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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

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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…

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….”

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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.

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India:

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.

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