Escape to Tibet, Part Five: Shechen.

Shechen_tibet_1   The Beijing jeep’s engine whirred gently as we rolled over the road next to a the flat, grassy plateau landscape, with G and myself feeling blissed out having gotten this far and the intestinal cramps we had suffered for best part of the last 24 hours starting to recede. As we continued down the gently undulating road through Kham closer and closer to Shechen, Gesar and I were struck by the sheer amount of destroyed monasteries that we could see littering the hillsides. On our own experience through only this one part of the country, hundreds. Their remains were everywhere. Some of the ruins were massive, spanning most of a hillside, and what once must have been vibrant city/communities was now reduced to mere dust, rocks and echoes.
Such is impermanence, I thought quietly to myself, and so potent must have been the fear of the communist Chinese that when they first looked upon these enormous colleges, they planned their complete and utter destruction. We were told that some 10,000 monasteries or communities had been destroyed after the Chinese takeover. The stories we heard from survivors were vivid enough though, and still held real terror for many of the victims and survivors.
But more of them later….for now we just gazed at the ruins and wondered at the waste. Other than that, was saw evidence of a huge army camp, its enclosing fence following the path of the road for some time before we veered off towards another range of mountains. The driver told us through our interpreter and easily understood body language that we would be wise to keep clear of this area as the Chinese army often held maneuvers near there as a way to keep the rowdy and fiercely independent Khampas in line. Gesar and I silently nodded in agreement, and tucked ourselves down into the jeep as small as possible. We were nearly there…
More than four days into the journey with the driver and interpreter, we had had plenty opportunity to study them both in detail, sometimes acting out elaborate pantomimes, connecting our own experiences to theirs through laughter, facial expressions and listening. Gesar has an incredible personality, similar to a bright glorious sun on a beautiful spring day that radiates warmth and friendliness. A consummate actor and entertainer, he had our two companions in hysterics on many occasion.
The policeman, chain smoking yet relaxed individual, seemed little fazed by what we saw as signs of ever present stress, and was able to take enormous physical punishment each day, rebounding each morning after few hours sleep, without barely a sign to show for it. The interpreter, an ex-monk who as the multi lingual member of the party, was the oil that made the whole thing possible, chatted away with the driver for many long hours while G and I struggled with the discomforts of the road and sitting on flattened asses for more than 17 hours a day.
We came to a small town called M&’&%$#, and pulled into a small house and compound on the outskirts of town. The old dilapidated chortens nearby were a welcome sign that we were indeed on sacred ground, and the Tibetan family that welcomed us gave us welcome hot tea and a meal. Food sealed the transaction, and with eyes barely able to stay open, G and I fell immediately asleep.
The next morning, when I awoke I realized that we were in fact on some kind of farm, with an assortment of animal sounds permeating the silence around us. And speaking of the pigs, they lived in a little sty directly above the farms toilet, and made their presence felt whenever a guest above decided to make a contribution by applauding with their snorts of happiness below. Needless to say that I forwent the urge to use the premises in the way that they were designed…
Words are not enough– As usual, we were off and running early in the morning, with a beautiful clear sky above and a brilliant green landscape surrounding us. At some point, I asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road so that I could enjoy my first natural movement since the egg eating disaster. As I walked gingerly off to squat behind this small bush a distance off, I was struck by just how incredibly beautiful the surroundings were: the sky so blue, the grass so green, water in a nearby babbling brook translucent in quality. We were somewhere around 4000 meters up, high in the heart of Kham. The sound was crisp and I felt the air move around me and within me with a presence that I had not been aware of before.
It is therefore possible, quite quite possible, that within that mundane activity that we partake in each and every day and that we so often take for granted, in that high alpine valley far far away, with my pants around my ankles, that I may have experienced some small amount of enlightenment.
About lunchtime, we came to a fork in the dirt road. Our translator told us that 30km straight ahead lead to Dzogchen Monastery, another famous Nyingma buddhist center, while the turn up the hill and down into a roadless grassy valley to the right would take us to Shechen. The car rolled off the main dirt road to what was then something akin to a goat track. We were not far now, and the anticipation, despite our still very weak physical condition, was causing my pulse to race. The jeep rolled effortlessly down a verdant green valley, the road disappearing into pure lush grass, the surrounding hills crested with tall pines. I will never forget the sky; brilliant, azure, highlighted in parts by a brief white cloud or two. It was beautiful, soft and welcoming to us. We had entered a magical kingdom.
We drove closer and closer, and suddenly, far off into the distance…there it was, a group of buildings clustered on the western slope of the valley, with a small meandering stream on the valley floor. Gesar asked for the car to stop- we would walk in from here; it seemed the most appropriate way to announce our arrival. We got out, and the Tibetan translator and I helped G put on his chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress. I cannot imagine nor capture how Gesar must have felt at that time, and what thoughts might have been racing around his mind, but we just smiled at each other and laughed, two filthy dirty, gaunt faced  westerners in this glorious blue day with air that was so clean it was like liquid as it absorbed into our eager lungs.
We stumbled slowly towards the group of buildings, perhaps two or three kilometers off, our feet feeling like lead as we tried to adjust to the extremely high altitude, our breath coming in hard fought gulps and wheezes. The walk was really just a stagger. The sudden shock of the altitude hit us. It was the first time we had done any serious exercise in days, compounded by the fact we were utterly physically and psychologically  exhausted, having hardly slept or eaten in four days.
Those few kilometers long walk took forever- we literally crawled towards the temple at a snail’s pace on this spongy soft grass that carpeted the valley floor. Yaks wandered everywhere, gazing placidly at our progress, ultimately ignoring our presence.
About halfway to the complex, a khampa on his horse approached us, curious as to who the hell this was walking down this valley. The Tibetan translator said a few brief words which had him off his horse and asking for a blessing in a second, arms in prayer position, tongue out and head down, body bowed in supplication, eyes shining like fire. We were all just smiling and smiling and smiling- it felt truly like a dream. He was back on his little pony in a second, and went racing back down the valley towards the monastery at top speed shouting at the top of his lungs his news , singing and laughing, whooping and hollering.
As we started the last gradual climb up the hillside a group of monks approached us, as we could see that the monastery once far off and distance  had burst into a hive of activity up close. Many buildings at that time were destroyed, many in the process of being rebuilt, uch as the main temple, which had a makeshift scaffolding around it.
People were emerging, like ants,  from buildings, other monks stared at us from the roof of the half rebuilt main building. Most held back as a smaller party approached us. The resident tulku and khenpo (abbot) made their way forwards solemnly, greeting us, recognizing Gesar’s face and bulk, but still not sure of who they had with them. Gesar produced his letter of introduction from Dzongsar Rimpoche which they read fervently, examined the seal, and looked us up and down, then back to the letter. The young abbot and tulku, with sudden realization that the man they had been expecting for the last few weeks was right before them, suddenly smiled and wished us welcome.  The chinese driver and interpreter looked on with bemused faces. As they bent to receive blessings and offer the first of what were to be many prostrations, the near vicinity burst into pandemonium, as the entire monastic body and every farmer and khampa present in the complex rushed forwards in one body to greet us and receive a blessing. Some stopped themselves and ran back to collect khata, Tibetan welcoming scarves, obviously caught in mid-thought and dilemma.
Release-It was absolute chaos- people were running everywhere, old, young, the crippled limping forwards as best they could, (we hadn’t even made it to sit down yet) running towards us, throwing themselves on the ground in prostration, crying, laughing, babbling, praying, shouting, screaming. Suddenly we were the center of a massive dharmic rugby scrum. It was a total free for all, and suddenly the Khenpo and tulku were like our bodyguards trying to stem the rushing horde. Gesar was just smiling and smiling, so patient, so loving, and I felt my own tears suddenly flowing like rivers from the final release from stress and the combined effect of so much obvious love and devotion. We had done it. We had done it. I had done it- and that moment was way too much for me. Like a bolt of lightening, I felt a massive migraine hit me like a sledgehammer from all the endorphins being released.
Devotion- Guiding and loving hands came from everywhere: it was as if Gesar was a thousand year old man, fragile as if made of glass, a precious jewel or revered long lost emperor, and all reached out and  searched for ways to help him stumble to the main building. Some even reached out to support me- the first time I had felt the friendly touch of another human in weeks. I was no-one, but to them I was a precious jewel. Gesar’s eyes filled with tears and huge rivers coursed down his cheeks, matched only by those of the crowd around him.
An old crying man limped towards us doing prostrations at each step, shouting out that this was his teacher and his teacher had come back for him, and told us the story of how he had suffered all these years and been beaten by the chinese time and time again; how he had lost his wife and was all alone, but so happy that his teacher had come back for him. He fell to the ground, latching on to Gesar’s feet and cried his eyes out, howling, snot and tears going all over G’s shoes. Many were crying uncontrollably with him, the thin Tibetan alpine air perhaps goading everyone’s long lost emotions as we all gasped for breath. Smiles and tears, prayers and scarves, we were gradually jostled towards the half complete main temple, being reconstructed yet again after been demolished by the Chinese.
Gesar and I finally made it inside to a seat and safety from the over eager crowd, and as I looked back briefly to the crowd outside, I could see riders galloping in every direction up and down the valley, shouting their message. The stern voice of the khenpo dispelled the crowd, telling them to leave us for now, posting two monks as guards on the door. We went up a steep steep flight of impossible Tibetan steps to the half completed shrine room above the main shrine hall, where monks raced about setting up a place for me and Gesar to rest.
It was about that time, with Gesar firmly in the grasp of loving hands, that I literally passed out, struck by a blinding migraine headache that rendered me utterly incapacitated. The focus was all on Gesar now anyway- and I could relax for the first time in weeks. I can’t even start to describe how I felt- all I could think about was closing my eyes and sleep. It was all too much. Despite seemingly impossible odds, we had done it.

