Saturday, May 31, 2014

What I'm Into Lately

It is busy season. Lots of things have been taking up time. Here are ten of the more prominent items:

1) eating this Xinjiang food

here at this Xinjiang restaurant, which has been fast replacing the fabled Green Place in my heart as "Best Restaurant in Beijing" after The Green Place sold out to the man and the power of the yuan.

2) BWYA Spirit Week. Yes, there were five dress up days (I forgot Monday, sadly): Wild Wild West Day (in honor of Will Smith and Kevin Kline), Twins Day (in honor of Brian Dozier and his eleven homeruns and Phil Hughes, who has five wins and fifty K's), Crazy Hair Day (in honor of Mike Moravec's 2006 mullet), and Animal Day (in honor of Simon), respectively.

3) studying Chinese. I like it and don't really have enough time for it. And I still suck pretty bad at the ol' game.

4) yogurt (blueberry) and muesli (overpriced). It is delicious.

5) this man who until recently was living on my couch. We didn't really hang out, but.

6) a bike I recently purchased via Craigslist. It has a basket and a really awesome chain so that it doesn't get stolen from me.

7) May Fair, an annual event put on by my school that featured a Walk-a-Thon, lots of different booths and games to raise money for charity, and an inappropriate drama performance by the teachers of BWYA.

8) the impending Community and Service deadline. For students. At BWYA. Their reflections on Managebac about what volunteering activities they've done flood my inbox and my brain. Thank God for Jeong Ok Kim and David Haysom.

9) Tons of good people leaving. Which means good-byes and good-bye parties. They've begun and won't end until the end of June. The good folk leavin' include Dan (small group member/travel companion/stud), Alberto (dance 'n' video master), Gaspar (Spanish explorer at my school), Aurelie (cool French lady from my school), Dawna (a pirate from Bethel), Angela (cool Minnesotan from Dawner's school), Andrea (cool Packers fan from Dawner's school), Peter (church gangster), Colbye (church gangster), and Jason (Tibet crony, pictured below with me at a KTV good-bye rally). Among others. I am sure I am forgetting people.

10) this lady, who I have been hanging out with a lot.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Seven Days in Tibet

So there we were, standing under and much closer to the warm sun outside Lhasa's Gong Ga International Airport, mid afternoon on Saturday, April 26. A dude carrying a sign with my name on it greeted us, heaved some traditional white scarves 'round our necks, and directed us four wayfarers into a big white van, the kind they tell you to stay out of when you're a kid. We were off.

Tibet is China's second-hugest province, at 1,200,000 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles), though it only has a lowly three million inhabitants. That shakes out to a population density of two people per square kilometer. The province is in southwest China, as can be seen below. Its largest city and capital is Lhasa. Tibet is the the highest land area in the world; its average altitude is 4,572 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level; Mount Everest lies on its border with Nepal. Lots of mountains, lakes, and rivers dominate the province. China annexed Tibet in 1951 and officially made it a province in 1965. It doesn't feel particularly Chinese, though. Or maybe we wouldn't have gone.

The big white dirty van took the four of us - Dan, a convicted science teacher; Jason, who was friends with members of the band Dead Poetic; Alberto, a Spanish-Nepali oboe player; and myself, who'd received Siouxland Conference All-Conference Honorable Mention in baseball my senior year of high school - to the Lhasa Yak Hotel in - you guessed it - Lhasa, the capital and biggest city in Lhasa, with 450,000 people, seventy-five kilometers from the airport. The Yak Hotel was conveniently located near Lhasa's Old Town area, where Tibetan culture thrived among the encroaching Chinese populace.

So, after recovering from an exhausting three-flight climb up the stairs, the four of us - duh - scampered around this Old Town place, eager to see what there was to see. What was there to see? People looking at us, colorful prayer flags everywhere, mountains in the background, other tourists, brief looks of discomfort on my face as my loose, gassy digestive system threatened to betray me at any moment. Stuff that characterized the next six days, basically.

We ate and told bathroom anecdotes and walked on down to the Potala Palace, which is probably the most recognizable structure in the province. I bought some sunglasses. The city was pretty. We saw a dog throw up and then re-eat its former stomach content. We had arrived; the trip had begun.

The next morning, honking crazily, our driver brought our tour guide and us to the number one most popular attraction in Lhasa: the Potala Palace. The fifth Dalai Lama began construction on this beast in 1645. Since then, all the Dalai Lamas have lived here, at least if they've stayed in Tibet. The place is divided up into the White Palace - where the Dalai Lama and his homies lived - and the Red Palace - which was used only for Buddhist practices. Somehow it avoided destruction during the Cultural Revolution, although we were told it was knocked down, damaged, reconstructed, or fixed up a few other times at different times in the past couple hundred years. And then, now, here, in April of 2014, we stepped inside.

