Escape to Tibet, Part 9: Descent from Heaven

Early one morning a few days later, the Chinese policeman with the young Khenpo in tow approached Gesar and I, and by a quick appraisal of his facial expression, I immediately grasped what his request was going to be. Our time in the forbidden kingdom was coming to an end, he needed to reappear back at his regular work within a few days, and that meant that we would be leaving as well. The local chinese police had already heard reports of a couple of foreigners in the area, and it was only a matter of time before they sent someone to investigate. If we were still here at that time, it would start a chain of investigations, leading backwards through our connections that had gotten us here. Feeble attempts by us at suggesting that the two of us stay on were quickly rejected; the officer was responsible for us, and it was obviously his neck on the line if the details of our non-permit holding religious activities were found out.

Alas, the world would not wait for us.

Sadly, the rest of that day was spent packing up all the accumulated gifts that had been given to Gesar, and which was indeed no small sum: he had received full sized religious tomes, statues, clothes, broad swatches of silk, other fabric, animal pelts of snow lion and fox, and our luggage had swelled to well over triple our incoming amount. Much was given back immediately to the monastery, and considerable effort was given to cramming as much as we could into Gesar’s sturdy aluminium travel box. By the end, it would take two of us to carry…

The air was thick with thoughts and emotions; ours, of not really wanting to leave just yet, having overcome substantial obstacles to get here, and those of the Tibetans around us, who didn’t want us to leave either, or at least, not quite yet. By the time we had finally blown out our lamps at the end of the day, sadness hung like a heavy cloud over the monastery and invaded everyone’s thoughts.

As I lay still awake, letting my consciousness gradually fade to nothingness, still in this dark void of a half-built temple, punctuated only by the steady breath of Gesar sleeping nearby. I was struck by the echoing bark of a dog some distance away, disturbed by some distant shadow or noise, whose excited cries seemed to amplify the emptiness I felt around me. I realized that this part of the adventure was drawing to a rapid close, and now the hard work would begin once again.

The next morning was busy with last minute packing and a constant stream of guests seeking last minute blessings or bearing gifts. We were given so many supplies that in the end that it made the packing attempts of the day before seem totally meaningless. Huge packets of tea, bolts of cloth, texts, things that we just couldn’t possibly move without an army of attendants helping us. And here we were wanting to travel incognito…. Most of it was left behind. Gravity would have its say.

Leaving
I cannot describe clearly what happened when we finally got up to leave. It was a moment of emotional chaos that forever left a mark on my heart. I do remember that it was absolutely, overwhelmingly emotional, with people weeping openly and many who tried to physically block the path of our leaving, be it doorway or path. The two khenpos would smile and chide people in quiet but firm voices, explaining that we had to leave and that Gesar would come back to them, some other year and time. I could barely look at anyone’s faces or eyes as the air was heavy with love and sadness. It was another tidal wave of emotion after this constant dramatic storm.

We finally managed to get down the stairs and into the waiting embrace of a large and unruly crowd. Old people lay prostrate in the earth, coming forwards to grab Gesar by the ankles and pleading with him not to leave. It was utterly heart wrenching for all. Everyone was crying, khenpos, monks, the young, the old, G and I. Gesar just let the tears roll down his cheeks with this big gentle smile, and we inched towards the car. Our driver was totally embarrassed, knowing that in the eyes of many he was the one forcing departure.

I looked around at this beautiful, impossibly high valley that had been our home for the last few days and tried to capture it indelibly in my heart. All reference of emotion was lost, it was just too overwhelming. I remember the sky, vast, blue all encompassing; sharp mountain peaks and lone stands of pines and firs, the endless circling of a bird of prey, yaks looking on nonchalantly, the gapped out expressions of all who eventually found the emotions way too much.

