“First Trip to Tibet’s Hidden Lands”
The Drive to Pelung
We use footnotes throughout the book to describe subjects that support the narrative. When relevant in the Blog Posts, I will include them at the end giving the reader the option to review them or not at his or her discretion.
See Footnote: “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo - Geology”
In high spirits we loaded back into the land cruisers and headed out. The drive would be a three day, 270 mile slog on primitive roads. Our route would loosely follow the Yarlung Tsangpo River to the apex of its horseshoe bend. These dirt road ramblings into and out of Tibet’s Hidden Lands took their toll on both the passengers and vehicles. The land cruisers were all prematurely old – with suspension long since collapsed. This applied to both the shocks and seat cushions. You literally felt every jarring bump as it reverberated throughout your skeletal system. The roads were terrible. Every now and then you’d hit a hole so hard it would launch your cranium into the roof. And it went on hour after hour after torturous hour.
There were meltdowns on these drives. Occasionally someone would snap and you’d see a convoy vehicle slam on its breaks. Following a string of expletives an irate passenger would hurdle out the door with a death grip on his or her lower back or concussed skull. Seriously, it was brutal.
Also, on the land cruisers everything had shaken loose. Streams of fine dust poured in the countless gaps and cracks coating passengers and baggage. You could taste the grit in your teeth. Sometimes it made mud. On long days everyone ended up looking raccoon-ish with grime caked faces. And the rattle traps were deafening as we clamored down the washboarded roads.
Equally challenging were the occasional mud bogs. We were heading east into one of the wettest regions on the planet. Many times when driving a flooded road the land cruisers would sink to their axels. Hopelessly stuck, we would all pile out, slosh through the muck to lock the hubs into four-wheel drive and push the truck out of the mire. Invariably, when the wheels gained purchase the driver would gun it spackling each of us with mud from head to toe.
The drive to Pelung was rife with obstacles. The days seemed endless.
Top that off with the god-forsaken, Chinese government sponsored “hotels” where we were forced to stay. The lice, fleas and rat-infested rooms with their bare, multi-stained mattresses were one thing – but the bathrooms were truly deplorable. The stench and filth were so wretched that many times we simply couldn’t go in.
Then there was the in-transit food. It was a standing joke that not a single chicken breast existed in the country of Tibet. We’d get the head or feet. On a good day an emaciated wing – but never a breast. There were other unrecognizable meats appearing out of dirty back room kitchens. We’d pass on those.
You earned your trips to the Hidden Lands.
It was about a fifty mile drive to our evening’s destination – a riverside village named Nang. Along the way we saw no less than forty destroyed monasteries. It was tragic. Even the rubble contained ancient Buddhist frescoes and whispers of original grandeur. The Chinese invasion took a tremendous toll on Tibet and its primeval culture.
See Footnote: “China’s Invasion of Tibet”
Once in Nang our assigned hotel was squalid. They packed eight of us in one room. The toilets didn’t work and there was no water. Troy, Rick and I talked a driver into shuttling us down to the river for a bath. While the others had dinner in town, Troy and I cooked bean burritos in the room. They were delicious. Following that we struck out for a beer.
It was crazy. In these rural areas in the 1990’s we were rock stars. Everywhere people gathered and stared. And not just a few people. Throngs of gawkers would follow us through town studying our every move. And the further into the outback the more intense this scrutiny became. In the tribal villages we’d awake to twenty people staring into our tent watching us sleep.
Once out to the road we saw a row of matchbox restaurants. A swarm of Tibetan kids were peering in one of the windows. “That must be our group.” Troy said.
It was. They were just finishing up. We joined them for a couple of luke-warm beers and then headed back to the hotel and went to bed. Our cotton liners were no match for the onslaught of fleas and crawling mites.
The next morning, May 17th, we didn’t bother with breakfast. It would be an all day, 150 mile hammering to that night’s layover in the military town of Bayi. It was sunny and Troy and I made a critical mistake. We wore shorts. Nobody wears shorts in Tibet. This didn’t help with the unwanted attention.
Grinding out of town Rick told us that significant to the day’s travel was our route along the Yarlung Tsangpo’s Valley of the Kings. This was Tibet’s cradle of civilization dating back 11,000 years. The dramatic drive was full of tattling ruins revealing stories of ancient, though sophisticated, societies.
On our long drive we experienced a traditional Tibet that is fast disappearing.
Note: The Tibetans we encountered in rural areas were always smiling.
