Landing in Lhasa, we drifted through the airport in a daze, the gauzy mountain scenes streaming by the windows as memories reached out and grasped at us, like fingers tracing through our hair. For my mom, it was an overwhelming rush of familiarity that stopped her dead in her tracks mere feet off the plane, a deep emotional connection to a place where we’d never set foot in this life, but that had echoed to us from the past our entire lives. I watched as the feelings from countless simple lives lived deeply attached to the land here washed over her face. It had been my mom’s lifelong dream to visit Tibet, and I was thrilled to be able to make this happen. Out into the car, we drifted through the long, glowing tunnels the Chinese had bored through the immense Tibetan mountains.
For me, the sensation was less nostalgic and more overwhelmingly surreal, as I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seeing straight through the reality of everything around me. The vistas and sky felt paper-thin, I felt like I could see through them like a ghost, into the glowing white void of the ultimate reality beyond. This continued after we were dropped off at our hotel in the old part of town, the walls feeling like a paper box we were sitting inside, suspended in the empty expanse of eternity. This pervasive sense of insubstantiality, this unreality, haunted me for days.
The neighborhood around our hotel bustled with Tibetans and Chinese tourists, the clash of old and new, as we wandered in and out between hazy naps as our bodies wheezed and attempted to cope with the preposterously high altitude. Our driver had warned us that whatever you do, don’t take a shower, as you will surely die without your protective layer of filth. This made absolutely no sense at all, but seeing as we were wandering through an origami world immediately adjacent to the afterlife, it seemed best to just roll with it all.
Our first days in Lhasa, I didn’t know what to make of any of it, as our group wandered across town and in and out of ancient monasteries and temples.
I gasped my way up the perpetual staircase climbing up the mountainside at Drepung Monastery, as a stray dog glanced up at me without moving a muscle, wondering just what in the hell I was even doing.
From the top of the stairs I took in all of Lhasa, beautiful at my feet.
At Sera monastery we took in the surreal sight of the dozens of debating monks, teachers and students locked in dramatic arguments designed to hone their minds and ability to reason with logic. Teachers pounced and clapped loudly in the faces of their students to drive their points home.
I was impressed to see a religious practice so intensely based around clarity of thought and the thorough questioning of teachings, rather than just falling in line and accepting what you’ve been told on faith.
Before I knew it we were at Potala Palace, the winter home of the Dalai Lamas and the star of a million desktop wallpapers.
Inside the palace, my mom marveled at the intense feeling of familiarity. She had been here before, in another life. It didn’t quite feel like that to me, until we stepped into the room belonging to the Dalai Lama’s teacher, which I found idyllic and dreamy beyond words.
But the more places we visited the more I wondered, is this it? Shouldn’t I be feeling more? More at home? My God, I’m in Tibet! My spiritual awakening in this life happened in a Tibetan monastery, and my past life readings have all gone like “…and then you were a monk in Tibet, again…” It seemed like this place should be blowing my mind, I mean beyond the general bizarre dimensional bleed-through I’d been slowly adjusting to. It seemed like I should be remembering a lot more. Instead, it all just smelled like hot butter.
I had been carrying my crystal skull discretely in my shoulder bag as we toured the temples, to facilitate the incredible spiritual experiences I would no doubt be having every five minutes in Tibet. So far, no dice. I slid the bag across my chest and took the skull in my hands, quietly tuning into it as the Chinese tourists swirled past us to get into selfie position in front of the next Buddha statue.
I projected my mind into the skull, but nothing. Huh. Maybe I- suddenly an entire scenario exploded in front of me, and in an instant I saw and understood that back when I was having all those past lifetimes in Tibet, I was here because this was spiritually the highest place on the Earth at that time. It was where I’d needed to be back then, a safe haven to focus on the spiritual work I was doing at that time, a place where that was the focus of all daily life.
It wasn’t that any more, China had moved in and history had moved on. And so had I. Which was why I wasn’t still being reborn in Tibet.
I looked around at the hall full of monks seated on their meditation pillows in front of us. The more accomplished monks got the taller cushions, signifying their rank. I looked deeply at their faces, recognizing that I had been in their position so many times over so many lifetimes. I’ve always wondered if I should have gone down that path again in this life, joining a monastery rather than living a worldly life. I imagined the heights I could have gone to in my consciousness if I’d focused even more in that direction. I’ve always looked at monks like this as living a better, more valuable life than my own.
Another flash from the skull exploded in my mind and I saw that those lifetimes had their purpose, but they weren’t the end-all, be-all that I was imagining. The rigid structure and rules of organized religion can help you develop, to move out of your ego, teaching you how to focus and raise your vibration rather than getting lost in the world. They are the right tool for the right time in your development. But eventually they were limiting. And when you were ready, there was a further step, to own that focus within you and to take it out into the world, and to expand your awareness beyond the confines of dogmatic thought. And I saw in a series of images that this was what I had moved onto in my subsequent lifetimes. I didn’t feel as “at home” in the temples and monasteries as I had expected to feel, because I didn’t belong there any more. School was out. Huh.
My head spun as I walked between the Maitreya Buddha statues and the figures of the fourteen Dalai Lamas. One of my biggest challenges in this life is dealing with self-judgment. I always feel like I haven’t worked hard enough, that my consciousness isn’t as high as it should be. I fear that I’m wasting this life. I’d long held Buddhist monks in my mind as an ideal of what I wanted to be more like, but now I had seen clearly that I’d already graduated from that phase of development. I was… already there? I was meant to do exactly what I’m already doing? To be who I am now? That’s wild. I’m going to need to sit down.
Outside, my mom and I sat on the sidewalk as the streams of worshiping Tibetans and vacationing Chinese flowed by. It felt nice to sit. But something strange was happening. Many of the Tibetans were stopping to look at us. Just my mom and I, not the others from our group who were lingering nearby. Hello?
None of them spoke English, so our interactions were eerie, as it tends to be when someone on the street stops dead in their tracks to stare deeply into your face for no apparent reason. We weren’t the only foreigners there, nor the only Caucasians. It was us. We seemed to be largely drawing the attention of the older Tibetans, who universally seemed to be very spiritually focused, unmoved by the modernizing Chinese world around them. What do they see in us? Are they tuned in on a higher level, and seeing something in our auras that’s interesting to them? Or can they see our Tibetan past lives, somehow? It certainly felt like they could.
The only response we could offer was to smile and say “Tashi delek,” a Tibetan greeting that roughly translates to “blessings and good luck.”
One elderly woman who was walking up the street with her adult granddaughter stopped and stared deeply into our eyes. While most of the Tibetans who stopped were happy to get a “Tashi delek” from us, this woman seemed to have an intense desire to communicate with us more deeply. Her granddaughter tried to laugh it off, saying “Say hi to the nice people, grandma” but the old woman just stood and pierced deeply into us with her stare. The granddaughter tried to apologize, but we weren’t offended at all. I was fascinated to know what she was seeing. Eventually realizing after a few minutes that we’d never be able to communicate without a language between us, the elderly woman gave us a wise, knowing look and continued on up the street.
Our Tibetan tour guide noticed all of this right away. “The locals like you guys. You look like Tibetans.”
We’re actually two of the whitest people on Earth, but thanks Puta.
I can’t write about the wonders of Tibet without writing about the bathrooms. This section of the blog will be non-work-safe because Tibetan bathrooms are not work safe, or safe for children, or adults. When Dante wrote his Inferno and gradually worked his way downward through his tour of the descending inward rings of hell, he was building up the nerve to write about Tibetan bathrooms. But in the end, he stopped short because was too horrified to stare directly into that abyss. His soul thanked him for this.
Tibet is a land that inspires philosophical questions, and its bathrooms are no different. You will plumb the depths of your soul trying to understand how this, this, could be a bathroom in any country in the world in the year 2019. Wh… why? How do you get shit smeared four feet up a wall? Where do I put my feet?
My best non-hotel-room bathroom experience in Tibet, the very best was the time I kicked a hole in a mountainside and squatted on a steep, frozen slope with only a small boulder between me and a large camp of hikers, my only friend the tattered packet of off-brand Kleenex our guide had given me to make a half-hearted gesture at keeping things sanitary. Even this was a blissful respite from the howling underworld of actual Tibetan bathrooms.
The best public bathrooms in Tibet were about on par with the worst bathrooms I had experienced anywhere else in the world. In the mountains of Turkmenistan I’d used a bathroom that was just a small gap in the concrete floor, leading down to an untended pile of human waste looming beneath, for you to squat unsteadily over. In Tibet, this was the kind of bathroom you fervently hoped to find.
