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I am sitting on a dark wooden bench on the M. G. Marg in Gangtok, Sikkim. An enormous bearded man in military uniform plus dark blue turban is sitting next to me reading a magazine or comic book of some kind. His cell phone rings incessantly but he ignores it in favor of his magazine. His feet are splayed apart at odd angles like a child and he holds his book in both hands like a precious toy.

A young Sikkimese man walks by swinging his shoulders in some attempt at the gangster look. His black T-Shirt with rolled up sleeves says, "Exotic Creature." Everywhere there are people with umbrellas tucked under their arms or used as canes. There are women in saris passing women in high heels and the latest fashion passing Tibetan mothers with chuba and child. It is clear that Sikkim is an amazing mix of cultures from the moment you step out on the street. There are what look like Chinese people mingling with Bengali and Bhutanese. I met a man crossing the Nepal - India border who had a Chinese passport, spoke English like he was educated in Delhi and was born in Gangtok. I just saw an exchange between two sari-clad women who spoke like Nepalis but had Chinese eyes. This is all par for the course here in Sikkim. Hundreds of years ago the Tibetan and Sikkimese people made a blood pact to support each other and they have traded both goods and culture ever since. The Chinese occupied Sikkim for a time and continued to claim it as their own until recently. The Sikkimese people speak Nepali and several other languages, and the state language is Nepali, not Hindi as one would expect. This is because much more recently in terms of their long history, Nepali people migrated in large numbers displacing the local Bhutia and Lepcha peoples of Sikkim. Or at least, this is what I have gathered so far.
This is the statue comemorating the pact between the Tibetans and Sikkimese, apparently this actually invovled two men sitting accross from one another wrapped together in the entrails of animals with blood all around. They weren't kidding about the "blood pact" part.

Yesterday I went from Boudha Kathmandu to the airport, with a quick stop to pick up my ticket from the Tibetan run travel agency near the Boudha gate. I took my computer with me but trusted the taxi driver who picked me up from the Nitartha Input Center to stay put with the rest of my bags. By the way they bargain you might think they are less trustworthy than they actually are. After banging something in the engine a bit, we got back on the road and I was at the airport an hour early. Domestic Departures in Kathmandu airport is quite a different scene from the international lines from hell. The tariff was only 165 rupees, which was a revelation. And I spent my extra hour sitting around; they didn't even let me check in until twenty or so minutes before my flight time.
I was rushing in the morning so the pile of change in my left pocket that I had intended to give a beggar, perhaps 25 rupees in all, was still jingling there when I sat down to wait for the Yeti Airlines staff. I remember thinking that I really prefer cargo pants or anything with extra pockets so that I don't have to hold things in my regular front pants pockets. I often have change, a pen, my wallet, a small package of tissues to be used as emergency toilet paper, a cell phone, a digital camera, a lighter and cigarettes and it just doesn't work to put them all in my pants pockets. Change is especially annoying to me if it has to be put in the front pants pockets. I don't enjoy the jingling at all. In fact, one of the primary reasons that makes me choose to wear a jacket or a blazer on any given day is that I can put all my things in its many inside pockets and my legs can be free to function without jingling. In any case, the man pestering me to carry my heavy bag the whole eight yards over to the check in counter was the not-so-happy recipient of that change.
After receiving my boarding pass I was surprised to find that the way through to the Gates involved going through the bathroom, or so it seemed from my side. There were two doors with little curtains and above each was a sign, Ladies to the left and Gents to the right. I was greeted by a sleeping airport agent who opened his eyes and shuffled me through the curtain, sitting down on the other side at a very tiny desk. Taking my passport without looking at it, he stamped it with official force and waved me through with the wag of his head. I stood staring at him for a second as I realized this was the extent of the security check. Indeed, I had passed through a metal detector when I entered the building. I could have had a rocket launcher in my pocket and they would have let me through without a second glance, but my lighter, the Parisian lighter I loved, oh no, not a chance. I realized too late I should have asked to put it in my bag. I morn it still.
The Yeti airline staff dress in a lot of green and stripes. The best part has to be the Yeti footprint insignia though, or perhaps it is the formal Tibetan style chuba the women wear. This chuba is quite common throughout the Himalayas and I am beginning to wonder if it is in fact Tibetan in origin. Maybe it is Sikkimese or Nepalese or Bhutanese? In flight I found that this would be one of the last flights for Yeti airlines, having just opened for business in January, they would shut down indefinitely in July due to fuel prices, which are now ridiculously high in Nepal.
As we took off in our little thirty-seater the flight attendant proffered small caramels and one giant ball of cotton, from which each person dutifully ripped a piece to stick in their ears. I watched everyone else and then followed suit (is that a card game reference that has slipped into English somehow?). The flight was surprisingly easy and short, although many thousands of rupees less, the bus would have taken eighteen hours. I was in Badhrapur by 12:30 and Kakarbhitta by 1:15. All the while I was assisted by my new friend, a Nepalese Navy man going from the American Military base he works and lives on to visit his dying mother in Kalimpong, Sikkim. I can't even recall his name now but he was a very nice man, full of smiles and information. I had been worried about hiring a van at the Badhrapur airport as I had been told by the Tibetan travel agency in K-town that they were all kuma over there (thieves). But my American blue dress shirt wearing friend arranged to split the fair with me and negotiated a jeep all the way to Gangtok. We had met while sitting in the airport waiting for what we thought at first was the same plane but turned out not to be. There were two or three planes leaving that morning for Badhrapur and I figured I wouldn't see this man who told me stories of American marines ever again. However, due to delays, his plane arrived only minutes before mine and our luggage came out around the same time so we were easily able to get a van together. If you are reading this and remembering that Nepal is a land locked country and you are wondering about the fact that I called him a Navy man, I'm sorry but I have no good explanation for you. Apparently there have been connections with the Gurkhas (a Nepali tribal people known for being extremely fierce in battle) and British and American military for years. This man apparently trained on a ship in the Indian Ocean and over in The Gulf. He had been on a huge carrier, which he was rather pleased to describe to me.

