LAX-LXA: A Personal Journey to the Top of the World

(Disclaimer –this is a long one)

I am jet lagged – and am trying to slowly assimilate. Fearful that I will develop the psychological “bends” if I ascend back into my life here in LA too quickly and slowly slogging through emails, phone calls, laundry –the stuff of life. I just got back from Tibet – and it was the kind of travel that transforms. So I want to get down the best stuff lest my addled hippocampus starts letting go of the best memories.

Tibet plays with your mind the minute you set foot in Lhasa. At over 12,000 feet it is one of the highest commercial airports in the world, and you are forced to slow down the moment you arrive – walking up stairs and heaving backpacks become an aerobic workout at any pace. As with much of my travel in the more exotic corners of the world – India, Thailand, Bali, Peru – it is the smell that catches you between the eyes. Lhasa was a unique olfactory stew of yak butter, juniper berries and the warm loamy smell of too much rain. Kipling (with typical colonial arrogance) once wrote that “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” and that was as true here as anywhere.

I had seen pictures of Potala Palace since I was a child – and it is every bit as impressive in person. For centuries, the home of the Dalai Lama – it was the fanciful fairy-tale construction of a child. Hundreds of rooms, chapels, and sweeping views of Lhasa. Visitors are allowed only one hour inside, and every one of the 350 steps are felt in that thin air. It was one of those rare times that the expectation was met by the reality. Interestingly – throughout the Tibetan plateau – the small houses in the village are all identical – adhering to a form of construction and utilization of materials that is designed for that environment. Potala is basically an amped up version of prosaic Tibetan architecture – just lots of little houses glued together. Ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.

In its own way, the Jokhang Temple was even more emotionally evocative. Jokhang is the holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists, many of whom make arduous pilgrimages to Lhasa just to make a kora (basically a clockwise walk around the building) while spinning prayer wheels, engaging in prostration (a repetitive prayer motion involving wooden pads on the hands that allow the pilgrim to alternate sliding between a standing position and lying face down while uttering mantras), and fingering prayer beads. These walks are done through the bustling Barkhor shopping district – ritual and religion in the midst of commerce. Enormous juniper incense burners juxtaposed against booths selling everything from monks’ robes to cell phone cases.

More tragic is the strong military presence. In the midst of this bustle and the devotion of the pilgrims, Chinese soldiers with assault rifles are found every 10 yards, in tents throughout the market, on rooftops, and in plainclothes. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are not permitted in Tibet, and merely being in possession of such a picture could result in a jail term. I am not a religious person, skirting that razor edge between agonisticism and atheism. And yet, never before I had ever been so grateful for my American freedoms of speech and worship – for me to sound like a patriot was one of many revelations of my time in Tibet. I definitely found the complicated and tragic recent history of China and Tibet unsettling.

Other than the time we were allowed to wander through the Barkhor alone, at all other times our guide had to accompany us. The Chinese do not look warmly on Western tourists wandering about unchaperoned. As two women traveling alone we were not permitted to enter the monasteries without him. There was a time when nearly 30% of Tibetan men would opt for monastic life – that is no longer allowed, and the restrictions are even tighter for women who wish to enter nunneries. But some men are still able to enter the monastery and I saw that monks ranged in age from snarky adolescents to older men straight out of central monk casting. Their chanting was of a particular tone and range that evoked something primitive and timeless, and when accompanied by rhythmic drumbeats and cymbals – it was impossible to not go to a contemplative place. Each of the monasteries was a self-contained campus – dormitories, chapels for worship and prayer, kitchens, gardens, libraries. The libraries are dimly lit rooms within the chapels with boxes upon boxes of hand printed scriptures in tall shelves – evoking more of a “Harry Potter-esque” medieval library. The chapels were dark and lit by yak butter lamps ranging in size from enormous vat-sized brass urns to tea-light sized receptacles. I purchased a bag of yak butter and joined the pilgrims, each of us adding butter to the lamps in the monastery in Shigatse. Each time, chanting along with the pilgrims and making wishes for the many people I love – joy for my daughters, a healthy baby for my sister, good health for my friend Tash, happiness for Rob, academic success for Hitomi, the list went on.