Nomadic herders and their Yak hair tents.
A late afternoon hike afforded tremendous valley views.
A welcome break from the battering land cruisers
Towards the end of the day we would be entering Tibet’s, fabled Kong Po region. The China National Tourism Administration refers to this scenic area as the “Switzerland of Tibet”. Due to the wetter climate, Kong Po is a botanical powerhouse. Summer months find the valley carpeted vibrantly yellow in full bloom rapeseed fields. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, the region is home to forests of cypress trees – some dating back 2500 years (as old as Buddha himself). In addition, Kong Po is a stronghold for Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bön religion. Many of the religion’s most holy pilgrimage sites are found in the forested hills around Bayi.
See Footnote: “Bön & Buddhism in Tibet”
Bouncing along lost in thought, I noticed a golden roof off to our right. I asked the driver if we could go there. He pulled up the road and coasted into a courtyard. It was a secluded monastery tucked away on a hill. We found the priest and he let us in. He told us this was the Buchusergila Khang Temple. Originally built in the seventh century it was one of Tibet’s oldest. On either side of the entrance were two huge prayer wheels, probably twelve feet high and I would guess eight feet around. Each had a gear on its base with a leather strap. Two wrinkled crones in traditional Tibetan chubas (ankle-length, woolen robes) were sitting on the floor and tugging on the straps, spinning the super-sized prayer wheels round and round and round. All the while they recited Buddhist mantras. They did this all day.
I knew there were sacred syllables and all that. But the scene reminded me of a Dalai Lama interview. When asked about this practice he pragmatically answered, “Well, at least when they are reciting mantras their minds aren’t scheming misdeeds.”
There was an off limits inner-sanctum. Ten yuan handled that. The priest unlocked the huge wooden doors. They creaked as he muscled them apart. Inside were hundreds of burning yak butter candles with occasional streams of light finding their way through sooty windows. The rancid aroma was thick. It was so dark that we couldn’t make out the statued images. But they felt old. Three Om-Ah-Hums and we turned and walked back into the stabbing, high-altitude sunlight.
The monastery was ringed with 100 smaller brass prayer wheels. They stood about a foot high each and were mounted – waist high – in the perimeter wall. There were a few pilgrims spinning the gold colored cylinders. Troy and I jumped in and spun every single one. After our river adventure we were thankful – very thankful.
Rattling down the road we crested a hill and sighted a distant scab melded into the pristine landscape. It jumped out at us. It was an injury. It was the sterile Chinese town of Bayi. We checked into a government sponsored hotel, moved our stuff into the rooms and were then told we had to leave because we were foreigners. Our next option was a four-storied, cement block government hotel that didn’t have bathrooms. When we asked the Chinese manager in the sweat stained t-shirt with the cigarette dangling sideways out his mouth, he just shrugged and directed us to the back lot. Here we found a mine field of human feces. Troy and I were staying on the top floor so we just did our business on the roof. And we weren’t the first ones to think of that.
Troy Gillenwater’s 1994 journal notes:
We walked through Bayi. It’s a typical Chinese frontier town: dirty, bleak, architecturally bland, disheartening. All the buildings look identical whether they’re brand new or decades old. They’re little more than rectangular concrete shells with blue or purple tinted glass, and shiny metallic monikers across the transoms. It’s atrocious really, like an architecturally castrated Las Vegas. The Chinese don’t smile. The rain drizzles. Meanwhile in the streets, frontier Tibetans wearing skins and brightly colored Chubas walk wide-eyed at the bustling activity of the biggest city many of them will ever see. I could sit and admire these Tibetans all day long. They smile constantly. Their faces, radiant and expressive, belie an inner tranquility that weaves a common thread through their entire culture. Quite different, I must say, than their Chinese neighbors.
Bayi was a military town. No photos allowed. This concrete conglomeration exemplified China’s relocation policy. As explained by the locals, the absorption policy for Tibet was designed to render the Tibetans a minority in their own land. By offering inviting monetary incentives for Han Chinese to relocate to these remote areas, the interlopers flocked by the thousands – by the hundreds of thousands.
Note: In 2006 China completed the final 710 mile section of a 1,215 mile railway between Beijing and Lhasa. This high-altitude train reaches Himalayan elevations over 16,000 feet and can transport up to 1000 relocating passengers per run.
