Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ready to Roll/Ride Mt. Kailash

1. First view of Lake Manasarovar
Get out the prayer beads. After all the rough and dangerous travel through uninviting terrain, the preparation, the stocking up on noodles, Snickers bars, bottled water, the acclimatization, the adaption to hole in the ground toilets and no sinks, the obligatory stop at holy Lake Manasarovar - push has come to shove. Can I do it or not?

2. Photographing the lake.
Tomorrow we set out for the Kora, or holy circumambulation of Mt. Kailash, a white domed mountain where Hindus and Buddhists believe creation began.

The holy site have attracted Indians from across the border for at least 1700 years. A Hindi poet Kalidasa wrote the waters of Lake Manasarovar are "like pearls". Drink of them erases sins of a hundred lifetimes. But the waters are foul and filled with parasites. No one fishes the Lake. There is said to be only one kind of fish, one with teeth, that when it dies, it flips onto the shores and then people collect the fish, dry them, then make a broth to be given to pregnant women or animals to make birthing babies easier.

We spent the night in a water front guest house. There has been a boom in guest houses of the primitive style - there is still no way to ignore you have to walk outside in the night to the open aired "corral" to take care of business. There is no electricity and the rooms are cold. If you want to bathe, pour hot water into a plastic bowl and have at it. Well, the window in mine room at least had a view of the lake. That's something, I guess.
3. Jim, me and Carlos at the lake

We had a warm meal in the eating room where a group of Russian and a group of Italian tourists led by a climber name Carlos were also preparing for the Kora. So far I'm the only American I've run in to but who knows what we'll meet along the holy roads as we pray our prayer beads pleading with God to get us through the pass (18,180 ft) and keep us healthy. I have the luxury of a pony to ride when times get tough on the steep ascent part. We may finish the Kora in 3 days or 4 days depending - on me, I guess. I'm slow. We will not have any electronics but one satellite phone - and I'll be anxious to get back to a place where I can continue the blogs. We've even resorted to recharging the MacBook Air in the car (special plug) while I write away on the long hauls.

4. Guest house in Darchen
The guest houses no matter where look like a motel concept. A strip of rooms one beside the other. Floors are concrete. Walls are concrete. Doors are metal or wooden and usually a curtain hangs over it. For years in Tibet there was one per zone (and in some instances that's still true.) But now that China has taken interest in Tibet and more foreigners come to experience the Kara - especially at this time of the year when the Saga Dawa ceremony takes place on the June full moon - guests houses are increasing. Nights are dark in these places. A tiny flashlight helped me to the toilet area. Two women were going too and they had lights on their caps. A full moon is a blessing.

In the stillness of the night, when the dogs stop barking, I worry about my family and friends and rev up serious prayer that life keeps moving on and upward for them. There's a desperateness about losing contact with each loved one. You don't realize how much they participate in your courage, confidence and peace until you are out in the world alone. When all is severed from that source you grasp for memory and prayer and always feel that no matter where you are rather than being an insider looking out, you are an outsider looking in, and everyone looks at you as an outsider and gives their poor English a try out - cheap, cheap, very cheap. Good.
5. Kids are kids

Then there is the loss of information. Do you realize I have no idea what is going on in anywhere in the world? Not even here? I'm a news freak and need my 60 Minutes fix. I guess if I understood Chinese I'd have a chance to learn something at some hotels. CNN and BBC are long gone from these distant places. We went to have breakfast in a little coffee shop yesterday morning before we left Saga (a rather bustling truck stop kind of city) and the proprietor had the TV on - An NBA playoff game. Whoopee. I saw about five minutes before we headed to the grocery to get supplies.

6. Mt. Kailash from Darchen
But as we reach today, behind all is the question can you do the task and not give up? This is so far from my comfort zone that I wonder why I take these risks. It's learning about how the rest of the world lives, and how to reduce my needs to see if I can survive whatever might be thrown at me. I have learned that Tibetan people are beautiful and friendly. Their teeth are so white with their smiles. Children have great rosy cheeks. The women's dark skin, augmented by rubbing yak butter into it daily, glows and their long black hair is usually in some form of a pigtail. Most women wear masks to cover their faces from the dirt and sand so it's hard to see their beauty.And they wear the Tibetan long dresses with a striped apron no matter what they do. The women really fill the temples and monasteries with their religious acts and petitions. They strap children to their backs and bow over and over before the figures of Buddha. I admire their loyalty but more how they get it all done in a day with such devastating conditions. How to keep healthy with all the filth and garbage and the undrinkable water (everything must be boiled) must be a primary concern. The winds are tough and strong. Cleanliness is the enemy. Bottles, tissues, wrappers, socks, whatever mixes in with the gravel. But women who do work alongside men at tables set up on rustic roads usually depend on income from the crafts they sell to tourist.

Here in Darchen where we launch our Kora the streets and storefronts are full of merchandise related to trekking and to hanging prayer flags. But curious are the pool tables in front of the shops where men leisurely play pool most of the day here in distant western TIbet. Pray for strength and understanding.
7. Pool tables on the streets of Darchen.

Update (again)

Audrey has gotten through to us with two blog entries that go with the pictures she sent half a day ago:

  1. Flying High with Precious Flags
  2. Short Cut - da de da da
Rember: The blog is on China/Tibet Time - over twelve hours ahead of us. (It is Thursday morning there.) Furthermore, these two latest posts are about twelve hours late. They were supposed to have been posted Wednesday night (China time).

