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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!



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:

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.

The birthplace of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama

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.

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

23 August 2009

The ani (nun) who lives next door does not speak English.  I barely speak Tibetan, but even with my little knowledge I realize we don’t need words to speak to each other.  Over Amala’s thenthuk or tsampa, we look at each other with so much to say behind our eyes.  Even with a shaved head, draping red cloth for clothes, she is strikingly beautiful—she reminds me of another “nun” I know in Chicago.  Amala doesn’t understand why she became a nun, for this reason—she could easily find a husband.

Even with no words to speak to each other, it is still difficult to say goodbye, for I will be leaving Dharmasala this evening to venture back to Delhi and on to ten months in China.  A brief hug, a squeeze of the hand, and she is off to Namgyal Temple to pray, to search for enlightenment for herself and for her people, to search for peace.

A memory, looking back on Dharamsala:  Kelsang, Jamyang (my “brothers) and I at the corner table, our favorite, over beer.  Jamyang stated he didn’t know what it was like to be free until he came to India.  If they do go back to Tibet, what will they do?  Now they know freedom.  Freedom of speech, action, thought.  For me, it will be the opposite.  I will have to visit China in oder to know freedom—I must not know freedom in order to find it.

Later, the two of them illustrated their frustrations–they will only know their place.  They cannot move.  For now they are happy in India, content with their community, their “band of brothers,” the job at First Cup Cafe, the easy repetition of their lifestyle.  But then, yet a little later, Kelsang mentioned that his heart is always in Tibet.

Again, at MClo’s:  Using salt shaker, beer glass and lighter, Kelsang illustrated why it was good for me to go to China.  The salt shaker represented America, the beer glass was Dharamsala. “First, you are here,” he said in his broken English as he pointed to the salt shaker.  “Then you come to India and you think like this.”  He pointed at the beer glass.  “Now you go to China and you will think like this.  I think it’s good you go to China.”  He didn’t point to the lighter that represented China.  He pointed to an empty spot on the table in between the three objects.

February 2019
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