If you haven’t been to Tibet before, let me ask you something simple. Close your eyes and describe it to me.
Do you hear the yells and claps of saffron robed monks debating in the courtyard?
Do you hear the muffled, muted, mumbling of mantras?
Do you hold your breath at the snowcapped mountains and turquoise lakes?
Do you return the smile and wave of a tanned toothless granny?
Do you feel the air flip-flip-flip around prayer flags flapping in the wind?
Do you marvel at the kindness of the Dalai Lama?
This was how I imagined Tibet. Having recently visited Patagonia and Japan, I imagined Tibet as a blend of the two: Buddhist, ancient, natural, friendly, sacred, autonomous.
Land of snow
– at Yamdrok Lake
"Well, was it?" you might ask.
Was it Buddhist? Obviously, but with more religiosity than philosophy.
Was it ancient? Yes, but modernizing at a breakneck pace.
Was it natural? Oh yes, but covered in power lines, bridges, and rubbish.
Was it friendly? Absolutely, but slightly impenetrable too.
Was it sacred? Of course, but you’ll cry bittersweet tears.
Was it autonomous? No comment.
I found Tibet to be a living paradox, existing between definitions, challenging your conceptions of the very definitions themselves. Luckily, I had another enigmatic, paradoxical force with me on this trip:
He’s a slightly gruff but incredibly friendly John Wayne double who traveled the world with the US Army. He’s gotten himself into more pickles than a jar of Vlassic spears and puts any of my ridiculous stories to shame. As we explored China, and then Tibet, we found ourselves saying, “Well, we survived” pretty much every few days. But you might be mistaken about Fowler survival.
Tough guy, right?
Survived the cold?
Listen, I’m traveling with a man who had to be medevacked to Philippines to treat his rotting skin after a month on a rainy hilltop in Cambodia’s monsoon season. I can’t complain about the weather with this guy.
Survived the altitude?
Again, he jumped out of airplanes with barely 5,000 feet clearance. He can one up any altitude-related story I can muster.
Survived the food?
"So you feel a little loose for a few days,” is my dad’s response to traveler’s diarrhea. Thanks, Dad.
So, nope. For Fowlers, surviving isn’t a matter of braving the elements. It’s a matter of not letting your dumb mouth land you somewhere dumber.
And when you find yourself in a paradoxical country whose very existence is itself a paradox — how can it be autonomous and yet completely "governed" by the Chinese — well, you’ll find yourself wanting to ask some pretty dumb questions too I bet.
And so it begins
Longest train ride ever.
“How long is this train ride?”
Following the advice of my dear friend Annie, my dad and I took the newly built train to Tibet. We broke up our journey from Beijing by stopping in Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta warriors. We thought, naively, that would make the train from Xi’an to Lhasa, Tibet, much shorter.
At about hour 18, after we’ve changed trains in Xining and awoken somewhere over the tundra, my dad asks, “wait, so how long is this train?”
Oh, Dad, it’s 37 hours.
37 blistering long hours of smelly toilets, instant noodle soups, arguing passengers, and unpleasant stares.
37 beautiful filled hours of snow-covered mountains, herds of yaks and sheep, and expansive skies.
37 incredibly difficult hours to keep your mouth shut.
The train became our first introduction to the tension of Tibetan autonomy. Here’s a train to Lhasa, the world’s highest train, a marvel of engineering, that cuts through permafrost and ascends to heights above 5,000 meters, funded by Beijing to bring economic prosperity to Tibet. But most of the construction workers were Han Chinese, most of the current rail workers are Han Chinese, most of the guards saluting and waving are Han Chinese, and most of the passengers are Han Chinese. So that’s 1,956 km (1,215 miles) of economic prosperity for a whole lot of non-Tibetans.
Tibetan landscape will steal your breath.
In Japan, everyone asks you, with sweetest of sincere curiosity, why you elected to visit their country. After a while, my answers started to feel insufficient: because of the food, the scenery, the skyscrapers, the history, that my dad lived there as a boy, that I love ramen. But at least I had a plethora of reasons, even if it felt none quite satisfied Japanese curiosity.
In Tibet, no one asks you this question. So instead I found myself asking other people, particularly my captive train friends.
We shared our cabin with a lovely pair of Shanghai newlyweds, Wan Fen and Fen Chen, who were going to Tibet for their government-approved 10-day honeymoon.
Me: “Oh! Do a lot of Chinese people go to Tibet for their honeymoon?”
Wan Fen: “No! No! All of our friends think we’re crazy!”
Me: “Oh, so why Tibet then?”