Short Cut - da de da da

After a High, there is always a downer. It happened in the Bible stories and it happens in our own.

1. Nun in Everest Nunnery
A few kilometers back down the dusty Everest road and after a brief visit to the Rongbuk Nunnery monastery (nuns live below the road, the monks above????) the guide said we are taking a short cut which will get us back to the paved road and the hamlet (chong-tso in Tibet) of Old Tingri. I thought it was a hop, skip and a jump with a bunch of bounces. But let me tell you, Tibet is one huge barren place. It's like the Sahara. Huge and endless and not one thing green. The Himalaya creates the rain shadow over the Tibetan plateau causing it to be a high altitude desert. There's another in Atacama in Chile, which I visited. And it's similar to the rain shadow caused by the Sierra Nevada of California to give us Death Valley, But in Tibet there is an average elevation of 14000 feet, which is higher than any mountain in the continental USA. So Tibet is high, dry and cold.

2. Gytsola Pass - highest of trip
Of course the light here clearly identifies every fold, crack, gully, and rock. I didn't know there were so many shades of beige, brown, yellow and of course the sapphire blue sky which goes on forever. When the Indian continental plate scrunched up against the Asian continental plate to form the Himalaya and Tibetan plateaus way back when, hundreds of millions of years ago, these odd shaped mountains and rocks formed. Still, with no wear and tear or "civilization", it's amazing landscape - huge huge valleys where the melt off from Everest snow - known for its milky color even thought it is fresh and pure - requires a number of primitive metal bridges for any kind of vehicle, wagon, or foot needing to get to the other side. Please believe me for three rough, tumble, excruciating hours in hot hot sun and dust surrounding us like halos, there was not one other vehicle. Not one. I kept thinking what happens if...... You can fill it in. It's called, "you wait."

3. Typical landscapes
I'm not a decent waiter, much less a longterm car rider in horrid circumstances. I sip on my water and cross and uncross legs, and one time we had to stop at a destroyed rock pen, where someone somewhere at sometime corralled sheep in at night, so I could release the water I was sipping. Alas. I remember the old days out west (I'm talking 40ties and 50ties) when it was the only answer, and in East Africa where I lived 2 years in Tanganyika and we did simple safaris. And of course on the trek through the Khumbu in Nepal four years ago. It's something to have to deal with big time when you trek. And now for 9 days, there will be no plumbing. Yes. My mind is not accepting this happily.

So we drove and we drove down mountains, across buttes, and the dust got dustier and I wondered if anyone would find me if lost - I had worn my florescent blue workout shirt with the reflectors - just so He wouldn't lose sight of me. He could out here. I yelled up some desperate prayers while the guide in the front seat continues his "ommms" which I guess take the place of radio music.

4. Cloud drop
Then we finally got near lunch,(it was 4 pm.) we picked up the Friendship Highway again for about an hour - and I got in some needlepoint, which settles my nerves, short lived as it was. I had been forewarned at lunch there was more dirt road to come. So we ate vegetarian momos and more french fries and I found packages of tiny Chinese Oreo version of the original cookie. These rest stops are painted wildly inside with Tibetan Buddhist images. Tables seat four and there is a long bench against each wall - all covered in thick carpets for comfort. Most menus feature momos (Chinese dumplings), yak things, Chinese vegetables, tofu noodles, rice, rice, rice and NO deserts nor bread. All is made from scratch after we arrive so you get forced delay/rest/meditating. As we entered two scraggly, hair clump shedding dogs barred the way, and did not blink as we stepped over them, getting their Vitamin D in the hot afternoon sun. All dogs are hairy, of a sort.

5. Bored yet? Desert 2
We had 70 kilometers of pure dirt road to Saga, our night haven - last chance at electricity and indoor plumbing. The wind is disturbingly strong whipping around us as the driver climbs dust mountains to cross passes - so much so we are eating our own dust most of the time and I have a penchant for keeping the windows open for fresh air. You should have seen me three and a half hours later when we reached Saga. I'm at my wits end and eat the package (small) of Oreos instead of opting for dinner in my dust guise.

You need to know there are very few places to live or survive here - herding sheep and yak and some semblance of farming - barley, wheat, peas - exists but not much else. Every house in Tibet outside the city is the identical - the brick squared in patio style, two stories, simple simple (not painted) with window shutters colorfully decorated with Tibetan images - usually tigers, snow lions, deer. There are no truck stop type places to fill up, get a snack and move on. Even I who loathe fast foods and food in packages or boxes, longed for a fried pie or some pita chips, or, ok, Snickers. (Today we purchased a box of Snickers bars in the last chance at a "super" market as we prepared for the part of the trip starting today where we cook our own - and that's mostly noodles.) When I did Everest before, Snickers and Sprite kept me alive.

