Dianneaigaki's Blog

Travel with Dianne to Tibet and on her Motivational Speaking Tours

Letters from Tibet #5-Diamox Dreams

June 17, 2009

One of the things we love about Tibet is our addiction to Diamox, the medicine Barb and I are both taking to ward off altitude sickness (I actually first typed attitude sickness, which it may be helping with, too).  One of Diamox’s great attributes is that it puts you in a deep sleep at night, and you are REM-MING all night long.  For instance, I have dreamed that I was making love with Lapo Elkann (the 30 something heir to the Fiat fortune who wears the greatest suits and shoes), while at a going away party for my dear friend, Angelina Jolie.  A few days later I dreamed that Angelina was wrapped up in a blanket, lying in a foetal position, and said to me, “I am your little squirrel.”  Yes, I replied, with great affection,“You are my precious little squirrel.” I also dreamed that someone in my family had been through training to be a plastic surgeon, and they said I could have plastic surgery on my nose for free and it would be a great opportunity because the supervisor would also be there.  I thought I would go ahead and do that, despite not really thinking I needed a nose job, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw that, indeed, I had a snout on the end of my nose that was just like a pig’s, so surgery was probably in order, after all.

Barb has dreamed that her left arm was a large wing made up of bright orange begonias, and her ex-boyfriend had a complementary wing of bright red begonias.  She has also wandered with her grandmother for hours in a hotel looking for her grandmother’s room, and has been unable to culminate making love with somebody (she doesn’t know who—some cute guy) because she is in a room with eight doors and a plethora of people coming in and out serving coffee.

On our way to town one day, we are excited to see Khandro carrying two bags of garbage into Gansi.  Yesterday, I had told her not to toss a biscuit wrapper in a field, and she looked at me with total amazement.  Waste management hasn’t caught up with the Tibetans—rather like the US in the 1950’s when people would toss a garbage bag out the car window when they were out for a Sunday drive in the countryside.  Big fines, recycling and trash pick up at your front door took care of most of that, but those are strategies that have yet to reach us on the Plateau. So, we are thrilled at the environmental breakthrough. As we chug toward Gansi in the taxi, she asks the driver to pull over to the side of the bridge, and lifts the two bags. I assume there is a trash site nearby, but she is about to toss it out the window into the rushing river.

On Our Way to Gansi from the Village-A Fabulous Place to Throw Some Trash

Once again, she is totally taken aback by the screams of protest from Barb and I, and brings it back through the window to be deposited in a barrel in town, with a look of “Whaaaaaat’s the problem?” on her beautiful face.


Khandro With Her "Now What???" Look

We know that many of the people on the tours this summer are bringing clothing for the kids in the village.   So, one I ask Khandro for a list of all the children in the village so that when the tour guests come, we can distribute those fairly and also buy clothes and toys for the kids in town.  Great jackets and dresses abound (being China, everything is a rip off from some manufacturer who sells in the West—you can buy a North Fac jacket that looks like a real North Face or an Ozark Jacket that has a label saying Zarko). They’re a little short on the spelling.  On the screen saver at the internet place, it says TES TO LIFE and NO TO DRUGS).  Khandro sits down with me after dinner and in one fell swoop rattles off the names of 92 kids and their ages, from 1-18.


Khandro Gives Me the Names and Ages of All the Kids in the Village

I am asleep when she and Nyima Dakpa come in to shake me and wake me up—they are concerned because she has forgotten 6 more kids that live at the edge of the village, so their names go on the list, too. I try to imagine remembering 98 kids’ names and ages, without a falter before I drift back to Diamox Land.


