Monday, October 31, 2011

Postcards from Lhasa - Part 1 - Guest Post from historian Sandy Lydon

We have a very special treat this week!  Sandy Lydon, emeritus professor (Asian and Asian American Historian), who has been leading trips into China and other parts of Asia for thirty years or more, is our Guest Writer on the ground, in Lhasa, Tibet. Sandy, along with Dr. Gary Griggs (geologist and oceanographer), and Dr. Cherie Barkey (Modern Chinese Historian) are leading an intrepid group of travelers, most of them from Santa Cruz, California, on an amazing 2 1/2 week adventure through China, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macao. You can find details about the trip itinerary on his website.

The Potola Palace from the Roof of the Jokang Temple
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009

The singular hallmark of Sandy's trips is the great preparation that travelers have in the 6 - 8 months prior to departure. They are immersed in learning of all the forces that have shaped the region - religion, language, history, conquest, trade, geography and politics - enabling them to have a nuanced and non-judgmental understanding of the people and places they are visiting.

This is the first in a three part series, which I know you will enjoy. Please feel free to respond with your comments. Included in this post are my own photographs taken on two previous trips to Tibet - in July of 2001 and then October of 2009.

Who hasn't wondered about, dreamt about, fantasized about and wanted to go to Lhasa? And the being here in no way resolves any of the dreams or fantasies. We say over and over again to ourselves and each other, "I'm in Lhasa." And smile. It is magical. Whether I'm able to make any clear, logical sense of it is another matter. Lhasa assaults the senses and being at 11,000 feet just adds to it. The air is clear and bracing, sharp on one's lungs that seem to be shallow. We don't breathe – we pant. We've been blessed with remarkable weather since our arrival – we left the clouds and chill of Xining for bright, deep, blue skies, much like one experiences at the top of ski lift. Allan McLean leaned over to me as we were walking through the park at the Norbulingka and said he had never seen a deeper blue sky, noting that the sky up the Santa Cruz County North Coast where he grew up (Rancho del Oso) is always hazy, even when cloudless. It is easy to see why both the Tibetans and the Mongols use a deep blue in their imagery, and symbols.

The Jokhang Temple on Barkhor Square
Lhasa, Tibet - 2001
Mid-day Prayers
Barkhor Square in front of the Jokhang Temple
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
J O K H A N G   T E M P L E
After lunch (a sumptuous Americanized spread with meat, potatoes, pizza-like stuff, and a dynamite tomato soup), we journeyed over to the Jokhang, a temple complex originally built in the 7th century and then restored following fires and political destruction, most recently during the Cultural Revolution when the Red Guard desecrated the interior. Since then it has been restored and is so heavily used by pilgrims and so filled with yak butter candles and incense smoke that one would think it is over 1,000 years old. If Tiananmen Square is the political and cultural bulls-eye of the Chinese world, Lhasa and more specifically the Jokhang and the Potala Palace comprise the center of the Tibetan World. Throughout the afternoon we were surrounded by thousands of Tibetans, including little children and complete three-generation families, moving in the propitious clockwise direction, prayer wheels turning, humming their prayers and mantras. They have come from everywhere in the Tibetan World, wearing the clothing of their home areas, strolling and always with a look of surprise when they see us.

Prayer before Kora at the Jokhang Temple
Barkhor Square
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Kora (clockwise circumambulation of a holy site) on the Barkhor
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
A movie was being filmed on the roof of the Jokhang (I cannot imagine the permits and bureaucracy THAT must required) and we watched as they filmed a scene of a young bewildered Chinese tourist trying to find himself. By that time, after a big lunch, the various Buddha statues and their attendants, the bodhisattvas, the Lama images began to blend together, and I was relieved when we finally entered the sea of humanity that was walking around the Jokhang.

On the Roof of the Jokang Temple
Lhasa, Tibet, 2009
T H E   B A R K H O R
It didn't take a genius to figure out that a river of circumambulating pilgrims provided a great opportunity to sell stuff, so as the hundreds of faithful walk around the Jokhang, they are flanked on either side by a continuous line of stalls, selling most everything, but heavy on the jewelry and Tibetan clothing and accessories. Most of our group members resisted the temptation, but there were some who shopped, such as Gary Griggs. I will not divulge what he bought for fear of ruining the surprise of his returning home with gifts. The square in front of the west entrance to Jokhang is filled with pilgrims prostrating themselves, and it is also this square that is the place where many protests and demonstrations began. It serves the same purpose for dissenters as does Tiananmen Square.