*Awkward silence pause.*
Wan Fen: “We figured we should go while we’re young since it’s very far away and we might not have time later.”
I asked a few other couples and got similar answers. Perhaps it was in my head, but I never felt I got a real answer. One woman told me “Tibetans have different values - they’re not concerned with this life, but the next,” which seemed like a juicy headline for a story. She continued, “everything goes to the monastery. The government gave them money once to build better houses, but they gave it to the monastery. Then the government gave them supplies instead, but they sold the supplies and gave the money to the monastery.” Was that disdain I gathered? Or admiration?
I found this question pressing for me, as we visited more and more cultural landmarks teeming with Chinese visitors, Tibetan pilgrims, and the occasional outsider like us. What did the Potala Palace, seat of the exiled Dalai Lama and his government, mean to Chinese visitors? Nearly 60 years after the Dalai Lama fled to India, his palace is now the backdrop for the Chinese currency — the 50-yuan bill — and numerous Chinese selfies. Which brings me to another pressing question...
The seat of the Tibetan government. Now a stale museum.
“Where’s the 14th Dalai Lama? And what about 11th Panchen Lama?”
Our first couple of days in Lhasa involved seeing a lot of temples and monasteries, and a couple of nunneries, just for me. Unfortunately, most places don’t allow photos inside any longer. Something about the flash…mhmmmm, yeah, sure, whatever you say.
After a brief tour of pretty much any monastery anywhere in Tibet, you will find numerous statues and photographs of every Dalai Lama up to the 13th. But never the 14th. This, my friends, is like going to the Vatican and seeing a tribute to every pope but Pope Francis. (Assuming of course, that the Italian government had overtaken the Vatican and Pope Francis was living in Spain.) Or like going to grandma’s house after she and grandpa split and she cut him out of every photo. There’s a Dalai Lama shaped hole in every temple and it is bizarre. It’s even more bizarre considering you can get a tweet from the main man himself while sitting inside his palace where there’s no mention of him!
Which brings me to the Panchen Lama. I’m guessing most westerners, or at least this one here, would neither recognize the Panchen Lama nor know what he does. In fact, only a few months ago Liz’s son informed us that the Chinese had taken the 11th Panchen Lama because he’s the person who, after the Dalai Lama’s death, determines (well, maybe “surmises” is more apt) which little kid is the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. And oh, by the way, this happened nearly twenty years ago — when the Panchen Lama was six years old. Six! And no one has heard from him or his family since. FOR TWENTY YEARS. Oh, and they put in a new one in his place, that of course, no Tibetan will recognize. Talk about Chinese knock-offs.
So, yes, in summary, the officially atheist communist party of China, sequestered and silenced a young boy whom they thought would bring down the empire, or something like that...
The prostrator's pose.
“What are they doing?”
We happened to arrive in Lhasa during Saga Dawa, a holy festival for the birth of the Buddha. Despite our best efforts, we oddly couldn’t find an event to attend. Instead, we found ourselves enveloped in the hum of prostrating pilgrims and muffled mantras as we moved from temple to temple. I found myself often asking, Yeshi, our guide, “what are they doing?” though really I wanted to know “why are they doing that?”
"Why do the debating monks slap their prayer beads then pull them to the sky?"
“Why do people touch their heads, mouths, and hearts in a prostration?”
"Why do people have to prostrate 100,000 times?"
“Why do people offer money to the statues?”
"Why do people walk clockwise?"
"Why do men get to go into this temple but I, a woman, do not?”
"Why do Tibetans draw ladders on the mountains?”
“Why do the monasteries have so much gold yet the people are so poor?”
If you had grown up Catholic, like I had, you’ll find yourself feeling oddly at home amongst the rituals. But they might gnaw at you as you watch the fervent displays of religiosity. And you might start to feel that familiar question, especially if you left Catholicism: “does anyone know why we’re doing XYZ and does doing it this way, and not that way, matter, like, really matter, in the end?”
I had my answer a few weeks later, in a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal of all places. “It’s likely you here in this room know more about The Dharma than many Buddhists,” Ani Karin told us. The Dharma here meaning “the teachings of Buddha” and much of the intellectual foundation of Buddhism. Of course, knowing intellectually and knowing with one’s mind are two very different things.
As I learned, many of the rituals I saw were in fact, like Catholicism, displays of reverence, humility, and a bit of good of fashioned misogyny. A prostration purifies and humbles the body, speech, and mind. A gilded offering removes attachment to material possessions and demonstrates respect. A woman’s beauty tempts men and deities alike and her natural menstrual cycles render her unclean. (How are we still having these conversations?!)
