What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I sent every week or two while I was on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on November 16, 2015.
My last morning the monk and I struggle to communicate. I’ve told him that I’m going to hitchhike to Derge, a town famous for its traditional printing presses. He leans forward again and pretends to spread ink on a woodblock, mimes putting paper down, and then rocks forward again as if he was running a roller the length of the paper so that it will pick up the ink. “Yes,” I say, “I’m going to Derge.”
“No,” he says shaking his head, and he points at the floor. He pantomimes printing again. In this monastery? That doesn’t make sense. Only three monks live here. That’s not enough to run a printing press. This room, the bedroom of the monk I’m talking with, has two rug-covered sleeping platforms, a warm coal stove, a bare compact-fluorescent bulb dangling from the ceiling, and ornately painted paneling on all sides. This monastery’s central function is apparently to host travelers. The income from guests seems to be enough to support the monks, to buy butter lamps, and even to underwrite the purchase of a late-model red motorcycle that they keep in a disused storeroom. The monks lead a simple life here, cooking noodles for guests, shooing yaks out of the courtyard, going to the neighboring monastery for morning prayers. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a press here.
The monk stands up and gestures for me to follow him. I shove the remainder of my tsampa into my mouth, pray for saliva, and go through the pocket door and out towards the monastery’s only temple. It’s the tallest building in the walled complex, and it’s been locked the three days I’ve stayed here. He takes down the key from its secret niche and unlocks a padlock that chains the door to the flagstones. I follow him inside.
It’s dark, and the still air is cold but dry and musty. The fluorescent tubes flicker to light, strobing through greenish, unreal hues till they settle into a thin light. Wood rafters high overhead support the mud roof, and at the back of the chamber stand five tall Buddhas. The monk walks me over to the sidewall of the room. It is lined with tall shelves filled with thousands of paddle-shaped woodblocks. I take out a heavy block and look at the mirrored Tibetan characters rising from both sides of the plank. The chiselwork is exquisite: religious words in careful script, meant to be iterated a thousand, a thousand thousand times, to be read by students and chanted beneath great thangkas, meant to be read. Now they sit here, like relics, in a half-forgotten monastery.
We walk to the other end of the hall, where there are just as many shelves and blocks. One section is filled with broken and rotten shards of destroyed woodblock. They haven’t been thrown out but instead are preserved here, holy even in their fallen state. They remind me of genizot in Synagogues, where damaged or worn-out holy texts and even documents or letters containing invocations of God are stored before they can receive a proper burial. The Jewish God in written form is considered to be not only holy but also living and due all the respect accorded the human body. The most famous genizah, the Cairo Genizah, contained more than 300,000 Jewish documents and fragments when it was discovered, and these riches have allowed countless scholarly discoveries across many fields and given us a clear image of Jewish medieval life in the Islamic world. (My teacher James Russell once wrote a fascinating paper about a traveler’s multi-lingual word list found in the Genizah, and now I can report that if I were to make a traveler’s dictionary some of my most important phrases would be, “I don’t eat meat” and “Please take me to x.”) So these preserved shards of old Tibetan woodblocks, kept in the same temple as the entire ones, are not only aesthetically beautiful but evidence of a culture that respects its gods and its history. I ask the monk if I can take pictures with my cell phone, and he agrees, but the light is weak so they don’t come out very well.
We walk back out into the morning glare and talk about the history of this monastery. Now, I don’t speak any Tibetan and only a handful of words in Chinese. Likewise the monk speaks very little Chinese and no English. So we communicate by sign language and drawing numerals on our palms. It’s possible, even likely, that I’ve got some of this wrong.
In the early 1950’s, this monastery supported 300 monks. From history I remember that at this time_ the Chinese Communist Party had finally won the Chinese Civil War, forcing the Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan. The Communists were eager to solidify their control of Chinese territory, and they suddenly had a surplus of idle troops. So they began sending soldiers into Kham. The region of Kham stretches through swaths of present-day Sichuan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as smaller parts of Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan Provinces. The soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army encountered local resistance in Kham — I won’t go into it here. They also began disbanding monasteries, which were found to contribute nothing to the well-being of the proletariat while leeching valuable resources for the worship of gods that didn’t exist. In 1954 this monastery was destroyed, razed to the ground.
The monks were not, however, caught entirely unaware. They managed, with the help of local farmers and nomads, to smuggle from the monastery thousands of its precious woodblocks, along with certain important relics. They buried them all in secret and then commenced waiting for that day when the woodblocks could once again have pride of place in a temple. The intervening years were dark. In 1964, Chairman Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution, remaking — or unmaking — Tibet alongside the whole of China. When it ended in 1976, the immense majority of Tibet’s many thousands of monasteries had been destroyed, even the most remote ones. After it ended people started the slow work of picking up the pieces and rebuilding what they could. At this monastery, in 1983, people gathered to raise up new walls for a more modest monastery where the old one had stood. The next year they dug the woodblocks up from their hiding place and ceremonially returned them to the monastery’s temple. I am led to believe that it was an occasion of great joy and celebration for the entire community.
