Tsem Rinpoche’s heritage in China
Dear friends around the world,
I’m always asked where I come from and how I came to be a Buddhist monk. While I have blogged some articles about my life, ranging from my childhood until where I am today, I have not really written much about the heritage stemming from my biological parents. From a very young age in America, I was brought up to think that I was purely Kalmyk Mongol. I didn’t get to know that I was also Tibetan until I was much older. I am proud of both my Mongol and Tibetan heritages when I finally found out of which both places are now in China. So connections to China are strong due to my heritage. I would very much like to explore my heritage, China and all that comes with it for personal growth, understanding and to know who I am. Nothing more and nothing less. I am connected to China and I am happy for it as I have admired the greatness of Chinese culture for decades.
My mother was the Mongolian Princess Dewa Nimbo, from Xinjiang, while my father was an ex-monk from Golok in Amdo, Tibet and was a disciple of His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama. Both of these places have their own unique environment, people, languages, cultures and way of life, and are both now part of the People’s Republic of China. Since that is the case, that makes me Chinese, through biological heritage. I wanted to share with all of you some information about these two places, because not many people around the world know about Xinjiang and Golok. I hope you enjoy reading some quick facts about two lands and the two peoples that I descend from.
I do thank Buddhist Pastor David Lai for his research, work and writing of this post. It will go a long way to solve the ‘mystery’ that is Tsem Rinpoche’s ancestry. I also thank Buddhist Pastor Niral Patel for the editing.
I do hope very much to visit Xianjiang as the landscape is spectacular. I am very attracted to the landscape of mountains, blue lakes, forests and meadows. I would love to sit by one the turquoise lakes and do pujas.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China
His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche’s mother Dewa Nimbo is from Xinjiang. The northern region of this Autonomous Region in China used to be the Dzungar khanate (kingdom) in the 18th Century. The Oirat people who used to rule Dzungaria are a group of Mongols whose ancestral home is in the Altai region of western Mongolia. Despite the fact that the Oirats originated in Central Asia, the largest group today is located in the Russian province of Kalmykia, where they are called Kalmyks. Historically, the Oirats encompassed four major tribes – the Dzungar, Torghut, Dorbet, and Khoshut. Rinpoche’s mother belongs to the Torghut tribe.
However, Dzungaria today is part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is a provincial-level autonomous region of China in the northwest of the country that spans over 1.6 million km. This makes it comparable in size to Iran and is one sixth of China’s land mass. Despite its size, only about 4.3 percent of Xinjiang’s landmass is fit for habitation. Xinjiang borders the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, India’s Leh District to the south, Qinghai and Gansu provinces to the southeast, Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the West.
Xinjiang is populated by many ethnic minority groups, such as the Han, Tajiks, Hui, Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Kazaks, Mongols, and Russians. Just like Tibet, the demographic composition of the province has shifted over the past few decades. Today, it is about 45 percent Uyghur and 40 percent Han Chinese, while the remaining 15 percent consists of the remaining ethnic groups. The total population of the province is 21.8 million people.
Rinpoche’s maternal lineage is traced to Wusu, a county-level city in Xinjiang that has about 227,449 residents. It is a part of the Tacheng Prefecture, which itself is part of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. Wusu is located in the northwest region of the Xinjiang Province of China. In ancient times, Wusu used to belong to the Qosut tribe of Mongolia. Its full name is Kuerkalawusu, which meant ‘Black Water of the Snow-capped Land’ in Mongolian. However today, Wusu is one of the main areas where the Torghut descendants reside, numbering roughly over 150,000 in the city.
Out of the many religions prevalent in Xinjiang, Islam has the largest number of practitioners, who are predominantly of the Uyghur and the minority Hui Chinese peoples. On the other hand, many of the Han Chinese practice Chinese folk religions, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. According to a demographic analysis in 2010, Muslims form 58% of the province’s population.
Just like anywhere else in China, the official language is Mandarin. However, there are many other languages that are spoken in Xinjiang due to the ethnic diversity in the region. The second most common language is Uyghur, a Turkic language similar to Uzbek but written in Arabic script. Hence, most official signs in the province are bilingual, using both Uyghur and Chinese. Other languages include Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Mongol.
Xinjiang is famous for its naan bread, watermelons, grapes, raisins and walnuts. Xinjiang naan comes in all sizes and are sold on most streets in every city. It is usually made plain but some are made with onions or spring onions as well. Watermelons in Xinjiang are small, round and tasty. In some cities this fruit is found to be sold on every street corner. Watermelons from the oasis town of Hami are particularly renowned all over China. Grapes and raisins from Xinjiang are particularly sweet because of the amount of sunlight the region receives and the low amount of rainfall, particularly in Turpan. Finally, walnuts from Xinjiang is a famous export as well.
The Xinjiang landscape is unique because of what is described as ‘three mountains surrounded by two basins’. This can be seen from north to south with the Altai Mountains, the Dzungarian Basin, the Tianshan Mountains, the Tarim Basin, and the Kunlun Mountains. The Tianshan Mountains punctuate the middle of the province and divides this Autonomous Region into two – the northern and southern regions. The entire Xinjiang region has drastic seasonal differences in temperature, with cold winters. Xinjiang is traditionally an agricultural region but also has large deposits of minerals and oil too.