I had done it.


My mind went blank.

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Escape to Tibet, Part four: Meetings with remarkable sheep.


From Chengdu to the Tibetan border and a ride I will never forget.

The chill morning air was cut only by the busy whir of the Beijing jeep’s engine as we made our way through the still quiet and sleepy streets of the city. In the backseat with me sat our tibetan translator, chatting away to our policeman driver, while Gesar in the front stared silently into the gloomy early morning. The full extent of what we had arranged, and the sheer illegality of it were lost in a smile shared by me and Gesar through the rearview mirror. I commenced on what was to be one of many journeys around my buddhist mala over the next fifteen days. I prayed for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, and that I wouldn’t go completely mad from the extreme unrelenting stress of being on this journey. We were truly on our way.

First Checkpoint.- The morning air, aided by the strengthening rays of the sun, steadily dispersed what was left of the morning mist as we headed for one of the main exits of the big city, and the first of what were to be many police checkpoints on our journey into Tibet. The ritual upon approach was the same: cars would line up, one by one approaching the gate across the road, where policemen interviewed the drivers and took passenger lists, inspecting the contents of a car, bus or truck if they felt it was necessary. We watched many others questioned like hawks, with some turned around or told to pull off to the side for a thorough inspection. Or so it was for everyone else. Our driver, with seemingly incredible bravado, just beeped his horn, pulled out onto the vacant side of the road and headed straight for the gate in the green police jeep. I and Gesar were praying fervently, the mantras whirling from my mouth in barely whispered high speed eddies. I shrank down in the back seat and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible to the now approaching checkpoint. The chairman Mao hat was pulled down firmly upon my head as I attempted to sink deeply into the shadowy corner of the back seat. My heart was literally pounding now like a drum as our driver rolled down his widow and started jokingly berating the guards at the gate. They laughed back at him and asked a few quick questions, barely glancing inside except to look at the imposing form of Gesar sitting in the front seat. The gate went up- and we were waved through.

The stunned elation that I felt at that moment lasted for about an hour and until we approached the next checkpoint where I suddenly realised that we would have to run this same gauntlet many times over the next three or four days. There was literally a post about every 30 to 40 kilometers for the entire length of our journey, some more closely manned than others. The major ones where our driver had to get out of the car and report were few and far between, and he obviously attempted to steer clear of them as often as possible by choosing alternate routes over tracks often in appalling condition. The city behind us rapidly became the suburbs, and thence the countryside. It was happening, but at a nail biting pace.

Bounce baby- The road, as it was, steadily deteriorated as we headed west and gradually out of proper Chinese territory. We were often following the riverbank of the Yangtze river, and its epically beautiful scenery springs to mind whenever I see a classical chinese painting of mountains, forest and mist. It was glorious countryside, shrouded in fog and absolutely lush green. The road had been literally carved out of the mountainside, and earth moving equipment and dynamite excavation work still under progress, sometimes stopping us while they blew their charges to cacophonous reply all the way down the valley. Most of the traffic consisted of police vehicles, army jeeps and trucks, countless logging trucks heavily laden with wood, that bounced along the road, leaving huge ruts and clouds of dust in their wake. What was at one point a normal tarmac road gradually shifted as the journey went on and became mostly mud and dirt, scoured into hard packed waves that caused the jeep to gently undulate up and down. From gentle it gradually became more persistent, till the last two days of the journey inwards were spent by us as much airborn as forward moving. An idea of the extent of how much we were jolted was shown by the combined bulk and size of Gesar breaking the front passenger seat completely off its welding as we were climbing the last passes into Tibet ( more on that a little later), and on our return journey the rear seat welding snapping as well. As Rimpoche would so poignantly say,’ you have no idea.’

Unrelenting strain- I could go on into a blow by blow account of everything that transpired, but for the sake of brevity I will condense it into a summary. Our first three days journey passed with much the same routine- meals were snuck at a restaurant always on the edge or outside of a town, chosen due to few customers and areas where one could secret away a party, the meals eaten quickly and with us back on the road and driving again within minutes. There was no looking around of any sort- we were to avoid any kind of awkward questioning or obvious presence in the area. For me, it was just constant, unrelenting stress, an excitement and nervousness that just didn’t let up. My stomach became a knot of tension, meaning that often I found it hard to eat even if I wanted to, let alone relax for a brief instant.
Even getting rest at night was an ordeal. We had to check in to the rest stops/hotels after the local policemen had perused the guest books of the local hotel’s guests for the night, at around about midnight, catch a few quick hours sleep and be back on the road at 430am before the early morning check again, usually done at 5:30am to catch the unsuspecting. Our policeman knew his stuff: He steered us patiently each night to this place and that, as our sense of awareness gradually disintegrated due to tiredness and nerves. Our fate was indeed entirely left up to him and the buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The countryside swept by our now dusty windows, and what had once been verdant green mountain valley gradually opened up into wide plains. Before it did so, the verdant green and heavily forested valley surrounding the river had gradually deteriorated to heavily forested or clear cut yellow lumps, the now steadily eroding falling dirt from the mountain side turning the waters of the river below into a sea of yellow mud. The existing forests had been stripped bare.
The extent of the environmental damage was appalling, there seemed to be little logic in the method of cutting and very little in the way of replanting or any kind of ground maintenance. I remember looking at the boiling mud-filled waters below the road and watching all kinds of flotsam scrabbling along with the current. Trees, logs, boulders- there was major environmental damage occurring right before our eyes.It left me at a loss for words and made me ponder whether this was what the chinese government really didn’t want westerners to see and the main reason for making this area off limits…

The end of day three, the mountains gradually grew smaller over the journey until we seemed to be driving on some kind of flat, grassy plateau, with the driver telling us that at the beginning of the next day we would make our climb into Kham and over the main pass that discriminates the true geographical border. The countryside and the people had also changed- most were tribal types, sporting longer hair and red sashes sometimes wound around their heads, clothing a mix of tibetan and chinese army mixed together like some hippy cocktail. It was getting steadily colder too as we drove, the heater of the jeep just taking the chill off the cool air. We drove an incredible amount of hours each day, sometimes as much as twenty. The driver seemed undaunted as he tackled the various obstacles of the road; dangerous trucks, huge wallows, mud ruts like quicksand that bogged us a couple of times; roads that had completely washed away. Checkpoints came and went in regular interruption. Through it all Gesar and I sat mostly silently, watching the constant parade of nature. Praying.

