Friday, October 29, 2010

Skipping Through Nepal

We didn't really stay in Nepal very long.  About a week and half I guess.  During our time there, we didn't write any blogs, mostly because we were either disconnected from the internet or sick and unwilling.  Mostly the latter.  We headed straight for Kathmandu, and along the way we enjoyed the change in scenery:  in contrast to the dry unending plains of Tibet, northern Nepal is lush, green, and crammed together.  There were waterfalls everywhere, and it seemed as though the Nepalis decided it would just be better to let them do their thing than to try to tame them, because they regularly ran right across the road.

View from our bus ride
After arriving in Kathmandu and rejoicing in the creativity of their knick-knacks and tourist clothing, we decided to do a 4-day motorbike tour of Kathmandu valley.  First, we headed to Bouda to see Boudhanath.  We changed hotels here, something that boggled our guesthouse owner Santosh, since it's only like 15 minutes away by moto.  We just wanted to stay near Boudhanath, which is a beautiful giant Buddhist Stupa.  It was built sometime around 590-604 CE or 464-505 CE, depending on who you ask.  Either way, it's really ancient.  It may or may not have been built by the Tibetans, but in any case, they assumed it's upkeep a long long time ago, and have been visiting it as a holy site ever since.

From there, we headed to Kopan monastery, also very close by.  Kopan was founded by Tibetan monk Lama Thubten Yeshe, who is famous for among other things being among the first of the Tibetan refugee monks to take on western students, and later choosing to reincarnate himself as a westerner.  As such, it has become a popular destination for western tourists and spiritual seekers.  We just happened to have read a book about Lama Yeshe while we were in Laos, so when we heard his monastery was nearby, we decided to pay a visit.  It was an exceedingly beautiful monastery, among my favorite of all the temples and monasteries we've visited in our travels.

After that, we visited a nunnery in Shivapuri national park called Nagi Gompa.  In our time here in Asia, we've visited many temples and monasteries, but never a nunnery.  They, and nuns, are in fact somewhat rare, so I wanted to visit one.  Once there, an older nun happily showed us around their simple temple, gesturing to communicate what was what and who was an incarnation of who.  After that, we went on a long uphill hike with a nice Austrian guy so that we could get a good view of the mountains.  The view never materialized, but we got some exercise along the way.

Prayer flags at Nagi Gompa
Next, we headed to Kakani, from where we could get a glimpse of the Himalayas from the other side.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy both the night and morning we were there, so we could only get the slightest glimpse of them through the clouds and only for about 10 minutes.

On the way to Kakani, we spotted a bus which had crashed on the side of the road and been left there.  Upon closer investigation, we discovered 2 small girls playing in the wreckage in what we perceived to be a dangerous spot.  We took their pictures and then offered to show them in an attempt to coax them out of there, which worked... temporarily.  After fixing their hair and posing for another picture, they headed right back for the wreckage.  Sigh...

I guess getting their hair done made them squinty
This and the speed at which they drive plus this probably makes for the crashes
By the time we arrived back in Kathmandu, we were both suffering from a full-on bout of traveller's diarrhea, which later compounded itself with a head cold.  After waiting out the sickness, we decided we didn't really want to go trekking for 10 days or more and since we missed the 3-day meditation retreat in Pokhara we had wanted to do, we decided to high-tail it to India and spend the rest of our time there.  We spent the rest of our time in Kathmandu recovering, talking with our guesthouse owner who treated all the guests in his hotel as though they were guests in his home, and generally avoiding the Dashain festival, since it involves the ritual sacrificial killing of thousands of goats.

a puja, or an offering, for the Dashain festival
Us with the guesthouse owner, Santosh

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

China in Tibet

This blog was actually written on September 27th, 2010 but we can only upload it now thanks to Chinese censorship. For more info, see The Great Firewall.

Tibetan children in traditional dress at the Norbulingka
Mom fixing her up with the proper headdress
China has been occupying Tibet now for 60 years, and there is a lot said about the good things (mostly by China) and the bad things (mostly by everyone else) China has done there.  Here are my impressions:

Good Things
The touristy section of Lhasa is really nice and a lot of the temples and monasteries that China destroyed are now being rebuilt.  Also, they (the Chinese) don’t slaughter pigs in the Jokhang anymore.