This monastery is only a shade of what it must have been. Where once there were three hundred monks, now there are three. Where once it had been a large complex complete with its own printing press, now it is an empty courtyard with tall grass surrounded by five dormitory buildings and a temple. At full capacity it could maybe sleep eighty. And now the woodblocks sit, unused, rarely seen, waiting for a day when once again two men will sit across from each other, spreading ink, rolling paper, and producing copies of scripture for others to read.
Finally the monk and I just stand there in silence under the slanting morning light, imagining what must have been, glad that something of the past still remains. We both smile at each other. His smile is kind and sad. We shake hands. I go to my room to finish packing my bags and then walk across fields strewn with garbage, a light morning mist evaporating off of them, till I reach the main road.
I start hitching to Derge, though I’m worried what I will find there. A few nights back a skinny, young, frenetic Chinese businessman came to the monastery. He wore mala beads around his neck and enthusiastically pushed cigarettes on everyone. I was the only one who accepted them. He explained to us that as a businessman — in this case a developer of hotels in Tibetan Sichuan — it was important to have a religion. After telling us about his service in the Chinese Special Forces and a trip to Ireland to engage in joint training with U.S. soldiers, he learned that I was going to Derge. “No, don’t go there,” he told me. “It is like a war zone. Go to a different place. Not Dege. It is not safe.”
I make it to Manigango, a crossroads town between Ganzi, Derge, and Shiqu. An older Tibetan nomad woman comes up to me in the pullout where I’m trying to hitch. She speaks only Tibetan, and every time I say “Derge” she shakes her head emphatically and indicates that I should follow her the other direction. She’s wearing pink Converse sneakers, an elaborately embroidered heavy robe with one arm out of its sleeve, and the most fantastic hat I’ve ever seen, a riot of colors and tassels and golden dragons. I reckon she’s in her forties. Her face is weathered and creased but still perfectly proportioned and beautiful. Eventually she impresses two schoolchildren to tell me in Chinese not to go to Derge. We all stand on the side of the road for fifteen minutes until they lose interest and wander away.
A Chinese construction crew eventually picks me up and we drive fast up a broad, smooth road into the mountains. By the lake called Yilhun Lhatso by the Tibetans and Xinluhai Lake by the Chinese we stop to take selfies. We drive onward, packed close together in the cab of a pickup truck. At some point we suddenly divert from the wide paved road onto a narrow dirt track. The track takes us up over the mountains where the snow is already thick and then back down, where the fancy road recommences. Soon a miles-long tunnel will connect the two roads and the scenic pass will be obsolete. Once that happens it won’t be any trouble at all to get to Derge.
The nice construction workers drop me off on the side of the road and tell me the town is only a few kilometers away. I walk past great gravel yards, a monstrous concrete batch plant with angry dogs, then through the outskirts of Derge, past auto shops and half-built highrises and storerooms filled with dry goods or lightbulbs or melons or bolts of fabric. The press of town closes around me. Derge is built in what we could call either a shallow canyon or a very steep valley. The buildings elbow each other at odd angles. The streets bend and narrow down. Police drive by with sirens blaring. A crew of stonelayers is in the middle of re-cobbling the sidewalks today. Chinese and Tibetans throng the center of town. Everyone stares at the foreigner. I see a blue-and-white sign that declares, “Foreigner-Approved Hotels: Hotel Shambala, Hotel Himalaya.” Both are right next to the sign and look prohibitively expensive.
Eventually I find an empty restaurant and get lunch: vegetables that I select from a refrigerator and give to the lady to boil in a spicy broth. Two young girls are loudly playing with a doll by the door. I haven’t eaten since tsampa at dawn. By now it’s four in the afternoon, and I’m ravenous when the food arrives. After eating I read in the Lonely Planet guide that there’s a tiny hotel with rooms for fifty kuai that accepts foreigners. The proprietress doesn’t recognize the street name, but she calls someone on her cell phone and eventually points me in the right direction. On my way out the door she comes up to me with a ten-kuai note and asks me if I might trade an American dollar for it. I’m in a bad mood though, so I say I don’t have any American kuai. On the street the hundred-and-six dollars in my breast pocket immediately seem evil, tainted by my lie.
The hotel turns out to be right on the main drag — I’d passed it coming into town. They immediately give me a room with two twin beds in it, and I spend half an hour with a twelve-year-old girl trying to input my passport details into a foreigner registration program that was built with Windows 95. I go back to my room and smoke cigarettes and read Joyce’s Dubliners in dim, reflected light.
When I go out for dinner I first head back to the shop where I got lunch and hand the lady my last one-dollar bill. Derge isn’t a warzone. It’s loud and filled with police, but people smile at you on the street. I find delicious fresh noodles and a half-liter of warm lager, and I write in my journal.
In the Derge Printing Press (parkhang in Tibetan) the afternoon sun spills through a lightwell and onto a balcony where an old layman and a young monk furiously print a text. They sit across from each other, each straddling the wood paddle that’s meticulously engraved with mirrored Tibetan characters. The old man’s seat is a few inches higher, and the woodblock slopes down to where the young monk sits. Both sit on haphazard cushions and rock back and forth in meditative exertion.
