New Address, New Look

My little corner of the web now has a new, more permanent home: thelostyak.com. This blog has been up for almost two months now, and it seemed high time to clean things up a little. It also turns out that Random Ruminations, my old blog title, was already being used by several other people. A google search for The Lost Yak, on the other hand, comes up empty, allowing me to claim squatter’s rights. While the old address (geoffbarstow.wordpress.com) will redirect to the new site, you may want to change any bookmarks you have. If you have already subscribed to e-mail updates, I don’t think you have to do anything.

Along with the new address, I decided it was time for a little spring cleaning, and have re-done the blog’s appearance. Same basic color scheme and layout as before, but a little more refined. For those who are interested, I took the picture in the fall of 2005, near Thamé Gompa in the Khumbu region of Nepal.

And lest you think that I’ve only been worrying about these trivial details, there is more content in the pipeline as well. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a post about Tibetan visionary practices and Batman. Yes, Batman does Thögal. You can expect the full post sometime next week.

Advertisements

Japanese Swords in Tibet

When I was in Kham three years ago, I saw a Japanese knife for sale in a store in Ganzi (tib: དཀར་མཛེས།; ch: 甘孜). It was a tanto, the knife-sized little brother of Japan’s famous katana, or samurai sword. This particular knife had a nice hamon, the pattern that emerges along the edge of a hand-made blade. When I expressed interest in it, the shop keeper happily removed the ray-skin handle to show me the maker’s signature on the hilt. While I don’t know much about these things, this was clearly a real, hand-made Japanese knife blade, not something mass-produced for the tourist trade. Such knives are not common. Which leads to the obvious question, what on earth was it doing in a little shop in remote eastern Tibet?

A few days ago, I may have found the answer. I was reading A Tibetan Revolutionary, by Melvyn Goldstein, Dawei Sherap and William Siebenschuh. This book presents the memories of the Tibetan Phüntso Wangye (Phünwang), a devout communist who dedicated his life to establishing effective communism in Tibet. It’s a good book, and offers some valuable insight into the strategies and internal debates surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s involvement in Tibet in the 1950s.

One of the tasks Phünwang undertook for the CCP was to travel to Central Tibet with some People’s Liberation Army Generals in an attempt to convince the Tibetan aristocracy to accept Chinese rule without a fight. Part of this effort involved distributing bribes. As he describes it, “Since Deng Xiaoping had stressed the importance of building good relationships with the Tibetan upper classes, I brought gifts – Japanese swords, radios, brocade silk, and so on – to be distributed when appropriate.”[1]

While it seems unlikely that the particular tanto I saw in Ganzi was one of those brought to Tibet by Phünwang, the fact that such weapons could be effective presents for currying favor with the Tibetan elite does indicate that wealthy Tibetans knew about and valued Japanese swords. There must, therefore, have been some trade in these blades going on between China (where they had presumably been captured from Japanese soldiers during WWII) and Tibet. It seems reasonably likely that the knife I saw in Ganzi was part of this trade, and may have arrived in Kham during the period between the end of WWII and the upheavals of the 1950s. Or maybe not, but it’s a fun theory.

_____________________________________

[1] Goldstein, Melvyn C., Dawei Sherap, and William R. Siebenschuh. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. p. 137.

Pulp Fiction in Tibet

As many of you know, I have a little thing for collecting old books, particularly those about Tibet. Mostly, this means books that are written by explorers or missionaries, and which can be rather stuffy and self-important. Recently, however, I’ve stumbled across a new type of Tibet-related book: pulp fiction. That’s right, cheap, crappy mystery novels set in the magical and mysterious land of Tibet!

So far, I’ve only come across three of these, but they’re all pretty juicy. The first was William Dixon Bell’s The Secret of Tibet, a piece of juvenile fiction that follows the adventures of two American aviators lost in ‘the sacred lamaseries of forbidden Tibet’. The duo discover a lost race, solve some mysteries, and generally have a good time. If this plot sounds familiar, it might be because James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the piece of fiction that introduced the world to Shangri-la, also follows the adventures of some stranded aviators who discover a lost race. The Secret of Tibet was published five year’s after Lost Horizon, and a year after Frank Capra’s film adaptation. Nobody said that pulp fiction had to be original.

Next in the lineup is Clyde Clason’s The Man from Tibet. This 1939 mystery takes place in Chicago, but the plot is features a mysterious Tibetan manuscript, and an even more mysterious academic who deciphers it. Who knew academics could be so exciting? Lastly, we have Stuart in Tibet, a 1949 adventure by Neil Buckley. This novel chronicles the stories of a British agent who becomes involved in a dispute between the Tibetan and Chinese governments over rival candidates to succeed the recently deceased Dalai Lama.  Despite being a work of popular fiction, it displays a striking awareness of Tibetan political controversies, while simultaneously propagating Imperialists notions by having a western intelligence agent sort things out.[1]  The cover is great. We’ve got a dashing American in monk’s robes brandishing a gun, protecting the Dalai Lama, who is seen cowering in the background. What’s not to love?

So that’s it, a little bit about a couple of books I came across recently. If anyone reading this knows about any other books along these lines, feel free to let me know! And keep your eyes peeled for some updates to this post, as more of these gems come to light.

References:

[1]Bishop, Peter. 2001. “Not Only a Shangri-la: Images of Tibet in Western Literature.” In Imagining Tibet, ed. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Räther, 201-221. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

This article has a good discussion of the vision of Tibet found in western fiction, even referring to Stuart in Tibet.

I’ll post more references here, as I come across them. Feel free to let me know about anything I’ve missed!

Roosevelt & Muir

I heard a story recently that I thought was worth passing on. I have no idea if it is true, but I like it anyway.

John Muir

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt went on a train trip across the country, visiting notable scenic spots. In California, he visited Yosemite, where he met John Muir. Apparently they took a liking to each other. A dinner was planned in their honor at the Wawona lodge. Before the dinner, the two told Roosevelt’s staff that they were going for a walk in Mariposa grove. They didn’t tell the staff that they weren’t coming back that evening.

And so the founder of the conservation movement and the founder of the National Park system managed to give the secret service and everyone else the slip, and spend three days together in the woods. No tents or other gear, just conversation and the biggest trees on earth.

True or not, its a pretty good story.

Triscuits!

I have always liked Triscuits, but only recently have I discovered the most amazing thing about them.  They have only three ingredients.  That’s right, just three: flour, oil and salt.

This would not be surprising if they were made by a health-food company, but for a snack manufactured by an industry giant like Nabisco, three ingredients is pretty cool.

Most other snack foods have far more ingredients, many of which cannot be pronounced.  But Triscuits, only three.  I mean really, how many times have you looked at an ingredient list and not seen ‘natural flavors’ in there somewhere?  And they don’t even advertise this fact!  If I were Nabisco, I would be trumpeting the simplicity and old-fashioned wholesomeness of my product far and wide.  But then they might have to do something about the flavored Triscuits.  For while regular Triscuits have only three ingredients, ‘Rosemary-Olive’ Triscuits have many more (none of which are either rosemary or olives).  That minor difficulty aside, however, I still find it thrilling to find a mass-produced, non-healthfood snack with only three ingredients.  What will they think of next?