Mt. Everest

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 occasionally opened to offer sneak peaks of what the mountain would like 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. 

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A yak munching on vegetation in front of the monastery. Pigeons also managed to make it up to the camp.

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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.

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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.

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Inside the tent
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The furnace is on the right and it’s fuel, a bowl of yak dung, is on the left.
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Where we slept. The tent could hold up to 15 people side by side. Luckily it was just us and two others sleeping in the tent that night so we were able to space out.
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Enjoying a cup of yak butter tea. Well, I am anyway.

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.

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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.

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Kate walking past the prayer wheels which were spun using the flow of a small stream running underneath.

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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.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

Qomolangma

Winds whip
furiously
howling
keening.
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
to glow.
Its ethereal white
becomes the blue of a frozen breeze.
After a moment
the edges transform
to a gentle yellow
moving inward
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.

Friendship Highway

“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.

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Friendship Highway mercilessly winding its way towards the Himalayas

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:

Yamdrok Lake,

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We saw lots of avian wildlife along the lake including this duck…
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…and a hoopoe among others.

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Karola glacier,

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roaming animal herds,

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A yak meandering across the mossy terrain of Tibet

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Tashilhunpo Monastery,

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and, of course, plenty of mountains and prayer flags.

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The prayer flags are often hung in high, windy places so that the mantras written on them can be carried through the air by the wind.

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Castles were another common sight along the highway. We often found them in such a ruinous state that it was sometimes hard to discern between what was a castle and what was just a large, jagged rock.

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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.

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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.

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Stacks of Tibetan scriptures could be found throughout the temple

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An image of the former Panchen Lama. If a former high lama had frequented a particular temple during his lifetime, they would dedicate a shrine to him in the place where the lama would sit while visiting.

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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. 

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We were surprised to find that all of the images of skeletons and, what to us looked like giant demons, throughout the temple were actually meant to drive away evil spirits.

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.

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The fortress overlooking Gyantse

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A doorway on the upper tier of the stupa

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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:

#SOS

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.

However,
its time enough to hear
the rushing streams released from the ice,
to witness the ancient water gushing down and away,
converging together
to carve new rivers in stone,
carrying away nature’s SOS.

Lhasa

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.

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The doors weren’t so bad either

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.   

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Pouring a cup of yak butter tea
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A gloppy bowl of tsampa

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 if  we were in the glare of a spotlight, which followed our every step as we made our way through the monastery’s grounds.

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Mountains were always part of the scenery in Lhasa

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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.

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The pilgrims kept their butter in large thermoses (like the one in this picture) that they used to pour into the candles. So much butter was offered that monks would often have to drain some from the candles to store for later use.
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Monks debating outside one of the temples

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Jokhang Temple, which was never ata lack of people either in it or around it
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The golden roof of the temple

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. 

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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.

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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. Some  prostrated 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.

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Pilgrims walking and prostrating around Barkhor Street

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Buddhist prayer beads, or mala, which pilgrims use to keep track of things like how many times a mantra has been recited or how many prostrations have been done

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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Here are some pictures of the Potala Palace at night:

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And, lastly, a poem by Kate:

A View

Pleated curtains
create a fringe
above a black trimmed,
recessed window.
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.

Train Tripping to Tibet

For over 4,000 kilometers we rattled on. Past sprawling apartment complexes, inexhaustible spatterings of unfinished construction projects, and cities so big they seemed to blend one into the other. Past ancient city walls, miraculous and formidable in their endurance, and past the more frequent sighting of modern buildings, which looked anything but miraculous and formidable, shoddy shells polluting the polluted landscape. And all the while we sat on the train, unseen observers of the world moving past us outside of the windows. 

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Waiting to board our train in Suzhou 

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Eventually the scenery would take a sudden and permanent turn towards the awe-inspiring. Roiling cities gave way to rolling green hills, under whose slopes the train passed through with such frequency that the inside of the train car had a lethargic strobe light effect as it brightened and darkened through each passing tunnel. The landscape, once crowded with housing blocks and shopping malls, turned to an open expanse, the views over which only came to an end due to snow-capped mountains sitting clearly in the distance. We had just entered the Tibetan plateau and were now chugging steadily towards Lhasa.

