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Tibet - April 2005
Photo Album (short verison)
Photo Album (8-10 minute slide show/photo journal)

Tashi Dele!

What an amazing trip. A month in Tibet was a dream come true for me. Unique to anywhere else I've traveled, I was impressed by how immersed the religious beliefs and practices are throughout Tibet and in each person's day. The art and culture are rich and colorful, and the people so welcoming, generous and sincere. It was sad, however, to gain a clearer understanding about what happened during the Cultural Revolution and to see how much the Chinese have destroyed and taken away from the Tibetan people, their history and culture - and how they continue to do so.

As I reflect on this trip, I think of it in two parts - my experiences in and around Lhasa where I visited many old villages, nomad regions, historical sites and monasteries, and learned a great deal about the Tibetan people and their history, culture and art. The other part was my incredible four wheel drive adventure and multi-day journey each way to Western Tibet to do a pilgrimage around Mt. Kailash, the holiest mountain in Asia. It was a perfect experience for me at this particular point in my life, and it was so fascinating to talk with other pilgrims about their reasons for doing this "kora" and their beliefs about it. All of these experiences made this trip very rewarding.

Top 10 Highlights
1. Rich colors everywhere - the thangkas, clothing, paintings on monastery walls, city streets, and fabrics that cover mud walls and ceilings.
2. Walking through the Barkhor in Lhasa - Tibet's most interesting pilgrimage circuit on the streets surrounding the Jokhang Temple (the spiritual heart of Tibet) - also a huge bustling market.
3. The deep red monastery assembly halls where you can feel the intense, but calming energy.
4. Discovering, by accident, a small monastery after hiking for hours in the hills, and being handed a bell and invited to participate during a chanting session.
5. Spending an afternoon meditating with a monk in his meditation cave high up in the hills.
6. The Gyantse Kumbum - a large stupa - perhaps the only one you can walk through that is beautiful from the outside and fascinating inside, and packed with exquisite Tibetan art.
7. Dinners with thangka shop owner, Nima, his brother, and their friends in Lhasa - great food and truly fascinating conversations.
8. The thangkas - beautiful, intricate Tibetan scroll paintings that usually depict a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala.
9. Discovering that a person holding his or her palm up and moving it up and down is not asking for money, but rather offering a greeting of respect.
10. Being brought hot water in a thermos, cold water in a kettle and a basin for washing after not being about to wash for days - and even better - being able to take a shower after nearly two weeks without!

Lowlights
1. Seeing and experiencing how much destruction happened during the Cultural Revolution.
2. Intense wind and dust storms in the afternoons (I guess this is common Feb - Apr).
3. Driving six to eight hours each day for many days in a row, on washboard dirt roads worse than you could ever imagine, to get to Western Tibet.
4. No shower, heat or electricity in many places in Western Tibet (about 12 days of my travel).
5. Needing to use the toilet (a hole in the ground outside) in the middle of the night when it is dark, windy, and below freezing.
6. The dull throb of altitude headaches - I was traveling between 14,500 and 18,500 feet.

Sights and Sounds…
Prayer flags gently flutter in the breeze... green, blue, red, yellow, white.
Strung across mountains and pointing to the sky from rooftops of every home.
Deep crackling horns and the rumbling of drums seep out of monasteries,
Accompanied by sweet, angelic young voices practicing scriptures and mantras.
Intricate paintings adorn monastery walls and ceilings; thangkas hang everywhere.
Monks draped in deep red robes move through the streets, gesturing for donations.
The elderly walk slowly around the Barkohr chanting "om mani padme hum" and other mantras,
While diligently spinning their prayer wheels clockwise, and rubbing prayer beads between fingers and thumbs.
Very dirty children (picture Oliver Twist) tug at your clothes for money.
Butter lamps burn endlessly in monasteries, next to golden bowls of water offered to the deities.
Barren landscapes, dry brown mountains, sand dunes, and pointy white snowcapped mountains.
The breathtaking sight of Qomolangma (Mr. Everest) as it moves closer into view on a clear day.
Mt. Kailash at sunrise, appearing as it if is on stage in an orange spotlight.
Some stunning turquoise lakes, while others are still blankets of white with large ice boulders hovering at the edges.
Howling afternoon winds cause dust to swirl into funnels that aggressively disperse through the air.
Dogs bark in a never ending song like mad demons in the night.
Hammers building new homes create constant rhythms everywhere,
And saws grind on metal, making the hair stand high on the back of your neck.
Large blue trucks motor through the countryside with auspicious symbols painted above their windows for safety.
Massive orange trucks carry stacks of rocks to build roads and long cement poles for installing power lines.
Herds of goat, sheep, cows, and yaks stall traffic as they chase their tails, confused about which way to run.
Rocks are carefully stacked high along roadsides by pilgrims for good luck.
Horse carts and small tractors carry loads of people, equipment, supplies, food.
Sweet and spicy aromas spill into the small rooms of the Sichuan restaurants,
Air foggy with smoke from the kitchen and the many lit cigarettes around each table.
Men wear thick brown cloaks and women wear brightly colored aprons,
White hospital masks seem to be part of the costume, to filter out dust.
Women walk hunched over in the countryside with huge baskets on their backs, carrying water and wood.
Cowboy hats on men and thick turquoise jewelry hang heavy around necks of beautiful Tibetan women.
White square houses display colorful and intricately decorated windows,
With a few cows and goats hanging around outside in the shade. 
Billiards tables are outside as permanent fixtures in every town and remote village,
Bringing the kids together in community throughout each day.

Tips
It's a bit much to go into here, but if you are planning a trip like this, I'm happy to offer the pros and cons of various ways to travel in Tibet, and a suggested pack list to keep you light, but equiped with everything you will need. And I highly recommend bringing gifts - there are a few fun things you can bring, especially for kids that are ultra light - bubbles, balloons, pins with disney characters, and most of the people I met my age were thrilled to get American music CD's.

Travel Route
If you are interested in the details my travel path, here is a map scanned from the Lonely Planet guidebook. I started in Lhasa and headed southeast to Tsetang, Samye Monastery, Yamdrok-tso, and Chongye. Then west to Shigatse, Gyantse, Lhatse, Saga, Paryang, Lake Manasarovar and Darchen. The pilgrimage around Mt. Kailash started and ended in Darchen. From there I headed east again back through Paryang and Saga, and then southeast towards the Nepali border to Tingri (near Everest Base Camp), and then to Base Camp. From there I traveled northeast back to Shigatse, and continued northeast to Damxung and Namtso before heading back to Lhasa.

Photo Album (short verison)
Photo Album (long version - slide show/photo journal)
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