Future Recipients (Some Disgruntled) of New Play and School Clothes

Future Recipient of More Party Clothes

Today we go to town with Nyima Dakpa to buy a small two-burner gas stove for the tour camp site, since we have realized that hauling tons of dried yak dung with us will not work and my plan to have one of the silver paneled solar cookers is dashed when Khandro looks at me with skepticism and has me lift it to see how much it weighs–probably 150 lbs, not so easily hauled along with all the rest of our stuff (I probably could have gotten away without buying microscopes, but I did think the tour guests might want to look at bugs and leaves in Tibet)


Khandro Whipping Up a Yak Meat Stir Fry on the Solar Cooker

Khandro is thrilled about the gas stove, but also scared as it keeps lighting up with a flare. She asks how Americans cook.  Do they use an open yak dung fire?  Do they use gas?  When I tell her many people in the United States have electric stoves, I have to draw her a picture to get the idea across.  She keeps looking up at the light and saying luk? (electricity).  For someone who lost part of a finger and has 4” round scars all over her body from being electrocuted as a child–unconscious for five days–when she touched a live wire hanging out of a socket, she’s understandably a bit gun shy. By the puzzled look on her face, I can see that I never do bridge the concept between electricity and cooking.


Dianne and BuNosa (Khandro's Daughter) Introduce the New Gas Stove

Later on, Khandro shows us who’s boss and gets back at our know-it-all selves by wrestling with us, something that Tibetans love to do—I’ve been in many a wrestling scuffle, trying to hold my own with people who work in fields all day and run up and down the mountainsides—it isn’t easy trying to take down a Tibetan on their home turf, but we give it a go.




Khandro Shows Barb Who is Really Boss By Wrestling Her to the Ground

In the afternoon, we do the usual and go out to the path in front of the house to wait for our yaks to come home from the hills.  Everybody else is out there, too, because that’s what happens at 7:00pm, 365 days a year in Oh Szang Village.



Yaks Coming Home After a Happy Day in the Mountains (Note Our Wonderful Yak on the Right—the One with the Superior Set of Horns and the Ring in the Nose)

Above: Last of the Yaks Come Home from the Mountains

We open the gate to the courtyard of the home and wander in with our yaks–they don’t need us, they head straight to their stalls under the house.  In the courtyard, Khandro starts playing around with her kids, chasing and wrestling with them and pretending to be the Chinese police beating them with truncheons.




Khandro with Her Son, Thamdin

Her 14 year old son, Thamdin, laughs and marches around the yard, imitating the rigid form and goose-step of the police and military we have seen in town. It is disconcerting for Barb and I who are on the sidelines, but just part of getting through life for them.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger comes to mind as a maxim that seems to have daily use in Tibet Land.

The new stove means that money will be spent on propane gas and Khandro released from a lifetime of hauling dried yak dung and kindling up the stairs on her back before she goes out to herd the yaks, work in the fields all day long or sweep and clean the mud floors of the house.  It’s a trade off.  After the first 10 days the small tank of gas runs out and Khandro finds out it has cost 75 cents a day to feed our group of 8 people and she almost puts it back in the box to be returned.  I tell her we will use it during the tour and she can shelve it afterwards, until next year when we come back again. I can see this is what she will decide to do.  It’s a luxury, and with her new salary from the tours, she will have to decide if it is one she wants to take on.


As we continue to strategize the feeding scenarios for the tours, Khandro says we don’t need to buy new pots and pans—we can use the ones her family has used for at least a few generations.  Indeed, they look great, aluminum shining against the 20 foot high dark mud walls of the kitchen.  All sizes—they look like hordes of people have been served out of these pots—and they have.


November 28, 2009 Posted by | Letters from Tibet | , , | Leave a comment

Letters from Tibet #4- Gazing at Khowalangri Mountain and Looking for a Camp Site

June 12, 2009

In Oh Szang Village, we spend a lot of time staring at Khowalangri Mountain which rises up, miles away at the end of the valley.  It is considered to be the spiritual home of Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, a famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who was a spiritual mentor to many of my friends in the United States.  The mountain glows in the early morning, sparkles during the day, and shifts to rose pink in the setting sun.  We can’t take enough photos of it—it’s spectacular, and the Tibetans can’t get enough of looking at the photos we take.

Khowalangri Mountain

Khowalangri Mountain from Oh Szang Village

Khowalangri Mountain on a Full Moon Night

We get up early, but Lhamo Choedon is always up even earlier: cleaning,  making big round pieces of bread, churning the butter, carrying up yak dung for the fire, hauling water from the well.  We wander around while the yaks head up to the mountains, Uncle Tsering Ngodhup burns the sage  in the morning blessing ceremony (smoke is coming from the burners on the terrace of every home in the village), kids are scrubbed and fed and sent out the door to school.