6. Late lunch stop
We have another full day of driving - on PAVED roads thanks be to God. It's 500 Kilometers which will take us til dusk. The roads are paved but 40 to 50 miles an hour is about all our driver dares. If we were in USA, I'd hit the 75 button. Yes, We are a crusade of two lonely land cruisers. But soon we will confront the masses of Indian pilgrims who flow over the borders from a different side to walk the Kora (holy circumambulation) of Mt. Kailash at this sacred time of the year. Maybe someone will offer me a bowl of curry? Our destination is Lake Manasarovar, which is the holy lake that fronts Mt. Kailash. It's holy because it's the base of Mt. Kailash. That's what they tell me. It represents the female or wisdom aspect of enlightenment and is a symbol of good fortune and fertility. If one bathes in it, all sins are cleansed. Now that's a direct parallel to our Christian baptisms in or with holy water when all sins one inherits and commits are cleansed. This I like. I think the task here is to leap into water minus 7 Celsius.
7. Good stop

Blogs will be erratic for the next week. Tomorrow I may be able to send one - we have a device to charge the laptop in the car. And we will use our satellite, I hope. We cannot carry electronics on the Kora so from Friday on no contact for three nights. Bear with me. Keep us in prayer. God bless.

Flying High with Precious Flags

1. High for Everest
Tibet pushes you into survival in a dark moment with lots of tiny candles lit so you can see something. That's in those many monasteries and temples. Outside light is so bright and so strong that it sucks up life so that there's remote or a loneliness that would make Siberia seem a hot spot.

Yesterday our goal was Tibet side base camp of Mt. Everest. I had been told the road was paved and that seemed sort of a funny thing to do since four years ago I used every molecule of strength to trek for four weeks to get to the base camp on Nepal side, where most of the challenged climbers go. Touristas lie. A transversable road doesn't mean paved. I learned.

We set out early from our "motel" style guest house after a strange breakfast of peanuts, french fries, peel your own mangos and mangosteen, fried egg, fried pancake, and coffee or sweet yak tea. In a kilometer we had to stop a a Police Border Patrol to check our travel permits, visas, etc. This happens every day many times. Normally the guide shows the documents and they hand lift the single bar gate, and we go on. Today it was serious but we were first there and so the officers hand wasn't worn out. Everything has to be recorded by hand. We had one more of this type today and 3 more of the guide only
2. Tea with Pamba
3. Our crew preps flags
The road to Mt. Everest which cuts off of Friendship Highway (that goes from Shanghi China to border of Nepa)l suddenly turned into major gravel-dust wide pathway. It's not paved, alas. Just old fashioned wild west style of jockeying in your seat holding onto the car bars We curve like stiff snakes up two major passes - Pangla Pass is 17,108 ft was one but yesterday's Gyarsola Pass was 17,265 feet, the highest pass for our trip where we got our first view of Everest. Base camp is the same height as Pangla Pass. Mt. Everest stood like a brazen king, a mysterious great black wall with a knob on the top. It seemed easy to reach but was different than the snow covered range of Himalayas that included Makalu (5th highest in the world) on its left, and Lhotes (4th highest in world) on the right followed by Cho oyu (8th highest - sort of a wide mountain) and Shishipanma (14th highest). You spend the next 4 hours watching these glare at you as up them while we cover passes and blow away the dust. I was amazed at how we could see Everest all the time, unlike the Nepal side where you get a peek and don't really see much (clouds hang out there) til one reaches base camp.

4. I love Yaks
As we ascend, we pass descending yak trains, who paid no attention to my effort to stop them for a photo. They just dogged their heads strewn with colorful yarns, ribbons and bells and kept on going, the weight just shells of what they had lugged up for someones climbing camp. Suddenly we reached a nunnery (for Buddhist women and men) and a mile further was a tented city, base camp. It was fairly empty as most of the treks had ended and only three were yet scheduled to attempt this Tibetan side. Most of these tents belong to merchants who live there and spread their tourist ware in front of their tents - same stuff you get everywhere in Tibet - shell fossils from the ancient sea beds that these mountains were - beads, amber bracelets (how can there be amber in Tibet without any trees?) bronze Buddhist statues, rock things,same ole, same ole.

Nema and Purba found an old friend, Pamba, who treks to Nepal frequently and stays in their home in Pangboche. Pamba invited us into his warm well ordered for yak. I had watery hot chocolate.. You can imagine I'm rather yak-shy.

5. Nema hangs flags.
We gathered up some prayer flags from my granddaughter's lower school at St. Marys and hiked down the road a good distance - greeting more yak trains - so Nema, a true sherpa who has been up every mountain it seems, could climbed up huge rocks to find the most sacred place to hang these flags, not easy to do - no nails, hammers, etc. The wind immediately picked up the flags in its breath and you could feel the prayers of the children flying up past Mt. Everest to our Heavenly Father. I prayed in praise.

6. Flags hung
As we got on the road again, I was overwhelmed by the moment, but realized it was too easy and had I not had the experience in 2008 I'd have no appreciation for the struggle, the challenge, the pain and the accomplishment of that long haul where I learned more about life and its needs than any other time of my life. But I have been told that China is "going to" pave the road to Everest's Tibet's side. Then it'll be a joke. It's a day trip already for the tourist. Alas.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Audrey is deep in Tibet. Internet service is very poor or nonexistent. Although she was able to send us the 13 pictures that you saw posted this morning, the text of two blog articles meant to accompany the photos did not arrive. When the text arrives, I will put it all together into coherency. Please be patient for the next few days.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Audrey is currently in the Mt. Everest area. Internet service is minimal to non-existent. She will resume posting when she can.

Also please note: Times and dates in this blog are being displayed in China Standard Time, which is about 13 hours ahead of Memphis.

CNN: "Two Tibetans self-immolate outside Lhasa holy temple"

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Two young men set themselves on fire in Lhasa Sunday outside the Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in the Tibetan capital and a popular tourist destination, Chinese state media reported Monday.