Beware of thousand year old eggs… The last morning we were up at 430am as usual and heading down the road before any other morning traffic hit the roads. The landscape around us had changed, the houses that I saw were similar to what we would see in Tibet, looking more like military strong houses of some bygone era, painted white with small windows. There were fewer trees now too, the land often rolling by like a broad, Wyoming plain. It this what Tibet would be like? I wondered to myself.
We stopped at a restaurant at about 600 am, ravenously starving due to the freezing temperature of the wind outside the car. Shuffled quickly into a secluded corner in the back of the restaurant where we could not be seen, the driver as usual ordered food for me and G. This particular morning, it was a milky white sweet porridge of rice, milk and two or three obviously aged eggs, done traditional chinese way. We had seen these aged eggs eaten by the driver and our interpreter, often picked out of a age old barrel with some shoddy lid. Having refused them several times before, I intended to avoid the eggs and just eat the broth like liquid, but on finding that it was sweet, my hunger overcame my better judgement and I wolfed down the lot, barely glancing up to notice that Gesar was doing much the same. We were feeling more confident now, knowing that we would be on Tibetan soil somewhere around lunch time. Within short minutes we were back on the road again.
The rest of the journey that day consisted of following the gradually ascending road up and over a high pass into Tibet, the highest point at an altitude of somewhere around 4000 meters. The driver stopped once half way up and recalibrated the carburetor, forcing us to shiver violently in the uninsulated vehicle as we waited.

Oh, the pain of it all…..And then it began…a small gradual pain in my stomach that built in intensity over about thirty minutes, then gradually subsided over another thirty. Repeating over and over like some relentless punishment, I broke out into a heavy sweat, despite the chill air around me. At each cycle the pain gradually got more and more intense, and I found myself clutching the back of the front seat in order to control my movement and the pain that was by now becoming unbearable. It wasn’t like nausea- it was as if someone had their hands inside my intestines and were squeezing them and sticking knives into me. I felt totally out of control- a sudden snatched look of fear at Gesar and I realised he was in the same predicament. We both hung on for dear life to the back of the front seat as the jeep relentlessly drove upward, our bodies being constantly thrown into the air by the unending bumps and ruts that marked each forward movement. I couldn’t cry or scream, just found myself with eyes closed trying to go into the pain that seemed like it would never stop. It went on like this for most of the day- for a while I lost complete track of time and space.
My medical background learned while doing nursing to pay my way through university tells me in retrospect that we both probably had Salmonella poisoning, and considering the fact that some westerners have actually died after eating these thousand year old eggs we should consider ourselves lucky. Nevertheless, the memorable crossing of the highest peak and entering into the Tibetan basin was lost on both me and Gesar, as we endured this excruciating pain in varying degrees for the rest of the day and indeed most of the next week. Gesar gripped the seat in front of him so tightly to resist the pain, that he snapped the seat off from its welds. Gives you a pretty clear idea of the pain that we were under.

Tibet!-Late in the day and over the high pass into Tibet, the driver, obviously worried about our subdued condition, but having little in his power to remedy the situation, pulled over on the side of the desolate road next to a little Tibetan nomad family, their tent and a flock of a little goat like creatures I had never ever seen before. They looked like little goats or sheep, so tiny that you could fit perhaps over a hundred in a space no bigger than your kitchen, with a wispy silky fleece, cared for lovingly by a little tibetan shepherd who was obviously terrified at the site of Chinese police jeep.
Once it had finally hit us, Gesar and I were absolutely overjoyed to be in Tibet, despite the pain we felt. G scrambled out of the car and attempted to approach the man, speaking some tibetan Khampa words to him. The man continued to back away until we realised how incongruous we must really look, a dirty smelly unshaven long-haired western man wearing a black chuba, and a huge Chinese looking sumo wrestler type wearing something akin to army fatigues bursting out of a military vehicle and running up to him. ‘Show him your mala’, I suggested to G, which he did, pulling it out from under his jacket. Suddenly a smile appeared, and he shouted something to his family in the tent, who peered out cautiously, still afraid. We just stood there laughing and smiling and smiling.
He led us over and shared with us our first cup of real tibetan butter tea, for me barely potable, but hot and given to us with a smile. We squatted down next to his fire, and exchanged little more than smiles and eye glances. G and I were utterly exhausted from the journey, but we were truly in Tibet at last.

We were almost there.

Escape to Tibet, Part 3. Xian to Chengdu and beyond

Back in Xian two days later and once again smack dab in the center of the country (doh!), Gesar and I arranged another train ride; this time in a south-westerly direction, with another 1000 km plus journey and a seventeen hour train ride to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, the home of all that really spicy Chinese food you eat at your local Chinese restaurant.
This reminds me of a quick aside, the whole time Gesar and I were in China, we were struck by the poor quality and taste of the food, regardless of how expensive the restaurant was. I remember eating Bao in Xian, a kind of bread dumpling usually filled with meat or a vegetable, and the look on Gesar’s face after he bit into it, and immediately spat out half. A quick look at the contents showed us the bun was stuffed with green tea leaves. Ugh! My stomach still twinges from the memory. Why such poor food you ask? Well, you have to thank the late great Helmsman* for that. One of his most brilliant strategic long-term decisions during the Cultural Revolution was in getting rid of any kind of family lineage of skilled workers or tradespeople/ craftsmen due to their inherent bourgeois status, so that meant doctors, teachers, successful businessmen and your average skilled Chinese cook. Obviously they were still in short supply in 1991….
Anyway, back to the story. A different hotel, another travel agent, and tickets were purchased for the train. We had already lost about ten days with our aborted entry from the north, and didn’t want to sit around some dank proletarian hotel any longer than we needed to.

Plan Two: Ah, got to love Rinpoche..the man must have realized that Gesar and I would attract difficulties like flies to a carcass, and was probably sitting safely back in India laughing at all the potential strife we would get into….
Plan two was to meet an old Tibetan Lama called P&’%$ Tulku, a survivor of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and of incarceration in a Chinese prison, who would somehow help us achieve what felt like was becoming an impossible dream- to get Gesar safely into Tibet and enthroned in his monastery.

Let’s go! This time, there were limited train seats, so we were going the lowest class available. A brief description is necessary. Trains in India may have a bad reputation, but this train in China certainly could challenge that theory. The seating was arranged in benches to fit three, facing each other. To say ‘seating’ is a complement and mere flattery; these seats  were more like church pews similar to the ones I experienced as a boy during my (obviously) failed Catholic Christian upbringing. No padding, bare wood, seventeen hours, you get the picture.
The train was packed to the gills. Stuff was everywhere, people getting on and off, similar to any train journey in India. Most of our neighbors had the prerequisite glass jars full of tea, with hot water readily available on the platform.

