Locals celebrate with demons, liquor and shamen
RUTH LOR MALLOY
Qinghai, China — The
strange little man walked into
the crowded temple grounds,
and a few minutes later, he
was throwing 45 proof liquor
all over the courtyard. I don't
think he was drunk. Never
once in the day and a half I
spent watching did he lift a
bottle to his lips.
He was quaking. Every few
seconds, he puffed out his
cheeks and pursed his lips as
he panted. He was wearing a
white silk shirt and dark west-
ern trousers rolled up to his
shins. His long hair was in the
centuries-old Chinese style, a
queue down his back. And he
was obviously a welcome
The liquor was meant to
entice the temple's god Sha-
chung to predict the future
and bring good luck to the
village. But in his trance, the
shaman kept throwing barley
at some of the villagers.
"Do not gamble." "Do not
drink alcohol," he shouted,
the only message I heard him
give. Village leaders followed
close behind in case he fell,
while more than a hundred
dancers kept stomping to the
deep beat of drums and cym-
bals and the occasional groan
of long brass horns.
RUTH MALLOY PHOTOS
Monk dancers at Kumbum Monastery don skull masks in a ceremony retelling
the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Top left, young women parading in
their temple's courtyard hold out ceremonial scarves during a good luck
ceremony. At right, a shaman in a trance pours liquor on the
ground of the temple to feed the temple's deity.
We were not in Africa or the South Pacific. We were in
the northwest province of Qinghai adjacent to Tibet in China, and these
Tibetan villagers were dressed in silk and wool trimmed with otter fur.
Like the shaman himself whose father had been a shaman before him, they
were unpaid. With time out for lunch, the villagers took turns weaving
their way through a dozen varieties of slow, ritualistic dances. It was
obvious they were performing for the god and not the few tourists there.
It was obvious too that the deity, and some of the villagers, liked
alcohol. Every hour or so, at the urging of a shaman, the leaders
carried tiny mounds of barley paste, bowls of yogurt, and bottles of
liquor to the altar fire above
the temple gate. These along with the juniper boughs burned in great
thick bursts of smoke, the thicker the better to reach the other world.
At the end of the second day, I peeked into the temple itself where the
shaman rested in between appearances. He was no longer trembling. He
walked out among the dancers in a daze as if he didn't know what had
happened. No one could tell me if he had made any predictions.
This once a year festival takes place now only in a few Tibetan
communities like Tongren, or Rekong as it is known in Tibetan. In the
old days, Tibetan shamen wore metal crowns decorated with tiny skulls
that were so heavy
it took several men to lift them. However, the trance state seemed to
give them supernatural strength. Young men in one Tibetan village still
stick skewers through their cheeks or dance with knife-pierced backs to
prove their macho devotion.
The shamen festival was the most colourful of the
Tibetan celebrations I saw this past July. At the unveiling of the giant
thangka at the Kumbum Monastery in nearby Xining, only a few villagers
wore Tibetan dress. Most who did were old women who prostrated
themselves on the ground before the Buddha. But it was breathtaking to
watch hundreds of people carrying the long heavy rolled-up picture of
the Buddha up the side of a hill and unroll it carefully to its
fourstorey length. Monks at its base collected donations and banged
drums for the one hour ayear the picture was on view.
Air Canada has direct flights from Toronto to Beijing where at least
flights a day depart for Xining.
From Xining, the Kumbum Monastery is about a half hour taxi ride. In 2006,
Tongren will only be two hours
away from Xining by road.
The China Tourist Office has maps and travel information about
Oinghai.ltisat 480University Ave., suite 806,
Toronto, M5G 1V2. Call
416-599-6636 or log on to tourismchina-ca.com .
In Toronto, I received solid advice from David andYueatAAST,
1515 Bay view Ave., suite 200. Call 416-322-6508
or e-mail reservations® asiaadventures.ca .
Xining-based travel agent Yang Cheng Cai at Qinghai CCT proved very reliable
and very knowledgeable.
His e-mail is wildyak@
21cn.com and the website
Contact 3992299 or the
24-hour line at 3949777.
Cellphone 13997132136.Ruth Lor Malloy is the author of China
That celebration included grotesque masked dances which also had their roots
in the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. During the same month, a Horse Racing
Festival tookplace 700 km away in Yu Shu.
Neighbouring Tibet has festivals like these too but its altitude is higher
and its political situation is somewhat tense. Qinghai is a better place to
experience Tibetan culture and its summer weather is equally great. BeSides,
the Dalai Lama's birthplace nearby is now a shrine that tourists can
But because the dates are based on the lunar calendar, you do have to plan
your trip carefully to include these festivals. You do need a guide because
hardly anyone speaks English. But it's well worth the effort if you want
something exotic, spiritual and beautiful.