It goes like this. They have just finished printing ten copies front and back off of one woodblock. The monk sets the used woodblock on the stack of other used ones. The old man’s left hand grabs the handle of the next woodblock in the series and sets it between them. With his right hand he dips a cloth sponge into a basin of ink and wets down the fresh woodblock. The monk with his left hand grabs a sheet of paper from a large stack and both men deftly smooth and straighten it onto the block. The monk takes his roller in both hands and firmly rolls it up and down the paper. Then he sets the roller aside and takes the printed sheet and lays it across his left thigh. The layman carefully applies another coat of ink to the block. The monk grabs another sheet of paper and they repeat the process.
After ten sheets have been printed they flip the block over and begin printing the reverses of each sheet. Now when the monk finishes rolling out a sheet they both lift the completed page up to a drying rack. Then the monk snatches another sheet from his thigh and they register it to the block. After they have completed the ten pages they set the used woodblock aside and take up the next one. The process of printing ten copies front and back can’t take more than two minutes of silent, sweating work. Occasionally one tells a joke and they laugh. Another man pours them fresh butter tea from a big kettle and eventually takes the place of the monk. Your devoted correspondent watches them, entranced, for at least half an hour.
When I finally tear myself from the spectacle, I say thank you in Tibetan, guadrenche. They stop their work and call me back. Don’t I want to take some pictures? I do, actually, but I had become so reverent of their labors that I was too embarrassed to ask. I thank them again and take a video.
I spend most of the afternoon wandering the printing house. It looks and is laid out just like a Tibetan monastery. But aside from a prayer hall on the first floor the entire space is given over to the printing operation. Much of the building is taken up by a library of over 210,000 woodblocks. According to my guidebook, more than seventy percent of Tibet’s religious library is contained within the building, ready to be printed and posted anywhere in the world. I find it incredible: a library to generate libraries.
In one of the wings there is a mandala-printing studio. These are made printed off woodblocks that measure up to about three feet by two feet. The men there work each on their own project, carefully spreading the ink, laying the paper down, and then pressing on the paper with what looks like a big loose ball of yak hair. I wander through this room, stooped from the low ceiling, admiring the works drying on racks. Meanwhile the men take a break to watch a music video on one of their iPhones.
I wander further through the press. One man is sorting through giant piles of printed papers, assembling each set in the right order. Another is setting out freshly printed editions to dry on banisters along the lightwell. A few older men wander the premises with brooms and stick-mounted dustpans, stirring up the motes that catch the beams of sunlight. A Chinese family rushes through the place, urgently trying to see all of the sights of Derge in a single afternoon. In a light-drenched little room facing the main courtyard a portly Tibetan in nomad’s robes sorts through a great pile of what I assume are order forms and shipping receipts. He’s halfway through filling a massive leger with cramped Tibetan script.
There’s a steep stairway leading to the roof of the press. From up there I take a lot of pictures of picturesque Derge, a sweet little town nestled between great peaks, swiftly undergoing a transformation into a small Chinese city complete with bland high rises and an army barracks.
As I leave the printing complex I say some prayers for its wellbeing and continued existence. Then I snap some shots of the rows of woodblocks sitting ready on their shelves, even though there are signs everywhere saying not to.
I walk up above the old Tibetan quarter and sit in a field among yak pies and old soda cans to think about this place I have just been. It was not only incredibly beautiful, but it gave me hope as a book-lover. If this tradition can survive even in today’s China, then literature and stories and libraries and books can survive any blow. I think about my favorite libraries: Fort Bragg High School Library, where I first read “A Perfect Day For Bananafish”; Widener Library at Harvard, where Virginia used to work keeping the books properly shelved and ordered so students and scholars could find them; the National Public Library in Petersburg which card catalogs are not yet entirely digitized; my professor James’s apartment, crammed full of Armenica and Iranica and Russian vols. and even a first edition of Fahrenheit 451inscribed to his grandfather. I think of that book, of when Montag learns that there are people who have memorized books in order to save them from the bookburning “firemen,” and that these people have vowed to pass great literature down orally until that time when the world is ready again for books. Is there any more hopeful image for our day and age?
Fewer than seven percent of Americans have read a poem in the last year. We are too busy with our Youtube videos and Buzzfeed listicles and video games and mind-numbing jobs to sit down and read a poem. Maybe we’ve also fallen out of the habit. Forty-seven percent of Americans watched the Super Bowl this year: a five-hour event where adult men concuss each other for sport. Now we know that playing professional football often leads to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease in which brain tissue degenerates resulting in a condition quite like dementia. Sometimes it can seem that our culture as a whole suffers from CTE, filled as it is with all the symptoms: memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression. It can be a hard time to be alive.
The Word is not dead, though. It will never die, not so long as those of us who care about it keep reading, keep writing, keep telling stories. The Derge Print House, cheerily turning out copies of ancient sutras and commentaries, is evidence of this. If hard times come we’ll bury the woodblocks again, and we’ll remember where they’re buried. We’ll look forward to that day when we bring them back into the temple, alive, verbose, triumphant.