*** SEEKING NIRVANA AT 16,000FT
It was only a month after my last trip to China and Mongolia that I took my next trip to Asia. Tibet has always been on my list of places to go, partially because of growing up in a family that placed value on meditation and traditionally “Eastern” religion, partially because it holds a sense of mystery that few people have been able to experience first hand. Ultimately, I wanted to find the answer to the age-old question of “if a man says something, and a woman is not around to hear it, is it still wrong?” and the proverbial sound of one hand clapping. (Note: I don’t have either of these answers, so if you’re looking for them, you may want to seek the Inner Truth before planning a trip to Tibet for this purpose)
It was in the spring of 2007 that I was reading an article in National Geographic Adventure magazine about various guided trips around the world. In a section that was supposedly dedicated to 30-somethings (which I am now smack in the middle of), was a description of a tour led by a Tibetan that would bring you close to the real people of Tibet. Given reality, it seemed like this would be the best way to see the country. After my last experience in China, being led from one state-sponsored attraction to the next, I made the leap of faith that Tenzin and his travel company were the best option. It wasn’t until I got there that I understand why that leap was so important to take.
A Hop, Skip, and a Jump
Getting to Tibet requires a couple of stops, and a long time on an airplane. Flying first from LAX to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific (a very good Hong-Kong-based airline) for 11 hours, I was lucky enough to get an entire 3-seat row to myself. Being able to lie down and sleep was key. When I arrived in Hong Kong’s clean, modern airport, I had about 6 hours of sleep behind me. The next flight to Chengdu, in eastern China, took a couple hours on another Hong Kong airline, Dragonair. …..
Working in Hong Kong airport en route – very un-zen-like of me
Clearing customs in Chengdu (remembering my visa this time), I walked out to the waiting crowd and happily saw a Tibetan man holding a sign I recognized. Thankfully, it was Tenzin, and his minivan was waiting outside. Getting off an airplane when you first arrive in a foreign, unfamiliar country is one of those experiences you can’t really explain until you’ve experienced the trepidation behind the “what if no one is here to greet me” line of thinking. Tenzin’s soft-spoken, confident presence put my mind at ease – I was in the care of the man who would lead us through the next three weeks, and his knowledge of English, Chinese, and Tibetan would take us everywhere we needed to go.
Tenzin, on the left, our guide through Tibet
Tenzin is a native Tibetan who grew up in the eastern region of Tibet. At the age of 16, he found himself a job driving trucks for a local delivery company and was exposed to the rest of his native land (something many Tibetans didn’t have the opportunity to do). He also realized at a young age that to be successful, he would have to go to school. So at the age of 21, he left Tibet and went with two of his cousins to India. After a couple of harrowing close calls (including run-ins with Nepali police and freezing temperatures summiting a ridge near Mt Everest), they made it to a school, where he would spend the next 9 years of his life learning (he says he is the oldest first-grader he’s ever met). After that, he made his way to schools in London and Michigan, even acting (he was in the movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow). He now lives in Washington DC and spends his summers leading tours to his native land. Of his three annual tours, I was on the yoga tour, which focused more on exploration of Buddhism and religious sites.
One of my first official activities in China (that’ll teach ‘em about the value of intellectual property!)
A break from the craziness of Chengdu
We had dinner that night at the hotel and had a chance to sit around the table and introduce each other. Our yoga instructor was Daniel Hickman, who owns a yoga school in Washington DC and http://www.silkroadyoga.com/. At 37, Daniel is one of those people that you meet that you immediately feel comfortable being around. He’s honest, trustworthy, straightforward, and confident, with a sharp sense of humor. He teaches a balanced approach to yoga that combines the reality of life and the idealism of yoga’s dharma. The other yoga instructor, Jen, had a similar warm feeling about her – the kind of person you could trust as an instructor and for an enlightened perspective on the significance of what we were experiencing. Bud, from North Carolina, works in China facilitating the importation of fire-retardant beds and mattresses. His unassuming nature, combined with his slow Southern drawl could mistakenly lead you to believe his simple nature was because of his simple mind, but far from it – his success as an entrepreneur, businessman, and engineer were serious accomplishments. Larry, a networking guru from Detroit, the oldest member of our group, at 62, was one of those funny, quirky guys that always had something totally random to say (and sometimes, he even said something funny). You had to pay attention when talking to Larry – every now and then deep pearls of wisdom would appear out of nowhere and leave you scratching your head in wonderment. The Latino couple, Lilly and Jose, from Miami were seasoned travelers. They had started, and taken to IPO, a company that worked with Neonatalogists called Pediatrix. Jose had considerable business experience and I enjoyed talking with him about politics and economics. Lilly was the first real rock star I had ever met – she was one of the founding members of the early 80’s band Expose, something we had a lot of fun with (mostly because we had to pull it out of her, since she was embarrassed about it). Daniel and I sang her big hit “The Point of No Return” to her, providing endless hours of entertainment, much to Lilly’s chagrin. The other couple, Mark (from England) and Di (an Aussie), were software developers from Newport Beach. They were a great couple, incredibly funny and positive, even in the midst of bad weather and barely enough oxygen to breathe. Mark could always be counted on for a chuckle when I made an off-color smartass comment, which happens from time to time.
Me, Daniel, Jose, Lilly, Jen, Di, Mark, Bud, and Larry after morning yoga
To the Roof of the World We Go
The following day, we flew out to Lhasa, the capitol of the Tibet. Lhasa is small city, at about 200,000 inhabitants – at least for now (it’s grown by about 10x in the last 6 years). The recent completion of a railroad connecting Lhasa to several cities in mainland China is changing that quickly.
A new sign in Lhasa with lots of planned development behind it
Lhasa airport (the airport designation is LXA, if you follow those kinds of things) sits at a very high altitude, higher than the highest airport in the US (which, incidentally, is in Leadville, Colorado). It’s about an hour drive from the airport to the city of Lhasa (it used to be two hours, before the Chinese built a 2-km-long tunnel through one of the mountain ranges between the airport and the city).
