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.


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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 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 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