All Posts / China 2013

Alliance group study tour to Qinghai, China (part ONE)

If I could only use one word to describe our trip to Qinghai, I would use amazing.  I honestly had no idea that such a place existed in this world.  So many different kinds of terrain all within a 360-degree view…  But I guess before I tell you about all of that, I should start from the beginning.

Just to give everyone an idea of where exactly it was that we went, here’s a map of where Qinghai is:

Qinghai is in red.  We stayed in a place close to the lake near the north-eastern part of Qinghai.

Qinghai is in red. We stayed in a place close to the lake near the north-eastern part of Qinghai.

We started the trip on a Saturday afternoon, leaving for Shanghai Hongqiao airport at around 5:00 with carry-on baggage only.  We didn’t arrive in Qinghai until about midnight, since we had a bit of a delay and a layover in Xi’an.

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I was really proud of myself that this is all I managed to pack for a whole week and two days.

Initial impressions immediately after arriving in Qinghai:  it was so much colder and dryer than anything in Shanghai.  The elevation was much higher so my ears felt a little funny and it was super easy for me to get winded.  However, it was also probably the first time I felt properly cold in China.  And in some areas we visited, the air was definitely some of the best air I’d breathed while in China.  Shortly after arriving in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, we went to sleep, cuddled up in our beds (very cold – no heating in Qinghai until the government turned it on on October 15), and turned in early in preparation for the next day.

Day One – Sunday

Our first full day in Qinghai was relaxing but very informative.  We spent the day learning about Tibetan culture, and eventually about Thangkas, which is a beautiful form of Buddhist religious art that stems back from Nepal and India.  Different styles of Thangka art can be seen all over Asia, and is often used as a religious tool.  In many ways, the creation of the Thangka can be a form of meditation in and of itself.  I really don’t know THAT much about them other than they are  crazy beautiful; each part of the thangka is incredibly meaningful; and the painting process takes a very long time; so feel free to find out more on your own here.

After learning about Qinghai and Tibetan art from a few exceptional people, we went to a local Tibetan Medicine and Culture museum.  A few things I learned:

1)  Tibetans were some of the first founders of modern medicine – they were preforming brain surgery way before some parts of the world knew there was a brain.

2)  One of the longest Thankgas in the world is in this museum.  It’s a freaking maze.  And amazing.  Get it? a – MAZE – ing.  ok ok I’m done.

3)  Tibetans were also one of the first people to begin dabbling in veterinary medicine.

4)  Tibetans also really knew what was up with food, plants, and minerals.  One of the oldest people in the world is Tibetan and she credits her age to the Tibetan way of living (she’s something like 118 years old or something CRAZY).

Our new Tibetan artist friends.

Our new Tibetan artist friends.

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The detail in each individual piece is simply amazing. The monk’s head is probably no bigger than a quarter, and the entire Thangka is equally as detailed – and it was 1,000 meters long.

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Everyone relaxing outside of the museum before we headed out for dinner.

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Qinghai Tibetan Culture Museum

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This Thangka was incredibly long and incredibly detailed…. this is just one section of the 1,000 meter hallway

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Beautiful images all around the Thangka

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Both above and below, the thangkas were flanked by these beautiful cloth designs, sometimes just as amazing as the paintings themselves, sewn around the painted canvas

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Towards the beginning of the 1,000 meter thangka. I originally thought this was the only room, only to find that there were about 15 more rooms like this one.

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Towards the beginning of the thangka, these images were very modern in thinking, as they showed evolution-like illustrations

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These patterns were found towards the end of the thankga. I wish I could tell you what they all mean; each piece of the thangka has a very specific and purposeful meaning

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One of my favorite depictions was this one: the buddha with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 hands; he wished to have this many hands and eyes in order to see and help as many people as he could. This is also apparently one of the most difficult Thangkas to paint.

After learning about everything Tibetan, we finished it off with our first Tibetan meal of the trip.  In Tibetan cuisine, Yak is a staple food.  Yak butter milk, yak butter, yak yogurt, yak meat, yak soup, yak noodles, yak dumplings, yak yak yak!