At least then you were outside, with the sun on your face and the vast mountain air all around you, helping to dilute the stench. And also a bear might wander by and kill you, putting you out of your misery. It could happen! Tibet did add a special Tibetan twist to this kind of bathroom however by never, ever tending to the growing stack of poop beneath the hole in the floor, for years on end, confident that one of these days the Buddha might return and then they wouldn’t ever have to deal with Mt Evershits.
If you were really unlucky, the bathroom would be inside. I realize in your naivety you might hope for an indoor bathroom, but this is a tragically misguided hope. The indoor bathrooms all featured a flushable porcelain basin set into the floor for you to squat over, which might sound like an advancement, but in practice it is most definitely not. Aside from the gymnastic ability necessary to squat and wipe without falling down, fairly precise aim is required if you don’t want to leave a treat for the bathroom’s next guest. And folks in Tibet do not have precise aim. Oh no, they do not. So more often than not you end up squatting above a growing mountain of feces, trying to adjust your squat height so that you neither make contact with nor fall right into the shit stack, all while trying to breathe through your ears because they’re the only orifice you can think of that thankfully has not yet learned how to smell.
An orderly shit stack is in and of itself a lucky break, as in some of these bathrooms there was a more even and equal distribution of filth, raising the urgent question of where in the hell to put your feet. We discussed this at great length and ultimately decided the best stance would be the “Van Damme,” which involves performing the splits in mid-air with one foot braced against each wall, if you possessed the skill to make this happen. If not, you either had to choose the thinnest part of the shit stack to stand on, or just hold it, forever.
For roughly the first half of the trip I held myself above the fray of this worldly torment. This was not my first rodeo, and I felt secure in my learned strategy for dealing with foreign bathrooms: Go before you leave the hotel. Most hotels catering to tourists anywhere are going to have Western-style toilets, and tile floors that aren’t swimming with shit, so it pays to be strategic and save your business for before you leave in the morning or after you get back after dinner. Done and done.
So whenever we stopped for lunch and members of our group inevitably had to brave a satanic restaurant or gas station bathroom, I felt for them, but it was funny at the same time because it wasn’t me. Good luck! Bring us photos! But don’t drop your phone!
This was all good fun until we got to the remote town of Saga. I rushed to our hotel room, having held it all day in anticipation of this moment. Throwing open the bathroom door, I gasped twice. Once when I saw our “toilet,” a wretchedly small basin set into the floor, cramped underneath a gargantuan hot water heater attached to the wall. And again at the sight of the toilet arrayed with a sink, a shower nozzle, an overhead heat lamp and the huge hot water heater all within the space of a car’s trunk. The entire space looked both dangerous and utterly destined to be thoroughly coated in feces within the hour.
Oh. Oh no. I am in a world of shit now, Joker.
It was all a slip and slide straight to hell from there.
And I’ve deviously left out the best part, which is that by this point in the trip, pretty much everyone was suffering from some kind of travel-related incontinence, thanks to the standards of sanitation in Tibet being best summed up with my note about how they somehow got shit four feet up a wall on more than one occasion. Virtually none of the public bathrooms had soap in them, which made sense since most didn’t have a sink either. By the middle of the trip I realized my little travel bottle of hand sanitizer was worth its weight in gold, because Tibetan stores don’t see the need for hand sanitizer either. But by then I was already riding the gravy train with everyone else, which is a horribly disgusting way I just thought of to refer to diarrhea I’m so sorry.
It’s fascinating to watch your own sanitary standards and self-identity degrade from “Ew, this bar of soap has a hair on it!” to “I’m just hoping to not knock anyone down with the fire hose of anguish shooting straight out of my ass 24/7, pants be damned” over the course of a single trip.
Toward the end of any trip, you always find yourself wrapped up in the exercise of finding the least dirty pants in your suitcase to wear, trying to remember and assess what has happened to each pair over the course of the trip. In Tibet this became an exercise in estimating which pants had suffered the least intimate fecal contact, both inside and out. It was not a proud time.
Why are Tibet’s bathrooms like this? It is a deep mystery. They have cell phones, surely someone has stumbled across evidence that the rest of the world isn’t spending their time shitting onto piles of shit? Perhaps in the way that some third-world countries skipped over landline phones entirely and went straight to cell phones, Tibet is going to jump straight into the world of Star Trek where nobody ever goes to the bathroom at all.
Okay, now that I’ve guaranteed you will never go anywhere near Tibet, allow us to continue this wondrous journey into the heart of love.
We were making our way westward across Tibet, toward Everest. Tibet transitions from marginally refined in the East to wilder and wilder the further West you go. The towns become smaller and the mountains have less and less competition for your eye.
We stopped at a holy lake and plunged our hands into the icy water.
Prayer flags spanned across the peaks and rippled violently in the wind.
We stopped at a beautiful lake and watched a local woman hilariously attempt to herd her disobedient cows to the water for a drink.
We stopped in one town for a preposterously long time to pick up the “Aliens Permit” that would allow us to land on Europa- I mean enter the Everest national park. China has an absolute fetish for permits.
At one roadside stop, I asked why they had dressed up the local Tibetan mastiff dogs in lion mane wigs. It turned out that is just what they look like!
Tibet is unrelentingly bright. The thin air does little to slow down the sun rays that are itching to bore straight through your soft eyes and penetrate deep into the center of your gray matter. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at all until you wake up on the third day and suddenly even the dimmest source of light feels like an icepick stabbing right into your eyeball.
I had managed to sunburn my corneas without realizing it at all. This was thanks to the fact that I had broken my sunglasses in The Bahamas and only had one night to find a replacement before I left again for Tibet, and the cheap Target sunglasses I bought that seemed fine in normal use proved secretly and completely inadequate for Tibet’s UV cannon of a sun.
For the next two days I had to wear two pairs of sunglasses at the same time, like a dude who is way, way too cool for school.
In my photophobic state, wearing the two darkest pairs of sunglasses I could find simultaneously dimmed the outside world to the degree you’d normally experience while wearing one normal pair of sunglasses. Taking off one of the pairs made everything look exactly like I wasn’t wearing any sunglasses at all. This made going into temples and monasteries awkward, as removing sunglasses and hats is basic level courtesy in these situations, but I couldn’t take my sunglasses off without doubling over in pain. Even the candlelight inside the temples was like a fireball torching out my eyes.
When we reached Everest Base Camp that night, I was wearing one pair of sunglasses inside the tent like the world’s biggest Corey Hart fan. I felt ridiculous and took them off for a second, only to fumble them back on as the light from the lanterns inside the tent hitting my eyes felt like getting shot in the face. Damn. I really hope this clears up.
None of this, however, could dim the magic of being at Everest Base Camp. After we ate dinner around the poop-burning stove and worked out who was sleeping where, I ducked out of our tent and into the cold midnight air. Whoa.
This is one of the most otherworldly and beautiful places I’ve ever seen, Everest Base Camp in the moonlight.
I stood out in the frigid mountain air, surrounded by yak hair tents in the moonlight. The full moon rose over the rim of the bowl of mountains surrounding us, casting everything in an eerie light. The panorama was rendered purely in black and white, surprisingly bright, exposing every detail. In this magical moment I realized this scene looked exactly like I was standing inside an Ansel Adams photograph.
The moon formed a razor of white light as it crested over the mountain ridge, and I stood for a long, long while, knowing I would never see another scene quite like this again. Off in the distance, Mount Everest slumbered beneath the clouds.
Also, it was my birthday. I was turning 43 in my 43rd country, a feat I probably won’t repeat again unless I slow way the hell down.
Sleeping at altitude is the hardest part on your body of being this high up, and this was the highest I’d ever slept. It went reasonably okay, as these things go. In the morning, my eyes were healed and we were up starkly early to see the sunrise on Mount Everest.
It was so unreal to actually be here, in this camp, after seeing it so many movies. The starting point for so many ascents of Everest. My mom and I walked out of the camp and across the expanse of dirt to get a clear view of the mountain. It was still dark but the sky was beginning go glow.
We passed Rongbuk monastery, the highest in the world, which we would visit later that morning. For now it sat cold and silent in the darkness.
My mom shivered in the early morning chill. Her coat was in no way warm enough for this. I traded coats with her so that I was the one shivering. She’d been struggling with the altitude for the past few days and now we were at our highest point yet, at over 17,000 feet. She had a migraine and kept getting nosebleeds.