However, I wish I had better understood the prayer beads while we were in Tibet. As the overflowing crowds of pilgrims swept us up, we found ourselves in a chorus whose lyrics I couldn't quite understand, spiritually that is. Tibetans say the Buddha’s Mantra, a prayer that flows quite simply and elegantly, encapsulating the entire theology in a simple mantra: “om mani padme hum,” which was loosely translated for us in Nepal as "May compassion and wisdom be united in me for the benefit of all sentient beings.” It’s basically a six-syllable reflection on the entire path of Buddhism as explained in the 14th Dalai Lama's lecture on Om Mani Padme Hum.
Side note, the 14th Dalai Lama gave this speech in New Jersey. The globe-trotting Tibetan can be seen everywhere, except Tibet of course, but what about his people? That brings me to the next dumb question.
Lhasa at night
Could be Brooklyn, right?
"Have you ever visited New York?”
This is my standard reply when I tell someone I’m from New York and they exclaim with glee, “Ooooohhh the Big Apple!” But, you can’t ask this of a Tibetan. Why? Because they can’t get passports — at least not with any certainty or any efficiency according to the Human Rights Watch 2015 report on Tibetan freedom of movement. It can take at least years for a Tibetan to get one, if they’re not denied one of course. In fact, this quick struck me:
"This system of restrictions on foreign travel for members of certain religious minorities has been taken to an extreme in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Since 2012 the TAR authorities have ordered the confiscation of all ordinary passports held by registered residents of the region, over 90 percent of whom are Tibetans, and appear to have issued no replacements for them. This has prevented nearly all of the three million residents of the region from any foreign travel since that time, except for those who are regarded as traveling on official government business."
Because nothing says liberation like being chained to one’s home.
Ay ay Captain
Can't take the military out of him.
“What's with the police everywhere?”
If you, like me, find it unsettling to see children in military uniforms, then try seeing dozens of young Tibetan school kids dressed as baby soldiers. It’s unsettling. Until of course your dad goes right in the middle and starts saying "Hello!" and "Tashi Delek!" then the whole thing seems kind of adorable like kids going to camp. Perception is reality, eh?
But even with all the smiles in the world, the militarization of Tibet feels hard, especially for foreigners. We could not walk for more than five minutes in Lhasa without passing a few police officers, or a SWAT team, or members of the Chinese military. As a New Yorker, I’ve become accustomed to seeing militarized police everywhere. But I rarely see small units slowly march across Times Square carrying Plexiglas shields, AK-15s, and fire extinguishers. And this last part, seeing two guards with two fire extinguishers each, this got me. Nothing says “we’re in charge” like brandishing a tool to put out desperate self-immolation. I learned not to ask why there so many checks, so many police, so many extinguishers. Some things don’t need explanation.
Tibet's vast land
The plateau extends for hours.
"So who owns [insert land/animal/object here]?"
As we drove through parks and remote regions, I heard my dad asking this question a lot. Personally, I was uninterested as I assumed all land was owned by the government per Chinese communism, though people themselves might own their cattle. Not so simple we learned. On nomadic lands, which is often the park areas around lakes, the Chinese government of course did own the land. But only the nomadic people with ancestral claim to the land could live on it. So our guides, while Tibetan, could not move onto the land. Of course, once the government decided that the land had value, either as a natural resource or a spot for [insert power line, railroad, road here] the government could seize the land with a bit of compensation.
But if you ask me, the yaks own the land.
Okay okay. I know. I'm really focusing on that suffering aspect of Buddhism in my observations so far...
Look, Tibet is just a hard place because like me, you probably have a lot of preconceptions about it. I say these things so you don’t go scampering off to some far off Asian land in hopes of finding transcendence and inner peace. That shit is inside you, to bluntly and crudely paraphrase Buddhism.
However, all of that said, dad and I still managed to get up to some silly shenanigans, mostly situational, that made Tibet a beautiful land filled with laughter, smiles, and honestly, a surprising amount of litter.
What are you looking at?
“Why is everybody looking at me?”
Oh, I dunno dummy, maybe because you have a big black blot of ash on your nose that is really only meant for colicky children.
Or maybe because you have tan skin, short pink hair, and green eyes in a land where everyone has dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes.
Or maybe because everyone follows you on Instagram and they want a selfie with you. (Ha, no, I know I’m not famous, not even instafamous.)