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Yak milk tea

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Yak-filled dumplings

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The rare vegetable filled dumplings (which were DELICIOUS)

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Just some nice chunks of yak.

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Yak noodle soup.

Day Two – Monday

Monday was our first day of extreme adventuring in Qinghai.  We woke up early, loaded up the bus, and headed over to Qinghai lake, one of the largest salt-water lakes in the world.

People kept on acting like this lake was the largest body of water they’d seen.  They also asked me if I thought Lake Michigan was bigger.  I really had no idea, but to me the lake seemed massive, but no bigger or more surprising than Lake Michigan.  Once I came back though, I looked at my world map and I’m just saying…. Lake Michigan s like 200x bigger than Qinghai lake.  It’s huuuuuge.  Regardless, Qinghai lake was also very huge.  It was so strange to see so many different kinds of terrain in one area; water on one side, desert on the other, snow capped mountains in the distance.  Simply beautiful.

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Each jumping photo was more precious than the last. Here, you can see me using my scarf to strangle myself. Oooops.

After taking a few awesome jumping pictures with our snow-capped mountains, we headed over to a place not even 20 minutes away to these MASSIVE sand dunes to slide around in the sand for a while.  It was great, and given the number of people who slid down the side of the dunes on half a garbage can and lived, I would say it was an epically amazing time.

These were the dunes we slid down; the view sitting at the top is honestly much more foreboding than it might appear in this photo.

These were the dunes we slid down; the view sitting at the top is honestly much more foreboding than it might appear in this photo.

Me as I prepare to slide down the sand dune!

Me as I prepare to slide down the sand dune!

wheeeeee (I didn't  crash..... that time..)

wheeeeee (I didn’t crash….. that time..)

Myself and a few other beautiful Alliance girls!

Myself and a few other beautiful Alliance girls!

I'll be traveling to Guilin and Hong Kong with these lovely ladies.  We're being really serious here. Shh.

I’ll be traveling to Guilin and Hong Kong with these lovely ladies. We’re being really serious here. Shh.

Tibetan prayer flags stood at the top of the dunes, promoting safety and care.  In the distance, you can see the snow-capped mountains.

Tibetan prayer flags stood at the top of the dunes, promoting safety and care. In the distance, you can see the snow-capped mountains.  Behind was Qinghai lake.  So many different kinds of habitats within a bird’s eye view.

Kiki riding a yak.

Kiki riding a yak.

We got to hang out with these guys a little bit.  SO CUTE.

We got to hang out with these guys a little bit. SO CUTE.

I could've ridden a Yak but instead I rode a horse... what was I thinking???  But honestly, it was still pretty cool because it was just me and the horse and the lake.  Nobody led me around or anything and the horse galloped me back to place.  Kinda cool.

I could’ve ridden a Yak but instead I rode a horse… what was I thinking??? But honestly, it was still pretty cool because it was just me and the horse and the lake. Nobody led me around or anything and the horse galloped me back to place. Kinda cool.

Day Three – Tuesday

Tuesday was a bit of a travel day.  We checked out of our hotel in Xining and headed on to the next leg of our journey, which took place in Tongren.  Tongren is a super small, quiet, sleepy town where a major Tibetan monastery is located.  Even though it was very small, it was still so cute and we really enjoyed walking around the town in the evening, talking to locals on the pretty bridge that lit up.  On the way to Tongren, we made a few stops – first near the Yellow River, which was super cool to see up close, and second, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere to climb a mountain.  To me, it seemed like whenever we were going “hiking” our (super intense) Tibetan tour guides just looked for a mountain with a decent ascent, (or at least one that was slightly more horizontal than vertical), pointed to it, and said “you guys can climb that one”.  It made for some interesting hiking endeavors.

Yellow River

Yellow River

Myself with the Yellow River behind.  What this picture doesn't tell you is how about 100 feet behind me in this picture, a yak climbed down the mountain and took a drink of water - that was pretty cool to see.

Myself with the Yellow River behind. What this picture doesn’t tell you is how about 100 feet behind me in this picture, a yak climbed down the mountain and took a drink of water – that was pretty cool to see.

