Friday, July 13, 2007

Top of the World, by Susie

One of the reasons I didn't go to national is we just returned from a huge trip. 2 1/2 weeks, in China, with my whole family. It was intensely special to us: it was son #2's choice, to celebrate the end of his cancer treatment last year. My husband was born in China, and the first two boys and I have been there, but we've all only seen a tiny bit, around his hometown in southern China.

So we saw China. Xi'an and Beijing and Guilan. But the sharpest memories for me are of Lhasa, Tibet.

I was worried about going there. The altitude (12000 feet for the city itself), the food, the flight over the mountains on a Chinese airline. It wasn't at all what I expected, but it was everything I'd hoped and then some.

The flight was fine. A lovely new A330, with a camera somewhere under the plane that feeds to the video screens. I had little trouble with the altitude. The food's not great, but it's okay. The yak's pretty good, though I drew the line at sheep's lung.

What I did have trouble with was 1) beds so hard I'd have been better off on the floor and 2) the fact that I found exactly 1 can of Diet Coke in the whole city. Serious caffiene withdrawel.

I'm used to mountains that are blue and green and snow-capped. These are none of that. There is some snow on the ones we flew over, but even that is going fast (the Himalayas are losing 7% of their glaciers every year.) The ones around the city of Lhasa are unrelenting beige, like piles of gravel. The city itself is about 400,000 people (small, in China terms; they call a city of 8 million a "medium-sized city), the buildings mostly off-white, in concrete blocks or something resembling adobe.

But there the colorlessness ends. The sky is the color that the term "sky blue" was invented for, the sun strong enough to remind you there's not much between you and it. The roofs are often red; the doors almost always are, decorated with black and gold. The door jams are intricately painted, blue and green and yellow. Nearly everything is decorated wildly; decorative painting, wall murals, extraordinarily detailed thangka paintings, multi-colored silk trangles hanging from the ceilings, golden statues. The people, too; the locals wear western dress, but the pilgrims (Tibetan buddhists are expected to make one pilgrimage to Lhasa in their lives) wear traditional dress, layers and layers of colored fabrics, with three-part aprons in bright colored stripes on the women, meditation beads in their left hands, ever-spinning prayer wheels in their right. Colored prayer flags everywhere, flapping in the wind.

There are outdoor pool tables all over the place. And lots of dogs; the ones that aren't friendly are often kept on the flat roofs!

We went to the Potala Palace, which looms massively over the town, red and white, the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, built in the sixteen hundreds. I wandered around with my mouth open. The living quarters are quite simple. Not so for the burial stupas. A couple are nearing 50 feet tall, coated in as much as 8200 pounds of gold, studded with gems that number in the hundreds of thousands.

Our youngest son (9) was a huge hit in Tibet. I don't know if they rarely get non-Tibetan children there, or if it was the fact that, with his round face and Asian eyes and summer buzz-cut, he looks like a junior monk. There are offerings in front of statues all over the building, and in one room, the guardian monk reached into an offering of candy and simply gave him a handful! He got asked routinely if he wanted to stay and become a monk.

That was only the beginning for him. A monk stopped to bless him at the monastery, placing a smudge of black on his nose. We went to the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred place for Tibetan Buddhists. It is a mad crush of tourists and pilgrims. In the courtyard outside, they are prostrating; a quick squat, hands flat on the floor and then slide forward until your forhead touches the ground. Repeat. Getting into the main temple is insane; there's only one doorway, with two lines of people trying to get in (pilgrims carrying offerings on the left, tourists in the middle) and one going out, guards and monks trying to keep everyone from getting crushed. Inside, it is dark and smoky, so much detail and color everywhere your eyes can't take it all in.

An old man sitting on the floor stopped my young son as he passed; our guide translated. He had a brass circle in his lap, and as he sat, he poured barley on top, then swept it off with circles of the side of his hand, three in one direction, three in the other. (A mandala, a meditation aid.) He showed us the raw, golf-ball sized lump on his forehead. He is a pilgrim, come from Eastern Tibet. He walked here, for 3 1/2 months, prostrating the entire way, a million prostrations; the lump is the result of his head hitting the earth so many times. Now, he said, he will do a million mandalas.

The intersection of modern and the past is jarring. The Jokhang was built in the 600s. (On the heart of a she-demon, legend says). In a side room we saw a monk in his crimson robes, pads strapped to his feet, washing the floor like he was skating, with his iPod buds in his ears.

In the Inner Sanctum, where the monks chant several times a day, it was quiet. Only three monks were there, studying quietly. One, again, stopped us to ask my son where we were from. He speaks some English, and as we turned to leave, he called my son back to give him a necklace. It is carved stone, about 2 1/2 inches long, with the image of a crane on top of a snow leopard. As he placed it aorund his neck, his cell phone went off, his ring an American pop tune.

Our guide said that the gift meant that my son has some predestined connection to Tibet, either in a previous life or that he was destined to go there. I don't know about that. All I know is I still think of the place daily, the sounds of chanting and the smell of burning incense and lamps, the wild and vibrant color against a dull background, and wonder when I'll be able to go there again.

Do you have a indelible image from a trip? Where was it?



Debra Dixon said...

What an incredible trip and how interesting that sooooo many monks and the pilgrim stopped your youngest. That's freaky-making, huh?

But also very cool. The trip sounds amazing.

I haven't traveled much outside the U.S. and when I have it's been whirlwind type trips. I'd love to take the big 2.5 week trip someday. Not sure where I want to go but I think the ability to just sink yourself into a culture for so long would really make it special.

Michele Hauf said...

Wow, Susie, what great memories to have. Sounds awesome. What was your son's reaction to all the attention? Does he want to return? Did he take it in stride, like you? Or maybe he felt a connection?


Betina Krahn said...

Wow! Susie, I'm thrilled for you! I know how much this must have meant to you and your family, especially after all the medical traumas of the last two years. And what fabulous experiences!

There is something heart-srenching about having people react to your children in such a loving, third-eye-of-destiny kind of way. I had an experience like that with my youngest when he was about16 months old. . . some Russians gathered around him and talked to him in Russian and really took delight in him. . . even the "security" guys-- big Russian bears. I was humbled by their reaction to him and by his easy acceptance of these big, strange-talking people. He grinned at them as if he understood every word. And when they reached out hands to him, he shook them like a little man. The memory still warms my heart.

Your "little Buddhist priest" son has quite a future ahead of him!

Lover of Books said...

I finally figured mine out. I knew it was in Northern Ireland my second year. But I could not for the life of me remember the name of the place. It is the Armagh Friary. It was settled in 1810 and unfortunately is only ruins. But I still felt so in awe when I stepped inside. I sang some worship songs and my eyes filled with tears. I was shocked to see garbage lying around the area. But I'll never forget walking around it. It was one of the best things I ever did. :)