Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Road To Tibet

Tibet – a name that means so many different things to so many different people. It conjures images of prayer flags, remote monasteries, and of course the Potala. I wondered about it myself for many years, always wanting to go visit, but never having the universe align enough for me to get there. I had been within 50kilometers as the crow flies in Ladakh and Spiti, but there were always 6000meter mountains and sketchy international borders obstructing a safe passage.

Tibet is far away from everywhere, it’s cold, it’s high, and it’s clouded in secrecy and rumor. Tibet is a place known as the spiritual center of the world by many and yet its culture and religion are aggressively suppressed by China. The struggle between China and Tibet is ongoing– with Tibet fighting to keep its identity under enormous cultural pressure and oppression from China. Everyday, China is literally paving and bulldozing over any remnant of Tibetan culture and wilderness.

Tibet has long been a strong and independent kingdom, existing on the edge of nowhere, a high altitude plateau of electric blue sky, harsh winds, and endless mountains. In this stronghold, Buddhism found a foothold, and along with it, stories of Shangri-la, with pathways through the mountains to heaven, and esoteric orders of monk who levitate and feel no cold. Through some combination of these forces of deep spiritual mystery and longstanding oppression and independence, Tibet becomes a confusing place. Attracted by the spirituality, the ritual, and the clarity of vision that occurs at 5000meters on people-less plateaus, I wanted to join the Tibetan experience. Yet, travelers told tales of abuses, Chinese bureaucracy, fines and permits. They told me I would be supporting the oppression by spending my Yuan as a tourist – that Tibet is no longer Tibet.

Of course, I had to go see this mystery for myself. A place like Tibet, mythological already, is too tremendous to resist, and I had been to Dharamsala and realized that the energy of the place could not fully cross the mountains with the exiles.

Karghilik is a sort of little Chinese outpost along the Silk Road - dusty, full of grapes, donkey carts, and hidden Uygur adobe houses. The mosques lay behind a maze of alleyways and storefronts selling everything from honey to gold. The people are Uygur and Han, and I don’t really know what goes on there behind the scenes. There are plenty of trucks into Tibet and China, and the town is a main bus stop along the southern Silk Road route. The entire town has been face lifted with modern Chinese avenues, glass, and metal – and of course the ridiculously large central square, that is empty but for a few children’s rides. This would turn out to be an ominous foreshadowing of what lay ahead in Tibet – a systematic destruction of culture and place recognition by simply rebuilding modern China over modern and not so modern Tibet.

Yet still, beyond all of this, lies the mystery. At the edge of the desert, just over the mountains, lies the way into western Tibet. The edges of Karghilik stop abruptly, and the dry dusty ascent into Tibet beckons. I was a little skittish hanging around town waiting for my ride into Tibet. There were true stories of people being “sent back” to Kashgar by the Chinese PSB. There were rumors of roadblocks and bus cancellations, but all of this just added to the proper sense of adventure and intrigue on going to a place with such a reputation. And, who could doubt that the power and spirit of such a place would ever bow to a piece of paper, or a regulation set by man. Tibet’s spirit lies beyond the reach of such mundane inventions, and it continues to inspire and shine through any darkness. Of course, no papers were necessary, its just a border after all, another imaginary line on a map, and this one isn’t even on most maps.

In a cold October wind blowing dust into the sunset, I set off on the Tibetan Antelope, like an illegal immigrant, paying 700 Yuan for a bus ride into Shangri-la.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ki Gompa - A Trip Is Born

I saw a picture of this monastery in a magazine a few years ago. I tore it out, and for a long time it hung on my refrigerator. Every once in a while I would take it down and look at it, read the brief description of the area, and daydream about an epic hiking trip to the Indian Himalaya. Sometimes I would forget about it, then something would spark memory. A dinner at the local Indian restaurant, a steaming bowl of daal, and some chai, and I was off to dreamland again, feeling the icy air rush down from the snowy peaks – a land known as the abode of the gods.

The trip would go; it just was waiting for its time. My yoga teacher has a quote about patience. He says; “patience is not waiting, it is knowing” - knowing that everything is happening, has happened, and will happen at exactly the right moment. Here’s how the pieces started to fall into place. My friend announced a family wedding in Kerala – a long way from the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, but at least on the sub-continent. Work called, I had 2 months vacation coming, as we were fully staffed for the summer. I started planning; this was my third trip to India, but one that would encompass all of its environments. Kerala is a steamy tropical coast, complete with coconuts, bananas and monsoons. Ki Gompa is situated around 4000m, in the stark, dry, cold Spiti Valley. How do you pack for a trip like that in India, where the number one rule is take as little as possible in as small a bag as possible?