We stopped at the Yellow River so that we could walk over the bridge and enjoy some of the scenery the Yellow River had to offer.

We stopped at the Yellow River so that we could walk over the bridge and enjoy some of the scenery the Yellow River had to offer.

We stopped here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to hike.

Do you see the little dot at the top?  That's Anthony.  He and a few other crazy guys basically sprinted to the top.

Do you see the little dot at the top? That’s Anthony. He and a few other crazy guys basically sprinted to the top.

View from the part of the mountain that I decided was safe to stop on (slash too scared to move any higher)

View from the part of the mountain that I decided was safe to stop on (slash too scared to move any higher)

These guys were about as high up as I was, but on the other side.  You can see how dirt-like the ground is - not hard rocks like in the Rockies, but sedimentary dirt

These guys were about as high up as I was, but on the other side. You can see how dirt-like the ground is – not hard rocks like in the Rockies, but sedimentary dirt

Looking down on the path that I had come up the mountain on.  To get down, I scooted on my butt.

Looking down on the path that I had come up the mountain on, plus a few of my classmates. To get down, I scooted on my butt.

Sarah and Kim at the base of the super rocky mountain we climbed (or sort of kind of climbed)

Sarah and Kim at the base of the super rocky mountain we climbed (or sort of kind of climbed)

From here, we got back on the bus and went the rest of the way to Tongren, where we visited a beautiful monastery.

The outside of the monastery in Tongren

The outside of the monastery in Tongren

Again

Again (we weren’t allowed to take photos inside)

Every symbol has a meaning.  This one represents the Dharma, or the teachings of Buddha

Every symbol has a meaning. This one represents the Dharma, or the teachings of Buddha

I thought these candles, which used a Yak product of some sort for the wax, were really pretty

I thought these candles, which used a Yak product of some sort for the wax, were really pretty

Spinning these prayer wheels to make merit, pilgrimage, or just for luck

Spinning these prayer wheels to make merit, pilgrimage, or just for luck

The outside of the monastery

The outside of the monastery

At the monastery in Tongren, we had the opportunity to chat with some monks (with the help of a translator).  We got some really interesting insight into Tibetan Buddhism, which was super interesting.  When I was in Thailand, monks adhered to much stricter rules (especially towards women, like not being able to hand them anything directly and not being able to touch a woman), but I found out that Tibetan Buddhism doesn't require some of those rules.

At the monastery in Tongren, we had the opportunity to chat with some monks (with the help of a translator). We got some really interesting insight into Tibetan Buddhism, which was super interesting. When I was in Thailand, monks adhered to much stricter rules (especially towards women, like not being able to hand them anything directly and not being able to touch a woman), but I found out that Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t require some of those rules.

From here, we went to our hotel, and basically had the rest of the night free to explore the town and do whatever we wanted.

Our hotel in Tongren, which came with convenient toiletries such as shampoo, soap, and condoms! (????!)

Our hotel in Tongren, which came with convenient toiletries such as shampoo, soap, and condoms! (????!)

Our dinner that night was super delicious, ESPECIALLY this dish - probably one of the best things I've eaten in China so far.

Our dinner that night was super delicious, ESPECIALLY this dish – a carrot and yak filled pita pizza type thing – probably one of the best things I’ve eaten in China so far.

Yak-filled dumplings

Yak-filled dumplings

We met a couple cuteeee puppies while exploring Tongren!

We met a couple cuteeee puppies while exploring Tongren!

The cute bridge in Tongren, lit up at night.

The cute bridge in Tongren, lit up at night.

Later in the evening, a few friends and I enjoyed a few glasses (bottles?) of wine at the bar in the hotel, which gave our stay in Tongren a wonderful and very happy finish.

Later in the evening, a few friends and I enjoyed a few glasses (bottles?) of wine at the bar in the hotel, which gave our stay in Tongren a wonderful and very happy finish.

Day Four – Wednesday

Wednesday was probably the most culturally interesting day we had in China.  It started off in Tongren; after we check out of our hotel, we walked around the town a bit, where we got to see bits and pieces of the local peoples’ every day lives.

The view of Tongren from the bridge.

The view of Tongren from the bridge.

