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Here are some of my favorite photos from my trip to Tibet, part of China. Click any photo to see the slideshow.
We arrived by train to Lanzhou and took a bus for eight hours to Xiahe. Along the way we passed a marker showing the former border with old Tibet. Today within China, there is a Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes Lhasa and the Himalyan mountains and western Tibet. But the old Tibet was much larger. Today the Tibetan Plains lie within Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
At 2,900 meters above sea level, the air here is thin. The Tibetan women grab two of our packs at a time and run up the stairs while we huff and puff all the way. We are at altitude and many of us suffer from headache, fatigue, breathlessness and dizziness. We drink a minimum of three liters of water per day.
We visit the Labrang Monastery first built in 1709. At its height 4,000 monks lived here. Labrang is one of six Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) Sect monasteries and the largest and most important outside of Lhasa. Today there are 2,000 monks and the head monk ranks third in importance behind the Dali Lama and Panchen Lama. He is the Jiemuyang.
In addition to visiting the various temples and meditation halls and admiring the many Buddhas including the mammoth statue of Sakimonia, I sat in the monastery square by myself on a stone in the shade of some upright wooden timbers. Local peple came and sat beside me and said hello. Groups of monks with shaved heads and maroon and yellow robes stared at me as they walked by.
We are asked to avoid Sky Burial sites while hiking in the mountains. Upon death, the body is cut into pieces and placed in high mountain areas. The buzzards and other large birds take the flsh to the sky.
From Xiahe, we drive by bus another five hours to Langmusi. We are deep into old Tibet and off the typical tourist path. The main street is dirt. Streams of water flow downhill. There is no boundary between the monastery and the town. The Rain Chen Hotel is cold. Because it is Spring, they don’t turn on the heat. Hot water comes on briefly in the evening for a couple of hours. There is plenty of hot water in Thermoses. The fourth floor restaurant has a great view of the surrounding mountains.
There are two monasteries; we visit the southern one, Kirti Gompa. The two monasteries house 1,200 monks. We see a relic of the Lama; he is said to have died in a mummified state. We gawk at this face enshrined behind glass. The current incarnation of this same Lama moved to India and founded Dharamsala.We are the only tourists. Curious senior monks in large yellow hats stare at us. We are lucky not to be among their charges. They carry large staffs with which they are said to beat students who fall behind in their sutras.
The monastery was founded in 1413 by Dacheng Lama Kerti Gompa. There are about one hundred monks focused on academic progress in astrology, medicine, Tibetan language as well as theology. We walk into the mountains above the monastery. We pass the fairy cave. Langmusi means “fairy monastery.” Inside the fairy cave is a well-worn and wet stalagmite. It has curative powers. So we rub our heads for our headaches, our chest for shortness of breath and look forward to a quick acclimitization.
First Yak Meat
We eat at a Muslim restaurant in Langmusi and I have my first yak meat, a yak burrito. The following day, I have sliced yak on a bowl of noodles and soup. I like the sliced yak; it tastes like buffalo: lean, chewy and somewhat gamey. At breakfast, I have yak yoghurt (actually it’s from the female of the yak) which is extremely tart and has some chunks in it like semi-soft cheese. It tastes better with honey. We also eat momos which are steamed dumplings filled with ground yak meat. Some of them are tastier than others. The less tasty ones have lumps of fat and gristle.
Train to Lhasa
The railway to Lhasa from Beijing was recently opened with considerable fanfare. Many people have an interest in riding it. Tickets are sold by reservation exclusively through Chinese tourism agencies. But tickets are unavailable. Tickets can sometimes be bought at the train station depending upon availability.The government is encouraging Chinese from overpopulated areas to resettle in Lhasa. But the Chinese families are reluctant. They want to visit their families twice a year during the holiday season. The train now gives them an economial way to do that. It is not a tourist train. If it were, prices would go up and seats would not be available to ordinary Chinese.
Night in Langmusi is miserable. My Beijing cold hangs on. I have insomnia. I drink water incessantly and go the toilet as often.
I lie in bed gasping for air. I breathe in; I breathe out. I cough. And breath again. My head aches. I breathe again.
The air is thin.
We drive four hours from Langmusi to Thankor. We are on the high plains at 3,400 meters. We stop to look at the first bend of the Yellow River.
