Wednesday, January 28, 2009


White falls in feathers
Cold tears melt upon my cheeks
My world purified

-Butternut Squash

About White: Here is an excerpt from a letter that a friend wrote to me about the passing of his father. I went to my village where I found that my father was dead. I had to stay there from the 26th of January to the 9th of February. I had to perform the death ceremony of my father. I shaved my hair and eyebrows, and I must wear white for one year. I had to eat only one meal of butter, rice and sugar in 24 hours for 13 days. I had to take 15-16 baths each day. It was very difficult for me.
The traditions may be different, but the suffering is the same.

I won't be around for a while, It is time to travel again. Before I leave, I wanted to share my poem with you for 'Poetry Reading' February 2nd.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Dream of the Lost Souls

Yellow Hat Monks in Kathmandu, Nepal
A few days after I was married, I left on a buying trip to Nepal, by myself. My husband had obligations and couldn't come with me. (From a previous post.)

It used to take me a full day of travel just to reach Bangkok. I would fly across the US, to LA to Osaka, Japan and then up to Bangkok, Thailand. By the time that I arrived it would be late in the evening and I would take a taxi to a $20 hotel in the business district near the French Embassy. It has changed a lot since I used to go there. At that time it was always open with rooms available 24 hours a day. A couple of teenage boys would sleep on chairs in the lobby. So whenever I arrived, someone could check me in. The rooms were very simple, but clean enough.

As you might imagine, I would be absolutely wiped out from the trip. And my internal clock was completely turned upside down from the time change. So, as soon as I arrived, I showered and went to bed.

Dreams have some catching up to do after you have been without sleep for so long. I always find that my dreams are more colorful and fantastic when I have been without them for a while. But sometimes I have dreams that are not of the same quality as the others. I have had a few that have come true in inconsequential ways, some that are scary and some that are easy to control so that I can take flight and go where I like. This type of lucid dreaming is my favorite. But three times in my life, I have had a very different kind of dream. The first time, was the night that I first started my menses. I was fifteen and in terrible pain. My parents left me to sleep in our play room because they knew I was having a rough time and they didn't want to wake me to send me to bed. That night, I was aware of my surroundings as if I was asleep with my eyes wide open. A man walked in the door of the playroom and stood there. I don't know what he wanted, but I was terrified. I screamed silently in my sleep until I screamed myself awake. When I finally managed to open my eyes, the scene in the room was exactly the same although I could no longer see the man standing in the doorway watching me. I had to get up and run through the man to get out of the room. I put my head down and ran into my parents room and jumped into bed with them, something I hadn't done in about 10 years.

The second time that I had this kind of dream was only two years later. Again a was suddenly aware of being able to see the room around me quite clearly. I sat up at the edge of the bed and put my hand out to turn on the light. My hand went right through the light and I could see my body still lying on the bed. The shock of this caused me to slip and roll back into myself. As soon as I was fully reconnected with my body I jumped out of bed for real and went to find my father who was still up and washing dishes in the kitchen. I decided not to say what woke me up.

The third time that I had one of these dreams was after that long journey to Thailand shortly after I was married at 29. My hotel room had two single beds. I fell asleep very quickly, but shortly after I fell asleep, I was aware of the room again as if I was looking through the backs of my eye-lids. Everything in the room was exactly as it had been when I went to bed except that I had visitors. There was a monk lying seemingly deceased on the bed next to mine. Around the departed or nearly departed, three other monks in long dark red robes with large yellow hats were marching clockwise around the body. One of them swung an incense burner as they circumambulated and chanted. They were completely absorbed in what they were doing until they came around the foot of the bed when one of the monks realized that I was there and looked at me right into my eyes with a fierce and fixed gaze. I cannot ever remember the feeling of being seen in any other dream than this one. Usually it is the dreamer that does all of the seeing.

In seconds I was awake again and running down the stairs to the lobby. I was asking the teenagers how old the building was and had anyone ever seen any ghosts there before. They said that the building was quite old but they hadn't heard about any ghosts. They also pointed out that Thai monks wear orange robes and do not have big yellow hats.

I couldn't go back to sleep that night. I didn't want to be alone in the room, so I went out on the town with another guest at the hotel.

The dream was vivid in my imagination for years. A couple of years after my first child was born, I was on another buying trip in Nepal. There on the wall of a different hotel was a mural of the same red robed monks with large yellow hats that I had seen in my dreams. It just so happened that on this trip, I was treated to a dinner by a member of the Dalai Lama's family because I had done her a small favor. (It's a very big family.) I was so surprised about the painting that I had seen on the wall, that I had to tell her my dream. She was sure that it was a reincarnation dream and that perhaps my son was a reincarnate. She urged me to contact his holiness's office. I still have his business card, but I was not prepared for the prospect of a special Buddhist education for my child. I have never made any contact.