We got into the Jeep and managed to get the doors closed. As the engine started, the wails grew more and more intense, the pleading coming to crescendo. Gently, the car pulled away from the monastery, surrounded by wailing, crying hordes of devotees and sometimes snotty faces bawling openly that didnt want to let me and Gesar leave, blocking our path. Hands tore at Gesar as we left, through the open window they struggled to get one last chance to touch him, or feel his cloth beneath their fingertips. Our driver had made it clear; there was just no way that we could stay on, no way that we could just disappear into the landscape without him getting into a shitload of trouble and everyone else around us. The reality hung heavily in my mind like the sword of damocles. I just wanted to stay, grab my passport and rip it asunder, climb a nearby mountain peak, find a cave and just exist, leave everything that I had once known far behind. Yet, it was pulling me back like a vortex.
The crowd walked with the car as we drove, some running, some riding horseback shouting out, some stopping, bawling, only to be embraced by some other human closeby.
As we started to lose the crowd behind us, G could keep control no longer, and the days of pressure finally caught up with him. Suddenly the dam broke, and he bawled his eyes out, huge sobbing cries that shook us other travellers with him to the core. Dumbstruck, we just sat there and listened as the car gently coasted down the grassy valley and back out to the road. Tears rolled down my cheeks ceaselessly.

There was nothing that could be said to fix things. I was utterly spent. Getting here had taken everything I had , and I had had to shut out both my own fears and those of Gesar in our pursuit of our goal. We had done it, but there were signs on both of our faces that this had taken its toll on both of us.

We all sat quietly, lost in our own thoughts, as the jeep rolled across the grassy valley.

 


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Escape to Tibet, Part 8: Thoughtful wanderings

Gesar and I lay in the semi darkness, and dissolved in the cold morning air. Around us the little monastery city went about its daily business of prayers and rebuilding. We had nothing scheduled for the first half of that day, and we took advantage of the break to catch up on some well earned sleep.

For once, time itself seemed to stop. Here we were, thousands of miles away from modern civilization as we knew it, living in a simple, window pane-less monastery shrine room, with prayers, barking dogs and singing workers busily engaged in rebuilding the only regular sounds to fill our ears.
We were exhausted from the ceremony of the day before, where the crowds and requests for this and that had kept us busy from dawn until well after dusk. Due to our language limitations, the constant strain of communication was taking its toll on us, and we were tired without any hope of real respite. Luckily, they left us pretty much alone that morning and we just became one with the darkness.

I dozed in and out of sleep. waking up occasionally to listen to some worker’s lilting voice as he toiled on the new building nearby. Occasionally, the voices of villagers down below drifted up through the window as they chatted about this or that or just passed time on their way to some business or other.

Life as mirror: In life, so often the definition of who we are and how we behave depends on where we are and who we are with. Sounds simple enough…To complicate matters further, we change over time, so that that which once was can be forgotten, lost, or erased, with personalities and memories becoming as indistinguishable as long lost friends. I had watched Gesar transform from a raging ball of incredible energy to a calm enigmatic person capable of showing incredible depth of feeling and care to others, without break for days on end. I, on the other hand, was generally the grumpy one, kicking out the attending monks when things got too crowded, or discipline was lost on the crowd when we moved about, which was always with great difficulty as we soon attracted a large crowd of followers immediately on standing up or making motions to move.
A photo that was taken of me at the time (unfortunately long since lost) shows a young man with long dark and unkempt black hair, pulled back off my forehead Japanese bushi style, a full beard and gaunt, exhausted expression. What struck me about the photo was the fierce look in my eyes, probably from being overly exhausted and struggling to keep things together as time took its toll on us. I had become some kind of western protecting spirit to this young tibetan treasure.

Gesar was transformed. He spent most of the days with a bemused expression on his face as request after request poured in, as it does for any Tibetan lama taking care of their people; please bless these prayer sheets, say some prayers for a sick child, come and bless our house, goats, child. He would just smile and carry out the task, regardless of whether it was repetitive or just the precursor to other tasks immediately following, which was usually the case.
My own sense of generosity was relative to my state of energy, and I personally struggled to deal with the constant requests to do something or be somewhere. Whenever I felt that people started asking too much of Gesar, I would find the highest ranking person in the room and beg for a break.

