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March 31, 2004

An interesting life - NOT!

Wow! Nearly three days with out posting - you'd think I'd have a lot to report by now. Sadly I don't. I have to scratch my head thinking of where the time went.

Sunday was spent recovering from last week and spending time with the cutest little monkey, I mean girl, from the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV). Only four and a half, her mother left her at the boarding school and returned to Nepal to work (I am not sure what the deal with her father is). My friend promised to look out after her so she took her home for the day to give her a little extra attention.

The TCV is mostly for orphans, destitute children, and those who's families are still in Tibet but send their children to get an education not dictated by China. There are also day schools for children who's families live near by. The point of this education is to keep Tibetan culture alive while in exile. Today I interviewed a woman who said that she felt as long as children were learning Tibetan (and learning in Tibetan), using it every day, the rest of their culture would be around. For those who aren't so sure it all rests on the language, the TCV also has cooking, dancing, drama, singing, and all sorts of other clubs to help interested youth learn more about the traditional arts. Having been to a few TCV performance, I think they are doing a marvelous job. As well as Tibetan things, the children also learn English, Hindi, computers, and all the regular subjects.

Since it is tough being away from your family, sometimes for years, the school is organized into "homes" of 35-40 children (they would like it to be less but the children seem to arrive faster than they can build new homes). The children are aged between four and fourteen (after that they live in hostels) and live with two "home parents." The older children look out after the younger ones, the parents look out after every one and they all have chores that help keep dinner on the table and the home clean. It is a remarkable operation but my friend worries that Nautu, the four and half year old, doesn't get enough individual attention. So she visits often, brings presents, teaches her to count and the abc's. Sunday she managed to take her home for the whole day. They bought candy, played in the playground, played with cars and balls, ate chicken (apparently a real hit) and other things.

The rest of the week was spent, um, reading, yeah that's it... reading!

March 28, 2004


As if I hadn't been getting enough excercise lately, some friends and I decided to hike up to Triund for the day. I figured with all the hard work I needed a vacation - the sort you take when you are twenty-six because I think in a few years I will not consider a seven hour hike a vacation.

Oh but it was worth it - this is the view from half-way up. Sadly it was a bit hazy, but I could still see far enough to notice the curvature of the earth. Photographs never do these sights justice but at least it gives a vague idea. Today I am paying for my fun, a slight sunburn (I wore sunscreen and a hat!), and very very sore muscles. This too shall pass...


I have been busy! Thursday I finally visited Norbulingka. Named after the Dalai Lama's summer palace in Lhasa, Norbulingka in India is every bit as beautiful as the one in Lhasa (full of beautiful plants, fountains, and ponds) but created specifically for keeping Tibetan arts alive. People learn metal working, statue making, appliqué, wood working, carpentry, and tailoring. The man on the right is creating a thangka, a cloth religious painting. He has been working at Norbulingka for twelve years.

Friday I finally made it to the Library, a thirty minute walk down the mountain (which means a forty-five minute walk up the mountain to get back home) and as if that wasn't enough excercise my friends and I decided to walk another thirty minutes down to Lower Dharamsala to go shopping a bit.

The library was awesome but sadly I will not be here long enough to take advantage of its philosophy and language classes. There is simply too much to do and learn here. Though small it still had several magazines and books pertaining to my study of Tibetan culture so I shall have to go back a few times, getting lots and lots of excercise...

March 24, 2004


We have already established that my taste in music is not to be trusted (I blame my father for this but that is another story), however I still must say that I love traditional Tibetan music. I still haven't gotten a handle on all their intstruments but there are banjo/guitar liked stringed ones, a viola/bass guitar one that I am not so crazy about, mandolins, and a lot of it is done with a quirky emphasis on the second beat which makes it surprisingly similar to reggae.

As much as I love the traditional stuff, I am trying to trace the evolution of culture so I set out to figure out how this delightful music has changed in the past fifty years. What I have discovered so far is surprisingly predictable. It has been electricfied, some people have started mixing it into techno-dance numbers, others pick up the pace or add distortion to make it more grungy or rock-like, while others emphasize the twang in a way that, due to my revulsion to U.S. country music, turns my stomach a bit.

However, despite the predictability of this evolution, the results are still unique - Tibetan rock does not sound like the rock that grew out of the U.S., which doesn't sound like some of my favorite rock bands from other countries. Thinking about this, it occurred to me that music is perhaps one of the few areas where blending is good, especially as long as there remains interest in the old areas. I suspect food is similar but a little bit more difficult to import and export. It seems that even as we complain that cultures all over the world are dying to homogenization resulting from globalization music is just getting more diverse and more interesting. Also, as the blending of cultures creates new musical genres, it also creates a wider audience for the traditional styles. Most people's music collections only grow as they get older. Discovering positive aspects to the way we are evolving as humans is always a joy.

