Dianneaigaki's Blog

Travel with Dianne to Tibet and on her Motivational Speaking Tours

The Dream of the Turquoise Bee–Tours to Tibet

The Vision of the Dream of the Turquoise Bee Tours to Tibet

The Dream of the Turquoise Bee Tours is an eco-tourism partnership with Tibetan villagers living in Eastern Tibet (Kham).  It began as a conversation with villager from Oh Szang during one summer when I was in Kham working on my botanical illustration project of 108 wildflowers growing at 11,000-18,000 feet on the Tibetan Plateau.


Solanaceae Hyoscyamus niger

Bignoniaceae Incarvillea grandiflora

Papaveraceae Meconopsis quintuplinervia (The Harebell Poppy)

Since 2004,  I have been coming to this area, traveling into the mountains with guides, searching for medicinal plants, the strange and the beautiful in flowers–dedicated to completing a documentation that could be a new way of telling the “Tibetan” story–a way of telling that goes beyond the political and human rights issues.  Not a Disneyland perspective on “happy Tibetans”, but the real story of a peoples’ hopes, dreams and struggle for cultural survival. A way of telling that may draw in a new audience who may have never heard of the Tibetan Plateau or the issues that confront the people who live there in the 21st century.

Papaveraceae Meconopsis integrifolia


Orchidaceae Spiranthes sinensis (Lady Tresses Orchid)

Orchidaceae Cypripedium tibeticum (Lady Slipper Orchid)

My goal is to exhibit these paintings (there are now 47 painted over a five year span) and show that Tibet is alive and well–a culture and environment worth caring about and fighting for. The project brings new information and focus to how global warming is affecting the Tibetan Plateau and how Tibetan nomads and villagers are faring fifty years after the Chinese occupation of their homeland.

Despite the environmental destruction of the Chinese occupation on the Tibetan Plateau (thousands of acres of forest logged out and rivers polluted with factory waste are only two of the problems), it still enjoys one of the most diverse and richest expanses of flora in the world.  From late May until September, wildflowers carpet the hills, meadows and mountainsides, a river of purple, white, blue, orange, magenta and every color in between. Many of these plants are rare and endangered or have been used for centuries in traditional medicines to treat illnesses such as asthma, arthritis, cancer, blood pressure, parasites and a plethora of other diseases and illnesses.

The conversation that evolved into the tours centered around the fact that this particular year, in 2007, the villagers were watching their crops wither and die in the fields.  There was no rain–a situation no one could remember having experienced before.


Lush Pea Fields at Oh Szang Village on June 27, 2006

Same Pea Field Exactly One Year Later on june 27, 2007--Now Drought-Ravaged

Lush Barley Field at Oh Szang on June 27, 2006

Same Barley Field Exactly One Year Later on June 27, 2007-Now Drought-Ravaged

We talked about global warming (they, naturally, had never heard of the concept) and I told them how people all over the world were concerned about this phenomenon and how it would impact people like themselves–subsistence level farmers who grow crops that feed their animals and their families and are used to barter for other goods.  No rain-no crops-no food-no medicine-no school.

The question was—what will happen if you can no longer rely on your crops for your survival?  We talked about the possibility of bringing Westerners to Tibet to be part of their lives–to witness their lives.  We made lists of activities the tour guests could participate in–including botanical illustration sketching and painting classes, visits to monasteries, nunneries, and festivals, and yak herding. The villagers laughed at the idea that anyone would want to come along and herd yaks all day or churn butter, but I knew I loved it and others would, too. We talked about how the Tibetans could be guides, teach about medicinal plants (Aku Soega, one uncle, is from a long line of traditional doctors/medicinal plant experts) help with the tent camps, and cook. The children would have the chance to be around foreigners, learn new languages, and expand their world.  After a long night of discussion, questions, laughter, we made commitments on all sides.  It was a go.

The Dream of the Turquoise Bee eco-tourism project had begun.  I would go back to the West and make it happen.  The Tibetans would be ready to do whatever was needed on their end.  The eco-tours started out as botanical illustration journeys and quickly evolved into journeys for photographers, landscape artists, botanists, and outdoor enthusiasts.

Why the Dream of the Turquoise Bee?