And it was thanks to one such request that we found ourselves free for half a day.

G- reflections, and projections.

In amongst this maelstrom of activity that had engulfed this remote Tibetan monastery over the last few days, sat Gesar. As an eighteen year old, more accustomed to fast food, cars, movies and a western lifestyle, I cannot begin to imagine what must he have felt. Without projecting too much hearsay into the story, I will try to picture, from my standpoint, what might have been going on within his mind. Excuse me for my discursiveness.

Being the son of a great man, recently deceased, and living in the shadow of both that man’s deeds and his western students’ expectations, the black sheep known as Gesar wandered. Many of these people around him more often than not talked at him rather than to him, this boy who had lost his father and needed a strong father figure to guide him; this boy,who manifested pure, uncontrollable energy.

Yet, here he was in this impossibly high forgotten valley, a prince; refined, gentle, loving, smiling, transformed in this land of snows and devotion. Life had truly become a mirror.

In the west, wildness abounded from him, a raw, sheer energy for life. This young Genghis Khan of the dharma was seen as an unpredictable force of nature by the mindful adult world, yet their children of those very same people flocked to him in droves, like the children to the Pied Piper, accepting him in his entirety.
In a sea of tranquility, he embodied the storm; not at all refined like the community had trained itself to be, but raw. Nor was this boy afraid to show his emotions, at any point in time, like liquid fuel, burning in his heart and vividly expressed like lightening. When happy, he was like the brightest of suns. When sad, he could rip out every heart nearby in empathy and sadness, for he radiated emotion, magnified them to marshall stack like volume. That is, was, and always shall be, his gift. His presence was way too much for many who had just lost their precious teacher, and many shunned him, fearing his spontaneous combustive qualities. It was just…too painful.The fact was that, whether many liked it or not, both physically and as a personality, G reminded them way too much of his father, the great Chogyam Trungpa. And no one knew what to do with him.

When we had first met two years earlier, G had just recently returned from a study trip to Nepal to see His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a mountain of a man who embodied a veritable well of compassion that flowed out of him through liquid eyes, huge smiles and hands. His Holiness had helped start this young boy on his way to spiritual study, but with the untimely loss of his father, the container was broken, and the contents ran free. Soon His Holiness followed after Trungpa, and those that cared for Gesar struggled to find a replacement mentor for him.

That replacement came in the form of my teacher, whose piercing inscrutability and irascible sense of humour powered right through to G’s soul. He was cool; not generations apart like so many of the elders, and Rinpoche could relate to G on a fresh and cutting level. Because of that auspicious link, perfect timing and a trust that bound us all together, here G was in Tibet.

Peaceful wanderings and the Shedrak. In the afternoon, after another meal of rice, meats and limited vegetables, we headed down the steep steps for a tour of the land and the old destroyed library and school across the little stream that cut the valley in two. Somehow, the number of attendants with us stayed to a bare minimum- with us was the Abbot, his trainee and about six or seven monks all buzzing around Gesar trying to hold an arm or to guide him over the sometimes rocky hillside down into the valley proper. Walking was laborious, each breath taxing, but we made steady progress and found ourselves below the little monastic city and stepping onto the beautiful rich spongy grass of the valley.

The Shedrak was a short distance away from Shechen proper, I am gong to estimate approximately a quarter of a mile away; perhaps put there as a way to encourage concentration in the young students who would study the higher forms and sutras and master themselves. But what we came to at that time was only the empty and shattered remains of what had once been a proud center of learning. It had been destroyed by the Chinese where they had first come to the monastery, burning or using the texts as toilet paper, destroying the classrooms and in general forcing all public forms of education underground. It was a mess; broken desks and tables, doors un-hung and classrooms open to the elements, yet another testament to Chinese intolerance at that time. Doors hung off frames, holes in the road gaped forlornly, and weeds grew through the floor. Having seen so much destruction evident right across the Tibetan landscape, I looked around at some of the faces of the monks as we stood there, their sad, silent faces, some with faint smiles as if to accept that for now, this was all that they could expect.