Buddhas at Tashilunpo Monastery
Bad Things
All of the aforementioned good things are for the benefit of tourists and much of the money they bring in goes to the Chinese government in the form of travel permits.  Before we went to Tibet, we had to pay a huge lump sum to arrange the necessary permits and the guide we needed to enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and only after we entered could we slowly trickle our Renminbi down to individual Tibetans for food, lodgings, and the handicrafts that we tourists so covet (in order to prove that we actually were there).

Unemployment seems to be a huge problem among the Tibetans.  Our guide took us to a local teahouse where men go in the morning to get leads on where some work is available around town.  Also, our tour group mates were harangued by a very drunk Tibetan man one night who insisted that they only patronize Tibetan owned establishments because he said the Chinese come in and take all the jobs and Tibetans can’t find work.

The Han-ification of Tibet is another problem.  The Chinese government is using economic incentives to move Chinese people into Tibet in order to change the ethnic make up of the area and artificially bolster local support for their claims on the region.  One recent trend has been an increase of Tibetan women marrying Han men, which is all well and good.  Love is love is love and all that.  But, the government has a policy of hiring Chinese men and Tibetan women to work together on highway projects in the TAR in an effort to promote such unions because of course, their children will be considered Chinese, not Tibetan.  It’s kind of like America’s one-drop theory but it works in the opposite direction.

Prayer flags at a high mountain pass
The Tibetan people (like all Chinese people) completely lack any freedom of political expression.  Pictures of the current Dalai Lama are banned in Tibet, but I heard rumors that a few people might have some hidden in their homes.  One day we were on the bus and the driver started playing a pop song about the Dalai Lama on the radio.  Our guide got very nervous and insisted that we get off.  Images of the current Panchen Lama (who is being held under house arrest as the youngest political prisoner in the world) are likewise banned, but the Tibetans get around this by posting pictures of the former Panchen Lama.  They are allowed, however, to put up pictures of the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama, but we didn’t see any.

Yamdrok, a holy lake outside of Lhasa
We also heard stories about other political prisoners.  One person told us about their uncle.  He was a monk at Drepung Monastery when the Chinese took over.  At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution he was imprisoned for 2 years.  When he was released he returned to Drepung but it had been destroyed.  Drepung used to be the biggest monastery in the world, but it was still being rebuilt when we visited it.

Drepung Monastery
Another person told us about their friend who was sent to prison for life in 2008.  Only his family is allowed to visit him and ask about the charges against him.  If his friends attempt to visit him or speak to his family they put themselves at risk, so no one even knows why he is really in prison.  We heard one theory though.  Since he was educated, he would occasionally go to villages and give teachings.  When he did, he referred to the area where they all lived as Tibet instead of China.  He was very brave, but he wasn’t very careful.

We also saw a lot of poverty in Tibet, but that was the story all over China.  Some neighborhoods had brand new shopping malls, others had children playing around garbage fires.  Some people drove foreign luxury cars, others followed you around waiting for you to finish your water so they could get the deposit on the plastic bottle.  The biggest difference was that in Lhasa there seemed to be an ethnic divide.  There were plenty of Han Chinese in the area and there were plenty of beggars, but none of the beggars were Han.

A woman's home outside of Drepung Monastery.
We also heard a little bit about education in Tibet.  School is taught in Mandarin and Tibetan is studied like a foreign language, but only through primary school.  Starting in high school all classes are taught in Mandarin.  Tibetan history is not taught in school.  If a Tibetan wants to learn his or her own history, they have to find a way to access the whole cannon of banned literature on the subject.

My Final Evaluation
The suspicious historical claims to Tibet made by Chinese scholars do not justify the slow destruction of Tibetan culture and history and the desire of the Chinese government to look bigger on a map does not justify the continued subjugation of the Tibetan people.  Free Tibet!

Ancient wisdom preserved in these hundreds-of-years-old texts

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mt. Everest

This blog was actually written on September 27th, 2010 but we can only upload it now thanks to Chinese censorship. For more info, see The Great Firewall.

The other day I realized that mountaineers must really enjoy suffering.  I mean, think about it.  They climb high-altitude snow covered mountains for fun.  Their trek involves suffering through cold, dirt, wind, gruel, and possible altitude sickness all for what?  As near as I can figure it’s either for the glory or the “experience.” Well, the experience is surely mostly suffering.