Thankor has dirt roads. The government has rebuilt the downtown using typical brick buildings with Tibetan-syle facades.
Jam Young is our Tibetan guide. He has traveled with us for several days. He is from Thankor. His brother is a monk in the local monastery. We pick him up on our way.
We stop in a restaurant. There is no menu; the options are momos with yak or vegetables and noodles with yak or vegetables.
Men and women from the village take turns peering in the front window of the restaurant. They have seen Chinese tourists, but never white Westerners. One woman stands in the doorway, neither in nor out. She stares at us one by one. There are dozens of Honda dirt bikes. Men in traditional Tibetan dress ride up and down the street on horses and motorcycles.
We visit the local grammar school and are surrounded by hordes of children. We say Hello in Tibetan. They say, Hello, How are you? Their English teacher has taught them well. Very young boys run up to me, touch my pants leg and run away. The English teacher joins us on the bus; he is a well-known Tibetan singer and will perform for us in the evening. We now have a monk, a singer, a Tibetan guide and two Chinese drivers in addition to the thirteen of us.
Homestay — Flying Momos
Thankor is small. From there we drive west out of town. Our bus is almost full. The road is rough and very bumpy. We cross streams, pass dwellings of river rock surrounded by walls made of sod. We are on the plains. Distant mountain ranges with snow-capped peaks surround us. Yaks are everywhere. They are eating grass and walking around. Earlier in the day, I approached a group of yaks to take their photos. Despite their large size and horns, they are timid and run like sheep.
After about half an hour, our bus bumbed off the road twoard a dwelling. Our hostess greets us. She is in traditional Tibetan garb. Her black hair is braided. Her cheeks are rosy. Her straight, white teeth sparkle. She has a skirt on with her jacket rolled up and tied around her waist. She has several necklaces, amulets and large earrings.
The guides, monk and teacher/singer all exchange hugs with our hostess. This is the winter house. There are two rooms. A sod wall surrounds the house to break the wind and create a boundary for the animals. Young dogs run up and knip at our feet. Yaks surround us in the distance, mucnching away. Because her two-room house is small, we leave our backpacks on the bus. The drivers will sleep on the bus, so they are secure. We take sleeping bags and water inside.
Because the English teacher needs to return to Thankor village, he will sing while our hostess prepares dinner. His English is good; he plays the Tibetan guitar and the Western six string. His songs are sad. Without being political, he mourns the changes in Tibet while admiring the beauty of the country and its people.
Our hostess shovels dry Yahk dung into the stove. Ite seems like a good fuel, not too smoky, a moderate, coal-like temperature. However, she must replenish frequently, maybe every 15 minutes.
She has already prepared momos, both Yak and vegetable. She boils them in a deep pan. Then she stir-frys vegetables in an enormous wok. She adds oil and spices and salt. She adds water and while it is heating to a boil, she prepares the noodles. She flattens the dough and then takes long strings of it and stretches them using her fingers to cut them in more slender strings. Then she rapidly plucks off pieces of noodle about 1 inch x 1 inch and puts them in the pot. The menu is identical to our lunch at the restaurant. Momos, noodles, yak, vegetables — typical evryday food.
Her dishes are better than the restaurants. Her noodle stew is more flavorful and not quite as salty. Having just eaten lucnh at two, we are not particularly hungry. The food is filling. We have yak butter tea and sampa. Sampa is yak butter, barley flour and sugar combined.
After dinner, Grandma returns home. she has been herding yaks. When she sees the large plate of momos, she decides her guests are being shy. Initially, she puts the plate in front of each person until he or she takes one. When we say we are full, she becomes more insistent and while laughing throws them across the room. We are all laughing, catching momos and eating them. Nothing like cold, fatty yak dumplings for desert.
We spread our mats and put out our sleeping bags. She provides us with enormous quilt blankets. With the thirteen mats on the floors of the two small rooms, there is little room for a path to the outside. I brush my teeth under the Tibetan stars while watching Yak silhouttes on the horizon and listen to the sound of the animals. During the night, I get up to use the “toilet.” I am met by a male yak calf that is practicing head butting manuvers. I shoo him off and he leaves me alone.
We have a good nights sleep; it’s warmer than the hotel. In the morning we have tea, bread and warmed-up noodle stew. Then we take photos and we are off in the bus. Grandma climbs up on the roof and waves to us until we are out of sight.