Without a word, we ventured on further up the valley, the stream beside us a transparent aqua blue that burbled in the background. Yaks wandered here and there, looking at our passing nonchalantly, chewing their curd and then quickly re-focusing their attention on some tasty clump of grass in front of them. What an idyllic life…

We wandered on down the valley and one of the shoes that I was wearing suddenly decided to give up the ghost, the sole ripping away from the upper leather, flapping wildly with each step. Laughing, and without having a choice, I took off the offending shoe, prepared to limp my way back to the main buildings some distance away, but I pleasantly discovered that the soft spongy grass underfoot was like the ultimate putting green, soft and gentle with every foot-fall. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about without a care in the world as the land that was Sechen embraced me.

Revealing the man. Stopping a little later for a break, we sat and sucked in air as the sounds of the quiet valley were pierced only by a bird of prey high above, gliding in the deepest of deepest blue. Everyone had started to relax- the Tibetans with us and we with them, for the busiest moments were already past us all. There was that wonderful silence that exists between humans when everyone is just resting in the moment, rather than quickly seeking to fill it with some activity or other. Gesar and I were just enjoying being there, Tibet, this land of dreams, or incredible suffering and tribulation, hard land and hard peoples existing together in harmony with one another.

Some time later, one of the monks got up, and proceeded to ceremoniously unwrap a large piece of silk cloth, only to reveal head shaving clippers as its contents. A hushed silence suddenly descended on the group in expectation, and then nine sets of eyes set upon Gesar. It suddenly dawned on me- they wanted to cut Gesar’s hair. Another ironic smile crossed big G’s face and a nod of acquiescence, and he was set upon by other helping hands as other sets of clippers appeared mysteriously from folded arms and garments.

G and I just laughed and laughed. The more holy this crew acted, the more it had me and him in hysterics trying to deal with it. Loving hands to every opportunity to touch him, and he sat there calmly while this busy work calmly proceeded around him.

Sitting some short moment later, bald of pate, I and everyone else suddenly saw the resemblance in full to the previous Sechen Kongtrul; here, before us again as a young man, reborn. Compared against an old photo of the previous teacher, pulled out from the folds of a robe, the likeness was uncanny. It was enough for everyone to line up and ask for blessings again, such was the effect that a shaved bald head and a huge smile could have.

We spend the rest of the next hour or so making our way back to the main temple, the shadows that had already started their steady crawl across the valley guiding us forwards, as the chill winds of coming night made their presence felt once again.


Escape to Tibet, Part Seven: Devotion.

Two mornings later, G and I awoke to the freezing chill of a Tibetan early spring morning with the sun having not yet risen in the sky, with the soft thrumming of voices that could be heard wafting through the unglazed window. I struggled to escape the layers of blankets that had kept me warm throughout the night, even though fully clothed, and peered with curiosity down to the courtyard below. My eyes were greeted with the sight of hundreds of Tibetans, some sporting huge chunks of turquoise bound tightly in their long hair, patiently waiting for their Rinpoche to appear. It was barely sunrise, yet there they were, quietly praying or nattering excitedly to a neighbor, some prostrating on the bare earth, caking their bodies in dust and sweat, pointed in devotion towards our place of rest.

Since it was still early, I got back into bed and put in about another hour or so of sleep while G did the same.

All is nectar..or not.
There is a concept of pure vision in Tibet whereby a devotee can show devotion to their teacher by drinking a small amount of their urine, since, it is believed, everything that these reincarnate lamas touch or emanate, is pure. Its a very old custom and one that at that time defied my understanding, yet it is probably still practiced today by some as a very direct link to the past.