We named the tours after the VIth Dalai Lama who lived in the late 1600’s.  He was the only Dalai Lama who refused to be ordained as a monk, and instead spent his time leading his people, becoming an expert archer and writing love songs and poetry—wherein he referred to himself as the Turquoise Bee.  He had a deep connection to nature, and made many references in his poems to the wildflowers of Tibet.

About the flowers that fade in the fall
The Turquoise Bee does not grieve
It is the fate of  lovers to part
And I, too, shall not lament

His story is one that every Tibetan knows (even those who have never been to school can recite his poems and love songs from memory) and his final poem (he was assassinated by Mongol invaders at the age of 23), symbolizes the hope for a return to a homeland—one that refugees around the world share.

White crane,

Lend me your wings

From Litang

I shall return

For me, the tours connect to the hope of Tibetans everywhere that they will one day be able to return to their homeland.  Recent articles in international press indicate that the Chinese intend to move 100,000 Tibetan nomads and villagers off of the Plateau into Chinese cities.  If this takes place, it will be one more affront to Tibetan culture and the traditional ways of life which have been sustained for hundreds of years. The eco-tours take this threat seriously, giving guests the opportunity to be in the pure, clear air of Tibet while spending time with the people who make their homes there.

For me, the tours connect to the hope of Tibetans everywhere that they will one day be able to return to their homeland.  Recent articles in international press indicate that the Chinese intend to move 100,000 Tibetan nomads and villagers off of the Plateau into Chinese cities.  If this takes place, it will be one more affront to Tibetan culture and the traditional ways of life which have been sustained for hundreds of years. The eco-tours take this threat seriously, giving guests the opportunity to be in the pure, clear air of Tibet while spending time with the people who make their homes there.

May 24, 2009–Leaving for the PlateauA Few Steps Ahead of the Guests

After months of ordering microscopes, GPS systems, solar chargers, books on Tibet, Tibetan language dictionaries, solar showers, herbal altitude sickness remedies and corresponding with guests summer, I am actually leaving this morning to do the final stages of recon to make sure all is happening with our Tibetan partners in this venture. I am accompanied by my long-time friend, Barbara Morse.  She and I have traveled to many countries in the world over thirty years and she is game to take this on and be the “in camp” support for the tours—despite knowing no Tibetan language and never having been to Tibet before.

We’ll fly into Chengdu, spend a day checking out the traditional Tibetan tents we have had made for the tours, and then travel west to the Tibetan Plateau. The goal is a simple one—go through all of the predicted up-front logistics on our own, so that by the time the guests arrive on June 19 in Chengdu, the tour is running seamlessly—and no one will be the wiser for what we have gone through to make it happen.  HA!


May 24, 2009 Posted by | Dream of the Turquoise Bee Tours to Tibet | , , | 1 Comment

Letters from Tibet #1: Good God What Hath We Wrought?

The Dream of the Turquoise Bee Tour to Tibet


Greetings from the other side of the world. I really miss you-please come and save me from myself. For those of you who don’t know what is happening, I am in China and Tibet completing the final legwork and heavy-lifting for the Dream of the Turquoise Bee Tours to Tibet this summer.  Please join me, vicariously, on this rather wild journey, which is an eco-tourism partnership with Tibetan villagers.

Let me start by saying you would not believe how close to the edge of insanity I am.  It took days to get the 12 Tibetan tents in our own hands–because the tent guy who made them didn’t think Barbara and I were strong enough to put them up and he didn’t have enough people to help (how many damn people could it take? and he said they were too heavy for us –being girls and all–to lift, etc., etc.)  Turns out the tents weigh about 40 lbs or less–a one-handed lift from my world.  Anyway, that was exasperating, threw off the whole schedule by days and now we can’t find a truck to take everything to Gansi (last offer was a bus for $1,200 for the 18 hour trip, which as I watch the money drain out of my pocket seems like a bad move).  Also had a 3 day holiday thrown in for good measure, which was explained to me as an idea the Chinese Government came up with to help people relax because everyone is so nervous about the economy.  Before that we had two vehicles lined up that both cancelled (hours of torturous conversations went into lining them up).

