10/2015 - Himalayan Kingdoms Trip - Part 1
I am so lucky! 2015 was my (Candy) 60th birthday enabling me to choose our big trip this year. It took me about 1 nanosecond to zero in on Asia. I was able to find a "Himalayan Adventure" which took 3 places off my bucket list -Tibet, Nepal & Bhutan. Through Internet searches I found GeoEx, a travel company that specializes in those areas. GeoEx has won many travel awards and offered a trip that did not include a visit to Everest's base camp; I am so finished with ice & snow after having spent 55 years enduring NJ winters. In addition to those 3 places we also visited Beijing and Bangkok.
Needless to say, Kathy was a trooper, fully supporting my decision even though she was a bit uncomfortable with the trip; one reason being that we would be landing in one the the scariest airports in the world, more on that later. Here's Kathy for her write-up regarding the trip.
Our tour group consisted of 16 travelers from across the U.S., plus a very experienced trip leader (Masha). Two other couples (Helaine & Ros, Crystal & Susan) were friends we had previously traveled with to Vietnam & Cambodia. The entire group meshed well & became comfortable with one another quite quickly. In addition to Masha, in each location we had a local guide. In order to make this blog & the accompanying photos more digestible, we've broken it into 3 parts - Beijing & Tibet in this part, Nepal in Part 2, and Bhutan & Bangkok in Part 3.
The trip began in Beijing, China with a one-day tour before flying out to Tibet. We arrived an additional day early so we could also visit the Great Wall of China. We went to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, with its high forest cover & remarkable views (also less congested than the more popular Badaling section). This section was first built around 550 AD and then rebuilt to strengthen its defensive potential around 1368-1644 AD. It measures 23-26 feet high & 4-5 yards wide. We rode up to the Wall on ski chair lifts & (some of us) took the toboggans on the way down! On our return drive to Beijing we visited a small cloisonné "factory" & the 798 Arts District, an area of the city that used to be occupied by bomb-building factories & is now considered a center for Chinese art & culture. During the scheduled one-day tour, we visited the Temple of Heaven, upon whose lawns the Chinese people practice Tai-chi, dance and play mahjong & Pai gow (dominoes) & Chinese Chess. We enjoyed watching groups play Jianzi, where they keep a weighted shuttle cock in the air using every part of their body except their hands. We later took bicycle rickshaw rides & explored the hutongs (alleyways flanked by traditional courtyard houses) by foot. We were fortunate that the air quality was not horrible during our visit but the throngs of pushy, rude people made us eager to leave China. And did we mention there was no Facebook & very limited Internet access?
The flight from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet was challenging. The lack of communication in the airport & long lines & waits were frustrating. The flight was a bumpy one, prompting the flight attendant to announce upon our arrival "Thank you for surviving this flight." But we were now in Tibet! This was the highest place on Candy's bucket list - and we were there!
Our local Tibetan guide, Dawa, welcomed us with the traditional respectful greeting - by presenting each of us with a Kata (prayer scarf). This was the first of many such warm greetings throughout our trip. We drove through the countryside & into the fabled city of Lhasa (signifying "country of the gods"), where the Dalai Lamas once lived. Since we were now at about 11,500 feet we spent the remainder of the evening acclimating to the high altitude.