Grasslands to Chengdu
We had a long and bumby descent from Thankor to Chengdu. We drove for five hours the first day and another seven hours the next. We descended from about 3400 meters to roughly sea level. We followed a gorge of the Ganka River that was full f construction. They were building dams, power plants, roads and bridges. We spent a short night at a hotel in Gou ErGou. They had hot water. The gorge had steep mountain walls. The river and surrounding mountain walls are so tornup, I think it will take at least twenty years for nature to begin to restore the area. I hope they have a plan for restoring the habitat.
On Plane to Lhasa
After spending time in the Tibetan Plateau and Grasslands, I look forward to visiting Lhasa. Even in the hinderlands, posters of Lhasa and, of course, photos of the Dalai Lama, all point to the importance of the capital city. Having spent time at altitude (around 3,300 meters) and suffered from its effects, I am somewhat apprehensive about going even higher (3,683 meters). Chengdu is only a little above sea level. I enjoyed my first really good sleep in a week (even with a 5 a.m. alarm).
From the airplane window, I can see enormous snow-capped Himalayan peaks in between the clouds. My first glimpse of the Himalayas! The top of the peaks are covered with snow, but the snow gives way quickly to clean shaven rock cliffs.
We have been moving every single day this week (Monday to Friday) including our very basic night at the Homestay in Thankor. The hotel last night was warm, had hot water at all hours, a good bed, Western bathroom and good green tea, to boot. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to five nights in Lhasa. With a little luck, I will acclimatize quickly, get some rest, see the sites and be prepared for our final push to Everest.
Lhasa is the holy capital of Tibet. Its original fame was in the 7th Century when Songtsen Gampo moved the capital here. In the 17th Century, it had a renaissance under the Fifth Dalai Lama. It is now the political capital of the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region).
I was told the total population is about 600,000 with about 200,000 Tibetans. There is a distinct Tibetan neighborhood. Lhasa is at 3,683 meters which is over 11,000 feet. We spent lot of time acclimatizing and walking around neighborhoods.
Tibetans pronounce Potala with a hard accent on the first syllable. Since the 17th Century, it has been the home of the Dalai Lama. The building is divided into the Red and White Palaces. The Red was the winter residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959. The White was the offices of the government. Although the Dalai Lama is of the Yellow Hat sect, he was long recognized as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet.
The palace has 1,000 rooms. The building is 13 sories high and will leave you breathless (literally). The White Building is now closed, but we were lucky to tour the Red (tickets are hard to come by). The building contains an enormous number of cultural items and relics. Several of the Dalai Lamas are buried here in Burial Stupas. The stupas are adorned with gold and precious stones in great weight, size and quality. The view from the top is wonderful.
Hundreds of pilgrims walk the “coura” all hours of the day. They walk clock-wise carrying prayer wheels and prayer beads. Frequently they chant as they walk.
The Jokhang Temple is centered in Old Lhasa and was buit in 647 A.D. during the time of Strontsan Gampo. King Songsten Gampo had three wives from India, Nepal and China. As we enterered the temple, I marveled at the doors and door jams. The wood is original. So are the wooden pillars and beams.
As we were looking at some statues learning about he Buddha of Compassion, a policeman rushed in and grestured for us to move aside. Hundreds of pilgrims streamed in a frenzied array. We were pushed toward one of the back temples. From my viewpoint, I could see the line of pilgrims making their offerings. Other pilgrims were prostrating at my feet (and on my feet). Our guide explained this particular temple, the Jowo Sakyamuni, was opened infrequently and some people had been waiting for weeks.
The temple is unique in that it includes Buddhas of all four Tibetan sects and is recognized by all Tibetans.
The temple served as an army barracks during the Cutural Revolution and was not destroyed.
Barkhor is the Tibetan neighborhood. Our hotel was in the Barkhor. When we stepped outside our hotel we were in the middle of a market. Merchants had shops and stalls on both sides of the street. People, carts, bicycles and mtorcycles swirled back and forth. Loudspeakers advertised street vendors’ wares. The raucous sound of bartering filled the air. A group of sanitation ladies constantly swept the streets. I could smell dust, incense, aging meat, fresh produce and cooking food.
We spent many hours walking around and looking.
