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.
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.
To look at the massive earthen structure known as a tuloufrom above is to see a perfect circle tucked into the verdant, subtropical hills of China’s Fujian Province. While this image may conjure up nothing more than faint curiosity from someone today, it created quite a different impression upon those viewing grainy satellite images of them in the midst of the Cold War. Upon seeing thousands of the circular structures hidden away in the Chinese countryside in 1985, those in the U.S. intelligence community could not help but note their striking similarity to missile silos, believing the entirety of the thousand-plus network of buildings to be a sprawling nuclear base. To get a closer look, two representatives of the New York Institute of Photography were sent for a tour of China with one of their stops conveniently being to see the tulous. The images they brought back with them and presented to the CIA must have garnered some level of amusement from those suspecting a nuclear base for the tulous were anything but, the equivalent of suspecting a child’s flashlight to be a planet-destroying laser; the two were simply unrelated.
Our experience with the tulous fell under less suspicious circumstances, though our curiosity about them must have certainly been on par with those first foreign visitors nearly thirty years prior. As our tuk tuk rattled up to the entrance of Chuxi village, one of the many housing the tulous, we happily paid our driver the minuscule fee for the half hour ride and began making our way toward the centuries-old structures that gave the sleepy agricultural villages their fame.
Though we could never recall when exactly it occurred, at some point on our walk into the village we all of a sudden felt as if we had become unattached to the modern world. To our left, an untouched forest climbed out of sight into the punishing glare of the sun, a deafening cacophony of insect noises emanating from its core. To our right, a gurgling stream haphazardly made its way around different rocks and bends, occasionally bursting to life in the form of a small waterfall before quickly returning to a trickle. As we neared the village, a Shire-esque scene unfolded before us. Dominating it were the otherworldly tulous standing formidably over a patchwork of overflowing gardens that covered the landscape. Villagers meandered about, some in an aimless manner suggesting that not only were they not in a hurry to get where they were going, but also that they had no real destination in mind; and others in a more purposeful manner as they busily carried large buckets of water from one garden to the next. It was then that we realized that it wasn’t just the tulous that attracted a steady stream of tourists to the villages, but also the way of life that they helped preserve.It is one thing to escape modernity on a secluded mountain top, it is an entirely other experience to escape it amidst a community of people.
This feeling would follow us to Yuqinglou, one of the three round tulous in the village and our place of residence for the next two nights. Upon passing through the massive front door, we were greeted by a charming, yet noticeably oft-rehearsed tea ceremony where we sipped the local tea, chatted with the residents, and learned that this particular tulou dated back to the 1700s. After finishing our tea we were led to our room up two flights of wooden stairs whose sturdiness was put into question due to the cartoonish creaking they emitted under the weight of each step.
Upon entering our room we were rather surprised to find that, despite booking a private room, we already had a roommate in the form of a spider the size of our hand that moved at the speed of vampire as with each blink we would find it had moved several feet across the room. Well accustomed to smashing giant spiders in hotel rooms on previous trips, I decided that my desire to appear courageous had reached its limit and I promptly summoned one of the tulou residents to help. In a hum drum manner, she cornered the spider, sprayed poison in its direction, and then watched nonchalantly as it scurried by her feet and under the bed. After this, she looked at us in a manner that suggested an, “Okay, all done” attitude and seemed slightly surprised when we asked to be moved to another room. Any misguided comfort we took in the idea that our new room would be comparatively less spidery was squashed as the corpse of one blew out from behind a table as we closed the curtains.
Eager to escape the confines of our room, we headed down to a separate building where the tulou owners cooked dinner for the guests. Upon telling the cook that we only wanted vegetable dishes, he went back into the kitchen and brought back handfuls of different kinds of vegetables that looked as if they had just been picked that day as they were still covered in dirt (we could only imagine what would have happened had we opted for meat!). After nodding in agreement with the choices before us, he returned to the kitchen and shortly after was presenting us with our dinner, a truly farm to table experience. Travel weary, we inhaled the food before reluctantly returning to our room where we would pass the night without the luxury of sleep due to the waking nightmare of spiders lurking in the darkness.
While not technologically advanced like the nuclear base they were expected to be, the tulous were still architectural marvels in and of themselves. Built from nothing more than mud, bamboo and stone, they have withstood centuries of natural disasters, political turmoil, and the wear and tear of generation after generation of families living in them. The walls, which can be up to six feet thick, are so strong that during a peasant uprising in one village, the Chinese army fired 19 cannon shots at a tulou only to barely make a dent in its walls. The twentieth shot, they had apparently decided, would have been just as useless as the previous 19. This level of protection proved handy for the tulou’s residents who, when traveling armies of bandits would rummage through the countryside to sack villages, would simply shut the front door and be fairly certain that the bandits would grow weary of trying to penetrate the impenetrable and move on. Each one was essentially a castle with all of the resources that the several hundred residents inside would need to survive existing within the walls. As we groggily rolled out of bed the next morning, our only thought was that we wished they had figured out a way to keep the spiders out.
Happy to ditch our room and explore the village, we quickly perked up as we exited into the courtyard. Gazing around the tulou’s interior had a dizzying effect as our eyes made loops around the encircling corridors whose charming wooden build was always worth making it back around for another look. Hanging from the eaves of each floor were tattered lanterns whose trademark redness had been reduced to a faint pink; we couldn’t imagine them having ever looked new. Equally time worn baskets hung from the balconies along with bundles of drying herbs and spices. One could spend an entire day just admiring and exploring the tulou’s interior we thought, an idea furthered by the cool, breezy corridor we were standing in.
After leaving the tulou, our first order of business for the day was to climb an outlying hill to get an aerial perspective of the village. A short climb led us to a small pavilion where we took in sweeping views of the village and the forests and hills that encased it. The tulous, whose yellowish tone added to their otherworldly aura, appeared synonymous with the surrounding landscape of mountains, forests and terraced fields. We could scantly imagine one without the other.
Looking closer, we noticed that village life was carrying on much in the same way as it had done the day before. As we watched the motorbikes and people make their way around the village we had the sensation of looking down on a miniature toy set, feeling as if we could almost reach down and pick up one of the people or vehicles moving about. After toying with this idea for what felt like hours, we decided to upend it by going into the village itself and gaining a more realistic perspective into the features we had been examining from above.
As we walked through the streets, the feeling of timelessness dominated our thoughts. Apart from the occasional trait of modernity that came in the form of a new car driving past or a satellite dish perched outside a tulou window, we imagined that there would be no real difference between a photograph taken now compared to a black and white one from a century earlier. Tattered signs desperately clung to building walls, remnants of Mao existed in faded portraits adorning the front door of some residences, and equally worn looking villagers sat in courtyards chattering amongst themselves before being interrupted by long contemplative pauses as they re-examined their surroundings.
The trace of youth was few and far between. Young children could be found running about, some sheepishly approaching us to practice their pronunciation of “hello,” and one afternoon we stumbled across a couple of teenagers playing basketball, chickens scurrying about their feet as they played, but the village was dominated and in essence run by people who looked as if they were enjoying the twilight years of life rather than the prime of it. Perhaps this was one of the biggest purveyors of the sense of timelessness that we felt. The village was stuck, not in an image of today but rather the manifestation of the older villagers’ memory of a time decades earlier. Whatever doom this spelled for the village’s future, it did make for quite a unique experience for us during the time we spent there, a feeling that would sadly end as we climbed in a car the next morning to take us back to Xiamen and away from the slow village life that we had so adored.