Sunday, September 24, 2006

Zanda and the ruins of the Guge Kingdom

"UN-BE-LIEV-ABLE! I was confused! It was like the moon!"
-Robert S.

Today I saw the Guge Kingdom ruins, an epicenter for Tibetan Buddhism, built over 1,000 years ago and thriving for some 500 years. I am in awe of what these people were able to accomplish given the harsh landscape and extreme weather conditions.

What makes this place special is the paintings (tankas) found on temple walls and cave walls in and around the palace ruins. The style is seen in only one other known place, near Ladahk, India. It's a shame the place is not well maintained and litter and a kind of grafiti (carved into the sandstone) is prevalent. Nonetheless, it is a special place and well worth the long, tough drive to get to the area and the challenging climb up to the top and climb down into the caves that comprise the Winter Palace.

A very fun dinner with jeep mates, extended jeep mates (we've become a convoy of 2 landcruisers, having adopted two Germans who have a similar itinerary -- or did they adopt us?) and a Swiss-German couple whom we met at the ruins -- at a boisterous, home-style Chinese/Tibetan restaurant (where there was only one price, they did not gouge the tourists) -- was a good follow-up and fuel-up after a long day of sand, sun, wind, bumpy roads and steep up and down climbs. I'm still smiling.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Imbibing Tibet

I drink relentless dusty roads under stark desert skies in frigid-tailed winds and a scorching sun. I drink highest Tibetan and Nepalese and Indian peaks, white lidded mountains against infinite expressions of blue. I drink tire-devouring rockfalls, potash earth and river crossings of gleaming mineral waters. I drink eroded hills of earthen clay of greens, browns and purples. I drink rough road tracks on mountain ledges over steep passes and undulating earth. I drink yaks, mustangs and antelopes grazing the wild, barren terrain. I drink vultures circling high above an overturned jeep down a roadside ledge. I drink death close at hand and a terrible beauty and an infinite, convex sky. I wish for release in freefall, freedom from fear when death comes and when death comes release.

What I thought would happen has happened

I am really, really sick with something gastrointestinal in nature. I feel a steel grip on my intestines and twisting and turning.

I am not surprised. After all, the person stoking the yak-dung fire is often the same person cooking the guesthouse meals. (And no, they do not wash hands after handling the yak dung and before resuming preparation of food.)

(Our pet sheep at the Darchen guesthouse being fed by the guesthouse owners' son. Notice the hands on the right.)

(This recalls a hilarious desert outing near Jaisalmer last December when mid-breakfast preparation, the camels started mating and one of the "cooks" ran out to help the process along, make the sure the correct contact was made...then resumed cooking breakfast sans hand-washing...needless to say, I skipped breakfast that morning.)

(By the way, I know all this stuff -- yak dung fires and lack of sanitary food preparation -- sounds disgusting, indeed incomprehensible, and that some of you (ahem, Mark!) can hardly believe anyone would undergo this voluntarily -- but some people know only this for their entire lives and when traveling I try to make due sans the comforts of THAT OTHER life!)

(Yak dung fires are usually well-ventilated and do not smell like yak dung, at least not to my nose. But maybe my olfactory sense has changed?)

None of the guys (my jeep-mates) are sick, just me (no surprise, I'm extra sensitive).

Anyway, we are all rougher for the wear, considering the long jeep rides over exceedingly rough and dusty terrain and really cold nights. One person in our group was so sick he dropped out for 5 days (from Saga but happily rejoined us after the kora). We are all sniffling and sneezing and sick (with the stuff that passes after a good night's rest.)

The good news is these things usually pass in 24-48 hours. I will begin dosing myself with cipro and this should be over in a day or two. I hope.

Kailash kora

(Mount Kailash, 6,714m, from afar:)

Well, I did the Mt. Kailash kora! Yup, all 5,630m of that high pass known as Droma-la.

I started at Tarboche, the first set of prayer flags en route to the Dirapuk Monastery (4,920m). The first day was a very easy 4.5 hours with gorgeous views of the north face of Kailash. And the night was cuh-cuh-cold!!! (No problem for me with my trusty sleeping bag and silk liner -- thanks for the silk liner, Melissa, that made all the difference...though convincing myself to go outside in the middle of the night in the cuh-cuh-cold to use the W.C., i.e., the ground, was another matter.)