The strategy achieved its desired results. But the human consequences were abominable. The native village people were by and large illiterate. They were drawn to these newly established Chinese outposts by the lure of television, alcohol, prostitution and all the worst that frontier cities have to offer. The Tibetans were soon relegated to the lowest rung on the social ladder. They were treated terribly by their new neighbors. We witnessed several beatings and public humiliations.
And while it was hard to watch – it’s an age-old story for native peoples – a savage evolutionary scenario. One need look no further than our own country of America to see the same pattern of occupation and how it played out for the indigenous.
Equally as miserable, most of the Chinese we met had come from large bustling cities. Suddenly they found themselves isolated and bored to tears in these disconnected territorial settlements. Apathy and alcoholism were rampant.
They just weren’t happy places.
That night we ate part of a dead duck, some fried pig’s ears and other greasy food that we couldn’t identify. Eric liked the pig ears.
Driving out of Bayi the next morning, Troy and I could never have imagined that in three years we would be back in this same military city in the Public Security Bureau (PSB) police station under arrest.
Footnote: “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo - Geology”
To truly appreciate the magnificence of southeastern Tibet’s, Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo it helps to have a basic understanding of its genesis. Geologic theory estimates that 225 million years ago a huge chunk of land, which is now India, broke from an early continent near present day Australia. It began drifting north at a rate of between 3 to 6 inches per year. As it plowed its way across the sea it collected massive sheets of rock. Around 50 million years ago it rammed into Asia. The collision caused the earth’s crust to thicken to twice its normal size - to around 50 miles. The Himalayas were born.
These mountains rose to a height of nearly 30,000 feet. Today the 1,500 mile long Himalayan range demarcates the collision crease between India and Asia. The movement of continental India is still grinding forward at approximately 2.5 inches per year. Scientists project that over the next 10 million years India will surge a further 1,000 miles into Asia. This planetary crunch is forcing the mountains upwards almost a half an inch per year.
Due to their lofty height, the Himalayas are the third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world, after Antarctica and the Arctic.
This ongoing geologic movement generates frenetic seismic actively. The 1950 Assam-Tibet earthquake measured 8.6 on the Richter scale and was the strongest recorded as of that date. The epicenter was directly beneath the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. Smaller earthquakes, landslides and earth fissuring plague the area to this day. The locals refer to the region as “tremor land”. Maintaining passable roads and trails is an ongoing effort.
India’s continued northward continental drift is warped by compounding lateral tensions. These counter torsions have created a "thrust-pivot point" whereby the earth’s surface is pleated and bent back upon itself like a geologic gymnast. Easily recognized on modern maps as the horseshoe shaped “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”, this pivot point is the heart of the Hidden Lands. It contains the deepest gorge in the world - 19,714 feet (almost 4 miles). Comparing this to the southwest United States, Grand Canyon’s depth of 6,093 feet helps put its immensity in perspective.
In 1993 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the inner gorge of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo” as the deepest in the world.
As of 1994, there was still a four mile segment of the inner gorge that had not been explored. This four mile segment was rumored to harbor the fabled “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra.
Footnote: “China's Invasion of Tibet”
Since the beginning of the Dalai Lama lineage in 1642, Tibet has operated as a theocracy with the seated Dalai Lama as its ruler. The current Dalai Lama is recognized as the 14th reincarnation. (The first four Dalai Lama’s were identified posthumously.) Under this governance the country became religiously top-heavy. One out of three Tibetans was a socially dependent monk.
Five main Buddhist monasteries housed the majority of Tibet’s monastic population. The monasteries also owned the majority of the agricultural land. To grow sufficient food to support the substantial religious population, a feudal system of serfdom was established essentially enslaving the general citizenry. With practically all of its resources invested in maintaining its religion, the country had no military.
While the Dalai Lama conducted Buddhist affairs on high - from one of the world’s greatest castles - the Potala, the secular officials also led privileged lives. Not wanting to disrupt their affluent lifestyles, this elite religious and temporal bureaucracy adopted an isolationist governmental policy. This coupled with Tibet’s rugged and virtually impassable frozen boundaries served to politically and geographically "close" the country.
This isolationist posture prevented Tibet from formulating outside alliances. With no international coalitions and no military, the resource rich Tibet was ripe for invasion.