The best way to get to Gangtok (an abbreviated guide for travelers):

If you can, plan to travel during the monsoon season, but wait until it is really hot and political tensions are at an all time high. To insure this is the case, wait in Kathmandu for a few days to monitor the situation and watch as the gas prices become higher in one of the poorest countries in the world than they are in America. The key to this planning strategy is to have to sneak into Kathmandu in between strikes when the government shuts down and buses stop working, which should be happening every other day by now. You might also try helping out by arguing with taxi drivers for lower rates and wandering about town with a T-shirt that says "Gurkhas Suck."After you are sure things are a bit seedy in the region, assured that there are now strikes and Bandh-s happening both in the country you are leaving and the country you are entering, slip into India by way of Kakarbitta and find the craziest jeep driver in the pack. If you don't hear the tires squealing around 95% of all curves, stop and hire another driver who really wants to get all the way to Gangtok and back home in one day. Once you have a reliable driver, offer him cigarettes and chew, but not food or water, he won't accept it. In fact, he will attempt to survive on your cigarettes for the next seven to ten hours, depending on monsoon mudslide traffic, so bring extra Suryas if you can.
One must remember that the monsoon rains are an essential part of an exciting travel experience, so plan to go on the road to Kalimpong and Gangtok on a day when many people tell you the roads are probably blocked due to flooding, mud slides, or preferably large boulders blocking the road. Also, in order to really expand your experience and test your grit, don't get an extra bottle of water at the beginning of the journey when that voice in your head says, "maybe I should buy an extra bottle." The 'milk' muffins and potato chips will sustain you for the day, or at least until 10:30 at night when you can find food in Gangtok.
When you are stuck on the one lane 'highway' in the jungle with several thousand other diesel trucks I suggest getting exercise by jumping out of your jeep every time you move forward and stop. Everyone else is doing it and if you don't, you look like a ninny waiting in your jeep while your driver hops out and walks away for as much as 45 minutes at a time. The real exercise comes when everyone thinks they are moving forward, usually based on a random yell from far ahead that was probably someone running over a pedestrian's foot. At this time everyone jumps off the stone they were squatting on and runs to their trucks, only to move ahead five meters and then stop and jump out again. Several times before I knew better I waited and watched ten people pile out of a five person car only to jump back in again, drive two meters, and jump out again multiple times. Following suit is the only way to really sweat it out in the one hundred percent humidity.
After finally passing the mud slide area and speeding up, it is a good idea to suggest to the driver that the immigration office in Rangpo will likely be closed by the time you reach it; this really gets his motor going. From this point on it is also suggested that you hold on with at least two hands and close you eyes often. Hey, this is a professional driver here; he knows how to pull slides through tight curves while dodging army trucks and taxis as night falls. Or at least, he has seen Tokyo Drift... The hills of Sikkim must contain some of the most dangerous roads in the world - cliffs on both sides with fast moving rivers thousands of feet below and people who drive like it's not rainy and foggy and night time are normal. When you suddenly hit a huge swamp in the middle of the road, don't worry. The trees you are sliding towards at top speed will only be visible for the first second, after that the whole truck will be covered in mud and you won't be able to see them anyway. The experience is basically like mudding in the Maine woods at top speed for seven hours, except people speak broken English instead of Mainer English.
With some amazing luck you will actually reach Rangpo just as they are closing the border offices. Here you have to remember to do the unlikely thing and cross the border before getting a permit, walk up a hill to a hotel, convince some people who are eating dinner to give you a permit, and then walk back to the border to get it stamped. Don't sit in dread of finally hearing the price for the permit, unlike anything else around here, it's free.
Gangtok is like the hilly part of San Francisco with more rain than Seattle. However, the hills here only go up, never back down again -a peculiar effect which allows all the buildings to look out on the same view of the same jungly hills. Sikkim's motto, as proclaimed on a sign on the road to Rumtek is, "Sikkim: Switzerland of the East." From what I can tell this is accurate, it must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I do have one complaint though. They don't have Yak meat here. They serve chicken momos instead. Chicken! What kind of Tibetan eats chicken momos?

