I still think it’s a good idea for Nick’s dad Mark to host a cooking show in his own kitchen at home.
At 2800m in Shangrila, northern Yunnan, we are halfway up to Tibet. We feel it in the mild altitude sickness, and in the people, a mixture of Han Chinese and Tibetan ethnic groups. Once called Zhongdian, it’s name changed by the government for reasons of grandeur and to foster tourism.
Rapid change has swept this town, and, as it looms over Tibet, Buddhist Shangrila serves as reminder that half of the Tibetan plateau cultural region was already fully incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan over fifty years ago.
Shangrila feels very touristy, and the outsiders have done to the old town what they did to Lijiang, and turned it turned it into a bit of a souvenir mall, but there is magic here still. I bump into an old man and his deaf older friend heading up the steps of Bǎijī temple and join them as they spin the giant prayer wheel at the top. They are locals making a pilgrimage, a dying breed perhaps, among swarms of tourists from all over China, come to view, and invest, and change, a place whose cultural fragility is wavering under the weight of modern economics and politics.
Now we are above the clouds, flying into Lhasa as foreigners can’t travel legally by land into the Tibet region. Only a little below us, great peaks poke through frothy cloud, joining us at 18, 19, 20,000 feet. We are heading up onto the rooftop of the world. I have always wanted to go, since I first had an interest in Buddhism. Finally, I am going to Tibet. Ten days is short, some might say too short, but I hope long enough to discover what draws me there so.
We arrive at the airport and immediately fighter jets parked on standby ready to scramble remind us of the strategic importance of Tibet to China. A middle aged man is throwing up in the toilet, poor guy. Some people are more prone to it than others. We are at around 3,600 metres above sea level here, which is 11,000 feet, well above the threshold which causes symptoms of low oxygen content in the air. How much lower? Around 40% less than at sea level. Not a picnic for any body not yet acclimatised.
Outside we catch a first glimpse of our tour guide for the next ten days, Tsomo. She is short, pretty, and stands waving at us to follow her. She drapes Tibetan white scarves around our necks, a traditional Tibetan sign of welcome and mutual respect. Tsomo is bubbly and chatty as we travel back to Lhasa.
We are driving to Lhasa. There are police checks everywhere. The military is clearly visible. An ominous looking camera sits on the dashboard facing its occupants. The sky is so deep blue, and baron hills roll upwards from a flat valley floor, the river weaving and threading between them.
Drepung Monestary sits in the hills a little outside of Lhasa. As we walk up, beggars scurry away from militarised police patrolling the entrance. There is a metal detector and rigorous security check for locals visiting. At its height Drepung had around 10,000 monks. Today there are a few hundred.
We walk around inside. Countless chambers dedicated to Kings, High Lamas and Buddhas are intricately decorated with spectacular works of art; statues, paintings, drapings. The ambiance a relaxing smell of insense. Pilgrims add hot melted butter to lamps as offerings. It is difficult to distinguish between rooms for my naive western eye, yet from that day until leaving Tibet I would not tire of wandering the great Monestarys and breathing a magic unique to this place.
At Sera Monestary we witness spectacular scenes of debate between the monks. There is a real authenticity in their performances, and most barely blink at the hordes of tourists surrounding the enclosure. It is a joy to watch. But a thought must be spared for whatever truths about what life is really like for monks behind the closed doors of the monestories we visited. We can only imagine, but all evidence by those monks who have spoken up points to an ongoing eroding of freedom of thought in Tibetan Buddhism.
Jokhang looms above the square in central Lhasa, the most famous and holy of all religious sites in Tibet. The view from its ramparts is stunning. Hills surround Lhasa, the Potala palace stands solid on its rock. And always this deep, piercing blue of the sky, broken only by light, fluffy clouds.
The magnificent Potala palace is as the Dalai Lama says, merely a museum, stripped of its symbolic importance by the authorities. Or is it? Droves of locals tour with the foreigners, paying their respects in each of the endless chambers. The atmosphere still holds a magic no rules can disrupt. Tsomo explains the Kings, Buddhas and Lamas that each chamber is associated with. With each passing of the central icon, a little cupping of hands and bow of her head, a prayer whispered, and we move on. The paintings, the smells, the mysticism, so poignant and other worldly yet reassuringly familiar. These are holy places. There is a joy in my heart to be here that I can’t explain. It is as constant as my curiosity in all that we seeing.
We are driving to Shannan. The river bends and splits, ribbons of silver threading a wide, flat valley, the other side of which is barely visible. Stark rock, baron, pure hills, and the blue. Silence, but for the buzzing of insects on the high plain.
We walk slowly up the steep slope to Yumbulagang, the first palace in Tibet, built by her first king. This too, is a holy place, visited by pilgrims from afar. It is small inside, just as magical as the Jokhang.