The climb up the stairs was interesting, scenic, and - as almost ascent up anything of any height would prove - tiring, but eventually we reached the upper regions of the palace, where pictures were not allowed but where all manner of Tibetan Buddhism regalia could be found, as well as almost any information you'd want to know about the fifth through the fourteenth Dalai Lamas.

If you didn't know (I did not), Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is the human incarnation of the Buddha. I don't know how the first Dalai Lama came about, but Buddhists believe that as soon as one Dalai Lama dies, he is reincarnated immediately into a human body somewhere else, in a child that is born. The selection of finding the next Dalai Lama is a rigorous one; there is a council and many candidates and several different sorts of tests. The one that stuck out to me was when a Dalai Lama candidate was shown some items and had to choose which ones belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, to prove himself.

All this and more we learned from our noble guide during our tour of the palace. Eventually we exited out the rear of the structure and stumbled out into daylight, full of new information.

Next stop: Jokhang Temple, which we'd scampered past the previous evening. "Jokhang" means "house of the Buddha." It is for many Tibetan Buddhists the most important religious center in the province. The temple was constructed in the seventh century; much of it has had to be restored or renovated at times throughout history, but there was one pillar still standing in one corner of the temple that was an original one. So we of course carved our names in it. The building's interior was dark and similar to the Potala Palace's, but the exterior was colorful and beautiful.

The main things I pulled away from here was what happened to the Jokhang Temple during the Culture Revolution (looting, burning, desecration, etc.) and the smell of the yak butter in which thousands of candles burned inside, which will follow me forever.

Left to our own devices the rest of the day, the four less-than-mature professional educators explored everywhere, leaving a path of giggling children, photographed things, and female tourists whose contact information had been violently taken from them. The evening wrapped up predictably: with a yak burger.

The next morning, honking incessantly, our driver brought us to Lhasa's Norbulingkia, the summer residence of the Dalai Llama (the Potala Palace is the winter palace). 'Twas built in or around 1755 by the seventh Dalai Lama, supposedly as a place where he could hang out and sort out his recurring health problems. It was an okay site to view; the most interesting part was a building (pictured below; interior photos banned) that had a European interior, I think designed in part by Henry Harrer for the 14th Dalai Lama. I think. It was okay.

Also okay was the Sera Monastery. 'Tis one of the biggest and most important monasteries in Tibet, although now the monks there number only about three hundred, due to political unrest and the like. There wasn't too much in this place except for some crazy sand mandalas and these debates that the monks were having. The debates seemed to be a major focus of attention at this particular locale. Every afternoon, there they'd go, debating each other and clapping and exchanging ideas and sharpening their wits and brains. And everyone would come to watch. They didn't seem to care.

The next morning, honking wildly, our driver took us...out of Lhasa. Anyone worth their weight in yakpies know that the lure of Tibet  does not lie in its biggest city, although it's worth spending a day or two there. No, the most amazing part of Xizang is out out out in the towering mountains. And that is where we were stinking excited about going, excited enough that even Jason, who'd been sick the night before - knocking on death's door, even! - joined us and the oft-mentioned driver honker dude as we sped up through the hills toward Yamdrok Lake.

Before they made me sign up for this trip, I knew hardly anything about Tibet, but one element of the culture that had come onto my radar had been the prayer flags. They look so colorful, blowing in the wind, and so mysterious, covered in this dark-looking script that is so foreign to my eyes. Our esteemed guide told us that there were generally five colors of prayer flags that represented the five parts of the world: blue (sky), white (cloud), yellow (earth), red (fire), and green (water)(I know, I know, I also would have switched water and sky, somehow). The wind blows the flags, the prayers go up to heaven. So, Tibetan Buddhists put them on any place where the wind could possibly, at some point, gust. Namely, any high place. Like the tops of mountains. And buildings, electrical line towers, and Jason's head (the dude's tall).

So, as we drove further into the mountains, we were surrounded by the combination of these two super cool things: prayer flags and mountains. I loved it, and they were everywhere.

We also stopped at a nunnery. It was a short visit, but it was super cool. Our group showed up and listened to some Buddhists nuns praying and chanting for half and hour. Very calming. Liked it a lot. Except for the yak butter tea.

After a while our entourage descended from the heights down to Lake Yamdrok, which is forty-five miles long and reminded me incredibly of Lake Hawea in New Zealand, as far as color and beauty. Finally, Alberto and Dan and I rid ourselves of the van and spent an hour just walking alongside this awesome body of water.

Which was sweet. Which was sweet. But I wasn't really satisfied with this mere walk. We'd chosen the particular tour that we'd chosen because it had included two days of trekking, and a night camping in a tent in the high-altitude wilderness somewhere. But, instead, this hour, although nice, was the only time built into our tour during which we got to get ourselves into Tibet's natural environment. No day-long hiking. No camping. No pooping with the fear of an animal attacking you at any time. Bummer.

By the time we reached our destination for the evening - Gyantse - our driver had reached lightspeed despite the fact that the road conditions and straightness had deteriorated quite a bit, and the altitude (4000 meters above sea level) was making all four of us foreigners achy and crabby. So for supper we killed the driver and drank his blood.