My first two nights in Gangtok I stayed at the Tashi Tagey hotel. Each of the rooms is named after one of the eight auspicious signs from the Tibetan tradition and the owners are a wonderful Tibetan couple who speak excellent English.

My room at Tashi Tagey.

On July 4th, while everyone at home was having barbeque, I took my first taxi in Gangtok from the Tashi Hotel to M.G. Marg (Mahatma Gandhi Road). As a side note for language buffs, 'marg' is the ancient Sanskrit word for path or road and is still used in India. (Although I refer to this place as Sikkim because it is sort of like its own little country, I am technically now in a state of India). It has just occurred to me, as I wrote that last sentence, that I am in a 'state' of India. Being in a state of India means being in a state of constant flow. A constant flow of bright colors and voices in many languages, of screeching breaks and horns, of dogs, cats, and cows in the streets and smells of every type imaginable. This state of being might feel fast at first, but in fact everything is slowed down and planning becomes a past time no longer worth practicing.
The M.G. Marg is 'the' place to be in Gangtok. It is newly remodeled and looks sort of like a piece of the bricked walk-street in Boulder, Colorado. Shops and hotels line the wide avenue and the center has a line of tasteful wooden benches, flowers and trees that stretch the entire length of the street, which is where I am sitting writing in my notebook right now.
There are several small shops where you can check email, but nothing like a real internet cafe. No one has Skype installed on the computers. However, on the top floor of a large building at the entrance to M.G. Marg is a place called Tibet Cyber Cafe. Although they are closing up shop for good soon, it seems to be the best place in town despite the hike up several flights of narrow steep steps to get there. The top floor houses one room for ten computers and a small Thanka painting workshop, along with the Thanka painter's apartment. I try to speak some Tibetan with Gyatso La, the proprietor, and soon I learn that he taught Thanka painting to the students of the Naropa Sikkim program for four years. He has been to the US several times and even to Seattle once. He allowed me to download Skype and my video camera software on one of the computers and I was finally able to see Anna-Brown. Tinley Gyatso turns out to be an amazing character who lives with his wife, his ancient mother who is a nun and keeps a large shrine in their home, a monk who is his main Thanka painting student, and a young Nepali woman who seems to be some sort of servant in the household.
On this day I would go to Rumtek for the first time so I needed to find Lama Athul, who would be my caretaker, a present of some kind. I had some good photographs so I went on a small adventure to have them printed and framed. While waiting for the framing I found a frantic cell phone salesman with a huge hairy mole on the right side of his face. He did ten things at once and seemed to be helping at least three people all at the same time. As he prepared a new cheap Indian SIM card for my Chinese phone he continually asked me for something from a foreign country, a coin or anything at all. I gave him a fake golden Tour Eiffel two inches high.
The most interesting thing I noticed on this day was that road workers and house builders had an ingenious way of helping one another shovel dirt or stones. Each shovel had a rope tied to it and each shoveler had a rope-handler and each pair of shovelers had a basket-bearer. The shoveler would push the shovel into the gravel or sand and the rope-handler would heave at the right moment, helping to bring the heavy load up off the ground and into the large basket strapped to the head of the third worker. The process was repeated with some agility and rhythm until the basket was full and ready to be carried a short distance to its destination.