Our first view of the Himalays
I came to this conclusion as we were trekking the relatively easy 4 kilometers to Everest Base Camp.  First of all, there are 2 Everest Base Camps and both have their rigors.  There is the South Base Camp in Nepal, which requires around 14 days of trekking to reach and is slightly lower at 5,360 meters (17,590 ft), and the North Base Camp in Tibet at 5,545 meters (18,192 ft), which requires surmounting not mountains but Chinese bureaucratic red tape.  We chose the Tibetan version.

Mt. Everest at sunrise
Basically, the hard part is securing all the necessary permissions from the Chinese government (which really isn’t so much hard as it is expensive and subject to the ever-changing whims of the Chinese government).  After that, we just rode up a really bumpy road in a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser and stayed the night inside a yak wool tent.  In the morning, we had the option of either taking a bus up to the hill that comprises the base camp, or we could hike the 4 kilometers it takes to get there.  Sangpo, our guide, explained to us that hiking is more “glorious,” so we chose that option. (Sangpo, however, still rode the bus to meet us at the military check-point where we had to secure permission one last time). 

Us after our grueling hike (somehow we look exhilarated.  Must be the glory.)
Which brings me to realizing that mountaineers like suffering.  We only walked 4 kilometers along a bumpy road, but it was pretty rough.  It was freezing cold with frigid winds blowing in our face, and the up-hill trail itself was much more rocky than glorious.  But when we got to the top of the hill, the view of Mt. Everest was beautiful.  It was definitely worth it.  Plus, now we get to say we hiked to Everest Base Camp, which sounds way more impressive than it actually is.

Basecamp is that hill there with all the people on top

Throwing our prayer papers after arriving at last at the highest pass

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lotsa Lhasa

This blog was actually written on October 1st, 2010 but we can only upload it now thanks to Chinese censorship. For more info, see The Great Firewall.

Today was a good day in Tibet. 

Spinning prayer wheels
First, we got up bright and early and had some oatmeal with goji berries.  Actually, it wasn’t bright.  It was 7:30 and the sun hadn’t risen yet.  Lhasa (and the rest of China) is on the same time zone as Beijing so the sun gets going pretty late here.

Then, we met up with our tour guide Sangpo (song-poh) and our tour partners Paddy and Karen and headed over to the Jokhang.  In order for foreigners to legally enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region, we have to be part of a tour group.  Usually Christin and I hate being on tours, but actually I don’t know how we could have navigated the Jokhang without Sangpo.  The place is like a 1300-year-old labyrinth of esoteric Tibetan sacredness.  So, so many Buddhas!

Monk huddle in front of the Jokhang
In front of the Jokhang devout pilgrims were doing full body prostrations.  Many of them had travelled thousand of kilometers from distant corners of the Tibetan plateau on foot, stopping every few steps to make a prostration in the direction of Lhasa.  The whole area was filled with the clap-scrape sound of their hand protectors.

Doing prostrations
Next, we did the Bakhor circuit, which is also popular with the pilgrims.  You start in front of the Jokhang and then circumambulate (walk around in a circle) the building clockwise.  It’s very important that you walk clockwise because in Tibetan metaphysics going clockwise causes you to look inward and going counter-clockwise causes you to look outward.  Along the way, there’s a vibrant market selling all sorts of food, Tibetan essentials, and tourist crap.  We went back later and bought a little bit of each.

Dried fruit and yak cheese
On the way to lunch, we ran into a couple of friendly monks on a staircase and I took their picture.  Then, they asked Sangpo if I could print the picture for them.  I said yes and then they grabbed a little boy and started decking him out in his full length Tibetan overcoat.  We went outside and they all posed for pictures in front of the Jokhang.  Then we went to a little photo shop and they picked the best shots to be printed.  They tried to pay, but I insisted.  It was only 14 rmb, and after I paid one of the monks tried to shove a 50 into my pocket.  I again vehemently refused and he grabbed my hand and shook vigorously and repeatedly and said, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you…”

Looking about as happy as most boys are about getting dressed up for pictures

After lunch we went to the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama.  It was really big and beautiful on the outside and packed with historically significant stupas and buddhas that are plated with gold as thick as a yak’s hide.  But, I can see why the Dalai Lama didn’t like living there.  It wasn’t very homey.  They did, however, have a traditional Tibetan dry toilet where your turds fall over 10 meters before hitting the ground, making it the longest toilet in the world.  But you couldn’t poop in it anymore.

