Pete and the Lama

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Sunday, August 28th 2005: an unsuccessful attempt to hold back my tears at the Hanover Airport.

A short flight, some dead time at another airport, then a long flight.

16 hours later I was there. The day when I first got to China:

first day in Beijing in 2005

I remember being in a state of shock, finding my body weighed down by a massive layer of sticky hot air that kept bringing weird smells to my nose. My two years of Mandarin class didn’t really seem to pay off either. I couldn’t read anything. I wasn’t able to understand what anyone was saying. So I climbed into a cab and paid the driver an enormous amount of money to get me to some mysterious “film university 电影大学” – which I later found out was actually called “Film Academy 电影学院”:

Beijing Film Academy in 2005

When I arrived there, I ran into Lilu, my classmate from Munich University who was later to become my good friend.

“Wanna go to the Yonghegong 雍和宫 Lama Temple?” she asked me, “the others are going too.”

The others were a bunch of fellow students from Munich who had also just arrived in China to brush up on their Mandarin.

I remember thinking: screw that, but what I actually heard myself saying was something more like: “whatever.”

So a few hours later we were there, our small group of Germans, geared up with backpacks and sunshades and travel guides, trying not to get too lost in the culture we had been studying for 4 semesters. I was the only one who had to buy a regular admission ticket to the temple because I didn’t have my Chinese student I.D. yet, and I suddenly felt that old familiar pain: everyone else knew everything better, again.

Today we went back to Yonghegong, and it was totally different.

I didn’t have to pack a survival kit to be able to go there. And besides, I was actually having a good time.

The place seemed to have undergone some changes too – the construction crews that I had marveled at three years ago were gone:

Yonghegong Lama Temple in 2005

Instead, the whole place seemed very fresh and beautiful:

Yonghegong gate

I kept taking pictures of nice little details that I had somehow failed to notice before:

little temple

And with its subtle hints at Lamaism, it felt more familiar now that I had been to some of the Tibetan regions in the West (two hundred by two hundred, buddhist caves) before:

roof detail

Even the old phone booths seemed to have a more classy look about them than they used to:


So did the interiors…


…and the exteriors:


Something particularly interesting about this place often goes completely unnoticed though:

temple square

Doesn’t look very Tibetan, does it?

Well, initially during the late 17th century, the whole building complex was actually constructed as an imperial palace, not a temple.

The monks came after a few decades of imperial use, and Yonghegong was made into the main administration for Tibetan affairs of the Qing-dynasty.

Today it is a AAAA-rated tourist attraction and a functioning monastery:


But it is best in the early morning or late afternoon, when most of the tourists are gone and the air is still heavy with incense…


…when we can feel the time is probably right for some contemplation.

So my mind is taking me back to the months when I first got to China, a time when foreigners used to say things like: “go to KFC if you have to use the restroom – even though they only have squat toilets there, but they are very clean!!” or: “I just bought [whatever] for [some] RMB – isn’t that cheap?”

Basically it was all about shit and money.

Oh, and I almost forgot to introduce you to someone – this is Pete:

Pete in 2005

I would tell people that he was the first friend I made during the early weeks in the dormitory of the Film Academy.

Pete was also my roommate, but he didn’t stay with me for long – he got hooked on the bad stuff and it killed him later.

I moved out as quickly as I could after that.

  • Alfredo

    I love Lama Temple, when I spent July in Beijing this year I stayed in a hotel just two hutongs to the south.

    I wanted to comment on your previous post, though. I have seen lots of places going from gritty and cool to Disneyland-like. Most of my native country (Italy) has become a Disneyland. Pay attention next time you are in a pictoresque hilltop town in Italy, Orvieto or San Gimignano for example: there are no food stores in the old town. Where do you think the old ladies shop? in the new town at the foot of the hill, where they have moved. The only shops there cater to tourists.

    Capitalism seizes intense experiences and turns them into commodities. There is a predictable path from the time a place is featured in magazines and documentaries as exotic and fascinating, to when Lonely Planet documents how to get there, to when it turns into a mass-tourism destination and loses all of the appeal it initially had. But the damage is irreversible – the place has become famous, so people will keep coming, because they will not think they have been to Italy unless they have been to the pictoresque towns of Tuscany, and it does not matter if they enjoy it – they are performing a ritual and paying their dues, not going on their own feelings.

    Economics really explains all of this – you can track real estate prices and rents changes and how they drive out the originals owners; you can look at airfares and understand why so many people are on the move; and you can look at media producers having to make a living and understand why they have to chase and promote the next cool place.

    I am in two minds about all of this – from one point of view, it is very much like global warming: people fucking up the good features of this planet. From another, I am one of those who are always trying to get the next undiscovered place, so what right do I have to be critical?

    I think you have already realized the logical consequences of this, and acted on it. You are not travelling to a destination, because the destinations are already known in advance, and getting is no discovery, it is always disappointing. Instead your destination is the journey itself. Very smart, just keep the secret, or the highways of Gansu province will soon be littered with vacationing walkers :-).


  • Barry aka Ba Lli

    Mein Beileid für Pete.

    Sag mal, Du hast doch Deinen neuen Pass und das Visum ist auch drinnen. Auf was wartest Du eigentlich noch? Winterreifen für den UN-Bollerwagen?


  • Florian (Flo Li Anh,

    Mal wieder Versuche, uns mit alten Kamellen bei Laune zu halten…


  • Patrick

    hm i didn't know all of that. i joined in later because of my "internetlessness".

    very interesting read though.

    pete rocks i guess…a shame he had to go.


  • Hermann

    Agust 80 / New York/ Hotelzimmer / Ich liege auf dem Bett, einen Schuh in der linken Hand: der Fußboden voll mit Pete's Verwandten. Räume ordentlich auf. Die Strecke ist ansehnlich, aber es sind einfach zu viele von Pete's Verwandten in die dieser Stadt.


  • John

    Excellent points, Alfredo. You are right. We are all guilty at some point of wanting to find the 'quintessential foreign experience,' only to find that there are many others who are doing just the same. Christoph's journey is special in just the way you describe, his destination is the journey. And he is finding that each day becomes a destination in itself, over and over again, adding up to a two-year journey, all connected by a long red line that represents his ever-changing experience.


  • Christoph

    Alfredo: I gotta thank you again for another very thoughtful comment!
    Barry aka Ba Lli: Expo 2010.
    Florian (Flo Li Anh, 開花): Ach so?
    Patrick: Pete was very…loyal.
    Hermann: New York ist toll!
    John: I can only say that I am always happy when there is something interesting springing from this blog, such as these comments.
    Marc: Poor indeed!


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