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.

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.


My Kora

In Tibetan culture, believers do what is called a kora, or a circuit, around what is considered a holy site. This can be a temple or even a holy mountain.

In my original plan for this trip, I was going to do a half-kora around the Amnye Machen mountain. But, like that moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, many of my plans sank into the swamp when some issues came up, like me getting sick TWICE in a week’s time, and a trekking companion not being able to adjust to the high altitude. (And yes, I had a good facepalm moment when I realized I would probably not use the tent I’d carried for over a week…for now.)

But that’s okay, actually. Because if I had to consider anything “sacred” or precious in all of my travels, I would say it has been the hitchhiking and the people I’ve met along the way. It would have to be that mysterious pulse and momentum that moves me along the road and into new and unforeseen places. Yes, trekking is amazing, but there will be other mountains to climb. A whole lifetime’s worth.

When I had first thought of Qinghai back in 2013, I’d thought of hitchhiking around the famous Qinghai Lake, but ran out of time to visit the province. Now, nearly four years later and just about at the end of my big China travels, it seems only fitting to do just this. Especially given that I don’t plan on hitchhiking anywhere outside of China.

True, Qinghai Lake is not really a holy place, and in fact most people choose to bike around it instead, but I know what stays with me and what doesn’t. This is my not-quite-holy Kora, and it’s my way of getting close to Qinghai, to other people, to the best version of myself.