Potala Palace
We asked Sangpo if the 14th Dalai Lama pooped here.  He said, "probably, he was very naughty," and laughed.
The last pre-planned stop of the day was Sera Monastery, which lies at the base of one of the mountains that ring the Lhasa valley.  We made a wish for the health of our niece and nephew, Luke and Mia, and got our noses ashed to ensure our own health, and then we went to watch the monks debate.  I’ve always wanted to see this since the first time I heard about it in college.  One of the most important things you gotta do on the path to enlightenment is cultivate your awareness, and Tibetan monks do this every day by having intense discussions about the nature of emptiness, impermanence, and suffering.

Monks debating
Karen, Paddy, and us with our ashed noses
It works like this:  one monk sits down and the other monk stands over him.  The standing monk asks an extremely difficult question.  The sitting monk tries to answer it.  When his answer is wrong (which it always is) the standing monk corrects him with another question punctuated by a flamboyant hand slap.  Things can get pretty heated, but it's all in good fun.  The same monks I saw screaming at each other were laughing a minute later.

About to get clapped
With our official itinerary complete, Christin and I went back to the Bakhor market to buy some crap.  We had a great time haggling.  Just like with the monks, the negotiations can get intense, but in the end everyone’s smiling.  We got a great deal on a monk-style bag and some prayer beads that may become useful if we ever learn a mantra, but for now they just look cool as a bracelet.

Prayer beads.  (Ours are wooden)
Finally (I can’t believe this all happened in one day!), we wanted to just sit and relax, so we went out to a bench on the main street.  Christin sat and knitted, and I started playing the guitar.  Before we knew it, I had attracted a decently huge little crowd.  Some of the first people to notice were a group of pilgrims who looked like they looked like they were fresh off the road and just about to reach the Jokhang and the end of their long journey.  When they saw me they stopped and listened to “I Know” and then clapped with their wooden hand protectors still on.

Part of the crowd
Thank you Lhasa for being an awesomely interesting city and thank you Tibetans for being an awesomely awesome people.  That’s enough for one day.  I’m tired and I’m going to bed.

Kale shoo!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dalai Lama and Obama

This blog was actually written on September 27th, 2010 but we can only upload it now thanks to Chinese censorship. For more info, see The Great Firewall.

I don’t even know where to begin about our 3-day horse trek from Songpan, so I’ll just begin like this:  We took a 3-day horse trek from Songpan and it was awesome.

Christin said:  "It felt like something from a childhood dream.  There we were, wandering through lush, forest-covered mountains on horses alongside a rushing stream so clear you could drink from it (and we did).  As we rode, the lonely warbling songs of our Tibetan guides were interspersed with their rough calls and chides to the horses and the occasional yak moo.  While we were riding, all I could think was that this is what I had imagined somewhere in the recesses of my mind when I first dreamed of traveling the world."

On the first night, one of the guides asked me where I was from and I said, “America.”  He beamed and exclaimed, “Obama!”  From then on he and the rest of the guides (and eventually the 4 Chinese people on the trek) called me Obama, so I started calling him Dalai Lama.  He smiled and then explained the current political situation to me, “Tibet.  Dalai Lama good.” Smile and thumbs up.  “China.  Dalai Lama.”  Frown and thumbs down.  How delightfully succinct.

Dalai Lama and Obama
When we reached the high pass on the first day of the trek, we got off our horses to walk down to the camp and suddenly Dalai Lama started loudly whooping and threw mini-prayer flags into the air like confetti.  Then, he tied another prayer flag onto the already overloaded post marking the high point.  I guess that’s how those things get made.  Later, Mike (the Tibetan guy who organizes the treks) told me that those prayer flags ensured good luck, health, and prosperity for Dalai Lama’s family and maybe our families and our villages and whoever else we care about, or something like that.

On the second day we rode up to a high pass with a view of Ice Mountain.  Even though we were already well over 3,000 meters (4,500 feet), me and a couple of the other idiots on the tour decided that the best thing to do would be to sprint a few hundred meters up a rocky ledge.  We got a slightly better view, an altitude headache, and the other two guys vomited in the middle of the night.

Panda climbing his way to a mild bout of climate sickness w/ ice mountain in the background
The scenery was so beautiful that we took over 700 pictures (we were able to get it down to only 77 after some serious deleting).  Here are some of the best:

Most of the Chinese tourists in Tibet were wearing these cowboy hats

The dough blew up

The view from our campsite at sunrise