Sage Burning in the Morning-Khowalangri Mountain in the Distance

It’s 7:30am and I am called out to see Sonam, the neighbor across the road, a relative of Uncle Tsering Ngodhup, and the mother of a 21 year old boy who was arrested during a demonstration in Gansi last year.  Before the Beijing Olympics there  were  demonstrations all over Tibet—thousands of people marched and held up signs, calling for a Free Tibet and for UN attention to human rights abuses on the Tibetan Plateau.  Sonam’s son had held up a sign that said Let the Dalai Lama Return to Tibet. He was given a sentence of 2 years and 6 months in the prison in Chengdu, 18 hours from here, so it makes it almost impossible for his family to see him.  While in prison, his hand was beaten with an iron truncheon until the wrist and fingers broke.

He had been a promising thangka painter (Tibetan spiritual painting), and now, still in prison, is struggling to regain use of his hand. His mother believes his hopes of painting are over. Sonam came to bring sho, the infamous yogurt the whole village now knows we are pining for, and to thank me for helping the political prisoners who were arrested during demonstrations before the Olympics. I had sent money to Rinchen’s family who distributed it (keeping copious notes it appears) to the poorest families, the money allowing them to provide food and medical care to sons and daughters who had been arrested. Generally, political prisoners are given a half cup of rice a day and a small cup of hot water, so without food provided by the family, they may easily starve to death.

By 9:30am, Sonam has gone and we are on the road with Uncle Soega, off to do the final scouting on the site for the camp we will set up beyond Oh Szang Village.  We find the perfect spot across a river (a place Uncle Soega reminds me where I took a long nap a few years ago while painting flowers–Tibet is a great place to take naps), with the Chola Shan Mountains rising at the end of the valley, a nunnery reduced to ruins during the Cultural Revolution, and a large area the length of a football field filled with stones carved with Om Mani Padme Hum (the Tibetan national prayer for compassion and to end suffering for all sentient beings). Along the edges of the mani stones are tall poles strung with thousands of prayer flags, all blowing in the wind. 

Prayer Flags Fluttering in the Wind at Camp Site #1

A yak herd wanders by, two nomads walk up to their horses in the field and sit down for a picnic.  The question is—how will we get the 19 passenger bus into the area?  There is a steep, dirt road that winds around the mountain. Uncle Soega and the taxi driver think the bus will make that descent and ascent quite easily.  Barb and I assure them this won’t be the case.  We talk back and forth and Uncle shows me, using pantomime, how the bus can ford the river.  I can’t see it, frankly.  He keeps telling me the bus will either ford the river or wait on the other side and a smaller car will shuttle guests and camping equipment back and forth.  I still see only a rushing river below us.  He draws me a map to show me how this act will go, and we walk down to the river, while the taxi driver goes to get the car up on the road and drive down to show us how simple this will be.

Indeed, he drives across the river, submerged above the wheels, but makes it through.  Okay, you win.  It can happen.  We can bring in 15 guests plus all their gear, the tents, the food, the stoves, the chairs, and the art supplies–piece of cake. We all pile in the car to go back across the river, and within a few seconds the car is swamped, water pours in under the doorframes, and the engine stalls out.  We get out to look more closely at the situation, whereupon the taxi driver immediately takes out a rag and starts washing off his car, rubbing at various spots that need cleaning.

Crossing the River at Camp Site #1-No Problem!

During a lull in the cleaning activity, we push- Chik, nye, sum. Chik, nye, sum and we push.  Little by little the car moves toward the opposite shore.  At one point we are stopped by large rocks and the driver takes the opportunity again to do a little more washing—taking out the dirty floor mats and giving them a quick scrubbing in the river.  We push the car to the other side, turn it to face the sun, open the hood and wander around until the engine dries out a bit.  Uncle Soega, always curious, finds a whole kamboodle of butterflies resting on the ground and calls me over to take a photo.

A Kaboodle of Butterflies Sunning Themselves on the Bank of the River

Fifteen minutes later, against all odds, the engine starts up and we drive back to Oh Szang, talking about how the river will be lower in July and August and the crossing will be easier.