The tourists in Tibet were 90% Chinese, 8% European, and 1-2% American. Whether that is because of the restrictive nature of permit acquisition or the difficulty in getting to Lhasa is unclear to me – but it was striking. One young monk approached me as I made my way from chapel to chapel in one monastery with my bag of yak butter and wondered why I was participating in this ritual (I was dressed in down coat, hiking boots – I looked like a trekker not a pilgrim), when I told him I was raised in a Hindu family – I got some cred- and he gave me the inside skinny on how to get around the monastery and its labyrinthine chapels. His English was quite good, and he waved a poignant goodbye to me as I left. I had a million questions for him, but knowing that they could put him in harm’s way, I kept them to myself and could only muse on the answers.

This journey had tremendous ancillary meaning for me. I was looking for something – and that concerned me, because that is akin to walking into a bar and planning on meeting the love of your life. Odds were against me “finding” this something. I wanted two things from this trip – spiritual awakening and a reawakening of a sense of wonderment . And I wanted this not just from getting up to my elbows in Tibetan Buddhism, but in finally seeing the Himalayas.

The Himalayas have long been an obsession for me. Why, I don’t know. I remember being a child and repeatedly thumbing through photos of Everest, K2, Cho Oyu, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna the Karakoram range, and these mountains had a hold on me. I never presumed to climb them, never will -but just wanted to be in their presence. The Tibetans call Mt. Everest “Qomolungma” which for them means “Mother Goddess of the World” (and in keeping with this the Nepalese call her Sagarmatha – a name which carries similar meaning). Thus, the second part of this journey was a pilgrimage to see Everest/Qomolungma – call it what you will.

It required 2 days of driving via Land Cruiser to get there. The drive itself was a revelation. We passed through village after village that reflected the nomadic and tribal nature of Tibetan society until the 1950’s when Chinese occupation upended the fabric of Tibetan society. The villages were spaced by about a day’s walk – and nearly everyone in each village was related – a true tribe. My friend and I likened the drive to the Australian film “Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert” – the ride was filled with a thousand unscripted moments and mishaps that made all of it memorable. With Christine most moments are full of laughter, and within a few days, just the sight of a hard-boiled egg, our labored translations of a menu, or her sheer embarrassment at my hard-nosed bargaining in any marketplace sent us into paroxysms of laughter.

Road trips in the US typically mean food stops at any of a number of fast food restaurants along the way. We stopped for a snack too. Next to a field. We were confused – looking for the roadside stand. The driver and guide beckoned to the field – and after some gesturing and observing – we realized that we would have to pick our own snacks – and we partook of the fresh peas that were growing in the field. Far better than fast food. And free.

On our drive we saw the enormous Kharola glacier, and a holy lake where I stopped and stuck my hands in the glacial water as long as I could tolerate. Natural wonders beckoned around every corner – each more striking and austere than the one before.

Climbing is big business and on both the Nepalese and Chinese/Tibetan sides of the Himalaya, the respective governments regulate access tightly by excising high permit fees etc. On our drive from Lhasa to Everest we went through 13 military checkpoints where our permits were assiduously checked, passports scanned, and rifle toting soldiers either languorously waved us through manual gates or took a moment to scan the car. We were careful to NEVER snap a picture in vicinity of these garrisons lest our cameras get confiscated or worse. We passed through remote villages and outposts that were reminiscent of mean border towns and grabbed hasty lunches as we passed through.

As we traversed our last high mountain pass –a pass where it is believed that earthly spirits enter heaven, we got our first glimpse of the Himalayan range – Makalu and Cho Oyu were clearly visible, but Qomolungma remained hidden. It was the first time in life that I was actually experienced something resembling faith. I travelled untold thousands of miles to see Everest, and I came with an open heart. Whether she decided to show herself or not – my pilgrimage to that mountain was realized, and I would celebrate her with the same fervor whether or not I could see her or not. I now see that is the relationship many people have with God. In my case it was with a mountain goddess.