(North face of Kailash:)

The second day looked and was daunting -- 3 steep ridges prior to reaching Droma valley with its long, steep and oxygen-starved ascent that from the valley to the pass was a loooooong climb in abundant snow, hail and high winds, and because of the weather, no views of Kailash. Not to mention river crossings (one late one in particular, as below), rockfall crossings, and lots of rough terrain (on which it's easy to twinge a knee or turn an ankle!)

Most of the tourists left early -- I did not -- I let myself get behind the first, early morning wave of tourists and the second wave of yaks, horses, porters and handlers (and let me tell you, was I tempted to rent a horse...but the handlers were in a tourist-gouging mood (200 RMB just to get over the pass!), and besides that, I wanted to do the kora with my own legs and feet.

So, I found myself alone or accompanied by the occasional pilgrim, Tibetans on the spiritual journey, chanting and prostrating. It was wonderful and prayerful. I felt a feeling of release and perfect harmony with my surroundings.

I conquered the pass in good time (the estimate is around 5-5.5 hours, I was on the other side by about 5.5 hours, according to the time of the picture I took on the other side of the pass). I made my way down from the Droma-la (which was necessary, I felt some nausea around the pass fortunately on an empty stomach), and then spent a while in a tea tent rehydrating and making friends with a Korean family there doing the kora, and got on my way - in good time to reach Gompa Monastery a couple hours before the end of daylight.

(The pass:)

(Seen from the descent following the pass:)

Well, according to the guidebooks, one treks on the outer side of the river, walks past the monastery, finds a bridge to cross the river, then doubles back. I saw pilgrims on the inner side and wondered whether I should cross, but decided to carry on with the plan. When I arrived to the vacinity of the monastery a Tibetan shepherder convinced me that there was no bridge and that I had to double back and cross the river. Or his other alternative, sleep outside! Even though I had my sleeping bag and trustly liner on my person-- no, no porter for me -- I knew I'd freeze nearly to death or to death if I did that! I don't have that thick Tibetan blood, I understand that porters and pilgrims sleep outside all the time!

Of course, reaching the monastery before nightfall was essential as with no exterior lighting (these places don't have electricity) and my lack of familiarity, I likely wouldn't have been able to detect the location in the dark! So, I doubled back by about an hour to a place where crossing the river was manageable, tripped once in the river jumping from stone to slimy stone, ending up with my right leg wet up to the hip by the river and completely soaked hiking boots. I reached the monastery just as the sun dipped below the horizon (i.e., at the last possible minute.) Since I mostly took my time throughout the (long!) day I didn't feel spent.

My (extended) group greeted me with a round of applause (they didn't think I'd make it that night! hmmph!) well, I guess I don't blame them for doubting me, 5630m is no easy matter!

(From the third day hike:)

After a short and easy third day, returning to Darchen at about noon, the grandmother at the guest house returned at about 3pm -- from her 1-day /12.5 hour kora (!!), her 11th of the year (!!!) Last year she did 16 koras and this year she hopes to do 16 or 17!

So I am humbled by these devout and physically superior Tibetans, really humbled (and it feels good.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

One more contact from me in Saga

Now in Saga, elevation 4,290m, a slightly larger town (with internet!) after a very rough and dusty jeep ride through unpaved terrain and over a pass of 4,890m (!!) with river crossings and construction delays and much more -- a stunning sunrise, an open sky, that quality of light that I have seen only in these high altitudes! Though I should be sleeping not writing, I think it's better if I try to keep my blog current with my actual trip. So I wrote about Lhasa for you. Pictures later (I promise).

Lhasa -- initial impressions and feelings

(In Lhasa, in Barkhor Square, approaching the Jokhang Temple:)

(View of the kora around Jokhang Temple from the roof of Mandala Hotel:)

(Potala Palace in the sky:)

(Mountains everywhere! (Chinese development, too):)

Lhasa is a beautiful, prayerful place, the spiritual heart of Buddhism, and is surrounded by tallest mountains and enveloped in a rich history. Unfortunately, the spiritual heart is weak and the historical development unraveling (unraveled?) -- but more on those thoughts later, first my initial impressions.

