Monday, May 5, 2014

Episode 16: Lhasa, Tibet: The Rooftop of the World

A couple years ago, on a mountain top in Colorado, I overheard a couple young people one-upping each other in a contest of “Well, I am going to . . .” “I think the next peak I want to try is Pike’s peak.” “Yeah, that would be sweet. But I want to go to the Alps. Climb there.” “Yeah, totally. .  . After that, though, I want to go to Kilamanjaro. I hear that totally rocks.” “Oh, yeah. Me, too.” Contemplative silence. Then the most jock-swaggering of the pair spoke, “But Tibet. That’s the ultimate, right? I am totally going to climb in Tibet.” “Yeah! Oh! Me, too! Let’s do it! Let’s go to Tibet! Let’s meet there . . . in like 2014. I’ll graduate in May 2014. Let’s meet in Tibet!”

View out hotel window
And that was the end of it because, as anyone overhearing the conversation could tell, it stopped at Tibet. Tibet was the ultimate. There was no topping Tibet.

At the time I rolled my eyes in that way adults do when kids talk stupid smack with each other. I felt like interjecting, in my best teen twang, “Yeah. Like, right. Tibet in 2014. Let’s do it, man!” Dick-wagging pipe dreams, I scoffed. Adolescent hubris.
It never crossed my mind that I would be the one to find myself in Tibet in May 2014. Never in a million years.

Yet here I am. With Zephaniah. 2014. Tibet. Wild. I wonder if either of those two college students made it. 

Our journey to Tibet was the culmination of our travels in China. We have been to the east coast cities, the southern beaches, the gorges and Yangtze River. We have traveled to see waterfalls and kung fu boy monks. We have walked on the wall and cuddled a panda (well, Z did). We have gazed over pits of terra cotta warriors, played with monkeys, hiked up mountains, soaked in hot springs, biked on top of the Old City Wall, visited the God of Hell, and seen Mao. We have patronized country artists and heard some classic (ear-splitting) Chinese opera. Our last big trip of the year was flying into Lhasa, Tibet and experiencing a wholly different culture.

A little history: China believes Tibet belongs to them. That is why, in the states, you sometimes see bumper stickers that say “Free Tibet.” Politically/liberal-minded folks find this Chinese occupation of Tibet appalling. In 1959 the Chinese government marched into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and seized power. The Dali Lama, the religious and political leader of the Buddhist country, was sent into exile – and has been gone ever since. The Tibetans are peace-loving Buddhists, so they didn’t have a chance against tanks and guns. 

While China believes Tibet is part of China, Tibet and Tibetans believe China is not part of them. Nevertheless, because the Chinese government has been a military occupying force for the past 50+ years, the Chinese government controls Tibet. The Chinese government will not allow any foreigners to travel to Tibet without a permit. This must be procured through a travel agency, so a hopeful and interested tourist must ask the government if – pretty please – whether he/she can go to Tibet. Even if the permit is granted, there is no “meandering about” for foreign tourists. You must have a government-approved guide every moment you are in Tibet. Must. The guide will meet you at the airport or at the train station and be attached at your hip for the duration of your visit. You must have a documented itinerary and you are not supposed to deviate from it. You are limited to excursions in the city of Lhasa, unless you have a different permit that will allow travel exclusively to the places listed.  These strict regulations of foreign tourists in Tibet are to prevent any more bad press from leaking out about the Chinese occupation there.

Woman selling prayer beads in Drepung Monastery
The U.S. government has done their fair share of cultural occupation and annihilation. Native Americans. The history and legacy of slavery. Most recently: Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. We tend to believe the narratives, the fictions, our governments tell us about their reasons for occupying other people’s countries. As someone who lived in an African/Muslim country for three years, I was outraged at the narrative the Bush and then the Obama administration peddled regarding the backward ways, the terrorist culture, and the “we must free the girls and women” junk that was trotted out to convince American citizens than in fact the wars/occupations were good things. This well-spun propaganda was an excuse to vilify the very cultures and countries our government had invaded for the profits gained by war and access to oil. 

Lhasa is said to be “the rooftop of the world.” That is because it sits at an altitude of 12,000 feet – the highest city on the planet. If a wannabe tourist is stupid enough to go online and look at travel reports for people who have visited Lhasa, he/she will read a raft of horror stories about altitude sickness and ruined vacations due to nausea, migraines, vomiting, and heart attacks from thin air.