Over the years I have thought many times of Lhasa's lost. All of those deeply religious gentle souls that passed so quickly and so violently. I think about their spirits being scattered around the world still praying for the enlightenment of all of us.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Anxiety Dreaming

Creepy Sheepy for the Sleepy

What a horror, I can hardly breathe. I am lying flat on my back struggling to awake from a dream. The air is thick and warm. My body is like lead. I can’t move. I know I am awake. I can see the room around me perfectly in shades of black and gray. Another anxiety dream, I should have realized that. My children are at the end of the bed safely asleep.

Exhausted from stress filled dreams, I still can’t move. The house is extremely dark and quiet. There is neither moon nor wind. There is only heat and humidity and the empty place where my husband ought to be. I am alone again with the boys and with a strange sense of vulnerability that haunts women who are unaccustomed to being alone. Perhaps it is really just a dread of going back to sleep.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

There is a loud sharp rapping at my bedroom door! Someone is in my house at my bedroom door. I want to scream, but I can’t make a sound.

So close that I can feel the breath on my neck, a whispering man's voice says, “You are here, this is now.”

Shocked fully awake, I am sitting bolt upright in my bed, eyes wide open and looking for ghosts.

O. K. There isn’t going to be anymore of this, I tell myself, I have got to get some help.

The boys are safely off to day care and school and I am alone in the car driving on narrow winding roads up and down through thickly wooded Maryland countryside looking for the place my sister recommended. I arrive at such an average looking dwelling that I am concerned I have come to the wrong place. From the outside it appears to be a typical colonial style home with a pristine lawn and a general purpose decorative wreath on the door.

“Hi, I’m Julia.” I introduce myself to this very ordinary woman with Eastern European features.

My first impressions dissolve as the exterior world gives way to the interior. Her living room is a chaotic assemblage of crystals, herbs, candles and feathers. There are several cages around the room. A few of them hold hamsters and squirrels though many of the cages are empty. I think that I occasionally see something scurry past on the floor.

“Excuse me dear, but smoking is the one vice that I find necessary to indulge.” She admits this while she lights a long pipe. “It’s organic, not to worry.” A pleasant scented tobacco fills the air. “Smells cross over easily from one realm to another. I find them very useful.” She inhales deeply and looks at me sternly. “Your sister told me about what was bothering you, but I would like you to tell me in your own words.”

Until this moment, I had not realized how much I needed this invitation. Where else could I have found someone who would listen and not dismiss my inner haunting? A flood of worried dreams spews forth from my mouth. "...And then the gnarled hands of three old women reached out of the singing bowl and tried to pull me off of the bed and into the bowl with them." I end.

“You are ignoring your spiritual self.” She tells me flatly when I have finished. “You had an invitation to learn from the cackling crones which you have ignored entirely.” She pauses, closes her eyes and takes another long draw from the pipe. “Also, you are allowing the responsibility of caring for your children to consume you. There should be time for your dreams as well.”

Sleep is what all mothers need most, I think to myself.

She looks behind me as if someone had interrupted her.

“What just happened?” I ask.

“Your spirit guide is here.” She replies. “He’s ranting. Apparently he has been trying to get your attention for some time but you tend to ignore him.”

“Oh.” I say sheepishly. Somehow, I recognize truth in this remarkable revelation, even though I can not remember ever being aware of a spirit guide.

“It was your spirit guide knocking on your door last night. You are a ‘dream-worker.’ Your work here is very important.” Her words are confident.

She stands up and crosses the room, “I have a book for you. It will explain everything that you should know.”

Surprised and extremely curious, I cannot wait to read the book that will answer all of my questions. The Shaman returns with the book in her outstretched hand. I see the book in her hand. The title is as clear as day. I read it but for some reason I can’t understand it. When I reach for the book its grainy cover dissolves in my hand.

Mommeee, I’m a wakey boy. Come get me.” John’s sing-songy voice is calling from somewhere…the's morning.

Short Story by Butternut Squash

(Have you read Nathaniel Hawthorne's, "Young Goodman Brown?" It is one of my favorite short stories. It is rich with subtle symbolism--go read it again when you have a chance.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Meditation on Inner Space and Outer Space

Our neighbor's yard.
The house across the street.
From the air, the coastline of Japan looked as though it had been devastated by a killer fungus. When I arrived for the first time, I couldn't understand what had happened to all of the greenery in the cities. Most of the homes were the color of concrete, the streets devoid of trees or grass. Every living thing had been consumed by the needs of its human inhabitants.
In much of Asia, cities are so packed that one is physically brushing up against other people every time one walks the street. If you live in a city this may not be surprising to you, but I came from farmland in Ohio where I could bike for an hour without seeing another human being.
While I lived in Japan, I became comfortable with the empty inner spaces. On their trains, I might be packed in so tightly with other human beings that my feet no longer touched the floor. But I was able to return to my empty room on the 21st floor. The bed would be rolled away into the closet leaving only an empty tatami mat floor and a simple scroll on the wall. Living space was small, but empty, and this was true of many of the homes that I visited.
Here in the US where land is open and empty, I am often taken aback by the clutter with which people will fill their space. Both the interiors and exteriors of homes will be packed with useless objects.
Why is there a need to fill the empty space?
As for myself, I find that I seek the empty spaces whether interior or exterior. I find a great peace in the emptiness.
A shopping area, typical of many large cities in Asia, can be viewed at this link:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prophecy with Love

"I have been to the mountain top"
This picture was taken in the Dhunche region of Nepal, a few days ago. It is a gift with a prayer of enlightenment for the citizens of the USA on the auspicious occasion of the inauguration of President Obama from their friends in Nepal!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Right to Beg

Above: a begging bowl, a shaman's mask, and a shell horn.