After we got through the pass it was 430 PM and we still had some ground to make before base camp. The driver suddenly just went off-road. We are still unsure why – but the why is not relevant. After a kidney killing few miles we hit an unexpected river that was impassable. The slope was too steep to drive back up – so we had to figure out how to cross this river – we were far off the main road so no one could see us to help us, and we probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

The logical answer was to build a bridge.

So we did.

The driver, the guide, my friend Christine and I hefted boulders and stones and constructed a makeshift bridge that would give the Land Cruiser sufficient traction and height to ford the river without getting stuck. We spent a muddy 30 minutes on our first attempt which did not work, and after a few fixes the Land Cruiser barely made it without tipping. I had never felt so alive and purposeful (and dirty).

(By the way – I now realize that Land Cruisers have a purpose and it is not to go to the grocery store in Encino, but rather to ford unexpected rivers) (and hand sanitizer is probably overkill in Sherman Oaks, but essential after using some of the more disconcerting toilets we faced).

After our little feat of engineering we settled back into the Land Cruiser and found the main road – and there she was. I looked out the window and the unmistakable pyramid of Everest rose above her sisters like a queen. The driver heard my emotion and stopped the car and I ran to the middle of the road and with tears saw her. Stunning.

We made our way to base camp – my travel companion did not want to endure the rigors of a cold tent night so I proceeded to base camp to a tent teahouse run by folks that my driver knew and was assured of my safety. The tent was heated with a yak dung stove, and the proprietors gave me some jasmine tea. I walked alone through the ramshackle collection of tent “lodges” that comprise the residential base camp for trekkers and the like. They have names like “Hotel de California” and “Karma Lodge”, each sleeps about 6. They are basically bed and breakfasts with dirt floors, and where you sleep in the same space as strangers with no bathroom. I wandered to the far edge of the base camp with my tea and proceeded to sit down to have a conversation with this Goddess Mother of the Universe. Mercifully the Tibetans and my fellow trekkers found nothing odd about a down-clad tea-sipping Indian woman speaking out loud to a mountain and so I did. It was bitterly cold (altitude was nearly 17000 feet) and windy. The setting sun lent a pinkish tinge to the face of the mountain and the Lhotse face dropped off to the West. I stayed out there until there was nothing left to see, and a gentle rain began to fall.

Amazingly there was cell phone signal at base camp and I was able to call my daughters and send a slew of emails to close friends. To be so remote and yet so connected was like swimming through a sort of technological thermocline. Dirt floors and Facebook simultaneously.

Inside my “tent” – a Chinese couple invited me to a “birthday” party celebrated with noodles, chocolate and yak butter tea. Again with few words but many gestures and bonhomie we celebrated, sang happy birthday – they in Chinese, me in English. I couldn’t sleep well – the altitude left me with a bit of a cough, the cold cut like a knife. I awoke in the night to find out that the kind Tibetan woman who ran the tent covered me with 2 large yak blankets – I couldn’t move, but I was warmer. Despite that – the sounds outside – a rushing river of snowmelt, the wind coming through the gully, the rain falling on the tent – were hypnotic, and I slayed many psychological demons and ghosts that long cold meditative night.

At morning I stirred at 6 AM (the time zone that Tibet finds itself in stretches very wide –as such – the sun doesn’t rise til quite late and doesn’t set til quite late). I stumbled in the dark in the tent lest I awaken my tent compadres to get my things together. The Tibetan woman who ran the tent invited me into the “kitchen” (dirt floors, 1 propane burner) where she whipped me up the best damned pancake I have ever eaten and endless cups of jasmine tea. This was done in the dim light of a candle – and she asked to borrow my fancy halogen headlamp – moving far more efficiently with light and her hands free.