Lhasa to Senjie
Four “Jeeps” showed up in front of our hotel at 8:30 a.m. The thirteen of us plus the four drivers and a local guide get into them and head off. We travel about five hours or 215 kilometers up into the mountains.
For much of the route, we followed the Yellow River.
The landscape is remote, but we feel like we are traveling in style. The driver wears a brown sport jacket and matching brown gloves. We are in the Jeep with the guide. He talks to us and tells us about the sites we are seeing.
Any SUV is called a “jeep.”
We’re travelling in four Jeeps. We can see the Samye monastery on the other side of the river as we head upstream and cross the bridge. Some pilgrims take a small boat across the river. The terrain is different: sand dunes. The Chinese are said to have harvested all the trees. Now there are short trees in long rows, trying to root into the sand. We stopped at the top of a lookout for photos. Prayer flags were blowing in the wind. A bus of tourists were standing around taking photos and bartering with the vendors. Suddenly, their tour director tells them to quickly get in the bus and they leave. Our tour directors says, “We don’t have reservations at the monastery; they don’t take any. If we don’t get there before they do, we may not have a place to sleep. We are in the lead Jeep. The bus has a half-mile head start, but we gain rapidly on them with the Toyoto Land Cruiser. The bus is swerving back and forth across the road trying to block us, but we overtake it. Dawn and I clap and applaud the driver. He laughs.
We make it first to the monastery. The guesthouse is already full. But our our director gets two large rooms. The room for the men is typically reserved for visiting lamas and has good vibes, Tibet quotations, colorfully painted furniture, photos of spiritual places and portraits of lamas.
Samye Monastery was built in the 8th century by King Trison Detsen. The layout of the monastery grounds is shaped after the Buddhist conception of the universe. We climbed a small hill on the edge of the monastery and could see the layout. There were photogenic yaks within the monastery grounds.
Gyantse (3,950 meters)
We back-track toward Lhasa from Samye to pick up the road to Gyantse. The drive was about ten hours. We had some trouble at a police checkpoint and were delayed an additional hour. On the way, we climbed our first really high pass, the Kamba La at 4,794 meters (about 14,400). We could see snow-capped peaks in the distance. Prayer flags and cotas blew in the wind. Eventually, we came to a huge lake, the holy Lake Yamduck. The Dalai Lama requested no fishing in the lake because is is a holy lake. But the Chinese now are reportedly fishing in the lake. At certain times of the year, pilgrims walk around the lake; it takes several days (unless you are prostrating at each step–then it takes weeks).
We got into a construction zone. Everywhere in China they are building roads, bridges and hydroelectric plants. The local farmers were living in tents and putting up stone walls for the roads, culverts and small dams and jack-hammering their way through hard rock walls. Reportedly, they are paid 10-15 yuan per day. Their counterparts from Chengdu are paid 100 plus yuan per day.
We passed a huge glacier at 5,020 meters. It had a name like Garalong. But someone called it Snowland. There was a huge stupa in front of the glacier and several locals wanting their photographs taken for a modeling fee.
We passed farmers attempting to grow crops in this high, arid climate. They used irrigation ditches. Then we passed a reservoir filling up, a dam, and a hydroelectric plant under construction. I learned a village was moving because it would soon be underwater.
We visited Pelkor Chode in Gyantse. Built in 1427, it has a classic shape of six floors with each higher floor smaller than the lower so it forms a triangle or cone. They had a photography fee, meaning I could take photos. Most temples do not allow indoor photography. Reportedly, the government is encouraging the temples to allow photography to foster tourism. The older monks are appalled by the notion. Some of the younger monks see it as a way of furthering their cause. In any event, I got some good photos (no tripod or flash allowed). From the top of the temple is a good view of the city and old fort.
Shigatse (3,900 meters)
We had a short drive from Gyantse to Shigatse. After Lhasa, Shigatse is the most important Tibetan city because it is the seat of the Penchant Lama, generally regarded as equal to the Dalai Lama spiritually and second politically. We visited Ta Shi Lhun Po Monastery and walked the kora around the monastery’s walls. The monastery is Gelukpa or Yellow Hat Sect and was founded in 1447 by Gedun Drupa, the first Dalai Lama. There are many stupas and burial stupas. The burial stupa of the 4th Panchen Lama contains more than 85 kg of gold and many large jewels. It also contains the highest sitting Maitreya Buddha Statue in the world (it’s big). At one time 4,000 monks lived here, but today there are about 600.