We stood in a clearing and watched Everest, shrouded in clouds. With any luck the clouds would lift and we’d get a glimpse of the mountain itself, which is a bit of a rare treat. The night before I’d taken several photos of what I’d thought was Everest, but turned out to be another totally unrelated big-ass mountain. I reasoned I could tell people they were photos of Everest, what the hell do they know? It’s not like Everest is a lone peak standing out of a flat plateau, all the mountains here are big as shit.
As my mom and I stood in the cold, the panorama lightening all around us, she grew quiet and got a far-away look in her eyes. The air is so thin here, the clarity and purity so intense. Staring at the mountain, waiting for the clouds to clear, was like a meditation. Several minutes passed, and then my mom was back. I saw that she was crying and gave her a hug.
Once she’d had a chance to compose herself she’d told me what had happened. While she was staring at the horizon, she started to see rays of bright light dancing around the mountain. At first she thought it was just her eyes playing tricks on her, but then the rays multiplied in number and grew brighter. Curving rainbows of color swooped in, forming a huge bowl. She felt her heart swell with a beautiful loving energy, and gradually became aware of a multitude of Buddhas standing in the light rays. The love radiating from these figures made her heart feel as if it was going to burst. Time stopped as she was held in this overwhelming sensation of love.
One of the Buddhas stepped forward and without speaking dropped a bubble of understanding into her consciousness, which opened up with complete clarity. The Buddha showed her that I was one of them, a Buddha myself, and that I had made the rare and risky decision to incarnate into this world from that realm to assist with the spiritual evolution on Earth. And that she had agreed to be my mother in this life to help make that possible. The gathered Buddhas expressed their great love and gratitude to her for taking on this role, and the doubts and anxieties she’d always held about if she’d been a good enough mother melted away as she saw that everything in this life had a purpose, all the pain and struggle, it was all perfect and just as it was meant to be. She saw all the puzzle pieces lock together perfectly and understood beyond any doubt what we were doing here in this life and what it all meant.
I could tell this experience had shaken her deeply as I held her in the cold. I honestly had no idea what to make of this information myself, but I knew it was utterly clear and real to her and I trusted her experience. Over the days that followed, we talked about it further and I saw how much this experience had changed her. A lifetime of guilt and worry about how my childhood had gone was melting away for her. And the pervasive sense of not having done enough, which was driving her to workaholic extremes in her job, had dissipated as she now knew deeply that she’d already done what she came into this lifetime to do. The rest of her time here in this life was hers to do with as she pleased, with nothing left to fear or worry about. This one experience had changed her and her entire life completely.
My own head spun with the implications of this information. I mean, holy shit. It’s taken me a long time to write this blog in part because I wasn’t sure how to share any of this. I thought I’d reached a point of having no worries about what people thought of my experiences, how they’d judge them, but this was the ultimate test. The innate sense of modesty I’d grown up with and valued so intensely was being told in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of the road and stop holding us back.
My initial reaction was, of course, that this was a massively egotistical thing to believe about yourself. For a spiritual person, being told you’re an incarnating Buddha is like a musician being told he’s somehow the reincarnation of both John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, at the same time. I mean, come on. If this were true I’d be a… better person? More enlightened? Something would be different, surely. I’d glow in the dark. Something. But, at the same time, I trusted my mom’s experience. It was clear there was no ego in it for her, this was the kind of singularly powerful experience that changes your entire life, not some fantasy or whim that can be misinterpreted or written off.
And as I gradually let my mind open to the possibility, it did help some things in my life make sense. As I’ve traveled around the world, following the intense pull and intuitive knowing that I needed, just needed, to go to these specific places, with the growing understanding that I’m impacting the energy of all of these places with my visits, I’ve of course wondered “Why me?” I’m just one person, what difference should it make if I go to a place or not? I mean, it certainly seems to matter a lot, but why?
Hmm. Maybe this is why. Maybe this is why I’ve had some of the experiences I’ve had. Maybe this is why certain people have reacted to me in the ways they have. Maybe this is why I’ve always felt like it was my job to just be in certain places at certain times. Maybe this explains the higher aspects of myself I experienced in Tajikistan and Egypt. When I look at my past lives and see certain souls, like my grandma from this life, who life after life seem to have been in an amazingly selfless support role for me, sacrificing and putting their all into making sure I got the chance to do what I came here to do… maybe this is why.
The most important thing that has come up as I’ve been reflecting on this experience and its implications is the realization that we look at each other in a very backwards way. We don’t believe someone could be an incarnating Buddha or whatever else because we see the flaws in their personality. We see the smallness and imperfection of how we experience them in our daily lives. But this is not who we are. Personality as we know it is largely just a strategy we came up with as children to get our needs met. Circumstances molded us, our parents were a certain way, our situation was this or that, and we came up with a set of personality traits and behaviors that could extract the love and care we needed out of that specific dynamic. Personality is largely a survival adaptation.
We see someone’s true self only glancingly in this life, perhaps when someone is at their very best, perhaps when we are in love with them. Occasionally it shines through in pieces. But the rest of the time we interact with the imperfect adaptations. We interact with that person’s history and how it has shaped this expression of their soul. But this doesn’t really tell us anything at all about their true being, their higher self. The highest soul could choose to experience a life of addiction or deprivation, any set of intense challenges that could produce any kind of difficult personality. Basically we have absolutely no idea about the vast, beautiful beings that we are in the higher realms. So to look at someone on Earth and say I don’t think they could be a Buddha, or couldn’t have been this or that in a past life, this judgment itself only reflects our own misunderstanding about the reality of who we truly are.
I realize I apply this judgment in error to other people. And I realize I apply it to myself as well.
Later that morning, the clouds cleared, and we saw the peak of Everest.
The pinacle of our Tibet itinerary was a trek around Mount Kailash in remote Western Tibet. Kailash is the holy mountain of the Buddhists, Hindus and the Jain. The kora is a three-day hike clockwise around the mountain, the equivalent in these religions of a Muslim visiting Mecca, something you strive to find some way to do once in your lifetime. Thousands of pilgrims from India and beyond travel to Tibet every year to complete the trek around Kailash. More than a few die from the stress of climbing at high altitude, the path rising above 18,471 feet at the highest pass on the trek.
This was the hike that the Inca Trail in Peru was meant to prepare me for, and I suppose it did, to the degree that I didn’t die in Peru and thus was alive to hike in Tibet. But I was far less than certain how I was going to handle the altitude. Thankfully the organizers of our tour had done this before, and we gradually worked our way up in altitude as we crossed the country, starting at 12,000 feet in Lhasa, acclimating all along the way.
We set out from the sleepy town of Darchen early in the morning, jovial buddies Juan Pablo from Argentina and Daniel from Spain leading the way at a pace that quickly left the rest of us far behind. I hiked with my new friend Sara from Chicago, weaving our way amongst ornately dressed pilgrims and the occasional hiker decked out in modern gear.
Our guide bought a mani stone, a heavy flat rock carved with a mantra in Sanskrit (“Om mani padme hum”), and carried it to a pile at the top of the first long incline, eager for us to get a photo of him in an act of devotion that his very religious parents would be proud of.
We hiked through a valley as the immense mountains sprang up around us. The sense of scale was humbling, wandering as a tiny dot between these massive formations of stone.
Before long Kailash itself came into view. I marveled at the pilgrims, who would drop and prostrate themselves on the ground, facing Kailash, at regular intervals as they walked.
I noticed the prostrating pilgrims were all wearing aprons of some kind, to keep from tearing through their clothes with the repeated kneeling and laying face-first on the ground, and slippers on their hands to protect their palms every time the slid into position.
The mountain was magical, seeming to form an otherworldly pyramid at its peak. It reminded me of standing before Uluru in Australia, a physical formation that seemed to double as some kind of portal into another dimension.
There are crazy stories about Kailash. Some say it has never been climbed. Others say it was climbed once but the climbers ended up all dying in mysterious ways, growing old at high speed like they had been through some kind of time vortex.
I marveled at the dramatic stone walls all around us as we hiked. Some were dotted with yaks that seemed to be defying gravity.
At a small tent set up next to a parked motorcycle, people were feeding a large, plump marmot.
At lunchtime we ducked into a meal tent, and against my better intuition I filled up on a large plate of fried rice. We were burning tons of calories and I’d need to keep my energy up-Oof. Before long my stomach was twisting itself into knots. Uh-oh. Well hopefully that’ll pass quickly.