Below: an old Tibetan coin, pre-Chinese

Begging seemed to be a significant means of support for many in Lhasa. It supported prayerful pilgrims and supplemented the income of several of the vendors we encountered. As we walked slowly through the maze of unpaved streets and vending tables, people motioned in earnest to their mouths and put their hands out to us. When we walked by them not making a contribution, they followed us for blocks tugging at our sleeves. Some people begged with only half-hearted interest. They extended their up-turned palms as we passed but didn't bother to try to make eye contact with us or even to discontinue their conversations with their friends. Other people plunked themselves down in the middle of the street with begging bowls, obstructing the flow of pedestrian traffic. There were a few beggars whose families had dragged their crippled bodies into the dirt road and left them there, unable to sit upright, with a begging bowl somewhere nearby. Even seemingly happy, healthy, rosy-cheeked children would stop playing to come and ask us for money. One little boy, about 5 years old, ran up to me and extended his six-fingered hand. He seemed awfully pleased with his money-earning deformity, so I shook his hand and congratulated him. He gleefully ran back to his friends to play again.

At lunch we stopped in a local restaurant and pointed to the food we wanted. A steady flow of beggars came to the door and looked mournfully at us while we ate. Some of them were even bold enough to come in and hover over our table. Every now and again, the restaurant owner would shoo them away. Sometimes, he would hand them a coin or two so they wouldn't return.

After we finished eating, I saw a man take a bowl from a different restaurant to beg for the scraps from our table. The restaurant owner swiftly dumped our leftovers into his bowl before he was scooted out the door again.

Certainly poverty was a huge factor in this scene, but that was not all that was going on here. Here seemed to be a culture that was very tolerant of begging. Most monks of course, carry begging bowls and donations are their primary means of support. I had seen beggars all over the world, but I had never seen begging like this before. I had seen women with children lying in the gutters begging in Thailand. In the US and Europe, I usually saw some combination of the mentally ill and the addicted begging. The worst dispair I have ever seen in the eyes of a beggar was in Japan where the contrast between those who have and have not was the greatest and the tolerance for begging the least. But here, where there were more beggars than anywhere I have ever been in my life, the beggars didn't seem to be overwhelmed with dispair and frustration or contempt for their oppressors. More often than not, they had smiles on their faces. To me it seems to be, at least in part, one's attitude that dictates the depth of suffering.
I know that you are wondering if I gave them money. I did not. I have contributed to Tibetan fundraising on many occaisions, but my travel experiences taught me that giving a hand out publicly can create a mob scene.
*This is for my friends who may not already know...Tibetans have had a difficult path to follow in recent times. Their freedom of religion was nearly destroyed from 1959 to 1979. According to the Dalai Lama, 6,000 monasteries were razed leaving only a few dozen. Without the monasteries, there was minimal education, lost culture, severe poverty and oppression. The land has few natural resources and the traditional farming was destroyed when the Chinese kept people from planting as they always had in the past.
Also, you should note that I am telling a story that happened many years ago, everything changes with time and Lhasa now may not be the Lhasa that I saw. (Go back to see the beginning of the story.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Color on a Drab Gray Canvass

Tibetan Monastery in Nepal: this is to give you an idea of the type of architecture and painting that we saw in Tibet.

Colorful Prayer Flags: look carefully, these go on for miles between the trees on the mountain tops.

After breakfast we went in search of local color and found a lot of it. Paintings similar to the flower and jewel design in our bedroom could be found all over the dusty gray of Lhasa's landscape. Tibet's distilled sunshine reflected dazzlingly off of the white-washed homes with elaborately painted doors and window frames. At least 100 red-robed monks strolled the crowded streets. Many of them continuously churned the ethers with their silver prayer wheels.

The Tibetan women wore long gray cloth dresses that covered them from the neck to the ground. They accessorized with brightly woven belts and beautiful necklaces of coral, turquoise, gold and silver. Pink, purple and green yarn with turquoise beads were woven into the coiled braids of their hair, and giant gold and turquoise earrings hung from their ears.

As I was desperately in need of a new pair of shoes, we headed to the outdoor market. (See earlier post 'Feet to the Fire') Men stood behind tables selling amethyst, crystal, citrine, aventurine, multi-colored glass beads from India, stone chops, painted bottles, enameled harmony balls from China and bronze or silver Gurkha knives and rainbow colored sweaters from Nepal. The few items that might actually have been from Tibet were hand woven cloth, carpets and prayer flags in primary colors.