The next thing I knew, we were landing in a monsoon raked Mumbai. We took a quick detour to the wedding, and then an epic train journey for 2000 kilometers to the foothills of the Himalaya. That only took about a month. All the while, hearing vague news reports that severe flooding had closed Spiti for the summer months, all roads impassable, no public transportation. The reports varied, but continued with enough regularity that we knew the completion of the trip to Ki was in jeopardy. After so many daydreams, and so many miles, we pressed on, through Manali, and over the pass, only to encounter the first of countless landslides blocking the dirt roads. Ki was still hundreds of kilometers away, and we sitting on the side of a dirt track in the mountains, trying to find a ride.

We eventually made it to Ki Gompa, and all the way around through the Spiti Valley and out to Sangla, in a year where the area was closed by Mother Nature. A Tibetan lake flooded, causing massive road damage and flash flooding along the Sutlej River. When we crossed the checkpoint in Thangi, the logbook listed only three other people passing south for the entire month. Ki Gompa is perched high on the side of a valley, with stunning views. We stayed on location with the monks, eating thukpa, and drinking butter tea to ward off the evening cold.

I stared at that picture so long that an epic trip was born, unfolding in ways I never imagined. I didn’t wait to go to Ki, I just knew I would be there, and yes, it was worth the trip.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Infinite Napali Coast

In James Gleick's, Chaos, there is a segment relating fractals to coastlines. When we look at a coastline on a map, we see a line, purely imaginary - for as we go out and stand on that shore, we realize that the line expands exponentially, infinitely, the closer we look. It is 11 miles to hike the Kalalau trail on Kauai, but if we actually measured each cove and inlet, the trail would be much longer, and if we measured the irregularities on each rock along the coast, it would be even longer. If we keep going to a molecular level, and then some more, we end up with an infinite coastline. Whether from a satellite image from space, a blimp, a six foot person, or a microscope, the coastline repeats itself in similar detail, just on differing scales - similar to how a fractal behaves. As we physically walk the coast, we lose touch with this degree of scale, while in the mind's eye, we can endlessly explore new inlets and points. Imagine if Google Earth could zoom down to a micron scale.

Travel becomes like this as we explore further. As we see more unfamiliar lands and cultures, we lose our sense of familiar scale, and life experiences begin to expand.
What we do in a month or week at home, we do in a day or hour on the road. When we look from a different perspective, everything seems different. There are endless experiences to be had, depending on the scale in which we live and explore. That's why when you get back from a trip, and ask people what has been happening, it seems like you were gone for a month when it was only a week. We can do this from home, travel just facilitates the experience, because we are no longer where we think we know, and when we think we know, we are looking from a different scale - looking through a different lens. If I am trying not to slide 1000 feet into the Pacific off of a narrow trail of volcanic soil, while Humpback whales are breaching in the distance, I am using a different scale than walking to the corner store for a coffee.

Enjoy those coastlines!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

We have noWHERE to go because WE ARE already there.

What is wanderlust? Why do some of us have such a strong urge to keep moving, wandering, and seeking? What are we looking for? Why are running all over the place searching for something, experiencing something? The feel of a Micronesian breeze, the taste of a Uygur flat bread, the color of ancient Navajo sandstone, the sound of the roosters in the morning, or of the traffic at midnight; the senses are overwhelmed, but we always crave more.

And there are more questions…Why are we here? Where are we going? What are we doing?

I have spent years moving from the biggest cities, to the highest Himals, to the sands of isleta Managaha, in a quest for something - something I sensed was missing, something that felt true. Like a nomad, stopping here and there to farm, or fatten the herd, or pick the mangoes when they were ripe…sometimes wondering where should I settle down, where would I call home. Yet, inevitably, I would see a picture of a far off monastery, or a double humped camel, or a sailboat floating on clear blue lagoon, and my bags were packed. I didn’t set out to find treasure, or to become anything - I just kept going

Then one day, sitting up around 16,000 feet on the Tibetan plateau, it seemed there was actually nowhere to go. All I had seen for days were snow capped mountains and glacial rivers. The landscape was endless - no cities, no cars, not even people. Just ear ringing quiet and endless blue sky…There will always be more mountains, more rivers, more towns, more people, but nowhere to really GET TO. I was already there, and I was already here. So I lay down my stuff, lit a little fire, and watched the sunset.

We are all on this journey together no matter what we start out looking for. We can find counties and countries, mountains and oceans, highways and trails, tile roofs and tin roofs, cacti and coral, sticky rice and smoked salmon, tortillas and chapattis, and tsampa and corn flakes. And we can find ourselves, and each other.

True nomads, going beyond vacation, beyond travel, beyond experience, searching for meaning, searching for truth. Eventually we realize that the world is full of sameness, of humanness, and belonging. Everywhere is home, and when the lighting is right, and we know where to look, we find truth everywhere.

As humans we are nomads, as souls we are always home.

Shangri-la Calling