Friday, July 15, 2011

The Second Happiest Day of the Year

'The Happiest Day of the Year' in the circles we run, is actually my good friend Sarah's Birthday. September 16th is officially, the 'happiest day of the year' (so mark it on your calendars) as this is the fateful day that my Sarah was born. No argument. No question. That's the day. But I'm just going to borrow her idea, just this once. She won't mind. She's nice like that. Soooo, the history now explained, today is the Second Happiest Day of the Year: My Birthday! It is July 13th and we are in Tongren, China. If you are now scanning the map of China that you, no doubt, keep taped to the front of your computer desk so you can easily follow our every move through this massive country, Tongren might be hard to spot.

We are north of Tibet, and south of the city of Xining, in the northern province of Qinghai (pronounced Ching-hai). We feel as though we are on the edge of civilization, the brink of China. We are very west. Any more west and we feel as though we might tumble into Tibet or Russia. That was until I took a look at a map and realized that really, we are actually just about smack in the middle of China's landmass. Its like we call Parry Sound 'Northern Ontario' even though, on the map there is actually a whole lot more Ontario north of us. As far as China's population goes, anyways, we are on the western brink. We are out somewhere on the Tibetan plateau and are loving it. I think it just might be my first birthday ever that I am wearing a fleece and scarf in the middle of July, but why not change it up a bit? We have had summer pretty much non-stop for the last 10 months, why not have winter in July. The chilly air is welcome by us.

So, who wants a play by play of the Second Happiest Day of the Year? Everyone, right? As my family knows, I'm a little crazy about my birthday. (Evidence - this year they had a celebration, complete with brownies on my birthday at the cottage, even though I was thousands of kms away- Aren't they wonderful!) Really, all I want is non-stop fun and birthday cake for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert...oh, and for everyone to do anything I say all day long.. is that too much to ask? haha I know they have maybe been a bit worried about 'the' day this year (because obviously everyone's July thoughts are always on my birthday) and, we have had a bit of a rough week and a crappy birthday may just lead to a bit of a breakdown. But, worry not, dear family and friends, its been a great day!

We woke up in a bed that was comprised of more than just a moldy plank of wood. There was foam on that plank of wood. Bonus! Then there was actual hot water in the shower! It was going to be a good day, I could tell.

We scooted through the rain to a restaurant next to our luxurious hotel. We pointed to a picture on the wall of hand-pulled rice noodles (that look like spaghetti, but taste better) topped with shredded, sauteed potato (like home fries). Because the only other vegetarian option was egg and tomato on rice noodles, and sometimes (often) Chinese eggs are fertilized, and eating baby chicken abortions weren't an acceptable Birthday breakfast. Rice and potatoes it was. A nice, light way to start the day! haha But it was hot, delicious, and the portions massive enough to feed us, and the Tibetan children staring at us, bewildered, from the next table.

We were so full we didn't even have to walk down the hill to the bus stop- we rolled. Convenient! We caught a minibus to a Tibetan monastery outside of town that is famous for it's 'Thangka Paintings.' So famous, in fact, that an entire style of thangka painting is named after this town. I just love Tibetan monasteries. The stupas are stark white, but everything else, from the buildings to the prayer wheels and flags are bursting with colour. The monks are always so friendly and smiley, and it is so so photogenic..if only they allowed photos inside..

What we noticed right off that this monastery were the adorable child monks in their tiny, flowing little maroon robes. The stuff national geographic is made of. They were slurping away at treats from the monk tuk shop, of course, as opposed to sitting silently striving to achieve enlightenment- but they were pretty great, either way. Right away an adult friendly monk waved us to him and brought us up to a second floor of a unique golden stupa to show off the view. Then he showed us into one of the private homes of one of the thangka painters, who was putting the finishing details on an amazing piece of art. Thangka paintings are usually (from what we can tell) focused on one or another mythical being, in the middle, but have a plethora of other things going on around the painting as well. The colours are spectacular and the detail is incredible. Many of the paintings from this monastery are commissioned all the way from Lhasa. A poster size painting sells for several hundred dollars, and even a postcard size one is $50. Its not surprising, considering even the smallest ones take about a month to paint. Its hard to express just how detailed this art is. The monk brought us into a show room where several more works hung on scrolls, the gold detail paint glimmering in the low light. Wow. And we hadn't even entered the monastery yet.

Once inside, our personal monk tour guide, a huge ring of keys clinking at his side, showed us into some of the locked chapels. They were just amazing. Usually we don't go into monasteries, mosques, temples, synagogues or churches that have entrance fees, but seeing as it was such an important day- we splurged, and are so happy we did. I think we appreciated it even more because we have been so selective about our sightseeing. Each chapel was different, but equally adorned with a gob-smacking amount of detail. Each chapel was dedicated to a different Buddha. In the first chapel, Buddha had a 'thousand eyes and arms' literally, I think. The statue was as tall as the three story ceiling, painted and adorned with rich, draping cloth. Clear boxes containing miniature Buddha statues covered the walls like wall paper. Other chapels, all with floor to ceiling statues, had walls adorned with huge thangkas, wall paintings or human-size statues. Our guide had actually painted one of the life-size thangkas on one of the walls of a chapel. We took the painting in for nearly ten minutes and still probably didn't appreciate all the detail.

The absolute highlight though was being led into a large-ish, window-less dining hall that was lit almost entirely by candlelight. Deeply coloured tapestries hung from the high ceilings. The atmosphere was like nothing we have experienced (although it did give us thoughts of Taize). Warm, cozy, rich and steeped in tradition. There were three long, low tables set up down the middle of the room. Crimson clad monks sat, cross-legged on matching maroon pillows on the floor, chanting before their meal. Baskets of crusty bread sat at the end of each table. The youngest monks eyed the bread hungrily, laughed and smiled at us, while the older monks chanted away, focused and dedicated. The whole thing was enchanting. Magical, even. Sometimes it takes just moments for your whole day to jump from good to great.

We hiked back to town amidst endless fields of yellow flowers which provided a colourful foreground for the distant red cliffs topped with soft looking green peaks. It even stopped raining. We stopped at a bakery and picked out a small, two person birthday cake, and two mini cupcakes as backup. The cake looked fantastic, but I didnt have high hopes. Most things in Asian bakeries look delicious but very few live up to their looks. It has taken many a disappointing bakery trips to finally accept this truth. We found a cozy tea house with big, light windows and hunkered down with our cake, cupcakes and a pot of tea. The tea house owner even somehow managed to conjure up with a couple of forks for us (which is much more impressive than it sounds). Jonathan sang 'Happy Birthday,' like the good husband that he is and we skeptically dug into the cake (J: actually only one of us 'dug' into the cake and I would hardly describe the digging as skeptical). Again, we were pleasantly surprised! It was actually really good. Probably because it was birthday cake and birthday cake is always good!

Its now night time here in China, which means my birthday celebrations are drawing to a close for yet another year. Thankfully for all of you in North America, however, night time here means its the morning for you, and that means that my bday celebrations should just be kicking off! I say, start the festivities off by having a piece of birthday cake for me! (Or two).

PS. We didn't have internet on my birthday, so this is late. Thanks for the birthday wishes everyone!


Parentals said...

sooooooooo glad to hear you had a good day on the big day! Reading your blog this morning gave me a happy start to my day!

Laura said...

Sounds like it was a good day - glad the cake topped it off! Miss you guys!!!

Amanda & Ryan said...

wow sounds like a fantastic birthday ! I love reading these things feels like I am traveling with you !