Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Tibet: The Roof of the World
When we moved to Hong Kong, there were a lot of places that Troy and I wanted to visit. Of all the places, we never considered Tibet to be an option. It just seemed too remote and too cut off from the rest of the world. In reality, it is only a 4 hour flight from HK. When we found out the AWA was offering an 8 day trip there, we quickly signed up because we knew it was going to be our one and probably only opportunity to go. We were not too hot on the idea of group travel, considering a large percentage of the group would be women, but we decided that would be worth the price to pay to visit Tibet.
I have to warn you, this is going to be a long one since I have so much to write about.
Troy and I didn't have any idea what to expect when we arrived in Tibet. I did expect the land to be greener and to have a breathtaking beauty about it. Instead, it was quite barren. It's different from the dessert where the sand is endless or where there are at least cactus and Joshua trees. There was just dirt, rock and very little vegetation. Most people in our group compared it to the landscape of the moon. The yak and sheep that graze there have obviously adapted over the years to survive on such small amounts of vegetation. The only thing that kept it from being completely ugly were the surrounding mountains covered in snow.
I have never understood what the whole "Free Tibet" campaign was about, why Richard Gere was all worked up and why the Dalai Lama lived in India instead of Tibet. So I did a bit of research before we went to understand more about what was going on. If you are as clueless as I was about the entire situation, click here for a short history of how China came to occupy Tibet. I just have to say one thing right here, China is not very nice!
For more pictures you can click here.
A majority of our time was spent visiting Monastery's. By the last day of the trip, we were "monasteried out". The first day in Lhasa (capital of Tibet) was a relaxing day for most because everyone needed to get used to the 10,500' elevation. For those of you that live in high altitudes, it was hard for most of us to get used to because we had come directly from sea level. There was no gradual approach whatsoever. There were a few in our group that got completely wiped out by High Altitude Sickness. They described it as having the worst hangover imaginable but without the party the night before. That evening at dinner was our first experience with yak meat. It is actually very good. Troy and I split a yak burger and yak enchiladas. It was by far the best meal of the trip. For the most part the food on the trip was good, but it was a lot of Indian food and Nepalese and that got old very fast. We were also warned to stay away from lettuce and raw vegetables and tap water. So we ate a lot of meat, fried food and beer.
The morning of the second day in Lhasa was spent at the Potala Palace which was the home of the Dalai Lama before he fled to India in 1959. While other Tibetan monuments are more religiously important, the Potala Palace is the most long lasting symbol of Tibet. It rises almost 400' tall and houses over 10,000 shrines and 20,000 images. This palace was one of the very few places that was protected by the Chinese Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
While visiting the Potala Palace we were able to get a perfect sense of what Tibet and Tibetan Buddhists are all about. Everywhere you look are prayer wheels which have prayers or mantras inscribed on them. These are either hand held by people or are aligned in rows for people to spin while they pass by. The Tibetan's firmly believe in reincarnation. They believe that every rotation of a prayer wheel is the same as orally speaking the mantra, thus the religious practice will in return help them accumulate merits, replace negative effects with positive ones, and hence bring them good karma. The religious exercise is part of Tibetan life. People turn the wheel day and night while walking or resting, whenever their right hands are free while murmuring the same mantra. The wheel is always turned clockwise. I picked one up from a souvenir stall and started turning it counter-clockwise. I was immediately corrected with a bit of scolding from the sales girl.
You have probably seen the colored flags that cover the peak of Mt. Everest. These are prayer flags. These serve the same function as the prayer wheel. The Tibetans believe that when the wind blows, the prayer on the flag will be expressed. That is why they try to put the flags at the highest point possible so the wind is always blowing them.
That afternoon we went to the Jokhang Temple which is the most important temple in Tibet because it houses the Jowo Shakyamuni, Tibet's most revered image. Around this temple is where we saw people prostrating. This is where a standing person, first kneels, then lays their entire body down on the ground and stretches their arms over their heads while touching their forehead to the ground. They would do this over and over again. There were even a few people that would have a leather apron on because they would prostrate around the entire temple. They would prostrate, take 3 steps, then do this again. Their entire body was filthy and they even had a very dark smudge on their forehead where their head would touch the ground.
Prostration is the cleaning and purifying of all the negative karma of past lives or your present life, from your physical, mental and spiritual home, your body, speech and mind. In far Western Tibet is Mount Kailash which is the world’s most respected Holy place. After the difficult journey to the mountain, pilgrims would circumnavigate the mountain, taking on average 3 days to complete this. There are even pilgrims that prostrate the entire distance around the mountain. (I have to be mean here: what if there was no afterlife, no reincarnation? Then all the prayer wheel spinning and prostrating would be for nothing. It's almost like "Ha, jokes on you!")
