Keep Pressing Forward: A Tibet travel essay by Devin Moore

Tibet: a magnificent place steeped in ancient history. Mountains dominate the landscape at every turn and prayer flags flutter in the wind as their mantras pervade outward bringing peace and wisdom to those below. Rivers meander through IMG_0457valleys like veins, providing life-blood for the farms that allow Tibet’s people to eek out an existence in the harsh elements. Walking out of the airport, I was ecstatic and nervous at the same time; my first visit to Tibet was my first trip overseas at all. Jumping into the unknown halfway around the world was a test of fate.

“Tashi Delek, welcome to Tibet,” said a smiling man holding a piece of paper with my name on it. He draped around my neck a long white Khata, a sash symbolizing purity and compassion. In Tibetan culture it is customary to greet guests with a Khata along with the greeting “Tashi Delek”. While it doesn’t directly translate to English it is a word of welcome intended to wish blessings and good fortune.

“My name is Sonam, you are Devin?” he continued in accented yet surprisingly clear English.

“Yes, wonderful to meet you!” I replied as I shook his hand.

“This is our driver, he will take us to Lhasa,” noted Sonam. The driver, who’s name I don’t remember, chuckled at the language barrier between us, waived, and shook my hand.

Sonam’s aura of kindness and hospitality was strikingly clear, and eased my nervousness a bit. I had made it; I was finally here, in the far-flung, mysterious, and exotic land that is Tibet. Thinking back to those first few moments brings about feelings of euphoria. As I climbed into the van, Sonam handed me a bottle of water, which I gulped down instantly. The effects of the drastic change in altitude were shocking. I felt parched and light-headed just walking through the airport. I remember stopping in the bathroom on the way out and leaning against a sink.

“You ok?” kindly asked a concerned looking man, in heavily accented English.

“Ok,” I responded as I nodded my head.

As we began to drive away from the airport Sonam and I made some casual conversation while getting to know each other a little better. Even though Sonam and I had just met and our driver didn’t speak English, I knew I was among friends. Sonam answered all of my questions with delight and seemed to have genuinely appreciated my curiosity.

Only a few days after my arrival in Tibet, I was set to embark on a four-day trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp, high in the Himalayas. Looking back I had no idea what I was getting into. The terrain was fairly forgiving, but it was the altitude that I would battle. Imagine for a moment taking a deep breath and feeling as if your lungs still starve for oxygen, must be how a fish feels out of water. For some reason I had it in my mind, at least up until then, one could just jump on a plane, travel to the other side of the world, complete a four-day trek in the highest mountain range in the world and expect it to be a cakewalk. This was a journey that would test my mental and physical strength to the core.

Growing up I spent most of my time indoors watching television or playing computer games. I was always on the chubby side and was never interested in exercising or physically exerting myself in any way. During my high school years, I became more active and slimmed down but it still came as a surprise to many that I had committed myself to setting out on such an adventure. I hired a personal trainer several months before my departure to help me get into shape; I made headway in gaining muscle mass and even got to the point where I could run a few miles with no problem. No amount of training could have fully prepared me for the drastic change in altitude. I hadn’t yet left the airport and it was clear that what lay ahead was to be an extreme challenge.

The drive to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, left me beaming at the mountain scenery and life in the valleys. Yak roam through fields and along the bank of the river that runs near the road while the people tend to barley blooming bright yellow blossoms that gleam in the sun. Leaving the rapidly expanding cities is like taking a step back in time, everything moves a little slower and life revolves around the seasons. I once met a farmer who watched the stars for their signal to plant, to harvest and everything in between. Gazing up at the heavens has always mesmerized me; I admire the wisdom, experience, and patience it takes to live by nature instead of the demands of the modern world.  Some areas of Tibet have little space for crops, so the yak must be driven to mountain pastures to graze for the summer.  During the annual harvest festival, after all the fields have been cleared, the farmers give their yak troughs of barley wine so they can drunkenly stampede through the harvested fields. When I asked why, I was told that it makes them happy after a long summer standing in the cold and windy mountains. Compassion runs deep in Tibet.

We arrived in Lhasa, the capital. Clearly divided into two sections, the west has new construction where hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese call home, the aged structures, built in traditional Tibetan style, of east Lhasa is where most Tibetans live. The east side maintains a grasp on its old world charm while the restaurants, shopping malls, name brand stores, and non stop construction on the west side is typical of a Chinese city. My hotel was on the edge of Barkhor Bazaar, one of the oldest parts of Lhasa. Buildings two or three stories high lie on each side of paths that wind through the maze that is the Barkhor area. Little shops line the bazaar selling everything from jewelry to household items to large slabs of meat. Outside the shops are shouting merchants that sell statues, incense, and little odds and ends from their stalls. The winding paths lead to a large square where Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet’s most important temples, houses the only known statue of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, that remains in existence today. Sculpted in his twelve-year-old image, it was a gift given by the Chinese around 647 AD.