We hiked on through the afternoon and into the evening. Our aching bodies sighed relief when our guesthouse came into view. Every part of my body but my stomach, that is, it was more wailing in agony than sighing at this point. Oh man, damn you rice.
The guesthouse looked like a run-down motel that had been dropped by a distracted god at the foot of Mount Kailash. Juan Pablo, Daniel, Sara and I collapsed into the lumpy, sad beds crammed into our room and within minutes I felt my core temperature drop like I had just jumped into ice water. Well then, that’s not good! A half-hour of blurry sleep later, I awoke suddenly with a shiver and when the suggestion came that we visit Drirapuk Monastery across the river, I jumped at the opportunity to get my stiff body moving again and to not slip into hypothermia.
The river crossing was going to take more leaping than I felt I had in me, so I took the very long way around to a bridge located far up the river, nodding to the marmots who came out of their holes to watch me pass. By the time I reached the monastery, my stomach was loudly announcing to all who would listen that I was fucked, totally fucked. Everyone else was daring each other to run up the copious monastery steps. Oh man, I don’t know if I can even crawl up those steps. Keep it together Sean.
That night I skipped the dinner of maybe-vegan-maybe-not instant noodles, opting not to pile more anguish onto the garbage fire I already had smoldering in my stomach. Our early morning wake-up call came suddenly in the dark and it was time to start our ascent up the more than 18,000 foot pass that I’d spent the last two years preparing for.
Ironically, I was handling the altitude fine, but I hadn’t planned on climbing the mountain with my entrails dragging behind me on the ground. In the morning my stomach felt pretty okay though, so I was optimistic.
Ten minutes into the hike, a hot, smoldering pain was stabbing me in the stomach over and over like a crazed leprechaun trapped inside me was desperately trying to shiv his way out. Oh God.
I can’t believe I got food poisoning on the day we’re climbing this thing, of all times! F F F F.
I pushed forward, sticking with the group. Spirits were high. We were going to do this!
After a few more minutes the pain grew so intense I was involuntarily folding inward like a pillbug, and had to sit down on a boulder. Oh Jesus. Go ahead without me guys.
No, we’re sticking together!
Well, we’re going to be sticking together in this spot for a long time then. I can’t even stand up.
A few of us were carrying oxygen as an emergency measure to counter altitude sickness. I took a hit off one of the canisters just to see what would happen. Huh. It provided a quick buzz but did nothing for my stomach. My friends called our guide Puta back down the mountain so he could be there when I died.
Willpower tends to be my strength, to a fault. I don’t give up on things and I tend to believe I can do anything. But I was so floored by the lava in my stomach that I couldn’t see how going much further was going to be physically possible. It absolutely killed me to think of having to turn back and not finish the kora, not to mention hiking a whole day back just to finish failing. But I wasn’t sure I could even walk another ten feet. Maybe if we were halfway to the top I could crawl the rest of the way. Puta arrived and I asked him how far up the mountain we were.
“Maybe 10%?” he offered.
Puta sent the rest of the group on ahead and said he’d stick with me the rest of the way up. Sara and Puta split my pack between them so I could stagger uphill unencumbered. Thanks guys.
I excused myself and tried to make myself throw up off the side of the mountain. Doubled over on my hands and knees, nothing came out but air. Dry heaving, nothing. It had been too long since I ate. Whatever evil spirit it was, wasn’t in my stomach any more. Dammit.
Puta had seen it all before.
“You don’t have anything to throw up. Getting sick from the food can be worse than the altitude. Just take it very slow and we’ll eventually get to the top. Do it for your mom.”
I took his word on the getting to the top part and began shuffling up the mountain in the dark, struggling to walk in a straight line. It seemed ridiculous and pointless but I might as well see how far I can go before I finish falling apart.
Every few minutes I’d sit down on a boulder just before I fell down, and center myself until the chaos in my stomach ramped down to tolerable levels. God, this is ridiculous. But we are making our way up, ever so slowly. Puta kept telling me not to stop, that it just made it harder to get started again, but he didn’t realize that sitting down regularly was the only thing keeping me from collapsing and retching deliriously in the dirt.
I don’t have any photos of the ascent, as that level of coherence was way beyond me at that point and all of my energy was going into staying upright and making sure I didn’t dizzily start hiking downhill, thinking it was uphill.
The sun gradually rose, illuminating the mountain beautifully all around us. Occasionally we would catch up with Christiane and Peter, the Austrian couple in our group. Christiane was struggling but plugging along gamely. Peter saw the agony in my face and coached me on how to breathe at high altitude.
“Breathe deep. Breathe deep. It’s not the altitude, it’s the lack of oxygen. This is how we go in the mountains.”
I didn’t have the heart or coherence to tell him the altitude was the least of my problems, but the breathing technique did help some and more than anything I was buoyed by his caring.
Over the hours, we gradually worked our way up, up, up. I stopped at one point and tried to barf up the chestburster inside me off the mountainside again, but again no luck. Nothing came. We climbed.
At some point it began to dawn on me that I was maybe, somehow going to make it. Maybe. I was in disbelief as this had seemed so utterly impossible earlier. But somehow everything was holding together, just enough. I looked up and could almost see the pass, up on the horizon.
This development turned out to be more cruel than anything, as it was still a long ways away, and my pace slowed as the mountain grew ever more steep. I was sitting down more and more frequently. At one point I came up upon a group of pilgrims who were prostrating their way up the mountain, amazingly. I passed them but soon after, they turned the tables and passed me. Okay. This can’t happen. I can’t be beat up the mountain by people who are literally crawling with slippers on their hands. Get it together Sean.
Several more dizzy, blurry ascents later, and I could see the trail level off ahead of me. I continued to put one foot in front of the other, staggering, willing the mountain to not throw me off into the abyss.
And then, I was there. Holy shit! I was there!
My friends were there to offer their congratulations.
Wait, I made it? Really? It all seemed unreal. It had taken five hours, but I was at the top, somehow. I sat down. I wanted to cry. The feeling of relief was so intense I felt like it was going to wash me right off the mountain.
I don’t know that I’ve quite had this experience before, of accomplishing something I truly 100% did not think I could do. I’ve had brief moments of doubt in various pursuits in the past when things got especially hairy, but this was a full-on reasoned out and resigned certainty that this thing could not happen. And then it did. It was physically the hardest thing I had ever done, but I did it.
Standing in a euphoric daze, I noticed that one of the Tibetans climbing the mountain was looking at me hopefully, wanting to take a photo with me. This had been happening again and again all trip long, Tibetans wanting photos with me everywhere we went. Sara joked that I was a star in Tibet. For the first time it occurred to me to get a second photo of us on my phone too.
A minute later another local dude wanted a photo too.
Catherine and Francis from France caught up with the rest of us and we got a photo of our awesome group standing with the prayer flags we’d brought to leave at the pass, waiting to carry our written prayers off on the winds.
Sara gave me my pack back. My stomach had, miraculously, finally settled. Whatever evil curse I had ingested had worked its way through my system. Now it was time to head down the other side of the mountain.
I finally felt good again and I love hiking downhill, so I was off like a shot. It felt amazing to get down out of that high altitude... all the way down to 16,000 feet. I found it hilarious that an altitude much higher than anything I’d experienced before this trip now felt like sweet sea-level relief after struggling to survive up in the stratosphere.
We made the descent so fast and were so afraid of spending another night in a shitty guest house like we had the night before, that we all voted to just keep going and complete the second and third day’s hike all in one day, finishing off the 32-mile mountain trek in two long days instead of three. I took off down the trail, inadvertently leaving the rest of the group behind, and had the mountains all to myself for the rest of the day.
I came out of the mountains at the end of the trail and realized I had no idea where the town was where we were staying. I hiked in the wrong direction for a while before realizing that no, it’s that town waaaaay off in the opposite direction.
I reached Darchen around sunset. There were two paths into the town, one that snaked under a barbed wire fence and the other guarded by a soldier. Hmm. Better wait for my group to catch up and see which way we should go. I sat down and meditated as the sun set.
After an hour I realized they weren’t catching up. Jeez, I hope I have the right town. Google Maps called it a Chinese name that I didn’t recognize at all and that didn’t match what we’d been calling it all trip. I passed by the guard, who yelled at me a bit before he gave up. I wandered into the town just as it was getting dark, still unsure if I was in the right town at all.