At last, I found a vendor selling shoes. Alas, the only shoes that fit my feet were made for Chinese soldiers, military green and drab brown made of canvas uppers and a flat leather sole. I bought some very thick hand knitted socks to keep my feet warm. The shoes were absolutely terrible. I used those shoes to go trekking in the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas and halfway through the trek, the nails poked through into my heels. I ended up with bleeding blistered feet hiking the mountains in shower thongs.

*People always ask me about all of the Tibetan handicrafts that I buy in Tibet...I don't buy them in Tibet. They have a thriving international trade in Lhasa, but all of the Tibetan items that I buy are always made by Tibetan refugees living outside of Tibet. Other than the prayer flags, I did not see evidence of any traditional Tibetan ritual objects actually being made in Tibet. I can only guess the reasons so I won't try to tell you why this is.

*A prayer wheel looks something like a scepter. Inside is a tightly wound scroll of prayers. The Tibetans use it as a tool to help keep them focused in the generation of prayers for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. (They are praying for you, always.) You can see a few of these on the Himalayan Handicraft portion of our web site.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Prejudice and Fear

When you look at this, what do you see?

In Tibetan Buddhist mythology, this is Yama, the lord of the underworld, death personified, who holds the wheel of life in his hands. Despite his appearance, Yama is not evil. He is a wrathful creature devoted to protecting Buddhism and Buddhists.
What is more frightening for you than the Death? Is it the culture or the religion you don't know? I have met people who won't even look at a picture like this because they believe it to be pure evil. Although we may be frightened of death, it is not evil, it is merely inevitable.
In my opinion, the culture one comes from, or a person's religion is far less important than their truthfulness, bravery, and the quality of their actions. But this appears not to be true for some. There are people willing to kill to defend their beliefs in the superiority of their particular group.
In the past couple of days I saw, at a local grocery store, a picture of a black person on a work related poster. Pins were pushed into the eyes and neck and arms. No other pictures were disfigured in this way. I removed the offending pins. Today, I was at a local music store. There was a picture of a black couple promoting couple therapy and family unity. Someone had again stabbed the picture of the black couple all over with a pin. Again, no other pictures of white people were marred.
I recently read a sign, a bumper sticker, that said, "Pacifism is a luxury paid in the blood of warriors." But I disagree, there is nothing more courageous than choosing peace in the face of weapons. Peace is the way, not just the goal. Imagine the courage that it would have taken for that vandalizer to engage in conversation with and learn about black people face to face.
For those of you raised in a black family it doesn't sound like much, but for those raised in a culture of fear it means a great deal. Now substitute black for any group you fear!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

All Good Things in Time

Sorry, it is not a picture of a Yak. Since I don't have a picture of a yak I took a picture of the beautiful Scottish Highland Steer in our side yard. He looks a little yakkish but he is about half the size.

Two hours after the knock on our door, I opened my eyes again and began to really appreciate my new surroundings. This was not the boring neglected over used dormitory that I had come to expect during my low budget travels in China. This was a simple but clean room with a beautiful jewel and lotus design stenciled all around the top of the room.

I pushed my quilts aside and sat on the edge of my ancient bed. My brain was spinning. Rather than try to stand immediately, I slowly turned toward the window sill where I had started a collection of wadded up, pink toilet paper that was more like a light gauge sand paper. I put my hand to the tip of my battered nose and felt for permanent damage before I blew again. Cheryl rolled in her bed, so I took the toilet paper and tip-toed out of the room in search of Colin. When I found him in the restaurant, he had just at that moment, after waiting for two hours, received his much anticipated breakfast.

The menu board, which was written in English, included Yak-burgers, yak-cheese, and yak-milk yogurt. More importantly, pizza, apple-pie, and minestrone soup were also on the menu. These were foods we hadn't encountered in months of traveling. I ordered apple pancakes and in another hour, I received a delightful breakfast.

*If you are from the US, it is hard to imagine being anywhere where you couldn't find pizza or a place that couldn't serve you a burger in minutes. But these are all things of a modern world. Imagine if you had so little money that you had to go and buy the groceries when a customer asked for a meal. Then you had to light the yak dung fire to cook it. And when the fire was lit, everything that you cooked took much longer to cook because of the higher altitudes. You could spend your time griping about lost time, or just do what you can and not worry about it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Waking up in a Sparkling New World

I often hear women in the US say that they can't wear large pieces of jewelry because their bodies are too small. Tibetan women don't have any such hesitation. This pendant is 6 inches or about 15 cm from top to bottom. It was only one small portion of the full ensemble.

When we arrived in Lhasa rattled and exhausted from our horrific bus ride, we were greeted with enthusiastic and beautiful smiles. A Chinese tractor with a flat platform hitched to the back was sitting there waiting for us as if they knew we were coming. The four of us, Cheryl, Colin, David and I, all piled ourselves and belongings onto the platform. Colin, the Chinese speaking Scotsman, said that they were taking us to a place to sleep. We were far too exhausted from the horrific bus trip to care where we were going as long as it had beds.

The tractor rattled down the unpaved road through a gate to an inner court-yard. It was an old family home, perhaps hundreds of years old, that had been converted into a guest house. The four of us were taken by candle light up an old wooden ladder to a pitch black room with four beds. We climbed in and fell solidly into slumber.

