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Check out this website for one account of what happened.  And please let me know if you’d like to donate money or time!



I have made my pilgrimage.  I have walked kora around the Jokhang, have marched with chanting pilgrims who prostrated their way here from more distant

Prostrating Pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

barren beginnings.  In my own way, I too have prostrated my way here, taking each diligent and devoted step to reach the place I could only dream of for countless years.

And yet, the Lhasa here is not that which I imagined. It is riddled with modern influence, and I fear that His Holiness would be devastated to see the patrols of Chinese army men posted along the rooftops overlooking Barkhor square.  He would be saddened to see the high rise housing, Han immigrants looming in the distance who twist his timeless traditions into tourism.

It was too easy to get here, no mountains to climb on foot, no cold wind to bring out the small red capillaries in our cheeks

The Potala, Palace of the Dalai Lama

.  And because of this, Lhasa lacks familiarity, sincerity, welcome.

I walk the kora route around the Jokhang not yet ready to retire from altitude exhaustion. It is almost dusk and there is only the whisper of prostrating bodies over the marble walkway.

Until the army men come marching in.  They form straight lines, they stomp their feet and shout patriotic slogans that clash with the murmuring mantras of the religiously devout around them.  The Tibetans buying katas hide their eyes, but I see their look of humored disbelief.  They say, “Really?  That’s the best you can do?”  And yet those eyes are also lost and sad, because though these disrespectful stompings at the busiest hour of prayer are ludicrous and almost comical, they are serious enough to deny an entire culture of its freedom.  And even I avert an anxious pair of eyes away, thinking of words Tinley said before I left from Amdo: “without religion there is darkness.” And sure enough it seems that these dark clothed men in straight lines are little black holes in a sea of the glowing devout.

The Jokhang Temple

Hi all-

As many of you have heard, China is in mourning for the loss of hundreds in an earthquake that struck last week in Qinghai Province.  The earthquake struck in an area very close to where I traveled over the winter holiday, and that is just too close to home.  Fortunately, no one I know was hurt.  However, thousands were, and there are relief efforts all over the world trying to help.  The Yushu Prefecture is an extremely remote area. Very few roads go there.  It is vast, barren and, at this time of year, freezing cold.  Not only are relief efforts having to contend with these aspects, they are also having to contend with the high altitude.  Yushu is almost 2 miles above sea level–even the rescue dogs are suffering from altitude sickness.

If you would like to donate money or even volunteer, I have direct contact information to a great organization in Xining.  Please contact me for details should you wish to help.  The littlest bit is hugely appreciated.

Here are a couple websites with pictures of the event:

On the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The snow dusted peaks of barren Qinghai—on the railroad to Lhasa…

For Heinrich Harrer, it was not the Chinese Government that gave him so much trouble trying to reach these forbidden cities, rather it was the Tibetans themselves who then controlled this land and who passed through.  I am reading his famous book, Seven Years in Tibet, after years of loving the movie, trying to get a sense of his travels as I make mine.  Our journeys are so different.  His were wrought with starvation, frostbite, bandits and wild dogs.  Mine are only troubled by the restrictions of the Chinese.  Foreigners are not allowed into the Tibetan Plateau without a tour-guide, these days, and these tours take a nice chunk out of one’s savings.

The train is slow for a reason.  We are climbing, inching our way into thin air and ice. I have never seen such emptiness. Our tongues turn black from lack of oxygen.  We see small nomad communities, barely distinguishable from the ochre hills behind. Stray people, like dogs, linger along the edges of the track to watch us pass.

I am a modern Harrer, have waited many years to make this final journey, have traveled far and bartered and bargained, found loopholes and tricks, have learned patience and my own ambition.  And Lhasa impends in the distance…

The Stupa of Taktser

Leaving Labrang was difficult, especially at 5:30am, but even more so because of how extraordinary my stay was.  Saying goodbye to the monks was heart wrenching and hilarious all at the same time (seems to be a trend).  They dressed me up in traditional nomad clothing, gave me katas (prayer scarves) and we had a wrestling match in the middle of the restaurant–all the girls ganged up on one guy, and the laughter had us bent over our knees. Saying goodbye to Jamyang, the monk I specifically came to visit, was most heartbreaking. He left me with two very fitting, very endearing text messages:  “i know you are happy” and “i hope you can see the future.”

Now, I don’t smoke. I don’t drink that much, nor do I take drugs.  But this does not mean I don’t have a streak of the mischievous and daring in me.  Quite the contrary.  When it comes to going to forbidden places, sign me up (but don’t tell!).

Tinley and I set off from Xiahe together on a wild adventure to reach Taktser, the birthplace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Foreigners are technically not allowed in Taktser, neither are photographs, but Tinley and I showed them who’s boss and accomplished all of the above.

We started the adventure by jumping off a bus on the side of a highway, and with my heavy backpack, picked our way down a rugged slope until we reached another road.  Then we flagged down another bus to Ping’an.  Tinley was nervous, and made me stay in one spot while he found a taxi.  Repeatedly he said, “they all know where we want to go!”

Setting off on adventure

And then we were off, crammed into the back seat of a taxi, bumping up and up and up into the remote hills of Amdo.  Soon there was no sign of the city.  Hui men with white caps on their heads (they are Muslim) stood around in circles smoking and talking,  peering into our car. I peered back with a smile expressing my lust for adventure.  We wound through red earth, an Arizona desert placed somewhere in Alaska, dusted with recent snow.  The sky could not have been more blue.

And then there was the stupa, the white pillar, symbolic of the Buddha’s enlightenment, that Tenzin Gyatso must have looked on hundreds of times during his early childhood.  And we had arrived.

