Forty five years

Forty five years ago I came in direct contact with Tibetan culture for the first time. Prior to that I had seen Tibetan caravans traveling through Tansen, Palpa, Nepal. I was well aware of the situation on the other side of the Himalayan mountains and I had even been in the audience when the Dalai Lama visited my school in Mussoorie, U.P. India soon after his escape from Tibet in 1959.

It was December, 1964. I was sixteen then. We had holidays in the winter because the school was in the mountains and I had been invited on a bird collecting expedition up the Kali Gandaki River. We hiked from Pokhara up over the Ghorepani pass to the Kali Gandaki and then up the river from Tatopani to Lete, Ghasa, and the amazing bend in the river at the foot of Dhaulagiri. (I’m sure I can claim to be one of the very first expatriates on what has come to be known as the “Annapurna Curcuit” and very definitely the first teenager.)

Trekking in Nepal, age 18

Trekking in Nepal, age 18

At this point I stood in the deepest gorge above sea level; the river runs at 6,000 feet above sea level while both Dhaulagiri to the west and Annapurna further to the east are above 26,000 feet. Another amazing thing about this bend in the river is the abrupt climate and ecological change from subtropic and temperate to desert alpine; from the lush southern slopes of the Himalayas that get drenched with monsoon rains to the arid trans-Himalayan plateau of Tibet. Culturally, of course, there is also a remarkable abrupt change – from Indian Subcontinental to Central Asian.

Now I’m sixty one. It’s been forty five years since I was on that expedition. Further up the Kali Gandaki River, just beyond Jomsom on our way up to Muktinath, the three of us – two Americans and a Briton – found ourselves surrounded by armed men on horseback. They demanded to know where we were going and what we were doing with guns. I wasn’t carrying one, but the other two had shotguns for bagging larger birds we would be sending off for the Chicago Natural History Museum’s collection of Himalayan birds. One of the men on horseback rode over and grabbed a shotgun and examined it. It was passed around and examined carefully. My collegue opened up one of the shotgun shells and showed the horseman the tiny birdshot inside. We were suddenly surrounded by horsemen howling with laughter when it was clear to them we were hunting and collecting birds. We showed them a few specimens.

In broken English and Nepali we managed to communicate with these rough riders. We discovered – and had already guessed – that they were Khampa warriors who were engaging and harassing the People’s Liberation Army across the border inside Chinese occupied Tibet. When they learned that two of us were Americans they did the thumbs up sign and said, “America, good!” They pointed to the sky and indicated supplies were dropped by American planes.

The conflict between Tibetans and Chinese Communism has been going on for over fifty years. The armed struggle by this tiny group of warriors stopped ten years later (by 1974). That is an interesting story all its own. Since then the Dalai Lama has tried to reach an understanding with the leaders of China about the occupation of Tibet. But this is a story that many people are well aware of especially since the world wide protests against Chinese suppression of Tibetan human rights during the Olympic Torch Relays earlier this year.

I have visited Western Sichuan, or Kham – where the Khampa warriors come from – but I have not been to Lhasa or any part of the TAR. Someday I would like to go there, someday when both Tibetans and Chinese recognize their interdependence and can live with mutual respect and affection for each other.

The Folly of Force

Its not working. Never has, never will.

No amount of preaching and moralizing will force things to happen. Nor will the use of force when your preaching and “you shouldings” or even “let’s all” (Confucianism/communism) fails.

People, especially the rugged, open-air Tibetan nomads, don’t respond to the group-mind of the hypnotized.

Societies like the Chinese have functioned for centuries because of the power of its ability to socialize its members. By successfully promoting the idea that each individual is a separate creature with outwardly focused needs and functions, it makes the individual incapable of seeing that life is more than struggling for material needs and social rules. In this kind of society people do as they are told and force is sanctioned if people don’t. (Read Franz Kafta’s The Great Wall of China and for good measure, how about Alan Watts’ The Book – On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are)

This kind of mental outlook is incapable of understanding the worldview of people who are still connected to the spiritual side of life; who are better balanced between their left-brain and right-brain; who see through the hallucination of separation (the divide and conquer mentality); who cultivate compassion as the highest value.