D.L., P.L. and Intrigue
As an enlightened one, the Dalai Lama (D.L.) returns to earth out of compassion for human beings. He choses the time and place of his birth. The same D.L. reincarnates time and time again. The D.L. works hand-in-hand with the Penchant Lama (P.L.). When the time comes for the D.L. to leave earth and his body, he communicates with the P.L. The D.L. leaves his body and there is a known period of time for the D.L. to be in “heaven,” choose his parents, be conceived, born and grow to childhood. After the “death” of the D.L., the P.L. waits several years and then begins to search in the geographical area previously confided by the D.L. When the boy is found, the P.L. administers a series of tests to ascertain that the young child is indeed the reincarnated D.L. The boy D.L. is then taken to Lhasa and raised in the monastery under the tuttleage of the P.L.
When the P.L. leaves his body, the D.L. waits a period of time and then selects a new P.L. and the cycle begins again.
The current intrigue is that the 10th P.L. died in 1989. The D.L., in exile selected a six-year old boy, Gedun Choekyi Nyima in 1995. However, upon the announcement, the boy and his family disappeared. Tibetans believe the boy is either dead or under house arrest in Beijing. In any event, he has disappeared.
The government subsequently announced a new P.L., a more appropriate one. The photo of the government appointed P.L. appears in the temples as the next in line P.L. Since then, the D.L. has announced he will not reincarnate in occupied Tibet.
Presumbaly, once the current D.L. in exile “dies,” the government appointed P.L. will find the new D.L. in Tibet. Because the current D.L. has only appointed one P.L., it remains uncertain if a new D.L. will be found.
Sakya (4,280 meters)
We drove about four hours by Jeep from Shigatse to Sakya. Sakya is the name of the town, monastery and sect. They are not Yellow Hat Sect; I spied several monks with Red Hats. The hotel had western toilets and hot water at night. Although there was no heat, they did have heating pads. At almost 13,000 feet, any comforts were welcome.
The north part of the monastery was first built in 1073. The south part was built in 1268. Much of the monastery is under reconstruction. We entered a very large hall where about 100 Tibetans were singing as they worked. They were renovating the floor. They also kind of line dance and use a tool to pound the floor. The tool is a staff about as tall as a person with a flat, circular weight attached to the bottom.
We entered a large hall. It had 24 pillars (8 x 3). The pillars were each the trunk of a tree. This area of Tibet does not have trees (it has sand and rocks with some runoff water). The trees had been carried from Nepal or India. They were large, magnificent and about three stories tall. They were wider than two people could reach around. The hall contained a large library of scripture. Reportedly, all the original Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures are now lost. However, when the Tibetan language was codified, the scriptures were translated into Tibetan. These scriptures are believed to be the closest to the originals. The monastery is building a school and developing as a scholastic center.
The town dos not get many tourists. Every young child we met said, “Hello, how are you?” The tea houses play DVDs. After school, the children line up outside and peer in through the windows.
The monastery also had a large gold and precious stone stupa. The lama of the Sakya Sect has moved to America, but the monks did not know what city.
Mt. Everest Base Camp (4,980 and 5,200 meters)
A long nine hour drive took us from Sakya to Rhongphu, the monastery at the Tibetan Everest Base Camp. We went over the Gyatso Pass at 5,252 meters. We had our first glimpse of Qoomolangma, as the locals call Everest. Everest, at 8,848, is the world’s highest mountain and reportedly, continues to grow each year. It was a long and bumpy ride in our 4WD vehicles. It took a lot of work to create a rough road that would not wash out each season.
When we arrived at Rhongbuk Monastery guest house, it was late afternoon. Although there were some clouds on Everest, it was mostly sunny. We sat on a field of boulders and marveled at the sight before us. True to its reputation, Everest is massive and awesome. We took turns taking photographs of each other in front of Everest. A complying yak kept in position to take his photo in front of Everest. Eventually, the cloud at the very top blew over for about ten minutes.
Several people mentioned visiting the monastery but everyone agreed they were “Buddha’d out.” The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. We retreated to the guesthouse which was warmed by a yak dung stove. Dinner was simple Tibetan fare (but no yak!). We retired to our rooms four at a time.
