If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows: Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip If you’re leaving in winter, are far away … Read more Raja Ampat
To wander into a restaurant in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, is to find a scene not too unlike one you might find in a ski lodge. Red faces appear frozen in their last expression, hands cling desperately to hot beverages, mounds of clothes lay piled on any available furniture, and, perhaps … Read more Harbin
Pictures can only prepare you so much for the reality that they depict. Just as watching your favorite actor in your favorite movie can never dull the feeling of fluster and starstruckedness upon seeing them walking past you on the street, so a photograph of a beautiful place can never fully prepare you for the … Read more Bagan
“Mei you hua,” the fruit vendor shouted in a bemused tone as we hiked past her stall perched on the hillside. We were making our way through the mountainous countryside of Wuyuan in hopes of seeing the region’s valleys flooded by the seasonal rapeseed flower and were just told that there weren’t any. The bright … Read more Wuyuan
If the beauty of a place is measured by the amount of wows muttered and gasps taken while witnessing it, then China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park may very well be the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. With lakes so blue they practically glowed through the damp browns and greens of the forest surrounding them to … Read more Jiuzhaigou
Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!
So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.
For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:
What Rivendell was to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so Mérida was to us on El Camino: a beautiful city offering a comfortable and luxurious stop at the beginning of what would be a long and arduous journey. For us, the beautiful part of Mérida came in the form of its Roman ruins, pristinely preserved and still dominating the city’s life 2,000 years after their construction. Luxury came in the form of a one-star hotel that, through the eyes of these pilgrims anyway, looked like the Waldorf Astoria with its top-of-the-line amenities: a double bed, locking door with keys, and private bathroom. Our stay wasn’t long (just one and a half days) as we didn’t want to completely lose the pilgrim groove we had worked ourselves into with much effort over the previous week and a half, but it was a welcome and wonderful visit all the same. Below you can find some pictures from our time there as well as a poem by Kate.
Epithet to Medusa
Are you aware
of the irony
of your preservation
your only companions—
in a writhing frenzy.
Your staring eyes—
more damaged than before—
and your memories
before your life
was as tangled
as your serpentine tresses.
“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.
As the first blog of many to come highlighting our time on El Camino de Santiago – La Via de la Plata, we thought it would be appropriate to share just what we would be carrying on our backs for miles and miles, day after day as we trek through the countryside of Spain. So, whether you are planning to walk El Camino yourself and are curious as to what gear to consider or are just nosy and want to see a picture and description of all of our things, you can find information below detailing all of our possessions we have deemed necessary to lug on our back for the next 7 weeks and 800 miles.
Two long-sleeved shirts
Two pairs of pants
A pair of shoes
A pair of sandals (to wear in the shower and around the villages we will be staying in to air out our feet and give them a break from our shoes)
Two pairs of underwear
Two pairs of socks
A sleep sack (in case some albergues don’t have sheets or heating in the colder weeks of late October and November)
A pillow case (in case some albergues don’t have one)
Scaling Mt. Everest was a cinch. That is, when we were moving up the behemoth mountain’s cragged, snow-packed slopes towards its icy peak with our eyes…not our feet. We were, after all, on the Tibetan side of the tallest point in the world, where, unlike in Nepal, amateur mountaineers are not granted the permission to climb Everest; a rule we were glad to heed as we enjoyed the majestic mountain from afar.
After arriving at the tourist base camp (the one for climbers lied further inland and was off limits to us), we were disappointed to find Everest obscured by a stubbornly unmoving wall of clouds – out of which little windows would occasionally open to offer sneak peaks of what the mountain would look like if we were lucky enough for an unobstructed view later in the day. Eager to stretch our legs after the two-day car journey that had brought us there, we toured Rongbuk Monastery, the highest in the world, and walked around the valley that the base camp sat in.