March 23, 2004

Red China in Tibet

I saw Kundun (the story of the Dalai Lama) for the second time in five years last night. It almost made me cry. My Tibetan friend, who arrived her from Amdo about ten years ago did cry. He has seen the movie at least five times.

There are no easy answers or summaries to this conflict, no time line, no idea how or when it is going to end. And of course due to time and language limitations I could only get the briefest view of how life is in Tibet today, under the Chinese.

First of all, I heard conflicting reports about how many Chinese versus how many Tibetans live Tibet, especially Lhasa. Some people said Tibetans were at risk of becoming a minority in their own country, others said that most of the Chinese had gone back to China by now. Having been there I still can not tell you which one of these rumors bears a closer resemblence to truth. As much as I want to believe that it is easy to tell Chinese and Tibetans a part, it isn't, at least not for me. Sure, there are a few distinct charactaristics - Tibetans tend to be taller and darker than Chinese with less round faces. They kind of look Native American at times, but those are just generalizations, in real life the lines are blurry. I know some Tibetans who look very Chinese and there are many people who look like they could either be Chinese looking Tibetans or vice versa. Also, in Lhasa Chinese sounds a lot like Tibetan (to my untrained ear) so I couldn't even tell people apart that way.

However, there is a Chinese part of town and a Tibetan quarter. The Tibetan quarter is small compared to the rest of the city. It is also more crowded, dirtier, with more beggars, street vendors, and poor people. There are no monks in the Chinese part of town.

Every one I met was pleasant, but I wasn't about to talk politics with anyone. One Canadian girl I met said a local woman asked her what she thought about the situation in Tibet. The girl replied that that was a tough question but after thinking a moment said she thought it was good. The woman approved of her answer but warned her, saying, "you must be careful!"

I got an impression, whether real or imagined I cannot say, that Lhasa was a city of foreigners, not westerners, but like it isn't any one's home town. All the Chinese were just there to make money, they don't really like it there and hope to return to mainland one day, there are many pilgrims who are visited for religious regions, many people move there from the country because of the opportunities but nobody really feels at home there because you constanty have to watch your back with the Chinese, making sure not to anger the wrong people, to say or do the wrong thing.

My western friends who lived there were my main sources and according to them the PSB (Public Security Bureau) is every where. I definitely got the feeling that Big Brother was watching, but maybe that was just me projecting.

The pilgrims didn't seem limited at all. There were tons of them doing prostrations on the koras (paths around holy sites), making offerings in the temples, chanting prayers. However a western friend said this is a new developement, only allowed with in the last five or ten years.

There were also many monks, and I was curious about the monasteries because I heard that monks aren't allowed to study. I didn't see much evidence of studying. The biggest monastery I went to, Tashi Lhunpo, had young monks in a circle learning prayers orally from an elder. Apparently there are debates at Sera monastery. Every one I entered had rows and rows of Tibetan style texts in locked shelves reaching up to high ceilings. I didn't see people learning and Tashi Lhunpo seemed to be the only place that had enough monks to actually create a class. Other wise they seemed to be more like curators and to be there to bless pilgrims who came by with offerings.

I saw lots of Tibetans working on roads, both men and woman. They seemed in good spirits, frequently smiling and waving at us as we passed them in a cloud of dust. But for all the Chinese claim to have done for Tibet, the road still sucked (and the construction they were doing was tearing it apart to make a new one) the labor didn't seem that organized, there were no trees (Chinese claim to have been replanting trees for the past thirty years), many small towns either didn't have electricity or had just enough for a dim bulb and a television (a favorite national past time). In door plumbing is pretty much unheard of (though fancy places have indoor out houses) and by that I mean running water and drains! The odd thing is that this is all on the "Friendship Highway." I could understand if I was exploring remote villages that rarely saw westerners and took days to reach, but most of these places were with in a day's drive from Shigatse or Lhasa (and with good roads it would have been a half a day) and were frequented by tourists. Granted I don't mind roughing it, but I just found it strange that from all I have studied of Tibetan history, outside of the cities very little seems to have changed within Tibet. Now maybe this is good, part of the conflict stemmed because Tibetans didn't want to change. But you would think that on major tourist routes, more modernization would have just happened as a result of the wealth coming from the tourists.

However, I think there is a bribe system that costs a lot there. One Tibetan person who I did manage to talk to had gotten a Chinese passport. It cost ten times the stated price, plus numerous dinners, cigarrettes, alcohol and other gifts from him to obtain this legal document allowing him to leave the country. And there is all the money fleeing Tibetans pay guides to lead them on the twenty-seven day hike across the Himalayas. I suspect bribes and taxes are the biggest effect of Chinese rulership these days. Although there is probably a lot of self censorship going on, author Isabel Allende once noted that when you have an authoritarian government (like there was in Chile, her homeland) the biggest effect is self-censorship. People don't want to get in trouble so they often censor themselves even more than the regime does, thus very little imformation gets exchanged. However, contrary to what the Lonely Planet wrote, you can get the BBC website there, as well as the NY Times, and lots of others. In fact the only one web site I couldn't get was Tibet.com, the official site of the Government in Exile. I suspect they are stricter about sites in Chinese and Tibetan, after all, those who speak English, never mind read it well enough to read online newspapers, are very few. My boyfriend heard they have made great leaps and bounds restricting access to porn sites but a fellow travelor laughed when I mentioned this. He said at the very popular Internet cafe downstairs, the home page was a porn site. This cafe frequently filled up with young boys who played interactive video games with each other for hours.

