“Uuuuuoooooaaaaaiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, may or may not be a Chinese word but I know exactly what my driver is getting at as he loses control of the car on a patch of ice. Even though we had only been travelling at 20 kph the vehicle pirouettes as it slides towards the sheer drop. I wonder how reliable the crash barrier is likely to be but by the time I’ve thought it we have already hit it. It holds and we get off lightly with smashed rear lights and broken bumpers.
So we continue our almost 5,000 meter climb up the mountain to the Tibetan plateau of Aba, in China’s Sichuan province. Even in a 4-wheel drive the 504 kilometers from Chendu to Aba took 12 hours.
I am here to visit the Tibetan Monlam or Great Prayer festival, held every year according to the lunar calendar with several days of ceremonies held in the dozens of monasteries in the region. The highlight is the unveiling of a giant thangka, a sacred painting on cloth, to be displayed on a hill outside a monastery
Aba was closed to foreigners for many years and only opened last year, which means that for most of my stay until a small group of Austrian and French tourists arrive, I am the only foreigner. It very quickly becomes evident that for local children I am more entertaining than the actual festivities.
We arrive at the hotel late at night. The rooms are simple but new, nice and clean and I am lucky to get one of only 3 rooms in the town with air-conditioning. Ity the time the war air from the ceiling vent has reached my bed all there is is a cool breeze. I switch it off and revert to my electric blanket.
I wake up early. Moving about keeps me warm and I the early morning light makes for beautiful moody pictures.
I am not alone, my old companion is back. We have travelled together on my last 3 trips to the 4000 meter high Tibetan highlands – me and the headache. I have tried tablets prescribed by a western clinic and Chinese herbal pills, but what works best is just water, lots of boiled hot water. I drink it all day to fight the dehydration
At this altitude water boils at 80 degrees C, which has unfortunate consequences for our vehicle’s cooling system. The next morning after a very cold night the car boils just after a few hundred meters. The driver is angry. He says his boss has bought him fake anti-freeze.
I decide to walk.
A strong wind blows-up sand as I arrive at the monastery. I use my camera to sheild my face and the sensor is instantly covered in dust.
It starts to snow and the young monks, (the monastery serves as a school and orphanage) play in the snow. One slips over and my suspicions are confirmed; they wear nothing under their flimsy robes – no wonder everyone looks so miserable first thing in the morning!
Despite my heavy clothes I am freezing but the sheer beauty of the scene with the monks in their red and yellow robes against the background of snow in this fantastic landscape makes me forget all about the cold.
There are more pictures at http://www.muehlen-archiv.de/monlam/index.html