Breathless in Hangzhou

Unlike in Tibet, you notice it almost right away: the thick squeeze of air all around you, the sauna-like soup of atmosphere condensing into your lungs. You exert yourself but a little bit, and you’re drenched in sweat, panting from the exertion. But this time, it’s not because of high altitude, it’s because of heat.

I’ve already been back in Hangzhou for over a week, and though it’s a wildly different place from Lhasa, I find myself still breathless. The quickened pace along the streets to get groceries and settle back into researching my thesis, the sense of sluggishness when I actually try to accomplish these things. Heat makes me turn into molasses.

Lhasa already feels as far away as the sun. My coffee packets that expanded to their breaking points due to altitude in Tibet have now shrunk back to normal size. My heart beats, sated, at a slower pace.

And yet, I breathe short breaths on opposite sides of China. It’s as though my lungs still remember Tibet, and that the thick heat of Hangzhou functions as a foil for my time on the road.

And late at night, as I lay in bed before my giant fan, I now watch prayer flags flutter in my window, neatly silhouetted by street lights outside. Yes, Lhasa is far away now, but in my room, I’m surrounded by it on all sides, and as I’m breathless once more, it feels closer than ever.

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.
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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.

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.


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.

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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.


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.


Railway to Lhasa

I’ve mentioned before how much I’d been looking forward to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, in part because it is the world’s highest railway, and in part because I heard that the natural scenery is stunning. At last, the time came for the trip.

I boarded the train with other passengers, immediately noticing the oxygen valves over every bed in the hard sleeper compartment and by the windows.

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Of course I already knew this was coming and so basically just dorked out with other passengers until the conductors came by to both check that I had a Tibet travel permit and to give me a health waiver for the ride.

The waiver basically just reminds passengers that it’s entering very high altitude and that if there are any pre-existing conditions that make high altitude intolerable, then they should reconsider. We had to sign that we had read the information and that we were ready.

Man, was I ready.

Or so I thought until the train made it further out past Xining. We passed areas I had seen before, like Qinghai Lake. But once we got past that, we entered a giant wasteland that took my breath away.

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I have never seen such a vast expanse of unforgiving land, with no sign of human existence. Sprawling grasslands turned into hard brittle earth, and sharp mountains stabbed through the dirt as if challenging anyone to even dare to face them. I waited by the window for any sign of civilization, as the clouds got lower in the sky because of our ascent, and the sky pierced a shocking blue. After some hours, I saw salt mines, and eventually we reached an outpost city called Golmud.

In many past trips, I feel grand and capable of doing anything, but here, face to face with something truly wild and untamable, I feel smaller than an ant, and on that train ride, grateful for the walls of the train and the oxygen that pumped through my compartment as we slid through.

But when the night swallowed the earth and clouds cleared, I found myself leaning against the window, my hands cupped around my head to block out the glow of cell phone screens behind me.

Stars. Huge, glowing balls brighter than anything I’d ever seen. The finger of the Milky Way curled across the deep black sky, and the millions of constellations shone as if ringing deep, resonating with the wild. In Hangzhou I’m lucky if I even see a handful of stars (though I always crane my neck to check all the same). Out here in the barren wasteland of the Tibetan Plateau, the stars dominate the night sky.

As the sun rose the next day, every ribbon of water was illuminated silver in the pale morning light, and as I looked out once more, the earth still seemed flat, but the clouds were even lower, and at a height that looked no higher than your average hill, snow-capped mountains.

Welcome to Tibet.


Around Qinghai Lake: Part 5

The route on the last day was a bit ambitious. I wanted to go along the north side to make a full circuit, but also wanted to make it back to Xining that night if possible. In total, about 6-7 hours of driving.

I stood on the side of the road, extended my hand, and within two seconds, a car pulled over. A family of Tibetans with bolts of cloth in their backseat smiled at me. The son sat curled up in a blanket by the cloth and started making room for me and my bag. I told them the name of the next town and they said they could take me. Later in the car, I asked where they were heading.

“Oh, we’re going to Xining.”

So that was that.

It turns out that they were on a road trip from Lhasa to sell some Tibetan cloth in Xining. They liked to take the scenic drive around the lake, and they liked to take their time.

“We’re going to stop at this temple for a bit,” the father (whom I’ll call Abba because I think that’s what his son was calling him) said.

We pulled over at what looked like a slightly more run-down temple with wind-beaten prayer flags and clouds of incense wafting to the sky. Abba bought some seed-like materials for his son to pour onto an incense altar, and then they visited a monk who blessed three candles for them and led them to the steps up the hill.

We climbed the steps and reached what I thought was the top, only for the three of them to squeeze into a crevice in the rock wall and begin climbing into the belly of the mountain. They clutched their candles, and by that feeble light we groped our ways along rocks and ladders until we reached the true altar within: a smaller one flanked by candles and images of monks. The family said some mantras and set their candles down before we headed back down to walk a circuit of the temple.

Back in the car, I gave the son a Minnesota postcard which had the Northern Lights in glossy colors on it.

“Is it always like this?” He said as Abba began to drive once more.

“Sometimes,” I said. “In the North.”

He pinned the postcard onto his headrest and admired it for a long time. After that, we became friends, and he regaled me with stories about cars and explosions and guns and…did I mention he was twelve? As if you couldn’t tell.

During our day, we stopped along the road to admire some flowers in a field, to sit by the side of the road to eat watermelon, and to walk around the fields. The son bought a plastic gun and ran around with whoops and hollers. I managed to make a glorious face-plant in the flowers when I tripped over some string. Abba showed me his Stetson cowboy hat and recorded me reading the English instructions.

It’s funny because in a way they were still being nomads, even though they were in a car. They had a large tent and cooking supplies in their trunk, and they told me that however far they drove in a day was wherever they pitched their tent. They had a destination, but the road wound and wound as it pleased.

As we stopped by a field of yaks and watched as Abba’s son chased them around as if they were a flock of pigeons, I had to admit that it can be fun to be a nomad, even if only for a few days. This was the reason for my Kora of sorts around the lake, and I could feel the holiness of meeting other people and sharing the road with them surround me.
But as I texted some friends to let them know I was safe and as I plotted for some future fun back in Hangzhou, I’ll admit that it’s nice to have a home, too. And that sometimes, that is the dim candlelight that leads you through the dark.

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