2:00pm and we are at the home in Oh Szang Village when there are loud voices at the front gate—Gya-Mi! is the word.  The Chinese police are here!  Barb and I grab our passports, while Lhamo Choedon scrambles to hide my computer, filled with evidence of time in Dharamsala and my friendship with Rinchen. Nine people troop up the wooden steps.  Khandro shrinks to half her size right before our eyes, and leans back against a wooden post. Uncle Soega comes in behind the police. He has met them at the front gate. One of the police speaks some English and is very excited to talk to us and practice.  Only four of the people in the group are police, the others are his friends who have come to see the foreigners.  What we are doing here? We’re flower painters—here to see the wildflowers. I take out the prints of the flowers I painted in past years and they pass them around and ooh and aah.   Why are we in this village? The people are very kind to us.  Uncle Soega tells them that I am paying the family to stay here—it helps them because they can’t work.  How long will we stay? Probably a few days, we aren’t sure, there aren’t so many flowers right now.  Have I ever been to India? I avoid the probability that he is talking about Northern India, the seat of the Tibetan Exile Government and say instead: Oh yes!  I was in South India, the flowers are beautiful there. Have I been to China before? Yes, twenty years ago and a few other times.  Why? Do you like it here? Oh yes!! The people are very kind. Have you been to Gansi Monastery? (Gansi Monastery is the hotbed of demonstrations and dissent–many of my friends in India were monks at Gansi Monastery before they were sent to prison and tortured for demonstrating).  I went before, I tell him, but not this time—I’m too busy to go right now.  Maybe later.  It looks interesting, but we’re searching for flowers.

A very tall woman, a cross between an evil spy out of a James Bond movie and Nurse Ratchett, is one of the police.  She is dressed in a Tibetan chuba, but as Khandro says later She looks Tibetan, but speaks like a Chinese. I am smiling so much while talking to the police that later my Pollyanna face has to be massaged back to life.

They copy down the information from our passports, tell us to be careful so we will be safe in China, and if we have any problems at all, to come and see them at their office.  Just before they leave the English-speaking policeman says to me, One last thing.  I advise you to guard your secret carefully. Be careful with your secret. What secret?   I think he is using the wrong word, so I spell it out.  S-e-c-r-e-t?  That’s right.  Secret-be sure to keep your secret. And with that mysterious message that only he and Barb and I could understand, they were gone and we were drinking hot water, eating biscuits, gazing at Khowalangri Mountain and talking about how the afternoon went down.

Gazing at Khowalangri Mountain at the End of a Long, Strange Day

November 24, 2009 Posted by | Letters from Tibet | 2 Comments

Letters from Tibet #3- From the Other Side of the World

June 10, 2009

We’ve settled into village life, haven’t even been here a week and have already had a year’s worth of strange adventures.  Things are a bit different than when I was at the house here in 2007.  For one thing, the family now has a refrigerator.  I was a bit concerned about the electricity that the refrigerator uses; they’ve been using silver folding panels for years to heat water for tea. But now they also have a solar panel that is 12” X 24” and powers two rooms and the refrigerator.

The first day in town, Barb (Barb has now acquired the moniker Bob-boo) and I bought a bunch of vegetables for meals (cauliflower, shallots, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, mushrooms of various kinds, and carrots) and when we looked in the refrigerator later, the only thing in there were bananas in a bowl.

What about the vegetables, we asked—later we would get to the information that bananas don’t go in the refrigerator.  Oh, the shang-kee (the refrigerator) isn’t good for them, it’s too cold.  We keep them in the root cellar.  They’ll spoil in the shang-kee. They had a big chunk of meat in the freezer compartment, but thought this was probably too cold for it, too.  Lhamo Choedon rapped on it with a wooden spoon to show me the problem, and sure enough, it was frozen solid.

I looked out over the wall, and sure enough, Ani-La (the sister who is a nun) was climbing into the root cellar like a mouse, and then re-emerged, backing out with the vegetables in her arms.