I arrived at Rumtek in the early evening, thankfully at a time that it was not raining. Taxis are not allowed up the hill to the monastery itself so I had to huff it up quite a serious slope to the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute. But first I had a little run-in with the Indian military that guards the gate at the bottom of the hill. They seemed to want to turn me away at first. I couldn't understand what they were trying to tell me and they didn't seem to understand what I was trying to tell them, but I gathered that they were saying something about the Bandha and something about not being able to leave. Soon a strange small nun with thick rimmed glasses came over to the guards and began pestering one of them. A fight of some sort broke out as a sari-clad woman came over and the two small ladies tried to drag this tall Indian man to see something in the building across the street. Eventually I was signed into the book as Marcus American and I went on my way.
I huffed and puffed up the hill and yelled a question at the first monk I saw: Lama Athul ngo shing gee yo bay? Lama Athul gee khangpa kha bar dug? A severe looking monk commanded a very young boy to lead me over to Lama Athul's, which he did begrudgingly, daring to speak once to ask me where I came from before running off. As I walked up the small wet path to RigDzinKyil, the former home of The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche now occupied only by his attendant and his attendant's attendant, I saw Lama Athul for the first time. He was ducking quickly back inside to put on his zen, a dark maroon shawl that is an important traditional signifier showing of monkhood, something not always worn, but without which it is improper to meet guests, perform ritual pujas, or have pictures taken. Lama Athul is a wonderful old lama from Kham who came to Sikkim in 1959 with the 16th Karmapa. He smiles and laughs often, and for the first few weeks I think he is calling me a silly boy every morning, when in fact he means to say 'sleep well', as in 'Did you sleep well?' Athul is from the Dege region of Kham, which means his dialect is almost completely impossible to understand. Occasionally he likes to make fun of me by shooting a bunch of questions at me rapid fire in Kham kay, which he knows barely sound like words to me. Every single day he asks me how to pronounce "belly full" and "crazy".
He was a monk at Dzogchen Monaseery in Tibet long ago and as attendant to the 6th Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche he traveled to Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa. At that time, the 6th was the 16th Karmapa's brother, which is why the current Karmapa and the current 7th Ponlop are so close and part of why the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions are now politically connected. Lama Athul lived in Tsurphu (see several entries below about my trips to Tsurphu) for five years until the events of 1959 led him to flee Tibet with the rest of a gargantuan entourage surrounding the 16th Karmapa. Apparently they traveled through Bhutan and then to Sikkim, arriving with 400 hundred horses and donkeys. With the current 7th Ponlop he traveled to many nations all over the world, he even climbed the Eiffel Tower, something I can't quite imagine. Now he is approximately 71 years old and rarely leaves his small home except to do kora around the monastery or to sit on the deck and look at the beautiful view.

