“There is a Tibetan saying: ”The more you travel, the more you see and hear.’ At a time when many people are not clear about what is actually happening in Tibet, I am very keen to encourage whoever has the interest to go there and see for themselves. Their presence will not only instill a sense of reassurance in the Tibetan people, but will also exercise a restraining influence on the Chinese authorities. What’s more, I am confident that once they return home they will be able to report openly on what they have seen and heard.” -H.H. Dalai Lama
Auspiciously on March 10th we booked our tour to Tibet. This happened to be the anniversary of the 1959 uprising. We saw a marked difference that day in Nepal with extra police force in the streets armed with riot gear. It was a bit unnerving. We wouldn’t actually leave for Tibet for over a month but it was a warning of what was to come. We started our journey to Everest Base camp by driving through lunar-like landscape in the world’s highest plateau. I grew up hearing stories about climbing Everest and it was a bit surreal standing there and trying to absorb her greatness. After our time trekking in Nepal I have a greater appreciation for this massive undertaking, if only understanding what challenges the altitude and cold must present. I happened to be reading Into Thin Air (I know I’m about two decades late jumping on that bandwagon) and couldn’t help but imagine all the triumphs and tragedy. Only days earlier 16 sherpas were killed in an avalanche as they were readying the high camps. It definitely has a certain magnetism for the adventurous and crazy alike. We’ve all heard about the conflict between Tibet and China, if only seeing the Free Tibet stickers. So we did not decide to visit lightly and gave considerable thought before going. We heard that Tibetans were having an especially tough time at the moment and the reality of this trip was quite shocking. Monks were protesting the only way they could, by lighting themselves on fire. This was controlled by punishing the already empty monasteries and their families. As a tourist you felt the tension and you saw fire extinguishers everywhere. Our permits were checked multiple times a day at checkpoints, and we’d have to wait outside town for our designated time to enter the city. We were also on a tour, something we’ve never done before, and our only access to visit this fine country. Our guide Bai Dom gave little information and occasionally away from cameras and microphones (the car was even bugged) she gave us little tidbits of information about the Dalai Lama and the difficulties they endure, such as not being issued passports. (She dreamed of going to India or Nepal.) Not wanting to get her in trouble we didn’t ask our questions and resigned ourselves to our fate. We didn’t want her to be “finished” as she eloquently put it. I tried to use these weeks as an opportunity to experience what it must feel like (which I can’t begin to imagine) losing your freedom of speech and all those “rights” us Westerners hold so dearly and so righteously.
All that being said, we were still struck not only by the beauty of the landscape on the “roof of the world” but there was still the hum of a strong spirit and perseverance. The monasteries may be mostly empty but the dharma remains strong in the country. You see it on the street in the form of hundreds of pilgrims circumambulating the monasteries and twirling prayer wheels. Prayer beads are more often found in hand than a wallet or purse. These people are devout and humble and compassionate.
While our interactions were severely inhibited by the government, every experience we had was so positive with the Tibetans we met (whether in Nepal or Tibet). A new friend Tsering gave us good luck amulets as we set out on our journey, which we wore every day. This exemplifies the kindness of character we encountered. This also gave me great ammunition for teasing, as Ezra started wearing four amulets at once. Did he need so much protection? But then he started pointing out my clothes were from a “free box” and my “wife beater” was pilling. Was I really one to talk about being stylish? Touché.
Bai Dom explained that to make a Buddha statue holy you must take it to a monastery to be blessed and filled with holy objects. We bought a statue and she took us back to the Jokhang (the most important pilgrimage site in Tibet) where the monks agreed to fit us in. Sometimes the wait is weeks. They seemed amused and walked by watching and smiling as we prepared our Buddha by beating out all the plaster inside. The next day we returned to collect our “true Buddha,” blessed and now our daily reminder to work towards being more compassionate. I carried him off in proud arms – aware that my pride is something to work on.
This was a difficult trip for a number of reasons. We did not go thinking it would have the same spiritual heart as years past, but I was troubled at times as to whether we should have gone at all. I feel it would be disingenuous to say it was awe-inspiring without mentioning the turmoil, as it would also be untrue to say it was all negative without pointing to the beauty. As Ezra put it, “there was such a pervasive dichotomy between spirit and oppression, hope and sadness, faith and sterility, storied culture and cultural revolution. In spite of myself a strong sense of melancholy and sardonicism pervaded the trip for me, as we saw (and read between the lines) the oppression the Tibetans have experienced and continue to experience. It may sound hackneyed, but freedom in all its forms is something you take for granted until you visit a place like this. Maybe Tibetans are blessed to have such strong faith in a religion that teaches non-violence, believes right and wrong actions don’t go unnoticed, and feels that this life is ultimately only a stepping stone to the next.”