Top of the World

Trip Start Sep 01, 2004
Trip End Apr 25, 2005

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Flag of China  ,
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Hello Everyone,

Lhasa is a Chinese city on the map, but when you are here it feels like it's really Tibet. This travelpod is going to be tough to write because so many of the things we are experiencing are feelings, and so much gets lost in trying to explain them.

The Tibetian people are amazing. I rank Peru as my number one destination, but the Tibetian people are so much more than any other culture we have experienced, it constantly surprises us.

We have been here for three days trying to acclimate to the elevation. This means that the minute you get off of the plane you start experiencing altitude sickness. No matter how fast you breath it feels impossible to get enough oxygen. The headaches are so powerful it removes any appetite. If it wasn't for the meds we brought I wonder if we could have made it through this stage. We are here during the Winter and it's so cold that it never gets above freezing during the day and the wind seems to chap your skin as well as your lips in minutes. All the Tibetian women and children have rosy red cheeks and runny noses. Their dress is so colorful and they seem to be as curious as children. It would be very easy to say they are child like but that really isn't accurate. I could say they sometimes seem like hobbits, if you know "The Lord of the Rings". They adore their children, they always have a smile or laugh for you, and I have never seen any anger or confrontations. The old people seem to be out and participating in all the rituals too. I don't want you to believe these are perfect people, just as a whole they so nice to be around. I hope this doesn't sound condescending because it's not my intent. Maybe my Buddist friends understand what all this means. It certainly prompts me to do some studying on Buddism upon my return.

Now for the sadness. The Chinese are changing the culture here dramatically. It looks just like any modern Chinese city now, with a few temples thrown in. I think the population must be almost 50 percent Chinese and 50 percent Tibetian. The military and police presence here is astounding. We have seen more military here than the rest of our trip combined. Some of the young Tibetans seem to be embracing western styles, or maybe it's more accurate to say the new Chinese styles. It looks like the Tibetan culture only has a few more generations left. It reminds me a lot of how America and the Native American culture collided.

I enjoy the Monks here a lot. There seems be a huge number aged from about 18 to 28. We visited Drepung Monastery today and it was very interesting. It is the largest Monastery in Tibet and was a highlight for us. Since this is the off season we had the place to ourselves and we wandered all over the buildings. At one point a monk offered us a couple of finger fulls of his bowl of lunch. JoAnn being the smart one as always, slipped it into her pocket. Don, the idiot, stuck it in his mouth and promptly gagged, swallowed, and used every ounce of control not to barf my guts out. I felt it would be inappropriate to puke in front of this generous guy. The stuff was some type of rice/yak butter/grease combination.

We had taken a taxi to the Monastery, which is outside of Lhasa on the side of a mountain, and when we completed our walk we found no taxi to hire for the return trip. We sat and waited at the entrance to the Monastery and watched the monks. JoAnn decided that the old bus that was starting to fill was our best chance back to town. We piled in with about 35 monks in a bus designed for 20. They were obviously surprised by the funny white people and I spent quite a bit of time taking pictures of them and showing them their expressions on the LCD, in playback mode. It cost us 40 yuan in the taxi and 6 yuan in the bus. The bus was much more fun.

We were lucky with our timing. We were in Lhasa for two different Tibetian festivals. That means many things. First, the Buddist Pilgrims all come to town from great distances. Some from other countries. We met an older Monk from India that seemed excited to be in Lhasa. Second, the festivities happen in the evening and seem to revolve around thousands, circling the The Jokhang Temple in the main square. As they get to the front of the Temple they throw paper type prayers on these two huge pyres. Third, the Chinese police, fire engines and whole bus loads of military are on the edges, making their presence known. The whole festival was mesmerizing. The smoke from the pyres made it difficult to breath and gave an almost urgency to the festival. The volume of people, the chanting, and the movement of the Tibetians made it seem surreal. As a side note I thought the I would add the fact that the Tibetians seem to totally ignore the Chinese. Almost as if they were not even there. The experience was almost hypnotic and I don't think the pictures will give even a tenth of the feelings that we had.

We had to buy a few things for the overland portion of the trip and shopping is always an event that I look forward to. The whole give and take banter when you don't speak the language is beyond fun for me. Everything you buy is always dirt cheap and the quality is maybe "just OK" at best, but recognizing that it's a very short term ownership of the things you plan to use, gives the process a whole new level of entertainment. JoAnn seems to do it with a lot more seriousness and lets me do most of it. I'm a lucky guy!

We leave for Nepal tomorrow in the landcruiser and I feel as if it's time to move on. I'm excited to see Everest and all the rest of the Himayla's in a few days. The travel across Tibet should be memorable. I never really expected to experience this in my lifetime. I hope we brought enough warm clothes. I hope this note finds everyone healthy and in good spirits. As always we would really enjoy hearing from everyone. Home seems a long way away right now.

Don and JoAnn
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