Approaching the tunnel
We stopped by a big Buddha painted on the side of a cliff, our first religious icon. This was the “Buddha of the Present”, one of many aspects of the Buddha that we ran into. There are past, present, and future Buddhas, much like the Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present/Future from Scrooged. Well, not exactly like Scrooged, but each Buddha has lessons that are imparted upon his followers. The Present Buddha has a begging bowl, which is a ubiquitous part of life in Lhasa. Apparently, since Buddha spent some time begging, it’s ok for Tibetans to take up begging as a legitimate form of income (this is in sharp contrast to the Mongolian Buddhists who look down very harshly on beggars). The cliff wall is covered with white scarves, katags, which symbolize the devotion of Buddha’s followers. The Present Buddha also has a hand reaching down to pull up souls from the 6 realms (hungry ghosts, animal, human, demon gods, hell (there are multiple hells, some hot, some cold), and heaven/bliss) to be with him in that realm of bliss (also known as Nirvana).
Buddha in the rock
Walking around the city, I got a sense that Tibet in many ways is like the American Old West. The native Tibetans, much like our native American culture, is being surrounded by a much larger…
Crowds in Lhasa circumambulating
We walked around and were acquainted with the practice of circumambulation, which is a fancy shmancy word for “walking around stuff”. Many temples and holy places have a “kora”, which is Tibetan for “a path around something”. Walking around a kora clockwise is said to be good karma and a way to bring yourself closer to enlightenment. The Tibetans will also use a different mode of motion known as “prostrating” (not to be confused with “prostating”, which gets more difficult for men over 50). This practice involves standing in a prayer, then getting down flat on the ground, and then getting up again, taking a few steps forward and repeating. A lot. Some people prostrate themselves for miles (we ran into one of those people a few days later, so more on that when we get there).
Uphill in the rain and snow both ways? Try this…
Tenzin had told us of a few unspoken rules about acting in Tibet that we needed to be aware of. Like many cultures, it’s rude to show the bottom of your feet to another person. You also can’t step over someone, as that is dirtying their soul with whatever you have been walking on. When visiting with a monk, you cannot sit on their bed unless invited to do so – the monk’s bed is considered an elevated spiritual place (ah, if I’d only known of this ploy in college). You also cannot mention the Dalai Lama – in conversation, locals refer to him as “the Big D” or “HH” (for His Holiness). There are Chinese spies everywhere, and they watch tourist groups constantly, something that took a little getting used to. We were constantly followed and having our pictures taken while we were in Lhasa, and even sometimes when we were in smaller, remote villages and monasteries.
Spies/T-shirt vendors taking a picture of us
We checked into our hotel, the New Mandala Hotel, on a busy street near the center of town. My room, on the second floor, would be my home for the next several days. Since drivers in Lhasa use their horns instead of their brakes, sleeping was a bit of a challenge, particularly the first night, when I didn’t realize there were two window panes to close to seal out the sound.
Our hotel with the windows on the busy street
We walked around Lhasa that afternoon, taking in the sights. The busy Barkhor shopping district, the pilgrims prostrating themselves to, from, or around the Jokhang Temple, the massive Chinese government buildings – Lhasa is a city of contrasts and color. We had dinner that night at a nearby restaurant. Most restaurants serve a combination of Tibetan, Nepalese, Chinese, and Indian food, with the occasional yakburger thrown in for creative Americanized choices.
Meat on the street – who needs refrigeration for their yakburgers anyway?
Big, famous yak monument – which fits in the land of everything yak
Our First Temple
The following morning, we had our first yoga practice, on the roof of the hotel. We met the sun with a kind of yoga that was similar to the kind of yoga I was used to practicing (I take classes at a gym near my house). The variety of new poses and techniques was exciting and I found myself stretching in ways I didn’t think I could. The cool morning air and the bright warm sun created an incredible environment for yoga and the meditation before and after were memorable.
Mark ponders life as the sun rises over our rooftop
After our yoga practice and breakfast, we boarded our bus (dubbed the “stinky bus” thanks to the musty smell that seemed to inhabit the seats) to the Drepung Monastery, the first of many we would see on our trip. We happened to be there during the Yogurt Festival, so-named because the monks were treated to special helpings of yak yogurt (something that smells about as bad as any diary product I think I’ve smelled). The crowds were thick, and the sun was bright and hot. Vendors on the side of the road sold balloons and burned incense while beggars begged and pilgrims prostrated their way up the hill. It was a long walk up, as the crowds of people required our bus to park a long way away from the monastery. On our walk, we passed through an area dubbed the “Picnic Area”, an area known for prostitution, and bars (all of the buildings in this area were tents).
Yes, that’s quite a picnic
Thankful for sunscreen and Tenzin’s insistence that we bring lots of water, we marched up the hill to the monastery. Along the way, an old woman was making her way up the hill in a funky wheelchair/hand-bike contraption. Apparently, the volunteer that was pushing her up the hill had given up about halfway. It seemed like the right thing to do, so I grabbed on to the back of her chair and started pushing. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, and it turned out to be quite a workout (and drew more than a few stares, as the locals watched a white guy push a Tibetan woman up the hill). I had some help from Jose and Daniel, which made the trip a little easier, too. At the top, her little wave thanks and something appreciative in Tibetan made it all worthwhile.
+10 karma points
Thanks to the Yogurt Festival, the monastery was teeming with activity. Vendors sold prayer flags and incense, and we saw Chinese and Tibetans alike walking around and taking in the sights.
Monks chanting to the beat of their drums
Selling prayer flags is a rough gig – especially without sunscreen
The 7,700 monks living in the monastery were out, walking around. In spite of the spiritual nature of the festival and being in a famous monastery, people were oftentimes pushy and rude (and not just to us). Apparently human nature, being what it is, doesn’t change the “I need to be at the front of this line” mentality during the Yogurt Festival. This was brought home when a couple of aggressive Chinese teens cut in the middle of the line and looked back at us defiantly, almost challenging anyone to say something to them (I just smiled at them, which seemed to infuriate them). It was indicative of the “choosee” mentality, and to me represented an insightful view into the Han Chinese attitude in Tibet.
The masses run to the hills to pay homage
An old man throws incense into an urn as an offering
Walking around the Drepung Monastery, we saw many icons and figures that we would see over and over again in the various monasteries, nunneries,and temples we would visit. There were the past, present, and future Buddhas, many deities and demi-gods, various enlightened leaders, and monuments (or stupas) that housed religious documents or the remains of particularly influential people. There were also paintings and statues of “taras”, spiritual beings that represent longevity (the white taras) and prosperity (the green taras, which also had eyes on their hands, feet, and foreheads).