And for all the people that flee and chaffe under the Chinese rule, I am sure there are some Tibetans who love it and thrive. Nothing is ever cut and dried, we are too diverse an animal.

So in other words, it is all inconclusive - very inconclusive. I guess I just have to go back.

March 21, 2004

Rollin Holy

I sort of kind of went to church today. I mean it wasn't Christian and I wasn't inside but it was Sunday, there was prayer and meditation and lots and lots of people.

I managed to catch the last three days of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teachings on Words of my perfect teacher by Patrul Rinpoche. I have not read it and missed most of the two week lessons, but as I understand it the book is about the basic practice of Dzog Chen Buddhism. I just attended the last three days hoping to get some good advice.

In Bangalore, whenever I spoke with Tibetans, they never said their Lamas gave teachings or lessons. Instead, they always referred to it as advice. I thought this amusing, thinking of advice that patronising elders travelers have given me, like not to trust certain people, or always eat my breakfast.

However the more I thought about it, many times I feel like I get more advice from lamas than teachings. A teaching implies learning something that you won't have to learn again (like how to tie your shoes) but advice is something that you need to hear again and again, sometimes it hits you just right, other times not at all.

So, joining ten days late, I knew I wasn't going learn much about a book I have not read about basic Buddhist practices, but I also knew that I needed grounding. I needed to sit still and reflect, to hear basic words of wisdom and think about ways to apply them to my life and its challenges. I figured interspersed in the teachings there would surely be a few gems that could be taken on their own. And the rest of the time I would meditate, watch my mind at work and play, watch my emotions rise and soar (they do this quite rapidly), try to absorb some of the lessons I have learned in the hurried past days, weeks, months, years; you get the picture.

It worked. I feel marvelous. In fact, I should do this more often. I bet this is why all those people go to church. One of the gems H.H. mentioned is that we do need to make practice, meditation, and study, a part of our everyday lives. He said that even the most intelligent person will not understand the Abi Dharma if he does not study. The Abi Dharma is only one of many things I do not understand. My favorite piece of wisdom I remember is "you should use this knowledge not as a window to look at other people's faults but as a mirror to examine your own." I have rarely heard that so beautifully put. Another bit of advice that hit home was "don't rush so much." I don't think I can ever hear that one enough. And of course he always reminds us to "be thankful for this precious human birth."

Although I have been exposed to buddhist principles for over half my life, it has taken awhile for me to understand why I should actually practice and study this religion that holds such mystical attraction. When I was young I remember the adults all talking about recovering from their mistakes and how they need to renounce the world. As a youngster I wasn't ready to renounce a world I did not know and I didn't feel I had made any mistakes I needed to recover from. I decided to find out what these grown ups were talking about.

I did.

I am still not ready for the voluntary renunciation part but in the past ten years I have suffered enough loss to realize that losing is a big part of life. It is a huge part of life. Even if you win games, money, jobs, prestige, and other things, you still lose time, energy, friends, and family (sometimes to death, other times to miscommunications or distance). And eventually we will all lose what matters most to us - our life. Thus, if I am going to live a joyous life, I had better get good and happy about losing. I don't know if this is possible but there are some suspiciously joyous looking monks around here saying it is.

Tibet Nepal Thailand Picture Links

When I first realized I was going to Lhasa alone I was a bit apprehensive. Ironically, when I first dreamed of going to India the end result was going to be me traveling alone, but in Europe. Amazing how things change and it is still possible to accomplish personal goals. By the time I realized I would be doing the roof of the world solo I had a bit more experience under my belt than five months ago so felt it was a just challenge. It actually hardly seemed like a challenge at all and I was rarely alone.

First I met Tom, a traveling merchant of sorts, who had been to Lhasa enough to be able to give me tons of pointers, recommend a good cheap hotel and even introduce me to a few locals. It took a few days to adjust to the altitude though so I was only able to follow through on a few of his suggestions.