Mountains and lush grasslands such as the Kanas Nature Reserve and Narat Grassland dominate the northern landscape. This contrasts with the south, which is largely barren and blanketed by the Taklamakan Desert. Hence, life in the north historically revolved around a pastoral-based culture while the south was a dessert-based culture. Northern culture is marked by fine horses and the sweet sounds of Uyghur folk singing, while the south is marked by its beautiful ethnic dances, such as the traditional Mukamu folk dance.
The capital of Xinjiang is Urumqi city and it is situated up in the north of the province. The city boasts several spectacular natural landscape highlights such as the Red Hill and the Southern Pasture, along with historical monuments like the Tartar Mosque and the Qinghai Mosque. Urumqi was a stopover along the ancient Silk Road, a historically important trade route between China and the Mediterranean, which extended as far as Rome, in Italy. Some other notable cities along the Silk Road include Kashgar and Turpan, that boast other places of interest like the Id Kah Mosque, Karakuri Lake and Karez System.
Golok, Amdo, Tibet Autonomous Region, China
Rinpoche’s father Lobsang Gyatso is from Golok. The Golok Tibet Autonomous Prefecture is part of, what is today, the southeastern Qinghai province. To the Tibetans, much of Qinghai is in Amdo, one of the largest traditional regions of Tibet.
Amdo is the ancestral home of many important Tibetan Buddhist lamas and scholars that shaped the political and religious development in Tibet like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama, and the great reformer and founder of the Gelug lineage, Lama Je Tsongkhapa. In Golok Prefecture of Amdo, over 90 percent of the 125,000 people who live there are of Tibetan ethnicity. A great majority of the people of Golok live a nomadic lifestyle with many still living in traditional Tibetan tents.
Over 8 million ethnic Tibetan people speak the Tibetan language and its dialects. Tibetans traditionally inhabit a wide area of the eastern region of Central Asia, bordering the Indian subcontinent. This area stretched from the Tibetan Plateau all the way down south, to northern parts of the Indian subcontinent such as Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. The Central Tibetan language (the dialects of U-Tsang, including the Lhasa dialect), Kham Tibetan, and Amdo Tibetan are all Tibetan dialects which share a similar literary language. Tibetans generally identify themselves as followers of Tibetan Buddhism or a native animist tradition known as Bon. On the other hand, there is also a minority population of Tibetan Muslims, and a smaller population of Tibetan Christians in eastern Tibet and northwestern Yunnan, China.
Tibetan cooking reflects the people’s religious dietary restrictions and adaptation to high altitudes. In Tibet, the most important crop to be cultivated is barley. The dough made from barley flour, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibetans. This is either rolled into noodles, or made into steamed dumplings called momos. Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried, or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is also cultivated in Tibet, and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yogurt, butter and cheese are frequently consumed, and yak yogurt is considered a privileged food.
Most parts of Golok are around 4,000 meters or 13,120 feet above sea level and that is why the summers are short, and winters are long and cold. Golok is famous across the Tibetan cultural sphere as the home of Amnye Machen, one of the four holy mountains of Tibet. The Amnye Machen peak rises 6,282 meters or 20,605 feet and is the highest mountain in Amdo. Each year, the Amnye Machen peak draws thousands of pilgrims who circumambulate around the mountain, as part of their religious practice. The circumambulation circuit around the sacred peak takes around seven days.
There is another famous and holy mountain in Golok, known as Nyenbo Yurtse. The sacred Nyenbo Yurtse is situated in the remote eastern corner of Golok prefecture and is stands at 5,369 meters or 17,611 feet tall. This mountain receives very little visitors, such as foreign trekkers, but is one of the most beautiful places in all of the northern Tibetan Plateau. At the base of the mountain, there is a deep fresh-water lake, and several regional tributaries feed this beautiful lake. The Golok prefecture is filled with grasslands, valleys, rivers and lakes. The famous Yellow River flows through Golok prefecture while carving a spectacular and awe-inspiring canyon in its wake.
Many of the descendants of Rinpoche’s paternal family currently live in Aba, which is the neighbouring land of their ancestral homeland, Golok. Aba, which is also known as Ngaba (as in the map below) or Ngawa County is part of Sichuan Province in China, while Golok itself is part of Qinghai province. Nevertheless, Aba is located in the remote northwestern part of the prefecture, on the border with Qinghai and Gansu. Aba has 70,000 inhabitants, about 8,000 of them Tibetan monks. The major city of the county, known as Aba City, has about 20,000 people. There are 37 monasteries in the area, two of the largest are in Aba City itself. To the south of the city it is mainly grasslands and forested valleys.
For more interesting information:
- H.E. the 25th Tsem Tulku Rinpoche’s Biography
- The Mala
- I Like This Picture of My Mother
- My Short Bio in pictures
- Sonia, Sara and me
- My Great Aunt the Princess
- My Father’s gift of Vajra Yogini
- My Royal Great Aunt
- My Father
- My Mother
- My Uncle
- My Grandmother
- My Grandfather the Ruler of Xinjiang
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