Shopping on the Barkhor after Kora
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Side Street Commerce on the Barkhor: Yak Jerky and Yak Cheese
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Side Street Commerce on the Barkhor: Lots of Veggies
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
B U M P E R  S T I C K E R  P O L I T I C S
The two-word bumper sticker "Free Tibet" what one often sees on cars in Santa Cruz County makes it seem so simple. But, as Vicki Birdsall noted the other day, you can't winnow down the situation between China and Tibet into two words. It is a hugely complex issue, and as the locals will point out – it was the Chinese government's suppression of the March 1959 uprising that really marked the beginning of the end of any Tibetan autonomy. And, on the anniversary of that rising in March 2008, the Chinese government responded with a very heavy hand. Before and since, protestors (mostly monks) have chosen the Jokhang's Barkhor Square as their stage. And everywhere we look, there are uniformed Chinese soldiers. Not the type that you might see guarding an airport, though; these are tough even scary looking men. We have been told repeatedly not to take pictures of the soldiers. So, I'll have to try and describe them.

A N  O C C U P Y I N G  F O R C E
Some are stationed in guard posts, either located in the middle of the human river flowing around the Jokhang, or off on the side. At first blush these posts look like hot dog stands at the county fair, but the men inside them are not hot dog salesmen. They wear tan or sometimes camouflage uniforms, and shiny dark brown helmets. The posts have machine guns, and the soldiers holding them are wearing knee pads and shin guards much like a baseball catcher would wear. But the gear is designed to allow them to kneel and fire those fierce-looking weapons should the need arise. They look much like the storm troopers in Star Wars, and they walk with difficulty, a stiff gait, their legs reaching out far ahead of them. Each post has a large number of fire extinguishers set in the corners, and at first I thought it might be one of their other functions – to protect the wooden structures on either side of the human river. Then it dawned on me, and it was a chilling revelation. Those extinguishers were preparation should a protesting monk set himself on fire. They would want to douse the flames before any movie or still cameras could record the event and post it on the Internet for all to see.

Most military men standing on duty will crack a smile or grin in return of a grin from us. But there is no humor here in Lhasa, no laughter behind their eyes. They are tough, no-nonsense dudes. Most Tibetans do not make eye-contact with them, and the young ones that do have no laughter behind their eyes either. There is grim drama being played out here, one that does not seem to have an immediate resolution.

The place I am most familiar with where the cold eyes of an occupying force met a similar glance from the residents was in Ireland. Vince Versage, a member of our group, noted the same similarity. And, as do the present-day Irish, the Tibetans know the names of their martyrs and exactly where they fell. The British no longer occupy most of Ireland, but the Chinese occupy Tibet and have vowed to do so in perpetuity. Chinese patriots insist that Tibet is and always has been part of China, while Tibetans insist that claim to be tenuous. Our group members have read about the two views and we have discussed the situation, but seeing it first hand, and watching the squads of heavily-armed Chinese soldiers march through the crowds of pilgrims, I realize now that the problems are much more complex than I had even imagined.

From the beginning of this adventure back in January, I had asked group members to try and cultivate a position of neutrality before going to Tibet. Then, after the trip I plan to ask them what position they now hold on what is often called the Tibet Problem. You might ask them when they get home.

Editor's note: text has been minimally edited to circumvent any possibility of censure by the Chinese government.

All of the images posted here are also available for purchase as 8x10 and 5x7 fine art prints and A2 size greeting cards (all printed on archival water color paper) at Be sure to send me a message if there is something you'd like that you don't see listed, or if you'd like a custom size or item, as I truly enjoy creating one of a kind items that hold special meaning. Thanks!!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

10 Things You May NOT Know About Bhutan...

The Tiger's Nest (Paro Taktsang Monastery)
Paro, Bhutan - 2009
Named "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" by its people, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been referred to in the West as the "last Shangri-La". Bhutan's former King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, achieved fame (and much good will) as a ruler who valued his subjects' "Gross Domestic Happiness" over his country's "Gross Domestic Product".  His comments immediately spawned a world-wide debate on the economics of happiness and how it could be measured. It also fed the idealized view we have of Bhutan as an unspoiled haven, isolated from the modern world, and steeped in Buddhist spiritual values.

Rock Painting on Sacred Ledge - part of film "Travellers and Magicians"
en route between Bumthang and Thimpu, Bhutan - 2009
Punakha Dzong
Punakha, Bhutan - 2009
Bhutan is beautiful.  It is peaceful.  Its king is beloved. Bhutan is also full of contradictions, where progressive policies are superimposed on very old cultural values.  But to me, all this contributes to the country's allure. I find the place quite fascinating.

So I put together my own personal list of the 10 Things You May NOT Know About Bhutan:

1) Bhutan opened its doors to tourists in 1974. Learning from the experience of their neighbors (in particular, Nepal), Bhutan's seeks to develop "high revenue, low-impact" tourism. All tourists are required to arrange their travels through an authorized tour operator on a pre-packaged, pre-paid guided tour for which the government stipulates a minimum daily rate of $250 per person (as of 2011).

2) The Bhutanese government lifted its ban on television and the internet in 1999.

3) Bhutan has the highest original rainforest cover of any nation in the world. In addition, it is the only country in the world to be constitutionally required to maintain at least 60% of its forests for eternity.