Lhasa appeared to me both a small town and a bit city at once. On the Chinese side the streets were wide and clean with few people. In the small Tibetan quarter one could easily get lost, wandering around for hours without covering more than a square mile of the city. The tiny windy streets full of people and vendors just lent themselves to exploration and contemplation. Near the beginning of the Tibetan quarter is the Jokhang, a large ancient temple estimated to have been built around mid-seventeenth century. During this time the king was marrying a Buddhist Nepalese princess who was bringing with her a large statue of Akshobhya, the Jokhang was built to house this buddha. Later, it also became the home of a statue brought by a Buddhist Chinese prince. Somehow the place eventually was named after this statute, of Jowo Sakyamuni. It is a large unimpressive structure, simply built with the white sloped walls and a few windows. However the view from the top of the three story structure is lovely. This is the only place where I took pictures of the Potala, to be found by clicking here: potala
or here - you can decide which one you like better

One of the main symbols of buddhism that can be found everywhere is an eight spoked wheel surrounded by two deer. This represents the eight-fold path that Buddha taught and his first teaching which was in deer park. There was one such lovely figure on top of the Jokhang Here is a picture of the square and pedestrian street in front of the Jokhang, taken from the top

Once I became sick of walking around the Bharkor (the Jokhang area) I finally decided to brave the massive Potala. I already tried (and failed) to describe the numerous rooms I went through so I won't try again. No pictures are allowed but I don't think I am a qualified enough photographer to do it justice anyhow. However, for a few extra bucks I was able to climb to top and snap a few photos there. Here are two shots of the roof: potala top one
three stupas to the north.
Here is another picture to the north of the city.

And this is to the south - you can see how large and modern this holy city has become.

The last pictures I took in the city were of the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer home. It was a beautiful park with normal sized houses, and an abundance of shrubs, trees, and grasses that looked like they weren't getting all the care some think they should. I always preferred things a little wild so loved this neglected solitary place. It was great wandering around the gardens reflecting on the history that went on here. I only took two picture, both of the cutest little pool/thing that didn't have any water.
number one
number two

After getting my fill of the city I hopped in a toyota landcruiser with three strangers and headed south. We left early in the morning and it seemed to take forever to climb that first pass (continual hairpin turns all the way up). Finally we made it and I was rewarded with snowcapped peaks again (I had wondered where they all were hiding). Warning these are all of mountains, so I can understand if you quickly get bored and don't want to view them all
Kambala Pass View
Second Kambala Pass View
Actually this one has a lake in it - according to the Lonely Planet Yamdrok-tso is a holy lake considered to hold down one of the arms of a demon which resides in Tibet. It is a dead lake, but that just means it has now known source feeding it. Despite this the Chinese are still draining it to create electricity for Lhasa, claiming that excess power will pump water back up into the lake to keep its levels steady. The waters are indeed receding.

After we decended into the valley, by the lakes edge we stopped for about twenty minutes because the construction completely blocked the road. That is when I snapped this, one of my favorite photos.

Next we wound our way up the next pass, known as Karol-la. This is where we saw some (small) glacier activity and a river the eerily resembled the lake we had just left behind.
small glacier
Karol-la Pass
Karol-la Pass River

Next stop was the gyantse kumbum, which I honestly don't understand the full point of. Whatever the significance of kumbums, which are multi-storied structures built in a certain shape for devotional regions, the Gyantse one is the largest in the world. Here is what it looks like from the outside

The inside has many levels, I believe six in all but we only were able to see five. Each level has lots and lots of rooms, all connecting to a walk way around the outside. Each room is for a diety of some sort and contains a statue as well as tons of wall paintings. Here are some of the photos I took from the inside:

Inside number one
Number Two
number three
number four
number five

The outside was beautiful as well - here are a few close ups
close up one
close up two

The view from the walkway was gorgeous. This is a picture of where the monks stay but it also shows what a typical house looks like - you get to see the simple white sloping walls

This is a picture of the Gyantse Dzong, also known as a fort. We didn't feel like hiking of the hill to check out the inside - maybe next time.

After we left Gyantse we went over another pass where we got quite cozy with glaciers and saw more mountains (I can't believe I am not sick of them yet). This picture is of prayer flags and katas (silky white scarves) that typically adorn the height of all passes. This is also the time when people pull over to stretch their legs and relieve their bladders
small glacier
Karol Pass River

That night we arrived tired in Shigatse, spent the night, had a leisurely morning before heading off to Shegar for the night. On the way to Shegar we stopped at the highest point I have ever stood (with both feet still on the ground)

After our night Shegar we finally arrived at Rhongphu, the tiny monastery eight kilometers away from Everest base camp. It was too cloudy to see any mountains but this photo of the hills on the way to base camp turned out alright

We got up early the next day, before light but we could still see the clouds had all blown away and Everest was magnificent. Unfortunately I am not a very good photographer in lowlight conditions, this is the best I could do before we hopped back in the car hoping to make it to Shigatse in one day:

On the way back as we climbed the last pass in the Chomolangma reserve I got some beautiful views of the famous mountain:

Here we are together
Okay, enough of Mt Everest, Cho Oyo, a massive neigbor is getting jealous.