Public brawling, Chinese style-Now before I tell this next event, I want you to understand that in the People’s Republic at that time, trains attempted to leave on time, without fail, barring major catastrophe like the world ending or something similar. As we were sitting there waiting for takeoff, a couple of rowdy types in front of us started to argue. Again, any kind of argument in China at that time was considered entertainment, so everyone in the carriage craned their heads to watch. The volume of exchange between the two became increasingly agitated. Suddenly, right before our very eyes, one guy grabs this big empty glass tea jar (about a liter capacity) and rams it into the face of the other, and fists, blood, glass fragments, people and belongings started flying everywhere. G and I looked on in disbelief with mouths agape. The fellow on the receiving end of the glass jar was up in no time and staggering down the aisle screaming, trying to get off the train, blood spurting profusely like a fountain, all over the other passengers as the other fellow chased him, ultimately restrained by some other men.

Now, as all this is going on, the train is pulling out of the station, and already off the platform. The injured man and his accompanying party screamed for a train guard, pulling frantically on the emergency stop handle, which produced no result whatsoever. The guard came eventually after a few minutes, and they pleaded with him to stop the train and let the man off. The victim was obviously in need of urgent medical attention, now seated at the end of the carriage in an open standing area, and blood was still flowing from him copiously, the flow now dampened by some strategically placed towels on his face rapidly turning pink. There pleading was in vain: the guardsman just stood there and repeated, ‘mao, mao’ or ‘no, no.’ The train just kept going until the first stop 45 minutes later. Trains in China just don’t stop. The next forty-five minutes until the first scheduled stop saw all passengers on our carriage lost in their own quiet thoughts,humbled by the sudden outburst,  the only sound to break the silence the occasional whimpering of the fellow at the end of the carriage.

Chengdu and P Tulku
Well, what do I remember of the journey on the train after that? Not much I can tell you! Oh, cans of the same soft drink taste differently depending on which part of China you are in; I distinctly remember extra fizz in the can when we pulled into one station near yet another nuclear power plant…….
Early the next day we arrived, covered in a thin layer of soot,  in the famous city of Chengdu and set about finding our contact there- P Tulku. After a little searching around this Chinese and soon obviously Tibetan populated neighborhood, we were led by a man that was clearly an ex-monk to a nondescript street of apartment buildings. As we approached, a kindly old man dressed as a lama, hair pulled up on top of his head like a yogi, wearing worn, disheveled and dirty yogi robes came limping towards us with a huge smile and pools of tears in his eyes.
The feeling I had right then was like a child watching an old Lassie movie- my heart wanted to explode at the sight of his instant and utter devotion to a boy he had never met before.
Gesar’s previous incarnation had been P Tulku’s teacher, and the look in this old man’s eyes was enough to fuel at least 100,000 prostrations of the most stubborn western buddhist. He was so happy; he giggled and laughed at us and fired away in rapid Tibetan. Gesar blessed him, not wanting to, but forced to by the old man placing Gesar’s hands on his head. Here we were, standing in the middle of the street, people starting to watch from windows and unfinished laundry now flapping like prayer flags above us as this partially crippled old man tried to do prostrations on the road in front of him, displaying his unswerving belief that Gesar was without a doubt his teacher, reborn.
Drinking copious amounts of sweet milk tea and eating Tibetan pastries moments later  in his little apartment several floors up, Gesar recounted the story of our adventure in Xining, occasionally acting out the part of various characters in the police station. Pewa tulku just giggled, laughed and smiled and smiled and smiled. Remember no-one spoke English, so we had to make do in broken Tibetan. P tulku recommended a hotel for us to stay in while he sorted out how we were going to get into Tibet, and set off with us to the hotel. Walking to a taxi, it was clear to me from the derogatory looks that the nearby Chinese people gave us that Pewa tulku was often derided by his Chinese neighbors. We couldn’t have been more proud to be with him that day. For the first time in many days, we felt safe.

Around Chengdu and the story of the born-again Chinese travel guide.
P Tulku took us to a hotel in the middle of town found on the bank of a rather large river, the Jinjiang, I think a tributary of the Yangste River. I just remembered the name- Traffic Hotel! ( for the morbidly curious: http://www.traffichotelchengdu.cn/)I can remember quite vividly the amount of garbage that I saw floating past in the river out front of our hoetl during our brief sojourn there, including the carcass of a rather bloated, recently deceased pig that eased effortlessly with the slowly moving current. How romantic. The hotel was nice enough, and the views (aside from the parade of trash floating by)  quite spectacular. We were also next to a primary school, which announced its presence several times a day by loudspeaker fanfare and the noise of children marching around the playground listening to patriotic music and words of patriotic encouragement from their teacher. In fact, to us they seemed to do about as much marching about as they did study!
Directly in front of the hotel was a Chinese-only night club, big sign on the door, and a small pleasant little outdoor café, right next to the river bank and some weeping willows. Across the river was a public park, filled in the early morning with tai chi practitioners whirling swords and doing other group oriented exercises.
That little cafe was the scene in Chengdu if you were a westerner and tourist.You could always find some other westerners about, lolling around the café, eating the food ( which was quite good) and sharing their experiences. Some were teachers living in the town, some tourists/backpackers, and obviously the cafe was everyone’s  quiet respite from the toils of their work, where pancakes, coffee and locally made snacks could be had pretty much all day and well into the evening.
P Tulku has settled us in, and hobbled off back to his house as we stood there, gratefully watching him go. It was plain to us that he had a great deal of difficulty in getting around, with one ankle turned painfully on its side as he walked, but he took off undaunted. I remember hearing something about him being severely beaten by the Chinese when imprisoned at some point. Most, if not all of the lamas we met on our trip had spent long years in jail, and P Tulku was no exception. With a smile, he told us he would send for us in a few days, and soon disappeared into the thick foot traffic that coated the busy street.

I remember people in Chengdu- people, lots of them, everywhere. The streets were packed with little stalls doing business, and men and women wearing their nondescript blues and greys, in typical Chairman Mao fashion. The café was located right next to both the river and a busy little lane, and since we suddenly had no schedule to commit to, we decided to sit there, eat, and watch the world go by.

Finding an empty table we nodded a brief greeting to another westerner and Englishman, instant friends by exchanged glances and a smile. We had barely sat down when the owner of the café approached us, not to take our order but to introduce himself with a booming english voice and start pitching his various business interests. His name was Mister Chin, and not only did he run the café he also has a small tourism company on the side. What I had first thought to be a menu tucked under his arm was in fact a menu of all the different tours he had to offer, after all, business first right? Within a minute and one seemingly long sentence, he had introduced himself as a proud and official born-again communist catholic christian, and proceeded to confirm the fact that he had indeed gone to church that very morning and was feeling really, and I mean really, really good. Gesar and I sat there politely while he went through his business menu and the englishman at the next table just grimaced; a trip to the Chinese opera, the Buddhist statues nearby, and various places of interest.

Due to our own superlative business skills, recently honed in India with many a taxi driver, we let him ramble on for a minute or two, then rebuffed his overtures and settled with some pancakes and coffee. Yet, I could tell by his face that he was the type that didn’t give up easily, and would be back later for round two, either to clinch some kind of tour deal with us, or convert us both to Christianity by his shining example.

Our English friend told us that Mr. Chin was that heavy-handed with everybody, and advised us to blow him off more quickly next time. We got the update from him on the town, and proceeded to spend a lazy afternoon in idle chit-chat with the ever wandering in and out customers. Hey, we also had hot running water in the hotel, so showers were taken all ‘round, and we returned in turn to sit and watch the slowly meandering river and constant flow of people cluttering the nearby bridge to the other side.

