Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.

Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
WeChat Image_20170724194523
The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.

I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.

To Kiss the Clouds

I was warned that I might not actually see Mount Everest, because it’s the rainy season in Tibet, and nature is fickle. But seeing it or not, I was still determined to make the journey there. I wanted to feel what it was like to stand on the rooftop of the world, and was not that hung up on snapping the perfect photo.

At this point in the trip, I was the only traveler, the other two in my group not having signed up to see Everest. We left Shigatse and wove into the barren wasteland that is the Himalayas. At times, I got glimpses of snow-capped mountains, and at others, cloud-drenched rock. WeChat Image_20170723175107We entered what I like to call “The Road of Insanity” because it’s a very rough, relentless dirt road that lasts for several hours. Dust billowed in the sky, at times twirling into dust devils or cloaking the other cars altogether. Desert sand lumped into moguls. Blunt rock jabbed out of the earth. Still, we climbed.

I got my first glimpse of Mount Everest after we had snaked our ways up a sloping mountain, and after we’d passed striated, almost lava-like cliffs that I was told were the tectonic plates pressing together. We stopped at the top, and embedded in clouds, I saw the base of the world’s tallest mountain. WeChat Image_20170723175245I thought the elevation would go down from there, but after we went down the mountain slope, we entered the valley of giants, in which we were surrounded by snow caps and my ears popped every three seconds from their sheer height. The rock turned grey, barren. And in the midst of this massive display of stone, Everest Base Camp appeared as a collection of large black tents.

We took a bus to an outlook for Mount Everest, with workers toting oxygen bottles in every other seat. The mountain’s peak poked through the top and within its white cloak, it lay in wait.

But I hadn’t come to Mount Everest to just look at it and call it a day. If I had, I would be quite disappointed and deemed the trip ruined because of clouds.

It’s a queer thing climbing in the clouds, though, which I experienced the next morning hiking the distance we’d covered by bus the previous night. You don’t realize you’re inside of a cloud because no matter the altitude, you always think the clouds are higher. But out here, we met the clouds face to face, and as I walked the slow, breathless walk to the outlook, I could feel the clouds on my lips like mist.

I couldn’t see Mount Everest that morning, but I could feel it all around me. It was in the stones I walked upon (and yes it counts: I hiked on Mount Everest), it was in the air I breathed, and most of all, it was in the clouds I kissed as I went to greet it face to face.


Will you dance?

She was a slight Tibetan woman in charge of the tent at the Everest Base Camp where I and some other Chinese guests were staying that night. She kept the stove in the middle of the tent stoked and occasionally pattered into the other room (it was a big tent) to get more water and food when ordered.

I mostly stayed out of her way and chatted with the tent mates and my guide, Tashi, but as the evening progressed one of the Chinese guests addressed her.

“So, you’re Tibetan. Do you have any songs? Will you sing? Or will you dance for us or something?”

And then this quiet woman, without even looking up from the stove she was tending, said “Um, no. How about you dance?”

What could he say? He didn’t want to dance, either.

And with that single line, the Tibetan woman left, having gained so much more than the money from the guests.


Hannah in Tibetan

According to Tashi, Tibetan names are given by Lamas or Abbots in the local village, and are usually chosen because of their meaning. His name “Tashi Dawa” means something like good fortune, and the “Tashi” part came from an Abbot.

“So, does Hannah mean anything in Tibetan?”

He thought about it and spoke in rapid Tibetan with the driver.

“Yes, okay, Hannah means something. In the wild, after the lions have eaten and it comes.”

“Oh?” I said, imagining something abstract, like an overwhelming sense of desolation or remorse.

“Yes, and you know it comes and eats the body and flies away.”

“Wait,” I said. “Are you talking about vultures?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Hannah means vulture in Tibetan? Oh god.”

And so, while Hannah in English means “grace” and Hannah in Korean means smelling nice, Hannah in Tibetan means the animal that eats animal carcasses and flies away with grim satisfaction.

Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not Tibetan.



You don’t notice it at first, but after climbing a flight of stairs or walking a couple of blocks down the street, you feel it. Your chest, heaving from the effort and your heart pounding from such simple motions. You drink more water, you take a rest, but the thin air reminds you about your body’s relentless need for a breath.