As a regular traveler to Colorado and hiker of mountains higher than 12K feet, I wasn’t very concerned, but I made sure Z and I took some altitude medicine just in case. It is traditional Chinese medicine, a grainy powder that looks and tastes like dirt. Our guide told us, when we arrived, not to shower or bathe for three days. When I inquired why, he said we had energy on our skin that we brought with us. If we washed it off, it would weaken us. Better to keep it on. I am inclined to say the dirt tincture and the no shower advice worked since neither Z nor I had any harsh altitude issues.

Hotel entrance
The air, however, is thin. Z kept trying to run and jump in his typical fashion, only to end up panting and holding his noggin: “head rush.” I would remind him, “Take it slow. Don’t run. Just walk.” Impossible advice to follow. Off he would skip only to slow down like a spent wind-up toy after a few, short hops. “Whoa. Head rush.” Yup. 86% oxygen saturation does make one slow down a bit.

The other thing it does it makes you giddy. One evening Z and I were kicking a soccer ball around the hotel courtyard and all of a sudden we were both howling in inexplicable laughter. What was so funny? I have no idea. Not enough oxygen to the brain. As both Z and I doubled over in senseless, ab-aching giggles I thought, “Why are we laughing? Why does it feel like I just shared a joint with my child?” 

I tried running a couple days after we arrived. It was comic. I would run for about seven minutes and
Potala Palace
then pant and walk for three. Run. Pant and walk. The locals would look at me like I was insane. I guess I was.

Potala Palace, one of the main tourist stops in Lhasa, requires another 2,000 foot climb from foot to top. Everyone said, “Save the palace for one of your last days after your body has had a chance to adjust to the thin air.” Our wiry little chain-smoking Tibetan guide took us to Potala on the second day. Perhaps to test our mettle. Perhaps to gauge our commitment. Perhaps to mock the fat, white Americans. I made it to the top of the palace, no problem, but Z was bent over, hands on knees, after the first 1,000 feet or so of nearly vertical stairs. Our guide, Tsenreng – which means “strong” in Tibetan – had pity on the wee, winded and pasty American lad and took him down to the gardens and I hooked up with one of Tsenreng’s buddies who was shepherding a couple of Brit tourists through the high-altitude palace. 

In a small moment, I did point out to Z that there were young mothers climbing up the palace steps with toddlers strapped to their backs. He refused to be guilted or bullied into continuing and had a fine time down in the garden exercising his lower body muscles.

Pilgrims turning prayer wheels at the foot of Potala Palace
Because Lhasa is the political, cultural, and religious capital of Tibet, there are lots of Buddhist pilgrims who visit the palace and temples and gardens. These pilgrims are easy to spot as they tend to dress in traditional garb (long, woolen skirts with colorful aprons for the women) and are spinning prayer wheels and counting beads as they walk. As they walk, they recite scripture or say mantras. One of the most common mantras is “Om Ma Ne Pad Mai Hum” or “God/desses, demi-god/desses, prophets, people, animals, demons” – the hierarchy of beings in a spirituality that believes in reincarnation, Karma, and just desserts. 

Z bought a ring with the “Om Ma Ne Pad Mai Hum” mantra on it at a gewgaw stall outside one of the temples and Tsenreng was aghast that someone would carve the mantra on a ring . . . think of
where a young man’s hands go! Tsenreng said the mantra was much too sacred to be on anything that would get dirty. I asked him if it would be better to get a string and hang it around Z’s neck. He said that would be OK. As long as Z took it off when he took a shower to prevent his body dirt from washing over it.

Walking through the temples (lots of temples) I would hear the hum of the “Om” chant. It starts low and tends to vibrate through the middle of your body, carrying you along with the mass of people as if connected by the very sound. I found myself “om”ing along with the pilgrims almost involuntarily.

In the temples people would bring thermoses and jars of yak butter to offer to the gods and demi-gods or departed Dali Lama’s. The pilgrims would also leave money or fruit or even beer at the altars/shrines within the temples. Tibetans are partial to barley beer, which I hope the god/desses like better than I did: too bitter and not enough carbonation. One of Z’s favorite temple activities was sticking small bills into crevices and under statues as we weaved through the temples, admiring the golden statues, the history-telling murals, and intricate tapestries that covered every inch of wall space. No one would ever accuse the Tibetan Buddhists of being minimalists when it comes to interior decorating. 

