Thursday, September 21, 2006

Highlands, North Carolina: Today is the one month anniversary of my return home and I want to finally wrap up my story and write a little now to remember. First things first: I left off after our Mt Kailash kora and need to tell of our journey to Mt Everest...

I felt good as we piled back into Tenzing and hit the road again. We had spent a gorgeous day exploring Lake Manasarovar (even bathing in the hot springs) and we were finally headed to Mt. Everest! So we left in good spirits, dreaming of the highest place on Earth. As usual, the trip was packed with stunning scenery...

As we hiked into Everest Base Camp I pretended I was a mountaineer on one of the great expeditions. I have to admit my time at Base Camp brought my imagination to life and I now hope to return someday as a climber...What do you think?

Bernd helped me hang some prayer flags in view of the mountains. I like to think of them there, flapping in the wind and sending my prayers up and away.

We spent two days in an almost dream-like state, hiking as close to the mountain as we could and then warming up beside the fire in the tent of a lovely Tibetan family.

We took a horse cart back to Rongbuk and I had to look twice to make sure this one wasn't actually munching on a soccer ball.

Riding home that evening, I was sad to be leaving the mountains and my new friends. I felt as if I were being torn away too soon from a place that held something special for me. I know that I will be back some day. As for Bernd and Florian, I couldn't have asked for better traveling companions. We grew close during our time together and I miss them now like old friends. Tashi delai, Bernd and Flo! Thank you!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Paryang, Tibet: We've been on the road for three nights now, headed for Mt. Kailash. Our biggest news is that we've christened our trusty Land Cruiser, Tenzing, which I think suits her perfectly. Otherwise, our trip is unfolding at the perfect rolling tempo of a summer road-trip. The six of us bounce along the dirt roads, thinking our own thoughts but all affected by the wildness and beauty of the passing scenery.

Yesterday, we made a stop in the dusty village of Sakya and were immediately surrounded by a pack of filthy but adorable kids begging for photos. (I'm shy about taking photos of people so this one is rare.) It's nice to be such a celebrity and everyone left happy.

We didn't make it far before Tenzing got the first of many flat tires. Nawang says she's a real lady: always needing new shoes. Luckily, Chi-me is a whiz at changing a tire and we were soon on our way again.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long until we had stopped again...

But, as a reward for our patience, Tenzing drove us to the bluest clearest lake and waited while we skipped rocks and basked in the sunshine.

The plateau is the most beautiful place that I've ever been. It's vast and wild and I'm constantly reminded that nature is in charge here and that people are only the guests.

Most of the time, the only sign of human life is found in the cairns and flags at the passes and in far-off grazing yaks.

Lhasa, Tibet: I'm writing now from Lhasa at the end of our journey. So many things have happened that it 's hard to know where to begin...

Our first major stop out side Lhasa was Mt. Kailash in the western province of Ngari. In addition to being one of the most stunning peaks I've ever seen, Kailash is the most sacred spot in the world for Bhuddism, Bon, Janism and Hinduism. Ever since the idea of travelling to Tibet was just a seed in my mind, I have wanted to visit this mountain and as the day drew nearer I found it hard to contain my excitement. Adding to my festive mood was the chance to see my two closest friends who had been cycling down the Xinxiang-Tibet highway. When I saw their tent at Chiu monastery, our renedez-vous point, I bolted towards it. They weren't inside but I heard heard shouts and turned to see them careening across the field at top speed. I started into an all-out sprint as well. In near-perfect joyful reunion style, we ran into each others arms only to fall, panting, to the ground after our high-altitude exertion. After we recovered and took the requisite goofy photos, we cooked up a delicious vegetable feast...Nothing in the world can compare to good friends.

The next morning we joined Bernd, Flo and Nawang (whose cheerful grins I'd missed, even for one night) and we set off on the two day pilgrimmage circuit around Mt. Kailash.

The path was packed with pilgrims leading loaded yaks, singing and praising the great mountain. I felt small beside the mountian's majesty and the people's faith but I also felt at home in that crazy and beautfiul wrold of pilgrims, prayer flags and mountains.

"Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere--in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that...leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight."

Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Lhasa, Tibet: Oh Tibet! The Land of Snows! The Roof of the World! The stuff of my dreams!! I can't believe I've finally arrived...

Lhasa is a big city: The main streets of the Barkhor are always bustling with hawkers, tourists, merchants and pilgrims. Tibetans of all ages sell their wares (prayer flags, jeweled daggers, vegetables, yak butter...) Tourists snap photos and adjust fanny packs while wizened nomads shuffle around the temple, prostrating, turning prayer wheels and chanting.

But amidst the bustle, (and always below it, as I'm beginning to recognize) is a peacefulness and sort of ancient calm that only a city so holy can embody. I like to stand in front of the Johkang Temple, smelling cedar and incense and yak butter lamps, letting throngs of pilgrims pass me in waves, and think about where these people have come from and where they are going. Today I thought I could feel the whole world turning around me.

