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1 May 2010

Fighting for long forgotten emperors

On the train to Xi’an:

An older man reads the newspaper across from me.  He is dressed in his Chinese navy blues, a jacket my grandfather might wear.  But his feet! He wears little black and yellow puma sneakers.


Here it feels like old China, the China I imagined before arriving.  A little bit of Delhi’s chaos here, the Asia crazy I am used to, long for.  There are winding streets that smell of food, spices.

I love China when I am traveling in it.  I have come here with my students, and after seeing the infamous and astounding Terracotta Warriors, we find ourselves at the Wild Goose Pavilion.  I wait for the girls outside while they explore.  Chinese Buddhist monks dressed in traditional gold clothing traverse the old stone walkways in front of me.  What is the divine if not tradition?

Later, waiting for the train:

If I were younger, I would be sitting on these stoops because they are fun.  But today, I sit on them because I am one of the many travelers who would prefer to wait outside than in the large factory of the train station; in and out, in and out they push Chinese faces through a sea of others like themselves into distant and more distant cities.

I sit amongst these travelers as one of them, resting for a brief instant from the thronged city.  For today is May Day, a special day, one of celebration .  Couples and families flocked to the parks to stroll and sit and relax amongst the flowers and rock gardens.

A group of Hui women wear sequined scarves on their heads to match their peach and pnk shirts.  They sit in a circle of heat-lazy anticipation, waiting in this shaded spot, though it offers little cool.  Their husbands form a circle next to them and focus on the stories told by the eldest.

This underpass is full of little groups such as this.  Some Hui, some Han, some playing cards some silent in thought.  Many with blank, waiting faces.  I am the only one who writes—for Americans to sit idle is wasted time.  But I watch the folk around me, content in their simple rest.  Though I sit among them, like them, though I have adopted pieces of their language and their ways, I will never be able to imagine in full what they might be thinking.


Blind man’s hands on my back fixing muscles, putting them back into place.  He walks around the table with one hand placed gently between my shoulder blades, his finger tips have as much emotion as my eyes.

13 February 2010: Vietnam, Mai Cho and Ban Lac:

Mai Cho at Tet

We sit on the edge of flooded rice paddies, with a backdrop of jagged mountains.  Green is the theme.  Today we drove through villages that were preparing for Tet, flower markets, cherry trees.  Children ride their bikes on the dykes through the fields like something out of distant history.

I walk along streets in Ban La bonding with cows over small apples.  This is the Asia we think of when it does happen to cross our minds: the smoky hills, rice paddies, expansive valleys.  Katie and I trudge along the muddy dykes trying not to fall in.  We watch leeches crawl their way along the mud and tadpoles dart and bomb into the clay walls.  We traverse over to where cows graze and watch new young ones testing their curiosity with our fingers.

Phuong, our guide and friend, says, “Communism is the longest road from capitalism to capitalism.”

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

May 2019
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