No! No. Ha. Ha. It's a joke. What we did do, after supper at some local restaurant, to make ourselves feel better, was watch "Seven Years in Tibet," a great 1997 film starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis. It was a great review of all the places we'd just been immersed in. Just please don't tell any government officials...


The next morning, honking...well, not that much at first (perhaps the tour guide had had a word with him) but beeping increasingly as the day progressed, our driver brought us to the Samding Monastery, which was less about the Dalai Lamas and more about the Panchen Lamas (dudes who were still important in Buddhism but not, like, the pinnacle of the religion, like the Dalai Lama was). Cool place, fairly chill, home to a massive twenty-six-meter-high bronze Buddha as well as a stupa that had been made with 187 pounds of gold. Cool.

But that was it for the day, and it was nary 2:00 p.m. in Tibet's second-biggest town - Shigatse, population 40,000ish. What were we supposed to do with our afternoon? We struck out to explore, meandering down boring streets that we'd seen many times in many places until we stumbled upon a fort built way up on a hill.

And a bigger hill up above that...which we climbed. Up and up, through the tin, nearly oxygenless air, Alberto, Dan, and I clambered past sheep and prayer flags and broken dreams.

This was maybe the highlight of the trip, at least for me. We were all super glad to be able to make our own fun instead of hotel downtime; this was what I had been hoping naively for on the trip to Tibet: climbing stuff. Boo-yah.


The climb was an easy highlight for the day, but the evening had noteworthy events of its own, including a) getting stalked at a small market by little kids begging b) Alberto chasing waitresses with his butt in some vacant but nicely-decorated restaurant c) dancing on the street with some old people. Count it.

The next morning, honking maniacally, the driver maneuvered us through many a mountain pass and many a rushing river back six hours from Shigatse to Lhasa. Not many if's, and's, or but's. We got back and didn't really know what to do. So we walked to this square across the street from the Potala Palace, where a monument to the annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China lay.

The so-called "peaceful liberation" and the annexation of Tibet by China had been this underlying subject that everyone in our group was keenly aware of and very interested in. Basically, China had at various points controlled the Tibetan region prior to the 1900's. Then Britain stepped in somehow - there is essentially no evidence of their presence there now, which is fine - and tried to conquer the ol' place, but failed. In the first half of the twentieth century, Tibet had independence of a kind, but their government didn't really have much contact with any other countries, and the country was very much not modern. In 1949, suddenly, amid rising tension, all Chinese nationals were removed from Tibet. In 1950, during and after government talks between China and Tibet, the Chinese "Peaceful Liberation Army" entered Tibet, and defeated Tibetan forces at Qamdo, a town that was geographically decisive as far as transport and movement into Tibet. At this point, Tibet sort of seemed to give up on physically resisting China's invasion - the religion there, which dominates Tibetan life, doesn't really make Tibetans inclined to fight, I would imagine - and in 1951 Tibet signed itself over to China via some document that it didn't really have a choice in signing. That was that. Different resistance movements broke out in the late 1950's, and eventually the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, and then the Cultural Revolution came and smashed everything up - hundreds of monasteries destroyed, six thousand or so monks killed, etc., and so things stand now: not super comfortable, with somewhat tight government control and the occasional violent outbreak, as happened in 2008.

We knew about these events, more or less, before coming; probably that is a bit of the intrigue, since Tibet is somewhat restricted to outsiders by the government because of its history and circumstances. We were all quite eager to talk to our tour guide about what he thought of his land's past and present, but he was definitely not free to speak on the matter.

So we all walked around thinking, "Tibet's culture seems so cool! China's culture and power doesn't belong here! Why did China come and mess everything up?" But then after thinking about it for not very long, I remembered that that was how my own country had started, by taking land and destroying native culture, and that many, many nations throughout history had done the same thing and are founded on the ashes of others. So I decided that, while none of these things are right, I'd better just shut up.

But then suddenly I found that I could not be shut up, because we went to KTV for four and a half hours and sang every cool song that's every been written (except "The Seventh Trumpet").

And then, the next day, the driver, honking insanely, took us to the airport, and we flew back to Beijing.

So, decent trip. I spent a lot of time thinking about:

1. The controversial history of Tibet.

2. The mystique of the culture there.

3. My own Christian faith, as it was - at least inside of me - juxtaposed with Tibetan Buddhism and an extremely religious culture all week.

4. How cool the dudes I was with were.

5. How cool mountains and outside stuff is.

6. Your mom.

7. Other, non-Tibetan life issues.

8. Whether the tour was "good enough" or not.

9. The altitude affecting all our healths.

10. God.

Because there was a lot of time to just sit and look out the window or over all we'd climbed, and to just think.

The week before this one had been go go go, action action action, with not very much time to reflect and think. This trip had had a lot of that, and it was good. Real good.