In the Lhasa hotel, there was a free health checkup for altitude sickness. In convenience stores, air is sold by the aerosol bottles. Pre-packaged potato chip bags expand, straining against the wrapper. But still, the nights are never silent, for the sound of beating, hungry hearts.

On the whole, my body did quite well with the altitude. (Much thanks to my family’s excellent genes). Any slight headache could quickly go away with more water and rest. I was even able to go to Mount Everest Base Camp without needing to snort air from the bottle. But I cannot deny that I panted more than usual, or that my body would gasp after some physical exertion, reminding me that I had to breathe more slowly, more deeply. “In the shape of a Hershey kiss,” as my mom would say. It took effort to reach the top, to find my way to the Base Camp. I thought about my breath on an hourly basis.

And as our car climbed higher into the mountains and as I stepped out to get a better view or climb a flight of stairs, and when I saw the Hallelujah that is the Himalayas, my breath was taken away at the sight. My heart rapped against my chest, my breath gasped, and breathless I stood, admiring the world’s tallest, most brutal mountains.

And this seems to be the story of visiting Tibet, that it takes mammoth breaths to get there, and that it takes them away with a single sweep of its sights.

Dog’s Day Out

“These are Tibetan Mastiff dogs,” our guide Tashi told us and we pulled over for a break on the road.

“They’re HUGE!” I said, for lack of anything more witty to add.

It’s true though. The dogs at full weight are something like 130 kg, and have sharp teeth and lion-like manes. Even curled up by the side of the road next to its master, it was bigger than a Great Dane.

“Can I pet it?” I said. Pictures cost a small fee, but petting was okay, according to the dog’s master.

I rubbed its ears and marveled at its rough, shaggy fur. It looked kind of cute in a way, like a giant fur rug.

“Yeah these are good guard dogs,” Tashi said. “Guard yaks.”

“Wait they can control yaks if they want to?”

He just laughed. “Mostly they’re there to fight back the wolves. Anyway this one is just a puppy.”

Suddenly the dog looked a lot less cute.


Faces in the Dark

When we entered the Monastery, the lights were out. Every step we took was as if blind, and we had to navigate by way of cellphone light.

“Huh, that’s strange,” our guide Tashi said, going on with the tour regardless. He introduced Buddhas, scriptures, and other figures to us in the quiet hall.

But as we walked through, it was as though we were only catching glimpses of the Buddha: a foot, a smiling face, an outstretched hand, and when we turned one corner after Tashi’s explanation, a whole row of tall Buddhas looking down at us below. Sometimes the butter wax candles glowed in front of the altars and we could see a flickering image of the Buddha. Sometimes we saw only as far as our feeble flashlights could show us. In that still hall, I could feel the presence of a thousand faces we couldn’t see just then, but who all looked out from the darkness.

It’s a similar feeling to our drive through the Himalayan region, where the green mountains stand out, but the truly magnificent ones are hidden behind clouds and rain. Sometimes the clouds burst and we can see wrinkled snow on the cliffs, sometimes we can only see a glimmer of it as we continue on our ways. But we know that there are faces in those clouds, looking down from above. WeChat Image_20170719153255

WeChat Image_20170719153302I sometimes wonder if this is just the nature of coming face to face with something truly divine. It doesn’t matter how close you get: it will remain unknowable, and by not being completely knowable, it remains divine. It’s not good or bad or right or wrong. It’s just a face in the dark, looking out at you as you strive to catch even a glimpse of its smile.


Debate Time

When our guide told us that we would be seeing monks debate scripture at Sera Monastery, I guess I pictured something more austere and solemn. Perhaps a monk making a point, and another saying something along the lines of “yes, perhaps, but have you considered…?” in a very gentlemanly manner.

Instead, to my delight and surprise, we entered a very lively courtyard full of red-robed monks who seemed to almost be sparring with each other. They were scattered around the courtyard in pairs, one monk standing and one sitting. The one standing wound up and clapped his hands together in an emphatic lunge and asked their question. The one sitting had to answer in a satisfactory way.