Various incarnations and reflections of Buddha (past, present, and future)
Woman adding yak butter to fuel candles in front of an altar
Fearsome protector deities are said to help Tibetans and Buddhist followers
Video – dancers at the Drepung Monastery courtyard
We left the monastery after a few hours of walking around and made our way to a nice lunch spot that served tasty banana lassi (a sweet, yogurt drink that many Indian food places serve). Our next stop, the Jokhang Temple, was closed, so we walked around the Barkhor district. I picked up a silly cowboy-ish hat with a yak on the front of it. The side of the hat said “Tashi Delek” on it, in true Tibetan style.
I also attempted to take Tenzin to the nearby Yogurt and Motorcycle Festival, but that was closed, too. It wasn’t our day for finding open attractions, so I went back to my room and took a much-needed nap.
Tenzin and the Yoghurt Festival and Auto and Motorcycle Show
That night, we had dinner at a restaurant owned by one of Tenzin’s cousins. We had an enormous feast, which was punctuated by singing by two beautiful Tibetan women.
The Summer Palace
After a good night’s sleep, I met the rest of our crew on the roof for another inspiring yoga practice. After our hotel breakfast, we took our stinky bus over to Norbulinka, also known as the Summer Palace. The aftershocks of the Yogurt Festival kept the grounds busy most of the day. Norbulinka is a large park containing two small palaces, one built for the 8th Dalai Lama and one built for the current, the 14th, Dalai Lama in 1956. This house is the place that the Dalai Lama escaped from in 1959.
The Dalai Lama’s last residence in Tibet
We walked through several temples and learned that temples all have raised thresholds for their front doors to keep ghosts from coming in or out. Apparently Tibetan ghosts can’t step over a 6-inch raised threshold. If American ghosts ever have a conference and share their ability to walk through solid walls, the Tibetans will have to come up with some other kind of anti-ghost treatment.
Succulent flower in the Norbulinka Garden
One of the attractions we walked past was a Tibetan opera. This busy spectacle was surrounded by several hundred Tibetans and Chinese, watching dancing and feedback-enhanced singing. We were approached by XZTV, the local Chinese TV station, for interviews. Mark, Di, and Larry obliged and are now probably as popular in Lhasa as David Hasselhoff is in Germany (although after his escapade on the kitchen floor, he may not be as popular as he once was).
Beer and Buddhism – living together in perfect harmony
Hundreds enthralled by Tibetan Opera
This kid wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had our picture taken
We walked past many beggars, which was very interesting. Beggars show how much money they have, as if to proudly display how much they’ve been able to con people out of. Some beggars arrange their money in neat little stacks in front of them. Jose and I were baffled by this. How do beggars convince people they need money when they have the equivalent of a few days pay sitting on the ground in front of them?
A case of strange selling technique
We met several members of Tenzin’s family for a picnic lunch. We drew quite a crowd, as most people aren’t used to seeing white folk eating with Tibetan families. The food was good, and his family was so kind and generous – there was no way we could have eaten half of what they put in front of us. Their big smiles and welcoming nature was incredible.
Me and Tenzin’s Mom, chillin’ like villains
After lunch, we walked around Norbulinka a little more and then went back to the hotel for an afternoon yoga practice and some rest. That night, we walked to a nearby restaurant owned by an American ex-patriot. His 6-year-old son, wearing a Che hat, was an interesting kid, and obviously being raised by an opinionated father (Jose commented on the common misconception that Che was anything other than just another cold-blooded killer, and since Jose actually met Che, I would have to put considerable weight on his perspective).
Tibetan dancers at dinner (my attempt at artistic photography)
The Potala Palace
I awoke the next morning to the sound of rain pattering against the window. We had our yoga practice inside and had our bus drop us off at our next destination, the Potala Palace. The Potala Palace is the most famous (and most visible) thing in Lhasa. It’s huge, and sits atop a central hill overlooking the city. The local government recently started limiting the number of tickets available to see the palace. Fortunately, our local tour guides had connections that didn’t require bribing (or, at least, they didn’t tell us about it).
The Potala Palace at night
From this angle, you can see how big it really is
Dawa, Tenzin’s local guide and friend, gave us the tour and a brief history of the palace. Dawa is a funny guy – he has the spark of a guy that loves what he does.
At the entrance – note the fine painting and woodworking on the doorframe
The Potala Palace was built in the 7th century. It’s a remarkable piece of architecture – not just because it’s enormous, but because of all of the skilled craftwork that went into the construction of the rooms, stairways, passages, and chapels. Everywhere, precise woodwork, painting, and sculpture surround you. As you walk through it, you get a sense of how much effort was required to put this together. We were told that the majority of the work was done by local Tibetan artisans and laborers because they loved their King and the various Lamas that inspired them. If this is true, it is by far the largest structure I’ve seen from that era that wasn’t constructed with the generous use of slaves and conquered peoples.
A painting of a protector deity
Equally perplexing is the huge square that was built across the street from the palace to commemorate the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. Right. The Cultural Revolution, similarly ironic in its moniker, resulted in the destruction of almost every religious chapel, temple, house, monastery, and nunnery in Tibet. So much history was lost during this time, it saddens me to think how one culture can systematically destroy another. During this “peaceful liberation”, the Chinese forced the locals to dismantle their own culture.
There’s a fighter plane in the monument to the peaceful liberation
The wealth of the Potala Palace is staggering. There are tombs of several Dalai Lamas inside, the largest being that of the 5th Dalai Lama. His tomb alone has over 8000 pounds of gold on it, not to mention the precious and semi-precious jewels and stones that adorn the entire massive monument. As time went on, the size and wealth of the various Dalai Lama tombs shrank (the 11th Dalai Lama’s tomb only has 1100 lbs of gold), but all were big, beautiful monuments to their religious leaders. As I walked past them, I was struck with a sense of irony. Given that Buddhism is all about non-attachment and the idea that wealth and material goods are illusionary and detract from your main purpose (finding the God within yourself), the golden monuments seemed a little out of place. I’m not sure if anyone at the palace thought about that, but Tibetans are very proud of the palace and what’s in it.