I woke up the for the second time that day to the sound of liquid pouring from one container to another. At first thought, I imagined that tea was being prepared and breakfast well underway. On rolling over to the other side where I could see the inside of the room, I gazed upon, with half asleep disbelief, a monk draining off the contents of our night pot and portioning it out into smaller containers, some of which were being eagerly quaffed by smiling monks, one after another, who were filing quietly up the narrow stairs. At first, I thought to shout out warning that the contents were not as they expected- that the pee of another not quite as holy as their returned master ( ie , me) was mixed in with the contents. I turned to look at G, who also having just woke up, was watching with mouth wide open. It ended as abruptly as it had started, and the monks were gone…

Hot buckets of water were brought up to the room for Gesar and I to bathe with, and the monks besotted with interest wanting to stand and stare at everything that Gesar did. I kicked them all out, and G and I enjoyed a few brief moments of privacy in what was to be a very long day. We cleaned up as best we could, and stuffed down the bowls of rice and sweet milk that were sitting waiting for us. The pure, pure air of that early Spring morning danced with the dust that was caught in the sharp light streaming in from the window, and for a few brief moments I let my mind dance too as I watched the minute particles swirl in the gentle breeze.

The monks appeared again, this time led by the smiling young Khenpo, bearing ceremonial robes that were to be Gesar’s for this ceremonial occasion. These clothes consisted of yellow flowing shirts and under robes, and an elaborate brocade jacket that would be the finishing touch to the multi-layered outfit. The monks handled each piece of clothing reverently, covering their escaping breath with a piece of paper held in their mouths, gently easing each garment one layer at a time onto Gesar’s imposing frame. I dressed as best I could, the monks giving me a clean white undershirt for my black tibetan Chuba.
At one point before the official ceremony began I went alone down the steep stairs that led outside of our lodgings, only to be confronted with an absolute sea of faces and people, who, taking one look at me, bowed their heads in reverence, and parted in much the same way that the Red Sea must have parted for Moses did to let me through.
At that point, I felt more like Darth Vader than Moses- my long hair, greasy and tied at the back of my head samurai style, a week old Fu Manchu beard and moustache, and my long black tibetan dress. I must have looked terrifying to the little children who visibly shook at the sight of me. It was a stunning experience for all involved; I smiled and tried to be as inconspicuous and friendly as possible, but as I could see by the looks on some of the people and little children’s faces that this was, for many, their first contact with a foreigner. How strange and exotic I must have seemed to them, a stranger in their Himalayan land!

One of the monks showed me where we would walk into the temple and start the ceremony, and pointed to where Gesar would be seated and I would stand in attendance behind him. The temple, little more than just bare earth days before, had been tricked out in their fines brocades and cloths and tankhas (religious paintings), with monks already seated in long rows, chanting their opening prayers, some of them looking up at me and smiling broadly as their elders tried to keep them focused on the task at hand. Somehow, with my horrific tibetan, I was able to understand what the order of the day would be, and I left to go back up to the room with G.
We were excited to say the least- this was the reason why we had come, to see Gesar enthroned at his own monastery, and with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche having died earlier in the year it left a huge vacuum in the organisation of the local Tibetan buddhist community. Having Gesar establish links with his own heritage and legacy would give solace and comfort to many of those missing the loss of their great Guru and dharmic grandfather.
The music below us in the main temple started to play, with the deep booming drone of the long horns signalling us.

The ceremony. With a surge of about eight overly willing monks, Gesar stood up from his bed and proceeded to make his way towards the overly steep stairs and down outside to waiting crowds. I got in front of him, and tried to fit in between the monk musicians, armed with long tibetan trumpets, giving that all familiar call of an event about to happen. You have to imagine this tiny little stairwell with suicide-like tibetan stairs gradient, about twelve monks, the young abbot, me, and Gesar wearing these voluminous religious garments, all trying to get down the stairs at the same time and be of assistance to their long lost son. It was hilarious, with Gesar and I visibly laughing at the danger and frantic scrabbling hands of monks trying not to tumble down the stairs on top of one another, yet often doing so. I did my best to keep those near me upright, suddenly I was at the bottom of the stairs and the crowd below started to surge forwards towards the doorway-so much for Moses!

