Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shangra-Li


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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Censored!

The smiling young Chinese border guard asked us "Do you have any books?"  We paused, as the enormity of the question drove home what we were about to experience for 10 days.  We have crossed many borders during the past two years.  In some, guards are searching for drugs and, as in Bolivia, the body searches can be very complete.  In others, such as Australia,  guards are seeking to prevent introduced species from wrecking fragile ecosystems.  Almost all are seeking to exclude dangerous weapons such as explosives or firearms.  As we stared at the young uniformed man before us, we realized with dawning sadness that books, ideas, and access to global social networks are the most dangerous imports into Tibet.

Tibet, or the rooftop of the world, has an interesting history including periods of jostling for independence from Monguls, Chinese, Thais, Nepalese and the British.  While it has experienced war, during the last two to three hundred years, it's people were better known for their study of philosophy, meditation, sentience, and the nature of existence.  Prior to 1950, Tibet was an autonomous nation with a rich Buddhist culture where most families had at least one son or daughter who were dedicated monks or nuns.  Thousands of monasteries existed; even small villages of a few houses far away on the vast Tibetan Plateau had their own small monasteries or nunneries decorated with prayer flags, food offerings, and incense.  Tibet had a history of isolation which led to a very strong and unique cultural identity which was only gradually allowing change in the middle part of the 20th century.  All that changed when 40,000 armed Chinese invaded in 1950.  By 1959, the embodiment of their God of Compassion, the 14th Dalai Lama, had to flee to India, in all probability never to
return again.  Even possessing an image of him is illegal in Tibet.  Most of Tibet's senior religious leaders are exiles.  Tibet was particularly impacted by Mao's cultural revolution and for a decade beginning in 1966, almost every one of the tens of thousands of monasteries were destroyed, monks and nuns were killed, imprisoned, or forced to marry, and people were forbidden to practice their faith.  In the decades that followed, there has been a slow return to allowing some freedom of religious expression; however, Tibet is now occupied by hundreds of thousands Han Chinese immigrants who have been encouraged with significant salaries, interest free business loans, and prominent positions to help modernize the "backward" Chinese province. Meanwhile, most Tibetans continue to experience many barriers to economic, political, and cultural power. The Tibetan quarter of the almost mythical city of Lhasa currently occupies less than 5% of the capital.  Lhasa is a modern Chinese city with scattered hints of its past cultural prominence.

We were surprised at the level of constraint and monitoring we observed.  In a trip of over a thousand miles, we rarely traveled for an hour without multiple stops by Chinese police and military who examined our visa, passports, and our guide's and driver's identification papers.  Getting permission to visit Tibet can be challenging with the country's borders frequently being closed to all foreigners.  When open, the rules change each year about which country is allowed visas, what group compositions can be allowed, which areas may be visited.  We asked one day to deviate from our approved path by 1.6 miles and were told how we could
not as the police would stop us.  Passports are required to access the web from internet caf├ęs or to check into hotels or visit tourist sites such as the Mt. Everest base camp.  Getting on the Internet, where email and other communication is monitored, was not very productive.  All social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Words with Friends, YouTube, etc. are blocked.  Chillingly, so are education sites with web addresses ending in .edu.  Uploading photos, documents, or credit card payments are all blocked as are downloading items.  No Amazon Kindle books here!  Cameras were everywhere, as were the riot police, police guards, metal detectors, and plain clothes agents.  Taking photos of the police, soldiers or guards is a serious offense in Tibet and could lead to a visitor's expulsion from the country.  The result is very disturbing for people raised in a free society.  We found mainland China to appear to be a freer society.  The decades of oppression are obvious as current Tibetan culture is a fragment of its former glory.  Our guide's language was peppered each day with the phrase "That is impossible" and we were to come to realize how limited his possibilities were.  While we faced censorship, he faced a lifetime of constraints.  However, he thought of himself as lucky, knowing his parents had faced much more.

In the end, despite more than 6 decades of Chinese occupation, we met some of the most passionate pilgrims, free nomads, and kind souls we have encountered on the planet.  Our next blog entry will describe the wonders that remain embedded within the people and place known as Tibet.

Posted from Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Images are of a Tibetan pilgrim completing a circuit in Lhasa; monks from the Sera Monastery who are currently allowed to practice their Buddhist religion; and of the ever present Chinese riot police marching below the silent and empty Potala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama.