7 Days in Tibet

Somehow, some why, I didn’t blog about my experience in Tibet immediately after being there. Between my notebook scribbling and photos I’m going to try to piece together my experience. First I have to say that I love the Tibetan people. They are beautiful, spiritual, friendly and extremely hospitable. The perseverance and commitment to their faith in the face of what amounts to imagecultural genocide by the Chinese is incredible. This story really begins three months ago when I was traveling through Western Sichuan and was first introduced to Tibetan people and culture. It was then that I decided that I would return to Tibet, despite the difficulties and expenses levied by the  Chinese government. As I explored Mongolia by jeep, I managed to put together a tour to Tibet via a sketchy company in Kathmandu, managing this from the one or two Internet cafes in the Gobi desert. The stars aligned, and eventually I found myself on a train to Lhasa with permit in hand.

My first moments in Tibet were heart-breaking and disappointing. My driver met me outside of the station and as we pulled away and drove towards downtown Lhasa my initial thoughts were – “is this really Tibet?” , “Why is everyone  Chinese here?”  Why does it look like the infrastructure is being built to support many, many more people than already live here?” My heart sunk as I questioned my decision to travel through Tibet, driving through what amounted to a ghost town as my driver explained that everything was being built to support the immigrating Chinese who were arriving by the tens of thousands after receiving lucrative offers from the Chinese government to relocate their families and businesses to Tibet. Fortunately, my driver informed me, I would be staying in Old Lhasa in the Muslim quarter, the only part of the city with any Tibetan character left. I checked into a nice hotel and met my travel partners for the next 10 days, Maaike from Belgium and Matthijs from Denmark. Currently, foreigners are unable to travel in Tibet without a driver and guide. For me to see Tibet, I had to pay the Chinese government more money than I would have preferred to secure my permits, land cruiser, driver and guide. Fortunately I got a decent deal after hearing that my travel partners had paid 50% more than I did for the same trip!

Over the next 3 days I explored the grand historical sites in and around Lhasa,  the Potala Palace, The Jokhang, Sera Monastery and the Dalai Lama’s summer palace (former), the Norbulingka.  Our guide (who I won’t name because the Chinese secret police are always watching), displayed some interesting Lhasa 100 behavior the first day – we thought he was being lazy by preferring not to explore the Potala Palace with us, but later learned that it simply broke his heart to visit the place that was once the spiritual Mecca for Tibetan Buddhists, now relegated to more of a historical museum. It was still an incredible place, one of the few historical Tibetan sites not pillaged by the Chinese during the cultural revolution. Thousands of pilgrims were paying homage to the Potala- chanting, lighting butter lamps and making offerings to the various shrines inside. The Potala houses a rich collection of tombs and cultural relics that date back to the 5th Dalai Lama’s reign in the 13th century. We continued to visit other sites, noticing the subtle differences between those still used for religious events and those left stagnant by Chinese intrusion and restrictions. Slowly our guide began to trust us and explained some of the events he has witnessed in recent history including seeing people being shot during uprisings right before his eyes. He was always cautious, understanding that his career and reputation were on the line if the Chinese government overheard some of his words. We respected this, not digging too deeply and generally supporting what appeared to be his desire to let out some frustration to people who would listen.

