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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…

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.

A friend of mine from college is putting together a project to publish textbooks for Tibetan primary schools in China.  Please let me know if you are interested, or know of anyone else who might be interested in funding the project. Thanks!

Here’s the email he sent:

Dear Charlee,
How are you? Hope you had a great summer. My summer was great. I spent most of my time in Xining with my friends and my parents.
Some of my friends, teachers from Qinghai Normal University I ( involved in editing during this summer vocation) put together 24 Tibetan Language and math review/practive books for Tibetan primary school and junior high school students. The project exceeds more than 1500 pages. The books are well edited and the Provincial Education Bureau approved us of distributing them in Tibetan areas in Qinghai Province if we have the funding.
So, I am wondering if you know any public as well as private organizations might be interested in sponsoring this project?
The books we attempt to publish are Winter Vocational Tibetan Language Review Books for Tibetan Primary School students from grade one to six (Six Books). We intend to publish 24.000  copies of them. The total budget for this overwhelming number is roughly 60.800 RMB or 8.901 USD {(Press Mark = 8.000 RMB)+ (2.2 RMB/book X 24.000 books = 52.800) = 60.800 RMB} The requested budget is 7.729 USD

May 2018
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