July 6th, 2008 - What a wonderful day! In the morning I would have said differently of course, but now that the day is done I count it as well spent. I met with the Bhutanese monk Sherab Tenzin, who will serve as my tutor, liaison, and guide. He is the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute librarian, or rather glorified key holder since no one seems to use the library. Although at first I keep saying I am staying at Rumtek, the monks call their home KSNI and differentiate it clearly in conversation from 'Rumtek,' which refers to Rumtek monastery and not the Shedra (college).
So on this day, several thousand years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni turned the first wheel of dharma (i.e., he lay down the law). Also, as it happens, it was H.H. the Dalai Lama's Birthday. This was a big to do for the monks so I was free from English classes for the day. After lunch with Lama Athul I went in search of the internet. I walked to the nearest hotel outside of the gates - The Shambhala Resort - and as I slipped in the partially open gate I was sure they wouldn't have web access. Before I made it across the courtyard a man, and then another, stuck their heads and half their bodies out a window in the main building. "No sir, sorry sir, we are closed sir." I hadn't said anything yet. "I am just looking for internet access." "Oh, no, no, we no have that." As I started walking away they began yelling things at me at random. "Please sir, where are you from?" "I am from Calcutta." "Don't be mad sir. Sorry no internet. Be OK." I was almost tempted to stand there in the courtyard for a while because they looked so silly hanging out of the window.
I walked for half an hour straight down hill, knowing that I would have to walk all the way back. I was feeling a bit feverish and seemed to have a flue coming on. But just as I was about to turn back, I saw the sign I was looking for. I had seen it on the drive up, "The Waterfall Hotel - Internet". But while the sign clearly indicated that the hotel was near, I saw no buildings. In fact, there were no driveways, no other roads, and only rice fields and trees as far as I could see. Figuring I would just walk into the jungle a bit and turn around, I hopped off the road and followed a small footpath next to the sign, past rice patties and into the trees. As soon as I entered the jungle I saw what I didn't know I was looking for. Nestled on the other side of a beautiful brook among dense green foliage was a large white building with porches and several small blue buildings situated near it. I had to jump on some stones to get across the brook as I wasn't quite sure how to reach the bridge I could see further down stream. When I walked underneath beautiful flowering hanging plants and onto the first porch I found a whole family of people sitting quietly enjoying afternoon tea. There was no internet because it was the off-season, but they invited me for some coffee instead. There were little speckled white and grey kittens everywhere and the screened-in porch reminded me of my grandfather's home on Old Orchard Beach in Maine. Except here the view was not of the Atlantic, but of a beautiful garden that melded into the jungle. The eldest brother sat and spoke English with me. It turned out that Ringu Tulku (A famous Tibetan Lama) had been there and just ten minutes down the trail there was a 3 year retreat center built for some rich foreigners who were in their second year of retreat. Deepak worked for the government in Gangtok, running all the internet connections for the government offices. He had met many Naropa students over the years and even knew someone named Kiki, who I met in Boulder. I stayed for quite some time, talking and showing Deepak, his mother and three brothers, pictures from Naropa, Tibet, and Paris. When I left Deepak assured me he would get the internet working (he never did) and we exchanged phone numbers so that I could call him when I went into Gangtok to renew my permit. He also informed me of a shortcut back to Rumtek, which sent me on a wonderful little adventure through a very wet layered land of rice patties and past Shamar Rinpoche's nunnery. I was in such a good mood after my travels I didn't feel sick anymore and I spent the next two hours gleefully preparing a story to tell my tutor in Tibetan.

Every day I come out of the front gate of my little bungalow and there up a steep slope above my roof, sitting on the same stone every day, is a an old crazy man. Everyone knows him as tashi nyon pa OR 'Crazy Tashi'. Lama Athul says he's been there for years and he calls him a nyon pa yak po, a 'good crazy person'. All day he just sits, sometimes talking to himself, sometimes throwing small stones onto my roof to make a loud clanging sound. He never seems to bother anyone, except my roof. Apparently he shaves potatoes in the monk's kitchen sometimes and they give him three meals a day.
Tourists from all over the world come every single day. They walk up the hill in front of my porch and up the road to the temple. One day a large group of soldiers came and at first I was reminded of Tibet, but they were smiling and laughing, turning the prayer wheels like all the other tourists and had only come to visit the monastery. I saw them stand on the monastery roof and look out at the mountains, pointing things out to each other and taking pictures. Later on in my stay at Rumtek I befriended one of the military men who guard the monastery. Ganesh is from Punjab and has only 3 more years of service to fulfill until retirement. He is very friendly and wants me to stay with his brother when I get to Delhi. What a difference from the Chinese military! Another difference I noticed is that these guys actually fit in their uniforms. It actually just occurred to me that I had got used to the little Chinese boys in uniform and it is a little odd to see tall men fitting in their uniforms, men who I'm quite sure I couldn't easily beat up without sneaking up behind them with a very large pipe. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I'm a match for 90 percent of the Chinese military.