WeChat Image_20170718120629.jpg

The whole area rang with the sounds of clapping, the sounds of questions. By unlike most debates I’m used to, this one was practice and seemed like a lot of fun. In one area, a monk clapped three times in succession before the other could answer and they all just started laughing. The younger monks got very aerobic with their questioning, almost leaping from the ground as they thought of new questions.

Of course there’s more to it than this, but I like the excitement and joy that was all over the courtyard as people gathered to discuss philosophy. I like that new questions and new thoughts were a celebration, and that the challenge of twisting around words and thoughts was like a game. I like that it was practice, and so questions could be considered without consequence before more public debates.

Mostly I liked that for once in my life I could see a different kind of debate that didn’t end with people shouting at each other, and instead lifted the human spirit as it tried to make sense of a complex world.


A Thousand Words

We had already made our ways through Jokhang Temple that morning with our guide, a local Lhasa man, who is without a doubt the most impressive example of making the most of a temple visit I’ve ever seen. The temple is one of the main centers of Tibetan Buddhism, and is quite well preserved, with ancient thanka paintings still gleaming on its walls. But as much as I liked Jokhang Temple, it was where we went next that left a deeper impression.

Had I been on my own, I probably could have found the temple tucked away on the local shopping street, and I might even have walked through main prayer hall for a quick look. But when we entered, we were met not with crowds of tourists, but with actual believers making their rounds.

The room hummed with mantras as a crowd of monks stood by the main statue in the center. Our guide told us to touch our heads to the statue for good luck and to follow him to the kitchens. As we walked out of the prayer hall, he passed a monk who as it turned out was his uncle, and as we entered the back hall of the kitchens, we ended up meeting his aunt, who was a nun.

They welcomed us to the table and served us some milk butter tea and bread. I noticed that they were dipping the bread into the tea, so followed suit and tried to figure out how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Tibetan. (No dice, so far…)

WeChat Image_20170717120219

Then, as we were enjoying our tea, I heard the young boy speaking Mandarin. I know Tibetans don’t really like speaking Chinese, but I figured “aw, why not?” I told the boy to come over and took out a small stack of Minnesota postcards.

“This is my home!” I said. “You can choose one.”

He looked over all of them with rapt attention and then selected the one with the sunrise, running over to show his mom. In his excitement, he was showing them the sunrise upside down.

We kept drinking the tea, and the old nuns kept spinning their small prayer wheels. Alas, I was never really able to verbally express my thanks for the family letting us crash their tea-drinking time, but maybe sometimes words aren’t necessary.


Circular Motion

When you think of Lhasa, you don’t typically think of a Ferris wheel, which is precisely why in my free afternoon, I knew I had to visit it: the world’s highest (because of altitude) Ferris wheel, located in a small park opposite the train station.

It’s definitely not that convenient to get to, and I got some quality time with local taxi drivers there and back, but I have to say, I’m still kind of glad I rode it.

What’s it like? Well, as far as Ferris wheels go, not that special. It’s round, it’s white, and it moves torturously slow as it makes it’s giant loop toward the sky. From the top, you can just barely make out Potala Palace before the wheel turns and it’s hidden behind nearby apartment buildings. You go around once, and that’s it. And then you’re still inside of the children’s park with a pirate ship ride and whack a mole.

But as crazy and illogical as this seems, I’m glad I started my trip in circular motion, because everything in traditional Tibetan culture goes in a clockwise circle. Koras around temples and holy sites, prayer wheels, mandalas depicting the cycle of life and death itself. The wheel turns, you’re on top, and then it turns and you’re at the bottom once more. You get on, go for a ride, and then get off once it’s done.

The optimist in me likes the circular motion because it means you always get second chances. The pessimist in me says “yes, because they always pass you by if you don’t move.” However I poeticize it, the wheel keeps turning around and around.

And there’s something beautiful in that. There’s something profoundly beautiful about a circle, just as there’s something deeply moving in the way parishioners prostrate all the way to the ground when they make their koras around temples, and that when you stand still for a moment in the ever-moving circular motion, you can hear the scrape of their wooden boards upon the cement, like waves upon the sand.