It was absolute mayhem; masses of hands, many grubby with dirt, thrusting forwards with babies, silk welcoming scarves, tongues stuck out of mouths in signs of respect, constantly chanted prayers, scrabbling feet, falling bodies, some trying to prostate, laughing, jostling for position, and monks and priests trying to keep order. Somehow the crowd pushed us away from the door and literally crowd surfed us towards the temple door, where we escaped inside, the monks keeping the many tibetans outside for the time being and at bay. Everyone was laughing, and G and I made our way to the throne that had been set up for him as the monks inside kept up the steady rhythmic chant of their opening prayers. His throne was covered in holy objects- texts, bells, books, a damaru (ritual drum) and other symbols necessary for the enthronement.

Finally the ceremony began- the numbers of people outside being too many to fit into the still under construction main shrine hall, they peered in through the open doorway and waited for the general blessing that would follow the ceremony. The crowd chanted patiently, prayer wheels whirring, malas clacking between hands, young and old staring inward trying to follow the procedures inside. There was an overwhelming energy that pervaded the temple that day, with smiles everywhere as the obviously proud young monks, older nuns and priests sat and prayed their welcome and recognition of Gesar.G sat through it all, beaming at everybody, graciously accepting the lead from monks that showed him through the ceremony, instructing him when to make certain movements, and being the most patient I have ever seen him be.

A parade of faces -The crowd was eventually let inside, and the general blessing began- this entailed the entire crowd being led through the shrine room to the front of Gesar’s throne, where they would receive a blessing on the head by Gesar placing his hand or sacred objects on them, and the tibetan khatag scarves that they held reverently being placed back around their necks. Many of them bore gifts- statues, animal pelts, books, malas, bells and religious practice objects, some very old and obviously treasures. I cannot explain or attempt to describe the emotions that flowed in that half-constructed temple those next few hours- crying, weeping, wailing, laughing, the sheer awe in the face of many of the children, the whispered prayers, or the breakdown of some of the older folk who had seen one of their great aspirations come true- a high lama’s return.

Through it all Gesar just smiled and smiled, the love between the crowd and him palpable and cogent. For those of us near him, for me and the other monks that were attending him that day, it ultimately grew to become too much, and we all ended up weeping as well, laughing at times when we saw some overly devout person cut back into the line to try and get another blessing, only to be intercepted by one of the wily older monks who would shoo them away. We watched this comic dance time and time again, sometimes allowing it to happen, and then seeing and older monk lose his temper and try to keep the crowd constantly moving ahead.
I still marvel today at the clarity of devotion in those simple khampa folk- as we all know, the eyes do not lie, and theirs shone with a brightness that I will never forget. Like diamonds.

It took the best part of the morning to finish this seemingly endless processing as prayers and horns and rituals were performed until late in the day. By the end of it Gesar and I were exhausted in the thin air as the energy and emotions overwhelmed us. With another fanfare, we struggled back out the front of the temple and towards our refuge above, to be met with the same enormous crowd and the same mad scramble to get near their returned teacher. This time dozens of hands stretched forwards to help Gesar walk, the smiling faces and laughing eyes giddy with joy as we were pushed back up the stairs to our lodgings and quiet.


Escape to Tibet, Part Six- Living in Dreamland

 

I awoke hours later that day to the sound of hushed voices whispering prayers. As I gradually opened my eyes and adjusted to the dimly lit room around me, I could see a group of monks sitting on the floor, about eight of them, just sitting there staring at me while they did their prayers. I was covered with about three of four thick blankets and quilts on top of that, very comfortable despite an open window nearby. Through it, a bright shaft of cool air pierced into the room, the light cutting like a laser into the darkness but penetrating no further than its vivid, blue-white beam. Perhaps it was because of the quality of the air high on that Himalayan wilderness, but light had taken on an otherworldly quality.