My favorite part of Lhasa was not the official sites, rather, it was simply wandering around the Jokhang area, observing the pilgrims, eating dinner on the street while wandering the alleyways and exchanging smiles with the ever curious Tibetans, most of them enroot on a kora. A kora is a holy circuit that pilgrims undertake to mount up good karma. There are many koras in Tibet, such as around the Potala, around Mt Kailash near the Nepali border (Tibet’s holiest mountain), and even around Lhasa itself. But arguably the most important and meaningful is Barkor as it surrounds the Jokhang Palace, the holiest temple in all of Tibet. At the Barkor you will stumble upon hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims in their traditional garbs circulating the 1kmLhasa 097 route around the Jokhang. They come from all regions of Tibet and beyond, walking in a clockwise manner so that the religious monument is always on their right (going anti-clockwise is bad karma!). Many do these koras simply a few times a day, some for hours… some for even DAYS!  And all this time you also see these Tibetans constantly waving around hand-held prayer-wheels. A prayer is inscribed on each wheel, and the more times you swing it round the more good karma you accumulate. But as if walking around koras for days was tiring enough, countless Tibetans are seen prostrating around koras like the Jokhang and even just simply in front of it. Prostrations are sort of like a religious squat thrust, and our guide explained that some devout Tibetans will prostrate for hundreds of kilometers all the way to Lhasa, sometimes taking months to accomplish such a journey. Therefore Old Town Lhasa was were I enjoyed myself most – watching and observing, once stumbling upon a small monastery where the monks were hand making paper and Buddhist sutras with small printing tablets – they were surprised to see me but still managed to show me around as we shared smiles and laughs without otherwise being able to communicate. I enjoyed watching daily life first thing in the morning and then again immediately after sunset when the most action is happening.

IMG_3502One thing that I (or anyone) could not avoid seeing was the heavy Chinese military presence. Every entrance to the old town was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, the rooftops around the Jokhang were riddled with snipers and regular patrols of fatigued soldiers interrupted the colorful stream of pilgrims on the Barkor circuit, Tibet’s most famous Kora. I made the dreadful mistake of showing my guide a photo of the Dali Lama that I had on my iPod, a serious crime worthy of expulsion, directly under a camera with a microphone in the Norbulingka Palace. (Luckily no one noticed!). I breathed a sigh of relief that my trip to Tibet wasn’t going to be abruptly cut short, but was reminded of the seriousness of the conflict between China and Tibet.

Interestingly, I had a very difficult time sleeping in Lhasa, always feeling like my heart rate was high and simultaneously experiencing a sense of anxiety. At first I thought it may have been the altitude, but immediately upon leaving Lhasa these sensations went away. After careful examination, I think I was channeling the energy of the place. I have an undefined sacral center in my body and I’ve discovered over the years that I am very sensitive to the stress and anxiety of others. If I am not careful, I will often accept this anxiety as my own, when in Zhangmu 003 fact it comes from without. Generally, being aware of this energy has always been a very subtle process for me, but in Lhasa it felt hyper-active. There is a tremendous amount of tension and anxiety amongst the citizens of Lhasa, both Tibetan and Chinese. Just last year, major unrest unfolded in Tibet, centered in Lhasa. Unfortunately, the root issues that caused this unrest have not changed, and I personally believe this will not be the last time we see violence here. As much as enjoyed visiting Lhasa, I doubt I will ever go back. Within the near future there will be very little left of anything Tibetan beyond historical monuments. And as I learned more and more about the plight of the Tibetans during the remainder of my trip through Tibet, Nepal and India, I just don’t feel comfortable supporting the Chinese occupation and "’modernization” of Lhasa.

Enough about Lhasa – on day 4 I struck out on the road with Maaike and Matthijs, heading West towards the Himalaya and Nepal on the Friendship Highway. Incredibly, what used to be a multi-week journey is now a paved highway on which one can drive from the Nepali border to Lhasa in a single day!

IMG_3605For the next 6 days we passed some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.  First up was Lake Yandrok, one of the highest lakes in the world, checking in somewhere near 15000 feet. The next several days sort of blurred together as I remember passing through the heart of Tibet – Gyantse, Shigatse and Tingri, headed towards the great Himalaya range and Mount Everest (Qomolangma) herself. We passed glaciers, mountains, small villages, farms and pastures. We saw yak, deer, goat, and sheep wandering the high plains in search of grass. Each city that we slept in was similar to Lhasa in that there were newer Chinese areas and existing Tibetan “old towns”. A highlight for me was walking visiting the beautiful Tashilimpo monastery in Shigatse, walking the Kora high above the city with Maaike and stumbling our way back home through the cobblestone streets. We had some good laughs at a tailor shop where a nice Tibetan guy fixed a hole in my down jacket for only 50 cents.