In the morning dazzling shafts of sunlight pierced the dark shutters and illuminated the dust specks as they gently floated to the floor of our quiet room. David, Colin, Cheryl and I lay motionless on our straw-filled mattresses under heavy quilts. Our bodies were warm and limp with fatigue while the edges of our nostrils felt icy with each deep draught of the cold, dry Tibetan air.

Tap, tap, tap...
Rap, Rap, Rap...
Knock, Knock, Knock..

Colin shuffled to the door and opened it abruptly, surprising the 8-year-old purified water salesman in mid-knock.

"What are you doing waking people up at this indecent hour of the morning?" Colin asked roughly.

The boy, who didn't fully understand Colin's Mandarin Chinese, but who did understand the sentiment, smiled at Colin with both amusement and embarrassment.

"Don't come back tomorrow," Colin grumped before he shut the door.

*Here, I am finally introducing you to my traveling companions. They were warm, witty, intelligent people and I was truly blessed to have been able to travel with them. Cheryl and I knew each other from our time as teachers in Japan. Colin, from Scotland, and David, from Australia, were friends from a former journey. We met them shortly after we arrived in China and traveled with them for months. I am only getting around to introducing them now, because I had no idea where I was going with this story when I started it. We were all part of that international nomad culture that I assume still exists today. There are young people, who travel, sometimes for years, from one back packer haven to another. They live dirt cheap and pick up odd jobs to support their travel addiction. It's fun for a while, but it can become lonely wandering without roots.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sledding on Grass

Desperate for adventure the Soggy Bottom boys tried to sled on mostly grass. We had a blast.

Afterward, we went out for Chinese food. Have you ever wondered about those witty notes in your cookie? How hard would it be to write those?

Mine said, "You had better post something today or the world will come to an end."

I'll return to the Tibet stories shortly. In the meantime, "Watch your thoughts, as they become actions."

OK, it's not mine, but it is a beautiful and powerful statement of self fulfilling prophecy. It is what was really inside the fortune cookie. I would love to read your reactions to it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


It's good to be in the moment.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ignorance is Death not Bliss

This is an old Tibetan earring. It is 2.5 inches in diameter and has a giant plug in the back that would require a hole big enough to put a pencil through it.
"Lovely,"said one of my companions before reading the passage in the Lonely Planet travel guide that none of us had bothered to look at. "'Most visitors to Tibet and Qinghai will suffer some symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness.) Temporary symptoms are headaches, sleeping difficulties, nausea and dizziness. If any of these symptoms persist or worsen, you should immediately descend to a lower altitude and seek medical help.' Well, I don't think there's much chance we'll be able to do that." He concluded.
We still didn't know very much. How high was too high? How high were we? What does one do if they can't go down?
My headache that started on the ascent from Golmud, became more intense and I began to feel like I was in a dream world...The bus stopped at 1:30 a.m. We had to get off of the bus. Someone was taking money at the door of another little hut. It seemed like a lot of money but no one was arguing. The ground no longer felt solid under my feet. I was walking but going nowhere. I wanted to lie down. One of my friends fainted and the two others were helping to support both of us into the building. Somebody asked how I was doing but given the circumstances, I just said, "I'm OK." 'I think I'm dying,' wouldn't have been very productive.
It was pitch black in the dormitory. We carried a little candle to the room because there was no electricity. There was also no heat. The girl who fainted said she was cold. The beds had blankets but all of the doors were wide open. I was cold too so I didn't bother to get in my own bed. I lay down on the single cot next to my friend and put my arm over her to keep us warm.
It was impossible to sleep. The headache was too intense. Awake, I listened to other passengers wretch onto the dirt floor in their rooms, while I prayed for sleep.
At 6:30 a.m. we were roused and herded back onto the bus. The skull splitting pain stayed with me through the morning and was accompanied by a fever. I couldn't eat or drink. For hours I struggled to keep my head up. Finally, I rested my head on the shoulder of the Monk seated next to me. He didn't even give a worried glance.
Though he carried no luggage, all sorts of items would magically appear from his robes. He produced water, a book, a can of peaches and a can opener, and once he even offered me a brown speckled piece of rock candy. Thinking that he knew some special trick for overcoming altitude sickness, I ate the dirty rock candy and gave him my tin of La Vie French fruit hard candies.
I kept my head on his shoulder for most of the rest of the journey only opening my eyes or lifting my head rarely. Once when I opened my eyes I saw a man leading a camel through the rugged terrain. Another time I saw a small cluster of houses and felt sorry for the inhabitants.
I didn't know how much danger we were in while we traveled across that plain. I didn't know that my pounding heart and rasping lungs, the dreamlike confusion, and lack of balance were real danger signs. Much later, I read that deaths from acute mountain sickness have occurred at around 3,050 m (10,000 ft) although they are more likely above 4,600 m (15,000 ft). Our journey was at an elevation of 4,500-5,000 m (14,765-16,405 ft), with the highest point reaching 5,072 m (16,641 ft). The place where we stopped to sleep was about 4,900 meters(16,000 ft).
I descended from the bus into Lhasa at 3,650 m (11,975 ft) at 11:30 p.m., still quite ill, in a pair of socks and shower thongs.
*Go back and read previous posts if you are having trouble understanding this.
5,280 ft (1,609 m) Denver, CO
6,288 ft (1,917 m) Mt. Washington, NH
8,000 ft (2,430 m) Machu Picchu, Peru
16,730 ft (5,100m) Wenzhuan, Tibet Highest city in the world (which is in Qinghai province, where we were.)
20,320 ft (6,194 m) Mt. McKinley
29,029 ft (8,848 m) Mt. Everest

