Friday, March 14, 2008


The protests and violence in Tibet today make me wonder how those monks, pilgrims and nuns we met back in our 2001 trip are faring.

You never meet people like these -- faces so open and smiles that radiated like sunbursts into deeply creased faces. We'd experienced some of that beauty in other devout Buddhists we'd met -- Mongolians. But Tibet was different, because there was more of a dark side. People had secrets and resentments. Strangely, we as outsiders were made privy to some of those secrets.

Epu, two other friends and I hired a driver with a jeep to take us to a monastery in the countryside outside Lhasa. The monks were used to tourists showing up and they rented us a room of sorts. We sat around on a wall/terrace, basking in the slowest sunset on earth -- it lasted until past 10 p.m. One young monk spent awhile talking with us in Chinese, which was not an easy language for any of us. He listened to music on our headphones.

Another monk showed us a picture of the Dalai Lama tucked inside his robe and told us he had a brother over in India, where the DL lives in exile. One asked us if we'd heard about the World Trade Center attacks, which had happened just days before. They'd heard all about it on the radio here at this remote monastery on the roof of the world. He said some Americans had showed up several days' hiking and he'd been the one to break the news.

Some Tibetans we met -- I remember a in particular monks working at one of the palaces -- refused to speak Chinese with us even if they could barely communicate with us in English. The resentment of the Chinese who were taking over the city was very clear. A lot of the business people there -- taxi drivers, shop owners -- were all Chinese who told us they had come to grab opportunities and make money, even though they hated living there.

As we rode through the countryside in the jeep, peasants stopped scything in the fields to wave at us. We hiked from the monastery to a nunnery, and on the way passed a small settlement from which boys emerged, motioning with their hands that they wanted us to give them pens. I can't remember if we had pens to give. At the nunnery, we bathed in hot springs, in seperate men's and women's enclosures. On my side, I watched a group nuns, about junior high school age, enter the water, still clothed, and wash one another's stubbly hair with bars of soap.

I think the one encounter that we think of the most is meeting the pilgrims. At the nunnery, we were sitting around after our long hike and we sort of struck up "conversation" with a group of ordinary Tibetans who were making a pilgrimmage from one monastery to another. They do that. I put conversation in quotes because we did not share a common language. What we did was, we got out our Lonely Planet and showed them color pictures of some of the monasteries, and they would get excited and I believe they pointed out to us which ones they were going to or had seen already. They loved looking at the color photos so much that we got out any other books we had on us. I remember Epu's shiny-covered sci-fi-fantasy novel really impressed them.

The pilgrim in the red hat was fascinated by Epu's arm hair. They apparently don't have much body hair. She actually plucked one of his arm hairs and tucked it into her cap. A souvenir.

I hope that woman's back in her home, deep in the countryside somewhere, safe with her souvenir arm hair on display. The monks we met, I worry about more, especially with the news that troops are surrounding the Potala Palace. That was where a monk working at the place stopped us on our tour, touched our elbows, and asked, "Are you Americans?" When we said we were, he looked into our eyes, told us that he was sorry, and draped a white prayer shawl around each of our necks.

Now I'm sorry for them, although even if I were there I could not muster the depth of feeling that emanated from this man.

You know what, though? I would love to see Beijing lose the Olympics over this. If this becomes a bloodbath, how can we let them have the Olympics? It would be like letting a tantrumming toddler have that cookie at the grocery store anyway. No boundaries.

p.s. The photos are from Epu's old Web site, courtesy of the WayBack Machine.

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