Outside an old woman with a weathered but disarmingly cheerful face dashes up the hill ahead of Alice to help put up our prayer flags. A boy is standing on the ramparts of the palace, watching the valley below. He climbs the hill, and a short while after, Alice and I follow. Suddenly, he drops his coke bottle by accident and it tumbles down the steep, rocky hillside out of site. I climb down and fetch it for him. He is local, wants to be a driver one day. We don’t speak much, but when we leave to head back down from the palace, he follows, a short distance behind. We get into our car, and he is out of sight. Driving out of the car park, he suddenly appears on his bike, following our car. We round a bend, surely the last glimpse of him, but no, he is still behind, peddling hard after us. Finally, the jeep outpaces his bike, and he is gone. Who was this boy?
At Samye Monastery, the oldest in Tibet, there is a ceremony in honour of one of the protector deities in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. At the top, there is a statue that catches my eye. A Bodhisvatta sits in the normal posture, cross legged, but sitting on him, facing him, is a female figure. Their faces are close and intimate, but not touching. Her arms are around him. The statue is suggestive, but also calmly spiritual. It is a celebration of a truth that most religious art I’ve seen never admits.
We are standing watching the ceremony. Monks are lined up behind a lama who is performing various rituals around a fire in front of him. The monks all have pieces of grain behind their ears. They are chanting together in Tibetan. There is a build up of sound. It begins with faster chanting, then louder, then a high pitched instruments start, a clanging of some percussion, then blasting horns, deep drums. As if the elevating the prayers to a higher place, the music reaches a crescendo. Finally the deep, powerful horns sound, blasting through our consciousness, vibrating our very souls. It is a symphony. Then it dies down, and the chanting continues. Over and over this cycle repeats, chanting giving way to a moving musical crescendo. My words are useless to describe it. It is a unique and enchanting experience. We stand and watch for a long time.
We are driving North from Lhasa towards a 5000m high pass, beyond which is Namcuo Lake. NianQing TangGu looms out of the mountain range ahead. Over 7000 metres, it is a domed top perfect white in the morning sun. The sky, ever such deep blue that it is as if there is no sky between ourselves and space itself. It is just empty.
Namcuo Lake is a crystal clear symphony of blue and grey. The lake reflects the sky’s blue, almost perfectly but with its own character. Pure gradients from grey rock to pure turquoise rise from the banks to distant water, just as the sky’s light blue deepens and intensifies as one looks further from the horizon into the nothingness of space above.
Everywhere prayer flags, offerings. Children begging intensively for money. The yak keepers hang around, all want business from our photos. The purity of nature and relgious offerings broken sharply by a reminder of the have and have nots, a desperate need and desire for money, a change, perhaps, happening all over Tibet.
Alice and I wander a little further and the shore is deserted, but for remarkably huge piles of ice and snow. They stand in contrast to the blue water by her banks, as if place there by accident. Where did it come from?
We are in Shigatse, at one of the biggest Monasteries in Tibet. It is hotter here. There are memorials to the previous Dalai lama, and the government sponsored current Panchen Lama. Photos of the Dalai Lama used to be allowed, but not any more. Much has been cracked down upon since the 2008 riots. Now a mention, or a photo of the Tibetans most holy figure might mean imprisonment, which means interrogation and possible torture. Now, monks are watched over and live in fear. Now, some even feel they must prematurely end this life, to seek freedom in the next. It is again a sad time for Tibet, but the joy of their magnificent land and people sings to me louder than the oppression. I only hope the same is true for ordinary Tibetans. We didn’t feel secure talking to many. Next time I come here, I must go much deeper. There is much I have to learn about this place.
To Everest. Embarrassingly unprepared, I don’t even know what it looks like. Do you? The tallest mountain on our little planet. I supposed it was just another peak in the magnificent eastern himalayan range.
Our land-rover gets a dramatic puncture 5km along a 100km dirt track towards the north base camp. We are already running late, because the policeman in Shigatse who is meant to authorise papers to come here was out of the office all morning. Another big bump, only this one followed by a loud bang then a violent hiss lasting only the time it took to stop and open our doors. The tyre is completely flat in seconds. Will we make it to the peak before sunset? A nagging desire in my mind. *Please can we get there in time, please!*.
Tyre replaced with the help of a fellow tour group, of which there seem to be hundreds, we are at our last 5000m pass. The magnificent himalayan range stands before us. The last geographical barrier between ourselves and India, our destination. I barely have time to reflect. We are about to make the journey through these ancient walls that divide India and China, the two largest nations on earth, my home for the last four years. Everest stands in the middle, pyramid like and grand, its peak completely masked by cloud. We linger not long. The sun is setting. There is a long way to go. We are nervous, and excited. Everywhere dust, dust thrown up by endless passing groups. We are not alone.