Ani-La Goes into the Root Cellar (Where Vegetables Are Better Stored)

Ani-La Emerges (Mouse-Like) From the Root Cellar

They also have a new washing machine, which was one of the first things they showed me after we arrived. Despite clothes washing happening in big tubs everyday since we’ve been here (we haul water up from the well in the yard and heat it on the stove with a yak dung fire), we haven’t seen the machine put into action.  It sits in the large space below the living quarters, covered with a fitted tarp, making its home mid-way between the yak stalls and the 20’ high neatly-stacked piles of dried yak dung which serve as fuel all year long.  These new additions to life in the village have come about because of the generosity of Norbu, their relative who has immigrated to Australia.

But back to yaks.  Barb and I have jumped right in with our city slicker ignorance.  Years ago when I first came to Tibet I ate the best yogurt in the world that comes from the dri, the female yak.  Every time I tasted it, it was slightly different, with faint flavors of meadow or flowers—you could rhapsodize over the thick yogurt just like vintners do over fine wines from the Napa Valley, making up endless descriptions for the subtle flavors and aromas.  Recently, after dinner one night, we asked about sho (yogurt)—where was it?  I was used to a two litre bowl of it available at all times. It often sat right next to the five pound mound of dri butter that was gobbled up in a few days. Meh song was the word on the sho.  It’s gone—there isn’t any.   But why?  Thus ensued a lengthy discussion about how sho is best in the morning, after the dri is milked at night, and the sho sits and thickens.  Sho at  night is not so good.  Okay, so where’s our morning sho?  There isn’t any?  But why, there’s two yaks down there.  Answer: One yak is too young to produce milk.  Okay we get that, but what about the other one?  They look at us, puzzled–perhaps we  have a communication breakdown. With a stroke of pure genius Barb suggested I ask if the yak was a male and that was why there wasn’t any.  Indeed. They looked at us incredulously.  It hadn’t even occurred to them as we worked the yogurt conversation from several different directions that we were missing the basic fact that the yak (which by the way is the biggest, stud-liest yak in the village) was a male and wouldn’t be giving milk anytime soon in this lifetime. We told them we were just “de-tsi, de-tsi, khuk-pa”—a little stupid in the head, and they got a laugh out of that.


Our Incredibly Manly Yak

The fourth day we were here, Uncle Soega came to say that while all the villagers were circumambulating the main prayer wheel, the police came and asked about foreigners in the village.  Uncle Soega (who is my plant guide when I am in Tibet during the summers) told them he didn’t know too much about us, but we were Americans and just here looking at wild flowers and would leave soon.  They said they would be back at night to check our papers.  Photos of the Dalai Lama were taken down and hidden in the temple room (which doesn’t seem like too much of a hiding place to me, but I assume they know what they’re doing).  The family also removed several photos of me and their brother/nephew/uncle Rinchen.  As a monk who raised a sign for Free Tibet, Rinchen was arrested and put in prison.  After three years of being half-starved and tortured, he was released and escaped to Dharamsala where I met him on the street.  We became fast friends and I now serve as the living link to his family, who never expect to see him again.

As the world turns, Rinchen was given a visa by the Australian Government in 2007 (something they did for 50 Tibetan high profile ex-political prisoners), so almost every day he calls us from Sydney and checks in.   While we eat yak meat momos and sit in our mud house, with a dome of trillions of stars glittering above us in the Milky Way, Rinchen is often on break from his job as an aide at a nursing home, or sitting on Bondi Beach in Sydney with Tibetan friends.

Rinchen has described his low-pay/hard work job to me as, “As the very best job I could ever have.  It makes me very happy. I love taking care of these old people.  They are often angry at the world and I like to talk to them and make them happy and help them change their dirty clothes.”

With the news of a possible police arrival, I laid out the painting supplies and gave Barb a quick lesson in painting leaves, so we could look like authentic flower painters, but the police never showed up, and we’ve almost forgotten the whole scare even happened.


