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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.


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.

Tenzin’s friend is an incarnate lama.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhist religion, a lama is a monk who has attained a particularly high level of meditation and transcendence.  They are able to have visions and give guidance by way of these visions.  Every community in Tibet has a lama. Every person goes to these lamas in times of strife.  And some children are found to be the reincarnation of past lamas.

Tenzin’s friend is an incarnate lama, however he does not wear his traditional yellow undergarments, nor does he advertise his title in any way.  If he did, he would run the risk of the Chinese government questioning him, possibly putting him in jail.  The government might be suspicious that he is collaborating with the Dalai Lama in India.  However, these restrictions on his identity do not hinder his constant smile nor does it keep him from offering as much advice as he can.  This guidance is his “business.”

Tenzin’s friend was eager to answer my questions about religion and the traditional practices of devout Buddhists.  He pointed at various over-decorated statues, figures in the longest thangka in the world, and explained who each deity represented.  He thoroughly enjoyed teaching me the Amdo dialect.

Together we traveled through the vast open plains of Qinghai province.  A four hour car ride that showed us herds of  yaks, their dark figures striking against the dull yellows of the fields.  We peered eagerly at the light indigo contours of Qinghai Lake.

We arrived finally in a very deserted town about forty five minutes from the lake, only to find that foreigners were not allowed.  There was a slightly tense run in with the police, but after about an hour of explaining that we had no idea about the laws governing this remote area of China, they let us stay the night on the promise that we would leave as quickly as possible the following morning.

The fact that there are restricted areas in this country, makes it more obvious that China has something to hide.  This town didn’t seem much different from others I had been in.  Yes, it was remote.  Poverty was clearly visible, but I had seen worse.  It wasn’t until dinner that I realized just why they don’t want us here.  Tenzin’s friend invited to Tibetan girls to join us.  The spoke no English.  They asked where we were from, and Tenzin explained that we were from just over those mountains.  He pointed at the rolling hills, deep purple in the dusk.  They nodded in approval of this answer.  When he clarified that we were from America, they offered looks of confusion, and asked where and what America was.  I realized that these women had no proper education.  They had spent their lives as nomads, out with the herds or in with the family.  They watched TV but only the local channels.  China’s ignorance is its bliss.

I have overdressed for the train.  Metal boxes characteristically placed under the windows pump out more heat than any of us have been used to for the past two months.

Trains have a sense of place of their own.  They are a historic reckoning of the past and yet they are accelerating into the future.  The older trains in China could be placed in the 1930s, yet they are organized and clean and China’s main form of transportation.  This train is full.

Down the car a father and son throw nuts at each other. The elder has an air of responsibility. The younger is excited about this adventure, and radiates youthful curiosity.

Like this young boy, I too am eager for this escapade and, wide-eyed, watch China pass by the windows.  Out here is countryside I have never seen before.  There are hills made of loose sediment that rivers of the past have contoured and curved, and where now step terraces for small plots of rice. Here there are strange juxtapositions of little girls in bright down jackets walking along the foot-paths that feather veins through the hills.  It is hard to spot the small villages from the train, for they are built of the same russet earth.  Only the painted communist slogans set the houses apart.  I wonder how this land shapes its people and who they are to have chosen long ago this strange country for their home.

Cherry blossoms and magnolia trees bring new life and a spot of color to grey Qufu…

It has been a while. And for this I apologize.  I have been processing two months of wild adventure through Asia, trying to make it have some sense.  But I shouldn’t be so naïve as to make that happen.  Asia is chaos, it is confusing and quixotic.  And like all travel in my life, it has led me closer to home.  I’ve realized that Gloucester is where the journey started and where the journey will end someday of course with visits back scattered here and there.  But about five years ago I got in my car and drove around America and realized that the road is my real home.  Since then, every few weeks I feel a tug at my soul to get started again.  And the pull increases until I finally do.

Anyhow, enough about that.  The next few entries will be elaborations on some writing I did while traveling.  Enjoy…

Also, here’s an interesting quote from one of my student’s writing:

Many countries in the world are afraid of Chinese developing.  Do the American think so?  Many articles say that the future belongs to USA and China.  I don’t think so.  Although developing very fast in the past few years, China have a lot to solve and what’s more, China will never invade others n past or future.  It’s a tradition.  If China were the strongest country in the world, what she wants to do is how to keep harmony with other.  Our ancestors taught us two characters.  One is to tolerate, and the another is harmony.  So what I think about American’s attitude towards Chinese develop may be positive.  Is that right?

