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 tibet

may 12
On the road to Lhasa, at a painted Buddha carved in a rock wall, our native Tibetan guide welcomed us with a white scarf placed gently around our neck. Lhasa is a divided city, the newer modern Chinese part, although it mimicked Tibetan architecture, and the old Tibetan half, with traditional cinderblock buildings, windows topped with painted panels like eyebrows, clusters of colorful prayer flags atop, releasing their prayers as they flutter, blessing the lives and endeavors below. Soldiers patrolled with visible weapons, a constant reminder of the occupying force. On the roof garden, the morning light shone on brown hills, with strong shadow, no trees this high, white peaks on distant mountain ranges.

We melded into the swarm of pilgrims twirling prayer wheels, swinging beads, chanting low, circumambulating, or walking in a circle around, the Barkhor, a few prostrating themselves as they circled. Outside a small building were tall prayer wheels that held written script, prayers to the Buddha of Compassion. Pilgrims spun the gold wheels, one after another, as they rounded the building. We stepped inside. A set of tall wheels formed a circle in the center, perhaps there was a Buddha statue or other religious items inside that circle, it was too dark to see, but we were sucked into the throng of people in that small place, spinning the wheels, chanting, as if in a trance. Tears stung my eyes. The heart of Tibetan Buddhism was still beating; here we were in its midst, very much alive, reverent, timeless.

Potala Palace, gleaming white and an earthy red, sits high above the city. Up its many zigzag staircases is a not quite symmetrical structure, sections having been added on for different purposes at different times. Yak fur woven curtains cover the inner red colored sanctum, small clusters of rooms, many bearing pictorial legends of history on every wall, where each of the Dalai Lamas since the fifth, who built the palace, lived, studied, met with guests, sat on a throne, meditated. On each throne was a folded triangle of cloth, his robes, except of course the 14th, now in exile. Candles burned in liquid yak butter, incense smoldered, emitting a pungent odor. Also housed within were golden statues of Buddhas, Boddhisatvas, those who intervened for humans with the Buddha, learned scholars, associated spirits and protectors, relics and treasures, and the tombs of the Dalai Lamas themselves.

At Jokhang Temple, an active temple where fifty to sixty monks study and pray, monks in maroon robes were getting offerings ready. Candles were lit in golden cups, incense refreshed in burners, clean cloths draped over Buddha and related statues. Workers sang rhythmically as they pounded the roof, their lilting song calling out over the square. At Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace, we walked in a natural forest. Sera Monastery once was home to 5,500 monks, now there are only 500. The monks debate every afternoon. The robed participants filled the courtyard, questioners seated on the ground, debater standing as he puts forth his answers, demonstrating a knowledge of philosophy, Buddhism, and other disciplines. Good natured and thoughtful, the discussions were animated, with speakers sometimes punctuating a point with a clap and thrust forward.

We sampled some Tibetan yak dishes, but also found Nepali and Indian food, the best curries. I can't say that I liked the oily tang of yak butter tea; the barley wine was much better. A Tibetan dance group wore brilliantly colored, poufy costumes and hats, from various ethnic peoples. After the performance, we all danced in a circle, a joyful energetic celebration.

Driving northwest, we passed pilgrims making the outside loop around old Lhasa, a three or four hour walk, and then a trickle of pilgrims walking and prostrating on the road to Lhasa, journeying from far provinces. Adam and I traded yak jokes, as we passed nomad camps and herds grazing, including antelope with round horns and long hair I later learned were changthangi, source of Himalayan pashmina. The road crossed a high plain, following a turquoise river with polished stones. A panorama of peaks surrounded us, some lightly dusted with snow like powdered sugar, the higher more dramatic ones thickly blanketed and some still snowing. Prayer flags covered bridges to villages.

We stopped to savor the view at the highest pass, 5,190 meters, 17,027 ft, just short of the altitude of Everest Base Camp. We were truly at the Roof of the World! Across blue, wide and beautiful Nam Tso Lake, remote snowy mountains drifted in and out of clouds. A thrusting of red rock came down to the shoreline. One monk led us into a small meditation cave, another the monastery, both nestled up against high solid rock. Hiking to top of the hill, we reached our highest point, about 18,000 ft, and celebrated with barley wine.

At our guesthouse, there was no heat, just a pile of blankets, and an outdoor walk to the toilets in the snow. A stove fire in the common room burned dried yak dung, surprisingly odorless. On this journey, we had endured sore legs from descending the sacred mountain, swollen welts and itching from bed bugs; we had a pot of milk tea in Lhasa late at night and couldn't sleep, but I will never forget the night of the barking dogs. All day we had seen friendly mutts walking with us around the lake, but at night, as our guide said, "At Nam Tso, the dogs are mighty!" They barked incessantly together and alone, approaching and receding. I pictured them circumambulating the rock cliffs around the lake in packs, as I tossed and turned all night. In the morning, the far peaks around the lake emerged from clouds slowly, shining with a fresh coating of snow.

Talk about culture shock! We flew from the austere lifestyle in Tibet to the splendor of Shanghai's Bund at night. There, along the Huangpu River, stately European buildings formed an elegant semi-circle of yellow on the west, the Bund, while modern towers, skyscrapers, office buildings and shopping malls screamed color on the eastern side, in Pudong.

Yuyuan Gardens, old curved roof buildings in a garden designed in a former age of dynasty, was a peaceful place to walk. The Urban Planning Museum had a huge scale model of the city, and much more interesting and well-presented exhibits than the propaganda program at the China Pavilion, where we slogged through a long wait to enter, then left as quickly as possible. In Xintiandi, an attractive warren of renovated tenements with stone-framed doorways, we found the best Asian restaurants, Thai and Vietnamese, I've sampled anywhere. The charming architecture in the French Concession made it an inviting place to imagine living.

Our last day, we hopped a bus to the peaceful water village of Zhouzhuang, Zhujiajiao in Chinese, a World Heritage site, and were lazily pushed along in a gondola by a coolie-hatted woman with a long oar, under picturesque stone bridges.

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