IMG_3697 We quickly discovered that two stars in Tibet does not imply a warm shower or comfortable room, and therefore spent some cold evenings as we were traveling at the tail end of the tourist season, with most places not equipped for heating or electricity. This was fine with me, preparing me for the conditions in the Annapurna range, as well as giving me an idea of exactly how arduous it would be to spend a winter in Tibet. Three weeks later I read 7 Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer and it brought me back to many of the places I had visited. If you have not read it, and you are into adventure-style books, I highly recommend you pick it up. In the 1940’s Heinrich broke out of a POW prison in India and managed to go overland through the Himalaya and Tibet to Lhasa. His travels and cultural experiences of one of the first westerners to know Tibet is incredible. He ultimately became a friend of the young 14th Dalai Lama and has acted as an emissary to Tibet for the West throughout his life.

Eventually we made it to Everest Base Camp, awaking at 4 am and leaving Tingri in order to watch the sunrise. Although it was nice and clear day, the winds were ripping through the valley and one could barely snap a photo Everest Base Camp 037 before needing to retreat to the car. Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side is 5200 meters (16640 feet), and as you can imagine, especially in early November, quite cold! My travel partners decided to head down hill with another tour group, but as spending time in this magical region was a priority for me, I asked my guide and driver to spend the night up there so I could explore during the day. They begrudgingly agreed and I struck out on foot for the afternoon – feeling slightly dizzy from the altitude, first heading to the small Yamalung hermitage where Guru Rinpoche meditated and received empowerment from the Buddha Amitayus. There are several small temples, a sacred spring and numerous carvings; and a temple enclosing Guru Rinpoche’s meditation cave contains a hand and footprints of the saint.  I was alone in the cave and sat zazen for 20 minutes, soaking in the unbelievable energy of the place. I explored the hermitage, ducking between endless prayer flags and offerings that have accumulated over the centuries. The rest of the day I wandered aimlessly in the valley, seeing only one Yak herder and a number of deer. Finally when my fingers couldn’t bare it any longer, I returned to the guesthouse (more like a cement block with a bed in it), to huddle around the stove with the handful of other guests and guides who braved the evening at over 5000 meters in November. Despite the temperature in my room that night dropping to 20, I slept soundly with about 11 blankets wrapped around me.

The rest of the trip consisted of a long drive to the border, with a few stop offs at schools and small villages so we could interact with the locals outside of the big cities. The road down to Zhangmu (border town with Nepal), was the final part of the Friendship Highway being paved, an incredible feat of engineering as the road drops thousands of feet through a perilous canyon. We were delayed several times by rock slides and planned demolitions. Zhangmu 033 We paused briefly at a high pass to get a glimpse of the Annapurna range I would soon be hiking in. After spending the night next over a discotheque in Zhangmu, we woke up early, crossed the border and found a driver for our transfer to Kathmandu. That day I found myself in one of those deeply meditative mindsets, a balance between consciousness and pure awareness. As we drive through amazing scenery and continued to descend all the way to Kathmandu at 800m I was jotting notes down on my iPod as the drab colors of Tibet gave way to tropical forests and beautiful saris. I’m not sure what triggered the flow of awareness for me, but it is one I will not soon forget.

Suddenly we were in the chaos of Kathmandu, the most populated and congested place I had been in over 2 months. I found myself checking into my small guesthouse, transitioning to the next phase of my journey.

Tashi Delek!

7000km Journey from Mongolia to Nepal

Over a month ago I set out on an ambitious journey from Mongolia – I was looking at a nearly 7000 kilometer journey, four countries and some serious mountain ranges and deserts between me and Kathmandu, Nepal. My friend Diane was already trekking in Nepal and I was trying to meet her in early November so we could hike the Annapurna Circuit together, a long-term dream of mine and one of the few ‘must-do’s’ of my journey. Luckily for me, ambitious China has built the highest railroad in the world into Tibet, traveling in over 4000 kilometers in total from Beijing. Target acquired, lets begin.