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Feet to the Fire

I bought three of these wall hangings. They were painted on canvass that was glued to jigsawed wood. I wanted to import them for sale. Even though I got the address and a telephone number, the shop disappeared over night and I was never able to buy any more.
When the sun went down the interior of the bus became ice cold for everyone except those of us who were seated over the exhaust pipe which ran down the left side on the interior of the bus. I started sweating and my feet were burning so I got up and went to stand by the open door of the bus. The young Danes who were sitting by the half missing door, were having the opposite problem. Freezing air blew on them continuously so that they were suffering from hypothermia even in all of their clothes with double socks, under a blanket and a plastic sheet. When the Danes feet became so cold that they could no longer feel them, we decided to trade seats. It didn't take very long before I wanted my seat back. Fortunately for them, there were several other passengers willing to trade seats for a while.
I managed to find a kind of balance in my seat. I dropped my shoes and pulled my feet up underneath me. To make myself complete, I needed a little blanket which I didn't have. The monk sitting in front of me had far more robe hanging behind his seat than he really needed. I very gently lifted the robe and pulled it over me. If he noticed, he didn't seem to mind.
Dropping my shoes to the floor turned out to be a very bad idea. About an hour later, there was the horrible smell of burning plastic. My only pair of shoes, except for shower thongs, were bent at a 90 degree angle and burned beyond usefulness. That was one of two fires caused by the exhaust pipe on the bus that night the other one had actual flames!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pray Harder

One's safety is entirely in the hands of the bus driver, the vehicle and the road conditions. Pray harder! What would have happened if that bus broke down in the middle of hundreds of miles of nothing? (Above is a thangka of concentric prayers.)

By dusk, the gravely dirt had finally yielded a short sparse cover of grass. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something dart, then disappear. Then, I thought I saw it again. About a half a mile later there were thousands of small rodents popping in and out of the cold dry earth and scattering away from the sound of the bus. At a distance I saw what I guessed to be two foxes chasing rodents into holes.

The darker it became the more intensely the stars shone. There was no moon but the stars were incredible. I've never seen anything like it in my life and I had traveled through deserts before. I never knew you could see so many stars with your own eyes. The stars cast an eerie glow on the earth as we passed a flat empty salt lake on our right. The lake mirrored the sky to perfection not a ripple for miles. And still, no obstacles to block the view, beyond the lake it was flat as far as the eye could see.

Perspective had little meaning with such monstrous mountain peaks in the distance to the left of the bus. Imagine a gnat flying past sperm whales. Pushed up the sides of these mountain peaks was sand, or Mongolian dust dunes. They must have been hundreds of feet high.

As beautiful as it was, I was finding it difficult to enjoy. The bus jiggled and bounced until my ribs and back began to ache from the constant pounding and I felt a persistent headache creeping upon me. I had just put my head to my hands when the bus pulled in for a dinner stop.

Everyone aboard seemed desperate to evacuate the bus. The women ran to the left of the bus and the men to the right. Unfortunately, I was not wearing a robe or a dress. There is no privacy for a girl in jeans on the open Tibetan plateau! They did not provide toilets at the stop.

We raced for the door of the mud walled dinner hut to beat the hungry crowd. It was a laughable race. My companions and I were so out of breath after a few feet, that we had to stop for air. We found we couldn't even whistle. My heart was beating a ridiculous 150 beats a minute while standing still.

There was no mistaking what would be for dinner, A skinned and decapitated yak carcass hung from the outside wall of the hut. I was optimistic that a little food would make the headache go away, but there really was little food... bread, water and a clear yak broth soup with a few vegetables. Nothing looked very appealing. We tried to eat but none of my companions or I were able to keep our dinner down. We returned to the bus, no longer particularly hungry, and not feeling at all well.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ascension from Golmud

My Regrets, dirt in China killed my camera. There are no pictures for you. That's why I keep showing you thangkas.

Golmud is dry and dusty like a ghost town in the southwestern US. What I remember most about Golmud was sharing a public shower with women who couldn't take their eyes off of us. We got over it. There was a lot of public bathing while I lived in Japan, it's just that people don't usually stare.
Another thing that I remember clearly was a mostly empty department store that had Procter and Gamble Shampoo with a Chinese name. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio where Procter and Gamble is a big deal and it became much more esteemed in my mind when I found evidence of it in Golmud, China.