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Sometimes the landscape would give way to a flat expanse of nothingness that we also found captivating
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Despite these brief forays into a plateaud landscape, mountains were the dominant feature of the train ride

Tibet isn’t referred to as the roof of the world lightly. Lhasa sits at roughly 3,656 meters above sea level and is one of the more moderately elevated places on the plateau. Our train, the highest in the world, occasionally climbed to an upwards of 5,000 meters along its journey. Reaching such literal dizzying heights, lack of oxygen and, as a result, altitude sickness, was a concern for passengers. Above each bed was an emergency oxygen valve and train attendants frequently made their way down the hallway to ask and ensure that everyone was feeling comfortable. Fortunately, nobody seemed to ever have any problems, us included. 

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Oxygen outlets above each bed

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While the level of oxygen wouldn’t be a problem, the state of it would. Bathrooms sat like crime scenes at the end of each car, the languid odors of which mixed with the warm, stale, human-scented air of fifty or so people being trapped in a metal box together for two days. Thankfully, we didn’t notice it so much while on the train, our minds granting us the mercy of obliviousness. It was only when we left the train at certain stops and reentered that the smell hit us, gripping our lungs as we choked and winced our way back towards our cabin. Air, we decided, should never have texture or taste as this batch seemed to have.

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In spite of their close proximity to the bathrooms, the sinks were pleasant
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Our soft-sleeper cabin, which was luxurious compared to the hard-sleeper tickets we booked for the return journey
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The dining car which we rarely got to enjoy as you had to order a meal to sit in it
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Taking a break from the cabin

One worry of ours about the train ride before boarding it was time, and specifically how we would pass it over the course of two days. One would think that being stuck on a train with nowhere to go but your bed or a chair in the hallway would spell certain boredom, but, to our delight, it didn’t. The aforementioned scenery played a big part in that as we could sit and effortlessly pass away hour after hour just looking out the window. There were also cat naps, card games, crosswords, knitting projects, books, and, three times a day, meal preparations, to keep us busy.

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Apart from the beautiful scenery, herds of sheep, horses, and yak accompanied our views out the windows.
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The black specs scattered about are yak.

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Some meals were enjoyed en suite.

While preparing our meals, we would often garner a lot of attention and at times, small crowds, who would mutter amongst themselves as they watched us do things like make peanut butter sandwiches or roll up a taco. The food must have looked horrendous to them, gloppy brown paste spread over bread being just one example of this.

Unashamedly, the people observing us would ask questions as if we were actors in a living history museum and not real people trying to enjoy their meal. In one instance, a befuddled policeman watching us make tacos pointed to our tub of brown rice inquiringly and was surprised to find that is was, indeed, rice. So sure of his misunderstanding of our answer, he asked again, and then pulled a train attendant aside to ask her as well. Her answer, an almost offended “Rice!” still seemed to not convince him.

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Apart from eating meals in our cabin we would also occasionally venture out to eat at this small bar near the dining car. It was here where we attracted the attention of our fellow passengers.
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Rolling a taco to much fanfare off camera

And that brings us to one other thing that kept our boredom at bay for the duration of the train ride: people. When taking a train for 48 hours, confined to a crowded cabin and an even more crowded train car, you’re bound to come across characters who you observe with a cautious amusement and others on whom you exert a considerable amount of energy futilely attempting to ignore. My special talent in cases like this is to attract the loudest and most relentless snorers the world has to offer, which is why on this particular journey I was armed to the tooth with ear plugs.

By some miracle though, our cabin mates were fairly quiet sleepers though that didn’t mean we were exempt from other disturbances from them, particularly during the day time. Our one cabin mate, whose only admirable quality was that he didn’t snore at night, possessed an arsenal of other less admirable ones, including lifting his leg every few minutes to fart audibly, coughing violently into our faces and food as we tried to eat and converse, and having the gall to complain about how we were quite rude for not letting other people sit on our beds. 

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A beautiful lake we passed along the way

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There were also the slew of passersby who would stop in front of our cabin, stare at us in a bewildered manner and then, without fail, proceed to mutter “foreigner” to themselves before continuing on down the hallway. One of these bemused passengers, a child no more than ten years old, became captivated by us, and me in particular. During a trip to the dining car, which involved a few minutes of shakily maneuvering through crowds of people, the boy shadowed me the entire way, finally working up the courage to ask if I spoke Chinese. “A little,” I said, which garnered much the same reaction as if I had just swirled out of a magic lamp and granted him three wishes. With a smile from ear to ear, he asked me various questions all the while maintaining unbreaking and uncomfortable eye contact.

