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.

 

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…)

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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.

 

Around Qinghai Lake: Part 4

“Do you ride horses?” The Tibetan driver in my next ride said. A fairly common question around Tibet I guess, where many people still ride horses in the wild.

“Not really,” I said. “I did it once for four hours and WOW it really hurt.”

He laughed.
“Have you ever ridden a bike around the lake?” I asked. A fairly common question for the area, considering how many people do it.

“Yes. Once.”

“And?”

“Same as your horse experience. Ouch.”

 

Around Qinghai Lake: Part 3

Once again, I hardly needed to wait before the next car came. This time, a non-Tibetan.

“Oh, you’re going to the lake?” He said. “I can take you on my way to work!” He showed me his police badge. “I’m a police officer, so you can trust me.”

I quickly found out that he was part of the Hui Minority (those who follow Islam) in China. I also discovered that he was in no hurry to get to work.

“Want to pull over to look at the flowers?” He said. I got off and pranced through the field of rapeseed flowers that grew along the base of the mountains.

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We got back in his car and he ambled his way through the crowd of cyclists on the lake. (And man was I feeling smug for not joining in the bike struggle amid the traffic!)

“The Tibetans here,” he said, “They’ll want to overcharge you for things so you’d better be ready to haggle. Also, make you sleep in a crowded place. Don’t go off in the middle of nowhere. And don’t put up your tent near a group of guys. Find the married couple or the family.”

I nodded to all of this, half wondering where the mistrust came from, half grateful for this concern.

Eventually he pulled over at a scenic spot. “How about you go for a walk for a while? Take your time. Enjoy the scenery!”

I said that I would. He got into his car and was about to drive off when he poked his head out. “And if you need anything or any help at all, you just say the word! I or one of my colleagues will come and we can even pitch a tent next to you if you’d feel safer! Don’t be shy!”

I thanked him again and I really meant it. Then, as soon as we’d met, we parted ways.
I’m not sure if I give off an air of needing help or if people just want to talk to me. Either way, it’s nice to have numbers to call.

 

Around Qinghai Lake: Part 2

As much fun as sledding in the dunes was, I was actually pretty antsy to get back on the road. I told my new dune friend that I wanted to keep hitchhiking. He talked with his coworkers, and then told me that since one of them was going to head to town anyway to pick up breakfast, he could just take me with.

Done!

In the ride to town, I marveled at the rolling green hills that emerged from the dunes. The Tibetan Plateau. A deceptive place, if only because it doesn’t look high at all, until you realize that yes indeed, that’s a snow-capped mountain in the distance.

“It’s so beautiful,” I said.

“What, this?” He said. He shrugged. “It’s okay I guess.”

“Well you’re used to it. It’s just home to you.”

He “mmmm”ed in agreement.

“Do you go to temples then, too?” I said.

“Of course!” He said. “I’m Tibetan!”

“But like to you go every day? Do you kowtow like some I’ve seen?”

“Not every day, no. Maybe twice a month. Festivals and all that.”

“Festivals?”

“Yeah, you know the kind. Do some prayers, go to temple, walk a kora around the temple. Pretty standard stuff.”

“I see,” I said, though of course I didn’t. It’s amazing what “normal” is for everyone. I suppose he would think it strange that yammering with random Chinese strangers has become somewhat normal for me.

“How long have you been speaking Mandarin?” I said.

“A while.”

“Does it bother you?”

He paused. “So long as people don’t forget Tibetan, then it’s okay.”

We drove through those rolling hills once more until we reached a collection of restaurants.

“Okay,” he said. “Here’s where I get off. There aren’t many people now, but if you wait until closer to lunch time, there will be others.”

I thanked him and got off. Maybe it’s true: maybe his home is nothing special to him, but if I leave this trip fulfilling one thing it’s this: I won’t forget Tibetan.

Moving Forward

I made it to Xihai, a small town that most used as a starting point to bicycle around Qinghai Lake. According to Baidu Maps, there was a youth hostel near the bus station, but when I got off, all I found were apartment-like blocks in which people rented out bikes.

“Can foreigners stay here?” I said to the woman who seemed in charge.

“Yes! Yes!” She told me the price for a single dorm, I haggled with her for a bit, and then settled in.

Her husband came over. “You need a bike for the lake?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to be hitchhiking and maybe hiking along the lake. Also camping with this tent at some point. Have to use it, you know.”

He looked at me like I’d just swallowed the sun.

“Hitchhiking? Why not just bike?”

I told him about my last experience biking long distance and how it made me appreciate how much I am not a long-distance biker. He shook his head. “You’re pretty crazy.”

I shrugged, more or less expecting that response by now. He motioned for me to sit on the porch with them for a while, and we basked in the sun, chatting about China, Qinghai Lake, and other pretty usual topics like the other American who had stayed in his dorms and who spoke pretty good Chinese AND got drunk with the owner. He apologized for not having the pictures to prove it, but I could basically picture the scene.

“At least HE biked around the lake,” he said. “Then he went to Xinjiang.”

I told him of my route, my plans, and how I’d end up in Xining again to take the train to Lhasa.

“It’s not the best route,” he said. “Because you should never backtrack. You should always go forward into new places and never go back to the old. Never return. Only move forward.”

I told him he had a point, but that since I’d already gotten my train ticket, I’d still have to go back to Xining.

Later that evening as we hung out over some hot water and comedy shows, he told me about the Tibetan Plateau. He told me about places where no one could live, where deserts grew wire-hard grass in June, and where the grasslands stretched farther than the eye could see. We talked about the Dalai Llama and how he was from Qinghai but might never come back.

And the next morning, when I packed up my things and went to the old road I’ve come to know, I went on my own trip forward, hopefully not to look back.

I’ve Just Seen a Face

As soon as we entered the prayer hall, a monk came over to check our tickets. We greeted him and he smiled, bobbing behind us as we walked through.

“What are the glasses of water for?” I said, motioning to the lines and lines of water cups in front of altars.

He mimed offering prayers to the heavens and pointed to the water cups.

“They’re for prayer?” I said. He nodded vigorously.

“What are these made of?” My friend said, pointing to what looked like candles.

The monk paused and said something in Tibetan, and then something in Mandarin with a very thick Tibetan accent.

“Oh,” we said, not understanding even slightly.

We then paused in front of an image of the Dalai Llama, displayed quite openly despite being a banned topic in China. Prayer cloths drapes over the image and offerings were placed before it. My friend and I whispered together rapidly and I looked back at the monk.

He grinned at me with a slight nod, not saying a word.

But that one, I understood perfectly.