It's the first time anyone has self-immolated inside the Tibetan capital, and only the second time the act has been carried out inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, according to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD). 
 "They seem to be young and one of them is believed to have died, because flames have consumed his whole body. We don't have any information about the status of the other person," said Tsering Tsomo, executive director of the TCHRD. 

 Read more at this link.

I posted this because Audrey was at this Jokhang Temple just two days before, as described in this post. Actually, her visit may have been just the day before.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Yo Ho Hee, A Friendly Yak for me


The mantra of the God of compassion, Chenresig, the one with 1000 hands and 1000 eyes, 11 heads. He has a big job showing compassion to all.

1. Happy at 15,776
Yesterday was a full day in a slow Toyota four-wheeler, horn beeping at every dog, cat, Tibetan, car, sheep, wagon - and that's hard on the nerves. The driver and the guide knew what they were doing. Every so often there is a radar-type situation, energized by solar heating. I'm impressed by the use of solar panels in Tibet. I kept focus on my needlepoint, a hiker bear as we headed for an important pass of 15,778 feet. That height requires a huge deep breath, often. I was so worried, after an hour of dramatic bobby-pin cures, as I hung on to the handle above the door, that I'd lose my fancy breakfast from the St. Regis Hotel in Lasha, the last chance for a familiar meal.

2. Tibetan woman with her baby goat
Altitude hasn't ever been a stretch for me. If one takes it easy, doesn't rush, and drinks gallons of water, it shouldn't be a problem. When we left about 12,000 feet in Lasha, I was good. We would travel over three high passes of barren mountain to get to the next night stop, the 2nd largest city in Tibet, Shigatse. The first pass was the highest and I got out my IPhone for the Elevation App, and followed our progress. When we drove around an enormous rock and arrived at 15,778 feet, we drove under a confused mass of prayer flags flying desperately in the wind to get those prayers to God. There were a few tourist buses but we all took in the most incredible view of snow covered Himalayas in the distance and an enormous turquoise lake far below. Thank you God.

3. Tibetan Mastiff with his boss
But to boot, there was funky entertainment of a sort. First a Tibetan street seller woman insisted I pet her hairy baby goat. I did. Pay up. Ok. Then a Tibetan man with a scarf covering his face (this is the norm - most people wear either medical masks or bandanas to stop the dust and smoke from entering one's face), came up with a medium sized black Tibetan mastiff on a rope. The poor dog wore an enormous red collar around him and he won me over quickly. The dog was patient. He listen to my friendly pats and let me be photographed with him. More Yen paid, and I was still breathing and not dizzy in the high altitude.

Then I checked another experience off my bucket list. I was able to sit on a Yak. Poor yak. Decked out in ribbons and curls. White. Well, really scraggly dirty white. White is supposed to be sacred. I had my doubts. I put my sandal in the one stirrup and three guys (Nema, the Yak owner, and our drive) lifted me into the Tibetan saddle as if I wouldn't make it on my own. Yaks are not tall. But I spared them my history mounting horses, camels, elephants. The altitude was too high for much conversation. No one spoke English so "I can do it" meant nothing to Tibetan ears.

4. Finally, a Yak to ride for a second
From here on out, it's Yak country. Yak pull the plows in fields of barley. Their hair and leather decorates very tall prayer flag poles. Their milk is tasty and made into yak cheese - not the most appealing flavor - something more like sweet yak dung that was burned for warmth when I went to Everest base camp four years ago. Jim and I tried yak cheese cake and couldn't get rid of the taste for a whole day. Yak butter is a major business as it is the ingredient used by monks to make their elaborate butter sculptures, offering dedicated to the three primary Buddha figures (past, present and future) and other accessory Buddhas. (It's all really the same god.) Then there is yak tea drunk by the monks, and yak leather shoes. There is nothing wasted.
5. Women selling Yak cheese

Yesterday's main point to visit was Gyantse which houses a famous stupa Gyantse Kumbum. This town has a very high fort which the British inhabited in 1904, a battle led by Sir Francis Younghusband on Lasha. He slaughtered 700 Tibetans in four minutes.

6. Gyantse Stupa
However, our focus was on the Stupa, it has 13 floors and as we crawled up stairs and into the big assembly space, the monks dressed in the yellow hats (indicating they belong to the 14th Dalai Lama's group), were chanting and beating enormous religious drums. We wandered through the monastery taking pictures, after paying, of course, of statues decorated with Katas and butter lamps and butter sculptures and anything else worshipers brought to them. There were three huge mandelas in sand on the floor, well protected from the public and impossible to photograph. The grounds were full of pilgrims making Koras around various buildings of the Stupa and finally when Nema and his wife had acknowledged all the holy areas, we headed a few more miles to our hotel in Shigatse. It was a giant China-style building. The bed was a slat of wood (king size) I promise you, and one duvet, which I used to pad the wood. Good heavens. I was so exhausted after a real Tibetan dinner of noodles and veggies and momos that I just gave in. I could no longer fall back on my "bfs" CNN and BBC. Alas. All TV was Chinese.
7. Monks in yellow hats, chanting

Some notes. Brush teeth only with bottled water in Nepal and Tibet. Also, Himalayan red salt lamps don't exist here. Also, acupressure began in Tibet. Somehow it is related to the idea of sky burials. There are no cemetaries. There are no major trees in Tibet, my guide said, except the saplings that have been planted over the last few years to help stop the sand and dust from making towns unpleasant. Therefore, there has been no wood to be used for cremation as a burial form.