Our days in Lhasa were filled with visits to monasteries, temples, and gardens. Each monastery or temple had a unique history and pilgrims would travel to the temple or monastery for different reasons. The Drepung Monestary, built into the side of a mountain in the 7th century, was known for
its 45 meter square Thangka, a painting of a Buddha. The gargantuan thangka is only rolled out on a mountain side pallet once a year, but stored inside the temple in a really loooooooooong cupboard when not in use. The pilgrims believe that walking under the cupboard will bring them luck. The cupboard is suspended above the floor of the temple about three feet, so walking under it is easier for kids than adults. Z joined the thangka line and did the necessary hunch-walk under the 45 meter length of cupboard. I was convinced the man in front of him, carrying a baby on his back, would not make it through the walk without either losing his balance and pitching forward or thonking the baby’s head against the bottom part of the cupboard.

At the Sera Monastery (est. 1419) the monks are known for healing people of bad dreams (casting out pesky bad-dream demons). Tibetans bring their children to the monks to be blessed/healed and there were many young children/toddlers and babies brought before the monks to be smudged the day we were there. Z got into line with the rest of them and placed his face against a dirty tapestry and genuflect before a yak-faced god, then presented his face to a monk who smeared a greasy, sooty mark on his nose. Bad dreams be gone. Z generally doesn’t suffer from bad dreams, but he has a recent one about not having good cards at a Pokemon tournament, which caused him to cry out in his sleep. The dreams of the privileged class.
I think the Sera monks must also have a soft spot in their hearts for dogs because that monastery was filled with dogs and puppies. One is always immediately aware of the difference between a developed country and a poor country by the status of and concern for animals. In the states, we tend to anthropomorphize our pets and treat them better than most children are treated in other places of the world. In poor countries like Tibet animals are left to their own devices, even if that means brutality and starvation. There were several dogs at the monastery that looked close to death from starvation and one dog with a broken leg that shivered helplessly by some stone steps. Z and I both spied a puppy carrying a bloody, dead kitten around in his mouth. 

These scenes are hard. Even harder are the dirty urchins who beg on the streets in Lhasa and outside the temples. Looking not unlike characters out of a Dickens novel, we would fill their hats with bills and look guiltily away as we hurried by to our next Tibetan adventure, the contrast between their lives and Z’s unfathomable and inexplicable.

One of the rituals the pilgrims perform on their way to the temples is to do a full-body, to the ground, genuflect, and then rise up again to full height. With their feet tied together. It looks like a tremendous workout, to say the least. And they don’t just do one of them, but hundreds of them. They count out the number on their prayer beads.

Tsenreng said these extreme-sport genuflections, that make the kneeling and rising at a Catholic mass look like a parlor game, are often done from great distances away. Sometimes a pilgrim does the inch
worm crawl from his/her home village to the temple. He said they tie their feet together because to have your feet move apart is seen as bad energy, disrespectful to the gods. Ditto for your fingers, so most pilgrims wear wooden mitts on their hands, both to protect them from the continual scraping against the stones and cement and to keep their fingers together. No protection for the knees that I saw. I would want some knee pads as well, I think.

This is how one of these genuflections goes: Stand straight and bend to kneeling. Go from kneeling to
lying face down on the ground. Sweep your arms, snow-angel-like, from over your head to your sides. Bring your hands to your chest level and push/pull yourself up to a standing position. Repeat x 100 or so. Who needs Pilates or hot yoga?

On one of our forays outside of Lhasa, we were speeding along the road about 60 km per hour and passed a pilgrim, in the middle of nowhere, doing his inch-worm crawl on the narrow shoulder of the highway. We were about 70 km from the temple in Lhasa. He was on his ways to the Jokhang Temple, I presume. If he didn’t get killed by a car or truck first. He was making his way hour after hour, day after day, doing the inch-worm genuflections until he reached the temple gate. Holy yak.

Monks at Sera Monastery
We saw the pilgrim on our way home from the Yang Bajing hot springs. It was snowing that morning when we got up, so a great day to go sit in some really hot water in the mountains. The hot springs are “the highest hot springs in the world” and the energy from the springs and geysers has been harnessed to supply most of the energy for the city of Lhasa. 

The water was beyond hot, i.e. 40-60 degrees Celsius (105-140 degrees Fahrenheit). The water was so scorching that in one area, far too hot to even touch, some of the workers has put eggs in the water to cook for lunch. 

The day we were there the springs were deserted. We were the only tourists. Because we were the
Cooking eggs in the hot springs
only ones there, we were quite the attraction in and of ourselves. The workers followed us around, no matter what pool we chose to play or lounge in, smiling and laughing at our forays. I felt like a dolphin at SeaWorld.

