Exploring the cultural rituals of China’s Qinghai province

Found this article about Qinghai’s Tongren’s mountain festival in news.com.au

See link to article at the bottom.

A ritual at the Long Wu Lamasery at the Shamam Festivals. Picture: Nick Rains

THERE was a lot less blood than I was expecting.

Watching three village elders poking fearsome-looking skewers through both the cheeks of about a dozen eager young men should have been gruesome to watch but, apart from the tight scrum of excited onlookers, the whole process was a little less bloodthirsty than it might have been.

Locals perform at Siheji Temple. Picture: Nick Rains

Every year, in midsummer, what have come to be known as the Tibetan Shaman Festivals are held in and around the town of Tongren in the Chinese province of Qinghai. The exact story behind these colourful and complex festivals is hard to pinpoint but it has a lot to do with the region being 66 per cent ethnic Tibetan and their concept of petitioning the mountain gods to bestow good fortune upon the town, its people and their harvest.

The term “shaman” might even be a slight misnomer because, according to some anthropologists, shamans communicate with the spirit world, while trance mediums channel communications from the spirit world, which is what seems to be happening in these rituals. These intricate and highly stylised ceremonies are clearly a big part of the life of the local people.

Qinghai Province, in western China, is the fourth-largest province by area, but also one of the least populated. It sits high on the Tibetan Plateau and the capital, Xining, at over 2000m above sea level, has a classic desert-like climate that makes it a great summer destination. With more than two million people, Xining is a small city by Chinese standards and, combined with its high-altitude location, gives it a crisp, clean feel when out and about on the streets.

Xining makes a great base for visitors to China’s west; there are plenty of flights in via the airline hub of Xi’an and a reasonable selection of modern hotels from which to choose, such as the 4-star Zhongfayuan Hotel that my group stayed in.

Xining is the starting point, but Tongren, or Repkong to the local Tibetans, is the destination and it’s an easy three or four-hour drive away on mostly excellent roads. Since I was the guest artist on a small photography group tour (organised by Tours Abroad China) we had our own minibus, driver and guide but there are plenty of tour operators who can offer two or three-night trips to see the Shaman Festivals.

It’s 167km up to Tongren, even higher into the mountains than Xining, topping out at more than 2500m, which is enough to make you catch your breath if you try running up some steps or slightly overexerting yourself, something that is worth bearing in mind when you get involved in the sometimes chaotic scrums that develop around the Shamans and their often seemingly manic behaviours.



Inside Suhuri temple. Picture: Nick Rains

Inside Suhuri temple. Picture: Nick Rains Source: Supplied

Tongren feels very much off the beaten track. There is very little of the classic Chinese glitz and neon to be seen, road traffic is light and the whole place feels refreshingly provincial. Wandering around the town is highly recommended, particularly if you choose to visit for more than the usual couple of days that most tours offer. We were in town for nine nights and this gave us the opportunity to find out which restaurants were the best, which shops sold cold beer (surprisingly hard to find) and where to find chocolate (as rare as hen’s teeth).


Our hotel was placed slightly inconveniently across the river from the town centre, but it was still only a 10-minute walk into the thick of things, and was billed as “best available”. Which leads me to my hotel story.

Outside the major centres in China, hotels can, and do, vary dramatically. There is a star rating, apparently like our own star rating in Australia and you would be forgiven for assuming it relates to things such as room size, amenities, quality of fittings etc. Well, it’s not entirely like that. It seems that star ratings are awarded when hotels are first built, and are then fixed, regardless of how the hotel is maintained. Also, it is weighted by factors such as the size of the lobby, how many chandeliers there are in the lobby and how much marble you see – again, in the lobby.

Our hotel was indeed the best available but, from what I gather, it was the only one in town with Western-style toilets. A blessing indeed, but there was some funny business with the running water disappearing for a couple of days. Anyway, that’s travel for you – expect the unexpected and take surprising developments in your stride. We were there for the festivals.

There can be few genuine traditional ceremonies that are as crazily colourful as these. Mardi gras in Rio is a massive commercial event, as are so many others, but this is the real deal, part of Tibetan culture.

Somehow they manage to collect large numbers of bolts of fabric, which are hung in the entrance to the temples as offerings to the Mountain Gods.

The costumes, particularly of the girls, are eye-wateringly vivid and the pageantry is like something you’d expect out of medieval Europe.

I found it interesting that a large proportion of the villagers take an active part.

When the men do their slow march around the courtyard, they are lined up by age, starting with those in their twenties right down to what look like three year olds, all in very specific costumes worn in a very specific manner. You’ll not see anyone in Nikes here.

Villagers with pierced cheeks at the Shaman Festival. Picture: Nick Rains

Villagers with pierced cheeks at the Shaman Festival. Picture: Nick Rains Source: Supplied

Much of the produce brought in by the villagers as offerings to the Mountain Gods is destined to be burned on smoky pyres that burn all day. Bottles of bai-jo, yak butter carvings, food, flour, flowers, all get heaped on to the flames, resulting in lots of atmospheric smoke wafting around the enclosed courtyards, great for the photographers among us.


Then there are the piercings. Yes, there is a bit of blood, but I was able to see the process very closely and I am pretty sure that they use the same cheek-holes each year – like ear piercings.

Some might have grown over and need re-penetrating, but overall it was quite a civilised process and, judging by the eagerness of the participants, one which is evidently a great honour to take part in.

I was able to get in close for one very good reason – and one that is a lesson for visitors in general.

My small band of keen photographers stayed in town for far longer than the usual tour groups and every day we duly showed up at whatever ritual was going on that day. Since most of the festival events are overseen by the same group of village elders this was noticed, as was our carefully respectful behaviour.

After about a week, we unexpectedly found ourselves being invited “back stage” as it were, to see what was going on inside the temples during the rituals. When I asked our guide about this he told me “our respect and genuine interest had been noted”.

Take the time, talk to the people, respect their ways, tread softly. It’s amazing what might happen next.

Go2 – Xining

Getting There

Flights to Xining: From Australia, Qantas flies into Shanghai from Sydney six days a week, and China Eastern operates a daily service from Shanghai to Xining via Xi’an.

Getting from Xining to Tongren can be done by regular buses, which take about four hours, or by shared minibus.

We travelled on a photography tour ex-Xining, organised by Tours Abroad China who specialise in photography themed trips to remote parts of China and Mongolia.

See toursabroadchina.com

Staying There


Zhongfayuan Hotel is a perfectly acceptable hotel with good internet and big rooms.

Prices: $US47-$66 including breakfast.


Being a remote destination, there’s a limited choice, the Regong Hotel was clean and reasonably well located, but beware of the variable water supply. Tongren is a difficult place to book hotels over the internet.

Your travel operator should be able to help.

Doing There


Long Wu Monastery: This is home to more than 500 monks and to be allowed to watch the daily debating sessions in the huge courtyard is a real treat for travellers.

Thangka paintings: Tongren is home to some of the best Thangka painters in China. These incredibly detailed paintings adorn the walls of temples and fetch large prices in the art world.

There is an artists’ gallery in Wutun (Wutong) village on the outskirts of town.

Temples: All around the valley there are numerous temples to be visited, Wutun in particular is excellent, a few kilometres north of town, as is Siheji Temple on the hillside just to the west of the town centre.

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Read more: http://www.news.com.au/travel/world/exploring-the-cultural-rituals-of-china8217s-qinghai-province/story-e6frfqai-1226694016153#ixzz2bjnzOqra


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