Gesar was seated on a makeshift throne/bed, above my head and to the left, wrapped in a  collection of clothes and thick blankets. I was still just completely disoriented, he just smiled and told me that I had slept for about 5 hours, utterly dead to the world. I sat up, and immediately a wooden cup of warm yak’s milk was thrust under my nose by a smiling but very dirty face. I sipped at it gingerly, feeling the hot vapour caress my nostrils and its nourishment gratefully welcomed by my fragile intestines, which at that point could handle nothing heavier.

The headache that had struck me almost blind when we had arrived was gone, and I was able to look around with more than detached interest at my surroundings. They had given Gesar and I a complete floor of the half-completed main shrine hall, which had been destroyed during the cultural revolution, about two floors up, dark except for the tiny tibetan style window that let in the piercing light. Gesar had slept too eventually- I presume they realised just how tired we must have been by my collapse, and let us both be in peace for a while. Monks and other guests I could hear outside still milling about, in fact as I craned my neck to look out the window I observed a large crowd was gradually forming outside the temple, as more and more people heard the news and the local communities came to pay their respect.


The monks had set up small tables in front of our beds, where a small plate, knife and a pile of rib bones of some ancient animal lay in front of me ( which in these parts, meant an animal that had died of old age), the hair and blood not removed during the butchering process and still plainly visible. I tried not to baulk as I looked at G- by his returned glance I could tell he felt the same way, a much larger pile in front of him. We knew it was the best they had to offer us, and we were grateful; but for the time being I decided that I would just forget about food and concentrate on fluid. I drank gallons of the warm sweetened yaks milk that was constantly replenished by an ever waiting monk.

I leaned back against the wall and Gesar and I chatted for about an hour, gradually giving all of the monks nicknames due to the fact that my brain could barely function and I could not for the life of me remember each and everybody’s name. For the first time in many days we felt truly safe.

Living in Shangri-La. I must take a moment to describe the energy of this place called Sechen monastery- it was calm, calm and clear like a hidden fog shrouded lake stumbled upon accidentally when hiking in the mountains, quiet despite the muffled noises of the tibetans outside going through their daily activities. The monastery was located on the side of a wide valley, cut in half by a crystal clear stream that babbled softly below. With the mountain behind it serving as a safe backdrop, it would be sheltered from the worst of the weather that must beat down on a place as high as this.
The valley was green, lush with grass and framed with tall cedars clinging to the sides of mountains and ridges. Yaks wandered aimlessly about, feeding on the grass and basically unaffected by the human settlement nearby.

When the Chinese had come and disturbed this idyllic community, they had done everything within their power to disrupt, humiliate and destroy the will of these simple living people. Monks had been forced to copulate with nuns at gunpoint, lamas pushed off roofs to verify whether they could fly or not, scriptures used as toilet paper and shrine rooms destroyed, at times with the Chinese coming back and doing several times over ( hence the ruins of the main temple at the time).


All of these things must have been severe challenges for the little community. But if the Chinese had thought that it would stop these people in any way from leading their deeply spiritual lifestyles, they were mistaken. Monks and nuns had handed back their robes (and vows) and gone off to live with each other, raising children and often the next generation of monks and nuns. Their houses stood quite close by to the main temple, of which we visited many over the next few days, always forcing down momo after momo and cup after cup of thick salt tea.


Each morning the men would go off, back to their temple, resuming their usual prayer schedule, which the ex-nuns did too, collecting together elsewhere. For members of “the ancient ones” , the Nyingma lineage, marriage, or no marriage, the motivation to practice was the same. Freedom for them always burned in their hearts, adn teh whole community functioned as it had for many years before. Only the ancient Shedrak still lay abandoned and unused, a place we would visit a few days later.

Some days we stood on the temple roof, and looked out over this wondrous community. Gesar and I shared the same feeling- we wanted to just burn our passports and stay there, disappearing into another world and life.