However, there's a different burial process. Sky burials. They seem to relate the Native American Indian's tradition of dealing with death. When a person dies, the high lama comes to the house to pray and relies on astrology to find an auspicious day for burial. This same high Lama releases the soul in a ceremony on that auspicious day. The soul is released through the head and is gone. Then the lama cuts the body into small pieces as that will be fed to the Himalayan griffins. For seven weeks on the day the person died (for instance on a Monday) the family and monks preform a Puja, a holy ceremony for which butter lamps and prayers are offered, while the body is in what is called the intermediate state. Then after 49 days, the body is fed to the birds. And the earth is clean. It's recycling at its best.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Shangra La, is it you?

1. View of Potala Palace, Shangri-La
I am blessed. What other woman has her own sherpa couple having her back and side but more, continually chanting prayers as she climbs 350 feet of crude stairs - and of course going back down them - at the Potala Palace in Tibet? It's the life. That's what Nema and Phurea do for me. Everyone sort of shakes when I have to go down stairs in sets of 12 in the dark corners of palaces and monasteries with about only 6 inches to hold a shoed foot. Potala Palace has 13 floors (all of which we climbed) and 999 rooms (no we did not visit all) and took 50 years to be built and is earthquake proof. I believe this palace was the resource for the idea of Shangra La, where peace and happiness existed. Guru Rimpoche wrote that it existed in the land of snow in a valley filled with compassion - possibly ancient holy lamas went there to die. Hollywood took on this story in a 1940s movie I never forgot. Now I'm here. It's huge.

2. Yak hair curtains
I really didn't believe I could make it up to the top of the Palace, which was the residence of all the Dalai Lamas for centuries. It looked like a Mount Everest event to me but the stairs leading up to the holy area, packed with Chinese tourist no matter if they are Buddhist or not, were roomy and made with rocks happily doable, although I was worried for awhile. We passed through large black curtains woven from yak hair - that stops water from entering and allows us to enter. Once we had climbed to the area of the palace where walls were made of tightly pressed sticks painted dark red, then the serious work began. That was the holy area, no photos allowed. Guards dressed in orange were everywhere to move crowds along. Tibetans could meander as long as they wished. Foreigners had one hour to get through all the detailed chapels dedicated to the Dalai Lamas in all their glory.

Nema and his wife are old friends. Nema was my personal sherpa four years ago when I went to Everest base camp. But he has had bigger challenges than me. He has summited Mt. Everest 10 times and was sherpa to the sons of Edmund Hilary, the first person to summit Everest in 1954 and his sherpa, Tensing Norgay. when they attempted successfully to duplicate their fathers' climb in 2004. Nema always smiles and always grabs my arm or elbow. Sometimes I have to say, "I can do it." Because, most of the time I can. He has, though, stopped me sliding off many a narrow rocky path en route to Everest base camp. And he was the one who made sure we hung the prayer flags I had carried in 2008 made by girls in detention and the precious classmates of my then first grade granddaughter Megan. Now we have a bag loaded with new prayer flags from granddaughter Caroline's St.Mary's lower school to be hung on the Tibet side of Everest base camp - and some at the holy Mt. Kailash.

3. Mean protector god
But back to Lasha: the art trove hidden within walls of Potala Palace, a national treasure, would make Rome's Vatican gasp. Ornate wouldn't sufficiently describe even a tiny corner. Never have I seen so many golden images of Buddha - life size or bigger, wearing all sorts of wardrobes and carrying possessions which related to each particular role the Buddha transformes into. There are 330 Buddha possibilities. Of the three main Buddhas, present, future and compassion (who has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes), the most unique is the future Buddha who unlike others does not sit in the Lotus style and his feet are ready to stand up. He has long eyes that are open wide and not shut like most Buddhas because he is looking for compassion. He has blue hair, long hair and long ears.

In many rooms you are greeted by enormous blue faced scowling monster figures - these are the protection gods - warning you to get your karma right before you bow and offer gifts. And in this Palace, a museum of the history of 14 Dalai Lamas, giant thrones (the size of chair-and-a-halfs, almost small beds - they sit cross-legged no matter how old they were) abound in each Lama's chapel, a cape neatly folded into a triangle like a witches hat and placed in the seat which the current Dalai Lama would occupy if he could be there.

4. My Rocky dance
Then there are gigantic gold and bejeweled stupas inside the Palace that are tombs for the long line of Dalai Lamas who have existed and been reincarnated. These are elaborately displayed in various chapels at the very top of the building closest to the heavens. And also at the very top is the balcony draped in gleeful flying yellow fabric where the the Dalai Lama to observe activities way below in the open area when monks, holy men and/or admirers come to visit, to preform ceremonies and to offer gifts, sort of like the Pope's window at the Vatican, and the English Royal Family's balcony at Buckingham Palace.

There is so much information about Buddhism eagerly spilled out by our guide Tashe who has such a brutal accent I cannot understand much, I began to fade by the end of our time up there wandering in order through each segment. Finally I could get a bottle of water. I felt like Rocky when I got to the very top and then again when I got back to the bottom (since we couldn't take a photo at the top.)

