The owner of the Songtsam Retreat is Baima 白玛多吉. His father is Han Chinese and mother is Tibetan. 

My family had the honour to be invited to his house one day for tea. We gathered around the fireplace inside his house to keep warm. It was a traditional wood burning fireplace with a stovetop. He added some wood and stoked the fire. Then placed a kettle of water on top of the fireplace. While we waited for the water to boil, we listened to his story.   

Baima has rather handsome features with a sharp nose and high cheekbones. Like all Tibetans, his skin is brown because of greater exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays at high altitude. The sun’s rays can age the skin very quickly. A lot of the older Tibetans have wrinkled and dark skin. They may look older than their age.  

Baima standing and making a speech during lunch at the hotel

He shared his story of how he started the hotel. Baima told us that he used to be a veterinarian. One day, he was talent scouted and ended up in Beijing city filming documentaries for China Central Television 中国中央电视台, a state owned broadcaster. He was doing well in the media industry but felt something amiss.  

Baima paused and poured a cup of tea for us. 

He continued saying that he was searching for his self-worth and meaning in life and found inspiration from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and a French woman’s journal about Shangri-La. 

In the journal, the French woman wrote that she travelled to Tibet several times. This was a remarkable feat in those times when Tibet was closed to the outside world. She was accompanied by Tibetan monks and on one of her journeys, she saw a village at the foot of the mountain. She told the monks what she saw and asked them to take her there. The monks were surprised and explained that there is no village in the region. The lady did not believe them as she could see the village clearly with her own eyes. They started the treacherous descent down the mountain towards the “village” that she saw. The lower they went, the steeper it was, and the harder it was for them to move on. Halfway through, she fell very ill and the monks looked after her patiently. 

Finally, they made it to the bottom of the mountain. It was a valley with vast open grassland. There was no quaint village or human beings in sight, just like what the monks said. Was it an illusion she saw at the top of the mountains? 

We drank our cup of tea and pondered over the story. I looked at the fire burning brightly in the fireplace and my eyes traced the chimney to the top. Smoke was billowing out of the chimney. Something caught my eye and I was astonished to see a pig’s head hanging from the ceiling. It was black and darkened from the smoke. 

Baima saw me staring at the pig’s head and chuckled. He explained that this is the way they would smoke their meat and the pig’s head would be kept and eaten at grand occasions like the New Year. 

After a sip of tea, he continued with his story. He said that he thought long and hard and felt that his self worth can be found when he is of help to others. He realised that people living in the cities feel empty. Thus he started the hotel to provide an oasis for people living in the cities to take time off their busy lives and retreat into. A quiet and safe haven for people to reflect and relax. A “Shangri-La” in a way. 

He wanted the hotel to be named 白象, but could not use the name because when translated into English, it is “white elephant”. White elephant does not have a good meaning in English. According to folklore, elephants used to be white but they turned black because they rolled in mud and became dirty. It has a symbolic meaning about the purity of the core and buddha nature being inherent in people. They just need to be cleansed of all the dirt covered on the outside. 

We finished the tea and thanked Baima. Baima’s father gave me a jade bangle wrapped in crimson red paper. On the paper, he wrote a small note for me in Chinese calligraphy.

Baima’s father on the right

I do not quite understand what he wrote so I’m not sure how to translate this into English. But if I understand correctly, what he is trying to say is that it is 缘分 (yuan fen) – a rare chance ; destiny or fate if you may, that we have met in this particular time and space. Actually, the word “fate” may not be a sufficient translation for the concept of yuan fen 缘分. According to Wikipedia, yuan fen means “affinity occasion” or “synchronicity”. Yuan fen includes the probability of meeting someone at any given time and place. The chances of me meeting Baima and their family is such a rare probability. There are many factors that came into play for us to be able to meet. That moment, that exact time, will never happen again. Similar to the Japanese idiom of ichi go ichi e  .

Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation. For a chance meeting with somebody to occur in this life, it may have been the result of your karma from previous lives.

Anyway, if anyone is able to translate the letter, feel free to comment below!

*By the way, I didn’t take any photos while I was inside Baima’s house so I don’t have any photos of the pig’s head.


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