Tongren was a really cute little town.

Tongren was a really cute little town.

It wasn't uncommon to see meat markets like this.

It wasn’t uncommon to see meat markets like this.

After walking around the town for a bit, we stopped by a very famous Thangka art school to look at the art and have them show us how it’s done.

We stopped at a local Thangka art school where students were painting.  It's amazing how intricate the art is and how patient the students had to be to make these masterpieces.

We stopped at a local Thangka art school where students were painting. It’s amazing how intricate the art is and how patient the students had to be to make these masterpieces.

The detail is amazing.

The detail is amazing.

I'm showing my finger here for scale, just so you can get the full understanding of just how detailed some of these paintings are.

I’m showing my finger here for scale, just so you can get the full understanding of just how detailed some of these paintings are.

One of my favorite depictions I think I saw while I was there.

One of my favorite depictions I think I saw while I was there.

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A young artist working on his Thangka.

A young artist working on his Thangka.

After leaving the studio, we left Tongren and headed to basically the middle of nowhere, as we would be staying the night on a homestay, with a local Tibetan family.  As the drive there was long, we made several stops, the first of which was another hike – this time in an even more remote area!

Again, some guys sprinted up and down these mountains.  Since I'm a whimp and the fact that it was pretty steep and the terrain was not something I was very comfortable with (mostly because it felt like the LOOSE DIRT would fall right out from under me), it took me quite a while to get up and down.

Again, some guys sprinted up and down these mountains. Since I’m a whimp and the fact that it was pretty steep and the terrain was not something I was very comfortable with (mostly because it felt like the LOOSE DIRT would fall right out from under me), it took me quite a while to get up and down.

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The views were worth my hiking struggle.

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Gorgeous views as far as the eye can see.

Gorgeous views as far as the eye can see.

A few of us being silly on the mountain.

A few of us being silly on the mountain.

But the views were worth it.

The day couldn’t’ve been better for hiking.

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After this gorgeous hike, we went to have yak butter tea with Tibetan nomads.  Yep, you read that right.  We were just chillin’ and having tea with NOMADS, nbd.

We were greeted with tea and bread at the ready.

We were greeted with tea and bread at the ready.

They taught us how to make tspama, which uses Yak milk tea, yak butter, and barley.  Add barley and butter to your tea, drink the tea down, and then add barley and form it into a ball.  This is the before

They taught us how to make tspama, which uses Yak milk tea, yak butter, and barley. Add barley and butter to your tea, drink the tea down, and then add barley and form it into a ball. This is the before

and this is the after picture!  This was then eaten and keeps the nomads full while they're traveling.  I wouldn't say it's the most delicious thing in the world but it's not bad!

and this is the after picture! This was then eaten and keeps the nomads full while they’re traveling. I wouldn’t say it’s the most delicious thing in the world but it’s not bad!

Berit and I with Tibetan nomads.

Berit and I with Tibetan nomads.

And again, the scenery there was nothing short of beautiful.

And again, the scenery there was nothing short of beautiful.

The experience there was so unique and beautiful, and I SO enjoyed learning more about this incredibly unique culture.  The best part is, after all of that, the day wasn’t over yet…

From here, we headed to our lodging for the night… which was in a small Tibetan village with local Tibetan host families.  This was probably my favorite part of the trip.  However, in the interests of my poor readers who are probably tired of reading so much, I’m going to stop the post here for now because it’s getting QUITE long.  BUT stay tuned because the best is yet to come… 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Alliance group study tour to Qinghai, China (part ONE)

    • Wow, that’s awesome! While we were there, we engaged in a dialogue of sorts with some of the Thangka artists and their teacher… they asked us why we chose to come to China to learn Mandarin instead of other dialects. For most of us, Mandarin is the only dialect available to learn! Something like Tibetan is very obscure and difficult to find in the US! But I’m glad to hear that there are Tibetan populations thriving in NYC and other places… it’s definitely an interesting culture that I think more people should know about. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  1. Pingback: Alliance group study tour to Qinghai, China (part TWO) | open door

  2. Pingback: [BEAT] Thankas; the Ultimate Tibetan Art | open door

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