Whatever town it was, it was a bit rough around the edges, with menacing-looking dogs roaming the streets and guys playing pool on tables that were for some reason outside, by the side of the road. Even if this is the right town, where is our hotel?
I stopped. Oh thank God. I recognized the billboard we had walked by on our way out of town at the start of the trek, which showed a city official being arrested for corruption after being ratted out by the townspeople. I backtracked from where that sign was and headed in the direction I vaguely remembered our hotel being in.
Yep, this is one of those stellar travel moments. Lost in a foreign country, unsure of how you’re ever going to see your friends or your ride home again. Talk about something to anchor you squarely into the present moment.
I stopped. A ha! The “Good Luck to the Grocery Store.” That sign seemed to be the actual name of the store, but we’d had a running joke earlier in the trip that the full sign said “Good Luck to the Grocery Store, From Your Friend, The Car Wash.”
Okay, I can’t be too far off now. I turned the corner and there was the Bacteria Chicken Restaurant!
Good times. Now I just have to find the archway for the alley that leads to our hotel. I headed down two or three wrong archways before stumbling across our driver gamely trying to put our piece of shit van back together with bailing wire and bubblegum down the last alley.
My god. I made it!
Juan Pablo, Daniel and a warm shower were waiting inside. I mean, not all at the same time. Sorry to disappoint, this isn’t that kind of story guys.
We’re jumping back and forth in time here, Pulp Fiction style, because the story kind of makes more sense that way.
On the way to Kailash, we stopped for a night in the nowhere town of Saga, and spent a night in possibly the jankiest hotel in the entire world. I realize there is a lot of stiff competition for that title, so I’ll just step back and allow this hotel’s qualifications to speak for themselves.
This was the hotel room I rushed to, eager to be cradled in the porcelain embrace of a Western toilet, only to find that the bathroom had deeply betrayed me by appearing to be some kind of flushable broom closet instead.
The water didn’t work at all, scratching the “flushable” part off of this broom closet’s meager resume. We eventually got the water to turn on, which was sort of bad news because then you had no excuse not to navigate the basin below the gargantuan water heater, where we were, I suppose, meant to shit.
There was tape wrapped around the shower knob for no apparent reason, leaving me with very little confidence that the shower wasn’t going to suddenly turn on while I was squatting over the floor basin in mid-shit. All in all the bathroom felt like a trap from one of the Saw movies.
This was, it turned out, improbably, that bathroom’s best self. We saw its Mr Hyde version on our way back from Kailash, when we stayed in this same hotel again. On the second go-round, Christiane and Peter’s bathroom greeted them by gushing water endlessly up through the “toilet,” a continuous fountain that was impossible to turn off. When this bizarre circumstance was reported to the hotel staff, they investigated and reported back that they only way to stop this from happening would be to turn off the water for the entire hotel. Wut?
We proceeded to all rush and get a shower in before Christiane and Peter drowned in their rooms, so that all the water in the world could then be shut off. Once it was shut down, my mom and I discovered that we had the room directly below Christiane and Peter’s room, since it promptly began to rain heavily in our bathroom. The water that had built up in their bathroom upstairs poured through our ceiling, straight through the light sockets and the heat lamp built into the exactly six-foot-tall ceiling, a feature which had burned my scalp every time I stepped into the bathroom.
Now to use the bathroom you needed to put a rain coat on first, and try very hard not to touch anything so that you wouldn’t be electrocuted. The bathroom continued to rain all night.
These charms were considerable, but were not the hotel’s only. The heat didn’t work, so you were dependent on the electric blankets on the beds in order not to freeze to death, which was great except for the long hours when the power unpredictably went out. Also, the shitty rattling windows didn’t close all the way, which didn’t help at all with the not freezing part, nor the loud random conversations that were always happening immediately outside our window. Also, strange people just wandered into our room in the middle of the night while we were sleeping because sure whatever.
But at least you could warm up with a cup of hot- wait, no, the electric kettle’s broken. I ventured out to get this fixed only to find no one was manning any part of the hotel whatsoever. I eventually wandered through some kind of barn and found a family eating in the attic above, where I eventually tracked down either someone who worked at the hotel or just someone who felt sorry for me. They gave me a different electric kettle, which worked, but this was sort of a good news/bad news situation since it also had bare exposed wires sticking out of the cord which made every tea-making adventure into a game of Operation with life and death stakes.
It was during our first stay Saga that my mom slipped and fell in that Faustian bathroom and very badly hurt her back. She was in a lot of pain and I wasn’t sure what we should do. Any of the normal solutions to this kind of thing didn’t really work in Tibet. Most of Tibet, and especially the remote West where we were, is essentially still in the Middle Ages. A Tibetan doctor will feel your pulse and tell you which demons are possessing you and causing your symptoms. There are some more modern Chinese hospitals, but without Chinese medical insurance, the average bill for a Westerner visiting the emergency room is in the neighborhood of twenty-two thousand dollars. Even our Tibetan guide, whose entire job was to keep us safe and comfortable, insisted that this was a completely insane option that was totally out of the question.
Perversely, I had travel insurance for the trip, but my mom did not. So basically our only options were bed rest or getting her back to a US hospital as quickly as possible. And that wasn’t going to be very quick at all, considering where we were. It was a six-hour drive to the nearest airport, over rough dirt roads, and my mom couldn’t sit up at all, so the drive was out of the question. This is probably one of the worst places in the world to badly hurt yourself.
After a lot of discussion, my mom decided she wanted to rest in bed while I went and did the Kailash kora hike. It was important to her that one of us got to complete the trek, and if her tailbone was broken then bed rest was the only real treatment anyway. You can’t get a cast put on your spine. This was a really difficult situation since it seemed insane to go heavily into debt for life to get her real treatment, especially if it was for something a doctor can’t really fix anyway, but I also felt horrible putting any amount of money ahead of a loved one’s health and comfort. We also simultaneously had well-meaning family chiming in nonstop with “Sean should just take you to urgent care!” and all kinds of ideas that were not actually options in remote Tibet. Which was more than enough to make me constantly question if I was the worst son in the entire world, or what.
I set mom up with pain killers and enough food and water for the three days we’d be away, and headed off for the Kailash trek. While we were away I was able to check in occasionally on our guide’s phone whenever we were on high ground, which turned out to be completely heart-wrenching every single time.
“It’s so cold. The power’s out. No one is here to help me.” GAAH.
Another tour group came through the hotel, which bizarrely somehow happened to include a spinal surgeon, who evaluated my mom and told me over the phone that she had probably just fractured her vertebrae and would be fine, but also that I was a terrible person for not evacuating her by helicopter immediately. Thanks doc.
When we got back to Saga after the trek, I set out with our guide to find my mom some stronger pain killers, navigating the world of Chinese pharmaceuticals and the locals’ bizarre insistence that they’re much more powerful than anything we can get in the West. Anything that truly would have got the job done would have required a hospital visit, so I was left navigating what the strongest over-the-counter pain killer you can get was, all in Chinese. Eventually I found some post-surgical/arthritis pills that looked like they were the best we were going to get. But they would only sell me one box since they were such unbelievably powerful Chinese medicine. After our guide went back to the hotel I tracked down another pharmacy and bought another box of the same pills, identifying them by the picture on the box.
I’d spent the entire day working with our guide to find the fastest way to get my mom back to the US. The rest of our tour group was going to Nepal, a very bumpy and long route that seemed like a very bad idea for us. At various times of the day I had us booked on a train from Shigatze to Lhasa, but I always ran into some impossible logistical hurdle, like how my mom is going to get in and out of taxis when she can’t sit down, etc. Eventually, late that night I managed to get us into a van that was miraculously driving all the way across Tibet back to Lhasa the next morning.
The van was leaving in a few short hours, very early in the morning, which meant we couldn’t even say goodbye to our group. We just disappeared into the night. When the van came, it turned out to be a minivan, not the large passenger van I had imagined my mom being able to lie down in. Shit. We were sharing the van with a couple from Taiwan, plus a guide and a driver. I climbed into the van and squeezed through a tiny gap into the back seat. My mom followed and laid across my lap, putting her in a barely tolerable position for the 14-hour drive to Lhasa.
I was pinned in place with my knee jammed up against the window and my other foot somehow stuck underneath the van’s carpet, unable to move a centimeter for however long this drive was going to be. Almost immediately we were stopped at a checkpoint, where the police insisted we all get out of the van so they could check our papers. This was going to be literally impossible, so I told them no. This had not been my stance with Chinese authorities so far on the trip because I love not being in jail, but this was just an impossible situation. They could come to the van and check us out if they needed to, but we weren’t getting out of our tightly Tetrised position.