The afternoon was punctured by two incidents, the first, the arrival of a meter and a half long rainbow snake that shot at high-speed under the outdoor café tables, eagerly chased by a rapidly gathering crowd and a cook from the local snake restaurant, just down the lane, hatchet in hand. The second was the fruition of the  constant interruptions by Mr. Chin, who regaled us at any given moment with his christian exploits and the obvious pride in being a member of the ‘Official Communist Party Christian Catholic Church’. Our English friend, who had gone off and returned later in the day interjected one of his spiels to ask him a question.
‘Mr. Chin, I notice that out front of your glorious church there is a rather large cross.’
‘Yes, we are very proud of that cross. It represents Jesus,’ says our resident Mr. Knowledgeable.
Leaning in to deliver the killer blow, our Englishman fired point-blank at Mr Chin.
‘Well then my good friend, perhaps you can explain to us, what’s that bloody great big red star doing smack in the middle of it?’
At this point, G and I couldn’t keep a straight face, and burst out laughing. We sat there, basically falling off our chairs with hysterics, while Mr Chin, having surrendered to a facial shade of communist pink, wandered away, muttering to himself.

That got rid of Mr. Chin for a couple of hours, and the rest of that day and evening was spent meeting various other western wanderers and tourists, sharing their adventures, and of those who had attempted, of their ill-fated attempts to get into Eastern Tibet from Chengdu. These stories were varied and fantastic.

  • one had attempted to bike (!?%) around Tibet- attempt failed, bike confiscated and had been escorted by Chinese police back to central China
  • one had wanted to boat down rapids out of Tibet and back into China- attempt failed upon capture
  • one had hitched a ride in the back of a chinese army truck all the way into Lhasa- success

Chinese black-market, and Tibetan invasion plan #2.
Early in the morning of the third day, a Tibetan man came knocking on our hotel door to take us to see P tulku. We were led to one of the houses of his students, a lovely Chinese family that gave us an enormous feeding and made us feel incredibly welcome in their private, walled in compound. After the meal was over, Pewa tulku told us our marching orders.

He had arranged, by his connections with the local Chinese black-market, these things

  1. A Chinese police jeep to drive us into Tibet
  2. A Chinese police officer to drive us
  3. A young Tibetan monk, since neither G or I spoke a word of Chinese (who spoke no English) who spoke 5 dialects of Tibetan and was going to escort us and act as translator between us and the driver.

We were ecstatic at the simplicity and audacity of what he told us, but then I asked curiously how much funds this was going to require.

P Tulku said it was going to cost a cool $5000 US, payable that very day. Well, needless to say that we didn’t have that kind of cash on us, especially if I was to have emergency funds in case something went wrong (as I had feeling it would). A look of concern crossed P tulku’s face briefly, then he said that never mind, we could pay him them what we could, and for the remainder he would find the money and we could pay him back later. His earnest look said it all: we must get to Tibet.!

We were smart enough to realize that P tulku would have to put himself us as guarantor with his Chinese black-market reps, and we also knew what would happen were we to default.

Gesar and I weren’t sure if we wanted to get there that badly, considering the effort we had gone through to raise money from the American sangha for Gesar to come and study with Rinpoche in the first place. But the suddenly wrathful look on the tulku’s face convinced  us that we better just agree with what he said. We nodded our assent. Suddenly the smiles were back again all round.

We would worry about paying him back the extra  money when we were back in India. After all, Rinpoche had said that all things could be taken care of if necessary.  So off we went to a local market to prepare necessary items for trip- Gesar and I both acquired Chubas  and other necessities for the very cold and hard journey ahead of us. Chubas are the traditional Tibetan dress, long and generally thick, rough material to keep you warm in the high altitude, worn off one shoulder during the heat of the day, and a welcome extra layer at night. We had our requisite Chairman Mao hats to cover our heads if need be, and a few extra socks and sweaters.
We were told to be ready early the next morning as we had nothing to lose. The journey would take about three/ four days of hard-driving and we were instructed to sleep well that night.
Of course, we hardly slept- it was going to happen! It was a combined feeling of intense anticipation and absolute fear that wracked my discursive thoughts that night.

On our way.
The next morning we were ready at five o’clock as we had been instructed. We left a lot of belongings at the hotel; only take what is absolutely necessary. Our Tibetan friend drove us over to the Chinese people’s house, where sure enough sat a waiting Beijing Chinese police jeep, a Chinese policeman and a little Tibetan monk. Introductions were done, a wave good-bye to our new chinese friends and the aspiration of good luck from P tulku and we were on our way. I sat in the back, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible in the early morning traffic as we navigated our way out of the still sleepy, misty town, as the driver pointed the jeep west, towards Tibet and our destiny.


* The late great Chairman Mao

Escape to Tibet- Part Two: Qinghai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ill-fated journey to wild west Xining/Qinghai- or, how not to piss off a Chinese police officer.


The realization that we were about 1500 km off course hit him like a bolt of lightening. ‘What the f..k!’, were the first words out of G’s mouth, and a look of total disbelief crossed his face. ‘F..k!’ ‘F..K!?’ We sat in the room, and tried to figure out what to do. The choice was obvious- we needed to arrange a train trip from Xian to Xining, as soon as possible. We had both planned to stay in China a maximum of two months, so there was no point in wasting time. The next morning, we had the travel officer at the hotel arrange a couple of tickets for us on the next night’s train. This was going to basically be a 24 hour journey from Xian, the old capital of China over 2000 years ago, to Xining and the old Tibetan border.
We had accepted out fate, and did some quick thinking. We were back on track. Neither G or I spoke any Chinese, Gesar could get by talking in Tibetan, and I had very rudimentary Tibetan skills from living a year at Rimpoche’s monastery in Bir, in northern India. Underline rudimentary. The train turned out to be ok; we had a sleeping booth, which we had to share with another person, but it was clean and seemed quite comfy. The car was filling quite quickly with Chinese from all walks of life, most of them carrying these big jars which later we were to realize was for them to drink tea from, a seemingly constant process of re-filling the jar with hot water (readily available) and milking every last drop of flavor out of a few pinches of tea leaves. We pulled out of the station, one of those classic fabricated steel and glass aircraft hangar shaped monsters with the standard People’s Republic mural of the victorious Chinese people marching behind a young and virile Chairman Mao plastered on the waiting room wall.

Tally ho! Time for a beer! Which was readily available, and we settled down to stare at the Chinese man sitting opposite us. Gesar, with his unique ability to make friends with anybody anywhere, had this guy drinking beer with us in no time, and telling us his story in very broken English. Mr. Z as I will call him was from Taiwan, and was on his way to the Northwest wilderness called Tien Shan, where the Chinese government would let foreigners go as long as they were prepared to pay shitloads of money, and possibly have their permission cancelled at any time. He was in similar straights as us, unsure if he would get permission.
We got by with our international communication skills, mostly sign language, and explained that we were going to Tibet. He suggested in his own way that this might be a difficult prospect, but we were to be undaunted at this stage.
By the end of three hours we had both the railway guardsmen assigned to our carriage in our room drinking beer too and proceeding to get very drunk (sounds safe doesn’t it). But hey, this was China, and they ended up giving me and Gesar their communist party badges and various railway worker insignia, which I am sure they probably regretted later on.
The next day of travel was quite enlightening- here we were slicing across the Chinese countryside, and one could feel the ever present influence of the late great chairman. There were caves anywhere the countryside produced a bump, crops as far as the eye could see, and absolutely no free space to be seen. The predominant colors for me were three- the grey of all the concrete buildings ( since we didn’t see any older buildings- thanks to the destruction of 80% of anything historical during the cultural revolutions), the green of the rice fields, and the sweeping blue indigo of the sky.
G and I got to sample some of the culinary highlights of China Rail- one rather interesting dish later turned out to be snake, I was hoping the hand gestures meant eel, but then the chef smilingly showed us the snakes hanging from the ceiling…
Late the next day, we finally arrived at our destination- Xining. I will try to close my eyes now and paint you as vivid a picture as I can…Back in 1991, it was still very much a wild west town, many of the streets were unpaved, the locals an interesting mix of Han Chinese and blue-eyed Caucasian mix tribesmen that had obviously filtered down from the various steppes millennia ago. I heard later that a large percentage of the populace were ex-incarcerated criminals, social outcasts and political dissidents, whom after serving their time and receiving ‘re-education’, were forcibly sent to this outpost by the politburo in order to keep them as far away from the big cities, and causing any more trouble as possible. That meant that at night, when the natural light faded, the law often ceased to exist in obvious form.