On the way back we stopped at Tashi Lhunpo but it didn't seem photo worthy. Then once in Lhasa I rushed right back the way I came, to see all those sights again (they were just as beautiful the second time). The only difference was as I got closer to the border we dipped into a deep valley were there were lots of plants and then decended aways into lush warm Nepal - to get an idea of the contrast here is a snap of the Tibet/Nepal border area (no way was I going to get caught taking photos at the actual border):
Tibet/Nepal border
yeah, I know it is kind of blurry - I was in a moving car on a bumby road!

Before I forget, here are two photos of that alternate transportation I kept gawking at:
slow going
tractor thingy

And to take you way back in time - here are the baby Chengdu Pandas

There are a few photos of similar things that I didn't put in here, as well as previous pictures I took in India - if you haven't seen them yet and have patience to wait for all the thumbnails to load go to: www.nevadawine.com/~mimi

March 17, 2004

Back in Delightful Delhi

There were problems.

But the important thing is I arrived safely back in Delhi, only two hours later than planned. It is nice to be back.

It is dirtier, hotter, smellier, noisier, and more crowded than I recall but I still love it. My skin loves the humidity but the rest of the jury is out on that one.

Not only did I arrive last night, as planned, but I aready have an overnight bus ticket to McCleod Ganj, where I will be able to finally start pounding out some papers. I only hope the ones I have been writing in my head for the past month show up for the computer.


My beloved host-sister Priya loaned me a Ganesha (the elephant headed diety) pendant to wear around my neck on this trip. Son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha is the diety you pray to first and is also known as the remover of all obstacles.

Regardless of my superstitions or what I believe (which is too complicated and boring to go into here) I am surprised at how few obstacles I have encountered on this trip. Rather than take the credit myself and get a swelled head that will only deflate when obstacles finally do arrive, I would rather give it to Ganesha. Yesterday I arrived in Kathmandu and immediately began looking for the first flight to India. All of today's flights were booked but the agents told me to check in this morning and maybe something would show up.

Thank you Ganesha, it did. I now have a six-thirty flight to Delhi, and if no other obstacles arrive (one never knows) I should be booked into a hotel in Delhi before nine tonight.

Kathmandu has been good to me but it is so much like Delhi my curiosity isn't aroused. There are tons of tourists combing the streets, restuarants offering what ever I prefer and though at a different exchance rate, the money is still called "rupee." My head is spinning from all of the travel, I have finally gotten to the point where I occasionally forget what city I am in (I keep thinking this is Thailand again). It will be nice to head up to McCleod Ganj and stay a few weeks, getting some of this school work done before heading back to Bangalore for the last rites before graduation in the U.S. It is all happening so fast! I only hope my thesis follows suit.

March 15, 2004

Coming down the mountain

I am too tired to do it justice, two nights in a row of staying up late talking with strangers and getting up too many hours before dawn to ride on a bumpy dirt road all day has worn me down a bit.

However, the beauty was so intense, so heartwrenching, so inspiring, that I feel compelled to express just a bit of it.

The ride from Lhasa to the border was much as expected (I had done most of it before) so you will just have to wait for the pictures (due in a week or so) to learn more of what I saw. However, the last little bit, after the great pass when we started going down and down and down for what seemed liked forever was amazing and different. The hills were high on either side with plants clinging to either side, still asleep from the cold of winter but ready to wake up and turn green any moment! I could feel it, the humidy, the rising temperature, on the south side the trees were numerous and green! Of course they were evergreens, but still, it was refreshing after all the brown I have seen. Best of all when I craned my neck out the window and looked up, just before the sky I could actually see snow on some of the peaks.

Then we went through the crazy border towns (which reminded me very much of U.S./Mexico border towns) and when we were in Nepal I swear it was twenty degrees warmer and rising. And now the trees were not just evergreen but fresh, just turned green ones too. They had that light ethereal look, as if they were all wearing halos (can you tell I had just spent twelve days looking a browns and twenty of the last twenty-eight hours in a car).

And now, a short day and a half after we left, a Korean, Tibetan, French, Japanese and I arrived in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. Now that I am out of Tibet it seems very far away, almost unreal. I still have much to digest of my time, thoughts, and opinions in that place. I censored myself a bit while I was there but I will try to tell more now that I am out of the Chinese's territory, as soon as I get some sleep that is...

March 14, 2004

Over the pass and through the valley

After five days on rough roads I am back in Lhasa and am nearly at a loss for words. If I dig deep enough I think I can find few. However, I know that it will only portray a fraction of what I felt, saw, and experienced. Hopefully with in a week or two I will be able to post some pictures that do justice to the beauty of this country.