But! Enough reverie in Lhasa: Tomorrow I set off on my adventure proper. I've signed on to a sixteen day journey that will take me first to the holiest and then to the highest mountains in the world, and in between, the best adventure Tibet has to offer.

After seemingly endless hassles with the Chinese government, I've decided the best way to travel is by private Land Cruiser. Yesterday, by a stroke of serendipity, I met two (charming) Austrian medical students who also want to travel to Mt. Kailash and Everest. Basan, our travel agent, is also charming, though his favorite phrase is "trust me" which usually has the opposite effect. We've only just met Chime and Nawang, our driver and guide, but, like most of the people I've met here, I liked them immediately. Our car is a bright blue Toyota whose odometer stopped at 400,000 km. I think the six of us will make a good team.

After just four days in Lhasa, I'm ready for the solitude of the plateau and the majesty of the mountains. Maybe my Shangrila waits for me there...

"I was lifted above a worlds of love, hate and storms of passion for I was clam amidst the eternal silences, bathing in the living blue. For peace rested on one bright day on the mountaintop."

Isabella Bird, "A Lady's Life in the Rockies"

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Shangrila, Yunnan: I've now begun teaching in earnest. ETLI offers classes to all ages and right now I'm teaching a primary class (ages 8-11) and an adult class (19-35). My students are lovely: bright and enthusiastic and a little bit feisty. Actually, I have the feeling my primary students could get a little too feisty if I let them. They all call me "Teacher" and as much as I've tried to discourage them, still stand and shout in unison, "Good-Morning Teach-er" at the beginning of class. (Some get confused and shout in Chinese.) Just since I've been teaching them, they've begun to loosen up a little and now they chatter and laugh as we do activities. Last class the overall effect was more like a happy circus than a class but we had a good time and they're learning really quickly. They're cute as buttons.

My adult class is great too. They know some basic English already so I hope by the end of the month we'll be conversing like good buddies. Here we are at our favorite Tibetan restaurant. Can you tell we've been drinking butter tea non-stop?

Last week we organized a party to boost enrollment for the summer session. Mostly, we played Pin the Tail on the Yak and ate lots of junk food and I think it was a big success!

Ann, Xioa yun and Liu, ETLI synchronized balloon team:

Musical chairs was a big hit.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Shangrila, Yunnan: I've spent the past week settling in to my new home and routine. I'm living at the Harmony Guesthouse, a pretty hostel in the Tibetan Old Town.

The ladder beside my door leads to the roof which has nice views of the surrounding mountains.

My roof perch also allows me to see into my neighbor's tiny courtyard which is home to a flock of chickens, six pigs, four Mastiff puppies and (usually) three dirty Tibetan children.

I've made some good friends here already and there's an amazing array of people that live here or are passing through. My friend Keith is a journalist and photographer writing a book on Yunnan it's people. Mari works for Australia Volunteers International (Australian equivalent of the Peace Corps), Loja translates Chinese radio into Tibetan, Jason and Amy own a cozy bar across the street and run a Tibetan tour company, Xiaoyun works in the office at ETLI and Anthony, Ann and Megan are all teachers at like me. That's lots of names, but already they are people that matter to me here!

Shangrila is bigger than I expected but the Old Town feels like a small town and everyone says hello. My new favorite spot is on the way to the white chicken monastery that gives great views of the whole town. (I've been spending whole days up there reading Steppenwolf and musing about the Immortals.)

"He has a suspicion of his allotted place in the world, a suspicion of the Immortals, a suspicion that he may meet himself face to face: and he is aware of the existence of that mirror in which he has such bitter need to look and from which he shrinks with such deathly fear."

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
Shangrila, Yunnan: I'm here at last! It's been raining non-stop since I arrived but my guesthouse (and the cozy bar across the street) keeps me warm with big woodstoves and an ample supply of yak-butter tea. The tea is a staple of the Tibetan diet and it's perfect for warming you up from the inside. It's made by mixing black tea with yak butter and milk in a long thin churn. The resulting tea is thick and creamy but salty. If you let it go too long, the butter will congeal on top. (That happened to me the first time I drank it and I ended up eating a bowl of butter so I wouldn't seem impolite!)

I've arrived yesterday just in time for start of the Horse Festival. Every June, after the planting time and before mushroom picking season, Zhongdian (Shangrila's original Chinese name) holds a three day festival of dancing, horse racing and general revelry. I found out today that there's also a snake lady tent, a dog show for Tibetan Mastiffs and plenty of wierd food on sticks. The fair grounds were filled with Tibetans in traditional dress (pink headresses and long aprons for the women; big capes and sabers for the men) and a stage in the middle showcased traditional dance. There were a few fanny-pack laden tourists, but the festival really seems like a local celebration.

My favorite part of the day was meeting a group of children from a nearby orphanage. They were sitting on the wall of the racetrack, cheering for one of their schoolmates who was pulling ahead in the race. They looked really happy perched there (rosy cheeked and muddy), and it reminded me that Shangrila is everywhere, for everyone.