What seems to haunt me, though, is paying a family to sit on each others laps for about 700 miles so that we could use their seats on the bus. The money we paid them was the cost of the family's entire bus trip. They seemed very happy to have the money, perhaps $40 US, and they doubled up without complaint. We really did need the space with larger bodies and overstuffed back packs, because everything about the Chinese buses is a little more compact than you would find in the US. Still, this lingers in my mind as a kind of crass move on our part.
Dry, gravelly dirt, sand and shallow craters were the only decorations for hundreds of miles in the Tibetan plateau between the Kunlun mountains and the Great Himalayan Range. For the first couple of hours of our slow ascent from Golmud, starting at about 2,800 meters or 9,100 feet, I stared out of the window admiring the dark gravelly desert with the snow covered mountain peaks in the distance.
There were no fences because there were no animals to pen in or to keep out. And, there were no houses because there were no people. Yet there were telephone poles, pole after pole after hypnotic pole. Monotonous as it was there was a cold lonely beauty to the emptiness in striking contrast to the inner environment.
Inside, every seat was full and some overflowing. The back half of the bus was filled with smiling tonsured monks wearing dark red robes. When the bus would hit one of the large craters in the road, several of them would bounce out of their seats and bonk their noggins on the roof of the bus. Then they would all break into great peels of laughter.
The front half of the bus was filled with myself and 3 traveling companions, all of our luggage, several Chinese, a handful of young men and women from Hong Kong, and two Danish gentlemen. For the most part it was a loud and happy bunch.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I am currently taking a moment for meditation. I spent much of my day tweaking the blog and getting it ready for international guests. Welcome international guests!

Perhaps you would like to meditate with me.

An explanation of this Thangka:
In the center the yellow Buddha is at the moment of enlightenment where Buddha asks the earth to be his witness. He is surrounded by the other 'Pancha' Buddha as the Nepalese say. Each of the 5 positions of Buddha represents a different teaching.

The white Buddha with his hands up in interlocking circles demonstrating teaching...what goes around comes around.
The red Medicine Buddha at the top has his hands in the meditation pose. The green Buddha with his hand up and facing forward represents protection. The blue Buddha at the bottom has his hand facing forward in a gesture of giving and demonstrates compassion. Each color has meaning and each is associated with the expression, "Om Ma Ne Pad Me Hum," or "A jewel in a lotus."

Yellow - pride into wisdom of sameness (NI : yellow = the wisdom born of itself, patience)
White - delusion of ignorance into wisdom of reality (OM : white= wisdom of equanimity generosity)
Red - delusion of attachment into the wisdom of discernment (ME : red= discriminating wisdom, concentration)
Green - jealousy into the wisdom of accomplishment (MA : green= wisdom of activity, ethics)
Blue - anger into mirror-like wisdom (PAD : blue= the wisdom of dharmadhatu, diligence)
Black - hate into compassion (HUM : black= mirror-like wisdom, wisdom)

*This is my summary of things I have learned over the last 16 years. There are different ways that Buddhists express these ideas so go to a better source than myself for quoting.

The thangka itself is something that I used to sell. I found very few people who appreciated them here in the US. The thangka is a painting that often takes days or weeks to paint. 5 men worked together on this thangka. They prepared the canvass with a jesso made from boiled yak hide. The master painter drew the outline of the images. Other assistants painted in the color. One man was responsible for applying the silver and gold. (This is real silver and gold. I have heard very few people in Kathmandu know how to make it into paint. You don't want to spill it!) The last assistant polishes the gold or silver right on the canvass very carefully so it gleams. Other colors are also often made of crushed stone, lapis, turquoise and coral. As you can imagine they are hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

You need to go back to the beginning to understand these posts. I hope to hear from you again.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lhasa through the back door, Part Two

Throw 'em off the train

No one seemed to know for sure whether or not we could go to Tibet because of the recent unrest that I have already mentioned. So the scheme we hatched was to purchase plane tickets leaving Lhasa, Tibet for Kathmandu, Nepal before doing anything else. This way we could convince everyone that of course we were alowed to go to Lhasa in the first place why else would we have tickets? It wasn't a very good scheme, but we thought it would work. In our worst imaginings we thought that we would just be sent home if we got caught. (Months later, I realized we could have gone to prison.) It took us three days of going to the airlines and shoving our way through crowds of people to get those tickets, but we got them. I think they finally decided we were suckers. They got the money, so what if we couldn't get into Lhasa to use them. Buying train tickets as far as Golmud, China was no problem but there was no train to Lhasa back then. From Golmud we would have to take a bus.