After Shigatse we drove on the friendship highway (a misnomer if there ever was one - it isn't friendly, and ninety percent of it is unpaved, occasionally it is little more than a cantering path or a river bed. True it is a way that is high but that seems to be stretching the definition of highway a bit) east to Shegar, also known as New Tingri. The next day we awoke with the rising sun (at nine a.m.) and headed to Chomolangma (a.k.a Everest) base camp. We arrived at Rhongphu monastery around three p.m. and attempted to hike the remaining eight kilometers up to the famous 5000 meter high camp. I only made it seven and was rewarded with a massive 24 hour headache that 1000 mgs of Aspirin and another 1000 of acetaminophen couldn't kill. It was still a beatiful hike, especially when the snow started coming down in large soft fluffly flakes. Of course this meant we couldn't see any mountains, or even more than fifty feet in front of us. This didn't stop four Germans from heading off into the whiteness trying to find a glacier and a place to set up a tent for the night.

Our driver took us back down to the monastery where we stayed for the night. It was a true cultural experience. What sort of culture I couldn't say - from what I understand Tibetans (especially around Losar) are usually a bit cleaner than these nuns. The outhouse was so full it was literally overflowing and we all opted to brave the wind, snow, and open air behind the building instead of step inside that place. The rooms looked like they hadn't been cleaned in years and for dinner we ate instant noodle soup (the kind that comes in a cardboard bucket that you fill with hot water) and we had to bribe people to light the stove. Of course there was no electricity.

It was still fun and now everything seems posh! I have never enjoyed two-minute-noodles so much in my life. The altitude was a bit much for my blood though and I was glad the next day when we decended to lower lands. In comparison Lhasa seems warm. We returned last night, after spending the morning at Tashi Lhunpo, one of the largest monasteries in Tibet and home of the Panchen Lama.

March 08, 2004

a climatizing

Just when I get used to Lhasa it is time to leave. Nope, I am not returning to India yet (though I do miss that warm low country). I found an Australian couple and Brit to do a larger tour of Tibet with. We just finished a most beatiful drive, taking the long way, from Lhasa to Shigatse (Tibet's second largest city).

We went over several passes (and saw actual snow!), through tiny towns adorned with prayer flags, stopped at a lovely monastery in Gyantse and finally arrived here, at 3900 meters above sea level.

Tibet is beautiful. I knew this already from the plane ride, but it is even better seeing it up close and walking (slowly so I don't get dizzy) on the soil. For those of you familiar with the western U.S., I would say it is similar to western Montana and the Badlands, only ten times more so. The mountains are higher and more frequent, the canyons deeper and steeper. Occasionally the brown mountain sides even change hues in an appealing way.

Then there are glaciers, lots of Tibetan style houses (small white square brick huts with black window frames and very decorative work over the windows and doors), yaks, goats, chickens, ducks, sheep, dogs, the funniest tractor things I have ever seen and lots and lots of horses pulling carts. So I suppose it is a little different than the west. Despite the dizziness, nose bleeds, and head aches I highly recommend it for all adventurers!

March 07, 2004

Dancing the night away

A few years ago my best friend and I used to go Salsa dancing in the U.S., occasionally we would dance together. Either she would be teaching me a few moves or we just didn't feel like dancing with strange gropey men. Whenever we did this, with out fail, men would come ask us to dance with in a minute. I have heard the same story from other people; Minnesota hispanic men could not bear to watch two women dance together.

Tibetans not only have no such qualms, but men even dance with men. Last night I was hanging out with a British birthday boy and friends, after dinner we all went to a night club.

I had watched losar (new year) programs on television in India, so I wasn't entirely shocked, but somehow it is much more impressive live. Live music and dancing seemed to be the main entertainment. The dancing crowd took over the show occasionally. They weren't as flashy as the dancers, mostly wearing western clothing. I was a bit shocked or entranced by the performers' outfits. They were Tibetan style only, well, um, sexier. This means that the women's clothes fit a little tighter than you see on the streets, a bit of skin showed on the women at times but some men had a bare midriff. Everything was also flashier with bright colors and beatiful brocade.

I suspect the performance was part of the Losar celebration (which goes on for weeks) but the night club still wins awards in my book for diversity. They played fast music, slow, pop, Tibetan, Chinese, hard rock, Indian, and even happy birthday in English, Tibetan and Chinese. When that happened a dozen of the lovely dancers came over to our birthday boy and presented him with katas (gauzy white scarves).

The hosts switched back and forth between Tibetan and Chinese and there was a hilarious play that I did not understand (but still found amusing), which I believe was in Tibetan and about the difficulties of finding a good wife.

In true Tibetan fashion the servers were dressed in beautiful (though worn) brocade style chupas (but I know they wore jeans underneath them) and continually refilled our shot-glass size beer glasses (we bought the alcohol by the can, but drank it from the tiny glasses). One of our members had a small drinking contest with a Tibetan who was downing water.

Everytime it was possible, when there was just a singer and no dancers, large amounts of the crowd would climb on stage with the performer and dance. If it was Indian music they did line dancing, Tibetan music they did circle dances and anything else was couple dances. Apparently no one likes to dance alone. Perhaps that is why women danced with women and men with men (though there were some mixed couples). It is all about who you know. During the slow dances you could even see the couples leaning on each other in a sweetly affectionate fashion that homophobia or some sort of machismo has long since made taboo in the U.S.