This is what life looks like in Sikkim:

In the distance the sound of Tibetan trumpets pierces the air and a drum begins to beat. I sit on a porch in a far northern state of India reading a book about Bengali Americans, now a major motion picture. Three monks who can't be more than ten years old run by laughing, their maroon robes fluttering about them. Soon the beats and rhymes of the Beastie Boys on iTunes mingle with the Tibetan trumpets and I become immersed in the story of a young American with a Russian's name.

On most mornings the Nalanda Cafe begins blasting modern Hindi music out of bad speakers not long after five thirty. Many days the music is heard all day long, although not, perhaps, during debate from four to six when all the monks gather in the courtyard near the cafe for a raucous game of "humiliate me if you can." When Yarney (traditional Monsoon Retreat) starts this tradition seems to taper off and the music is more often soothing and/or bearable.

You know how when you stay in LA the weather is oddly consistent? Always the same sky, the same humidity, the same sun, every morning it's as if night never was. In Sikkim it is the same, only the sky here is overcast and the humidity is one hundred percent and everything - bodies, clothing, beds, crackers - is damp all the time.

Seen in Gangtok:
A bumper sticker that says "I Heart Drukpa." (Drukpa is the Tibetan name for Bhutan)A road sign on an extremely steep curvy road that proclaims: REMEMBER YOUR FAMILY IS WAITING FOR YOU.
Another that says, "Heaven, Hell, or Mother Earth, the choice is for the taking."
“Leprosy is Cureable. Treat It. Don’t Fear It”
AIDS is avoidable.
A black T-shirt that says in big white lettering: "I've got a girlfriend on now."
Another that says "DON’T LOOK AT ME"
A small green T-shirt on a ten year old Nepali boy that says, "CHICA: LATINA"

Signs all over Gangtok say hotel cum restaurant or restaurant cum internet cafe. My train ticket says Journey cum Reservation Ticket. What's with all the cum?

All bills print the number and write it out with ONLY printed at the end, like this:
Only! On one bill I saw the tip was also written like this, separate from the total.

At a coffee shop on the Mahatma Gandhi Road I met an American from California. He was a Frenchman, Parisian in fact. And to top it off, a Republican voting for Obama. Go figure.

Today I saw a group of Sikkimese men and boys standing in a parking lot on the road up to Rumtek (think long thin strip of decaying cement attached to the road). Two boys stood opposite each other and appeared to be lobbing rocks at one another. However, as I jogged closer I found that they were playing a form of "poor man's Boche Ball". They had four stones making a diamond in the center between them and each took two turns lobbing larger stones at the group of small stones while the other stood on the far side to collect the rocks. Apparently the aim was to knock the rocks out of place but I passed on before they managed to score a shot.

The monks like Big Pun's "I'm not a player I just crush a lot" but not Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. They know the words to some of the worst English pop songs in the history of humanity, but they also know almost all the words to Hotel California.
Almost all of them have no idea what drinking alcohol is like so they joke about it in a way that makes them seem so naive. All of them want to go to America but don't know what they would do there, nor do they ever really expect to make it. For some reason they think that an American accent is superior to all others. I'm not sure who told them that but it makes it easier for me. One of them has a computer but doesn't know how to use it very well. Another has an IPOD but is afraid to plug it in to anything because he thinks it will erase all the songs he has on it. I told him it wouldn't matter because all the songs he has are crap, but he didn't understand me. I read an entire dictionary into a recorder for one of the monks. It was abridged. When I met the current head Khenpo of the institute he had just received his new business cards. He sat on the floor with me and asked if more westerners would become Buddhist because science and Buddhism were being closely connected. He told me that he thinks that the modern world has created a new form of desire and attachment that would not exist if it wasn't for science. I told him the cause of suffering is the same desire and attachment human beings have had for centuries. We discussed getting new computers for the institute's unused library. The head of the Institute for Tibetology in Sikkim is a reincarnated lama cum diplomat that went to the University of Washington in Seattle.