In packing for Tibet, I didn’t think to pack my bathing suit so I had to buy one at the springs (there is always a bathing suit stand outside hot springs). Typically I like two-piece bathing suits. I have tried one-piece suits but they always seem to squish my boobs, cut into my shoulders, ride up my butt or bag around me like wet diapers. However, the woman at the bathing suit stand took one look at me and handed me a one piece. Great. 

Having never seen me in anything but a two-piece suit, when I emerged from the changing room, Z guffawed and spit, “What the heck is that?”
Me: “Leave me alone. It’s a one-piece bathing suit.”
Z suppressed a chuckle. “What happens when you fart in that thing?”
Me: (getting neck deep in water as soon as possible to avoid further humiliation) “What? I don’t know! Ewww. Why would you even think of that? What?”
Z: “Come on! Fart! Let’s see what happens.”
Me: “No. People can’t just fart on command.”
Z: “I can.” Bubbles rose suspiciously in close proximity.
Me: “Disgusting. Please never put ‘farting on command’ on your resume under ‘Special Skills’.”

Throughout our three hour soak in the various pools at the springs, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Z would periodically ask me, “Have you farted yet? You will tell me when you do, right?”
When it came time to leave, our fingers and feet shriveled and white, Z said, “No! I don’t want to leave until you show me what happens when you fart in a one-piece bathing suit.”
“Google it,” I said, getting out of the pool, feeling the cold assault of the mountain air.

The drive to and from the hot springs, about 90 km, was interested for many reasons. One of which was the line of over 100 military tanks (I stopped counting at 100) that snaked outside of town. There are also police and military check points for everyone who is traveling more than a few kilometers outside the city. Uniformed men with intimidating sun glasses and guns would wave the Jeep over. The driver and guide would present papers. The guide would be asked to step out of the car and into the office. Whatever went on in the office, I don’t know. Probably not a friendly game of Mahjong. Intimidating military personnel would peer through the Jeep’s windows to check out the American tourists. The guide would return and we would be shooed on down the road.

I hadn’t experienced that level of military control since I traveled to Columbia in the late 1990s. In Columbia, I understood it.  At the time, Columbia was named the “Most Dangerous Place to Visit”: kidnappings, drug wars, Uzis on every corner and machine gun fire at night. In Tibet? What? Buddhists with prayer wheels? Come on.

The countryside outside Lhasa is rocky and beautiful with endless miles of farm land, flowing rivers,
and fluttering lines of colorful prayer flags marking seemingly barren mountains. Yaks were everywhere and their owners tag them with colorful woven earrings (red and white macramé with jingle bells were the most popular) that dangled as they walked. Some farmers were in their fields doing spring plantings and their yaks wore elaborate head-dresses to encourage a good crop. These elegantly festooned yaks looked as if they were ready for some sort of high couture animal ball or Mardi Gras party as they jangled along in the moist earth, pulling a heavy blade.

Yaks are an essential part of most Tibetans’ diets. I asked Tsenreng why since most Buddhists tend to be vegetarian (reincarnation means you don’t want to risk eating your grandma if she comes back as a cow or chicken, poor thing). He said in mountainous, arid Tibet the yak protein was needed to survive the winter months. 

We didn’t try yak meat, but we did try yak yogurt which was lumpy and rich, although more sour than the yogurt we are used to. There were plenty of vegetarian dishes and fare in Lhasa and the food was delicious. The vegetable momos were our favorite – a little of pocket dough with vegetable goodness inside. Besides Tibetan food, there was Nepali and Indian food widely available. We feasted on naan, momos, curry, basmati rice, korma sauces, and various fried pockets of bread stuffed with amazing combinations of spices and vegetables. We ate well in Tibet and all of it was good.

Steps leading to the top of Potala Palace
Our hotel was a block from the Jokhang Temple, surrounded by bazaars. The courtyard was filled with prayer flags that fluttered against our windows, the sound lulling us to sleep at night and the shadows of the rising sun from behind the grey and lavender mountains waking us in the morning. Outside our hotel windows we could see the nearby peaks, a backdrop for the incense smoke billowing up from the temple. There is a feeling of peace and endless beauty to this place. Woven throughout the serene culture and landscape is the menacing presence of Chinese guns and paddy wagons and men in military khakis marching goose-step through the streets, an angry and senseless contrast to these mountain people.

Free Tibet.

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