Devout pilgrims throw themselves on the ground, prostrating in reverence outside the temple. Some walk counterclockwise in circles around it spinning their prayer wheels and chanting mantras. Large chimneys burn incense smelling of a mixture of pine needles and earthen materials; it wafts throughout the winding Barkhor area. The culmination of the smell of incense, the sights, sounds of chanting pilgrims, and the kiss of the dry mountain air completely enveloped me in a sensory experience like none that had touched me before. I remember typing an email that described what I was experiencing as foreign beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Witnessing the diversity of human life is perplexing and eye opening. Not only do you gain an appreciation for other cultures but also for your own, a break from the every day grind gives you the opportunity to realize that where you come from is a unique and a special part of the world.

Sonam and I became fast friends as he guided me through some of Tibet’s most important historical and religious sites. It was only my first visit and looking back I learned loads. Still today, I’m deciphering my recollections, notes on conversations with Sonam, or reading books and articles. The second time around, things really began to make more sense but it became clear that what I’m yet to learn and understand would fill volumes. Although I still strive to dig deeper into Tibet’s fascinating culture and history, it doesn’t take an expert to be profoundly impacted. Up until then, I felt that human’s existence on earth was seemingly pointless. It seemed to me that in the face of a universe whose vastness is beyond comprehension, human aren’t even as significant as a drop of water is to an entire ocean. But seeing people so dedicated to beliefs that have been passed down over thousands of years made me reevaluate my how I felt. Walking where the Dalai Lamas walked and looking upon the towering Stupas where their remains lay, witnessing monks and pilgrims chanting their prayers as they light incense in offering to Gods represented by ornate statues touched my heart and changed my outlook on life in a manner that is beyond words. I felt a peace within my soul and life’s persistent anxieties seemed to have just melted away, maybe there is greater meaning to our existence?

With the fervor of such an epiphany buzzing within me we set out towards Mt. Everest Nature Preserve, our camp that night was set amongst stunning scenery. At an altitude of around 13,000 feet there was still green grass and a river flowing near our campsite. Peaks rose up around us in the not so far off in the distance and the clouds, not able to drift any higher, seemed close enough to touch just by reaching up. We set off the next morning, the lack of oxygen was exhausting but I kept pressing forward through the vast mountain expanse. Splitting headaches awaited me at each day’s camp; they were the toll paid to the mountains in exchange for the privilege to walk in their presence.

Life is a struggle up there. While we sat in our camp passersby would stop and ask for food. I particularly remember a weather beaten woman who approached our tent. We invited her in out of the cold dry wind to enjoy a hot meal. With Sonam acting as our translator, she said that she had five children, there was no school in her village that owned few animals, they were very poor and the soil was hardly fit for growing food. Living was a daily struggle for her family, I think back to her now and wish the best. As we trekked past villages, people would run out saying in very poor English “Haallo, money?” Sheppard spend a lonely summer with grazing yaks and sheep in mountain pastures, living out of tents or roofless stone enclosures.

One day on the trek Sonam admitted, “At home I sometimes feel very poor and sad because I see my neighbors with nicer houses and their own car, but when I come out here I feel like the richest man in the world.”

How true I thought. The poverty and hardship in contrast to the privileged life I enjoy back in The States wrenched my heart. At times it even brought tears to my eyes. One cannot help but feel empathy for these kind people who fight the elements day in and day out just to barely survive. Sonam embodies the caring and charitable attributes of Tibetan culture. Even though he does not have much money, he will always buy little trinkets or prayer flags from wandering vendors. Once he bought me some dried yak cheese, strung on a piece of string like a necklace, from an older person sitting outside a restaurant. While his words taught me a lot, his actions taught me even more. Maybe he could have used the money to buy lunch or a pack of cigarettes, but he knew it would do more good in the hands of those that are much less fortunate than he is.

Our last camp was at Rongbuk Monastery; sitting at over 18,000 feet it is the highest monastery in the world. The air was cold, wind blew constantly, and clouds obscured the prize directly ahead, Mt. Everest. Mountains have a special place in my heart; their majestic allure serves as a constant reminder of how fragile the human race really is in comparison to the mighty forces of nature. As night fell, stars blanketed the sky shimmering more brightly, clearly, and in greater number than I previously thought possible. There was even the occasional blazing streak of a meteor. In the morning I woke early to Everest in all its monstrous glory. It was late May, the perfect time of year and hardly a cloud, save a few tiny wisps, obscured the mountain. Some camp out for days and days never to see it break through the clouds. Transfixed, we made our final way up to base camp thus ending our journey. I distinctly remember gazing up in awe as I took photos. We rested there for awhile before turning around and trekking a few kilometers to Rongbuk. I took one last look as we pulled away burning the image into my mind, vowing my return to pay homage to mighty mountain that sits on the roof of our planet Earth.

Leave a reply