Sometimes the power turns off. Sometimes it turns back on again. Sometimes a guy in rubber sandals with no tools comes and pulls at wires until it works again. Sometimes two helpings of Thukpa is soooo good, at exactly the same time every evening. Spicy Bhutanese potatoes with bread are pretty much never good at seven in the morning. Sometimes an old French couple come and visits the monastery every day for a week. Sometimes it doesn't rain for several whole hours...

I got in a taxi at 7:30am. The driver started the vehicle around 7:40 but there was some commotion and he got out to have some snuff instead of driving anywhere. A few minutes later everyone had piled out of his vehicle and into another vehicle, the milk truck. Another faux Land Rover of an older style, the milk truck is piled high each morning with large metal cans of milk gathered from the locals. Though the roof does have what appears to be a secure rigging system, I imagine some of the cans slipping off the roof and spilling gallons of precious white liquid over the windshield as we speed recklessly through hills. I don't know if the first taxi would have taken the customary hour to reach Gangtok, but it took me two hours by way of the milk processing plant. We had the legal ten people in the truck when we left Rumtek, but soon reached fifteen as we picked up stragglers on the road. Driving with these small town people, I try to imagine what it would be like to live near the single road on the edge of a jungle and simply walk over to the road and wait for someone you know to drive by in order to get into the city. Our driver smiles and waves at people on their porches and stops to talk to various old men, people yell at him from the jungle and laugh and joke when they hop on the back of the truck. I think it would be like living on a single long windy road with all your friends from high school, only they don't have cars so you drive up and down the road all day just to see if anyone needs a ride somewhere. Everyone was cramped, there were even boys hanging off the back of the truck for miles, but everyone was laughing and smiling and telling jokes. The speed seemed to bother no one and all entered the vehicle with a happy greeting. The driver, a Sikkimese man with short grey and black hairs sticking out from under his green baseball cap, always responded to the gift of ten rupees with the same La So! Just like a Tibetan. He didn't accept money from the boys on the back or the woman in military uniform who jumped off half-way.
A young girl with tiny curved hoop earrings with her sari-clad mother. A gold ring on a woman's painted finger. The sweat leaking out from underneath the driver's hat. Knees crunched up against steel bars in an imitation Land Rover made somewhere in India. The quick taps on the side of the truck indicating that it is safe to reverse or sneak gingerly past a large vehicle on a small road. Fog, green moss and steep drops - cliffs and waterfalls everywhere. Street cleaners and purple saris, rock crushers and high heels in the jungle. Ten rupees-fifty.
When I went into Gangtok to renew my visa I was sent with a short shopping list from Lama Athul and Sonam Lhamo: 2Kg of a little green vegetable called Bendi, 2 bottles of strawberry jam, 1Kg of tomatoes, and 2Kg of something called escoos. After a great deal of searching I found the vegetable market in what appears to be a five story cement parking garage filled with little stalls selling everything from Bendi to fake Armani T-shirts, everything that is except for strawberry jam. After walking all over the M.G. Marg area I was finally directed to The Gupta Tea House. It has a green sign with white and red lettering, in case you ever want to find it. This tea house cum trader extraordinaire is to be found half-way down M.G. Marg on the left before you reach the bust of Gandhi. I found no tea house, but it is the only place in town that sells strawberry jam. They have many foreign imports and if you're looking for a taste of home, whether that be Swiss cheese or Oreo cookies, you will find it there. Across from Gupta's is one of the true gems of M.G. Marg, The Baker's Cafe. Pizza and all manner of sweets and fresh cakes can be found along with real espresso and cappuccino. If you ever need to renew your permit while in Sikkim, it is advisable to stop here for an espresso first, because the trip to the "Foreign Registration Office" may be a doozey. While sipping your espresso, you can read things like this in The Telegraph daily:
"Four senior police officers have been taken hostage by their subordinates at a police base in south-west Nepal because the junior officers say they are ill-treated and given poor quality food." Also on the front page, but this time on the top with a picture: "Angelina gives birth to Brad's twins in France."
The sign for the "Foreign Registration Office" is not only hidden under some low-hanging trees, but also facing the wrong direction for any foreigner coming from town. Once you walk past it and find yourself at the Sikkim senate assembly building, you can get a simple drawing from the gun-toting guard at the gate who has large purple feathers on the front of his cap. Walking back up the hill one can see the sign and find the building with ease, but finding the office itself presents a new problem surmounted by looking like a lost foreigner (rather easy at this point). Just climb three flights of stairs and go around the corners into what looks like someone's home and you'll find a little piece of paper near a door that says: "Foreigners Registration Office." Here you simply sit and wait until someone calls you to their desk and then in a few short minutes you are issued a new permit free of charge. Or rather, you receive the same paper back with a new little blue stamp on it.