Effectively stretched, we returned to our accommodation for the night, a yak-wool tent that was one amongst a small city of them at the camp. Sitting like rows of townhouses, the tents advertised everything from coffee to free wi-fi to even karaoke, the latter of which sent erratic, colorful lights and horrible yet confident voices pulsating through the otherwise black and lifeless landscape at night.
Our tent was run by a kindly young woman, who, apart from offering us unexpectedly delicious meals at an elevation of 5,000 meters, also gave us entertainment in the form of her 1-year old child, a babbling infant intent on offering us hospitality in the form of gifts of random plastic bottles and other spent items she could find lying around the tent. On one occasion, I startled the child by muttering tashi delek (“hello” in Tibetan) to her. As if I was a wolf leaping out of a sheep costume, the girl cartoonishly gasped and staggered backwards in her shock, slapping her mother on the leg in an attempt to alert her to the phenomenon. Apparently foreign guests were not supposed to be able to speak Tibetan. Her mother paid no interest though, instead focusing intently on filling the furnace with a fresh round of yak dung which served to both warm the tent and prepare our meals.
After playing with the child for a short time, we decided to head back outside to see if the veil over Everest had lifted…it had. We were amazed at how close the mountain looked and felt. In some ways, it seemed more like Everest when it was sitting behind the clouds, our imaginations filling in the dimensions of its fabled magnitude. In full view though, it was still undeniably awe-inspiring, its glowing white slopes shining like a beacon amongst the otherwise monotone and lifeless sea of gray mountains.
As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped with it and the wind was whipped into even more of a frenzy than earlier in the day, howling loudly as it forcefully pushed through the valley. In the distance, an enclave of prayer wheels spun, creating a soothing melody that countered the angry tones of the wind. Like settling into a seat for a much anticipated theatre production, we found a comfortable place to sit as we took in the show before us. Slowly at first and then quickly after, the stoic Everest began to transform, changing colors from a brilliant white to a pale yellow before finally settling on a rosy pink, the last role it would play before the curtains were drawn as the sun sank below the horizon and the mountain before us was reduced to a shadowed mass, gradually blending into the the gray and darkened mountains surrounding it.
More out of a desire for warmth than waning interest in the scenery before us, we returned to our tent. Being at such a high altitude, our attempts at sleep during the night were rather hopeless and we got out of bed the next morning, tired but eager to see Mt. Everest one last time before beginning the return journey to Lhasa. It didn’t disappoint.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
An assault felt
only by ears and skin.
To the eyes,
nothing is disturbed.
Not the barren brown landscape,
nor the mountain that sits
at its end.
The peak begins
Its ethereal white
becomes the blue of a frozen breeze.
After a moment
the edges transform
to a gentle yellow
before settling to rose,
casting the valley in shadow.
This ritual has occurred
before time began ticking,
before prayer flags fluttered
and brassy wheels spun,
creating their music in the mossy water.
It will continue long after
time, flags, and wheels have ceased all movement.
“47…48…49…50…” With eyes clenched, and our large, greasy breakfast now being strongly re-evaluated, the tallies of whirling U-turns accumulated in our heads. “71…72…73…” We were driving along the Friendship Highway, an 800-kilometer stretch of road that runs from Lhasa to Nepal, and pirouetting our way down a particularly curvy stretch of the journey towards Mount Everest Base Camp.
By the time we were sailing along on straight roads again, the number of 180-degree turns we had taken to wind down the mountainside had numbered into the triple digits, 100 to be exact. Luckily, this would be the only part of our nearly 20-hour car ride that would test the will of our stomachs. The rest of the journey was surprisingly enjoyable, offering panoramas, as endless in their vastness as in their ability to captivate us, of the Tibetan plateau along the way. Some of favorite sites were:
Our favorite stop we would make over the course of our two days on the Friendship Highway was Gyantse, a small town that housed the reclusive Palcho Monastery. A model of tolerance, the monastery not only incorporated different architectural styles into its construction – mainly Chinese, Tibetan, and Nepali influences – but also housed monks from three different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, which, despite its peaceful reputation, was known to have its fair share of skirmishes over the centuries, many of which turned violent.
