Living in the rolling hills of the Tibetan highlands was not something I had prepared for. There, even on the sunniest days where the sun beams like a full-bodied torch, the wind responds by whipping through your skin and stabbing each and every bone. And yet the immense blue of the sky and the diamond greens of the grass draw you forward like two door-attendants, beckoning you into the halls of beauty. The flesh is found weak but the spirit is more than willing.
Like most adventures, this one crept up on me unaware. I packed my bags in Canada expecting to touch down in tropical Shenzhen to begin a job as an English teacher. Before I left, an email came like a thunderbolt: the job had been liquidated. What now? Over the months every street of my will had converged into a highway that was moving towards China. After such a speeding road trip, how could I simply swing off at the next exit?
Firmly fixed, I boarded a plane, which whisked me, dream-like, onto the Asian shores; Beijing, where the old, the new and the emergent blend together into a new creation. This somewhat confusing mixture was best displayed to me in a later city that I passed through where, outside a restored temple, a hulking statue of Chairman Mao stood. His arm was rigid in a fixed state of salute. I turned around to see the recently-built object of Mao’s gesture: a sprawling Walmart. I went inside and bought a mooncake and ate it near the statue. Somehow, it felt right.
From Beijing I boarded a train across the lush countryside towards the border of the Tibetan Region. I was stuffed into a small passenger car that was littered with bunk-beds. They were stacked three high; I was assigned the top bunk. Throughout the trip I had to remind myself not to sit up, otherwise I would smack my head on the ceiling. The only punctuated points of this monotonous train ride were bathroom breaks and breakfast. I had forgotten to buy food before I boarded, but the family that I shared this bunk-cabin with offered me a bowl of hot kimchi noodles. We all sat slurping our meals as the Eastern sun slowly rose over the chilled landscape.
I arrived in a small city near the Tibetan border and after several days I ended up hitching a ride with a bus full of Tibetans. They were bound for a small trading post, gently nestled in the highlands of Tibet.
I was dropped off in this small town at three o’clock in the morning. Unbeknownst to me, the town had suffered from a severe earthquake a month prior; most of the structures had been destroyed and only a small section of the town had power, supplied by a generator. Now, I stood in the thick veil of night with only a dim vision of tents nearby. Aside from my traveling companions, there was no audible sound and no perceptible light. My companions became shadows that quickly faded into the darkness.
A middle-aged cab-driver, who took such late nights as opportunities for business, was standing nearby and offered to drop me off at a small guest house in town. Not having any other desirable alternative, I jumped into the small cab and we sped off through the maze of black tents.
We came into one of the more dilapidated districts of the town and I had the privilege of waking up my soon-to-be host. He was only slightly surly, and we were still able to coherently settle on a price for the night. He led me to a large living room upstairs where there sat three cots and a small wooden dresser. He bade me good night and left me in my new quarters. I had just enough energy to pull out my flashlight and survey my new surroundings. Apart from the sparse pieces of furniture, drapes covered the few windows which had been blown out by the earthquake. They were a weak help against the night chill. The room had a door but, for some reason, it lacked a knob. I used my last reserve of energy to ensure the drapes were shut and that the small dresser was shoved in front of the door. Feeling nominally secure, I flopped down on the closest bed, fully clothed, and fell sound asleep.
I quickly found out that in Tibet it was wise to sleep with all your clothes on. Even though it was the summer months, the nights were bitterly cold. Every morning my first activity was to reach for my tea thermos and, if that was failing in temperature, I would bound from my bed directly into jumping jacks or push-ups to keep the hovering chill from latching onto my spirit.
Most of my time was spent going for long walks across the high, rolling mountains. Because of the danger presented by the cold, I had to limit my “promenades” to the midday hours. Towns and temples were spread far apart and the vision of an alluring town that seemed close to one’s eye was often too far to transverse in the few, warmer hours.
My mornings and evenings were spent either conversing with people I met or reading. I had brought a healthy store of books and they were of immense value for rainy days when long walks became a near impossibility. The end result was that many of my travels in China became punctuated by authors. Victor Hugo joined me for my longer train rides, Emerson chatted with me in some small tea-houses and Thoreau waited with me in the local airport. Even Solzhenitsyn was found to stay up into the later hours in the small, bustling guest houses.
One small house that I boarded at was directly next to a large Buddhist temple as well as a small army training camp. My mornings would begin with the sounds of deep, rhythmic chants, climax into the sharp, military shouts of the regiment, then descend back into the lulling prayers of the monks. I was unable to meet any of the cadets, but the young monks would often walk over to my house during their leisure time, especially when they found out a foreigner was living there. The first time they appeared I was sitting on a couch, deep into my reading. I was taken aback when I felt a body on either side of me. Glancing up, there sat two grinning monks gently cuddling into me. Like most Tibetans that I met, body contact was their first connection, their primary point of contact. Although it was alien to me, I simply sat, feeling the two warm bodies pressing up against me. No words were exchanged for a time. Then, one of them spoke. Their Mandarin was poor and my Tibetan was almost nil, but I realized that they asked me to read to them in English what I had been reading. It was the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word…” I didn’t read too much further before we lapsed back into a grinning silence.
When I wasn’t reading, much of my exploration brought me into full contact with Tibetan art and architecture. I would often wonder if the somewhat surreal intensity of natural colours in Tibet paved the way for Tibetan art. Wandering the hillsides I would often see them draped with multi-coloured prayer flags, whipping their brilliant blues, whites, greens and yellows against a complementary landscape. I often wondered if one imbibed such living colours from their youngest days — were darker shades simply unthinkable or somehow less real?
There is always the tension in foreign travels between moments where you are aware of your being an outsider, and other moments where you feel the privilege of being brought into a kind of participation with the culture. One such moment came from my travel to a large, isolated temple. Upon arriving, I traversed the outer courtyard, only to find the main door locked with a huge metal padlock that rested on the floor. It seemed to mock me by its sheer size, reminding me that I would remain out in the cold. Suddenly, a small monk came around the building into the courtyard where I stood. He understood my desire to come in and, taking a massive key that was tied to his belt, he stooped down and removed the padlock. I was ushered into the main hall which was lighted by hundreds of large candles. The intensity of the heat hit me like a wall; and yet, the monk ushered me into the quiet sanctuary. The warmth was a thankful relief from the cold, lonely hills of a foreign land.