Around Jokhang Temple are a lot of souvenir stands and great shopping. The people were very friendly and always smiling at you. Because the Dalai Lama is considered an enemy of China, his picture is not allowed anywhere and one can be prosecuted for having it. As we were walking around the Jokhang square an old Tibetan woman approached Troy, smiled at him and started talking to him. Amongst her rambling we could hear her say "Dalai Lama". She got very close to Troy and as she leaned into him she discretely pulls out a silver framed photo of the Dalai Lama that she had buried deep within the folds of her dress. She then gives Troy this smile that can only say "Those Chinese bastards can't keep the Dalai Lama from me!"
The following day we took a 2 hour bus ride to the Ganden Monastery. When the Chinese Red Guards recognized the symbolic importance of this place, it was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. It was later rebuilt in the 1990’s. This place was very cool. It was at an elevation of 13,500' and started snowing immediately upon our arrival. It is home to the Gelugpa order of monks. They wear these really cool yellow hats, but we were never able to see them with the hats on. I was very tempted to put one on and have Troy take my picture, but that one action would surely send me straight to hell. After walking around the steep hills of the monastery (which at 13,500' is not easy) we entered the main assembly hall to listen to the monks chant their morning prayers. Seeing them dressed in their red cloaks and watching them sway to their own chants, hearing them play the drums and listening to their hypnotic mantras was completely awesome. Its' almost indescribable. At the end of their prayer session we were able to have a short question and answer session with one of the senior monks. About 10 other monks surrounded our group while listening to our guide translate so they could hear what questions we were asking. They were so interested, they almost pushed a few of us out of the circle, so they could hear better. Yes, monks can be pushy.
The day after was a long 9 hour drive to a small town called Gyantze. It was 9 hours because we stopped so much for bathroom breaks and photo opportunities. Instead of taking a large tour bus, we piled into 9 Toyota Land Cruisers. The highest pass we went over was at an elevation of 16,000'. This was amazing because we were still surrounded by snow covered peaks that were higher then us. We also stopped at one of the 4 holy lakes in Tibet to have a picnic lunch. Tibetans don't fish from these lakes and don't even allow the Chinese to fish from it. It was on this drive that we saw the absolute barrenness of Tibet.
At Gyantze we visited another Monastery. I honestly can't remember anything about it so it must have not made that much of an impression on me. We then continued driving on 2 hours to Shigatze. On our way to this city, we stopped to visit a very poor farming family. We gave them 100 Yuan (US$12) as a donation to allow us to visit them. This was a lot of money to them. As a welcoming treat for us, they made us butter tea. The national drink (if there is such a thing) is yak butter tea but since they only had a cow and not a yak, we just had butter tea. Most Tibetans drink on average 40 cups of this a day and we were told they would rather die then go a day without drinking it. I had tasted yak butter tea the night before and I found that the cow butter tea was better (say that 3 times fast!) Yak tea is very salty and has a distinct cheese taste to it. It is definitely an acquired taste. The most interesting thing I learned here is all homes in Tibet have to display a picture of China President Hu Jintau. Can you imagine if every home in the US had to have a picture of Bush???? I don't think that would go over well at all! Although there would probably be a shortage of darts in sporting good stores!
Our last full day in Tibet was spent driving back to Lhasa, but luckily because of a different route back this only took about 4 hours. Before we arrived in Lhasa we stopped at a primary school to visit the children. Most of these children were orphaned or from very poor farming villages. The one thing that everyone noticed about all the children wherever we went was how dirty they all were. It was like they had no idea what soap and water were for. I think the cleanest people we saw were the monks and even they were dirty from prostrating. We stopped into a 3rd grade class and asked the students questions while they asked us some as well. As a donation, the AWA gave about US$100 in supplies to the school. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was huge for the school.
After arriving back in Lhasa we went to a monk debate. Several people didn't want to go claiming that they would not be able to understand a debate if it's in Tibetan and not English. I personally thought that was a lousy excuse to get out of it. Of course you're not going to understand it, but it could be a fascinating thing to watch. The "debate" was nothing like what we imagined. It was actually a very lively question and answer session. As we walked into the Monastery, we could hear in the distance a large group of people talking rather loudly and also what sounded like whips cracking or small firecrackers. This was the debate. The monks were arranged in groups of 2-8 people with one monk asking the question to the other monks. The whipcracks we were hearing were the harsh, quick clapping of their hands as they asked the question. "You, what are the 5 elements of Buddah?" CLAP "Wrong!" CLAP. It was a very entertaining thing to watch.
