Our group of 11 trekkers and three guides were walking through a small nunnery above Lhasa. Although we had seen other tourists at the large, popular monasteries we had visited in the morning, at this nunnery we were the only foreigners around.
Walking into the large prayer room, we saw a young nun who expressed some interest in our group. Talking through our guide and translator, we were able to ask her about her daily chores, when she had come to the nunnery, and even what she thought of her life as a nun. She took us back to her room for a private tour of a typical nun’s quarters, offered us yak butter tea, and showed us forbidden photos of the Dalai Lama.
Our group of trekkers was so impressed with this young woman’s dedication to her calling, some of them wanted to give some money to support her in her hard existence. Our guide said it was okay to do so, and several of them placed Chinese bank notes on her bed. Despite the poverty nuns know every day and the comparative wealth each of us had (just the cost of getting to Tibet is a year’s salary for most Tibetans), the young woman tried to decline the money, saying “You have traveled a long way and must need this money more than I.”
This is the true spirit of Tibet. The people are friendly, warm, and caring. The country is ruggedly beautiful and the culture, laced through with Buddhism, is intoxicating.
This was my fourth trip to Tibet and, to be honest, I was not looking forward to going. It has been a crazy summer of travel (just see my other blog postings), and I could have really used two weeks at home! However, as soon as I arrived in Beijing where we would meet the group, I had changed my mind. Once we all got off the plane in Tibet and I saw our Tibetan guide and now my good friend, I was filled with the same sense of wonder and peace as always. We spent the next three days learning about Tibet, visiting monasteries, wandering Lhasa’s center, and acclimatizing to the altitude.
Of course, the peace and serenity that comes with Tibetan Buddhism is only half the story. Tibet is an occupied land and the occupiers, China, are forcing themselves on unwilling hosts. We heard stories about monasteries destroyed during the Culutural Revolution, people thrown into jail for peacefully protesting, and young men who had fled over the Himalaya to escape (as had the Dalai Lam) into India. While these stories made us sad, at the same time they added to our experience. Our tour was not just a vacation but an education and we were all grateful to be in school.
The highlight of our trip is our four-day yak-supported trek and the highlight of the trek, for many, is our visit to a small village not reached by any roads. Our groups have been visiting this village for years and we always join together to purchase a gift for the village. This year, we purchased a large tent for community festivals and our entire group mingled with the Tibetans as we spread out the tent, took photos, toured local houses, and drank chang (barley beer) in celebration of our arrival.
My personal highlight this year was a conversation I had with one of the three village elders and his wife, son, and granddaughter. The young girl had finished her four years of education in the village and, lacking money to attend the nearby school, had no future but threshing barley and tending sheep. While life in the village is primitive but good, not everyone wants to stay and when I asked the granddaughter what she wanted to do the reply was “study English in Lhasa”. How much our groups had affected her thinking, I don’t know.
I knew I could help her and decided to “sponsor” her education. Three days later I was at an English school in Lhasa with our guide. The girl had walked six kilometers with her grandfather to the nearest road, taken a tractor to the nearby paved road, and hopped on a bus to Lhasa. She was intent on changing her life and a day’s journey to an unfamiliar city was no hurdle. We registered her for five hours of English per day (plus three hours of Chinese) and a year’s worth of education cost me $250. She was ecstatic, her grandfather was thankful, my friend and guide was proud, and I was perhaps the most emotional of all, knowing I had helped change a young life.
We had originally planned to remove the trekking portion of our Tibet trip in 2007, giving those of you who don’t want to sleep in a tent a chance to visit Tibet with us. However, after again experiencing the wonders of rural Tibet, we have decided to add it as an “optional four-day extension” to our standard trip. You can now choose the regular 10-day Tibet and China Hiking Adventure (including two days on the Great Wall and the rest of the time in Tibet) or a 14-day trip that also includes a trek. Both are amazing.