The dead end kids-And now back to our attendants- a more loveable and rascally lot you could not meet. One monk just looked completely like Eddie Murphy when he did his Buckwheat skit ala Saturday Night Live, curly hair, big lips and a beautiful broad toothy smile. This had G and I in hysterics when I saw the similarity and mentioned it in passing. I could see the mischievousness in some of the young faces too, they jostled and bullied each other to serve Gesar and me and satisfy our every need, returning cheeky smiles at times. Yet, they were totally devoted, many of them fiercely innocent, and actively fought to serve us, regardless of how servile and menial the task. Their devotion knew no bounds, and when compared them to the often off and on attempts of us westerners to be devoted to a cause or person… well, I am sure you get the picture. There was no politics here, just pure unadulterated service to another human being. Who was I? Yet I was feted like a king.

The Abbot-The young khenpo that we had met on arrival came upstairs again and formally prostrated to Gesar, presenting a scarf and asking for a blessing, which in the tibetan custom entails the laying of hands of the teacher on the head of the supplicant. I could tell by the look in his eye that he was already totally in love with Gesar, and knelt on the ground next to G’s makeshift bed, holding his hand for the next few hours, just wanting to be with his teacher. I don’t remember how many times I cried over the next few days, I just know that it was often the smallest, most subtle things that made my heart burst open; a feeble voice, a loving gaze, a silent gesture, things that I would barely take note of usually but here, in this far off land in the middle of high nowhere, these small gestures meant the world.

Touch- The sense of touch was definitely highlighted for me there in Tibet, something I noticed again later when I did my stint as a monk in northern India seven years later. People wanted to touch Gesar’s hand, or be touched by him. It was so expressive; whenever he moved there was a mad scramble to be one of the people who would hold his arm or elbow, to grab a piece of his coat, to guide him wherever.


Everything he touched became valuable, and an object of worship to these uncomplicated, fiercely devout people. A tissue used to free blocked nasal passages, when placed down as rubbish, was fervently picked up, (sometimes briefly squabbled over) and wrapped in a silk scarf, finally touched to a forehead and kept as some sacred object of worship. Grains of rice left in the bottom of a bowl were picked apart one by one, taken out to the waiting crowd below and distributed to the eager hands scrabbling for a single grain, those lucky enough greeting success with a prayer and a bow to the room above.

I learned something about devotion while there those brief few days. Love for us is often so conditional- it is something that I remind myself often of even to this day. What more can a human do than give completely from their heart? What a precious gift.

It was a surreal experience, and those first few hours of the fading day passed so quietly, punctuated only by a very bold few who managed to make their way upstairs and through the horde that waited. At dusk, we managed to force down some rice and meat cooked together, and settled down in the rapidly cooling evening air. The plan for the next day was to inspect the whole monastic and lay people community, the destroyed house of the previous Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche high on the mountain above, and the still ruined library (shedrak) on the other side of the valley, a little way off. The day after that was to be an enthronement ceremony, thrown together rapidly due to shortness of time. Gradually, the noise outside thinned as light faded and then was lost in the clear clean sound of night, broken only by the ferocious bark of some Tibetan mastiff as people returned to tents and houses, patient to wait one more day to meet their long lost son …

To pee, or not to pee.
At night, the cold outside was fearsome, to the extent that we dared venture outside. There was another reason though also : the monastery was in possession of a pack of barely trained Tibetan mastiffs, which patrolled freely outside and basically acted as guards against thieves or unwanted visitors in the middle of the night, alerting all to any movement by loud barks and growls. They were massive, fierce beasts, more bear than dog, that both Gesar and I feared confronting in the middle of the night should we venture out to attempt to relieve ourselves. Thankfully, the monks had left us a rather large pot for this very purpose, and Gesar and I took turns throughout the night relieving ourselves of the copious amounts of fluid that we had consumed during the day.

More on this later…

As I grew drowsy in the dim lit room around me, G and I chatted until welcome sleep claimed us both.

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.

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