Our day started early getting to the Palace. We were diverted because every morning thousands of pilgrims and worshippers dressed in their Tibetan native costumes and carrying prayer wheels and prayer beads, daily walk the 8 kilometer route around the Inner City, which is the holy part of Lasha. It's impressive. Most of them are old. Many do it prostrating themselves. They ignore the stacks of tourist (mostly Chinese) lining up for their entrance into Potala. Of all the visitors, I saw one group of retired Americans carrying hiking sticks, a group of Russians, and a pair of Germans. All the others were Chinese, it seemed. I'm told 70 per cent of all tourism in China comes from their own citizens. There is much to see in beautiful settings.

5. Jokhang Temple
When we left Potala we drove a short way to a China-huge type square that fronts the Jokhang Temple, known as the Water Blessing Temple, the most revered religious structure in Tibet, thick with smell of yak butter, mantras, incense and offerings. It is the destination of so many pilgrims that it's hard to feel good about being a non-Buddhist stepping on their floors. Jokhang was built 639-ish by a Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, the king who brought Buddhism to Tibet with his two Tara wives (one chinese and one nepali). It copies the passion of the Muslim's call to Mecca or the sinful crawling on their knees to Guadalupe in Mexico. All faithful need to make a pilgrimage to build merit in their lives. Tibetans get here one way or the other in their native dress, with striped aprons, their soft handsewn shoes, and bringing bags of butter, all sorts of Khata scarves, money, prayer flags (you can purchase what you forgot before you enter) and the incense and bodily odor knocks you out. In a locked room with big windows were 1000 burning butter lamps, similar to the Christian light candles for loved ones or the sick. That was hot.

6. Prostrate pilgrims at Jokhang
All have to go through security - always - in these popular places. The plaza was filled with a different kind of armed police force in black uniforms, due to problems in the past. But I felt a wave of uncomfortablity in such a dark place, with so many people seeking resolution and help, many prostrate, others hungry to leave some sort of offering to get their souls corrected and their karma on track toward enlightenment. I could not stay there. I felt as though i was intruding, even though there was a group of American tourists going through without sensing the power and pain being dealt with around them. This, to me, is where sightseeing stops and respect for faith moves in. So I left and waited outside for my Tibetan friends and prayed the Lord's Prayer many times.

Oldest Tibetan Monastery Sings

1. Samye Temple
My first dawn in Tibet finds us at its oldest monastery , Samye. Though in existence for 1200 years, crowds of peasant style people roam through it anxious to leave offerings. On the top of one roof about two dozen workers in sun caps and with poles beat down a ground agate rock roof to make it solid. Repairs are needed. But most of the activity comes from pilgrims visiting the grounds. It has a fascinating overall shape of a mandela with the central temple representing holy Mt. Meru and the temples and stupas around it symbolic of the oceans (sigh - I'd love a dip in the distant seas), and the continents usually ringing the holy mountain. Originally it had 108 buildings (that's a big time number as is seven in Buddhism) and 1008 chortens on the wall around the monastery. This is the original site for the birth of Buddhism in Tibet and it was almost destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

2. Protective Monster
In a sort of sleepy food room on the grounds, we stirred the unprepared workers at 8:30 ready to eat. I had my first Tibetan breakfast which included fried egg between Tibetan bread, two segments of orange, one fourth of a banana, one slice of apple, sweet yak yoghurt and Jasmine tea. We sit in booths, the seats of which are covered in thick carpets. The windows so smudged the view is blurred need to be washed. Beautiful brown skin Tibetan families come through, women dare to glance at you and smile, children two and under are strapped tightly to backs of women, their little round faces curious at this white hair woman. I teach one to say "Hi."

3. Repair workers
It is early and the sun glistens off the Samye Temple's golden roof. Gold once the currency for trade and to pay taxes, was and still is plentiful in Tibet, but when the 14th Dalai Lama fled, his followers didn't want to leave anything for the Chinese so the treasury was plundered. Now some things have been restored.
4. Pressed sticks wall
My challenge here was to be able to climb up stairs not as wide as my hand, holding onto wobbly wooden poles used as rails or maybe a rope. There is a strange odor of a different kind of incense and a constant Ommmm to greet you. Pilgrims enter quickly with jars of white butter (monks make sculptures out of butter and it is also added to giant bowls of oil where masses of tiny candles burn). They take chunks of inedible white yak butter out of the jars and place it on altars. That might be fun to get one's hands into.

4. Typical Buddhist Altar
There is nothing simplistic in a Buddhist monastery. In fact, each chapel is congested. I must not forget to go to the left of everything holy, that's clockwise. It's so dark you can't see the fully painted walls which have been there since time began. Every wall depicts some sort of adoration, aspect or history of Buddha. Giant figures line the sides of a single giant Buddha. Most are likely dieties or revered manifestations of people like the founder of Tibet or a king, or some etherial religious figures. These sculptures are about 10 feet tall. A pair of grueling monsters protect each entrance or sit or stand on each side of the Buddha figure. All statues are dressed to the hilt, I guess one would say, and a lot of it is now gold paint. Holy gift scarves called Khatas, mostly white and yellow, are draped everywhere. For a donation, I could take photos.

Pilgrims bow and press their heads against so many points and places (like we anoint foreheads and put ashes on our foreheads to start Lent) - I guess you have to be a Buddhist to understand why they choose the places they stop at and they say rapid almost chanted prayers as they move through the different passages.