On October 7, 1950, forty thousand troops from Communist China's, People's Liberation Army crossed the Yangtze River and entered Tibet in the eastern province of Kham. This Chinese presence insidiously worked its way into a full scale invasion. The Communist Chinese couched their invasion as a “liberation” of the Tibetan people from the serfdom imposed by the existing theocracy. By 1959 Tibet was locked under Chinese rule. In 1965 the country was restructured as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Two-thirds of its original territory was absorbed into existing Chinese provinces. This Chinese invasion took a terrible toll on the Tibetan people and their ancient culture. An estimated one million were murdered. (One out of five of the country's entire population.) All evidence of Buddhism was eradicated in an effort to spread the ideas of Marxist atheism.
Of Tibet's 30,000 monasteries, all but nine were desecrated, looted and destroyed. The scale of exploitation, destruction and human suffering is incalculable. As reported by refugees, thousands of monks and nuns were crucified, vivisected, burned alive or had their tongues pulled out for verbalizing faith in the Dalai Lama. Men and women were publicly tortured to death or driven to suicide to escape the horror and humiliation. As stated in a July 25, 1959 report prepared by the International Commission of Jurists Legal Inquiry Committee:
"It would seem difficult to recall a case in which ruthless suppression of man's essential dignity had been more systematically carried out."
In the 1980's the Chinese adopted a more liberal attitude towards Buddhism in accordance with a nationwide policy of ending suppression of organized religion. With the profit motive of creating "cultural relics" to increase the tourist industry, the Chinese government began allowing certain of the ancient monasteries to be restored and in some cases rebuilt.
Footnote: “Bön & Buddhism in Tibet”
Tibetan origination theory can seem a bit odd to those in the West. They believe the Buddha of compassion - Chenrezig - sent his disciple, a holy monkey, to be a hermit in the Himalayas. While meditating in his cave the monkey heard an ogress crying. He took pity on her loneliness and married her. Their offspring are the Tibetan people. The early Tibetans practiced the Bön religion, a faith filled with demons and magic. They believed their first kings descended from the sky. This belief in heavenly descension played a pivotal role for Troy and me on our 1997 expedition.
Recorded history in Tibet began in the 7th century AD with the reign of a young warrior king - Songtsen Gampo. He was the 33rd successor of the Yarlung dynasty and he unified all Tibet. He moved the capital of Tibet from Tsethang northwest to Lhasa. He established an alliance with both China and Nepal by marrying a princess from each country. (He also had three Tibetan wives.) The two foreign princesses, both Buddhists, converted the king from the hostile Bön faith to compassion-based Buddhism. The king built the first Potala in Lhasa as a fortress to house his wives. He also built the Jokhang to display the gold Buddha his Chinese wife - Princess Wencheng - brought as part of her dowry. To this day the Jokhang is Tibet’s most sacred temple housing its most hallowed object - the golden Buddha. This 1,400 year old statue is considered so holy that even the Red Guard vandals did not harm it during the 1950 Communist Chinese invasion.
As with any life-altering change, many Tibetans first regarded Buddhism as a foreign religion and were reluctant practitioners. In response, in 747 AD, the 38th king of the Yarlung dynasty invited a tantric sage from India, Padmasambhava (the “Lotus-Born”, also known as Guru Rinpoche), to travel to Tibet and help with the dissemination and acceptance of Buddhism. Padmasambhava handled the task masterfully by incorporating many of the indigenous Bön principles and deities into the Buddhist philosophy.
In this way Buddhism absorbed the supernatural Bön religion and reinterpreted it more in line with the Buddhist concepts of interconnectedness and compassion. Padmasambhava transformed hostile powers into guardians. This explains the existence of many of Tibetan Buddhism's modern day wrathful deities that are in reality "carry overs" from the early Bön religion.
Padmasambhava's teachings deepened the people's understanding of the mind’s ability to shape reality. Their dualistic view of a separate environment to be feared and propitiated was remolded into an interdependent sense of reverence and guardianship.
Padmasambhava successfully introduced Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism to the "Land of the Snows" and laid the foundation for the Nyingma tradition. The result was a hybrid Buddhism uniquely known as “Tibetan Buddhism”.
Interestingly, the Western world’s recent discovery of the brain’s “neuroplasticity” has been known and practiced in Tibetan Buddhism for well over 2,000 years. It’s at the very heart of the teachings. The Tibetan term used is “le-su-rung-wa” which loosely translates to “pliability”. It’s the capacity to replace old neuronal connections with new ones. In this way we can rewire our minds so they can better shape our physical reality. This is the “method” or “technique” the Tibetan Buddhists utilize to eliminate negative mental habits and replace them with positive ones. This is how we can work with our minds to create our happiness.