I came back from my trip to Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand last week. Being in awe for three weeks during the trip, it is hard to come back to the routine of everyday life in Los Angeles. I got used to being a tourist: kept wondering where I would get my next meal in a city I had never been in before and in a country where people don’t speak English; wondering if my next hotel room will have hot water, or how much I will suffer from the altitude sickness, or how many wonders I will see that day.
The trip had many highlights.
I was in Nepal when the Maoists called a national general strike and I had to travel across country to the border with Tibet during that event. I had to pass through protesters’ many ad-hoc Maoists check points where non-governmental Maoists were making the decision whether to let my group pass or not. Luckily they did let us pass but later on I found out that there were some incidents where the tourists got beaten. The tourists were disrespectful, the rumors went, and failed to stop at a check point.
Near the end of my trip, I was in Bangkok during the bloodiest uprising in the contemporary history of Thailand.
I walked on the streets of Lhasa avoiding at all costs looking suspicious to the Chinese soldiers in full riot gear stationed at many corners of the Tibetan section while the Tibetans were going about their business buying yak butter and vegetables, conducting business and sipping cups of yak butter tea in the tea houses.
I had a private audience with His Holiness Demjom Tenzin Yeshey Dorjee, a highly revered Rimpoche of Bhutan and talked about the shape of Buddhism in the West and how Buddhist ideas are merging with the industrialized world in a complementary rather than adversarial way and the role of spirituality in a technologically evolving world. His Holiness, open minded and visionary, believes that “compassion is the way to connect with one another and with the entire world in a meaningful way and the best way out of suffering.”
I went over mountain passes of over 16,500 feet altitude on my overland drive from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet, on the Friendship Highway, touching or gazing at the tallest mountains in the world in complete wonder while my lungs were desperately expanding to their maximum capacity in the thin air.
I was fortunate that the clouds cleared when I flew China Air over Mount Everest (8848 m) and K2 and was able to see firsthand the tallest mountains in the world.
In Tibet there are many powerful rivers, turquoise lakes at 14,000 feet altitude and patches of barley farms.
Our hotel in Lhasa--The Lhasa Yak Hotel, owned and run entirely by Tibetans--was in the Tibetan section of Lhasa, five minutes from the Jokhang Temple.
The snowy peaks you see above the clouds are the Himalayan range of mountains with Everest among them. But there are others. Seventeen of the tallest mountains in the world are there as well.
Potala Palace--the former monastic spiritual and administrative heart of Tibet before the Chinese took over in the 1950's, the winter residence for Dalai Lamas. Now it is a museum. All the rooms are empty of staff conducting business and of monks chanting and praying. There are only a few monks allowed to remain at Potala. They are considered not monks but "caretakers" of the place. They are also not allowed to wear the monk's traditional red robes but ugly, dark blue, knee long trench coats. Nevertheless, they still quietly chant while cleaning the windows or shining the silver bowls; and they bless, with a smile, the tourists peering at them in the shadows of the sacred chapels and corridors.
Completely dominated by the powerful landscape surrounding it, Lhasa has suffered a radical transformation. Outside the Tibetan sections, it has become a rapidly expanding complex of glass and cement--the vision of a "modern" city in the Chinese leaders' minds, who are erasing the Tibetan culture, tradition and unique architecture from the city.
The Potala Palace, as we are getting ready to climb the monumental staircases to go inside. Only a small portion of the rooms are open to visitors. The most moving for me was the section where the current Dalai Lama, the 14th, lived as a child and teenager. They are unpretentious and cozy. We saw his throne hall, his meditation room, the room where he was studying or giving private audiences. It seemed that everything was awaiting his return. In his "day room" we saw the clock he liked to take apart and put back together. He was and remains intensely interested in technology and science.
The Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, in Norbulinga Park. It is a complex of summer residences of Dalai Lamas. It has a pond with swans and a large library. In this picture you can see the palace built by the 14th (present) Dalai Lama in 1959. This is the place from where he fled Tibet in the same year, under artillery fire from the Chinese, who were suppressing a large Tibetan uprising by shooting them at point blank range even as they sought refuge in the temples. To this day, the Dalai Lama has never been allowed to return. He only enjoyed his new palace for a few troubled months.
You can see in this picture Everest (left) and K2 (right), surrounded by the tallest peaks in the world, and a glimpse of the valleys below.
There is much to say. The list goes on. It will take me a long time to process what I have seen and experienced.