6. Monks' capes waiting
Monks wrapped in red wool bustle about adjusting their robes or sit cross legged on the floor as they read sacred scripture from antique books stored in cabinets at the back of the room. Their red capes are neatly folded into triangles and placed on the seat they would occupy during a ceremony. There is hardly space to breath for the hanging fabric victory banners, flags and streamers, some seem quilted. None are allowed to be in homes, only in holy rooms. It is dark and cleanliness is not part of godliness.

7. God of Compassion with 1,000 hands
There are three floors of three Tibetan art styles to peruse . The first has a 12 foot high statue of Buddha dressed in Tibetan finery. The second floor there is a Chinese style to the beams and the figures. Thin sticks have been compounded together and painted red, as seen in most temples, because that keeps water from entering the temple. Interesting concept. Then the third floor. a recent edition - is India versions of statues of 4 of the 5 Buddhas and a wooden screen around the balcony, reminding me how in Jaipur palaces wooden screens protected women who were not allowed to be seen by any man but their husbands, so they could watch what was going on out in the square. They could look out. No one could look in.

After leaving here, exhausted with information, we hit a dirt road for a 60 mile "short cut" to get to Lasha. It took about 2 and a half hours over sand and rock, hot sun glaring, and no air condition in the vehicle. When we suddenly reached the new bridge over the river, it was cool sailing on a well marked modern highway which went through a new mile and a half tunnel. Arriving at Lasha quickly, we found an enormous city much changed from the last time my guide Jim had seen it. And our hotel was really something out of Amagani style - and it was a real St. Regis Hotel, a great reprieve from the bustle of Nepal and Tibet. The bathroom is superb with mood lighting.
8. St Regis Hotel in Lasha

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Crossing Over to Tibet

Neither getting out of Kathmandu nor getting into Tibet is easy. We were honored to receive a Chinese visa for visiting Tibet although it was not issued til two days before our planned departure and we got the last four seats on Air China's one flight to Tibet. Many are turned down and the rules change one day from the other.

Mt Everest from the air
After a two hour delay, (this is where my needlepointing comes in handy) we walked up the steps of Air China and crammed in the back of the plane with Russians, Germans, and other tourists. There was a deja vu for me as I remember my first encounter with China when I was in Ghana in 1962 and saw a real Chinese Embassy from the street. I was told if I dared step over the line, I would violate international law and the government would have to bargain to get me free. But then in 1972 we entertained the first ever Chinese Ping Pong Team when it was invited to the States by then President Richard Nixon in a travel exchange. The entire entourage of people, security and press (300) arrived at the farm in a split second and we fed them barbecue and chocolate chip cookies and gifted them Frisbees. Photos of this moment of relaxation for the group went all over the world.

Pura and I at the airport
Now I was crossing over into Tibet, China's Tibet. All of us shared in a most extraordinary flight - hugging up next to the Himalayan mountains, waving at a black Mt. Everest striped with snow and other of the tallest mountains in the world which obsess climbers. Quickly on the hour flight, we left the green and clouds of Nepal to enter the brown dry field of mountains, stark and dramatic, which make up Tibet.

Scenic road to Dranang
where the Samye Monastery is.
The flight pattern followed the valley along the Yarlong River (means Horse) the largest River in Tibet which starts at Mt. Kailash and has such intriguing tributaries named Elephant (that goes into India), Peacock (named Purran and crosses into Nepal), Snow Lion (the Indus which flows into Pakistan) and of course the Horse that wanders through Tibet. It's not a Mississippi style river, huge and flowing along banks, this one is shallow and with a plethora of veins wandering along lethargically. Not for boating.
Village on the way

We landed at Lashas brilliant new airport (Huge Chinese letters were being erected on its roof) and immediately went through many courteous inspections by military (many young women) and immigrations. I tried to keep my peace and endure. Everyone was treated equally although our Sherpa companions had their backpacks inspected. The airport and the whole outside were impressive. And our guide and drivers met us with welcoming white silk scarves. Here one says Tashe-Deley.

Typical home
We took off for a long drive through the valley - lined with poplar and willow trees which are being planted by the thousands to help hold the sand down along the river. Barley (used to make chang or beer) and peas are farmed prodigiously here. Everyone lives in identical large block homes with prayer flags on poles on the roof. Hairy Yaks, Zos (a cow-yak mixture) shaggy sheep and long haired goats are also residents. Nothing is crowded. It's full of space and order. Cars, trucks and farm equipment are top of the line but one gets a bit dizzy not only from the altitude (about 12,000 ft) but from the constant horn tooting. If there is someone walking alongside the road, toot. If a car is coming, toot, as if they don't see you. Anything that you think could be an obstacle, toot. Sigh.

Once you are in Tibet, Yaks reign. Not only are they transport animals, but Tibetan food is primarily Yak meat, milk, cheese (not a happy taste) and butter. There is butter tea but butter is the primary offering Buddhist bring to the temples - to keep the candles lit. The original Tibetan religion, Bonism, who believed that all life started from eggs, considered the white yak (haven't seen one) as a diety.

Momos for dinner
Our destination for the first night in Tibet was Ganden, home of the most ancient of Buddhist monasteries. When we reached the small town - clean and active but not crowded...we were to dine at Tashi Restaurant - which caters to tourist. But, irritatingly, no matter what restaurant, it's up two or three flights of not so happy stairs. Then dare to stop at the restroom??? a flimsy curtain for a door, a hole for the waste and the low window opened so anyone down below could see your squat. Good heavens. Here we go out of my comfort zone again. I remember it well from trekking to Everest base camp four years ago.