Hello All-

I am terribly sorry for being horrible at updating stuff. Things have been very low key as far as material write about, and I have been busy with the end of the semester.  I am about to embark on a three week long adventure into Western China, begining in Xining and hopefully continuing into Lhasa and then back to Qufu.  I hope to return towards the end of January with tons of material to update the blog with.

In the meantime, I am leaving you with some new writing I have done about various places in the world– India, Gloucester…  and an inspirational quote from a friend’s dad.  I hope these will keep you satisfied until further posts.

Be well….

“A traveler without a purpose is a vagabond.  A traveler with a purpose is a philosopher.  So it begins….”


The Fort:

The Fort is the truck-growl and seagull warning at 3 am, the fish-gut, salt-stink at 8 am during greasy breakfasts and bad coffee, the hum of the ice-company and faint slap of waves on supporting walls. It’s the incestuous, Italian family-pride, the slum you don’t walk in alone, the history you’ve tried to forget. And it’s the place where Gloucester began.

The Fort is gorgeous in its grit.  Instead of church spires, fishing halyards interrupt the skyline that looks out into the harbor and the endless East of the Atlantic.  The small hill protrudes into the cadenced waves, lending the city shores natural protection unmatched on any coastline.

The Fort is not where I grew up.  Those were not the streets I knew as a child.  I did not roam in its expanses nor find solace in its corners.  Yet it was there as if waiting, and once it was discovered the whole of Gloucester, past and present, came with it.



I wish I could describe the way the houses settled into the mountains in Dharamsala so that you, too, could feel it in your being as I do.  Those hills have become as much a part of my life as the daily tasks that fill the empty moments, the fleeting thoughts.  I have felt the hill’s gravel and grit grinding beneath my walking feet, and I have transcended with them into the clouds of the monsoon–the life force of India.

……….            We brought the first snow in three years to Dharamsala, something the red-clad monks called, auspicious.  It began at the train station as a light drizzle.  We were weary from the hard, light blue cushions of Indian sleeper-trains.  The night had passed in jolts: the movement of the train, the occasional chai-po advertising the aromatic tea, oblivious of the racks of restless sleepers.  Our “Tourist Vehicle” struggled through, up the narrow curves of the foothills, across bridges over small pockets of cascading streams.  The rain came down heavily.  Two thirds of the way up, as if we had crossed an invisible line, the water suddenly turned to snow.

Our taxi driver proved different from the others, or perhaps because we were the first car in line we just got lucky with two minutes less of fallen snow, but he got us to the main square of Mcleod Ganj as if giving up would mean sudden death.

We were met with snowballs—an unceasing cascade of them on our heads, backs, behinds… Some were wrought with stones, others with chunks of ice, and it wasn’t the mischievous Indians who threw them, rather the red-clad monks themselves, with tight-knit hats on their heads, and shit-eating grins on their faces.  They threw them from the street, from restaurant windows, doorways and roofs, peering out into the dusky gray to see where they landed, to see if we would throw them back.

Dodging the snowballs, we dropped our heavy packs into Hotel Tibet, and set out to explore.  We didn’t yet know where allies led, faces were still foreign.  Tibetan men wore heavy long coats, called chubas, and dragged the heels of their boots through the dirty snow as they passed.  Soggy signs on the walls lining the street invited passersby to join in a vegetarian losar, new year, for “countless animals” who were facing slaughter just for the occasion.  The air was thin and cold, and the wet, white streets contained all the promise and excitement that a new place could hold.

Snow brings out the mischievous, the happy, not only in America, but in China as well.  I watch my students, giddy from the first snow–whipping iceballs at each other as they walk out of class.  During break they huddle by the windows to watch it fall. I join them.S now eases all troublesome emotions.  It quiets the air, and the wet smell covers that of coal dust and vinegar.  And the snow does not stop the constant need to set off fireworks.  Outside my classroom, sparks sizzle the white flakes and grey morning into color.We romp through the forest of flakes like children.  the snow falls heavy and straight, but occasioinally a small gust will support them in the air for a few moments longer and they will linger, twisting and turning until they find their gravity. I empathize…

May 2019
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