But the best thing about Tibetan stares is that with a quick smile, a lifted open hand, and a “Tashi Delek!” (pronounced tash-eh-deh-lay) and you’ve got a new best friend who wants to take a picture with you. And the little kids learn English in school meaning many will run up to you, hesitate, shout “HELLO!” before scampering away behind their parents.
These were some of my favorite interactions even if they were all too brief. Between the smiles of toothless grannies and the gleeful shrieks of precocious toddlers I felt warmly welcomed, even though I stuck out like a sore thumb and it was my crazy hair or my crazy eyes that warranted the stares in the first place.
something smells yakky
(I couldn't resist. Sorry.)
"What’s that smell?"
Don’t ask this question. Just don’t.
The smell can any of the following:
Burning yak butter, which has a slightly earthier smell, more like ghee than butter. Not so bad, but a little overwhelming in the tight monasteries where it burned.
Burning yak dung, which has a slightly dirtier smell, more like soil than manure, but it still smells like poo.
Burning incense, which has a slightly woodsier smell, more like a potpourri than perfume. On the whole, amazing.
Burning fumes of fermenting fecal matter and urine. Yeah. Imagine the worst port-a-potty you’ve ever smelt and now jump down inside but remove the chemical blue cover up.
Oh sorry was that description too vile? Welcome to toilets in Tibet (and China.)
We all have one.
“What do you think this is?”
My favorite spot in Lhasa was the Ani Tshokang nunnery where the energized nuns ran a clinic, two shops, a restaurant, and still found time to chant, pray, and meditate. I probably got you a gift from them. And if not, then I drank a few Red Bulls on your behalf from them. Really, I went there almost every day.
Look I even got the nuns to take a selfie with me.
On my second tour through the gompa our guide pointed out a little vessel to my dad who then asked me, “What do you think it is?” I barely had time to take in its odd shape and color before my dad exclaims — “A HUMAN SKULL!”
Garlfield, the nunnery cat: "meh."
One of the nuns noticed my shock and kind of giggled as I kept looking at it. I’ve seen skulls, of course. But never one sawed in half, plated with silver, and then filled with barley beer. That was a first. And pretty cool if also pretty freaky.
That's what everyone's saying.
“Can we go to Nechung monastery?”
Now, when I read in Lonely Planet’s guide to Tibet that Nechung Monastery has walls painted with flayed human skin, I thought EWWWWWW…WE HAVE TO GO! I’m not into gore so really I don’t know why I thought that’d be cool. And I also misunderstood as I thought it was literally painted with human blood. Nope.
The walls instead have paintings of flayed bodies. And eyes popping out. And freaky skulls.
Here's a close up for you.
Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on suffering and specifically “samsara” the uncontrollable cycle of rebirths from one crappy situation to the next for centuries, millennia, eons. And of course Christianity places a lot of emphasis on sin and suffering too. But I have to hand it to Nechung for really putting all that misery and death on display. And bravo to the brave artists. Not sure I would be able to do these paintings!
Ever the business man.
Sure, everyone knows to negotiate when traveling. But my dad takes that to a new level. I’d like to say I participated in these shenanigans but most of the time I found looking around for my dad to find him:
In the drivers’ seat of a pedicab, after having convinced the driver he would drive.
On the rocky sand of a lake trying to sell his prayer beads to the nice man selling prayer beads.
Muttering his army mantra “I lift it up, I put it down, 99 miles to go” alongside the monk’s “om mani padme hum”
Unfortunately, no one ever took him up on the $2 rock he tried to sell.
third wave coffee
Tibetan styled hipster cafe? Yup. Found it.
“Can I have a flat white?”
So you think, I’m in Lhasa, Tibet. There’s no way I can get a flat white here. I can get a yak butter tea, jasmine tea, milk tea, pretty much any kind of tea I want, and maybe a Nescafe. But a flat white? Come on.
Third wave coffee has made it to Lhasa. Or more to the point, Aussie Chinese have made it to Lhasa. Aussies. You can find them everywhere.
Don't cross this goat.
“Dad, can you cover me?”
My dad and I are close. Growing up he used to answer anyyyyy question I had — “what's a period?” “who goes to heaven?” “do I have to eat spinach?” — but I don’t think I’ve ever had to ask him to stand lookout while I found a secluded spot behind a building to pop a squat.
So, here’s what story goes like this.
It’s Day 6 in Tibet and we arrive at Namtso Lake after having passed a blizzard in June. June, I tell you. As we ascend higher and higher, my dad and I start to realize the air is thinning even more as the temperature starts to plummet. We are…not adequately prepared. But there’s an oxygen tank in the van should anything get out of town. (Yeah, right, like big old strong man and I are going to use that…) When we finally reach the gorgeous lake, we pull into the Chinese/ Tibetan answer to a lake side shanty town or carnival. We will stay in one of the ten or so rooms on the outer perimeter of a “guest house” that is little more than side paneling affixed to metal scaffolding with a tin roof over top.