That evening before dinner we went back to the Jokhang Temple where we were to invited to a Puja which is a prayer ceremony that involves the daily devotion of offering food and drink and prayers to a deity. A senior monk gave everyone in our group a khata which is a traditional Tibetan prayer scarf that has been blessed followed by a cup of yak butter tea. All the while, around 60 monks are chanting their evening prayers and mantras. It was quite moving because it is not every day that someone gets blessed by a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
We have never been in such a spiritual place and it was hard to be there and not feel the depth of it. Hopefully one day China will come to their senses and let these people live how they want to.
A few facts about Tibet:
Monday, May 15, 2006
Where are all the whale sharks?
Donsol, Philippines: Whale shark capital of the world.
At the beginning of May I had heard from a fellow hiker and diver that between March and May the biggest congregation of whale sharks anywhere in the world appear in the waters off a tiny village in the Philippines. With the Philippines being so close to Hong Kong and nearing the end of the whale shark season I scrambled to put together a last minute weekend to Donsol.
If you are not familiar with whale sharks, they are the largest fish in the ocean (whales are mammals) and can be over 40' long and weigh up to 15 tons. They are highly protected by governments with a US$20,000 fine for touching one, nevermind how much trouble you would be in for catching one. They are incredibly docile and gentle. From what I had read about the whale shark season in Donsol, I had come to learn that there is a huge probability of seeing anywhere from 8-15 of them in a single day and being able to snorkel (no diving allowed) with them for as long as they stayed around which could be up to 45 minutes at each sighting. They come very close to the surface for the suns warmth so you are able to get within a few feet of them (but remember touching is a no no). Seeing one whale shark is quite rare but to see several is even more miraculous. These creatures are what diving stories are made of and what everyone hopes to see.
For those that are not too fond of the idea of being in the water with a 40' shark, they are completely harmless to humans. They are not like a hammerhead or a Great White. Even though they have over 300 teeth the largest thing they eat are tiny little shrimp. They are
filter feeders which means water is drawn into the humungous mouth and passed through the gill rakers. Whatever plankton or small fish are caught are swallowed. The worst thing that can happen to a person is getting whacked upside the head by the tail of this multi-ton fish.
Anyways...hopefully you have an understanding of why we wanted to do this so bad. But, we are sorry to say, it was a bust! A violent tropical storm had blown through the area on Thursday and for some reason caused the whale sharks to leave the area. Either the storm itself scared off the sharks or the storm blew the plankton to another region, causing the sharks to follow the food supply.
We arrived Saturday morning in Donsol but were not able to go out on the boat because the water was too rough and not ideal for spotting them. Sunday was better. But we spent 5 hours on the boat only to spot a small one (about 9' long) and to see it for about 4.5 seconds. The whole process of getting in the water was quite comical though. We thought the boat would stop and we would slide in the water and then swim around with the shark until it dove into deeper waters. Not so! Troy and I are half asleep when the next thing we know the boat crew is yelling at us to get our fins and mask on and get in the water. And no, the boat didn't stop. We just jumped straight in with our mask and fins half on and tried to keep up with our guide who was swimming as fast as he could after the shark. Because the shark was a juvenile, he was scared and fast, hence the 4.5 second encounter. We both had our cameras but they were useless. Troy did get a picture of a tail but that was about it. It was very disappointing considering we could have seen several whale sharks and had expected the encounter to last longer then it took for us to get our mask and fins on! By this time in the day the water was getting rough so our time was up. We wish we could say we took these pictures, but we didn't. We stole them from the internet. We just wanted to show you what we had the possibility of seeing. So instead, we'll show you a picture of the only wildlife that was slow enough for us to photograph: a lone water oxen.
It was a relaxing weekend though (for Troy anyways, I am on perma-relax mode). The hotel we stayed at was ran by a huge family who were incredibly nice. The owner dotted on us like we were her children. She has 26 grand children so I think it is very hard for her to not want to take care of people. It was just a little too much when we couldn't eat our dinner or breakfast alone. She felt bad that we had such a disappointing whale shark encounter so she sent us over to her daughters beach resort where they served us free food and beers.
We are hoping to see the whale sharks in Belize next March when we start our year trip around the world, so we're keeping our fingers crossed that one day we'll see them for a little longer then 4.5 seconds.