Surprisingly, the Chinese soldiers flinched first and agreed to inspect us from where we sat. Then they announced that they needed to go through all of our luggage. Shit.
Among other things, my mom had a copy of the Lonely Planet Tibet book in her suitcase, which is contraband in Tibet. You’re not allowed to bring any books about Tibet or the Dalai Lama into the country at all. For all of our flights, we had hidden the book well enough in her suitcase that no one found it, but I hadn’t thought to hide it for our drive across Tibet, as our luggage had never been inspected while traveling over land like this before.
I tried to look behind me at the soldiers ransacking our bags and realized I couldn’t even move enough to turn my head. Balls. Well, this is going to go however it goes.
In spite of taking a solid 20 minutes to go through our bags, the soldiers somehow didn’t find the book. Because… it was dark? Who the hell knows. We drove on in relief.
The next 14 hours went in something of an endless loop like this, minus the luggage inspection. We were stopped countless times at countless checkpoints. My mom slept on and off. I quickly realized I couldn’t sleep, because I was holding my mom onto the bench seat, if I let go she’d fall off onto the floor every time we hit a bump. I tried my best to hold her in place as we hit the frequent ruts in the road, minimizing the impact to her probably-fractured spine. It was torturous, but the scenery was beautiful. Then we hit a long, endless section of rough dirt road under construction that violently shook the van over and over again and it was just plain torturous.
I felt crushing guilt that I couldn’t make this more comfortable for my mom, that I couldn’t find a less painful way to fix this situation. This feeling had been weighing on me for days. But about ten hours into the drive something clicked inside of me. Something opened up in my consciousness and I suddenly saw very clearly that this was all her experience to have. It had nothing to do with me and it wasn’t my place to try to take the pain or the experience away from her. It was serving some higher purpose for her and it benefited neither of us for me to try and carry it for her.
All the tension dropped away from me as this knowing flooded through my body. I looked out the window and saw a disabled man dragging a huge cart behind him. Oh my god that looks so hard- No. That’s his experience to have, not mine. The tension dropped away. A gnarled, stray dog crossing the street in front of us? The same.
After my mom hurt her back we’d talked about what we thought it meant, why this had happened. It was very interesting because we had originally intended to do this trip last year. It was all planned and booked, but then a few weeks before we were to depart, my mom fell in her garden and broke her foot. We had to postpone the trip for a year while she healed. At the time, I suggested that maybe there was some meaning in the injury. Maybe she wasn’t meant to go to Tibet, or wasn’t meant to hike the Kailash kora. I didn’t think these things were coincidental.
But my mom didn’t agree, she was determined to go to Tibet and do this hike. Then, a couple of months before our second attempt at the trip, she hurt her foot again. Mom! Maybe you’re not supposed to go! No no, we’re going. Okay. But the downside was that with a hurt foot she couldn’t properly train and get in shape, and I was worried about how she was going to handle what promised to be a very demanding hike at high altitude.
On the flight back from Taiwan on our way to Tibet, my mom was reading a channeled spiritual book called The Ascension Papers that discussed a very interesting concept called Exit Points. These are events in your life that you plan before coming into incarnation, times when you can leave this life if you so choose. Times when you can die, if this life isn’t working out the way you planned, or you’d gone too far off your intended path to salvage it, or if the life just got too hard to be of any benefit to you. According to the book, we all have a half-dozen or so of these exit points planned in each life. On the plane we discussed when we thought ours had been.
The time I almost drowned in Northern Minnesota? That seemed like a likely one for me. The time my mom miraculously avoided being hit by a speeding car when she was a bike cop in Ohio? Seems likely.
After I finished the Kailash kora, and had experienced how physically difficult it was, I was glad my mom hadn’t come on the hike. I honestly thought it might have killed her, it was that hard. I started thinking that her hurting her back had probably saved her life, by preventing her from being able to go on the hike. She hadn’t heeded the previous warnings from her body and so it’d had to incapacitate her to prevent something much worse.
Once I got back from the hike, we talked about this and started discussing the possibility that Kailash had been one of her planned exit points. It made sense. Her life has been extremely challenging the last few years, so much struggle. It made sense for her to be at a crossroads, choosing to go on with this incarnation or not. Apparently she had decided to stay.
After the trip her partner Rick had a spiritual reading that confirmed this concept, that Kailash had been a planned exit point for my mom in this life. Another reading went into a past life my mom had in Tibet as some kind of warlord who had caused much suffering, and that this injury was a way to balance that karma and move forward without that old energy holding her back. That helped the specific circumstances make more sense, my not being able to get her real pain killers and her having to deal with the pain of the injury for much longer than she would have if this had all happened in the US.
Eventually we made it back to Lhasa, returning to our beloved Yak Hotel from the beginning of the trip. We had three days until our scheduled flight home. I put a lot of research into getting us onto an earlier flight, but they were all booked full enough that my mom would have to sit up in a single seat all flight long. She was getting stronger, but sitting up for countless hours on the flights to Chengdu, then Shanghai, then San Francisco still seemed like an impossibility. Better to rest up for a few more days in Lhasa and then finagle a way to lie down on our originally scheduled flights.
We spent three days watching Chinese TV (Asian women’s powerlifting is amazing!), with me running errands around Lhasa, getting us food and various provisions as needed. It was funny to me how much Lhasa felt like “home” upon our return, a place that had been utterly alien to me two weeks before.
On one of these errands I stumbled across the most unexpected thing I saw in all of Tibet:
Eventually the time came to fly home. Mom had been getting stronger by the day and I was cautiously optimistic that we were going to get through this long journey home. I was constantly refreshing the seat charts of our flights, figuring out how to get my mom multiple seats to lay down across.
Once we got to the Lhasa airport, I was dragging all of my mom’s and my bags across the street (no mean feat with two huge roller suitcases and two large backpacks) when suddenly my feet stopped doing what I told them and I was moving in the wrong direction. What the hell?
I suddenly realized I had been hit by a taxi. Not hard, more like I was in the driver’s way and so he had just pushed me down the street on his hood. I got my feet under me again and glared at the Chinese taxi driver, briefly considering giving him a piece of my mind, when I noticed a soldier standing by the side of the road. Yeah. He’s probably not going to take my side if this turns into an altercation. Ah, Chinese folks. I’m trying so hard to love you.
The airport entrance had plastic strips hanging down over the door, as if you were entering a gigantic luggage x-ray machine. This is no problem when you’re not carrying four bags and have a hand free to part the strips, rather than doing so with your face. My sunglasses were knocked off my head and I paused for a split second to scoop them up while I continued forward with all the bags, but not quick enough for all the Chinese tourists behind me, who unceremoniously shoved me through the doorway, bags and all. Ahhhhh, trying so hard.
We got in line to check in for our flight, and the same Chinese tourists were shoving my badly injured mom, making me want to wish them into the cornfield. I parked her on a bench and got back in line. My mom’s suitcase failed the luggage x-ray screening, as it had before pretty much every flight on this trip, due to all the children’s toys inside that she had intended to hand out to kids on the street before she realized how weird that would be, or a hundred other oddities that were in there. The gate agent had me step over the counter into a back room to look at the x-ray, and she was flabbergasted that I couldn’t identify what the weird amorphous blob was on the x-ray screen, as if I did this for a living. It turned out to be my mom’s Polaroid camera, which she’d brought to give Tibetans photos of themselves, before realizing they all had cell phones.
After straightening this out, the bag failed the scan again and I had to insert myself in front of all the Chinese people in line who noisily and semi-violently objected, not realizing I had already waited in this line and was just re-submitting our bags. This is a funny situation to resolve without having a language in common. My mom mentioned at one point on this trip that the little fire I have in my astrological chart is in the house of travel, and that this comes out in a useful way with my ability to be assertive while traveling. It definitely came out in that line, as I had to get in people’s faces and let them know they were wrong and were going to have to wait, purely with body language and menace.
My mom’s bag finally sent through, I heaved a sigh of relief. Then my bag failed the scan.
What the fu- Oh shit. It’s my crystal skull. Well, this is gonna be fun.
“Is a shtock?” the gate agent asked.
“I’m so sorry but that’s not a word.”