Before my long Mongolian tour I booked a flight to Beijing from Ulaanbaatar. The price was nearly the same as a train ticket and saved me over 30 hours of travel. I couldn’t possibly handle another two-day delay at the Chinese border either. I also had been scrambling to arrange my Tibet tour from dodgy Internet connections in Mongolia and HAD to be in Lhasa by October 27th to meet my group. One thing I did not do was arrange my train ticket to Lhasa, as the owner of my Beijing hostel informed me over e-mail that NOBODY goes to Tibet this time of year, so getting a ticket will not be a problem. Well apparently a few people do go to Tibet in October because when we contacted the train station, the only option left was a hard seat in 3rd class. Not the most appealing option on a 48 hour train journey, especially in China. I had no other choice, so I booked the 4000k train for a stiff $50, got myself a massage and 15 lbs of water, food and beer and headed to the train station for tIMG_2778he 9:30pm departure….

Let me back up here – despite being through Beijing twice it hasn’t earned any blog time! This second time through was only a 36 hour stopover, but I used it  as an opportunity to visit a number of places that were closed on my first visit for the 60th anniversary celebration of the communist revolution in 1949. I walked through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, going to the must-sees in in Beijing and snapping that obligatory photo with the man himself, Mao ze Dong. My first trip to Beijing back in early October was actually much more memorable despite the city wide lockdown and tight security. I was able to catch up with an old IBM Pittsburgh colleague of mine,IMG_2843 Dave Cai who now lives in central Beijing and works at Volkswagen. Dave showed me his posh apartment and took me out for a great dinner. I really enjoyed our intense conversation about the future of China, its relationship the United States and the rest of the world. I consider China the world’s great experiment of the 21st century – they have momentum and strength of an industrial revolution West of centuries past, but with the keen advantage of hindsight and history. They have a unique opportunity to change the world based on ideals and through planning, in way that has never been done. I find myself frequently talking global politics and the discussion always ends up in China. And back to China we go: Beijing – I rolled in a couple of days before the big October 1 National Day celebrations, figuring that one of the largest celebrations in history would be fun to be around. Well turns out only if you’re Chinese. Foreigners were given a tight lease, not allowed anywhere near the festivities or into tourist locations for many days. Fortunately I hooked up with a crew of travelers at my hostel, spent time hopelessly trying to sneak in to see anything, but ultimately watched the celebrations on TV like everyone else in the world despite the events happening only a 10 minute walk away.IMG_2860-1 At one point a few tanks rolled down our street on their way out from the celebrations. I’m not sure if anyone did catch it on television, but the ceremony was quite an impressive showing of the massive armament of the Chinese military. Personally I believe Nationalism breeds only more violence and division (How can you rally behind a single country and also promote world peace- it is a contradiction. Separateness always breeds division and violence through its very nature). This is another aspect of the China experiment that will play out in our lifetimes – they are fiercely nationalistic, at times quite xenophobic and have in my opinion placed their loyalty for country ahead of themselves or anything spiritual.

Back to the slightly more present (Oct 25), boarding the train for Lhasa. In China, you don’t need a ticket for a seat, just the train. People ended up lying all over the floor, in the common areas and just about anywhere a couple of inches of space could be found. I’ve heard that during holidays these trains are so packed that people have to stand for days at a time!

I was the only white guy in 3rd class and people curiously watched me down a couple beers and eat dinner. Feeling exhausted, I was able to sleep with mIMG_3435y hands folded on the table, waking up the next morning in Xian where the vast majority of people got off  the train. The next day I will always have great memories from. I’m pretty sure that every single person in 3rd class who could speak more than five words of English introduced themselves to me, and I found myself meeting many really incredible people, sharing food and drink and photos, exchanging e-mails and simply having an amazing time as the incredible beauty of China passed by my eyes outside the train window. This quickly changed in Xining, the halfway point. The train became packed again, and a nice family of Tibetans with 4 small children decided they were going to take FULL advantage of their one seat reservation in my row. I ended up with my face literally squished against the window, with a total of 11 people sharing 6 seats. Now – I was on my way to Tibet – why not start the cultural exchanges right away!? I already had a small IMG_3453child on my lap and the father brought out a stove to cook up some Yak Butter tea on the table. I played along for a while, but 24 hours like this were not looking very appealing so I bought my way into a comfortable sleeper cabin for the second half of the journey. While not nearly as exciting as 3rd class, I did get a great nights sleep in the oxygen filled cabin and woke up to the high Tibetan plateau out my window…The next day passed in tremendous comfort, I was sipping coffee and eating my snacks as I snapped photos of one of the most beautiful and yet inhospitable landscapes in the world. It was such a contrast to the lush forests and rice fields of the day prior.

