Sunday, April 27, 2014
When Sally was a child, she watched a black and white movie, "Lost Horizons," starring Jane Wyatt. Back then, there was no color TV and no amazing special effects, so the movies had to be especially well done to capture the imagination. This was the first time she heard of "Shangri-La," the mythical city high in the snowy, remote Himalayas. She was hooked. As she grew older, she continued to explore this mystical land by reading books about the Dalai Lama and his palace, the Potala, in the secluded city of Lhasa high in these mysterious mountains of Tibet. She dreamed of some day visiting this place that seemed so far away and so out of reach. We had always known Nepal was on our travel list but Tibet seemed beyond our reach, like the mythical city of "Shangri-La." We had heard that visas were challenging to get and were unsurprised that the borders were closed to Tibet when we arrived in Nepal. We applied anyway, and found out just 12 hours before we were to depart for Tibet that our visa was approved.
We traveled overland with a Tibetan guide and driver who met us at the border. Our route took us along the "Friendship Highway," one of the most fascinating and scenic highways in the world. We traversed several high mountain passes (several over 17,000 feet), viewed spectacular glaciers and stupendous mountain ranges (in addition to the Himalayas along the Nepal/Tibet border) and spent hours driving across the Tibetan Plateau's windswept, barren, and achingly remote landscapes.
Surprisingly, in this desolate, bitterly cold, gorgeous landscape, there were small communities of native Tibetans scattered throughout, usually working what appeared to be barren fields. Families worked together to plant barley seed with yaks or ponies yoked to a hand plow. The dirt had to be mixed with a large amount of topsoil transported from lower elevations hundreds of miles away to make a viable planting environment before the plowing could be done. It was very labor intensive, and the cold temperatures and constant, stiff, chilly wind made it seem like an unlikely endeavor. Perhaps it was the blessings given on the first day of each planting season that made the villagers' hard won fight with the earth fruitful. We were invited to eat treats and briefly participate in one such blessing ceremony when we stopped to watch from the road.
Everywhere we drove, there were prayer flags strung across the highest points along the road. Their colorful ripples in the ever present wind became our constant companion, and we were also encouraged to help string new ones on auspicious days or at special sites. Tibetans believe that these offerings in holy places of power are especially strong prayers which will eventually be carried away by wind and/or water to all sentient beings.
We moved "off the beaten path" in our two-wheel drive van on a four-wheel drive road to the Everest Base Camp to get a spectacular view of the Queen Mountain. She is especially magnificent at close range. During the backcountry drive, we encountered small bands of Tibetan nomads. We marveled at the thought of living in these altitudes in their tiny canvas tents placed temporarily next to rock walls about three feet high as we watched the scattered groups moving their yaks to "greener" pastures. The cold temperatures, barren landscape, and the constant, frigid, stiff wind gave us the impression that this was an impossibly difficult life. Yet, these nomadic people were warm and welcoming, sticking out their tongues at us, their way of happily greeting strangers.
After a week of traveling, drinking gallons of smoky, yak dung flavored boiled water, and staying in some of the most "basic" lodging we have encountered in two years, we finally reached the completely modern, Chinese city of Lhasa which little resembled the Shangri-La of Sally's memories and dreams. While Lhasa was unremarkable as a whole, it had incredibly special places and people which would have fit right into the imaginary city of Shangri-La.
For example, the Potala, home of the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama prior to his exile in 1959, was much more than we had ever imagined. An incredible architectural achievement when it was completed in 1694, this structure is almost as impressive today as it must have been back then. It is enormous, towering above the city at an altitude of 12,139 feet, and the three hour walking tour we took along side pilgrims and tourists allowed us to access only about 2% of the entire structure! We both felt saddened following our tour. The palace is gorgeous but it is an empty and lifeless husk without the presence of its religious leaders.
In contrast, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, constructed in 642, was alive with devout pilgrims, heavily visited by locals and a warm, special place. It is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. We observed Tibetans here, and at the Potala, walking circuits around the structures once, three times, or 103 times. Most carried necklaces of prayer beads, counting each bead as they chanted a mantra. The hum of soft voices chanting as we joined pilgrims on their dawn circuits will be a powerful memory played in our minds across our lifetimes. Three times we would walk, sometimes in astonishment at what we witnessed from these deeply devout Buddhists. Many of them carried prayer wheels, twirling them constantly as they walked, softly mouthing their prayers. Others were prostrating themselves (from a standing posture, bending their knees and placing their hands on the ground, kicking their legs out behind them so they are lying on the ground, then sliding their hands on the ground to a position above their heads, coming back up to a kneeling position, and then standing with clasped hands held high in prayer). Many do this every day for months until they have done it 10,000 times. We even met a group of Tibetans who had traveled, prostrating themselves for hundreds of miles, as they covered the distance from their home village to Lhasa! We cannot imagine what strength of body and will it takes to accomplish such a feat in this high, cold environment. If we had to describe the Tibetan people with one word, we would say they are devout, much more so than any culture with which we have interacted during our journeys. Despite decades of oppression, torture, and systemic attempts to eliminate their spirituality, they remain strong in their faith. In them, we saw an almost mythical people, the people of Sally's childhood dreams.
Posted in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Images are of the Potala Palace, the north face of Mount Everest, nomads near Mt Everest and Buddhist pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple prostrating themselves 10,000 times.