I chase a goat around the parking lot as he shrieks for my camera and pees and poops his furry pants in front me. I’m out of breath and mildly grossed out. I run back to my dad, now fully out of breath, and die laughing at this photo of the goat.
Now I have to pee. I brace myself for the outside “toilet.” I wrap my scarf around my nose and mouth, take the biggest breath I can, and plunge into the facilities. But you know what happens when you’re almost 15,000 feet high? You can’t hold your breath. You’re barely getting half the effective oxygen content you get at sea level. And you know what happens when you’re squatting over a literal cesspool of feces and urine 15,000 feet above sea level? You see the scenes of the Slumdog Millionaire falling into the outhouse flash across your mind and you start to barter with yourself “I know I’m going to faint if I don’t breathe, but if I breathe I’m going to faint, so maybe I can just sip a tiny little wisp of air” and before you know it you’re running out of the toilet with your pants unzipped screaming “@#$%^&”
After that, I decide I was done with public toilets in Tibet. Give me highways, give me dumpsters, give me the St Regis bathroom, but I’m not going back into one of those outhouses again.
Now, I mentioned it was cold, right? And I mentioned the rooms had no heating, right? And I mentioned we basically had sweaters and light jackets, right? So how does one stay warm in this context? By turning on the electric blanket, putting on every layer, and climbing into bed vowing to never leave until morning.
Only thing is… when evening comes, nature comes calling too.
And when you’re at a lake side “retreat” in Tibet / China, there are still hundreds of people around you. So as I find what I think is the perfect open-air toilet I look up to see the faces of many puzzled Chinese starting to work out what I’m seeking. “Let’s go around back — I don’t want an audience,” I say. And there it is. This lovely, beautiful, metal dumpster tucked behind the windowless wall of the kitchen. Aahhhhhhhhh. And after I’ve done my business I ask my dad if he needs me to stand guard for him. “Nope, I’ve just gone too let’s get the hell out of here.”
And thanks Tibet for the weirdest family bonding moment I didn’t really need, but honestly really enjoy.
The family that pees together stays together?
Tibet (and China) has a trash problem.
“What’s in the bag?”
You know that scene in Se7en when Brad Pitt screams “what’s in the box????” but you know he shouldn’t ask the question. Well, what’s in the bag?
This my friends was the last gross place I peed in Tibet. And it followed right after the lake incident. Take a moment for the scene to sink in. You see the Budweiser box no doubt, and the bags of chips, and bottles. Do you also see the two dead sheep? And the rolled rug just above them? No? I didn’t either until I was nearly squatting and my guide Yeshi goes “oh no!”
Oh no! There’s a dead sheep.
Oh no! There’s another!
Oh no! There’s something dead in the bag and you want me to pee here?!!
Oh !@#$% no!
“Can I get some more potatoes?”
I know. I haven’t written about potatoes. Thing is, I eat them before I can photograph them. And then when I do remember to photograph them I’ve taken three big bites and there are only two bites left and they don’t look appetizing. Maybe I’ll get better… but I don’t think so.
However, with dad on hand, HE remembered to snap a photo of me every time I had a potato. Which, was, unsurprisingly, pretty much every day in Tibet.
You could get them…
As a roadside snack.
As a shish kebab.
As a main meal.
As a snack.
This buds for you
I might add this is the only ad I saw with so much in Tibetan.
“Want a Whopper and a bud?”
When it was finally time to leave Tibet my dad let out a slight regret we had not visited to Burger King in Lhasa. Not because he’s a big fan, but because, it just seemed so random and out of place. (We had instead gone to Dico's, for the record, a “Tibetan KFC” as our guides explained.)
But, as it turned out, there was one at the airport. Yes my friends, the Lhasa airport is more commercialized than Swannanoa, North Carolina, my stepmom’s hometown. As we sat down to our burgers, with a Budweiser billboard to our right and a young man watching The Golden State Warriors to our left, I wondered what was left of the Dalai Lama’s Tibet. It’s unfair to ask a land, and a people, to remain frozen in time just for our benefit. But, it’s entirely unfair to watch a people, and land, to lose their identity and agency in the course of a lifetime.
“Think they’ll let us back in?”
I hope so, but I don’t know so.
Saying a prayer for you.