March 05, 2004

Land of Eternal Sunshine

I bought a hat after spending twenty minutes outside - that sunshine is fierce! Then with a visor safely shading my sensitive eyes I tried to explore this historic city.

There is so much I don't understand! It can be exhausting at times (especially combined with the sun and wind). Many signs are in English but sometimes things just aren't posted well, or maybe the altitude has killed a few too many brain cells. It took me an hour to find the entrance to the Potala today, and yesterday, when I visited the Jokhang, a temple near where I am staying, between the yellow ribbons, gates, and miscellaneous signs my head was spinning. I thought one is suppose to circumambulate temples to the left but the yellow ribbons made this impossible.

All told though, besides the frustrations, it was worth it visiting those temples. The potala is insanely huge and I gave up trying to explore all the rooms open. What I did see were massive statues and wall paintings, countless pilgrims making offerings in the form of butter for the lamps, money thrown at the dieties, mantra, and prostrations. Tibetans are a physically devoted people. I wonder how the Chinese feel about this after trying to squelch it for so long. The majority of the pilgrims looked over forty and were wearing traditional clothing but I saw a few younger ones too. I think about a third of the youth between the age of twenty and forty wear chupas. However this could be a high number because we are still around the new year, when people from the country (who tend to be more traditional) come into town and when people in town wear their best (i.e. traditional) clothing. Many children under ten were accompanying their parents on their religious rounds, learning how to pray and make offerings.

The rooms themselves were all dark, gloomy, and small. Well they might have started out medium sized but between the statues and pillars there wasn't much left. The only large hall was the throne room, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama used to sit. It had sky lights but still seemed dark and gloomy. Many of the wall paintings were faided or covered in soot, perhaps from the lamps. There were countless rooms for various dieties and former kings. I wish I knew what they were all for - perhaps monks sat in each one and prayed regularly?

The Dalai Lama's living quarters were a bit more warm, with wooden floors (I think), lots of carpets, windows, and bright colors. The whole palace is builty on the south side of a hill so I imagine it is a good place to live out the winter, and I bet less windows means less heat loss.

Other things I have noticed so far:

* Women tend to wear masks over their faces (sometimes they are even decorative). I am not sure if this is for sickness, dust, or both but it occurred to me that it also helps keep your moisture in (saving a bundle on chapstick).
* There are a lot of beggars, in fact, I think there are more here than in India (per square foot that is).
* I am no expert on health but a lot of people look malnourished, their skin is dusty, their hair of poor quality, their body lacking fat and energy.
* School uniforms here look like jogging outfits (especially like those ones that middle age women in the U.S. tend to wear to the grocery store).
* There are very few westerners here
* Tibetans love to say hello to me. It seems that at least one out of every ten I pass on the street greets me this way. Frequently mothers will try and coax their little ones to do the same.
* There are tons of shops for purchasing religious objects (statues, malas, counters, phurbus, dorjes, bells...), jewlery, hats, shoes, pants, and VCDs.
* Pictures of the Karmapa, the Panchen Lama and other lamas who I do not recognize abound.
* China insists that all of the country go by Beijing time, which means that the sun rises and sets around 8:30.

March 04, 2004


"Xenophobia is a strange thing," noted my latest traveling companion, Tom (Bryan returned to Taiwan early for personal reasons). He was commenting on the fact that the China air ticketing agent had left eight seats for the two of us, the only westerners on a packed plane. Sadly none of them were window seats. Next time I will bribe, lie, steal, or whatever it takes to get one of those window seats. If you are ever flying from Chengdu to Lhasa I advise you to do the same.

In all my travels I have never seen such beauty. Mountain range after mountain range extended in every direction below us (once we cleared the clouds of Chengdu). Many of the peaks were white with snow, some of the valleys were so deep I could not see the bottom. Granted I only saw this ducking and weaving to see past other gawkers' (who had been fortunate enough to get a window seat) heads. It still took my breath away - I wonder if one could travel above Tibet on a hot air balloon. Looking out various windows I wonder where on earth the "Tibetan Plateau" is - all I saw was not what one would call a plateau (which brings to mind at least mildly flat terrain). In fact, I was amazed any one made it through those mountains to this highland in the first place.

A good thing the plane ride was so rewarding since getting to Lhasa ended up taking more than twelve hours (and only two and a half were in the air). This included sitting around the airport for hours, napping in the airport hotel for a few hours and finally, after the most nauseating descent I have ever experienced, over an hour ride to Lhasa from the airport.

I don't know where the beautiful snow capped mountains ended but it was far away from Tibet's capital city. Somewhere along the way (I might be able to tell you when if I had a window seat) the mountains turned in to hills and the valleys got large enough that I could actually imagine people living in them, though they all seemed like flood plains. Sadly, it is the time of year when all the hills are brown, not exactly an awe inspiring sight. I am told they turn green sometimes and are covered in snow other times, just my luck to get here in between.