Ultimately I recommend the same approach to anyone taking the train – spend half of your time in 3rd class, but enjoy some luxury and upgrade on the second day.

Eventually the train pulled into Lhasa, once the most inaccessible city in the world. Prepared for a complete shake down from the authorities, I strangely just walked off the train and out of the station without once displaying any of the many permit and visa papers I was carrying…. And just like that I was in Tibet.

… To be continued…

7 Minutes in Tibet

I dozed off on the bus today and when I woke up, I was in Tibet! OK, not really, but probably as close as I am going to get while in China. I am in a small town known as Shangri-la (formerly Zhongdian, renamed by the Chinese government to take advantage of a recent novel to increase tourism), whose population is primarily Tibetan. I met a Canadian and a couple of Israelis who I spent the afternoon with swapping travelling stories and talking about everything China. Tomorrow I am going to explore the area, spend time contemplating the two options I have before me. I’m either going to head north into western Sichuan, traversing Tibetan frontier towns on rough roads and unreliable transport OR take the road more travelled, backtracking south to catch a train into central Sichuan. I have set myself a timeline, booking a flight to Beijing for the end of the month – I really want to get into Mongolia soon because everyone I meet says it is already getting super cold at night. Plus, China celebrates the 60th anniversary of their Cultural Revolution on Oct 1- Tiananmen Square is supposed to be the sight of one of the largest parades and celebrations ever conducted!

I am back to traveling solo for a while. Wei and I had a great run, but ultimately we had different travel philosophies and at least for me, the goals and aspirations I have for this trip really require me to be alone. Today was a funny day for me as I have been relying on Wei’s Chinese to take care of things like bus tickets, restaurants etc, and suddenly found myself alone trying to figure this all out! Of course, it worked out just fine and that is really part of the fun of traveling in foreign lands.

After my last update from Kunming, we jumped on the ole Yunnan Tourist Trail, taking a slow train to Dali, spending a couple of nights. I had my first “Chinese Tourism Experience”, signing up for a cruise around Erhai Lake. It was hilarious. Me and a few hundred Chinese tourists, snapping photos, enjoying a tea ceremony and jumping off on islands for quick snapshots before the boat honked and we all ran back to not be left behind. Everything was in Chinese and I must have looked quite clueless so a few people helped me out. Two groups of Chinese girls wanted their photo taken with me so was able reconfirm my movie-star status! The next day was a real highlight for me, trekking around Cangshan Mountain. Early in the morning, I took a cable car to the top through the mist and clouds and spent the day walking about 10 miles through the beautiful landscape. Steep cliff walls with random shrines requiring super exposed scrambling to get to, waterfalls, monkeys and that beautiful mountain air that made me reminisce about home. Getting my hands on some rock, scrambling around and making some mileage was awesome. It really rejuvenated my soul, pushed me past my cold and gave me a nice day of reflection.

The next stop was Lijiang, a beautiful town famous for copper making and its Naxi people (one of the few remaining matriarchal societies left in the world), lined with cobblestone streets and canals. It was extremely touristy, although when the tourists are Chinese, it doesn’t seem as bad. Chinese tourists in China feels like part of the scenery. Nothing of particular interest happened here other than wandering the streets, getting lost, being found, eating, hanging out at the comfy hostel. LIjiang is definitely worth a visit, but I would not spend more than a couple of days here.

So here I am in Shangri-la, a town that feels as though it’s in Texas with a Tibetan twist. Danced with the locals in the town square, drank a few beers, shopped around for knocked of North Face gear in all the shops. Perfecting my bargaining skills as I gear up for cold weather. I’ve managed to find a beanie, next up are long-johns, a fleece and a pair of gloves. Peace!