He followed me all the way back to our car, leaving my presence only to fetch various snacks that he offered to me like gifts. The snacks, a half eaten piece of watermelon, a handful of sunflower seeds, and a vacuum sealed bag of spicy chicken feet, I accepted in much the same manner as a dog owner accepts the gift of a dead bird on their doorstep, an obliging reluctance. The boy’s presence, however relentless, was charming for a while, made even more so by his oversized yellow shirt that read “‘Sup.” However, after an hour of his company we politely started giving the the boy signs that we were ready for him to return to his family, the last of which, the blatant hanging of a scarf to block our cabin from the hallway, finally served its purpose. 

Time continued to whittle away until, finally, we pulled into Lhasa and left the train almost regrettably. It had served as a perfect introduction to the wonderful sights and experiences that were to come in Tibet.

Raja Ampat – Underwater

Home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is a dream for snorkelers and divers alike. Below you can find some pictures of the incredible marine life we spotted while snorkeling off the island of Batanta.

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There were plenty of beautifully-patterned clams lying on the sea floor
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These ones, always tucked neatly into the crevices of the reef, would close tightly as we swam overtop of them, leaving nothing but a squiggly blue line to mark where their mouth had been.
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This clam was by far the biggest we would see while snorkeling. If we could have swam down next to it, it would have stretched from our waist to the top of our head.
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Apart from giant clams, we would also come across some oversized fish during our time under water. This angel fish, which in this photo is about 20-30 yards away, was bigger than we were…
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…as was each parrotfish in this school, a video of which you can find here.
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We also saw two cuttlefish swimming together, each the size of our torso.
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Here‘s another video of them.

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A brave clown fish peeking out from an anemone.

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Apart from snorkeling around our homestay, we also went on a manta ray-watching tour where we got to swim with several of the graceful creatures that, like so many other things we had seen underwater, were larger than we were.

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On our very last snorkeling outing before leaving Raja Ampat, our underwater camera malfunctioned and we lost all of our pictures from our entire time in Indonesia due to the memory card getting wet. Luckily, after getting back to China, we were able to recover most of the pictures and videos after purchasing a data-recovery system.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Bolbometopon muricatum

Limbs tired,
we’ve been out
for an hour.

We push up
our masks,
pop out
our snorkels.

Go back?

Okay.
But first,
one more look.

Gear back in place,
we duck under.

A herd
of trunkless
elephants
blunders by,
trumpeting silently.

Is my mask fogged?
No.

A parade of parrot
fish stretches across
the reef’s drop-off, crunching coral.

They weave in and out
of one another, grazing,
creating clouds of sand that drift

up to shore creating
paradisiacal beaches
with swaying palms and birdsong.

We gaze at the school, mesmerized
by their elephantine mass, while
their colorful cousins
the size of our
hand dart
past.

The stampede swims out to the depths
as we turn to swim inland.

Yogyakarta

Cultural relics are fragile things. Even the most formidable ones, the temples and palaces and castles of the world, were most likely at one point or another in a state of disrepair; crumbling edifices robbed of their allure and lying on the brink of irrelevance. Nowhere was this fragility more evident than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Java. Lying just outside its city limits is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in world which, barely over a century ago, was buried under the jungle, vines and roots being the only things roaming its once revered corridors. Despite its past troubles though, Borobudur, and the other tangible aspects of our history and culture, are mostly restored now and kept up meticulously in the spirit of the modern tourism industry.

Inside the city limits of Jogja, the colloquial name for the city, where the more intangible aspects of the island’s culture – music, art and tradition – resided, a different story was playing out. For, while the maintenance of temples and the like rely on the services of bountiful and steady professions like construction workers and engineers, the arts require a much more specialized and often unrewarded profession, the artisan, to maintain their upkeep. As we experienced the making of the region’s famous shadow puppet and batik, a traditional style of clothing, and took in musical performances and puppet shows, we couldn’t help but notice that all of their purveyors were middle-aged or beyond. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the ancient art forms, we wondered what would happen to them within generations. Like languages without anyone left to speak them, would they simply just disappear?

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The unique interior of our hotel

To get around the city, we would use another cultural relic, this one unwavering in the face of time: public transportation. In Jogja, this came in the form of the endearing becak, a bicycle-powered rickshaw so omnipresent on the streets of the city that they could be found simply by opening one’s eyes and looking in any direction. For us, we didn’t even have to step foot outside of our hotel to spot one as two were parked just outside its front door.