In Lhasa, Buddhist pilgrims can be seen in constant prayer. The older folk can be seen walking koras (clockwise circumambulations) of temples and other set routes, chanting and spinning their prayer wheels (also in a clockwise motion). The younger pilgrims can be seen doing full-body prostrations in one graceful motion, starting on feet and ending with forehead onground -- repeatedly, even in the rain and cold. Every early morning, the main temple in theTibetan part of town, Jokhang Temple, is a crush of people to enter, to kora, to prostrate and to pray with water and yak butter and money in hand as offerings to the various shrines within the temple. It's an amazing otherworldly, devotional energy, and within it, I feel contemplative and prayerful.

Tibetan Buddhism was heavily influenced by India (the birthplace of Buddhism) and China (though Chinese Buddhism has since virtually disappeared). Because Tibetan Buddhism is one of the oldest forms, it also was mixed with the particular folk religious beliefs of Tibet -- which makes it particularly distinctive.

There are many layers (of course).

Tibetans view the current situation as an illegal occupation (since 1950) by China of a sovereign Tibet. Indeed Tibet had a rich, long history as a sovereign nation (also with long-standing ties to Mongolia for protection against enemies, economic support, etc.).

These political problems directly correlate to economic problems -- for example, use (abuse?) of the natural resources of Tibet by the Chinese and lack of development of Tibet as an individual economic entity able to stand on its own feet. (To be fair, some would say that China has invested a lot of money towards developing Tibet in terms of infrastructure and other economic development.)

In all of this, socioeconomic tensions arise, including lack of economic opportunity for most Tibetans, discrimination against Tibetans by the Chinese for well-paying jobs, business contracts, etc.

This gives way to a whole host of social problems including rampant alcoholism, prostitution and a lot of undernourished and uneducated people who everyday struggle to live and have no access to education or any other economic opportunities (a lot of begging in the streets and in the fields, everywhere!) I saw the alcoholism myself first hand. It was not unusual to see Tibetan men stumbling around drunk by early evening.

Many tourists feel hassled here. While it is true that there are other types of hassling in China, the begging here is really intense. (And I have had this much hassle or more in other countries.)

As for me, I can see and somewhat understand the political, economic and social problems, and certainly my description only scratches the surface (!) and for me that understanding eases the anxiety when beggars personally approach me.

In fact, the meditative, prayerful atmosphere in Lhasa and my meditations and prayers in particular, keep me open and growing, and I feel very emotional. (I cried at Jokhang Temple!) When I visit temples or other holy places, because I lack specific familiarity with the Buddhas and their stories, I examing each Buddhas, his or her different countenances and features, and I try to find the predominant single characteristic of the particular Buddha -- which might be serenity or openness or lightness of heart or wisdom/full knowing or justice or strength or protection or even detachment or passion. I think about the characteristic for myself and how to deepen these traits within me. Particular for me is unburdening my own heart.

Here, my spirit is well fed.

On the personal side, I've met several fellow travelers and the atmosphere among travelers is congenial and convival. Because many people have come here to do additional trip to Everest Base Camp or Kailash or to numerous other places in proximity to Lhasa, there are message boards around the hotels/guesthouses. People leave notices to get in contact to join together for these trips (which are priced by the vehicle, not bythe number of people, so making it affordable means getting enough people to join together on a trip. There are usually several similar trip happening simultaneously, so this is easy to arrange (my arrangements were made on the night I arrived!) Many travelers talk and meet up with many other travelers and this is all social.

Lhasa fills me through and through with the beautiful and the terrible.

On the Terrible

Someone whom I met and quickly became dear to me when I met her was undergoing something terrible in Lhasa -- call it the convergence of the Chinese oppression and the Tibetan self-punishing response.

One day, a lovely girl with the sweetest smile and high energy and grace was sketching in Potala Palace park, and when she got up to stand, accidentally bumped a toddler (one of the many toddler-beggars, or toddlers sent by their parents to beg). The toddler fell, crying and ended up with a bloody cheek. The mother, close at hand, started screaming, "She hit my child, she hit my child!" The next thing you know, police were on the scene and 10 witnesses had signed that she hit the child (as opposed to accidentally bumping the child) and her passport was confiscated. The video cameras around Potala (also all over Lhasa) later revealed that she was in a blind spot and could not corroborate her story. The parents were demanding inexorbitant sums of money (thousands of euros) -- and money she as a student did not have nor family to help and an embassy ignoring her. She was facing the real possibility of jail time.

