Dege printing monastery

At the monastery the monks are gathered for their morning prayer. At intervals little children scamper into the hall carrying buckets of porridge and scattering between the aisles, they scoop out ladlefuls into the bowls placed in front of each monk. Every time the prayer is interrupted, the monks take them up and tilt the viscous food into their mouths or lick it out without using spoons.

Dege printing monastery is a handsome building painted red and topped by various gilt statues, such as a deer and a peacock. Bunches of twigs stacked lengthwise line a belt under the flat roof. In the morning the Tibetan faithful walk around this sacred building performing their first round of prayer. They are young and old, men and women, children, parents and grandparents, and all show heart-felt devotion. Some spin a wheel in their hands.

As soon as you step into the first yard, you realise it’s not a monastery like every other. There are stacks of paper reams under the porch, the raw material used for the fabrication of religious books that will be distributed all over the vast network of Tibetan monasteries and educational institutions.

On the upper floor a few pairs of workers sit in front of each other and incessantly churn out strips over strips of printed paper. The process is all manual: a carved wooden stencil is daubed in red or black ink by the first worker, then the second lays a stripe of damp paper over it, and finally the former presses it down with a soft roll to obtain a neat print. The loose stripes are then removed and left to dry until other workers assemble them into books between hard covers.

The stencils are orderly disposed on shelves, in rows of dark corridors that take up the rest of the floor. Occasional visitors pay their respect to these wooden moulds for being the custodians of the sacred scriptures through the ages.

The last level has a display of prints on sale that a group of Chinese tourists are avidly buying. From the roof the view embraces the town and the valley around.

I have dinner with my three friends at our usual restaurant. I see a middle-aged couple speaking Italian and I go to their table to meet them, but I’m rather disappointed at the short conversation that ensues. All they seem interested in getting through is a boring list of beautiful places they think they only have seen. It doesn’t take me long to realise that their words only aim at showing off travel savvy with the underlying assumption that everyone else is their inferior. It’s so easy to fall into the temptation of boasting, it prevents from listening and opening up to one’s neighbour.

At my table, the Australian couple talk about their adventure at the alpine lake near Maniganguo where they camped for one night. It comes natural to me to compare their approach with the other two people’s. These young folk talk about their experience when the subject comes up naturally in the course of conversation and not first thing when we met two days ago; and they enthusiastically share this little feat of theirs which sounds much more daring to me if I recall the emotions of loneliness and uneasiness aroused by the same spot. I’m genuinely impressed by their tale and wish I could have been camping with them at the lake.

This is my last night in Dege. My friends will go to Baiyu tomorrow and I will return to Ganzi over the Chola pass again. We take leave from the nice owners of the restaurant, but we’re not allowed to go away before the lady gives Sam a present in recognition of our faithful patronage. They were indeed very friendly people, always smiling and good at cooking too, with an inviting kitchen open onto the street and all the ingredients on display like a talking menu.

Minutes before we stand up, a last glimpse of Tibetan life is offered to us. A large family comes in and sits around a table. There are two wrinkly women in holy old age with braided hair ornamented with beads and other young relatives in characteristic clothes. I am as attracted by their looks as they are by ours. I will miss Dege.