The area at the top is where the Dalai Lamas lived
We walked up past the initial part of the palace to the courtyard before entering the main structure. From this courtyard, you can look up and see the living quarters of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas (the living Dalai Lama is the 14th). Through the door across the courtyard, you get your ticket stamped and then have at most one hour to tour the palace. I’m not sure who came up with this great idea (of course, the main objective is to keep people moving through the palace), but Dawa was pretty insistent in making sure we abided by that rule. I’m also not sure what they would do if you took longer than an hour, especially given the number of people that went through it. And of course, as it turned out, it was all just a ruse anyway, since the lone guy at the end of the palace walk-through was about 80 years old and couldn’t seem to focus beyond the edge of his little table.
Walking out the backside of the palace, I met up with our little group (I had gotten a little bit ahead of everyone). But not first without taking a break on the palace wall and making friends (apparently, white people are still somewhat of a curiosity).
I got friends in low places…
After lunch, we headed out to the Sera Monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa. This particular monastery is known for its courtyard, where monks debate the teachings of Buddha and their dharmic philosophy in the afternoons. Before making our way to see the debating monks, we stopped at a little outbuilding where a couple of guys were making prayer flags. After paying the required fee (20 yuan, about $3), which is normal around monasteries, we were able to capture them in action.
I’ve been working on the prayer press… all the live-long day…
We also saw a huge sand mandala. Mandalas are flat sand sculptures, made with great skill. Supposedly, when they are done, they are to be destroyed, to teach the artist about the fluidity and impermanence of the universe. I wondered how any mandalas could actually be on display because of this – Mark, in his infinite wisdom, suggested that it was probably because they left one grain of sand out.
We then made our way up to the main monastery building to see the debating monks. They were quite a sight. The younger monks were more exciting to watch, yelling a little louder, clapping a little more vehemently, trying to make their points. I have no idea what they were arguing about – Tenzin said he could pick out debates about reincarnation and the Buddha’s scriptures, but they were talking too fast and using many scripture-specific words he didn’t recognize. The hand-clapping the monks used to emphasize their points was to dispel ignorance, and as you can see by the movie, there must have been a lot of ignorance going on there in the courtyard.
The harder you clap, the more truth is in whatever you are saying
Video of monks debating
We then were treated to a unique experience that I know for certain very few people have a chance to see. Tenzin’s cousin, a monk, was able to get us in to see a very old, accomplished high-ranking monk. We proceeded with caution to a building on the outskirts of the monastery, and ascended some steep stairs to a small deck outside of a bedroom and antechamber. After purchasing white scarves, or katags, we entered the monk’s room and knelt down in front of him, presenting our katags as gifts. He blessed us, and we sat on the floor near him. With Tenzin as our translator, he answered some of our questions and gave us some memorable words of wisdom. He said that the most important things for us to meditate on were compassion and tolerance, and that we should be willing to give up everything to help others. In his discussions with us, he delicately expressed his observations of Tibet – that there were many new people in the country and that it was much different than the Tibet he remembers. I could see a sadness in his eyes as he talked, as if he could physically feel his culture being eroded away. His memories go far past the Cultural Revolution.
Sera monastery with the mountain behind
I left Sera Monastery with a deeper understanding of what was happening here…
You’ve Got To Be Jokhang!
We woke the next morning to rain and held our practice inside our hotel. While we didn’t have the sky as our ceiling, our practice was quieter, as the morning traffic and sound of the local Chinese military doing their calisthenics was silenced by double-paned windows.
Painting over the entryway into the Jokhang Temple
One of the more significant temples in Tibet is Jokhang Temple (built in 647 AD), near the center of Lhasa. Our bus dropped us off nearby and we walked in our raincoats to the entrance, where a long line of people waiting to enter stretched around the corner. This was an “auspicious” day.
Prostrating pilgrims at Jokhang
As we stood in line, I could see the pillar of Chinese-Tibetan peace and mutual sovereignty outside the temple. It is truly ironic that this pillar stands in front of this important monument. Dated 823 AD, this pillar states that China and Tibet will forever remain separate, sovereign, peaceful nations. Oh how times change. Of course, as the saying goes, there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in between. Through the ebb and flow of power, the two nations have had better and worse relations, like pretty much every geopolitical situation on the planet. It just so happens that in this particular instance, China came out on top.
The pillar of sovereign peace, now standing in Chinese-occupied territory
Inside the Temple is one of the most significant artifacts in Tibet, and represents the endpoint of many pilgrimages to this spiritual center of the country. It is a sitting statue of Sakyamuni (another name for Buddha) made when he was 12 years old, supposedly brought to the site by Chinese princess Wen Cheng, wife of famous Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo (credited for uniting Tibet and bringing Buddhism to the country).
The temple itself is similar to many other monasteries and temples around Tibet. There are lots of statues and icons representing various deities, taras, Buddhas, and political figures. People will bow in front of these statues, and sometimes even completely prostrate themselves on the floor in front of them. They usually will place a 0.1-yuan note (about 3 cents) in front of the icon, although I saw people place more (and even a few make change).
Me standing in front of a big circular prayer… thing…
Much of the temple smells like yak butter, which is fuel for the many candles that burn throughout the many rooms of the temple. Devotees bring melted yak butter in pitchers, adding their own yak butter to the existing urns. The thing about yak butter, though, is that it stinks. Maybe I was born with non-yak-butter-tolerant nostrils, but the smell is forever burned in my brain as a stale, musty, putrid odor that concentrates itself inside small chapels. Yak butter tastes even worse, so if you’re ever offered it in any form, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Mmm… who wants some yak butter that’s been in the sun for a while? ………….
The Jokhang Temple has 3 levels to it, with the majority of the chapels and icons on the first two levels. It is said that the temple was built in that particular place because Songtsan Gampo threw a ring into the air, and where it landed was the destined spot for the temple. The problem was that the ring landed in the nearby lake, so the Tibetans were charged with the responsibility of filling the lake with dirt using the many goats in the area as carriers of the fill dirt. In fact, Lhasa (which means “God’s Land”) used to be called Rasa (”Goat’s Land”). Anyway, according to the legend, when the ring landed in the water, a pure white stupa (a holy monument) arose out of the lake. Of course, this stupa was never found, as is common for most legendary stories. It’s probably in the same place as Excalibur, the Fountain of Youth, and the Roswell Aliens. But there is a replica of what it could have looked like inside the temple, which is almost as good (we’ve all seen “Monty Python’s Holy Grail” and “Independence Day”, about the same thing).
