A Journey to the East, part II

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On the Roof of the World

Lhasa, Tibet.
Tibet is a high, arid plateau north of the Himalayas that has historically been one of the most isolated countries in the world. Most of it is above 12,000 feet and much above 15,000; it is incredible country.


What I remember most about Tibet, though, is not the land but its people, who were the warmest I have ever known. They are sincere, direct, and open-hearted. When I walked the streets, people would come up to me and warmly grasp my hand or arm, smiling friendship as they said hello looking me in the eye. Women who had never seen me before told me they liked me - or even loved me - and I believed them. Why? Because their spirit was contagious, and I felt the same as they.


Religion permeates life in Tibet. Temples like this one in Lhasa are continually inundated with worshippers prostrating themselves humbly before entering the sacred confines. Monks and people spinning prayerwheels are frequent sights on the street. Priorities here are different than in the West, where religious concerns have become subordinate to material ones.


Buddhist monasteries like this one were the heart of the Tibetan state before the Chinese invasion in the 1950's. A single monastery often housed several thousand monks, who completed a twenty-year course of study in Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, rituals, and practices. These studies were the equivalent of university degrees in the West, only the concern was spiritual rather than material. Today the Chinese have begun to loosen their oppressive grip on religious activities in Tibet and the monasteries are beginning to operate again, but they are as yet only a shadow of their former selves.


Traveling through Tibet to the Nepalese border we passed over some of the most desolate territory in the world. Most of Tibet is parched, mountainous desert. The dryness and high altitude make the air clear and the sun strong; every detail of the landscape is thrown into sharpest relief. This picture was taken from a high plateau northwest of the Everest region. It was an awesome feeling to stand there and see those mountains so low above the horizon and know that they were some of the highest in the world.


Just before we got to the border we passed through the sharpest climactic transition I have ever seen. Literally between one valley and the next the surroundings transformed from dry, brown sand and rock to a lush tropical paradise with rivers, waterfalls shooting off of cliffs, and plants and trees everywhere. This picture shows the border from the Tibetan side: the Nepalese border settlement is below and on the far side of the canyon.



The Nepal Himalaya is a land of spectacular beauty. It is anything but a virgin wilderness, but the many small settlements that are scattered throughout its expanse are part of its charm. Lifestyles here are kept simple by great isolation (even people in neighboring valleys may speak different languages), closer to the mountains and the sky than the socio-technical pathways that all of mankind is increasingly coming to follow. It is a refreshing realm.



While trekking, I occasionally met young villagers who had learned to speak English in provincial schools. We would talk of ourselves and our backgrounds, and their perspectives on what I told them of my world were from as great a distance as mine was of theirs. They never presumed to judge my culture (nor I theirs), but the amazement they expressed over how we live and what we strive for was something to hear. How strange our world seems to them!


Down on the Subcontinent

In India, civilization was more different from the West than anywhere I'd been on the trip. One minor but telling indication of this was the ubiquitous presence on the streets of "snake charmers" like this one, who carried around cobras in wicker baskets, often goading them to raise their hoods and hiss threateningly. Such casual use of a deadly poisonous snake is almost entirely beyond my understanding. The snake is associated with the Hindu god Shiva and so their use is religious in nature, but what is one to think about a religion which leads to such activities?


The Ganges river in India is considered sacred, and in the city of Varanasi (also known as Benares), temples with steps leading down to the water line its banks. Every day thousands bathe in the holy waters.


Deep in the jungles of central Sri Lanka sits a great rock, 200 meters high, today named Sigiriya. A Sri Lankan king who had recently succeeded bloodily to the throne built a fortress/palace on top of it during the 5th century A.D. and laid out lush gardens in a cleared area below. Throughout the grounds there was an intricate network of pools and water channels, and it has been speculated that a great pool atop the rock served to power fountains and waterfalls amongst these.

On my way back home, I stopped in Tokyo for a few days. Tokyo is an incredibly modern city; everything is high-tech, smooth, and clean. In many ways it seemed almost Utopian in comparison to cities in the present-day West, but, still, after all I had recently been through and seen, something seemed missing.


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