It must be less than thirty minutes to sunset. We are through our last checkpoint, a police station placed in a village not far from the valley leading up to the camp and peak. We caught a glimpse of it about half an hour ago, and since then it has been obscured by the hills all around us.
We bump along the valley floor, hardly a track, just a way. It cant be long now. We are at the mouth of the valley that will soon straightens up and leads right to the mountain.
Suddenly, we round a corner, and there she is. Beautifully lit like a beacon in the evening sun, standing 8,848m above the sea, Mount Everest is in front of us, far, but towering over the landscape, framed by dark hills on both sides. The Tibetans and Chinese call her the great mother of the world. This is not just another mountain in the Himalayan range.
We park to take photos, and I dash up a nearby hill, unperturbed by the 5000m altitude. I lay my camera aside for a second, standing, watching the sun illuminate the awesome sight. Tears. Now it hits me… I begin to understand.
I am standing in a temple. The roof is the dark, deep blue space above. Barron rock and stone pillars line the walls on both sides. I stand before an immovable Buddha, magnificent and lit by none other than the source of life itself, our sun. I stand before God. I stand before life itself. Rejoining Alice, we stand together, both in awe, in a perspective that reflects reality. It is in the end true, we are so small.
That night we slept in a tent in the camp. It was comfortable, but our bodies weren’t. Although we’ve been over 3,500m for more than a week now, the step up again to 5000m is a big one. Alice didn’t sleep. My head felt like it would crack. The canned oxygen we bought with us didnt help much. Morning again, with its different light on the mountain, and crisp, cool air, came as a blessing. As did Richard’s Neurofen.
We are driving through the desert plains towards the mountains. Lone horseman walk slowly in the distance, specs on the endless horizon. Nothing is here. Why are they here?
We drive over our final high pass, and finally begin our descent which will take us back down to the tree line, and eventually Nepal. The high, dry, mountain air finally relents, as moisture reaches our lungs. 4500, 4000, 3500 metres. I am watching my GPS. Winding roads and endless hills. Greenery appears. Now the air feels humid. The temperature begins to rise. 3000, 2500 metres. Sky burial sites in the ancient valleys. Abandoned settlements. Waterfalls. Luscious greenery. Behind us, Tibet, ahead, the plains of India. Before that, we enter Nepal.
At 1800m we stop at the border town for the night. Our amazing guide, Tsomo, suffers low altitude sickness. We eat. We are quiet. Relieved to be somewhere our bodies are more comfortable, but quietly sad to be leaving Tibet. But it is not the end. A seed has been planted. We have seen. We have felt. Beyond our physical experience, we sense, there is more. Tibet always gives, gives gives. Leaving her she asks for nothing back. Only, perhaps, that we don’t forget, lest her gift go to waste. Leaving Tibet, for me, is not an end. It is a beginning.
Alice thought having a photo of my foot as the first post of the website didn’t give a good impression, so here’s something more socially acceptable. Alice and I in Minneriya Wildlife Sanctuary in Sri Lanka :)
Is it some sort of mid – twenties crisis? A complete failure of artistic photographic ability? *Just a phase I’m going through*?
It all starts about 18 years ago. I got my first verruca, on my left foot. That’s an english term for a wart on the bottom of your foot. A wart is a viral infection (not a fungus or bacteria) just under your skin, caused by a virus called Human Papillomavirus. It causes the skin to grow erratically and generates a nasty looking shape above the skin.They start really small and can grow quickly. Being in school, my job was to wear a ‘verruca sock’, a plastic sock covering my foot in a kind attempt to prevent it being picked up by other kids. It was eventually frozen off painfully by the doctor, only to reappear a few years later.
By my mid teens, my foot had four or five at the top, and one on the heel. They weren’t going away. Because they weren’t sore except in the heat, I lived with them.
By my early twenties, the bottom of my foot was completely covered by large warts, like this: http://www.foothealthcare.com/images/articles/editor/warts.jpg, only worse. On my heel, several large ones had joined together and most of my heel was covered with a huge, deep wart. They grew slowly, and I continued to live with them.
In 2009, just before Alice and I got together, I got my first wart on my right index finger. It grew slowly at first, then to about 5mm, and after a few months I managed to get rid of it in a rather painful mess which I won’t describe as it’s not relevant.
It came back about six months later, and got bigger and bigger. After an attempt to use an over the counter ‘freezing’ medicine from Boots UK to remove it, it grew even faster. By the end of 2010, I was trying all kinds of painful treatments including vinegar. In the mean time, four more warts had begun to appear in between and on top of my toes. Nasty!
Alas, in 2011, the year of my wedding, it returned larger than ever, a horrible 1cm cauliflower on my finger. Busy with wedding preparations, instead of fight it, I took to just covering it with a plaster. If you look at all the photos of my wedding to Alice, you’ll see the top of my right index finger is covered by a white band. It’s for the better, trust me!