From the top of Jokhang Temple, you can see down to the Barkhor shopping district. It seems to be constantly bustling with activity. This is where I got my yak hat, which, although silly, ended up saving my face from considerable harsh sun exposure.
Barkhor is still busy when it’s raining
One thing that you’ll hear when you go to China is that things are “auspicious”. I’m not sure who started this translation, but it must be based on a fairly common Chinese symbol. It seems that anything out of the ordinary, or even anything that someone should remember, is called auspicious. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the word “auspicious” outside of Chinese translations, but they think it’s… well… auspicious to say auspicious.
Yep – there it is, in all its auspicious glory
We are entertained, and the fabled Mr Intererero looks on
And we’re outta here
The next day we checked out of our hotel and left Lhasa in our bus for the countryside. The Himalayas are beautiful, rising out of the valley floors in the thousands of feet. Our original route was to take us first to Namtso Lake, but the road to there was blocked by a landslide cause by all the rain that had fallen in the past few days. After driving an hour, we turned back and proceeded along our itinerary backwards. Our first stop was Ganden Monastery, which was the second Ganden Monastery I had visited, the first being in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.
The magic (stinky) bus
As we drove along the highway, we passed a few pilgrims on the side of the road heading to Lhasa. It was incredible – these people had been moving at a snail’s pace, prostrating every few feet, for over a year (they had to replace their hand boards every few days). I’m not sure what causes this kind of devotion, but they had it. I think there were 3 or 4 of them, with a support cart with supplies bringing up the rear. This particular group had been on their pilgrimage for a year and 3 months, with another month or so to go before they reached Jokhang Temple. After that, they were going to prostrate their way back home. Over 2 years spent on a pilgrimage. It’s something I can’t really comprehend. Not that I have to – they are fulfilling their lifelong dreams.
Me and the 31-year-old pilgrim
And he’s off…
We made it to Ganden in a few hours, winding our way up from the valley floor up the steep mountainside until we found our campsite. It was a magical spot, overlooking the valley. Rainclouds formed over a mearby mountain ridge, but for the time we had to set up camp, it was warm and sunny. I put up my tent and filled it with my pack and duffel bag. My sleeping bag stretched from one end to the other – one of the few negative side-effects of being 6′4″ tall. I knew my night was going to be spent sleeping with knees and spine bent to accommodate my small space.
Wheat in a river valley en route to Ganden
Tent not quite long enough…
Daniel led an awesome yoga class on the hillside. We moved and stretched with the view of what felt like 50 miles of clear air. We were troubled by yet another weird Chinese “spy” taking pictures and video of us on the hillside. Maybe the Chinese thought 10 Americans on the hillside were a threat to the overall peace and stability of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or maybe they just wanted to fill more videotape with people doing yoga. I have no idea. It was just weird to see some random guy drive up in his Land Cruiser and take video of us from a quarter mile away.
Jose, Di, and Mark eye the oncoming storm ………
Video of me at Ganden, Part I
Video of me at Ganden, Part II
Video of Daniel and I, Yoga Discussion
We had dinner in the tent that Dawa, Sentin, and Norbu made for us. Sentin, our driver, kept mostly to himself, while Dawa and Norbu cooked and served dinner. It was amazing what they were able to put together for us out there. We drank tea, ate fresh meat and veggies, and talked until after dark and the rain started to fall. And fall it did. All night. Little did I realize that my tent had a REALLY small rain fly. Rather than covering the entire tent, like most rain flies, it only covered the very top of the dome. This was bad. The wind blew the rain fly aside, letting the rain fall almost directly into my tent. At first, I could handle it, sleeping for a couple hours as the soft pitter-patter of droplets fell on the canvas over me. But then the mountain decided it would bring a real storm for us. Rainwater accumulated in my tent, and I tried to put as much as I could on the high ground. Much to my dismay, my digital camera found itself in a puddle (fortunately, the case absorbed the water before the electronics did).
The yak says, “I’m waterprooooof”
A soggy start
I left the tent the following morning soaked, cold, and exhausted. The hours between 3am and 6am were spent fighting (literally) the Chinese water torture dripping through my useless tent roof. It goes to show what a difference good equipment makes. AO Wei, the Chinese tent manufacturer of my tent, is not recommended if you go anywhere near rain. After taking some pity on my condition, Tenzin arranged to have a new tent delivered. In the meantime, I tried to dry out as much as I could inside our bus (which served as the sleeping place for our three support staff during the nights). We ate breakfast and the rain subsided, making it easier for us to enjoy walking around the Ganden Monastery grounds.
The morning mist around Ganden
Ganden Monastery is a pretty cool place. We visited the many chapels and appreciated the paintings that adorned the many walls of the temples we walked through. This monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (another case of the Chinese forcing the locals to destroy their own place of worship). The rebuilding project began in 1984 and now several hundred monks call Ganden home.
Ganden Monastery – you can see the older and the newer buildings
A monk on the edge
One thing we did see were many paintings and sculptures of protectors, fearsome depictions of beings that protect the monastery, Tibet, and various spiritual people and beings. We also saw a chapel that was for men only. The Buddhist religion puts limits on the spiritual ascension a woman can make – apparently, Nirvana can only be reached when you incarnate as a man. I had great fun telling the women of the group about how much they were missing in the men-only chapel. Predictably, most of these chapels were dedicated to the Bull-Headed Protector. But in truth, there wasn’t a whole lot in that chapel, and the women could see most of the “value” inside from standing in the doorway. I think Lilly, Di, and Jen got over not being able to step foot in these “special” places.
Now I’ve done it – there’s nothing THAT special about men-only temples
We all did get to experience one fun experience – getting blessed by getting hit on the head by the shoes of the 13th Dalai Lama. I’m not sure what blessing it gave us. I didn’t even get a headache. But it was a new experience for me!
