Kunbum to Koko Nor – Creating a Porridge Reality

Burritos may be the new travellers-breakfast of the Tibeto-silk-crossroad of Xining, but  I hadn’t traversed a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere  to NOT eat porridge. I  quickly realised I would have to take matter into my own hands.
Jacqui had proposed a morning tour of KUNBUM, the revered  birthplace of Gelugpa founder, Tsongkapa, which was just a short taxi ride from Xining.
“Just as long as we have time for a stop at the Supermarket on the way back,” I said, making sure that porridge didnt take a back seat to such fripparies as the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism as practised by the Dalai Lamas.
I calculated the kilograms of oats we could have got for the entry fee of 80 Yuan, and then proceeded to follow Jamian Puntsok, our guide, as he circled stupas, protector halls, and buddha statues in a clockwise direction, which, as referred to in an earlier post is called Deiesal in Scotland and is the direction that porridge should be stirred if you are a medieval Scottish porridge maker.

“The tree under which Tsongkapa was born still exists in the courtyard of a protector Deities chapel” said Jacqui (taking over from Jamian Puntsok on the guiding). “Some Jesuits or Nestorians who had passed through Xining in the mid 1800’s claimed that there were verses in Sanskrit that would magically appear on the leaves of this tree.”

I wondered if the Supermarket stocked medium cut oats or just the usual instant ones that are popular with the rising middle class Chinese.

Jamian Puntsok taught me how to  prostrate to the Buddha keeping an empty space in the palm of your hands which some nearby monks then filled with some blessed trans-fatty biscuits and dried longan fruits that pilgrims had  left them as offerings. I pocketed the longan to sweeten a future  porridge concoction.

More temples, shrines, stupa-chortens. Then suddenly we hit real porridge gold. Silk kata-scarfs hanging from slatted doors  of a side building signaled the sacred  object within –  a giant cooking pot in the monastery’s central kitchen – the actual pot used to cook the tsampa-porridge that sustained the 6000 yellow hatted monks that this monastery  as one of the 6 grand Gelugpa monastery universities, supported. I almost ran back to the ticket-gate to give them a second 80 yuan such was my joy at their generous attention to the beautiful building they had created around the pot and the equally enormous stove upon which it  simmered.  Unfortunately I was forbidden to take pictures, such must be the sacred nature of the pot that sustains the monks that work for the cessation of suffering of all humanity.

Xining Square Supermarket did stock oats of the instant Australian grown variety. We bought up large as we would be camping several days on the grasslands around lakes and Holy mountains on our way to Yushu. I purchased the magical secret ingredient winter worm summer grass from a monk dealing this traditional Yin building medicine at a momo dumpling cafe by the bus station. This 30000 yuan a kilo tonic is a worm that petrifies inside a grass fungus cocoon and gives you slow- released enduring strength.

We had a crate of long life milk, bananas, sultanas, pots and gas stoves…Jamian Puntsok like all Tibetans on the move also had his tsampa sack – though he confessed a preference for Chinese dishes which  I knew would easily be righted once a creamy goat milk, banana , sultana and oat number crossed his lips. Just one more Burritto breakfast to go and we would be off cooking porridge on dew- laden grasslands.

That night we slept soundly. We rose and ate burittos  washed down with orange syrup, met our driver Namgel, and headed off on our journey via the worlds longest Tanka housed in the new Tibetan Medicine Museum on the outskirts of Xining in the opposite direction to where we were going.  Tankas are a visual depiction of the Buddhist world, meditation devices with buddha images , mandelas, and other esoterica. This one rolled and folded around the walls of  tens of rooms which had been partitioned into hundreds of folds luridly depicting every thought , philosophy, and creation story of buddhist Tibet; every life moment of buddha,  his disciples, his non followers, his forbears, all of their gods and permutations, their hovels, palaces and monasteries, their wars, and hells and private heavens. each cloud form that has passed over Tibetan skies. Everything BUT porridge!

Lack of piety to porridge withstanding  it IS  the most impressive BIG object I have ever seen in my life,  and I have seen many. Australia is full of  BIG things including porridge-ingredients like bananas, Merino sheep and prawns, and Mangos. We enjoyed it despite the feeling hat buddha was keeping us from our porridge. Finally however we made it to a grassland appropriate to our first cookup –  right on the edge of the teal blue interior sea, Lake Qinghai or what the Mongolians call Koko Nor, the Tibetans call Tso Ngombo, and  thousands of migratory birds call squaaark.
Selecting a site ambiently close to the local  nomads flocks but far enough away from their dogs, we erected tents, pulled out the pots and the gas stove and even lit a yak dung fire. Jamian Puntsok and Jacqui christened the brand new aluminium pot with a yak-meat hand-pinched-noodle soup. J.P read Harry Potter in Tibetan to Namgel by the light of a yak dung fire. Then the  first drops of a crashing thunder storm sent us running to our tents where under sleeping bags and faux fur  Tibetan blankets we hid from the  shrieking winds that threatened to tear our tents asunder, surviving the night only by holding the thought of a warm  creamy porridge for breakfast.


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