The ominous metal doors to the house were locked shut, kata’s tied to the handles, blowing in the icy wind.  We walked around and entered through a back door, passed a squealing pig and a ferocious Tibetan mastiff pulling taught his rope.  The woman who met us did not want to show us in at first, but she relented and we zipped through the complex, following her two long braids.  The house used to be a school, then a home, and now it was the only place in China I had seen that allowed images of the Dalai Lama to be on public display for worship, although it should be noted that few people actually visit Taktser.  Tinley and I skipped through like excited children, snapping pictures left and right, up and down.  We prostrated ourselves; we said prayers for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

The Amdo landscape near Ping'an

It was quite moving for both of us and we talked a lot about how we wanted to sob and laugh all at the same time.  I contemplated my journey, I realized I believed in karma because it must have been written somewhere that Tibet would be a large part of my life.  Coming to Taktser was a right of passage, a stamp in my passport of destiny.  Tinley made the excursion more meaningful for me, for he has much more connection, obviously, to HH than I do, and to be in the company of a Tibetan, instead of just another tourist, made the excursion all the more legitimate.  Not only was it moving to be there, but it was even more moving to see how Tinley was moved by it. His already wonderful Tibetan smile grew tenfold that day.

A good friend at Tara Guesthouse

The birthplace of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama

There is a sense of place in Xiahe.  The peace is retained in the old architecture and tradition maintained for centuries, the atmosphere of philosophy, learning. Tibetan monks debating in circles, their red cloaks clashing against the umber hills behind their claps clear against the silence and mumble of passing pilgrims on kora.

Every morning at ten o’clock I joined Jamyang, a monk friend, for tsampa in his humble home.  I walked through his courtyard greeted by an orange kitten, who cried in eager anticipation of play-time.  I took off my shoes and sat cross legged on the raised platform made specifically for sleeping and eating.  The sun poured fresh light into the room.  The stove was hot, the milk tea sputtered out of the spout.  Jamyang shoveled a few spoonfuls of the roasted barley flower into two plastic bowls, then a heaping spoonful of the dried yak cheese.  He sliced off thick chunks of yak butter and offered the sugar to me.  I took what I liked.  He poured in the hot tea and breakfast was served.  The kitten waited patiently in my cross-legged lap.  He took any opportunity to bat at my hair.

Jamyang and I can hardly speak to each other and sometimes it is awkward for me.  It is strange for us to spend time with people we don’t know and yet Jamyang’s patience and grace allowed us to spend countless hours sitting, walking, existing in quietness and getting to know each other in this silent way.  And he does have beautiful grace, a humble happiness that is reflected in the simplicity of his home and the way he dotes on his kitten.

After breakfast was over and Jamyang and I spent a few minutes trying to communicate it was usually time for him to join the rest of the monks in mid-morning prayer.  I returned to Tara Guesthouse.

I was welcomed into Tara Guesthouse just about the moment I walked in.  The manager, Tinley saw my pictures from India, and the first one he picked up was of my Amala.  “Oh, I know her. She is from my hometown.”  This was not the first serendipitous moment of my travels, but it was the one that made everything possible.  We name dropped for a while and found out we knew many of the same people.  Tinley and the rest of the monks at the guesthouse were overjoyed to hear their friends and family were well in India.  I was overjoyed to have found another home in Asia.  By the time I left Tara Guesthouse I was designing a website for them, sitting behind the front desk and staying for free.

Every day ended around the stove in the staff quarters with a glass of green tea.  The monks fingered their malas (rosaries), and Tinley and I spoke of India and Tibetan freedom, the chance of us meeting and we joked.

“One day there was one foreign girl who went to my hometown and she spoke the Tibetan nomad dialect very well.  So one nomad heard her speak and said, ‘Whoah! She can speak human language!’”

For two years I have heard the word “Labrang” dropped.  I’ve heard descriptions of its beauty, its vastness.  I’ve heard my family in Dharamsala repeatedly, like a mantra, say “Labrang: this is my home.”  Until recently, Labrang was just a dream somewhere in Western China.  I had Google Map images implanted on my mind, I had no concept of its accessibility, nor of its tradition or history.  Now it is a place that I have witnessed.

I arrived in warm sunlight after seven hours nudged between Tibetan women and their children who fell into my lap with the jolting of the bus.  We had traveled passed Buddhist holy sites painted on cliff faces and decorated with the blues, reds, greens, yellows, whites of prayer flags.  We had crossed over half frozen rivers, petrified waterfalls that, coupled with the braided hair and chuba adorned men and women beside me, made it seem that time itself had stopped.  And finally, after countless mountain passes, we started to hear the other passengers call out, “Xiahe!” “Labrang!” and we knew we had arrived.

Labrang is one of the largest Tibetan monasteries still in function in Western China.  Located in the city of Xiahe, it is nestled between small barren mountains and a river winds through the southern edge of the city.  The day I arrived, it seemed the place glowed gold and red.  Monks walked along the dusty streets and dotted the earthen city with their maroon robes.  The red and white painted monasteries stood proud under their shining gold roofs, and the Tibetan curtains hanging from the windows billowed lightly in the quiet wind.

And the city bustled.  Pilgrims, with long grey braids and small prayer wheels in their wrinkled, left hands, circumambulated the monastery grounds and turned the larger stationary prayer wheels so that their squeak was heard at the other end of the town.  The pilgrims shuffled, they prostrated, they mumbled their mantras in rhythm with their heavy step. And I knew it was Labrang I had made this journey for.

April 2010
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