In order to better understand our experiences in Tibet, please allow us to provide some background regarding their relationship with China. In the 1950's China's People's Liberation Army occupied Tibet. The Chinese Communists claimed that Tibet had long been a part of China, but in truth, a complex relationship had existed for centuries between China's imperial rulers & Tibet's Dalai Lama (the most powerful leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual & secular leader of Tibet). Without any support from distracted foreign nations, the Dalai Lama capitulated to the Chinese, with the promise of autonomy & a limited role as leader of the Tibetan people. After China's brutal crackdown on ensuing resentment & rebellion, a big anti-Chinese uprising occurred in Lhasa in 1959 & the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India, where he remains to this day. The Chinese call this event the "cultural revolution". Enormous changes have occurred in the country since that time. Tibetan monks & nuns have led demonstrations against Chinese rule & the Communist Party has responded with a heavy hand, including martial law, forced resettlement, police stations inside of monasteries & "re-education" campaigns. Over 149 people, including monks & nuns, have resorted to the deeply un-Buddhist act of public suicide by lighting themselves on fire. Visit the link below if you'd like to learn more about this history. We felt the oppression wherever we went in Tibet. Our local guide shared a lot of information about the history, culture, faith & current state of the Tibetan people with us but was careful not to say too much that would endanger him or his family (his passport has already been taken away from him). We had a Chinese "escort" on our bus much of the time. In many of the holy places, there were Chinese armed guards posted on walls or marching in formation around the temples. They had machine guns, shields & fire extinguishers (in case anyone set him/herself on fire). The Chinese government is giving financial incentives to Chinese citizens to settle in Tibet & marry Tibetan people. There are already 15 Chinese to every 1 Tibetan in the Lhasa area. Effective way to wipe out a culture...
But we loved the Tibetan people & we got to see lots of pilgrims from the countryside who came into Lhasa for holy days. They were beautiful people with traditional garb & customs. Many women wore colorful striped aprons called pangden. The nomadic women from the westernmost regions wore their hair in long thin braids adorned with elaborate beading & jewelry. The people seemed deeply spiritual, many spinning hand-held prayer wheels in a constant clockwise direction in order to send air over the prayers inside the wheel & then out into the universe. They carried mala beads, strings of 108 prayer beads used for mantra, meditation & mindfulness.
We visited the holiest temple in Tibet, the Jokhang, which was built in 647 AD. It consists of 3 stories of chapels, with many images of the Buddha & copies of the 108 Buddhist scriptures that were originally translated from Hindi to Tibetan. No other place in Tibet attracts so many pilgrims. The Jokhang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site & is circled by the Barkhor, Lhasa's medieval bazaar. In addition to shopping in the many shops, we observed pilgrims circumambulating the temple. Some worshipers prostrated themselves in prayer in front of the temples, while others prostrate as they travel, taking 3 steps between each prostration. We visited & climbed the Potala Palace, Tibet's spiritual epicenter & another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 13-story structure held wonderful examples of Tibetan architecture & Buddhist teachings, in over 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines & 200,000 statues. The volume of burning offerings of incense & yak butter lamps became overpowering at times. The palace was completed in 1649 AD & was always the Dalai Lama's residence until 1959. The 3 Buddhist monasteries (Drepung, Sera & Ganden) we visited were amazing, though the number of monks has been drastically reduced by the Chinese government (Drepung Monastery used to house up to 10,000 monks & now has just 3,000). Since we were there at a holy time, the monasteries were being white-washed. This consisted of painters/monks throwing paint on the building & out the windows. Our advice is to never hire a Tibetan painter... We walked a "kora" (a type of pilgrimage around a sacred site) clockwise around the Ganden Monastery that was set high on a hill (14,400 feet altitude). It was supposed to be a meditative, mind-calming experience, but our proximity to the edge of the mountain made it less than so for some of us... At that same monastery we overlooked a sky burial site - rather than burying or cremating the dead Tibetans often perform sky burials, in which the corpse is prepared, then left for the vultures to eat. This practice disposes of the remains in as generous a manner as possible. We also got to observe the traditional way of young monks studying - a very theatrical debate in the open courtyard at Sera Monastery. The standing monk asks a theological question to the sitting monk. As he shouts the question, he slaps & slides his top hand over his bottom one. The courtyard fills with shouting, clapping, debating & laughing. Lastly, we were fortunate to be able to make a stop at a Buddhist nunnery (Ani Tsankhung) as well, where they ran a tea shop & children's clinic, & printed religious texts for prayer wheels.
Tibet was Candy's favorite place on the trip; she was charmed by the Tibetan people & touched by their plight.
Here is a link to the NY Times article mentioned earlier regarding the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) and the future of his office and the Tibetan people.