Video from the roof of Ganden Monastery
Movin’ right along… our lunch spot
Packing up our tents and gear, the bus took us to our next destination, several hours away. We were going to Drigung Thel Monastery, the most famous place in Tibet for sky burials. Sky burials are sacred ceremonies to Tibetans, and Drigung Thel is the most famous (even the most “auspicious”) of all sky burial places. The dead are brought here, sometimes over 10 bodies per day, for their final task on Earth – to be fed to the birds. Every morning, bodies are carted up to the top of the mountain behind the monastery, where they are chopped into small pieces for vultures and birds of prey. In this way, the bodies are returned to the ecosystem, benefitting everyone.
Drigung Thel Monastery
Once again, Tenzin’s connections allowed us to see something few people have a chance to see. Although we did not see an actual sky burial (the ceremony is reserved for Tibetans), we did hike up to the mountain top to see where it was done. This was no easy task, as the monastery is at 13,600 feet of elevation and the sky burial site is about 500 feet above that. There was a distinct smell of decaying human flesh (not my favorite smell), and the place where the bodies were offered to the birds had an interesting, almost imperceptable force around it. The many stray dogs in the area necessitate a fence around the area, and area outside the fence is littered with plastic bottles and broken stone tablets with spiritual Tibetan writing on them. The entire experience was surreal, right up to the point where on the hike back down we saw one of the biggest rainbows I’ve ever seen.
When we returned back to the monastery, we had a chance to see one of their chapels. It was a cozy little place with an interesting artifact – a talon of a “guruda”, a mythical creature that’s half man and half bird. I’m not sure what that talon actually was (it was dark, but it sure looked real). It was big – if it was in fact a talon, the guruda must have been 20 feet tall. My guess is that it was an oddly-shaped horn from a yak, but one never knows!
If only it was really a claw – THAT would be something to fear
That night, I set up my new tent. When the inevitable nighttime rain fell, I stayed dry and rejoiced in being able to get a decent night’s sleep, which was a good thing, because the following day included quite a hike.
Our campsite near the Dregung Monastery and Nunnery
Mmmm hmmm mmmm mmm hmm
I woke up early, rested, and not particularly hungry, probably due to the huge, tasty dinner we had the night before. We drove the bus up the canyon toward our next spiritual destination, the Drigung Terdrom Nunnery. Nunneries are far less common in Tibet than monasteries. While it is still considered an honor to be a nun (as it is a monk), the resources just aren’t there to support the nuns like they are for the monks.
Drigung nunnery and the surrounding town
We parked above the small town where the nunnery lies and walked down to get a tour. We were met by two of the nuns, who graciously served us yak butter tea (my favorite). I had to continually decline more tea as the nuns kept expecting us to wolf it down. I think if I’d actually tried some, I would have hurled on the hike up the mountain afterward.
Mmmm… yak butter tea…
The nuns opened up their temple to us to walk around. The experience was far less formal and much more friendly than the monasteries we had visited. I think the monks in many of the more touristy monasteries are tired of being treated as tourist attractions. The nuns, on the other hand, are not visited as frequently, and appreciate it when people take an interest in what they are doing. As we walked around the inside of the temple (clockwise, of course), we listened to them chant their Buddhist prayers. They smiled at us and seemed to welcome us with kind eyes as we took it all in.
Inside the nunnery during prayer time
We left the temple and began our hike to another unique experience Tenzin had planned for us – a visit to a hermit who had not spoken a word in over 20 years. The hermit, who we still don’t know the name of, lives on the mountainside above the nunnery and renounced speaking anything but prayers because he felt his life was wasted talking about unimportant things in his youth.
Friendly neighborhood yak having lunch on the way up to the hermit
About 1,200 feet in elevation above the nunnery, making it quite a hike to get to his home. It took the better part of 3 hours to climb to his pad, nestled against the mountain at 14,600 feet. When we arrived, Tenzin walked inside and the hermit came out to greet us. He was very happy for us to come, and I can imagine that he doesn’t get many visitors. He invited us all in to his little 2-room house, and we sat around as we talked through Tenzin with him.
Video of the hermit communicating by humming
The hermit made us tortilla-like bread as a snack
Our hermit made bread and served us sweet tea. We learned he was 73 years old and we learned about living in the Himalayas as we ate lunch. After we ate, we all took a little hike up the hill to the sacred cave where he spends many hours meditating. The hermit wasn’t tired, making those of us struggling with insufficient oxygen seem weak compared to his sure steps. The cave was first used by holy men in the 7th century, making it a special place to walk into.
Video from the roof of the temple by the hermit’s cave
Mark, Jose, me, and Di in the cave
I convinced the hermit to try on my shades and look tough
We bade farewell to the hermit and made our way back down the mountain (much easier to go down!). The grass was a little slippery from the rain that was falling, and most of us went down at least once.
Slipping and falling – a good excuse to stop and smell the flowers
When we arrived outside the nunnery, one of the nuns approached Tenzin and offered to have us enter the nunnery again, this time to sit with the nuns while they recited their prayers. It turned into one of the most intense, moving experiences I have ever had, as we sat across from them and meditated. Our little group was with the nunnery, entering our meditative states while Tibetan scriptures and mantras permeated the air around us. Half an hour later, it was over and we emerged from the temple renewed and in a state of simple bliss.
Video of the nuns chanting prayers
It was the perfect way to end the day, as we walked down toward the hot spring that bubbled up close to the river below the nunnery. At 104 degrees, it was hot but not too hot (especially since the air temperature was getting chilly in the late afternoon). The disconcerting part about the experience was the guys that clustered around the pool. They acted like they’d never seen white guys before, staring at us (some of them eerily so, including one guy that couldn’t seem to take his hand off his crotch, which was REALLY not a good thing). Apparently, the three women of our group experienced the same thing. It felt good as we left the hot spring and made our way back up to the bus. Everyone one of us slept well that night – there’s nothing like a soak in hot water to make your day.
Back at the campsite, Lilly makes friends with the locals
That evening, I had a couple of very interesting philosophical conversations with Daniel and Tenzin. We talked about the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism (Buddha was himself a Hindu prince). Buddha’s teachings transcended the polytheistic Hindu gods, intending to focus on the self-improvement and personal path to enlightenment rather than the outward deities and personifications that Hinduism created. When Buddhist teachings spread to Tibet, they were mixed with the Tibetans’ existing polytheistic belief system, known as Bon. Modern Tibetan Buddhism is much as it has been for the past thousand years, a curious mix of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon.