Case in point- One day in China Gesar and I were walking down the street when we came across a large crowd surrounding three men who held a man between them. Whatever this man had done, we had no clue; but the crowd stood by and watched as one man systematically and methodically kidney punched this guy, much to the gruesome fascination of the crowd. It was torturous to watch, I couldn’t believe it was happening, and Gesar was absolutely horrified at the plight of this man, who now was bleeding from the mouth at every punch. ‘Where’s a policeman?’ G asked me. We frantically looked around, and saw one about half a block away directing traffic. We raced over to him and caught his attention, pointing at the man and the crowd down the street. He smugly ignored us, and turned his back… Gesar was really pissed off at this point, understandably so, and was making that quite clear by his loud upset and plaintive voice. But there was nothing we could do…we walked on down the street helpless and both feeling a little less than human…
Back to Xining. We found a hotel in the middle of town and proceeded to check in and get a room. I was in need of a bath, and so was G. As one would, I went into the bathroom and turned on the water- and nothing happened except this low resonant moan that emitted from the pipes….wtf.
Down to the reception desk go I, only to be told, sorry, the water and water heater will be turned on twice a day, once at 600-700 am, once more in the evening. Let me tell you that Xining at night is cold- is a good way northwest, and though the days are warm, the nights were freezing. In our four/five day stay there, G and I were never able to get a shower- the water had either already run out, or trickled out of the shower nozzle at beyond boiling point.

The next day, we started to explore town and carefully find a car company so as to try and hire a car. Wandering the sometimes unpaved streets, late in the day we found a car company and proceeded to arrange the hire of a car. Everything seemed ok, the employees were all smiles, so happily G and I went out on the streets to eat some street side bbq and drink some beer in the chill but energetic evening. The mix of races in Xining was interesting-here we were in China, but there were Mongolians, Chinese blue-eyed Muslims, Tibetans, all mixing together within a booming night market. A little tipsy, we returned to our prestigious accommodations to watch some twice-dubbed American movie with a voice track so confusing we kept ourselves entertained by making up our own dialogue. A knock on the door…..
There stood a Chinese police officer with the friendly hire car employee, not smiling now, and the manager of the hotel. Between the three of them, we managed to figure out that we were to report to the police office the next day first thing in the morning, where the police were very curious to find out why we wanted to get into Tibet…..
Things were not looking so good. Gesar and I started to figure out what the hell we were going to say to the police the next morning. It definitely couldn’t be the truth, and we were sober enough to realize that these policemen were going to check our contact in Tibet. We didn’t want to make trouble for them either. So here is the story Gesar came up with……as far as I remember!
Gesar was a son of a Tribal warlord who had fled the country in 1948 and gone to live in the US. On the death of his father, the son wished to reconnect with the rest of his relatives still living in China. The last known relative was now living in Tibet as an Chinese free land grant emigrant that had moved to Kham……. It was something along those lines, anyway. Lo and behold, in the middle of the story, Mr.Z from the train appears like a guardian angel/peaceful protector and starts to help with the translation into Chinese, completely going along with the story as Gesar told it.
I remember the face of the Chinese police officer as Gesar told his tale of being the long-lost son from America. You have to imagine in your minds eye that Gesar literally towered over your average Han Chinese policeman by a good couple of feet, and was built like a modern day sumo wrestler. The officers and the entire police station staff were spellbound and stunned to say the least. Gesar looked like ‘someone’. Just what kind of ‘someone’ and whether that kind of ‘someone was worthy of being let loose in Tibet they had no idea. I just agreed with whatever Gesar had finally come up with. The policeman dismissed us, and told us to come back later in the day, saying that he would now contact Gesar’s ‘relative’ in Tibet to confirm the story.
Like a lightening bolt, G and I raced down to the local telephone exchange, where we called the number of our contact. You can imagine this huge guy crammed into a tiny phone booth, speaking very american accented Tibetan, with a much smaller westerner milling around, occasionally interjecting his 20 cents worth. Basically the result of the conversation was- we weren’t sure. The feeling of panic that had slowly permeated the police station seemed to make our grasp on the subtleties of the Tibetan language unhinged. Rimpoche has let them know that we were coming- the main issue was, could they somehow persuade the police chief that the story was legit.
Back to the police station and we were told to come back tomorrow, and they would talk to us about our permit- the phone conversation had gone well. Trying to hide our obvious glee, we made it at least to the outside the Police station before we each broke into our rendition of James Brown’s goodfoot dance. That night it was more bbq, more beer, and a weird Jackie Chan movie- I think it was Cannonball run.

An extra day, and Kumbum monastery- or, believe it or not…


The next morning we headed back to the Police station, to be told we had to wait an extra day whilst the wheels of Chinese Bureaucracy turned… whatever. We had somehow heard about Kumbum monastery, a Gelupgpa monastery founded by Tsokhapa 1357, a mere 30 kms away and hours bus ride from the city. We had a day to kill, and it was definitely worth the road trip. Or was it…..
Ok, this was my first real Tibetan gonpa (monastery) anywhere near Tibet, so I was excited. G and I were part of a busload of people headed out that way, crammed together with mostly tibetan looking types, food, chickens, assorted supplies, and what we thought were a few monks. Down a dusty and bumpy road we went, and as we wound our way down this valley I couldn’t help but notice how much the lan had deteriorated. There were a lot less crops being raised, and what was growing was of a much poorer quality than I had seen on the way west. We were definitely getting closer to the arid Tibetan border. Regardless, I felt quite good to actually be getting somewhere remotely Tibetan.
We arrived at the monastery and proceeded to have a look around. This would be a great opportunity for us to brush up our Tibetan skills, and also see one of the most important sites in Tibetan history. Something felt strange- I didn’t quite know what it was, but the energy was nothing like I was used to in the other Tibetan monasteries I had been to and stayed at. It was not peaceful, it felt…dead. We saw a couple of monks, and G headed over to have a chat. They avoided us, even though Gesar obviously caught the attention of one of them. Weird. Undaunted, we continued on, and had a look in one of the massive shrine rooms and got another shock- the place was literally covered in inches of dust, a brief look inside disclosed one beat up drum lying on its side, practice tables stacked loosely and lying about on the floor, dust and crap everywhere. How could that be? Outside the main entrance, Tibetans were still engaged in prostration activity, continuing a tradition that had gone on for centuries, and was evidenced by the literal hollowing out of the flag stones about the length of an average human, where practitioners had done countless offerings of their bodies. A look at Gesar’s face showed me he was just as confused as I was.
Seeing another ‘monk’, he chased after him and this time really pursued to talk. The ‘monk’ mumbled something is Chinese- he obviously didn’t understand a word that Gesar was saying. I don’t remember exactly how we found out, I think it was from a Christian missionary we met on the bus back to Xining later that day, but there were no real monks at Kumbum- the were all mostly retired army soldiers who were there to give the ignorant tourists the feeling that they were having a ‘Tibetan experience’. The buildings we saw had been stripped bare of any semblance of religious meaning and trappings- unkempt, beaten up, paint peeling off walls. It was an empty shell, a dead body, and our first wake up call to the real plight of Buddhism in China at that time.