I have only breifly walked around the city and don't want to reveal more than the fact that it is very very different from Chengdu. For one thing everything is twice as expensive, for another thing it is a lot smaller and, well, grungier.

As soon as I stepped out of the airport I felt all the moisture from my throat evaporate. I can't decide which is worse, the altitude or the dryness. My sinuses feel like dried prunes several meters below sea level (the weight, not the wetness). However, other than occasional dizziness, shortness of breath when I do absolutely anything and the headaches, I am fine. I met one girl who threw up her first night here (due to the altitude) so I feel quite lucky.

March 02, 2004


The price was too low, I couldn't resist, so now I confess; I bought a Sheryl Crow CD. Guilty pleasures...

The truth is Ms Crow and I go way back. Nearly a decade ago after working all night at Waffle House, exhausted from slinging coffee and greasy food at weirdos, drunks, factory workers and fishermen, as the dawn arrived and the customers subsided for a brief while, I would drape my aching self over the juke-box for three minutes and listen to "Strong Enough." I don't recommend the song and can easily produce many theories as to why it meant so much to me then (for one thing there wasn't anything better available) but listening to it now, a million miles and hours away, I can't help but feel a bit proud.

Little ole' waitress me actually became a world travelor! Depending on what is eligible, I have filled up all my fingers with the countries I have walked in and will soon be moving on to toes. But even better than being able to say I have been here or there is the fact that I actually enjoy this! The first years were rough, and after Costa Rica I was so exhausted I nearly gave up. The lonliness, uncertainty, and longing for familiarity seemed to ruin most international experiences. But somehow, I think it happened in Bangalore, I just got past that and learned how to learn how to roll with the punches (that is not a typo - you never really know how to roll with things, it is a new experience every time).

So now I still feel lonely, and I get an ache in my stomach each time I have to approach yet another stranger, but I appreciate the scenery along the way more. I am excited to notice the clothes people are wearing, how they interact with each other, the food they buy, what the vehicles and roads look like, how sparse the vegetation is (I rarely get out of the city). Every day in this city where nobody (well, almost nobody) speaks any language in common with me I collect smiles and faces. I enjoy watching people laugh (and laughing with them) when I do silly tourist things like trip on a step, get off the bus wrong, ride down a dead end alley because I can't understand what the man is saying (and I have to ride back by him on the way back).

Today the sun finally showed itself in cloudy Chengdu (the clouds didn't go away, they just parted a bit) and it was wonderful bicycling weather. I hopped on a sqeaky old rust bucket and cruised the roads, trying (and succeeding) not to get lost. I found the library, (an impressive building full of Chinese literature and with a wonderful veiw from the tenth floor, too bad the cleaning lady wouldn't let me take a picture), the river, a college, and lots of dead ends.

March 01, 2004

Pandas and the rain

I actually enjoy this city, Chengdu China, home of over ten million people and lots of trees. Bryan and I arrived yesterday without any delays or problems, getting to the hostel from the airport was a bit tricky but somehow we managed.

The people here are very nice and helpful - like most big cities this one is full of fashion. This doesn't mean much for the men but I notice women wearing lots of whites, clingy clothes, and pointy toed stilletos that look very painful. Although I obviously stick out and I am able to catch (and exchange) a few smiles, for the most part people don't pay attention to me. It is nothing like the 24 hour gaze I experienced in India.

The weather is chilly and cloudy, I think it even rained last night. It is nice wearing some of this winter gear I have been lugging around (it felt totally useless in sweltering Bangkok). The city is nicely laid out; lots of greenery, stores, wide well paved streets, plenty of room for bicycles (always a way into my heart). It is entirely modern from its beggars to its internet, from the atm's to the metered taxis. In fact, this is the closest I have felt to the U.S. since I left six months ago. The only difference is the food and the fact that only one out of a thousand people speak any English. So far I have gotten around fine with my destination written on a card and using what Paulo Coelho calls the "language without words."

After my last entry you'd never believe it but I braved another temple. This one was an impressive garden dotted with large shrines housing huge buddhas whom I did not recognize. I was the only westerner there but many locals were praying and lighting incense - so much for religion being the opium of the people.

Before the shrine I experienced panda bears - there is a breeding facility on the outside of town. Very similar to a zoo, I spotted a few baby bears (meaning they were about my size) but no adults. The layout was gorgeous though and I had fun wandering around among the bamboo (the panda's were behind barriers) on old worn paths. There was a tremendous amount of peaceful solitude there, perhaps because of the winter and the weather (it is also a good hour outside of town). The babies were adorable, playing with each other and munching on bamboo - I can't believe that when they are born they weigh about the same as an apple! Talk about growth spurts, rumour has it they are only six months old but that is tough to accept.

In addition to the panda's I also got to appreciate peacocks, cranes, swans, several kinds of ducks, what I think are egrets (small, white, with long necks) and a very lost looking goat.