Two more appeared on another finger, one growing fast. Clearly I was susceptible to the skin form of Human Papillomavirus, and my body couldn’t fight it. For the first time in over a decade, I decided to try to have the finger ones painfully frozen off with liquid nitrogen. The small ones on my other finger disappeared within a few months. The large one kept coming back, smaller each time. About six months ago, in January 2012, I had my latest freezing session. Since then I was constantly checking for evidence of it returning, which thankfully it didn’t. I paid no attention to my foot any more. I knew I’d be living with warts for the foreseeable future. It had been almost two decades, after all.
As you know, Alice and I have just got back from a long trip around Asia. We’ve been in all kinds of strange and wonderful places, and sometimes dirty, and checking my feet was the last thing to worry about.
Three nights ago, I looked at my foot, and noticed it seemed cleaner than normal. Holding my breath, I took the bedside lamp and shined it to illuminate the full palm. A sight which I’ve not seen my whole life greeted me, and in shock I gazed at my fully grown left foot, completely clean of warts on the top and bottom. Huge, deep verrucas I’ve lived with for ten years, gone. Warts which had grown fast and large on the top of my toes in the past year, gone.
I struggled to analyse why, how? After so long, why should my body suddenly be able to fight them off during a long trip across China, Tibet and India? Warts are known to just disappear after some time, as I later researched, but still, after two decades, in my case, what triggered it? What’s your opinion?
* The recent freezing of my finger and attempt by the wart to regrow was met with a response from my immune system that eventually fought all the others too?
* Starting my journey with Buddhist meditation. Beginning to see things from a new perspective with new eyes. A calm of mind.
* Travelling through many difference places and tasting many dishes of varying exquisiteness finally beat my warts?
* Being in Tibet. The spirituality. The high altitude. Lower blood oxygen level?
* Indian water – enough to kill anything?
* Other foot problems (toenail) stimulate my immune system to fight off the virus?
* Travelling through multiple climates and temperatures fooled my warts into confusion, and they came off?
* A critical number of warts in my system get noticed by my body such that it fights them all off at once?
Either way, travelling is usually the time when your immune system is weaker, and you pick up things you didn’t have before, not fight off a cronic virus you’ve been living with for 18 years. I’m happily baffled, but resolved my own response to the whole thing:
* It doesn’t really matter what thing or combination of things caused them to go. I am thankful, and have a better understanding of ‘nothing lasts forever’ or as the Buddhists say, the impermanence of all things, even if they look set to stick around forever!
Alice put it so very eloquently in the previous message, how can I follow?
I too find myself a little overwhelmed by the material joys of being home, but left with an odd feeling of dissatisfaction. How to engage with new comforts when we have had little but the most important things with us on our journey? Even my computer seems alien, and those of you who know me well will see this as quite unbelievable; but I am not used to using a computer at all after almost three months without it. It feels like a distraction, a luxurious and beautiful product designed with the power to help, but also dangerously distracting, disengaging. How to mindfully use a computer? I don’t know yet. I shall have to learn.
Nevertheless, a mild bewilderment on our parts is an excellent sign, I think. It shows some of the filters in us, however small, have changed, and it is deeper than just ‘returning home after seeing some great sights for a few months’.
Our linear, western minds have trained us to see abstract things such as beginning and end as real, solid. Alice and I have landed for the last time in this trip, we are back, and our lifestyle will change, but what is really over? Beijing shows signs of the greenery of spring, the new building at Fortune Plaza stands 200 feet taller, there are friends to meet, jobs to find, new people to meet. And so life now challenges us to take our new eyes, and make them see things we didn’t see before, and perhaps even pay less attention to things we saw as important before. The journey continues. Returning to a familiar place and seeing it differently is never the end. It is the beginning.
We are home. A wave of luxury hits us in Beijing. The flat feels so clean, bright, spacious and comfortable! The fridge, the AC, the big bath towel, the wooden floor.. and even a stereo set. I’m almost embarrassed to be enjoying these. While traveling, we were always seeking – seeking the new, the beautiful, the imaginary and the spiritual. These are detached from materials. In fact, what we must have in physical forms is not much, if not very little.
Today is the last day of our 76 day trip. We got stuck on our final leg of the journey. Thunder storm forecast in Beijing and air traffic control made us step off the plane after boarding, with no further departure time in sight. There is little to complain about the situation though comparing to the last two and a half months – we are waiting in an air conditioned room on flat ground with a toilet nearby. However, among all the transports we took before including Indian railway trains, Nepalese overnight buses and even jeep at the foot of Mt Everest with a flat tyre, there hadn’t been any event that delayed our journey by more than two hours. I guess this record is about to be broken!