A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the religious sites we had been to in Lhasa, Palcho offered the experience we held in our minds of what a Tibetan monastery would be: secluded, quiet, and, as a byproduct of these first two elements, immensely peaceful. While few people amounted to a greater appreciation of the monastic complex to us, it spelt doom for the monastery’s coffers which were considerably less full than its Lhasan cousins due to the lack of visitors. Once again, this worked in our favor as, in order to compensate for its fewer donations, the monastery allowed visitors to take photos inside the temple’s halls for a small fee, an opportunity we wouldn’t come across in any other of the temples we visited in Tibet.
Another aspect that made the monastery unique from the others we had seen was the Kumbum Stupa, a nine-tier structure said to house 10,000 images of Buddha. As we wound up each tier of the Stupa, we began to wonder if the figure of 10,000 was an underestimation as the walls inside each of the stupa’s 76 shrines was plastered with Buddhist iconography.
After making it to the top tier, we were gifted with an unobstructed view of the monastery and its surroundings. Brown mountains sat like giant sand dunes across the horizon, the humble collection of buildings that was the town of Gyantse sitting at their feet. Across their ridges ran the protective fortress and walls of the ancient city which did little to protect its inhabitants from English and later, Chinese, invaders who would effectively destroy as much of Gyantse as their motivation allotted for. As we worked our way back down the stupa, we were glad it was mostly spared from the same destruction.
After leaving Gyantse and taking a much needed break from the inside of the van for an overnight stay in the city of Shigatse, our journey along the Friendship Highway came to an end as we rolled up to Mt. Everest, a scenic end to a scenic journey.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
We make a roadside pit stop
to glance at Karola glacier.
We are allotted five minutes
that we stretch to ten.
A time frame specifically set
to allow for just enough seconds to snap
a picture for haphazard scrollers.
its time enough to hear
the rushing streams released from the ice,
to witness the ancient water gushing down and away,
to carve new rivers in stone,
carrying away nature’s SOS.
In a land whose past is decorated with tales of conquering warlord horsemen and magical tantric monks, it is surprising to find oneself compelled most by something as simple and familiar as a window. Yet, while winding through the dusty back-alleys of Lhasa, that is exactly where we found ourselves.
Set against the plain white buildings of the city, the windows were an island of life and beauty, much like Lhasa was among the overwhelming emptiness of the Tibetan plateau. And perhaps that’s what made us so intrigued by the windows, the fact that they were a metaphor for the city itself. The thick black frames surrounding them, enclosing the wealth of color and detail that was each window, were much like the once self-imposed and now not-so-self-imposed seclusion of Lhasa from the world around it. Above each window, ruffled curtains rippled gently in the wind, their movements caused by a force unseen in the same way as the thing that gave Lhasa life – that moved pilgrims around temples, spun prayer wheels, and inspired muttered mantras – was also an unseen force: Buddhism. Whether wind or faith, whatever couldn’t be seen in the city, could most definitely be felt.
We were introduced to Lhasa much in the same contradictory manner as we imagined others were: with a trip to the local police office to make sure all of our papers and permits checked out followed by a khata, a long white scarf meant to symbolize one being welcomed into a place, being hung around our necks; the latter of which was done with such routine and urgency that it made it feel hardly like a welcome at all and more like the hanging of an ID badge around our necks to identify us as outsiders, which we needed no additional help in doing. For us, this experience summed up the entirety of our time in Tibet, of being officially granted the permission to travel around the plateau, but never feeling truly welcome in it. Perhaps it was due to the Orwellian police state pervasing the streets, or the fact that we weren’t allowed to enter temples or board buses without our guide with us, or even that we were tourists treating places that held enormous spiritual significance to others as mere attractions. In any case, however uncomfortable we felt at times being in the city, the warmness of locals and brilliance of the culture and places they built quelled any feelings we had of whether or not we should actually be there.