A Bridge Too Small
After breakfast, we headed to the Reting Monastery, about six hours drive over dirt roads. Our road, like most of the rest we drove, followed a valley floor with high peaks lining the edges. A river ran along side the road, flush with water from melting snow and the monsoonal moisture flowing up from the Indian Ocean.
What looks to be a castle by the river
A middle-aged woman towing yaks
About an hour away from Reting, we ran into a bridge we couldn’t cross. There were actually two bridges at this intersection – one for smaller vehicles, with a 5-ton limit, and a heavier-duty bridge next to it that could handle up to 15 tons.
Just what every traveler wants to see – “cross at your own risk”
Unfortunately, the heavy bridge had a thick, locked chain across it with a disconcerting warning “Bridge under repair. Cross at your own risk.” Tenzin sent Dawa looking for the guy responsible for the bridge so we could cross it, and so we waited.
Video – Stuck at the bridge
The bridgekeeper came back and, much to our surprise, unlocked the chain by unlinking it through a broken link we didn’t see. So much for high security. Fortunately, our bus crossed the bridge and the structure didn’t collapse underneath it, which is good because our driver decided to cross before I thought to remove my backpack from the bus.
Cool cone-shaped mountain by the bridge
We drove on to the Reting Monastery, up the valley and through a small village. As we approached the monastery, we could see something that didn’t occur very often in Tibet – trees. Since most of the country is above the treeline, we were surprised to see very old juniper pines covering the hillsides. These junipers are considered sacred trees and the monastery protects them, just as the trees protect the monastery from some of the harsh winds that blow through the valley.
Junipers by Reting Monastery
At this monastery, we didn’t camp – we stayed in their guesthouse, along with about 30 or 40 other tourists. We stayed five to a room, with the couples staying in the same room. Apparently us single guys weren’t to be trusted. Probably for good reason, though. Five men in the same room can bring out some of the more “base” forms of entertainment, usually involving natural body functions. It’s a good thing women weren’t in the room with us.
Near the entrance to Reting, a dog takes a break
In a related story, there were stray dogs all over the place. It was a bit of a pain to navigate around them sometimes. In true dog-like fashion, they liked to be anywhere the food was.
Dogs dogs everywhere
We unpacked our things and headed up the mountainside for a unique yoga experience overlooking the valley below the monastery. It was incredible as we meditated and then practiced, looking a thousand feet down and miles in front of us over the monastery and the town below. We set up our mats just beneath where the famous Tsongkapa wrote his “Lamrim” text, a step-by-step approach to reaching the enlightment taught by the Buddha. This text is considered by Tibetans to be the most valuable spiritual document written for the common lay people.
6 old stupas near the kora (circular walk) above the monastery
I met an old guy walking on the trail (note prayer wheels behind)
Monastery living quarters and temple
We also got a tour of the monastery, which, like most, had been almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Of particular note was the massive Maitreya (”Future Buddha”) statue, the statue of the new protector spirit of the monastery (which hopefully will protect it better than the last protector, who was surprisingly ineffective at preventing the Chinese from destroying the monastery in 1959). In the main temple hall there was also the usual collection of statues and icons, including Tsongkapa, who was the founder of the Buddhist Galupa sect, the sect that the monks at this temple belong to. The Galupa sect is the newest sect, formed in the 1400’s, and is seen as a return to more conservative, traditional values (in Mongolia, they were referred to as the “red” sect, and were a minority among their Buddhists since Mongolians were more liberal in their interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings).
Carving of a tara figurine in a wall in a ruin
Dinner was cooked by Norbu and Dawa and we ate at the monastery “cafeteria”, a small room looking on to the central courtyard in front of our rooms. We were warmed there by a yak dung fire in a central Franklin-stove-looking-thing, which actually didn’t stink. We also met Jeff and Jen, a really nice couple on their honeymoon from Washington, DC. I have to give props to any girl who’s willing to go to Tibet on her honeymoon!
Better than a hole in the head
The next morning, the sun rose bright, shining its light on the moist, dew-covered ground. The rain the night before had lasted a few hours, but the soil was used to it and there were no puddles. The view over the valley was spectacular.
I loaned the young monk my sat phone so he could close some deals (note the Reting Rinpoche’s complex on the river behind him)
2 newer stupas in the morning light
One thing we could see below us was the compound where the Reting Rinpoche lives. This 11 year old boy is the 3rd-highest-ranking lama in all of Tibet. Tenzin attempted, and successfully negotiated a visit to see this young boy, something that foreigners are not typically allowed to do.
We checked out of the monastery and packed our bus, driving down the valley to the compound. We were met outside the gate by a policeman, who Daniel expertly saw was packing a concealed weapon. They don’t mess around when it comes to visitors of important spiritual figures. The Reting Rinpoche and his family are not allowed to leave his compound, supposedly for his own protection, but more likely to keep him from escaping to India. After giving our passports to the authorities, we were escorted in to the compound. It was pretty cool to be granted an audience with the most important lama below the Panchen Lama that in Tibet.
We lined up outside his waiting room and Tenzin and Dawa got us the white katag scarves, which we were to present as offerings to the boy. Looking around, I saw the usual trappings for a child – a playset, various toys, even some rudimentary workout equipment, except they were all inside a room with bars on the windows inside high walled compound. It was sad to think this kid was living in such isolation.
One by one, we walked in to the Reting Rinpoche’s waiting room, bowing before him and offering our scarves. As a thank you, we each got bonked on the head by some cloth-covered book. I’m not sure what that did for me, aside from giving me a headache for a little while. Outside the room, when we were done, a monk gave us a piece of yarn tied in a knot.
We collected our passports, and walked back to the bus, considering the implication of what just happened. On one hand, we met a very powerful, influential lama. On the other hand, he was not sanctioned by the real Buddhist leadership. Altogether, it was a very… unique experience. So we boarded our bus to our next destination, Namtso Lake, another six hours away, pondering the meaning of life and the impact of a book on one’s head.