4) Only since 2007 has Bhutan has had any autonomy in directing its own foreign policy. 
Bhutan's first monarch, King Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned in 1907. In 1910, Bhutan and Britain entered into a treaty stipulating that in exchange for British non-interference in Bhutanese domestic matters, Bhutan would cede control of its foreign policy to the British government. When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, this agreement continued with India directing all foreign policy. In 2007, this treaty was re-negotiated, but India and Bhutan continue to be closely tied - politically and economically.

5) Bhutan is the only country in the world where the sale of tobacco is illegal.  Plastic bags are also banned. However, the production of alcoholic products is one of its largest industries.

6) Until the 1960's, Bhutan had no roads, cars, telephones or mail service.

7) Bhutan has a population of 700,000 of which one third is under the age of 14.

8) In 2008, the first of 60,000 Bhutanese refugees arrived in the United States.  Prior to 2008, the Bhutanese community in the US was estimated at 150, living in areas surrounding Washington DC, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York City. 

Amid concern that the growing Lhotsampa ("People of the South") population (mostly ethnic Nepalese, who had for the most part retained their own religion, language and culture), would overshadow the Druk culture, the Bhutanese government enacted a series of policies in the 1980's referred to as "Bhutanization". These policies were aimed at perserving the Druk language, religion and culture. A dress code was imposed. Nepali (language) and Nepalese books were prohibited in schools. Where previously there was relatively little conflict between the groups, dissatisfaction among the Lhotsampa grew and they began to organize politically. Conflict ensued. The Bhutanese government issued new citizenship requirements and eventually tens of thousands of Lhotsampa fled the country. By 2007 there were over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps in eastern Nepal.  Unable to permanently settle in Nepal and unable to return to Bhutan, they lived in limbo. For 16 years, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan made no progress in reaching an agreement.  The two countries publicly vowed to continue talks, but in the end, welcomed third party intervention in the form of resettlement.

9) Mountain climbing is not allowed. The tallest mountain in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum, and it is the tallest mountain in the world that has not been summited.

10) The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, does not have even a single traffic light. When one was put in, there were so many complaints that it was soon removed.

Punakha Dzong
Punakha, Bhutan - 2009
Chendebji Chorten
en route between Trongsa and Punaka, Bhutan - 2009
Chortens on Dorchu La Pass (10,000 feet)
between Paro and Punakha, Bhutan - 2009
For those of you curious about Bhutan, perhaps these photographs will whet your appetite to plan a visit soon. And perhaps my list of the "10 Things You May Not Know About Bhutan" will give you an inking of the complexity and contradictions inherent in any place we might be tempted to call "Shangri-La".


Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Secret to Good Travel: it's not about what you SEE, it's all about how you FEEL!

School Girls
Bhaktapur, Nepal - 2009
Preparing for a trip is fun; it's exhilarating to anticipate the thrill of being in a totally different physical environment, observing a totally different way of life. It allows us to step outside ourselves and our daily routines to gain a wider perspective on our lives and the amazing possibilities that stretch out before us. And it's that same wonderful feeling that we all work so hard to retain after our journeys are over and we are on our way home.

Trips are often scheduled around all the places we want to see - the Himalayas, the Piazza San Marco, the Potala Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, Machu Picchu. The list is endless.  However, when we head home and think back on some of the special moments we experienced, it's often the human stories unfolding before us that make the lasting impressions.

Without the crutch of language we learn to communicate with our faces and hands.  We express emotions more clearly with our bodies, without relying on words. I marvel at how universally welcoming a smile can be, how a shared laugh immediately bridges the gap between continents, and how we are all so effortlessly capable of spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity.

So this post is a tribute to all the wonderful people who have embraced me on my many trips. Rather than turn away from my camera, they've smiled into it and invited me, a total stranger, to share in that particular moment of their lives. And I seem to remember exactly where I was, and what I was thinking and feeling when I took every one of these photographs.

Proud Grandfather
Bungamati, Nepal - 2009
Pilgrims Crossing the Yarlung River to the Samye Monastery
Yarlung River Valley, Tibet - 2009
Family Outing to the Taj Mahal
Agra, India - 2007
Boy and His Bicycle
Village outside Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Smiling Sadhu at Pashupatinath
Kathmandu, Nepal - 2007
Woman with Spindle
Zedang, Tibet - 2009
Smiling Monk in Doorway at the Temple of the Divine Madman
Wangdu, Bhutan - 2009
None of these photographs were staged, though I did ask if I could snap a photo just before I put the camera up to my eye.  Happily, they all agreed. 

Some of these photographs are included in a desk calendar titled "Himalayan Encounter", which you can find at my etsy shop: All of the images posted here are also available for purchase as 8x10 and 5x7 fine art prints and A2 size greeting cards (all printed on archival water color paper) at Be sure to send me a message if there is something you'd like that you don't see listed, or if you'd like a custom size or item, as I truly enjoy creating one of a kind items that hold special meaning. Thanks!!