape on. We found one driver that wanted 40 kuai per person to drive 11 km down the road, that was also the price was to go to the next town down the road. Since we were having some trouble getting a good price at the “bus station” we walked about half a kilometer down the road hoping to be in a better position to catch someone already going there. After a short while we found someone going to the festival that was willing to charge us only 20 per person. We picked up a few more passengers on the way and arrived shortly thereafter. We entered the temple courtyard where people had already started setting up their benches and there were already people walking around with cameras. Soon the courtyard was filled with Tibetans, a few Han, and even fewer foreigners. Once the music started the Han picture takers jumped into the middle of the performance to try and get good shots, and reluctantly Jeremy and I both followed suit because we wanted pictures sans Han people. After a few minutes the Tibetan monks had set up under a tent to play music for the performance, one monk emerged from the temple wearing a large white mask. He prostrated three times and then began laying out several pieces of cloth. Behind him several young monk’s apprentices were gathering including one very young one, much younger than the others. The laying out of cloth was a set up of a kind of game. The apprentices had to steal the cloth without being seen by the monk in the mask. If the monk with the mask saw them stealing the cloth he would throw flour at them. While this resulted in a standoff between the monk and the youngest apprentice for the last piece of cloth. The monk coated the young apprentice and in the furry of coating him he changed aim and started coating the Han photographers, I laughed and quickly put distance between the monk with the flour and myself.  The monk was successful in scaring off  all the photographers since we all had expensive equipment and it is hard to take pictures through a lens covered in flour. The day was filled with different dances preformed by monks and apprentices dressed in varieties of elaborate masks and costumes. There was a break around noon for about and hour and a half, which was some much-needed time to rest my trigger finger. We bought some steamed buns with vegetables and meat inside, without hot peppers and vinegar steamed buns are just not good to eat. After finishing my mediocre lunch I went back into the temple and sat down on a vacant bench that I had noticed some of the apprentices sitting on. The dances resumed after the lunch break and included the firing of two blank rounds from a gun and a few more loud explosions. Around four or five in the afternoon Jeremy and I both had had enough shooting since we were getting the same shots we had earlier in the day, so we went to go find a driver to take us back. We could only get the price down to 50 yuan for the both of us, but overheard the driver tell some other people on the road that he would only charge them five, though I was not completely sure of where they were going. Tibetan seems to not be a purely separate language from Chinese in western Sichuan seeing as I could on the rare occasions make out a few words even with my Chinese listening being as bad as it is. The day was pleasant with on and off light showers, and the locals got a kick out of me wearing shorts, they found both the size of my legs and the amount of hair on them to be interesting.

4: Bamei (八美镇) to Daofu(道孚).

While Bamei in itself wasn’t particularly interesting we stayed for two days because they were having a festival and in particular the horse race which is what we had both really wanted to see, and Jeremy had even been to Litang last year  but for the last three years the Litang horse festival hasn’t taken place. I was still very tired from the day before, I might be too tense when taking pictures, and this will have to be something I work on. We got to the temple a little late because of a late start but thankfully not too late. Once we arrived at the temple we just started following the crowds over to an open field within the residential area that surrounded the temple. The monks were saying prayers around a fire surrounded by the horses that would be running that day. After the prayers were over the Tibetan men exploded into yells that reminded me of old western movies when the native Americans would yell, and they began leading their horses around the fire more and more quickly while offering paper prayers into the air. All the horses were taken out the main gate through which we entered earlier and down the road to the beginning of the race path. All the observers went in the opposite direction to prep their perches. I followed a group of men around and through fields, one having a new colt running up and down the field. We were taking a roundabout way to a dirt road where I was told by a monk to run down the road if I wanted to go, not knowing any better I took off down this mud road following and being followed by others running to get to our places so that we could see the racers come by. We came upon a hill over a fence where some people were already standing on top. After climbing over the fence I saw where we had just run was going to be the racetrack. Since I didn’t have a lens longer than 200mm I thought I would try and get closer by going to the opposite side of the road and standing behind a fence. We waiting a long time to see anything and while I waited a young apprentice came over and told me that the place I was standing was too dangerous, even though I was behind two rammed earth fences… He told me that I must be up on the hill for my own safety. I still waited for a long time and finally saw the tiny horses mostly carrying young adolescent bareback riders, even though there were a few adult riders in the back riding very slowly. Tibetan horses are very small and maybe half the size of the large western horses that we are used to back in the US. All my shots of the race weren’t very good because I couldn’t get close enough. After about five minutes or so we actually saw the race and everyone started back for the front gate. On my way back some young girls asked if I was cold wearing shorts, I wasn’t cold in the slightest but I did notice I was the only one wearing shorts that day.

While my pictures of the race weren’t very good I do think that I got some good shots of the post race. The post race activities included dressing the horses in cloth that had the pictures of Buddha and stuffing money into their reins for the top winners. The closing ceremonies consisted of a lot of pushing to get a good view of the winners receiving their prizes. The top four received motorcycles and money. To keep the crowd at bay monks were again given flour and threw it at the crowd when they were hesitant to back up, this would result in surges of pushing; however I didn’t mind this pushing like I mind the pushing in Shanghai, I felt no animosity and sense of entitlement among the Tibetans. After the ceremonies were almost over Jeremy and I went back to Bamei in hopes that we could get to Daofu that day and get one step closer to the Sichuan-Tibetan border. The festival happens every year 6/3-5 on the lunar calendar (6月3到5号农历).

More pictures from BaMei can be found at: Horse Race 赛马节 and Buddhist Mask Festival 雪顿节

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