The train ride was sheer misery. We had no place to sleep for days because we sat upright on hard over crowded benches. At times we couldn't sit at all and somewhere way out in Western China we nearly got thrown off of the train... Our Chinese traveling companions did not always choose to open the window to throw their trash on the tracks. So little by little, the floor of the train filled with orange peels, nut shells, and food wrappers. Occasionally someone would shoot a fat phlegm ball onto the floor. I'm not really sure that tea was intentionally added to the slop, but all the same it ran in gully's through the garbage. At some point the mound of garbage grew so large that a sweeper came along. She pushed the garbage up the corridor on the train until she reached the end of a car and then pushed it out the door onto the tracks. When the sweeper reached us near the end of our car, the mound of trash that she was pushing was higher that the seats we were sitting on. I thought it was hysterical and asked my friend to take a picture. She got out her camera and lifted it to her eye when a commotion started to erupt around us. Our one companion, who spoke Mandarin Chinese, started to turn a little red in the face. Very quietly he said, "They are saying throw us off the train." He kept very cool, but it was pretty obvious he was doing some quick explaining. All of us were pushed in front of the conductor who would decide if we could stay on the train or not. I thought that they might have been embarrassed about the picture that we were going to take of the garbage, but according to our Mandarin speaking friend, that wasn't it at all. The problem was that no one was allowed to take pictures from the train in that part of China. My friend finally proved to the man that we had not taken a picture. The flash would have gone off if we had. To prove the point, he showed the conductor how to take a photo himself. Somewhere I have a marvelous picture of a crowd of Chinese spectators on a train who were waiting to see if we would stay or go. We stayed.

*Just a note of explanation. At that time, 1992, not everyone in China had a camera or knew how to use one. Actually few of the Chinese people we met on our trip had them. We went to China without a guide and using the cheapest possible tickets, so our experience of China was often that of the poor. (Not what most tourists see.) I remember we asked one woman to take a photo of us and she took a picture of her own eye instead. A more affluent part of China might not have had any problem with the camera. In rural areas word of change travels a little slower, I don't really know if we were breaking a rule or not. But the reality was that Westerners were very rare in that part of China and everyone was suspicious of why we were there.

Friday, January 2, 2009

His Compassionate Eyes

Into the four directions
Here is where
You wait for me
Endless and unwavering
Prayers carried on the breeze
One long rope
Snakes smoothly up and caresses Boudha’s cheek
I see the sheet slip from your shoulder
Omnipresent one
Soon, I will return to you
My love
Your eyes beckon me
Beyond time and matter
No veil can part what is
-Butternut Squash
(This is a picture of Swyambu, but the poem was written at Boudanath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.)
Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear, And the rocks melt wi' the sun! O I will luve thee still, my Dear, While the sands o' life shall run. - Robert Burns

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lhasa Through The Back Door, part one

My introduction to Lhasa, Tibet was less than auspicious. Most of the rest of the well read world knew more about Tibet than I did while I was there. What I knew about Tibet consisted of Tin Tin in Tibet by Herge. You'd better go get a copy if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Tibet was merely on my way to Nepal from Beijing. I had been on a long journey traveling 'hard seat' through China. Sometime I will have to let you read my journals about that. My original plan was to go the Monkey Way, Trans Siberian Railway across Mongolia, the former Soviet Union, then to Europe. Unfortunately, my traveling companions and I missed our opportunity. There were some political problems that I can not now recall but it meant that it was impossible to travel that way.

Deeply disappointed that we couldn't follow the plan, we had to come up with a new adventure quickly. Why? Because what is travel with out a destination you go nowhere. (Don't miss this kid... life metaphor) I don't remember exactly, but I think I was getting a few more pages glued into my passport at the US embassy in Beijing when we found a brochure about Nepal that mentioned good food, shopping and kayaking. Nepal really piqued my curiosity because a year or two earlier a fortune teller in Kobe, Japan was reading the bumps on my head and he told me that Nepal (never heard of it) would be a good country for me. In any case China had been a bit harsh on all of us and we were ready to go elsewhere. To summarize, we had been robbed twice and almost a third time, slept in dismal places with roaches, we were all coughing from the thick pollution, one of my companions found a beak in her food without which she would not have known what animal she was eating, and the only places to shop were government shops with touristy nick-knacks like green glass Laughing Buddhas that they claimed were jade. (Remember this was back in 1992, I keep hearing that China is so much better now.) So we came up with a scheme to get ourselves from Beijing to Xian, where the terracotta soldiers are, to Tibet and then fly into Nepal.

You might think, why a scheme, why not just go buy a ticket? Well, China wasn't quite that open back then. First of all, this wasn't too many years past the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989 , about which you have no doubt heard. But also, it was very shortly after one of the horrible punishings of Tibetan Monks. This, especially, is the thing about which I was so under informed. I knew nothing about the massacres and humiliation of monks, nothing about the destruction of monasteries, nothing about the massive relocation of Chinese to Tibet. How could I not know? Well, that wasn't really mentioned in the History of Western Civilization classes I took in college, and the movies, The Little Buddha, 7 Years in Tibet, and Kundun hadn't come out yet.

Americans are really good at is exploring their own navels, often to the extreme exclusion of anything pertinent happening in the rest of the world. I was no exception.

*If you need to know more about Tibet at the time, google 'Tibet protests 1992' you will find and endless series of torture and imprisonment. There are people who have only been released from prison only this year for speaking out in 1992. A word of warning you will find murder, sexual abuse and other forms of torture.