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An empty becak driving through the streets of Jogja

Inside one of the becak’s colorful carriages, under the shade of a tattered awning hanging overhead, sat a gangly man lazily rifling through a newspaper. As we approached him to inquire about taking us around the city, he seemed almost hesitant to oblige, not wanting to abandon his relative comfort to peddle two strangers around the sweltering streets of the city. Over the course of the next several days, as he took us from site to site around Jogja, we would learn his name, Adi, as well as other various tidbits about his life and personality. For example, he was a father of two, had learned his impressive level of English simply by listening to client’s conversations and communicating with them what he could, and had witnessed the eruption of a nearby volcano in 2010, the accounts of which he told with such a casual nonchalance that you could have mistaken his tone for describing the process of drying paint. He would also end up being one of the most genuinely kind people we would come across for the entirety of our time in Indonesia, which made us quite happy to have him as our guide.

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Adi always made sure to point out the city’s galleries of graffiti, which were on vibrant display down nearly every alleyway we turned into.

For our first two days in Jogja, the services of Adi and his becak would only be needed to take us to nearby bus stops where we would take various buses to the nearby ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan. For our third day in the city, Adi took us to see two of the region’s other claims to fame: the processes behind making batik, a kind of dyed fabric, and wayang, or shadow puppets.

To understand the cultural importance of batik to Indonesia and especially the island of Java, one has to look no further than the fact that the country has an airline named after it, Batik Air, a National Batik Day, and its own version of casual Friday in which workers are encouraged to wear batik to work. After witnessing the process of batik making at a small factory near our hotel and seeing the end result, it was easy to see why it had such fanfare.

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The first part of the process is to pencil the pattern on to the cloth.
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Then, hot wax is traced over the outline of the pattern…
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…after which the cloth undergoes its first dye bath, usually indigo blue.
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Once the dye dries, more designs are added to the cloth via hot wax and the process continues as such until the desired pattern is achieved.
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Stamps are also used to apply wax to forego the hand-drawn part of the process.
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Some of the stamps had beautifully elaborate designs on them.
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Colors on some batiks were done by hand instead of dyeing
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The last step of the process was to melt off all the wax, leaving the finished pattern on the cloth. The melted wax was collected and balled to be used again to create the designs on future batiks.

While the free tour was enjoyable, the free part of it weighed heavily on our minds throughout and our worst nightmares came to fruition as the tour ended in a gift shop where every glance of our eye was pounced upon by a slew of shop assistants who assured us with suspicious frequency that whatever item we had happened to take an interest in was handmade by the artisans we had just seen on our tour. While we were no batik experts, we were fairly certain that the multitude of shirts and tapestries were not made in house as the shop reeked of mass-production, an idea furthered by the fact that every item in it was encased in plastic and had dozens of identical replicas. Before starting the tour, Adi had warned us not to buy anything, advice we had no problem heeding.

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After leaving the factory, Adi took us to a nearby workshop that featured batik from local artists. Of the hundreds of pieces on display, not one was similar to another.

From one process to another, our next stop was to see how the wayang was made. Much like the batik factory, we were issued a guide upon arriving who explained each step in the making of the shadow puppets. 

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The puppets are made from water buffalo hide. After curing the hide and tracing the wayang’s design onto it, an artisan carves out the puppet and the countless holes inside of it necessary for the wayang’s pattern to be seen in its shadow.
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After this, a painter applies the the many colors that make up the wayang’s clothing and skin.
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Each of the many colors and features of the wayang are symbolic, which is evident in the complexity of this illustration explaining what each one means.

As we watched the various artisans meticulously and flawlessly perform the intricate tasks behind the making of each puppet, we were reminded by our guide that he too was an artist. While some of the others used paintbrushes and chisels as their tools, he wielded his mouth, which he used masterfully to create a kind of verbal art that we found just as fascinating as the making of the wayang.

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Our guide showing us what the finished product looks like in its shadowed form, which is how most people would see the puppet during a show. After leaving the wayang workshop, Adi informed us that traditional shows last around eight hours and take place from dusk to dawn!

Our last stop of the day was Taman Sari, a once sprawling palace complex used for relaxation and retreat by the Javanese sultans in the 18th century. There, we braved the debilitating heat to explore one of the only remaining parts of the original structure: the baths. Once used as a place for the sultan to observe concubines before choosing one as his companion for the day, the grounds were now filled with revelers of a different kind, tourists. As we walked around the compound, we found ourselves staring longingly at the baths, whose cool waters and bubbling fountains served as a different kind of temptation: an escape from the midday sun that, unlike the concubines, would remain forbidden.