Our first morning in Lhasa started in the same way as the others we would spend in Tibet, with a bowl of tsampa, a kind of barley porridge, paired with a hot cup of yak butter tea. Neither were particularly delicious but enjoyable all the same as is any traditional cuisine eaten in the place of its origin. To make the meal tastier, we began adding a considerable amount of sugar to the tsampa much to the chagrin of our waitress, who informed us that parents add sugar to the porridge only to coerce their children into eating it. Adults, we were told, eat it plain. We were content with being children.
After breakfast we met our guide, Lobsang, and headed towards Drepung Monastery, the first of two monasteries we would be touring that day. Upon leaving the van and walking up to the monastic complex, we got our first indication of what it meant to to tour a city 3,600 meters in the air, twice the altitude of Denver. As we walked up the slight incline leading to the main temple, our breath, or lack thereof, became extremely noticeable. Despite our physical exertion being at almost zero, we still found ourselves inhaling deeply and frequently as if we had just finished a long run, our lungs grasping at an air supply that always seemed hollow and insufficient. For some, a date with an oxygen machine becomes necessary, but, luckily for us, the symptoms remained minor. If the diluted air supply wasn’t enough to remind us of our spot on the roof of the world, then the exaggerated effects of the sun overhead were. Dementor-like in its ability and persistence to suck the life from our bodies, the debilitating intensity of the sun made us feel as ifwe were in the glare of a spotlight, which followed our every step as we made our way through the monastery’s grounds.
If outside the monastery’s temples featured the sun’s most exaggerated qualities, then inside featured the complete lack-thereof. Dark, cloistered, and miraculously void of sunlight, the temples were a world apart from their bright, sprawling exterior.
Our tour of the temple was illuminated by the glow of butter candles, large vats of butter that served as fuel for the flames glowing overtop of them, which glinted upon the golden statues and and wall-encompassing murals, pulling them from the shadows, one after the other, as we passed through the temple’s halls. All around us pilgrims shuffled about, muttering mantras as they left offerings in front of deities and poured melted butter into the candles, whose rich scents mingled with those of incense to create a heavy odor that permeated the air. However much we wanted to stop and take in what was around us, the current of pilgrims carried us through the temple and back outside where our contempt for the sun was rekindled as we made our way through the rest of the monastery’s grounds before heading to our next destination: Sera Monastery.
Sera Monastery was set apart from Drepung due to the lively debates that took place between resident monks in its courtyards each day. In the debates, one monk challenges the ethereal knowledge of his opponent by asking pointed questions about Buddhist philosophy in the hopes of eventually stumping him. Being entirely unfamiliar with the workings of Buddhism and even more unfamiliar with the Tibetan language, we found intrigue in not what was being said during the debates but how it was being said. Before delivering a question, the challenging monk would stretch the open palm of one hand towards his opponent, and stretch the other far above his head. Then, with a resounding smack, he would bring both hands together with the conclusion of his question, after which his opponent would recede into a flustered contemplation before muttering a reply.
Younger monks seemed to relish in the challenge of stumping their friends, delivering and answering questions fervidly, while older monks took a more tedious approach, partaking in the debates in a manner that suggested they were doing it based more in routine than a desire to prove their intellectual worth to others. After watching the debates for some time, we retraced our steps through the alleyways of the monastery, returning to our van and eventually our hotel where would end the day.
The next day we awoke to rainy weather, which was a shock to us as we couldn’t imagine anything, clouds included, being able to come between the sun and the streets of Lhasa. While the rain would spell inconvenience for the day’s tour of Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace, two of the cities most important and iconic landmarks, we were happy for a respite from the considerable amount of squinting and slogging we had done the day before.