No wonder, then, that Chinese leadership – and the propagandized public – is having such a hard time comprehending what the Dalai Lama and hundreds of thousands of monks, nuns and ordinary people in Tibet really want. Fifty years of preaching and force have not changed the nature of the people who live surrounded by a landscape that inspires the soul to be in awe of the grandeur of life.

Mt. Yarla - the \"Kailash\" of Kham, eastern Tibet

For more background of the Chinese view of Tibet read Asia Times Online: Tibet a defining issue for China
by Francesco Sisci in Beijing.

Journey to Kham

At the end of September, 2007 my wife, Suzanne, and I, along with two colleagues from our school, Wendy and Bruce, traveled to the eastern Tibetan plateau. This is the area historically known as Kham and is still populated mostly by people of Tibetan culture.Wayao VillageThe reason for our journey to Kham was three-fold. I had offered to make a short promotional video for Kham Aid Foundation, a non-profit serving the people of Kham in a wide variety of ways. The video I will be doing is about the restoration of wall paintings in buildings that are up to 700 years old in the village of Wayao. Another reason for the journey was to visit another colleague of ours, Susan, who was spending three weeks in the town of Bamei teaching English to, Dolma, the owner of the Golden Sun Hotel. But the main reason was to share this area with my wife and our friends. I had been here four times previously but Suzanne had never been here.Susan and DolmaWe flew from Hong Kong to Chengdu where we were met by our guide, Du, from Tibetan Trekking. He had a van and driver, Mr. Tsang, waiting to take us to our hotel for the night. It was already after 10:00 pm. Next morning we began our drive to Ya’an, the tea capital of China, and on to Kangding (formerly known as Dartsedo). We arrived early enough in Kangding to take a hike up to Horse Racing Mountain above the crowded mountain city and ride a sky lift back down again.Google Earth map of journeyThe next day we drove over a high pass above Kangding. It is 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) above sea level. You finally climb above the 10,000 ft. thick layer of pollution that blankets China and the sky is blue, the clouds distinct and white, the view spectacular!The pass above KangdingNow we stood at the threshold of the Tibetan plateau, at the eastern most edge of ancient Tibet. Through this area caravans used to take horses, wool and other valuable resources down to China and bring tea, silk and other distinctly Chinese goods up here, where some of it went all the way to India and Persia. The Tibetans were masterful traders and as a people enjoyed three major economies – the nomadic lifestyle of the open grasslands, farming in the lush river valleys, and traveling great distance all over Asia to trade. They grew wealthy and supported a huge monastic community that explored and preserved its knowledge of spiritual realities.Minyak Towers, some 700 years oldThe drive was along a river with villages, small towns and an evergreen forest. This is Minyak, a subgroup of Tibetan culture. Some of the village houses had impressive towers standing next to them. These were also around 700 years old and were used as fortresses for the clan in times of war.Road to Wayao across river at ShadeWe drove on to Shade and crossed the river to drive on a narrow dirt road to Wayao. When we arrive we meet Pam and some of the volunteers who are about to start a few days of wall painting recovery work.Our group and the volunteers at WayaoTemple in Wayao with wall paintingsWe arrived about 2:00 pm and spent the next three hours videotaping and exploring this fascinating village. Some Nepali restoration artists were just beginning their work for the fall session. Several local young people were eager to help and learn the art of lifting years/decades of soot and grim off the walls and reveal the original colors on the clay walls. Volunteers from several countries had also just arrived with Pam, the director of Kham Aid Foundation and were put to work by the Nepali artists.Interviewing PamI got several interviews as people worked as well as an interview with Pam and her national counterpart in Chinese. I’ll use the images and interviews to put together a few short videos for Kham Aid Foundation to use for promotional and volunteer recruitment purposes.recoverdwallpainting.jpgLayers of soot and grime, as well as cultural revolution era slogans were removed from this wall to reveal this painting.