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One of the main gates leading into Taman Sari.
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Looking out from the tower where the sultan would observe and choose a concubine.
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Another one of the main gates leading into the complex.
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Ending the day with a delicious supper of gudega dish comprised of young, unripe jackfruit boiled in palm sugar and coconut milk over the course of several hours. In hindsight, we can’t believe we only ate this once while in Jogja.

The next day, our last in Jogja, would be highlighted by our trip to the Kraton Palace. While the palace itself wasn’t very impressive, the cultural performances put on there were. Not having been able to see a wayang performance the night before due to it being a national holiday, we were pleased to find that the show being put on at the palace that day was a puppet show. Sadly, it wouldn’t feature the shadow puppets we were so hoping to see in action, but another kind endemic to the island, the wooden puppet. 

As we watched the telling of the Ramayana story, our inability to understand the words being spoken in no way diminished our enjoyment of the show. Colorful beings danced and floated effortlessly on the stage to the beat of the smooth and sure voice of the dalang. Behind the scenes, a gamelan orchestra played a hypnotically soothing melody that made us wonder how anyone could possibly stay awake for an eight hour show, let alone one that took place overnight.

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A view of the puppet performance from in front of the stage

Because Javanese puppet shows, both shadow and wooden, can be enjoyed from either in front of the stage or behind it, we decided to go behind the dalang to see the source of the music. There, an ensemble of musicians gently tapped away at their instruments which seemed far too large to be making such a gentle sound. The hands making that sound, which, as frequently as the music allowed, would replace the grip of their mallets with that of a cigarette, were noticeably aged. As we trailed the plumes of smoke up to the faces of the musicians, many of them looked as if this was more of a retirement gig than a career which made us wonder anew what the culture of Jogja would look like in another decade or two. Sure the palace would still be standing, as would the other structures we had seen, but would music still be filling its halls and puppets still dancing to the enjoyment of others? 

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The dalang behind the stage, wearing batik just like his puppets

It was with great relief then that, while writing this blog, we discovered that UNESCO, which famously designates certain tangible sites like temples as integral parts of culture, began designating the intangible aspects of it as well. They did so out of a fear that things like batik making and wayang shows could very well disappear as the world became more and more globalized, social structures changed, and younger generations began seeking careers outside that of the unstable one of artisan. To get designated, a country must provide a detailed plan of how they will preserve the art form they want to protect and, in return, get funding and support from UNESCO. For a city as rich with culture as Jogja, it was reassuring to know that both the tangible and intangible aspects of its heritage would continue to be interwoven into the fabric of the city for generations to come.

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After leaving the palace, we passed away the afternoon at Milas, a vegetarian and eco-friendly restaurant that also does a lot to support the Yogyakarta community

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Wayang

What we cannot faithfully communicate,
art can.
Art alludes to what words elude.
Poetry,
painting,
pantomime.
All inclusive.

Yet,
in art, as in speech,
it still may not convey
total truth.
You must search for the meaning,
the message,
the misunderstanding.

Take the wayang.
Every inch is a symbol.

Fingers—
Mind
Feeling
Instinct

Flowers—
Water
Air
Fire
Earth

Features—
Spirit
Wisdom
Loyalty

Each burst of color
is a burst of meaning,
a truth
about the nature of humans.

Yet, it hides
behind a screen.
Displaying its truth
in shadow.

Borobudur

Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.

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Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.

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The temple was not at a lack of buddha statues, boasting over 500 of them

Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.

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Apart from the three sections mentioned above, other reliefs were discovered buried under the foot of the temple during renovations. The reliefs in this section either depicted humanity’s bad habits or scenes from Buddhist hell. In this relief, as described by the original description etched above it, people are gossiping to one another, looking not too unlike how people might look while gossiping today.

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While there was plenty to take in at eye level, looking up always yielded a reward

As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.

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Archeologists believe that Borobudur’s, reliefs, which number in the thousands, used to be covered with vibrant paint

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Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.

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Looking over the shoulders of a headless buddha statue

To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana. 

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Heading through one last doorway before finally reaching the top of the temple

Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.

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Nirvana means “extinguished,” which is how the temple’s uppermost level felt in comparison to the other, more detailed sections

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Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.

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The descent from nirvana proved to be considerably easier than the climb towards it
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The source of our dinner that night, a street side warung
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…that we enjoyed on the street. An enjoyable (and delicious) way to end the day!