I set off into the dawn to make a sunrise hike to the base of Everest. As the sun came up she lit the summits of other snowcapped mountains. My guide, who has hiked the trail dozens of times before, knew a few shortcuts. We were the only people on the trail and so we walked through herds of gazelle and yaks grazing on the few plants peeking through the rocks. The thin air made what would be an easy LA hike into a grueling one at 17000 feet. We finally reached the “entry” to the higher camps at Everest – and our permit did not allow us to go any further. One final checkpoint awaited us here.

The mountain showed herself in unyielding majesty. I proceeded down a scree slope to construct cairns – for my daughters, for my dreams, for my nephew who will be born in November. I did a personal puja for my mountain. However, my guide, wanting to ensure that we got back on the road and to our destination before dark impatiently shifted in the cold air.

By 1030 AM we started the hike back to the tent base camp to fetch belongings and start the long drive back to Shigatse. Five minutes into the hike I looked back. Everest/Qomolungma had gone behind the clouds. Faith? Coincidence? Who the hell knows.

On our hike back we saw isolated meditation huts high in the foothills. Places where the most devoted could climb in that thin air and sit in austere grace to meditate in the face of those mountains. At the tent camp I gave my headlamp as a gift to the lovely Tibetan woman who provided me with that pancake and who worked magic in her tiny little “kitchen”. Her life would be made easier, and I selfishly loved the idea of leaving light back there in the shadow of Qomolungma.

We took a brief stop at Rongbuk monastery – the highest monastery in the world at nearly 16000 feet and then started the LONG drive back. Back through the dozen checkpoints, through dusty villages, and endless plateau. The Spartan accommodations in Shigatse seemed quite luxe at this point, and our final drive took us back to Lhasa and a kora through the market, a final look at Potala, and a last meal.

And adding to the surreal and dreamy quality of the trip – I found myself on a conference call with print journalists and my fellow THINtervention cast members Jackie Warner, Craig Ramsay, and Jeana Keogh at 2 AM on my last day in Lhasa. A slow re-introduction to my life back home.

Our driver arrived with his darling granddaughter the next morning to make the long drive to the airport. And a few more surprises awaited. The Kafka-esque madness of the airport – and my overweighted bag (with all the new things I purchased at Barkhor) had incurred a baggage charge – which I did not have to pay because they did not have receipts (shame that Nordstrom’s doesn’t work on the same principle). A final reminder of all we left behind in Tibet came with the in-flight meal service which included a little vacuum sealed packet of yak to go with our bread (I took a pass on that).

Mark Twain writes “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I spent money and time I didn’t have on this trip. Someday the debt will get paid – and my life is so much richer for this experience. I will never regret it. I am certain that one of my last visions this side of the living will be of the northern face of Everest, of a cold night spent under a yak blanket, of finally getting some of the clarity that has eluded me my entire life.

This trip gave me a glimpse at archetypal visions – Potala and Everest, taught me about me, and my world. It taught me (a) that language is just as much nonverbal as verbal; (b) that ritual is underrated; (c) that yak is the other red meat; (d) that mantras can transcend all of our senses – they are things we say, see, taste smell and touch that soothe us. The mantras I brought home are the repetitive chantings of “om mani Padme om”, the image of my mountain, the smell of juniper incense and yak dung fires, the taste of roadside peas, the feel of a scratchy yak hair blanket ; and (e) that faith is not limited to the world of the pious and religious. Hell – I may even give love another shot (though I doubt my vocabulary of faith runs that deep – but for the first time in a very long time – I am finally open to it). In my weakest moments now that I am back in the “real world” I often just muster up a vision of Qomolungma, instantly calm and come out with renewed vigor.

As we do from the best trips, I returned a different woman. Braver, smarter, changed. Buber states that “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware”. Most of those secret destinations were always there within me and were awoken by a symphony of chanting, in the glow of a yak butter lamp, in the glacial cold of a mountain stream, at the top of the world.


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This entry was posted on Saturday, August 28th, 2010 at 12:24 pm and is filed under Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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