A Quick Sketch of a Leaf (the Asteraceae Ligularia) to Show to the Police

Yesterday afternoon, unexpectedly a man showed up at the house who looked almost exactly like Uncle Tsering Ngodhup, same nose, mouth and eyes.  Yee-Doh is, in fact, a stepbrother—they have the same father and are one year apart in age.  He came to thank me for my financial assistance when his brother, a Lama from Gansi Monastery, fell ill.  This was several months ago.  Rinchen had told me the Lama was ill and in great pain and no one had money for him to go to Chengdu to get proper assessment or medical care.  I sent the money so he could go and be taken care of, but he died a month ago, at the age of 55 years.  This Lama was the main teacher at the nunnery up the mountain where Rinchen’s sister is a nun. I first met him 4 years ago. Yee-Doh held my hand and wept as he talked about how this was his younger brother, a very kind Lama, always willing to do anything to help the nuns learn.  His road had been hard and he should not have been the one to die first.  He showed us all photos of the funeral pyre burning on the mountain with monks from Gansi Monastery and nuns from Gedun Choeling Nunnery in attendance, praying for his positive rebirth.


Yi-Doh Shows Us Photos of the Funeral Pyre--the Death Ritual of His Brother Who Was Lama of Geden Choeling Nunnery

Late in the morning, we went to a hot springs about 45 minutes away.  It is owned by a monastery, where (wouldn’t you know it?) the very large natural pool is mostly for men and monks and it is bad form for women to get in there, too.  There is another much, much smaller area for the girls.   It is a warm pool behind some rocks and the nearby ground is strewn with empty laundry soap packages and shampoo bottles, with the occasional flip flop scattered in among the litter.  We scrubbed down and were on our way, stopping briefly on the main road (a two-laner with a car or truck going by every 15 minutes) to buy snacks from a Chinese vendor.  He was pushing his cart like a popsicle wagon from village to village, and sliced off some translucent noodles –maybe soy- dowsed them with chili, leaving off the MSG for us foreign types, and we chowed down on the roadside.  As we continued to drive toward Oh Szang Village, he was already pushing his cart along the empty road, the next village not even in sight,

As I write this now, Bob-boo is hoeing the potato fields with Lhamo Choedon, the snow of Khowalangri Mountain shining in the distance.  Lhamo Choedon takes care of the daily family needs, herds yaks several days a month and is the sole person responsible for bringing in the crops-barley, potatoes and peas.  She has several acres to work, no irrigation system–and, as you might guess, is a few years behind on the job. Almost every day she has a major migraine headache (what other kind of migraine is there, after all?)–which we can’t figure out if it is from the sun, from being dehydrated, or just the long view of her life of toil.


Barb and Lhamo Choedon Hoeing Potatoes--Migraine Headaches on the Horizon

I shall take a turn at the potatoes after I haul up buckets of water from the well, and as the sun goes down, we’ll be set for a dinner of thukpa (noodles and vegetables) and another round of mysteries.

Stay tuned.

November 23, 2009 Posted by | Letters from Tibet | , , , | 1 Comment

Letters from Tibet #2- I Take Some of It Back

May 25-June 1, 2009

Okay, I take a lot of it back.  After that last letter, we arranged for the expensive truck, went out for spaghetti and meat balls again to get ourselves ready, came back to the hotel at 10:00pm to find Uncle Wangyal sitting in the lobby waiting for us.  He had come in from 1.5 hours away out in the country for the second time that day, and said he had a truck.  A young woman with a very beautiful face and abrasive voice got on her cell phone and starting yelling at God knows who, Jason (English nom de plume of our handsome hotel manager who I have a crush on) translated between Chinese and English, and after only 2 hours of yelling and the Tibetans’ phone ringing every two minutes (Jason: “My God, they’re busier than I am and I run a 145 room hotel!”  Me:  “They must be drug dealers–that’s the only explanation.”), it was decided that we would leave at 6:30 am with the new/old truck with a Chinese driver who was a friend of some one or other and spoke no English. During all of this fol-de-rol, the Tibetan dance troupe arrived back in full costume from a successful performance at the Intangible Culture Festival and ran exuberantly around the lobby leaping and singing Tibetan opera and punching each other in the arms.


Map of Eastern Tibet, Kham, Where We Are Headed--Check Out Ganzi, Our Final Destination

We left Chengdu at 6:30am on schedule and drove for 40 hours (usually takes 18 hours).  We had to buck road construction for hours, a blinding snowstorm coming over a 16,000 foot pass, and a driving rainstorm with rain coming at us like crystal swizzle sticks.


Bone Jarring Ride Past and Through Inexplicably Inefficient Road Construction

The driver kept talking to us in Chinese and looking at road signs, asking me where to go.  I had no idea, as I don’t read Chinese and couldn’t remember the way to Gansi–all yak herds were looking the same.