At lunch, Daniel and I decided to endorse Chinese spam
We stopped for a bit in a town on the way to get supplies. While there, we were re-acquainted with city life, which included getting harassed by people trying to sell us stuff. One guy approached us with an extremely valuable worm known for its aphrodesiacal powers. It’s apparently very hard to find, but when you do, if you dry it out and turn it into a paste, it’s worth several thousand dollars a pound.
“Ladies love you long time with my worm”
The trip was mostly uneventful, save for the bus engine almost overheating and the driver splashing water on the radiator to cool it down. Bud and I weren’t sure what they were trying to do with that – I always thought cold water on a hot radiator caused the radiator to crack. But maybe things work a little differently in Tibet, since the radiator stayed intact. We stopped at the pass, at 5,190m (about 17,100 feet) to take a few pictures.
The rock monument at Namtso Pass
All of us standing in the wind at the pass
We then dropped into the valley and proceeded another 25 miles or so to our campsite on the edge of the lake. Namtso Lake is said to be the “highest lake in the world”, but like most Chinese signage, this is incorrect. According to one site dedicated to high-elevation lakes (who knew?), http://www.highestlake.com, it ranks at #22. I would imagine it’s the highest BIG lake in the world. Namtso Lake is a salt water lake, meaning that there isn’t any drainage, so over the course of many years, evaporation has caused the salt to stay behind, making it unsuitable for drinking. There are fish in the lake, however, and rumors to even be dragons (although no one has ever seen one).
Namtso Lake from our campsite near the shore
We set up camp in an idyllic setting. The sun was warm, the lake was a bright, sparkling blue, and on all sides we were surrounded by huge snow-capped peaks. The wind was a bit strong, and as the sun went down, so did the temperature. By the time we had dinner, most of us were wearing at least 3 layers. Mark seemed to be the only exception, staying warm in his windbreaker and not needing any gloves. Yoga on the shore of the lake was difficult (we were at 16,000 feet), but incredible.
Mountain in the distance
That night it got cold. My watch thermometer showed 48F in my tent, and my toes never did warm up (anyone that’s had to sleep with cold feet knows that you just can’t really get comfortable). So we stayed up and talked until about 11pm, and then when I woke up at 4am, I couldn’t go back to sleep. It was just as well – the stars were incredible. I stood out there in the cold, windy night looking up and counting satellites and shooting stars. It was beautiful.
Sunset over Namtso Lake
Video – Reporting from the shores of Namtso Lake
Back to the grill again
Norbu made us another fine banana pancake breakfast the next morning. While we drank tea and watched him do his magic, I was able to snap a few shots of the sunrise.
The light hits the peak that is “married” to the lake
Cumulus clouds form early over Namtso Lake
The sun warmed everyone, eventually causing us to take off our jackets and then remove those fleece layers we all needed that night. By the time we packed up and boarded the bus, we were all in T-shirts. It goes to show you the effect the sun has on very high altitudes. In fact, it is reported that the glaciers in Tibet are melting at least three times faster than glaciers in other parts of the world. It’s hard to doubt the effects of global warming when you hear that.
Breaking camp at Namtso
We headed over to the nearby tourist attraction – a monastery built into naturally-formed caves on the short of Namtso Lake. Unfortunately, this had turned into a Chinese tourist trap. Big, fast, new buses were carting Chinese tourists by the boatload from Lhasa to here, promising the “authentic Tibetan experience”. Right. Anything the Chinese label as “authentic” or “auspicious” should be suspect by definition. It was interesting to walk by and see what probably could have been a cool spiritual place before it was turned into an amusement park (complete with yak rides, even).
Meditation caves beneath prayer flags
Namtso Monastery, built into a large cave
Nice view between two huge rock formations of Namtso Lake
A temple built into a naturally-formed cave in the cliff wall
The bus climbed over the pass again and back down into the valley below. We grabbed some lunch in the town that rested on the highway to Lhasa.
“Welcome To Our Snack Bar”
After lunch, we got back on the road and headed directly to Lhasa. While on the way, our bus was tagged for speeding – something it was probably incapable of doing. Why? Because our drivers were Tibetan, and the police were Chinese. It was yet another case of discrimination against the Tibetans. There wasn’t much anyone could say, though. The original fine of 200 Yuan was talked down to 100, and we went on our way. It was ironic that we were constantly passed by big, new buses carrying Chinese tourists, and not a one of them was stopped. Ah, justice.
Storm clouds form over our road
We arrived into Lhasa around sunset, checked into our hotel, unpacked, and headed to our old dinner standby, the Lhasa Kitchen just off the Barkhor (shopping) district. Some banana lassi and tandoori chicken filled the bill that night, and we all slept soundly, appreciating that we could sleep in actual beds.
Norbu bids farewell to our group – he’s small, but he’s a good cook!
The great aunt
The next morning was devoted to souvenir shopping, something I am not very good at. I mostly followed around and watched the bargaining and positioning of the various merchants we encountered. The rule of thumb seemed to be to offer 1/3 to 1/2 of the asking price, and settle around 60% of the original offer.
Who wouldn’t want to buy something from the “Sky Lake Cushion Spongy Sales Department”?
Selling food, nuts, and powders at the market
That afternoon, Tenzin took us to see his aunt, a retired teacher who lived in a nicer part of town. She gave us some food and we rested our legs on her couch.
Tenzin’s aunt and her friend also braided Lilly’s hair. We sang Lilly’s favorite Expose song, and watched as she transformed from Latina to Tibetan (although I didn’t see any Tibetans with braided hair, we were assured it made her look more native).
That night, something I ate caught up with me, and I had to decline having our last night of dinner with the group. I was bummed – but I didn’t have much choice. Those of you who have had stomach issues while traveling understand that when your body says “stay in”, you better stay in. I’m just glad that my weak stomach succumbed on the last night in Tibet.
Leaving Lhasa Vegas
We woke up early the next morning and met up with Dawa for the last time. Our bus driver took us to Lhasa Airport, and we watched out the window as the city faded behind us. The usual crazies were on the road, dodging oncoming traffic and creating passing lanes out of the oncoming traffic’s lane.
This is a grand master plan to modernize and monetize the country. In about 10 years, the country will be completely different than what it is today. If you are thinking about visiting Tibet, I’d do it sooner rather than later. The times they are a-changin’, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan.