English version below :)
感恩一路的因缘！感谢 Khenpo Kunga 的家人、同修在拉萨和加都的无私照顾！
In the past two weeks, I have traveled -- by train and bus and jeep -- from Shanghai to Lhasa to Kathmandu. The pilgrim is still a bit disoriented by the fast pace of motorized transit, so here are only some surface-level impressions.
It has been 12 years since my last visit to Lhasa. That time, my parents and I drove from Shanghai to Lhasa and back in a summer, just before the Tibetan railway was opened.
This time, I saw three Lhasas co-existing, like parallel universes. One is the ancient, relaxed, devotional way of life that still persists in the torrent of change. Grandpas and grandmas, after feeding the whole family with zanba and yak butter tea for breakfast, would squeeze onto crowded buses, and head to the temples and the Potala Palace to do their daily pilgrim rounds. Even in the fully packed bus, there permeates a sense of peace and ease, as the whole cabin is filled with murmuring of prayers and chanting, interrupted only by occasional loud phone calls -- the grandpas like to yell into their cellphone, as if they are yelling to a neighboring yurt down the grass valley.
The second Lhasa is, of course, the growing tourist industry, a "Tibetan Buddhist theme park". Millions of mainland Chinese flock to Tibet every year, trying to shake off some of the worldly dusts of their daily lives, and to accumulate another few gigabytes of selfies. The opening of the railway is a historic event in Tibetan history. Lhasa is evolving in response. Yuppie shops and cafes are emerging. Traffic is becoming a daily nightmare. Prices are rising fast. Interestingly, over the past six years, there has been a growing wave of college students bicycling from mainland China to Tibet as a rite of passage -- so much so that it has become very uncool and cliché to cycle to Tibet. During my week in Lhasa, I have met at least two dozen long distance cyclists, most of whom have come in through Chengdu.
The third Lhasa, is the grand patriotic education classroom. The whole city seems to be an oversized propaganda display board. There are more Chinese national flag in Lhasa than in Beijing. The pictures and slogans of the President fills all major locations. There seems to be a security check point (with airport-style scanning) every few blocks, and a police station at every major crossroad. A Tibetan friend told me, "If a local can't find a job elsewhere, he can always go work for the police station." The "maintaining stability" industry must be the second largest industry in Lhasa after tourism. I visited the three major museums in town, and they all serve to make one point clear: Tibet has been, and will always be part of China; Life in Tibet today is much better because of the central government.
These three Lhasas seem to co-exist peacefully on the surface, barely intersecting, nor interested in the existence of the other. But their fate is ever so intertwined. I have no idea where they will all go.
Welcome to Nepal
While in Lhasa, I fell sick. A cold from the train ride became much worse when I did not take proper rest upon arriving. The high altitude made recovery slow and painful. I ended up staying in Lhasa for a whole week, sleeping 10-12 hours every day, trying to recover. I am grateful to be staying at the home of my college housemate's brother. This Tibetan family has been most gracious and kind to me, feeding me traditional Tibetan food every day, and giving all the space and time I needed to heal.
Between the illness and a tight timeline to arrive in Delhi, it became clear that I needed to get on a bus from Lhasa to Kathmandu, thus missing the biking experience in Tibet. My ego had a hard time accepting this reality, feeling that it is a sign of weakness to bypass the most challenging terrain. But, perhaps, the universe is saying that I am not yet ready to bike in China :) What shall come last will come last.
The bus ride from Lhasa to Jilong (Chinese-Nepali border) was a test of patience and endurance. It was a 20-hour overnight bus ride, with half a dozen police checkpoint along the way. There was only one driver for the whole trip, who only stopped to eat one meal, and never slept nor rested. But he probably smoked a whole pack of cigarettes.
The first border crossing in Asia was eventless. But once we were on the Nepali side, my appreciation for China started to grow by the hour. Yes, the Chinese system might be corrupt, and the officials do nor worship the rule of law, but the government is efficient and competent -- at least when it comes to building roads and providing basic services. Nepal seems to get short-changed on both ends: their system appears to be both corrupt and incompetent :)
There were no real buildings for the Nepali checkpoint -- only two disaster relief tents, both of which were donated by China. The first tent was occupied by the police, and the second by the army. The police casually opened all our luggage for inspection. Just when I finished zipping up the bags, the army tent signaled me over, to open up my bags again for a more thorough inspection. Such farce-like baggage search continued for another half-dozen time between the border and Kathmandu. I asked one official what these checks are for. He said, "That station is for custom; this one is for animal products." Well, I guess everyone needs a job somehow. The checkpoint staff and soldiers seem to take great pleasure in the opportunity to flirt with young female Chinese tourists.
The road from the border to Kathmandu looked like it hadn’t changed since last year's earthquake, with big rocks and washed-our sections, trying to accommodate two-way traffic on a single lane. The 100+ kilometer journey took us eight hours. There were frequent traffic jams, as the big colorful Nepali trucks enter into impossible gridlocks. The time-conscious Chinese tourists were very worked up: "Where are the police? What kind of road is this? Why nobody is in charge? How long are we going to be stuck here? Is it that difficult for the government to fix the road?" In contrast, the locals seemed to be not the least bothered by the delay. They get off their trucks, smilingly chat with one another as if this is the way life should be.
Once in Kathmandu, I realized that the air pollution in China is not at all that bad in comparison. In this capital city, there is rolling blackout due to fuel shortage. Each driver has the skill of a stuntman with their close calls near-miss maneuvers. There was sensory overload from all directions. To add to my disorientation, the cars drive on the "wrong" side of the road, thanks to the British. I tried to find a monastery where I would spend the night. I must have asked 20 people for directions, and they all very kindly gave me different answers. After trying out all four directions, and being back at the starting point, inhaling lung-full of undiluted exhaust, I felt despair for the first time on this pilgrimage :) I just about lost the courage to attempt to cross the same two lane road again filled with rush-hour acrobatic traffic.
Yes, I've heard warnings about India. But perhaps I was secretly hoping that Nepal would be a gentle transition from the Himalayas to the buzzing continent down South. Oh well :)
On the other hand, I feel like an over-privileged first-world tourist for rediscovering this truth: the happiness of the local people seems to not at all correlate with their material condition. If anything, the Nepali and Tibetan people are on average much happier than the Shanghainese and San Franciscans. A Nepali friend said to me (while giving me the classic Indian nod), "You get used to it." :)
I am grateful to find a peaceful haven in the Tergar Osel Ling Monastery (under the leadership of Mingyur Rinpoche), on the outskirt of Kathmandu. I am referred here, again, by my college housemate, Khenpo Kunga. I feel my karmic debt increasing for riding on past conditions and connections.
The book by Mingyur Rinpoche, "The Joy of Living", was the first book I read about meditation. It played a pivotal role in my inner journey, at a time of intellectual crisis during college. Little would I expect that four years after reading that book, I would be staying ar Mingyur Rinpoche's monastery in Nepal.
This is the first time I have stayed in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. For four days, I wake up to the sound of 100 Tibetan monks performing morning puja, and fall sleep listening to the animated debates with their iconic hand clapping. I am moved by the diligence of the monks' cultivation, and touched by their gentleness, humility, and kindness.
May there soon be peaceful resolution on the Tibetan Plateau!
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.