And now, for the grand finale…or, end of act one.
We were up bright and early the next day and at the Police station waiting for out answer, which of course took all morning. The officer that had been treating with us the last few days seemed friendly enough, had asked more questions than a game show host, and was seemingly convinced by out story. ‘You have 80% permission; I just wait for my boss.’ Ok, so wait we did. I consumed best part of my fingernails to pass the time, G with his usual patience vibrating on the seat next to me. Finally, the phone rang, and the officer held a terse conversation with the person on the other end. The phone went down- he looked at us. ‘Well, my boss says ok you go.’ Broad smiles shared by me and G. ‘But…I say no.’ The look on this guy’s face said it all- it was a complete power trip.
We were both totally stunned- all that time we had spent, the phone calls, the stress. This guy knew he was totally screwing us.
G says to me, ‘let’s get out of here’. But my Irish blood got the better of me and I decided to give this guy piece of my mind, for what it was worth.
I don’t know what I was thinking, but I get up in this officer’s face, and eyeball him as close as I could get, channeling my best Scorsese Italian mobster wise guy face and say, ‘you x%&$#’ asshole, I wont forget you.’ He just recoiled, stunned and completely not understanding a word of what I had just said but definitely understanding my anger, as G and I stormed out.
It’s amazing how quickly you can get things done when you need to move. We were on that night’s train back to Xian, I was ready to put plan two into operation. Rimpoche had said it was going to be tough- he was right. And guess who is on the same train, in the same sleeping booth? You guessed it; Mr. Z They hadn’t given him permission to go to the wild north either. We commiserated over a few more beers and watched the countryside roll by. G was talking of just quitting and getting the hell out of China. I knew how he felt. I felt violated myself. But I remembered my instructions from Rimpoche- no matter what, get him to Shechen. So it was time for plan two…..

 

On Balance

Balance is something I have both consciously and unconsciously sought after for many years. I have struggled many times (often unconsciously) to have the perfect arrangement of time and activities, only to see those plans naturally dispelled by this curious reality we call life.
This pursuit lasted until I was about 33 years old, when I had the good fortune to meet a wise sage in the back streets of Thamel in Nepal who said something to me that has stuck ever since.
Energetically, the concept of balance goes against the laws of nature; meaning a state where all things are equal ( or as equal as you want them to be). We live in a world that is cyclical in nature, seasons, days, weather patterns. Imagine if it all just stopped just for you..
In fact, the “balance” aspect of all phenomena may reside in the reality of this constantly changing world, ever transforming, dispelling, dissolving, creating. It is in this divine union of elements that we find ourselves as often as actors, at other times often feeling acted upon by the very forces that revolve around us.
Balance, in my own limited experience, is really about your own personal reactions to changes in the environment around you, and whether you accept them/work with them or not. Any static realities that I have sought for inevitably ended up in disappointment or dissatisfaction.
Balance is…riding the wave.

Escape to Tibet- Part One.

 left, the big G man.
Marc and Gesar’s epic neurotic adventures in Kham.

Way back in 1991, when Gesar and I were in India with our Lord and master*, Rimpoche suddenly came up with the bright idea that we (ie G and I) should go to Tibet, and that Gesar should be recognized by his monastery as the incarnation of Shechen Kontrtul Rimpoche. Whaa? I hear you say. Ok, a little bit of backgrounding is in order- I apologize. There are a few concepts here that may need explaining. So, I will try to make this all as simple as possible.
Gesar is the son of Chogyam Trungpa(1939-1987), a great mahasiddha, crazy yogi and spiritual revolutionary who performed multiple miracles in North America and Europe, and was a pioneer in the spread of the buddhadharma in the west. His most famous miracle was turning a bunch of long-haired pot smoking drop-out Grateful Dead following hippies into a bunch of suit wearing, uptight starbucks coffee drinking middle-class Americans, heavily influenced by too many viewings of samurai era Akira Kurosawa movies (yes, this is said toungue in cheek). Trungpa Rimpoche set up the Shambala community that spreads now throughout the world, teaching an ecumenical form of Tibetan Buddhism (which is often referred to as the Rime school). It was the community that raised me in the Dharma, the place where I met my teacher, Dzongsar Rimpoche, and a true refuge for a failed international pop-star such as myself; for that I am eternally grateful.
To cut a long story short, Gesar was recognized when still a child as a reincarnation of a great tibetan yogi, Shechen Kongtrul Rimpoche, whose monastery lies in the high and wild hills of eastern Kham in Tibet. Having been raised almost completely in North America, and basically divorced from any kind of traditional buddhist training, he had the stigma of being one of the sons of a ‘Great man’, whose followers had dreams and expectations for him that way exceeded reality. When I first met Gesar, he was what could be considered as a modern rendition of Ghengis Khan. Approximately 16 years old, weighed approxmately 220 pounds, he was an American football linebacker, part time rapper and terror of the International Shambala community. He was considered by most of the Shambala community as totally uncontrollable and unpredictable.
The day of our meeting that first fateful day in 1990 witnessed several auspicious signs, the evening meal at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center was proclaimed to be delicious, and several rainbows had been seen over the Vajra campsite latrine. It was for me, love at first site, a meeting of two neurotic minds bent on the same goal: the destruction of the peaceful heartfelt world of the average touchy-feely buddhist sangha member. A big burly arm was flung over my shoulder, and I was ceremoniously led to his luxurious accomodations ( a beat up old streamliner trailer) in a quiet corner of the 400 acre retreat center, where we and a few of his close followers engaged in the traditional North American welcoming ceremony of smoking a very well packed Indian peace pipe.
Approximately two years and many adventures later, he and I learned of our command to go to the wild west of Tibet. Sounded like an adventure: I had wanted to go there since my interest in buddhism had began, having read all those Alexander David-Neel books of her journeys through there 100 years ago, and then also having heard about the place from Rimpoche. So, off we were to go.
A Gesar’s attendant, military advisor, and partner in crime, my instructions from Rimpoche were simple- make sure Gesar got to the monastery in Tibet, no matter what. We had a budget, about $5000 US, and we had a plan and a back-up plan. Remember we are talking 1991, Tibet at that time was in lock-down mode due to the New Year Riots in Lhasa, and Kham was definitely off limits to foreigners. Rimpoche had devised an elaborate plan to get around that small obstacle though.
The master plan to outwit the Peoples Republic. There were at that time, two ways to get into Tibet from China: one road in the North through Xining, and one road in the South near Chengdu in Xichuan Province. Plan one was we were to prodeed from Guangzhou(previously known as Canton) to the city of Xining in north western China, close to the northeastern border of what had once been the Tibetan frontier. Having hired a car, we were to attempt an entry into Tibet by the northern road. Rimpoche admitted to us that our chances to get in were, at best, sketchy: the police kept strict surveillance of the road by checkpoints every 20/30 miles, all travellers were required to have a special travel permit to get through the checkpoints. Any foreigners caught were placed in a Chinese police jeep and escorted far away from the area to a train bound for the chinese eastern coast. So, before going to the car company, we had to try and get a travel permit from the police. Sound sketchy? Read on….
If plan one failed, we were to make out way south, about 2000 km to Chengdu, where Rimpoche knew of an old Tibetan Lama who had ‘ways’ to get people into Tibet. Enough said. Gesar and I both hoped that the first option would be successful, and we gleefully prepared for our epic adventure.
Day one, and it all starts to go wrong… Well, off we go to our trusty Indian travel agent in Dehli (who shall remain nameless), pick up our Chinese Airline tickets, and get ready to leave. From Dehli G and I headed off to Bangkok, where we succumbed to a 24 hour binge of the cultural, culinary and night -life delights of that wonderful city. After our brief sojourn there, we caught our flight to Guangzhou, which, as can be expected in that year, was a rather dreary place on first examination, and sampled out first taste of chinese communist hospitality. Day two saw us heading for the airport in the late afternoon to catch out domestic flight; on first examination an ex-Russian Aeroflot ‘Concorde’ with bald tires, with a penchant for letting the clouds enter through the barely pressurized windows during takeoff. Gesar and I smiled at each other- nothing to worry about, all was going well….
We arrived at the airport after our 2000km plus journey late at night, in pitch black darkness and in the middle of nowhere- no town to be seen. The nearest town was a 30 km taxi ride, taking us past the local nuclear reactor/power station on the way, causing my eyes to water profusely and barely able to keep them open….
Arriving in town, I was struck by the appearance of a rather large city wall that seemed to surround the city center. Strange, I thought to myself, I had no idea that Xining was such a big town, but nevertheless was intrigued at this rather obvious link to Chinese history. Having selected a hotel that was, luckily for us, still open, we checked in and settled down for the night. Everything was going to plan, all I had to do was arrange our car/permit, and we would be on our way.
And then the shit hits the fan….Full of burning buddhist devotion, and eager to get my charge to his destination, I decided to go downstairs and talk to the receptionist about arranging a car for us. Through a combination of sign language, broken english, and several international dance steps, I explained that we were in need of a car to go to ‘this’ place, pointing to my well drawn Kanji characters of the town we wanted to go to in Tibet. The desk clerk scratched his head, and said in his best broken english, ‘It very far! You know that?’. I said yes, I was perfectly aware that it was a little way, but we were willing to pay premium money to get where we were going. He looked at me again, said something in mandarin, and went into his back room where he acquired a map. Spreading it out on top of the counter, he confirmed the details, ‘you want here yes?’, pointing to the city in Tibet where we were to meet Tibetans that would help us. Yes, I said, there. ‘You know where you now?’, he asked me, yes I said again, pointing to the city of Xining not too far from the place I wanted to go. ‘ No no no, you not here!’ , he said to me, and proceeded to point to the smack dead center of his map of China and way the hell away from Xining. ‘Where here?’ I asked as I started to lose my feeling of confidence. ‘ Here Xian, not Xining!’ he told me with a look of concern and frustration. A look at a map of China and the distance between Xian and Xining will give you an idea of how fucked up we were…way off target.
The it hit me- our trusty Indian travel agent, unable to read or find Xining on his travel itinerary, had decided that the next best thing was close enough, and had booked us a flight to a city 1500km east of our planned set off point, and dead in the middle of China.
And so the journey began…and I hadn’t even told Gesar yet………..to be continued.*- D&’%$# Rinpoche