I was awake at midnight last night mulling over my life while doing Sudoku, so went to town to a bar along the river.  When I’d passed this bar earlier, I ‘d seen there were some English speaking people hanging out.  Dave, the Chinese owner (I assume Dave is his own recent nom de plume) was there when I arrived and after hearing about our dilemma, he said he would drive us and the stuff in his own 4 wheel drive for $450 and we would leave this morning at 6:00am.  I came back to the hotel, reshuffled all of the piles (food  of every culinary origin, camping chairs, pots and pans, pillows, blankets, clothes, books, etc–you can imagine how much stuff we have packed in the hotel room-the hotel staff think we’re nuts as we have unloaded taxi after taxi of boxes to be carried up to the room), repacked the tents and went to sleep.  By 3:00am Dave was calling to say that he had telephones his friend who is a policeman in Gansi (where we are going) and the friend said the area is still closed to foreigners and we would not be able to get in.  He could go, but not us. That took care of that solution, as us getting there is at least as important as our belongings arriving.

An alternative is Choegyal who speaks perfect English and could be very helpful, but has a few character/family lineage defects, one being he is the nephew of a lama who is a spy.  I wrote to my friend Rinchen to see if I could rely on him–get “permission” so to speak to have him negotiate for trucks. Haven’t heard from Rinchen. Then I had Choegyal call Rinchen’s uncle to see if Rinchen’s family can help with the truck, and got a call back (imagine this all coming down in Tibetan over the phone) with great concern about me talking to the Chinese spy family.

Today I opened an account at Bank of China, so at some point will be able to just start using that. I imagined it would be a nightmare to open an account in China without a permanent address, etc.  It took all of five minutes to get a credit card linked to the account, an ATM card and a passbook.  That was a bright idea, as we were carrying around tens of thousands of dollars in cash which we will need in Tibet–if we ever get there, of course.

The strain of it all has been broken periodically by foot massages, head massages and 100 wild Tibetans arriving at the hotel to stay while they participate in the Chengdu Intangible Cultural Arts Festival.  They practiced dancing–leaping and twirling in the parking lot while the drum beat on.  They were  suitably attired in lion, tiger, and bull costumes  head gear.

Animal and Ritual Masks of the Dance Troupe

This is a good look with jeans, t-shirts and monks’ robes, since it was just a rehearsal–and that was a lift.

Tibetan Dance Troupe Practices for the Intangible Culture Festival

Later I had spaghetti with meat balls  at Peter’s Tex-Mex Resturant that also had great carrot cake, so that was a boost. You can tell we are grasping at straws to lift our roller-coaster moods. When I look in the mirror my face has taken on a look of apparently permanent dismay

Anyway, now we are off to talk to travel agencies again to see if someone can confirm that Gansi is open–which everyone has said it is–but we need another round of confirmation before we hit the road–not that we know what vehicle we would be using to hit the road. The Tibetans in Kham have told us they have seen foreigners in the streets, but we don’t know if this is true or who those foreigners might be.  As Dave the bar guy says, “It doesn’t really matter what the tour agencies say, my friend the policeman knows what the policy is and foreigners are not allowed in.”

At 2:00pm, we go back to the hotel to meet with another trucking company–with a translator, of course, since the potential tuck driver only speaks Chinese. This brilliant connection to the new trucking company happened because I decided we should buy tickets to the Intangible Cultural Festival (everything else being rather intangible, we would fit right in with the Intangible Culture events) and the first thing out of my mouth when we started to discuss the tickets was to ask the hotel manager/ticket guy if he knew of anyone with a truck that would drive to Gansi. Turned out to be a good question, as maybe he does. Hence our meeting in a few minutes.

More later–I hope. We may go to nap in the WenShu Park which is 4,000 years old, but is mostly known in my book for the place where I once paid someone to stick long, thin metal feathery things into my ears and twirl them for a scary ear cleaning, while I drank green tea.

Love,  Di


PS-As we travel along on our journeys into Tibet, we are mindful of the privacy of our hosts. Living in Chinese-Occupied Tibet, their security is complicated and fragile, and naturally we will do nothing to compromise that.  For that reason, we won’t be using their actual names–you will come to know and love the nomads, villagers, and the regions they inhabit through their pseudonyms.

May 24, 2009 Posted by | Letters from Tibet | , , , , | 4 Comments