Was this a scam? Intentional? Did they pick a blind spot to the cameras? Were they demanding a high amount of money to split among 10 or 11 people ("witnesses" + family).

I was not present at the incident, just a bystander, trying to be there for her. The PSB and the so-called Bureau of Foreign Affairs (into which building she was not allowed to step) were talking out of both sides of their mouths. At times she (we?) were followed.

It was exhausting and sad. I realized that could happen to anyone, including me (though I and others would be able to pay my way out).

In the end, the family was demanding too much money, and she was apologetic and compromising. Her embassy got involved and the police wanted to conclude the matter. She paid a small fee, got her passport back and left the next day.

Exhaustion, relief and a necessarily abrupt leaving of Lhasa.


Special thanks and love to Dermot for being my GPS, my porter, my back-up plan, my personal comedic and for helping me break in my hiking boots all over the Tibetan quarter. Are you sure that I can't convince you to be my porter in Africa? ;)

Special thanks and love to Fee in spite of our mutual wanderings through the Chinese/Tibetan labyrinth. Your courage and resilience are astounding, you truly are a Fee-rie, and flying, you will always be free! See you in Barcelona!!

Nam-tso, the largest lake in Tibet, the second-largest saltwater lake in China and the highest saltwater lake in the world at 4720m.:

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Under the radar

I'm in Lhatse now, a 1-street town in southwest Tibet, not too far from the Nepal border, elevation 4,050m. This will be my last internet for about 2 weeks (oh, how will I survive??@!?)

The landscape on the drive out was stunning -- and made my heart open and buoyant.

I love the dancing cloud patterns on the mountains, and I can never stop looking at them. I love that while standing on the ground, I can see the clouds directly on the horizon. I love the bright, expansive Tibetan sky and quality of color and light at this elevation. I love that sometimes driving between 2 mountain peaks it's raining, then a moment just past the strait, no rain. I love that while driving on some of the high passes I am looking down upon other (very high!) mountains.

I am getting a little worried about Mt. Kailash. While I've had no serious problems with the altitude, my leg muscles feel atrophied after any uphill excursion... Well, leave it to me to pick one of the most difficult treks in Tibet for my first trip. So please wish me luck and send me white light, especially September 20-22 when I will be on the kora.

So, now I sign off for 2 weeks. When I return, I promise I will catch you up on my time in Lhasa and the rest of my Western Tibet trip in words and pictures.

Lhasa train: a personal experience

(From September 9, 2006)

Said goodbye to people at the guesthouse with mutual promises to see one another in Lhasa -- one, a RTW traveler like me but with other destinations (Hi Mirako!), another who plans to study Tibetan language for the year in support of graduate studies in Buddhism.

Boarded the train amidst the usual controled chaos at the (Chengdu) train station -- thousands of people yelling, milling about the general vacinity of the entrance, trying to summon your attention to buy a map or take a taxi. Plenty of touts (halooooow, halooooow...heuhheuhhueh). People shoving to get into the station itself (the first of 2 or 3 "funneling" processes -- squeezing a 15-people wide mob into a single file entryway for the first of two security checks. Lots of hard pushing and shoving (ouch! watch it!). Then a similar shoving process into the waiting room for the particular train number, then, finally pushing and shoving to get out the door onto the track where the train can be boarded. Oh, did I mention the pushing and shoving? Once on the platform, things are relatively calm while finding the appropriate car number and boarding.

The Lhasa trains are new -- fewer cars per train (15 or 16) -- and they have that new train smell (well for the first 3 or 4 hours of the 48 hour ride or so). Lots of train propaganda piped in autoloop over the loadspeakers in Mandarin and English!

When approaching the first (of 2 nights) nightfall, tubes (in sealed plastic packaging) are handed out in case of altitude sickness. Should that occur, one need only connect it to a metal post above ones's bunk (I took the hard sleeper, 6 bunks per compartment with 3 top to bottom -- I like the top bunk!) -- for oxygen. (No one in our compartment needed it.)

Vivid dreams about many things -- contending with boredom and increasingly and at some points severely disgusting toilets (squat style) as the time progresses. Can't take pictures because the windows are sealed.

A disappointing denouement to say the least... but it got me to Lhasa!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Dear Family and Friends,

I'm in Lhasa now.