Meeting Khandro

 

Khandro Tsering Chodron

Three foreigners, dressed in various combinations of monastic robes, made steady headway out of Sikkim’s Capital and towards a long sought after rare chance appointment. One intrepid traveller in the group was a strapping New Zealander, one an Scottish ex-nun, the other a soon to de-vow monastic (i.e. me), all trudging steadily up the steep hills out of Gangtok and towards the old royal Sikkimese compound.

The weather was fine and clear, and the beautiful Himalayan countryside almost leaped out of the thin blue sky as we walked. All of us shared the same thought- would we be able to get past the guards and into the main compound to visit Khandro Tsering Chodron, once consort of the great Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and renowned real life yogini…

Khandro became Jamyang Khyentse’s spiritual wife in 1948, at a time when he was in poor health and many of his disciples were urging him to take a consort to prolong his life. For the next eleven years she served as his attendant and devoted companion, receiving countless teachings and transmissions, requesting practices and prayers and travelling with him all over Tibet and following him to Sikkim on his escape.*

We had all heard of numerous failed attempts by other western devotees to get in to see her, with the gatekeepers more often than not turning everyone away in order to keep the premises secure. So, we decided to walk up to the Tsuklakhang compound rather than jump in a taxi, and do our best invisibility attempts to get past the main gate and find her.

The cool Himalayan air was no obstacle whatsoever, we chatted as we walked, taking in the countryside around us. finally we breasted the last rise and saw the gate clearly ahead of us. Walking on the side of the road farthest away from the guard house, we made ourselves appear as monastic as possible, and walked at a steady pace forwards. As we breached the gates the guard looked up for a moment, we nodded to him briefly, and just kept on going. Without so much as a glint of recognition, he was back to the pages of his book in an instant.

I remember clearly the grassy hill in 1998 that the temple sits upon, and the huge wave of elation as we started to approach. Finally, to meet a spiritual practitioner of such high regard and link to the Tibet that once was. We knocked on one of the temple doors politely and an attendant came out. With our best Tibetan, we explained our reason for the visit and the desire we had to meet Khandro.

If you ever get a chance to visit this temple, it is an incredibly beautiful sight. Imagine the high Himalayan peaks wrapping around you as you stand on a grassy hill, with a panoramic view of the countryside around you. Steeping through the tall doorway, you are struck with the feeling of antiquity of the place and that you stand upon very hallowed grounds, as Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro’s Stupa and relics are stored there. I was struck by the quiet feeling of vastness as we walked quietly down the hall towards a closed door, which we knocked on gingerly, and then were ushered through. Inside was a vast shrine room, dimly lit, empty of all furniture with a highly polished wooden floor, like dark glass. At the far end of this room, sitting on a cushion and appearing so diminutive, was Khandro herself, looking quizzically at the arrival of these three foreign guests.

At that point, the three of us lost any composure we had managed to have up till then, and fell over ourselves to offer prostrations of respect to her and offer silk khata. A smile appeared on her face as she sensed our discomfort, and with a smile beckoned us to sit. We sat there for a short interview, our nun doing her best to translate our thoughts into Tibetan, as she looked at us and smiled a deep, loving smile. I think having finally achieved our goal we were all at a loss as to what to do or say, and feeling too overwhelmed at the energy of sitting close to this woman, we got up and sat a little distant , in order to just remain in the space with her for as long as we could.

All three of us were lost in thoughts and practice, but the energy in the room belied a sense of power much greater than this kind little woman sitting before us. I first tried to do my mantra practice, but my mind was completely restless, so I just settled for shamatha/vipassyana, and allowed myself to gradually tune in to the room around me. It was cavernous, with a high ceiling, with the walls covered in various tangkhas and other religious paintings and artwork. Khandro just immediately returned to her practices, which in many ways encouraged us to do the same. We must have stayed in there with her for an hour or two, and through the whole time I was struck by how this woman just radiated energy.

At one point as my vipassana gradually expanded out further and further into the darkened space around me, I felt as if the highly polished wooden floor beneath me became instead a sheet of glass, and below that the darkened planks in fact a vast and empty space. Literally, I felt the world as I was accustomed to it fall away into nothingness, which struck me with a sense of awe.

My feelings of being overwhelmed with the situation were not alone; my two companions at some point signalling that they too felt profoundly affected by being in her presence. An attendant came in to see her, and we took our leave, leaving her, as I remember, still quietly sitting on her cushion, smiling and chanting some mantra.

Emerging outside into the still bright sun, we stumbled onto a grassy patch and sat down, knocked out by being in her presence and needing time to recover. I dont remember the contents of the conversation, but we all had felt an incredible power surge just by being near her. We made our way down the winding road and out the gates, proceeding to walk back down the hill from whence we came.

Suddenly, one in our party started laughing. I dont rememer who it was, but it soon infected the three of us with the same effect. Within moments, without any knowledge of why we were doing so, we were all laughing and completely out of control, laughing and stumbling, howling at the energy release that had just occurred.This lasted a good fifteen minutes or so and would not be controlled no matter what we tried. A site we must have been for all who passed us, their eyes curious as to what had struck us as so funny, where in fact there was no cause that any of us knew of.

Khandro was a living example of how important women practitioners are to the Buddhist faith, and that her attainment as a practitioner was unparallelled. I will never forget her.
* http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Khandro_Tsering_Ch%C3%B6dr%C3%B6n