Guest house number one
Of course, I was woozy and dizzy at the top - a normal reaction after sitting in a car for 3 hours - windows opened so the fresh air blows in - and at a new high elevation. But I ate my favorite vegetarian momos and Tibetan bread (a fry bread). It was dark when we finished and finally got to the guest house. It's a two story square building around an opening into which you drive and leave your vehicle. The young girls attending us (don't think they expected such heavy bags) proudly showed off their 24 hour hot showers in the rooms. Ha. Not on my life. There was a TV - six Chinese channels. So I watched a DVD on my laptop and hoped to sleep. It was dark outside. Really dark. And quiet. Tomorrow the Tibetan adventure begins.

Crossing the river at dawn

Friday, May 25, 2012

Buddhism and healing bowls - part 2

I've been zonked by the healing singing bowls. In a small corner of the busy markets of Kathmandu is a place noted for it's brass bowls - especially rare one hammered into shape once a year on during the full moon of the birthday of Buddha. I had an amazing experience with sound. Sort of a deep alto myself, to hear the sounds these bowls send out is like experiencing shivers (goose bumps?) in a assonant choral harmony. These bowls have sounds that vibrate for up to two minutes, once gonged, and a sense of peace surrounds you completely. Their healing capacity is based around the Buddhist idea of chakras - mainly those of the brain, the throat and the heart. My brain and heart are probably irreparable but my vocal chords have been gravelly from the dry air, so I decided to see what was up with this healing bowl. The young healer picked an antique brass bowl in the sound of G. He hit the bowl with his hand and the sound vibrated within me as he passed it around my neck. Hmmm. On a larger bowl filled with water he showed me the difference in a female sound and a male sound. He used a padded pestle to rub it around the edge of the bowl until a beautiful sound emitted. But when he went for the masculine one, rubbing the pestle at a sharper angle it caused the water to bubble like a fountain on high boil. Wow. Then he asked if I wanted to stand in a huge bronze bowl which can cause the whole body to vibrate as he gonged it repeatedly. Shut your eyes, he said. You won't fall. Sure, why not. And it was an amazing experience with deep sound that seemed to be right and similar to the Om sounds one hears in ancient Christian and Buddhist chants. I asked a lot of questions but don't think my voice is any better. Oh well. It was the most fun I'd had since I got to Nepal.

As we prepare for Tibet, I try to learn more about the Buddhist, quiet advocates of simplicity. Monks in their red or yellow robes and sandals are everywhere laughing and praying and even perusing the shops. They get priority boarding on airplanes. Their monastaries are havens of peace and art. Prince Siddhartha, living a luxurious life, born to a Hindu king in Nepal, left wife, son and fancy life to be an ascetic in 550 BC and he became The Buddha. Three historical personages brought Buddhism to Tibet: first an Indian Guru in the 7th century during the reign of a Tibetan King. Then that King married a Nepali princess Ricuti who was called the Green Tara. Then a Chinese princess Win Cheng married the same king and was called White Tara. Once again, notice the trinity of its creation and that women were involved.

If you go deeper, you learn there are four schools of Buddhism Nyimgma-pa was the first, then Kagyu-pa founded in 1000 AD (and is dominant in Mt. Kailash region); Shakya-pa in the 11 century AD was the theological branch that studied Buddhist scriptures; Gelug-pa began in the 14th century and is the Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama (you see pictures of the Dalai Lama in strange curved yellow hats). These names pop up often in discussion but they are difficult for Westerner to spell and understand. I think each school determines a person's way of living to reach spiritual perfection.

Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a search for true self and purporting to cease worldly suffering and reincarnation is the theme in Tibet. This is the reason Dalai Lamas are looking for their successors, someone to follow to complete the mission of enlightenment. This is when the essence of the soul is developed through rebirth in successive lives until a state of perfection is obtained.

(I confess that when I lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where spiritual things swirl in the air like cotton candy, I went to be "read" by a past lives decipherer. All I remember is I was supposedly, in past lives, a muse for Veronese - confirming my passion for art - and I was a black woman on the underground railroad rescuing people. That would have been right up my alley. That expert knew nothing about me. Wierd.)

But many modern Buddhist Rinpoches, Lamas, etc are wary of reaching true Enlightenment where they are no longer of this world nor can they have images in monasteries. I was told the current Dalai Lama prefers to stay in the world to make it a better place of peace, to be useful to other Buddhist in need and attempting the walk to Enlightenment, and just helping those in need. If I understand it correctly, if a child is found to be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, then Enlightenment carries on, but if not, then he continues to advocate for the poor and needy and the world. Whew - that's enough of that but from here on out, the destinations we have seem to be adjuncts of Buddhism.

I'm relieved to be leaving Nepal. Currently there is a political uprising causing city-wide strikes where no one works or can get to work (unless they walk) and protests in the street can become violent. Garbage is piled everywhere. It is a response to an effort by the Maoist party to divide Nepal into ethnic or tribal groups and designate for them areas to live in and from which they would have representation in the government. There are 60 ethnic groups who have been living in harmony for years. They don't want to be separated into lots. The government proposes a sort of a modern apartheid that has everyone up in arms. And it is a bitter subject that fills the newspapers and the conversations of the day. Namaste.

Special for Herb Lane: Nisamanee Lertworapong. Find that. Non criminal popular figure in these parts.