Tibet - April 2005
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What an amazing trip. A month in Tibet was a dream come
true for me. Unique to anywhere else I've traveled, I was
impressed by how immersed the religious beliefs and practices
are throughout Tibet and in each person's day. The art and
culture are rich and colorful, and the people so welcoming,
generous and sincere. It was sad, however, to gain a clearer
understanding about what happened during the Cultural Revolution
and to see how much the Chinese have destroyed and taken
away from the Tibetan people, their history and culture
- and how they continue to do so.
As I reflect on this trip, I think of it in two parts -
my experiences in and around Lhasa where I visited many
old villages, nomad regions, historical sites and monasteries,
and learned a great deal about the Tibetan people and their
history, culture and art. The other part was my incredible
four wheel drive adventure and multi-day journey each way
to Western Tibet to do a pilgrimage around Mt. Kailash,
the holiest mountain in Asia. It was a perfect experience
for me at this particular point in my life, and it was so
fascinating to talk with other pilgrims about their reasons
for doing this "kora" and their beliefs about
it. All of these experiences made this trip very rewarding.
Top 10 Highlights
1. Rich colors everywhere - the thangkas, clothing, paintings
on monastery walls, city streets, and fabrics that cover
mud walls and ceilings.
2. Walking through the Barkhor in Lhasa - Tibet's most interesting
pilgrimage circuit on the streets surrounding the Jokhang
Temple (the spiritual heart of Tibet) - also a huge bustling
3. The deep red monastery assembly halls where you can feel
the intense, but calming energy.
4. Discovering, by accident, a small monastery after hiking
for hours in the hills, and being handed a bell and invited
to participate during a chanting session.
5. Spending an afternoon meditating with a monk in his meditation
cave high up in the hills.
6. The Gyantse Kumbum - a large stupa - perhaps the only
one you can walk through that is beautiful from the outside
and fascinating inside, and packed with exquisite Tibetan
7. Dinners with thangka shop owner, Nima, his brother, and
their friends in Lhasa - great food and truly fascinating
8. The thangkas - beautiful, intricate Tibetan scroll paintings
that usually depict a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala.
9. Discovering that a person holding his or her palm up
and moving it up and down is not asking for money, but rather
offering a greeting of respect.
10. Being brought hot water in a thermos, cold water in
a kettle and a basin for washing after not being about to
wash for days - and even better - being able to take a shower
after nearly two weeks without!
1. Seeing and experiencing how much destruction happened
during the Cultural Revolution.
2. Intense wind and dust storms in the afternoons (I guess
this is common Feb - Apr).
3. Driving six to eight hours each day for many days in
a row, on washboard dirt roads worse than you could ever
imagine, to get to Western Tibet.
4. No shower, heat or electricity in many places in Western
Tibet (about 12 days of my travel).
5. Needing to use the toilet (a hole in the ground outside)
in the middle of the night when it is dark, windy, and below
6. The dull throb of altitude headaches - I was traveling
between 14,500 and 18,500 feet.
Sights and Sounds
Prayer flags gently flutter in the breeze... green, blue,
red, yellow, white.
Strung across mountains and pointing to the sky from rooftops
of every home.
Deep crackling horns and the rumbling of drums seep out
Accompanied by sweet, angelic young voices practicing scriptures
Intricate paintings adorn monastery walls and ceilings;
thangkas hang everywhere.
Monks draped in deep red robes move through the streets,
gesturing for donations.
The elderly walk slowly around the Barkohr chanting "om
mani padme hum" and other mantras,
While diligently spinning their prayer wheels clockwise,
and rubbing prayer beads between fingers and thumbs.
Very dirty children (picture Oliver Twist) tug at your clothes
Butter lamps burn endlessly in monasteries, next to golden
bowls of water offered to the deities.
Barren landscapes, dry brown mountains, sand dunes, and
pointy white snowcapped mountains.
The breathtaking sight of Qomolangma (Mr. Everest) as it
moves closer into view on a clear day.
Mt. Kailash at sunrise, appearing as it if is on stage in
an orange spotlight.
Some stunning turquoise lakes, while others are still blankets
of white with large ice boulders hovering at the edges.
Howling afternoon winds cause dust to swirl into funnels
that aggressively disperse through the air.
Dogs bark in a never ending song like mad demons in the
Hammers building new homes create constant rhythms everywhere,
And saws grind on metal, making the hair stand high on the
back of your neck.
Large blue trucks motor through the countryside with auspicious
symbols painted above their windows for safety.
Massive orange trucks carry stacks of rocks to build roads
and long cement poles for installing power lines.
Herds of goat, sheep, cows, and yaks stall traffic as they
chase their tails, confused about which way to run.
Rocks are carefully stacked high along roadsides by pilgrims
for good luck.
Horse carts and small tractors carry loads of people, equipment,
Sweet and spicy aromas spill into the small rooms of the
Air foggy with smoke from the kitchen and the many lit cigarettes
around each table.
Men wear thick brown cloaks and women wear brightly colored
White hospital masks seem to be part of the costume, to
filter out dust.
Women walk hunched over in the countryside with huge baskets
on their backs, carrying water and wood.
Cowboy hats on men and thick turquoise jewelry hang heavy
around necks of beautiful Tibetan women.
White square houses display colorful and intricately decorated
With a few cows and goats hanging around outside in the
Billiards tables are outside as permanent fixtures in every
town and remote village,
Bringing the kids together in community throughout each
It's a bit much to go into here, but if you are planning
a trip like this, I'm happy to offer the pros and cons of
various ways to travel in Tibet, and a suggested pack list
to keep you light, but equiped with everything you will
need. And I highly recommend bringing gifts - there are
a few fun things you can bring, especially for kids that
are ultra light - bubbles, balloons, pins with disney characters,
and most of the people I met my age were thrilled to get
American music CD's.
If you are interested in the details my travel path,
here is a map
scanned from the Lonely Planet guidebook. I started in Lhasa
and headed southeast to Tsetang, Samye Monastery, Yamdrok-tso,
and Chongye. Then west to Shigatse, Gyantse, Lhatse, Saga,
Paryang, Lake Manasarovar and Darchen. The pilgrimage around
Mt. Kailash started and ended in Darchen. From there I headed
east again back through Paryang and Saga, and then southeast
towards the Nepali border to Tingri (near Everest Base Camp),
and then to Base Camp. From there I traveled northeast back
to Shigatse, and continued northeast to Damxung and Namtso
before heading back to Lhasa.
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