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.


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.