I awoke early in the morning to commune with nature and was suprised that I could not see stars and that it was relatively warm. We awoke in the morning to snow. It was cold, windy, wet and dark. After a pancake breakfast, we bundled up for our hike. Base camp was eight kilometers from the guesthouse, about a two-hour hike. The elevation would change from 4,980 to 5,200 meters. At 15,000 feet we were at an altitude above any mountain peak in Colorado.
I had every layer on: T-shirt, Thermax shirt, fleece, down sweater, and rain jacket. Long johns and trekking pants. Glove liners and socks on my hands. And, my brand new Chinese worker’s hat with the synthetic fur flaps in the army green. Despite sitting in yak dung smoke and drinking hot jasmine tea, I was somewhere between cold and chilly as we started out.
Walking was difficult. Or, I should say breathing while walking was difficult. Typically, I walk briskly. But, I realized a slow and deliberate walk was required. I tried not to stop, but I frequently decreased my slow walk to an even slower one.
Eventually, we came to the midpoint where vendors sell souvenirs, tea and trinkets. There are horse carts there also if you don’t want to walk. I was warming up and breathing more easily. I took off my down sweater for a while. The last part was a steady uphill. We went around a bend and there before us was base camp. Dozens of yaks were saddled up as beasts of burden. Dozens of tents in various colors were segregated by trekking company. The permit office was before us, and a knoll of a hill. There, too, was a new cordoned off Chinese army installation.
We went in front of the permit office and took photos by the plaque. Permits to approach Everest are $10,000 U.S. per person. The fine for crossing the line without a permit is $200 U.S. We climbed the hill to the last point we were permitted. On the plain below us were a half-dozen expedition tent sites. The day before, we met a Serbian team. Two Serbs have summited Everest, but this is the first all Serb team. Later, we met a U.K. team. They had climbed Acancaugua near Santiago, Chile, the tallest mountain n the Americas. Now, they were climbing two sub-peaks of Everest. We also met a Nepali who was climbing with two friends and several sherpas.
In additon to the expedition teams, there was yet another Chinese military installation and an armored vehicle. Later, we would learn that a “Free Tibet” protest had been held at base camp by several Americans. The new military presence was apparently designed to thwart any future protest activities. Within China and until today, we have no additional information other than a protest occurrred. Several Tibetans told us they like Americans because they protested.
We ate our Power Bars and Dove chocolate bar. They were frozen solid. My down jacket was back on and it was snowing again. The clouds hung stubbornly like a white curtain in front of Everest. Occasionally, the curtain ruffled and we could see rock, snow or glacier. But we never saw Everest that day. Base camp is still a long way from the actual mountain. We returned to our monastery, talking with climbers as we walked. The climbers were acclimating and taking conditioning walks as they waited for their bodies to adjust and their turn to try Everest. Later, we would learn that although it was May, not a single team had summited. Two sherpas had and a lone climber.
When we returned to the monastery, we packed up and headed off in our Jeeps.
Our fellow travelers call a flashlight a torch. But the best line is, “I get puffed going to the loo.” It was said at altitude and means, just getting up from bed to go the bathroom leaves one breathless.
Tingri (4,500 meters)
We had a very rough ride to Tingri. We were holding on with at least one hand most of the time. We forded numerous rivers and drove kilometers without seeing a single yak, nomad or sheep. Desolate territory. The Tingri Guesthouse had a hot, communal shower. With sunset, the clouds parted and in the distance we saw several 8,000 meter plus peaks including Everest and 8,201 meter Cho Ogu.
We drove most of the day about six hours from Tingri to the border town of Zhangmu. On the way we drove over two high passes over 5,000 meters. At the last one, our guide said, Good-bye, Tibet. The wind was blowing hard; we had our hats, gloves and down jackets on. Before us was an array of mountain peaks covered with clouds. There were several automatic prayer wheels, meaning the prayer wheels had been equipped with fins or cups so they rotated by themselves in the wind. The top of the pass was strung with the now familiar prayer flags, cotas and related colorful debris. Beyond the mountains was a valley. The wind and clouds blew up from the valley.
Good-bye, Tibet. We drove into the valley and descended at a rapid pace. The dry rock, sand and stone gave way to vegetation and water. We began to see birds. Farmers had green crops growing on their plots. There was the never ending road construction, but now there was heavy equipment.