She looked at me angrily. Right there in line, 12,000 Chinese tourists crowded all around us, I had to squat down on the floor with the ticket agent and unlock and unzip my bag, then carefully unwrap my crystal skull. Her eyes got huge and she looked at me like “WHAT IN THE FOR REAL FUCK??” as I shrugged and explained that it was just a shtock. She gave up and shrugged as I packed the skull back into my bag.
On the flight to Chengdu, the back of the plane was empty so I was able to get my mom a row to lie down across, thankfully. Airline regulations required her to sit up for take off and landing, which was torturous and pushing the very limits of what she could do, but at least she could lie down for the bulk of the flight.
From Chengdu to Shanghai, we didn’t have a free row but I was able to explain to the stewardesses what the problem was and they managed to create an empty row for her in the back of the plane. During the entire 25 minute take off I kept trying to discretely signal to my mom that she could lie down, since the stewardesses couldn’t see her once they buckled into their seats for take off. I couldn’t say anything without tipping the flight attendants off since they were sitting right behind me, and my mom missed every one of my attempts at sign language since she was way into her book. Spy school: Failed.
From Shanghai to San Francisco was the toughest leg, since it was both the longest and fullest flight. There was only one empty seat on the entire plane, but once we boarded I managed to find the empty seat and move over there myself so my mom could have two seats together to half-ass lie down across. I was able to check in on her a few times during the eleven-hour flight, which feels twice as long when you’re worried that a loved one is in agonizing pain.
My mom’s partner Rick met us in San Francisco and took her straight to urgent care, where an x-ray revealed two fractured vertebrae in her spine. Treatment was pain killers and a month of bed rest. It was such a relief to know both that she was getting real care and that we hadn’t made it worse by not going into massive debt in Tibet.
Throughout the journey, a couple thoughts made me laugh and kept my spirits up through all the stress. One was thinking about how I’d figured that I’d one day be caring for my mom in her old age, but not realizing it was going to happen NOW. The other was realizing I had dodged having children but regardless got pretty much the entire experience of traveling with kids during this long voyage back from Tibet.
Massive injuries aside, the most challenging aspect of the trip mentally was sorting out China’s role in Tibet, how the Tibetans really feel about it, and how I felt about it.
This dilemma cropped up in all kinds of small ways during the trip. The funniest involved saying hello to people on the street. Tibetans speak both Chinese and Tibetan. But to greet them in Chinese is, well, kind of a dick move. They’ll understand you, but it’s a bit of a sleight, to address them in the language they’re forced to learn, as their native culture is systematically eroded away all around them. Suffice it to say it’s much cooler to greet them in Tibetan.
The problem is, the Chinese don’t speak Tibetan at all. And half the people on the street are Chinese immigrants and tourists. So if you greet everyone in Tibetan, there’s a 50% chance the person won’t understand you at all. And if you greet everyone in Chinese, you’ll piss off half the people you’re greeting. So you have to try to guess someone’s background in a split second on the street, over and over again.
Surely, the Tibetans and Chinese look completely different to each other. And some Tibetans have an obvious look, almost appearing Native American. But most folks are somewhere in the middle and I wasn’t savvy enough to tell them apart at a quick glance, so I was in for a lot of awkward exchanges on the street.
What saved me was Chinese materialism. Right or wrong, every single Chinese tourist is wearing a designer shirt with the designer label in comically huge letters across the front, making sure you know this is an expensive shirt. Once I realized this I never guessed wrong. Not wearing a shirt that says BURBERRY or GIVENCHY in huge letters across the front? Tibetan. This system was never wrong.
Also I realize in retrospect I realize I was overthinking it and I could have gone with an even simpler system, since the only people who gave a shit about talking to me on the street were the Tibetans anyway. The Chinese tourists just wanted me to get out of their way.
Once you had that clusterfudge figured out, it was snap to decipher how Tibetans really felt about being involuntarily absorbed into China after the 1950 invasion no I’m kidding that shit was impossible to figure out too. When we asked our driver on our way from the airport, us being all fresh faced and five minutes into the country, he talked about all the work China had put into Tibet’s infrastructure, the roads and the tunnels through Tibet’s vast mountains that made the entire country far more accessible than it had ever been.
Then he talked about the jobs. China plans their economy, so they can set the wages in the different regions like Tibet to whatever they wanted. Wages had been set high in the Tibet Autonomous Region, so now Tibetans were making more money than the people in many other regions of China. We drove past endless phalanx of new buildings on the outskirts of Lhasa.
“Poverty will be eradicated by next year. I am very proud of this,” our driver explained. Huh. Maybe we’ve had it all wrong?
I reflected on how we in the west think of Tibet. For us, I think it’s more of an idea than an actual real country. Tibet to us is this mystical, spiritual paradise, a place untouched by the crass modern world. At least it was until China barged in and pissed all over everything.
But what does it really mean for us to wish China had never invaded, and for Tibet to still be the way it was in 1949? That’s all fine and good for us, for our distant, dreamy fantasy to remain unblemished, but we’re not the ones who have to ride yaks around, living in mud shacks and dying when we’re 40. If the people there have been exposed to the modern world and prefer it to noble poverty, what kind of asshole would I be to suggest this was all a tragic downgrade for them, as I zip home on a 787, watching HBO on my iPad with my noise-cancelling earbuds nestled snugly into my ears so I don’t have to hear the guy sitting next to me breathing? I sure as hell don’t want that medieval life for myself.
When I asked our tour guide the same kinds of questions, he talked about how before China invaded, slavery was common in Tibet. His own family had owned over forty slaves! This shocked me completely. Really, slavery in Tibet? Wow. The Chinese weren’t down with that, so they put an end to the practice after invading. Likewise, putting an end to the regular occurrence of warlords riding into town and killing everyone, taking whatever they wanted just because they could.
Jeez Louise. Maybe the Chinese invasion wasn’t the worst thing in the world? In the big picture?
China defends their invasion of Tibet on the grounds that they were obligated to free their brothers from the oppression of Tibet’s ruling class. It was the neighborly thing to do. This is patently bullshit, as China spins everything they do in these kind of glowing, grand and melodramatically selfless terms, while any reasonably experienced person realizes those aren’t the reasons why countries actually do things.
But maybe China’s selfish act of empire-building also happened to improve life for the Tibetan people?
I was solidly in a “wow I’ve been so arrogant in how I think about Tibet” mindset for our first week in the country. All the Tibetans we talked to really seemed to be happy to be a part of China and were grateful for the prosperity this had brought.
Obviously invading a sovereign people is wrong, but how different was this from what we did to the Native Americans? Arguably the Chinese were treating the Tibetans a hell of a lot better than we treated the native people in the US, once we decided we wanted their land. Maybe we need to check the warranty on our glass house.
“Yeah, but we’re Irish, we didn’t do any of that,” my mom offered. True, our family hadn’t come to America until the 20th century. But we were still living on the Native Americans’ land today, and benefitting every day of our lives from what had happened to them.
Then I started to notice that our tour guide was giving me really weird answers when I asked him questions about the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second in command to the Dalai Lama as the leader of spiritual and secular life in Tibet. The progression of Panchen Lamas works much in the same way as the Dalai Lamas, as it’s believed that all eleven of the Panchen Lamas have been consecutive reincarnations of the same wise man. Just like the Dalai Lama, when the Panchen Lama dies, his senior staff begins searching the country for his reincarnation, following dreams and omens to lead them to the child the Lama’s soul has been reborn into.
This is how it worked for the first ten Panchen Lamas, anyway. When the eleventh was recognized, the Chinese government arrested the child and his family and they were never seen again. Damn! China chose a different child from a family loyal to the government to be the eleventh Panchen Lama, and has insisted they will do something similar once the current Dalai Lama dies.
Okay. This kind of fuckery seems like it would be pretty hard to spin as anything other than awful abuse and religious oppression of the Tibetan people. The China-selected Panchen Lama is 29 now, I actually saw him in person as he and his entourage happened to enter a monastery just as we were leaving. He holds the official role of Panchen Lama, but my understanding is that the Tibetan people consider him to be a joke, since that’s just not how these things work. You can’t make someone be the reincarnation of someone else by state decree, and without those centuries of demonstrated wisdom and leadership in his past lives, the boy China selected has no qualification to rule.
I asked my guide what he thought about all of this, and his response kind of shocked me. He blew the whole thing off as not a big deal, because for all we knew, politics may have factored into the selection of the Panchen Lama at some point in the past. This reminded me of the arguments people in China tend to make when you ask them about their government’s many human-rights abuses. They uniformly respond that America’s probably doing bad things too. I guess… but what the hell kind of justification is that? It’s like if Jeffrey Dahmer got caught and offered the defense that you should get off his case because Ted Bundy was doing it too.