(Yes, I arrived by train! No, no difficulties with high altitude except a little insomnia, my usual.)

I have so much to tell and am so short of sleep, and I am leaving for Mt. Kailash tomorrow morning!! I'll be in Western Tibet until October 1.

I am behind on my posts (apologies). Though I am not posting frequently, I am writing, so when I transcribe to the internet, I hope to convey the feelings and flavor of my experiences for you.

Til the next post ... wish me luck on the kora (it's going to be tough)!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wolong hospitality

I went to Wolong to get away from Chengdu, to do some easy hiking and to see the giant pandas. There are two types of pandas, red pandas and giant pandas. Giant pandas are the black and white type resembling bears but with a vegetarian diet (mostly prefering bamboo).

The Wolong Nature Reserve was the first created to help prevent extinction of the giant pandas which at that point in 1975 seemed imminent -- with about 145 giant pandas counted in a census at that time. Wolong Nature Reserve protects over 200,000 hectares (or almost 500,000 acres!) of forest and panda habitat. Lately, the panda population has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the efforts of China and the international community in researching panda breeding in captivity, panda infant nutrition, etc. The most recent giant panda census in 2004 enumerated over 1600!!

I visited the Giant Panda Research Center and saw many, many of these docile, peace-loving creatures!


In Wolong, I experienced true Sichuan hospitality -- a big, warm, raucous evening gathering of hot pot (a Sichuan specialty) lots of toasts (only beer, thankfully, Chinese drinking contests are legendary) --followed by karaoke (of course! this is Asia after all!) -- the people were other travelers and myself being feted by several people we met in the one-street town of Wolong.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Mt. Emei

It is about 3000m to the top in 3 days, and it matters where you start, otherwise, you will have to spend more time (if you have it, which I did not) in a state of skank -- I am not kidding -- no showers at the monasteries, unless you are willing to bathe in freezing cold water in a cement stall with no door (single sex bathrooms, of course, but still).

Well, I had neither the correct strategy nor complete information.

This is what they don't write in guidebooks: the most logical place to start appears to be Baoguo Temple, which is to your left when facing Emei. BUT DON'T START THERE if you intend to get to the top by your own exertion. Instead, start climbing the stairs at the Wannian cable car station.

Even though I didn't get to the top (yes, I'm rubbing the salt into my own wound!), I had a great time. Here are some exhibits for your perusal:


Monday, September 04, 2006

I need a massage (that won't be hard to find here in Chengdu)

In and around Chengdu:

Well, instead of calves, I have 2 rocks; instead of thighs, I have 2 large rocks. I'm mostly okay -- so long as I don't move a muscle.

At the moment I'm taking perverse pleasure in squashing the mosquitoes (against the computer screen) which dare present themselves to me -- in retaliation for the 50 some-odd bites I have on my person (and this count is no exaggeration).

I hiked around Mt. Emei for 3 (slightly hellish, subtropically wet) days. I won't say 'I hiked up Mt. Emei' because I did not reach the top. The climate was moist to say the least. I could only get dry by sleeping in wet clothes under monastic covers. And, yes, I forgot the mosquito repellent in Chengdu.

I have more to tell, but at the moment I'm blogged out and needing sleep. More to come.

Brilliant or crazy?

They say Emperor Qinshihuang, who united seven states to form a unified China, was crazy-brilliant if not borderline insane. Afterall, who could unite seven disparate nations into one -- with a shared script and currency. Who could conceive of building a Great Wall to span the border of a vast land for early warning and deterrence of enemies from afar.

..To add to the insane part, imagine the resources and planning to create sentinels for his own tomb, a force some 8,000 terracotta warriors strong, each with different facial features and hands, in battle formation to "guard" one's grave (...just about as effective as a great wall, I suppose.)

Constructed around 220 B.C. and discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974 near Xi'an, about 75 km northwest of Beijing, this was one of the world's great archeological finds (and the excavation is ongoing).

These soldiers look rather impotent, don't you think? Well, an army without its 40,000+ weapons would be quite ineffectual. (Their weapons are housed at the Xi'an museum.)

(Alec, I thought of you in your archeology days, even though at that time you weren't yet a part of the family. I hope you enjoy these photos!)

The Summer Palace is exquisite

Oh, and did I mention the Temple of Heaven...


Look at what I found to eat at an outdoor food market in Beijing!

My selection: