One Week in the Himalayas

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Sunday, May 8, 2005

Tibet is a lost land on the brink of being rediscovered. It is tucked into the corner on the highest shelf of the world. At times it seemed as though I had never been in such an isolated and vast wilderness, and at times I had the sinking feeling that I had arrived a few years too late. In Lhasa particularly, one can feel the struggle between the encroaching Han Chinese "culture" and the traditional Tibetan way of life. I am sure that within the next few years, as the railroad is completed and the ubiquitous white-tiled concrete boxes go up across the breadth of this land, the very essence of Tibet will have changed beyond recognition. My advice for you all: if you can get there, go soon.

I felt very connected to this place. I will write briefly about this trip, because I have almost too much to say, and a lot that I don't want to put in such a public posting. Tibet is not a country you can strive to understand within the span of a week. It's ridiculous, really. Maybe a year, maybe five years, or forty years would scratch the surface.

The Himalayas loomed with craggy, imposing, chiseled grandeur. The air was pure (albeit very thin), the skies wide and the clouds close. The people impressed me with their friendliness, their sense of calm, their dark, weathered faces and crinkles in the corners of their eyes. We spent 3 days in Lhasa adjusting to the elevation (roughly 11,000 feet) and wandering through the many monasteries and back alley shopping stalls.

At Sera Monastary, I got my long-awaited fill of monk sightings. I walked into a courtyard filled to bursting with monks clad in dark red robes, all seated in various little clusters. The air buzzed with their conversations, punctuated frequently by the sharp reports of hand claps. This was their daily afternoon debate session-the standing monk, the one asking the questions, would mark the end of each inquiry with one definitive clap. The seated monks would answer, sometimes with a serious frown, sometimes heatedly, or even jokingly.

This afternoon was without a doubt one of the greatest moments of my time in China. I became a fly on the wall, observing what felt like an intimate part of their spiritual and everyday life. I was surprised to see the monks (who are always pictured as sitting sedately and serenely in a row, chanting mantras) so lively. Some of them were clowning around, rubbing each other's heads, and pulling on each other's robes. I caught the eye of one young monk. I must have been staring a little too hard, because he made his eyes really big in a mock expression of fascination and started laughing. I spent some time examining their footwear-everything from your typical "Chinese man" black loafers to sandals to hiking boots to Converse hightops. Some of them couldn't have been more than 15 or 16 years old.

The monasteries for me were a blur of endless hushed chapels, fantastic colors, turquoise and coral, pilgrims with their spoons and bags of butter walking from altar to altar to leave offerings in the gold lamps, ornate thangka paintings unfurled from ceiling to floor, and the smell of juniper incense hanging heavy in the air. These were so unlike the empty temples I've encountered in so many other places in China. The monasteries here feel imbued with some sort of spirituality and sense of peace, despite the many camera wielding tourists mingling with the dusty pilgrims.

On Wednesday we set off for the next leg of the adventure, the ultimate destination being a small town called Tingri, where we could hopefully get a glimpse of Mt. Everest. Forty minutes outside of Lhasa our bus broke down. Our guide, Rin Dor, lept out, walked fifty meters back down the road, found the missing piece of the engine that had fallen out, and gave it to the driver, who managed to coax the metal part back on. This provided an extra boost of confidence for the long ride ahead.

Tibet's highway system, if you can even call it that, leaves much to be desired. The paved roads ended about an hour outside of Lhasa, and from then on, I spent my time clinging to the seat in front of me, concentrating on not becoming airborne. At the first mountain pass, roughly 16,000 feet, we got out and threw some prayer papers in the air. Then, utterly exhausted, we climbed back into the bus. Eight hours, four pee stops, and two pukings into the journey, we broke for lunch at a lone outpost. I got yak meat soup, complete with a few errant yak hairs sprouting from the noodles (for extra flavor). We were served by a group of nomads who live in a portable yak fur-lined tent.

I know I have expounded in a previous entry on the virtues of the yak, so I will try not to go into it in too much detail, other to say that I can understand why the Tibetans have such an affinity for them. They use them for everything: milk, butter, cheese, meat, fur, skin, and dung (which they burn for fuel). As a result, the smell of yak permeates the entire country. I had the nagging suspicion that I, too, exuded traces of eau d'yak. Every building I entered smelled to some degree yakky. It didn't matter what I ordered in restaurants, be it vegetable soup, pizza, pancakes or tea. Chances were it tasted faintly yakky as well. No, I can't expound on that. It just tastes like yak.

During our twelve hour long car rides, we saw many yaks roaming through the wilderness, although few of them were wild. I think all of us were somewhat enamored with them, or at least the word "yak." There are many annoying things about traveling with eight other American twenty-somethings, but the upside of it was that at least we kept each other entertained. I am sorry to say that none of our conversations were particularly insightful though...I recall an hour long debate on whether the offspring of a yak and a goat would be called a "gak" or a "moat." I blame it on the lack of oxygen to our brains.

After many hours of jolting down cratered dirt paths and teetering precariously over the edge of gaping precipices, all of us were feeling pretty miserable and battered. Our driver, however, appeared obscenely cheerful and un-phased by these hours behind the wheel. He was hopped up on a steady supply of Red Bull, which he would buy by the six pack at roadside stands, and an equally abundant supply of some sort of snuff (taken from a little plastic baggie and snorted liberally up the right nostril). Every once in awhile he would pop in a tape of giddy Chinese music, listen to the same song two or three times in a row (as if to get his fix), and then pop the tape out again to drive in silence for another couple of hours.

In Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, we arrived too late in the evening to see much. We went to Rin Dor's home in the Tibetan quarter, drank yak butter tea and played Mahjong with his mother. The ever present gleaming dome of Chairman Mao, in a framed portrait put in a place of honor on the wall, presided over the game. I found his presence in a Tibetan home, in such close context to paintings of the Buddha and hanging next to strings of prayer beads slightly ironic. Kind of like the Chinese flag which flies above the Potala Palace.

From Shigatse, we headed on to the remote village of Tingri. I have been to quite a few remote places in my life, but this felt about as far removed from civilization as you could possibly get. Lonely Planet had nothing much to say about Tingri other than to describe it as "a huddle of Tibetan homes." This seemed fairly accurate. We arrived at 9pm in the midst of a snow shower and bitter cold weather. Rin Dor gestured vaguely towards the giant wall of cloudy white nothingness to our left as we drove into town, and proclaimed, "Everest is over there somewhere!" Swell.

Before I went to bed at night though, the snow ceased and the clouds blew away, revealing the largest stars I have ever seen. When I woke up the next morning, I raced to the window. It felt like Christmas morning-clear skies and an unblemished view of Qomolangma (the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest). From 180 km away, its murky shadow actually looked smaller than some of the closer mountains. But I recognized it instantly and it was beautiful. Probably the closest I will ever get to the highest point on this earth. I stood outside and watched the sun rise over the tops of the mountains until my toes went numb.

The drive back proved to be just as long and jarring, marked only by a few random diversions - Rachel sucking oxygen from the emergency O2 pillow at the top of Snow Leopard pass, the inadvertent mooning of a couple of Tibetan truck drivers, Rin Dor declaring his ardent love for Jenny, and a short hike up part of a mountain at 16,000 ft. I'm exhausted, and still a bit in awe of the fact that I was actually there. This trip was literally a breath of fresh air and reminded me how much I love being in the mountains. I am already plotting my return to do some trekking...any takers? Let me know...Tashi delek! (Best wishes and happiness!)
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