We plummeted furter and it began to rain, a slow drizzle. I could feel my sinuses relax as they soaked in the humidity. The road followed a deep gorge. Mist and fog covered verdant, green peaks. Eventually we made it to Zhangmu, a small border town clinging to the side of the cliff.
We stayed at a guesthouse. In the morning, we had breakfast and got in line to go through Chinese customs. Our Jeep drivers took us as far as they could. We hiked the remaining 5 kilometers into Nepal.
Act of Non-Violence
The Dalai Lama, for spiritual reasons is opposed to violence. For this reason, there is no active guerilla movement within Tibet against the Chinese.
Tibetans have long used skins and fur as clothing. It is part of their nomadic heritage. Recently, the Dalai Lama asked that as a sign of non-violence to animals, Tibetans, not use skin and furs as clothing.
All over Tibet, Tibetans burned their skins and fur.
on Tibetan Buddhism
Having visited many monasteries, observed many religious practices, and spoken to a handful of people about Tibetan Buddhism, I come away somewhat disillusioned. I admire Tibetans for their commitment to the Dalai Lama, their belief in his reincarnation and their practice of the ethical tachings of Buddha. Their dedication is immense.
I am dismayed by the focus on rites and rituals, apparent blind religious fervor and lack of commitment to meditation.
The prayer wheel and ultimately, the automatic prayer wheel, highlight my concern. The original Buddha meditated for six years and then started his mission. The teachings of the Buddha and lamas are recorded in Tibetan on parchment know as sutras. The monks read and chant these sutras, presumably for knowledge and inspiration. However, most people are illiterate. Some of them memorize and recite short passages from the sutras. But most, have a written prayer placed inside a prayer wheel. They spin the prayer wheel (clockwise direction only) and believe by spinning it they will attain enlightenment. Some prayer wheels are designed with fins so they spin in the breeze, presumable bestowing benefits to their owners.
Everywhere in Tibet, there are prayer flags, monasteries, temples, prostraters, portraits of the lamas, images and posters of temples and signs of religion. When we were in The Jokhang in Lhasa, we witnessed a mob scene seething to worship a statue.
Prior to Buddhism, Tibetans practiced the Bon religion, a type of Shaminism. Many of these practices have carried over to Tibetan Buddhism.
When I inquired about meditation, I got incomplete responses. The monks apparently spend considerable time chanting sutras, but not meditating. The people spin prayer wheels. Once I was told, to find enlightenment, I must do good works and hope for a better reincarnation in the next life. Some told me that at the higher levels, the lamas have secret mantras and some meditate on these mantras. I had hoped that, like a western church, there would be numerous opportunities to sit in a quiet place in a holy environment with other seekers and meditate. But I did not find that.
As a tourist, Tibetan Buddhism is a wonderful curiousity. Seeing the temples, Buddhas, and sutras and witnessing the religious acts is fascinating. But I did not feel I was a participant nor did I gain in spiritual understanding. Reportedly, the Chinese government is rebuilding the monasteries to serve as tourist attractions. I guess that worked on me.
As economic progress and education continue, as the impact of western fashion, culture, and thinking impact the younger generation, I think the religious fervor and commitment will decline.
I think Tibetans should have every opportunity for self-determination. They seem happy and commited to their way of life. Having said this, their life was and is–by my perspective, a tough life. Tibetan nomads spend their days in manual labor. Sanitation and hygiene are poor. Education is lacking. Many are isolated. The visit to the School for the Blind revealed that the blind are regarded as being punished for misdeeds in previous lives. One blind boy was told he probably was a murderer in his past life. Ignorance and superstition cause poverty and inequity. I cannot say the Chinese were right to “liberate” Tibet. But having done so, they are bringing welcome changes, if only out of their own self-interests.
Himalaya Top 10
I am somewhere off the coast of Greenland as I write this. Our B-777 left Delhi about midnight; it’s now 11:30 a.m. Delhi time. We have about 2 1/2 hours more flying time to Newark. I arrive in Charleston about 30 hours after leaving Delhi. It was a great trip; the Top Ten are:
Everest Base Camp in Tibet
homestay with Tibetan nomads
pilgrim stempede in Jokhang Temple
Tianamen Square and Beijing