On our return journey to San Diego last week, we had about 24 hours in Beijing and less time in Tokyo. We did some fun things in each city and ate some good meals, but none of it merited blogging about. The larger question I never addressed, though, is whether it was worth returning to Tibet. Or more broadly: should anyone consider going there in the first place?
Tibet has a number of strikes against it: mediocre food, complex and expensive Chinese travel regulations. The dry, oxygen-starved air makes any visit at best uncomfortable and at worst dangerous. Steve and I have an almost-religious devotion to never returning to most places. The world is too big and our appetite to see as much as possible of it too keen. Yet we went back to Tibet, and both of us felt good about that choice.
The world has shrunk so much in our lifetimes. I can go online and within minutes figure out how to get to almost every point on the planet. But Tibet still isn’t that far removed from being a forbidden kingdom. A hundred years ago, no Western woman had ever set foot in Lhasa (the capital city). When Steve was born, there wasn’t a paved road in the entire country. No Tibetans lived with electricity or a car. Then the country was a theocracy, filled with monasteries that often were inhabited by thousands of monks, powerful men who pulled the most important levers within the society. If you travel, as we do, in part to glimpse different ways humans have lived throughout history, Lhasa still provides an extraordinary link with the medieval past.
On our five-day road trip to Everest Base Camp, we visited an important monastery almost every day. All of them suffered terrible destruction in the years after the Chinese took over; things were particularly ghastly during the Cultural Revolution. The places we visited all have been at least partially rebuilt, though the resident monk population has shrunk severely. Tibet isn’t what it was 70 years ago. But it also isn’t like anything I’ve experienced anywhere else.
The temples are gloomy, spooky places, still illuminated (at least in part) by yak-butter lamps. Statues of the Buddha (past, present, future!) and other deities tend to be big and baroque — the stuff of nightmares or dreams. For a country as poor as Tibet, it’s strange to see all the paper money, usually but not always the smallest bills, stuffed into every crevice of most temples. Believers think they gain spiritual merit by donating generously. The temples offer other head-spinning sites. The library off the main assembly hall of Sakya Monastery fills a narrow passage. It’s lined with shelves that ascend probably 35 or 40 feet up every wall. The shelves are crammed full of boxes containing centuries-old manuscripts. Our guide told us the pages on those manuscripts bear gold, silver, turquoise, and coral ornamentation. I could only begin to imagine all the man-hours, the man-lives, required to create them. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever again climbing up to the upper realms and retrieving one of the boxes and using the contents for anything.
A handful of pilgrims shuffled through that passageway along with us, but most of them weren’t glancing upward but rather making their way to a huge old book on display in one corner. We passed several young couples who had brought their infant babies to it. Our guide said they believed blessings would result from touching the adult or juvenile head to the sacred volume. In the distance, we heard the periodic sound of a conch shell being blown. Pilgrims pay the monks to blow it. They believe it can enable the suffering souls of evil-doers who are trapped underneath the nearby hills to get a breath of air. Lighting butter lamps was a similar act of kindness, we were told. Doing so is thought to allow the subterranean sufferers to enjoy a brief glimmer of light.
Not all the weird, exotic past is confined to the temples. On the road, we passed a hillside that’s still a site for so-called “sky burials.” In this Tibetan tradition, the dead person’s body is cut up and placed on the mountain-top for vultures to eat. (Really poor families also apparently use less expensive but similar “water burials,” while sick people whose bodies are diseased may be burned.) I questioned Tashi closely about this, and he insisted that sky burials are not a relic of the distant past, but rather the most common way most Tibetans still dispose of their dead today.
Hundreds of pilgrims still shuffle all day long around Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in all of Tibetan Buddhism. On this visit, we joined in that procession as we did last year and stared at those who believe they get spiritual credits by prostrating themselves fully on the ground, over and over.
It’s a bizarre religious practice. More homey was the kora we joined in Shigatse, on our way home from Mt. Everest. In Tibetan Buddhism, a kora is the practice of walking (“circumambulating”) around a sacred site or object – commonly a special mountain or lake or a temple or religious tower. Again, believers think they accrue merit by this, but I found it pleasantly relaxing and social to join in the group stroll around the great Tashilumpo Monastery near sunset.
Most of the folks walking around the monastery were older. In contrast, teenagers were at the heart of another sight that almost by itself seemed to make our long demanding journey to Tibet worthwhile. At Samye, the country’s first monastery, we watched a large group of girls and boys working to restore a rooftop built in the traditional method. The monks mix special clay and small stones and pebbles then spread the mixture on the room or floor. Workers then must pound the mixture to make it strong. We were told that the kids doing this work were no longer in school and being paid something for their labor. We didn’t ask how much. Clearly this sort of work was another relic from another time long ago.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/191044439″>My Movie</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user25079241″>Jeannette De Wyze</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
If I were being reborn a girl in Tibet today, I’d much prefer to come back as the 6-year-old daughter of the young couple in whose Lhasa home Steve and I dined on our last night. The “family kitchen” of the parents serves up tasty food at their dining room table. While we savored yak dumplings (steamed and fried) and stir-fried eggplant and green beans, the little girl and her friend sang along to songs on an iPad kitted out to be first-grader-friendly.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/191041930″>ABCs</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user25079241″>Jeannette De Wyze</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
It was easy to imagine that little girl learning English (and Mandarin), getting educated, growing up to do something other than pounding the rooftop of a lonely monastery in the middle of nowhere. I hope that happens. At the same time, I’m grateful to have had a glimpse into the fast-disappearing world in which she was born.