Throughout its history, Jokhang Temple has gone through periodic phases of irrelevance at the hands of those who feared the influence of Buddhism on Tibet. As early as the 9th and 10th centuries, it was used as a stable. A century earlier, after Buddhism had been introduced to the plateau, Tibet was devastated by a plague which left little doubt among Tibetans that their traditional gods had been offended by the upstart religion and explained the transformation of the holy site into a lowly one. During the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in the 1950s, machine guns were mounted on the temple’s roof to shoot down advancing soldiers from the Chinese military. And as recently as the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the temple was boarded up and reportedly used to house pigs, a slaughterhouse, members of the People’s Liberation Army and even a small hotel. Much like its first fall from grace, the Jokhang and the devotion it inspired had upset the powers that be, this time threatening the new gods of the plateau, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. As we’ve seen in other religious sites though, attempts at diminishing a place’s appearance can never really diminish what it means to others. Countless times, we’ve come across dilapidated statues of deities being worshiped as if they were the Buddha himself. We felt that the same was true for the temple and all of Buddhism to Tibetans.
Had we not known prior to visiting Jokhang Temple that it was the most revered religious site in all of Tibet, we would have guessed its esteemed status rather quickly after approaching it. Set amidst the old city of Lhasa, the temple was unmistakably the center of life. Like an ocean, it served as a final destination for all of the serpentine alleyways which ran like rivers through the old city, funneling pilgrims and tourists alike to the temple.
As we walked through the main doors of Jokhang, it became clear to us that we were entering a manifestation of antiquity. Not often are you able to physically see time, but inside the labyrinthine halls of the temple, the centuries were as visible as the countless statues and paintings that filled its interior, noticeable both in the buildup of lacquer and sediment that sat over the wooden beams that held the temple up and also in the worn appearance of steps and doorways, their deep grooves evidence of the innumerable pilgrims whose feet and hands had passed over them. However impressive the different features of the temple were though, it was always the pilgrims on whom we found our attention unconsciously returning to.
Through the temple and around Barkhor Street outside of it, the pilgrims walked in a clockwise fashion, many in the hope of being able to circumambulate Jokhang 700,000 times in the course of their life, which is the desired mark to achieve an upgrade in status upon their reincarnation. Some were young, walking with ease as they breezed by the less fortunately aged, who, cane in hand, hobbled along, paying no attention to the large swathes of tourists accompanying their religious pursuits. Someprostrated as a means of transportation, raising their hands above their head, taking three steps and then diving forward on the ground before standing up and repeating the process again. Their tattered clothes, knee pads, and tightly clenched bottle of water evidence of just how difficult their worship was. We would learn later that some prostrated to Lhasa from faraway hometowns which could take anywhere from months to sometimes even years to complete. Like all difficult things undertaken, the pilgrims, walking and prostrating alike, were trying to earn a better lot in this life or the next.
As we left Barkhor Street the gray skies that had been covering the city finally opened and began to rain, a slight nuisance that we were easily able to escape in the cavernous inner rooms of the Potala Palace, our next destination.
Much like attending an afternoon movie and being startled that it is still daytime upon leaving the theatre, so we emerged from the palace surprised to find the sun shining amidst a backdrop of stunning blue skies. As we zigzagged down the stairs of the palace, our attention was drawn back to the windows and once more, we thought of the people of Tibet. Distracted by the beauty of the outside of the window, one often forgets that there is a dark and largely unnoticed world behind the panes of glass.
The world will always be looking into Tibet, distracted by its majestic surface while Tibetans, most of whom exist in places devoid of an onlooker’s thought or attention, will always be looking out, never quite able to join the people and world that they see moving past them.
Here are some pictures of the Potala Palace at night:
And, lastly, a poem by Kate:
create a fringe
above a black trimmed,
The top tapers
into a wider base
that goes unnoticed
at a glance.
A breeze ruffles
the tattered fabric
releasing a whisper
of a dance.