Driving Past Yak Herds in a White Out Snowstorm

The fun nature of the trip was added to by a leak of freezing water coming in through the roof  of the cab-right over Barb’s head.  Being Barb, she gamely just wadded up a plastic bag and balanced it on her hair to ward off a potentially severe head cold.


Barb Wearing State of the Art Rain Gear (Note Look of Amazement on the Driver's Face)

Finally we crossed the last high pass (Gye La Pass–4,290 m/14,075 ft) and descended into the fabulous Tagong grasslands (a bit snow-covered for our arrival, but grasslands none the same).  We pulled into our hotel about 10:00pm, falling out of the cab and into the hugs of the hotel’s owner.  I’ve been through here before and they are always a warm, inviting group, chattering away.  They showed us our rooms, and ran to the kitchen to start preparing a meal of thukpa (vegetable soup), rice, yak meat, potatoes–enough for a hungry party of forty, although we were the only guests.


1,000 Year Old Stupa Next to Our Hotel

Early morning, we were on the road again, the potholes and mud slides hardly fazing us.  In the fields were decorated ponies and people with red yard woven in their hair, topped off with big amber and ivory headdresses and huge chunks of turquoise hanging from their ears.  Snow covered the fields and the yaks in the meadows who also sported red yarn in their tails.   We passed the beautiful homes made of native stone–they have a crisp rich feel–and indeed the Tagong grasslands are known for their fertile fields and fine architecture.


Typical Stone Home in the Tagong Grasslands

The Tibetan Plateau is known for its highly decorated windows and doors on stores, hotels, homes and monastic centers–designs include mountains, animals like the snow lion, flowers, leaves and the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.


Window Decoration on Home

Typical Window Decoration

Stone Home with Painted Window

The snow gradually disappeared and the roads improved a slight bit, cheering us up immensely.  There is nothing that makes your heart skip and speaks more to being in Tibet than rounding a bend in the road and seeing Om Mani Padme Hung (often spelled and pronounced by Westerners as Hum)–the Tibetan prayer to end suffering for all sentient beings painted on the hillside high above a village.


Om Mane Padme Hum on the Hillside Above a Village

. . . or driving by a village and seeing prayer flags stretching up the mountainsides, fluttering in the wind, sending  out these same prayers of compassion out into the universe.


Prayer Flags on the Mountainside in the Tagong Grasslands

The weather began to clear before Tagong, where we stopped briefly at Lha-Khang Monastery, one of those shining examples that the Chinese Government has on display to show that all is well in the land of Tibetan Buddhism.  I could be wrong about the public relations motivation on this one, but I have been there many times and have never seen more than a few monks on the grounds, and never heard or seen a ritual in progress.


Lha-Khang Monastery at Tagong

Hours later (9:00pm), after more hours of insanely inefficient 10km/hour road construction, we crossed the final pass that signaled we were almost in Gansi.  It was just in time–we were all ready to crack.


Climbing the Last Pass Before We Drop Down into the Dri-Chu River Valley

In the village of Oh Szang, a short drive beyond Gansi, we were greeted with tears and hugs by the villagers, and within minutes a fight with the driver had ensued because I had agreed to pay him more for the trials and tribulations of the trip and they thought I shouldn’t and insisted I not, hustling me into the house (We’ll take care of this!!”).

Jason had been calling all day from Chengdu to track our progress (world’s most nurturing hotel manager) and got on the phone and talked to everyone while the driver and the villagers yelled.  Finally, I had Jason tell the driver I would give him the agreed upon fare in front of everyone, he should accept it graciously, and I would slip the remaining $130 “tip” under his seat in the truck.  This came down with no further problems–we all went in the mud house to eat momos (including the driver), and be force fed with cookies and tea, and slept a sound sleep after being tucked in by Lhamo Choedon, my friend Ricnhen’s sister, and a woman who has become a friend like family over the last years.

Today we put one of the fab tents up and Uncle Soega went off to town to negotiate for tent poles, spikes and other accessories.


November 23, 2009 Posted by | Letters from Tibet | , , , , | Leave a 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