I had similar conversations with our guide about the Dalai Lama, who left Tibet for India in 1959 once it became clear that China was going to murder him for refusing to go along with their invasion of Tibet. Ever since that time he has led Tibet’s government in exile from Northern India. Our guide spoke very dismissively about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans who had joined him in India, which is of course his prerogative, but his comments seemed nonsensical and conflicted each other, which I found curious.
This was when I realized that all the Tibetans we were actually talking to, the guides and drivers, were all employed by the tourism board. The Chinese government was signing their checks. And if I’ve learned one thing from visiting and reading about China, it’s that China never, ever, ever misses an opportunity for propaganda. What better way to shape foreigners’ impressions of Tibet than by requiring your tour guides to speak glowingly of China’s role in Tibet, and to criticize Tibet’s pre-invasion ways?
Oh shit. I’m back in North Korea. This whole thing just turned into a hall of mirrors.
Just like in North Korea, we couldn’t have meaningful conversations with many of the locals because they didn’t speak English. So the guides were our entire lens through which we understood the country we were visiting. And they were leveraging that informational asymmetry, hard.
My entire trip pivoted on this realization and I began devouring everything I found find online about Tibet’s history and the Chinese invasion. China censors the internet heavily, though with a VPN you can get around China’s blockade on the information it doesn’t want its public to see. But figuring out what was really going on wasn’t as simple as reading a few Wikipedia articles. Much of the scholarship about Tibet comes out of China, which tends to heavily slant the picture it paints. I was also wary of reading American authors, as we tend to have grown up in a bubble that is so anti-communist and anti-China that I didn’t trust the impartiality of that information either.
I ended up having to read a lot of different researchers and historians to get a sense for what an impartial take on Tibet’s history even felt like. I came away from this experience honestly marveling at the totality of China’s propaganda efforts, because it was hard as hell to get past it and see the subject clearly. China is really good at this.
There are museums in Lhasa dedicated to Tibet’s history, but they’re all filled with torture implements and artifacts chosen specifically to paint a brutal picture of Tibet’s barbaric past that China wants you to believe in, because it forms a perspective that justifies their invasion.
What’s with all this torture stuff? Tibet was the first country in the world to outlaw the death penalty, which makes sense for a Buddhist country. I mean, it would make sense for a Christian country to do it too but that’s a conversation for another day. But the problem leaders in Tibet had was how to stop people from doing things like trying to overthrow the government when you can’t offer death as a consequence. Their solution was to hack off people’s limbs, pull out their eyeballs, cut off their noses, etc. It was brutal. And seemingly just as un-Buddhist as killing someone, but people are really good at drawing those non-existent lines and justifying whatever they want to do.
What about slavery? The best I could figure from everything I read, is that what some people are calling slaves were probably better described as serfs. Peasants tied to a local lord who gave them a right to farm the land and make a living, as long as they obeyed him and kicked up taxes. This was a lifelong deal, which you could only escape by either buying your independence or fleeing the region.
Not a great situation by any means, but pretty similar to the history of Europe, or China itself. The Dalai Lama has spoken at length about how backwards Tibet was at the time of China’s invasion, a country that was spiritually rich but materially poor, and in great need of modernization. He has spoken about what his plans were for ending the system of serfs and lords, and ending the tradition of disfigurement as punishment. Unfortunately, China invaded Tibet before the Dalai Lama had reached adulthood and assumed responsibility for the country, when he would have been able to implement the changes he had in mind.
Sure, it’s very easy to say “Oh man, I would have fixed all that shit, trust me” but I don’t see anything in the Dalai Lama’s character or actions in his life that makes me doubt that he would have moved the country in those directions if he’d had the chance. I don’t see any evidence that Tibet needed China to save them from themselves and lift them into a more enlightened way of living, especially given China’s own history and behavior.
Well, what about all the jobs and China’s impact on Tibet’s economy? Surely this has benefitted the Tibetan people. And to a degree I think it has, but I don’t think this was China’s motivation in any way for the things they’ve done economically in Tibet. I believe China’s long-term goal is to gradually erase traditional Tibetan culture, because separate cultures within China are a threat to the central government’s power. They’ve gone about this by setting wages high enough in Tibet that millions of Chinese people have moved to the Tibet Autonomous Region in recent years, greatly diluting the original small Tibetan population. Eventually the Tibetans will be a small minority as the world around them becomes more and more Chinese in culture. Already, huge sections of Lhasa look like any other Chinese city. It’s understandably upsetting for the devout Tibetans to see their holy city turned into a crass materialistic playground.
What about the roads? That’s surely benefitted the Tibetans, right? Well, not really. The constant road blocks and document checks we suffered through going anywhere in Tibet are there to prevent the Tibetans from leaving. They’re generally not allowed to travel at all, so the roads aren’t doing them a lot of good. And the real practical reason for all the new roads and beautiful tunnels through the mountains is to enable China to extract Tibet’s rich mineral resources. It also makes it easier for all those Chinese folks to move to Tibet.
China pays a lot of lip service to the idea that, in spite of officially being an atheist nation, they respect and allow different religions. Watching how they’ve treated their minority Muslim population, however, raises a lot of questions about how China really feels about anyone who refuses to assimilate perfectly into mainstream Chinese culture. China started by arresting over a million Uighur Muslims and placing them into internment camps. In the camps, the Uighur were subjected to sleep deprivation and tortured until they renounced their Muslim faith and declared their love of China’s leader Xi Jinping. Those who resisted were tortured until they killed themselves. Those who wouldn’t do that just disappeared.
No one was sure what happened to them until the waiting lists for organs in Chinese hospitals mysteriously dwindled down to nothing. Suddenly you could get any kind of organ you wanted, no waiting. It didn’t take long to figure out that this is where the strong-willed Uighurs were ending up, piece by piece. Eyewitnesses stated that the organs were removed while the subjects were still alive.
Members of the mystical Falun Gong faith met with a similar fate.
And so I didn’t need to wonder much more about how the Tibetans really felt, nice roads or not. Protests in 2008 led to riots in Lhasa that left hundreds of Chinese shops and homes destroyed. The Chinese military killed the rioters. A protest by monks in Gansu that same year led to thousands of Tibetans rioting. Since the 2008 protests, dozens of monks have self-immolated in protest of China’s cultural genocide in Tibet.
All of these protests led to greater crackdowns, China limiting Tibetans’ freedoms further and further. As sad as the whole thing is, I found China’s efforts to control absolutely everything to be fascinating. It was like watching aspects of the human personality play out on a large scale, human ego flaws represented by an entire government. The van we traveled across in Tibet had a couple of strange beehive-looking devices perched on the dashboard and mounted to various surfaces inside the van.
Eventually we figured out that these were cameras, and that we had no fewer than four cameras inside the van recording us at all times. One pointed out the windshield at the road. Two more pointed back at all of us inside the van. A fourth pointed at the driver from the passenger seat. I don’t know why they felt the need to record us all the time, I guess in case any of us suddenly converted to Islam mid-trip.
Our van on the way back to Lhasa featured a bizarre system that tracked the driver’s speed through various checkpoints, a disembodied woman’s voice pronouncing judgment at odd intervals. At first it was all just random Chinese weirdness to us, but eventually we figured out that it was all an incredibly convoluted system to make sure no one drove over the speed limit. More than once we had to pull over by the side of the road and just wait until the ghostly Chinese lady voice told us we could drive again.
Our journey to Tibet remains the most difficult trip to sum up that I have ever taken. It was both wonderful and incredibly difficult. There were moments of sublime beauty and moments of great suffering. The bathrooms took years off my life. Profound spiritual understandings opened up that I’m still working to integrate into my understanding of who I am. And they managed to sneak up on me in ways that I wasn’t expecting at all, in spite of already knowing I was in freaking Tibet.
The country was just as much of a mindfuck as North Korea, which I also wasn’t expecting at all. After I got my mom out of there safely and finally got home myself, I just wanted to pack myself in cotton and sleep for a month to recover, mentally, physically and spiritually. To integrate. All of which was impossible because I had work the very next day. But I wouldn’t trade the whole experience for anything, messy and wild as it was.
All in all, I saw things in Tibet that I will never forget.
But enough about the bathrooms.