Saturday, June 16, 2007

seven days in tibet

I just returned from a week-long vacation in Lhasa, Tibet (China) with a few friends, where I enjoyed a view of a distant part of the world. Lhasa is home to about 255,000 inhabitants and, at an altitude of approximately 11,975 ft, is one of the highest cities in the world. The city is located in a valley among a cluster of mountains, some of which rise to 18,000 feet. Throughout the hour drive to Lhasa from the airport, through villages and mountain passes on a narrow two-lane road, as we passed tractors, livestock, and wobbly rickshaws, it became apparent to me that I was seeing one of the most foreign, far-from-Western-culture places I’d ever journeyed to. In a sense, I felt that I was on the edge of civilization, stepping back in time several hundred years.

Aside from these initial impressions, I was startled at the colorfulness of the city: against a backdrop of barren, desert mountains, there sat a bright array of short buildings, homes and shops, outlined in paint of all shades and designs; storefronts filled with mounds of fruit, vegetables, raw meat, clothing and jewelry; streets packed with people wearing hats of all shapes and sizes, also wearing chubas, (long, woolen robes), covered with aprons made of vibrant strips of cloth that covered the outside of their otherwise drab outfits. The city, marketplaces, and temples were brimming with faithful Tibetan Buddhists, marching clockwise circles around holy areas, chanting, praying, and swinging their prayer wheels over their heads. I sensed a deep feeling of darkness (despite clear air and sunny skies) which was exacerbated as we watched beggars sitting on the sidewalks or tugging at the hems of our clothing. Other less-poverty-stricken individuals gathered to prostrate themselves outside the temple, giving money to the beggars, and teaching their children to bow and pray to the deities therein. A multitude of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns—wearing their deep-burgundy, floor-length robes tied with strips of rope, and an occasional hat to cover their bald heads—swarmed the city at all hours of the day and night.

On one particular day, my friends and I left early in the morning and took a long bus ride to a village outside Lhasa, down narrow country roads, passing small adobe-laden villages, by mud-brick homes, stopping occasionally to pick up or drop off a passenger. Traveling in a vehicle of any kind is always an adventure in Mainland China, and even more so here in Tibet. The roads are usually two-lane, and one might encounter any sort of moving object at any time: tractors, rickshaws, pedicabs, taxis, cars, tour buses, semi-trucks, pedestrians, small children, military humvee convoys, sheep, goats, yak, old men pushing carts full of merchandise, bicycles laden with saddlebags or pulling small trailers, etc. More than once, we had to stop while a shepherd cajoled a herd of scraggly sheep across the highway. Lanes are nothing more than a suggestion, and passing is allowable at all times, including on hairpin turns high up in the mountains. Brakes don’t seem to be a necessary car part, whereas the horn is relied on exclusively. If any driving laws existed, they were certainly not enforced. The survival of the fittest—or I’m bigger than you so you’ll have to move over even if I’m coming head-on in your lane law—seemed to reign supreme. One giant game of chicken played by adults with more guts than a drunken teenager.

Despite the fear of a head-on crash, I was almost lulled to sleep by the warm air in my face from the open windows and the oddly soothing Tibetan disco music playing on the bus radio. After arriving in the village of our destination, we headed to a local school and entered an English classroom, which was nothing more than a dirt floor, surrounded by crumbling ceiling and walls with a few broken-glass windows. The door was closed with a piece of wire, and a fine layer of dust and dirt settled on every surface, including our heads. The desks and chairs were a rag-tag collection of mismatched wooden and metal structures that might be found in a dump outside an inner-city school in the States. Some children wore old, worn and dirty, yet colorful, mismatched uniforms that may or may not have been the right size. Runny noses and rattling coughs abounded, and yet shy smiles littered the rooms as we introduced ourselves and began reviewing simple English words. They had limited vocabulary, and even more limited conversation skills, so we started with the basics. In looking at their English “textbook”—a paperback booklet with a few pictures and phrases—I discovered the words to the “Hokey Pokey.” The kids eagerly joined in the actions and tried to copy the singing, while I huffed and puffed my way through each verse. (Even after several days, the altitude still got to me!)

The following morning, we finally made our way to the number-one tourist destination of this region: the Potala, the main palace of the Dalai Lama, which is now a museum. This unbelievably large, burgundy and white, castle-looking structure, perched upon a hill on the side of town provided hours of sightseeing diversion. The inside was full of various idols, carved from wood and stone, bearing faces of deformed humans, dragons, and other animals, some with multiple eyes or other unique body parts. All were brightly painted, shrouded in darkness or hidden behind walls and curtains, with mounds of paper money collected around their bases. Outside the temple, the doorways, ceilings and eaves were ornamented in brightly painted wooden carvings, colorful designs, vivid fabric curtains and various religious symbols. Again and again I was struck by the vibrant gaudiness that covered every building and religious sight in this city. Through this palace tour I came to understand a bit more about the history of this city/nation/people and the ramifications for the future which are brought on by the turbulent past and deeply ingrained cultural heritage. Upon realization of this situation, I saw through new eyes the clash of modern Chinese influence and centuries-old Tibetan customs apparent in every way of life throughout the city of Lhasa.

All in all, this trip was an eye-opening experience, and a wake-up call to the darkness and spiritual despair so prevalent in Asia. I was reminded of how religion is often so deeply entrenched in culture: to be Tibetan is to be Buddhist. As this area of the world is opened more and more to Western thought (through increased tourism, technology and improved transportation systems), perhaps doors will open wider for the gospel to enter and take root. Indeed, it will be interesting to watch history unfold in this nation.