On the way to Xining, capital of Quinghai province in northwest China, I stopped overnight in Xian. It’s a colorless city, with isolated clots of high rise satellite apartment cities dotting the flat landscape. Stark concrete structures line the perfect straight boulevards. Traffic moves either fast or in fits and starts, but it is all very orderly. Xian is not a walking city, at least not where I was. It has all the marks of a planned Chinese city with the charm of East Germany. No English signs except banks and global brands, franchises. However, ALL the motorbikes are electric. It’s 95 F. Some buses are not air-conditioned. Some are. Bicycles are for rent everywhere, plugged into racks. Many are parked unlocked on the sidewalks. I could barely communicate with the hotel clerks. No one speaks English, a taxi driver does not know the word “airport.” It’s a Tuesday morning. But there seems no rhyme or reason to explain which businesses are open or closed.
Flying into Xining the next day, I see an increasingly mountainous landscape. Every arable inch is meticulously terraced. Small villages are tucked into narrow green valleys. One cannot help but wonder at the industry necessary to cultivate these areas.
Xining is 2.2 million people, a small city by Chinese standards. Everything about it is first class, the infrastructure, traffic control. Also, everything is spic and span. There is a very noticeable muslim population. My guides are at the airport to meet me, even after a 2 hour delay.
The next morning, my tour of Tibet starts in spectacular fashion. I am driven to the Museum of Tibetan Medicine in Xining. Three-quarters of this two story building is devoted to medical exhibits. I breezed through them rather swiftly on my way to the main event–The Great Thangka—commissioned by the government, assisted in its creation by several hundred Tibetan artists and historians who together created a single painted fabric over 600 meters long (2 meters high) tracing the history of Tibet from its earliest mythic origins to the present day.
In a continuous meandering course through one wing of the museum, the viewer is treated to an unbroken mural depicting the evolution of the Tibetan people from monkeys to humans, from warriors to spiritual warriors, the earliest kings and the many who followed through the centuries, the protector deities of the four cardinal directions, mythic characters embodying
precious qualities of the Dharma protectors, 21 different representations of Tara, multiples of Vajrapani, Mahakala, Vairochana, Vajrasattva, Naropa….
Milarepa, the five Buddha families, biographies of Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, Atisha and the rest of the arhats, Machig Labron, Tsongkhapa, the founders of the Bon religion, the Kagyu school, representations of all the Karmapas, all the Dalai Lamas (save the 14th–this is China, after all) and the first Panchen Lama (with pictures of all the rest). Far more than I could ever show here.
The entire tableau is mounted on the wall, protected by a glass shield and presented in a curving maze through which the viewer walks, becoming lost in ever-renewing niches that appear around the next curling corner. I and my young guide were, for the most part, completely alone on this path, the lighting ahead of us turning on as we approached, lighting behind us shutting off as we moved on.
There are 130 mandalas and about 50 small reproductions of wall or ceiling designs found at temples and monasteries from all over Tibet, concluding with depictions of everyday life in Tibet from birth to death.
All of this is done with amazing color and fine detail, overwhelmingly beautiful, with the highest quality technique, in some cases flashing with the great brilliance of thangka painters found anywhere in this region.
I felt as though I was ambling through the fissures of the Tibetan brain, every significant detail of temporal and spiritual history imprinted there. Indeed, this great thangka is one very attenuated and magnified molecule of the DNA of the Tibetan people, mastered in a continuous display of coded information reproducing every nuance, shifting from background to foreground and blazing with magnificence at every turn.
And this, on my very first stop on this journey.