I wasn't able to make it back to Rumtek on the day I went to renew my visa, just too much email and web surfing to do. Luckily I was invited to stay overnight by the proprietor of the cyber cafe I spent hours sitting in.
... Of course, silly me, thinking it would be a burden if I ate with Gyatso-la and his family I went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. Thus, instead of eating home-cooked momos, I had this experience recorded on the back of my small damp map of Gangtok: I don't even know what the name of this restaurant is. I'm sitting here at this green clothed eight person table by myself drinking what shouldn't be a white beer but tastes like one wondering where I am. I'm stuck in Gangtok this evening because I stayed on the internet for too long and missed the last truck back. To be honest, I wasn't trying very hard to get back in time. I was able to call Lama Athul and now that I am staying at the Tibet Cyber Cafe for free all is well. Having just finished my dinner, I no longer care what the name of this place is. They serve the worst food I have ever tasted on any continent. I was able to eat the spring rolls - and yes, ordering chow mein in Sikkim may top the list of stupidest ideas, but it was on the menu and I have been craving greasy Chinese food for days. Anyway, lesson's learned, never ever, ever, ever order Chinese food in Sikkim. Seriously, I've never even made food that tastes this bad. I've never even watched Xiao eat something this bad, and if you knew what I have seen him eat for breakfast, that's really saying something. I'm actually seriously considering going to the bathroom and puking it up right now, maybe that would be safer. Amazing thing is, I didn't get sick. In fact, all in all I've done quite well so far. Of course, I haven't entered the real India yet. I haven't gone to the lowlands. I haven't been to Delhi or Calcutta. We'll see how I fare soon enough...

From Gangtok to Siliguri to NJP Station to Delhi to Dharamsala and finally to Mcleod Ganj

I think it was about five minutes into the drive when I considered that I was paying for one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I was saving about 30 dollars, at most 35. But by the time I reached Siliguri I had decided to spend that money on a hotel room with air-conditioning anyway. I sat with my heavy computer bag on my lap for four hours with nine other people in a faux Land Rover. This time the road between Gangtok and Siliguri was not blocked and there was hardly any rain. But when there's no rain in India, it means there's heat instead, hours of muggy sweaty heat. When I got to the train station I was covered in sweat, so much so that it felt like it was raining on me, but it was my own water seeping from my skin that dripped and dripped.

The train station experience was filled with small children heckling me to give them money. I gave out some and even some food, but they just kept coming so I took refuge in a cafe. I had been told to go early, which was a mistake. I had to wait for almost two hours and the train station is not a happy place.
Whenever people complain of the conditions in Tibet I now think of the poor in India instead. The situation, compounded by intense corruption and the oppressive caste system really has no comparison in China. Sure, there's corruption and there's racism, but I never saw members of a higher class laugh as a street sweeper on his hands and knees licked yogurt of the floor of a train. Nor did I see people chase beggars away by beating them. While I might not want to say the Tibetans should count themselves lucky, the truth is that their lives are far from the destitution of millions of Indians.

Right before I got this picture there were people down on the train tracks picking up bottles and drinkig whatever was left in them. One man found a small plastic bag with a little rice in it. The railway officials paid them no mind.
By the time I reached Delhi after a day on a train I was glad to have had an air-conditioned cabin. It was ridiculously hot, but I escaped quickly as I was able to get a flight to Dharamsala immediately without any reservation. My hunch had been right, the plane was only half full and due to regular traffic the planes seem to be in tip top shape, even better than the Nepali flights.

Arriving in Dharamsala, sweet ride huh?
It was easy to get a fixed rate cab up to Dharamsala and the cabbie even offered to wait while I checked a tourist office for information on hotels. For a few dollars I was taken from the airport to Dharamsala (a truly wonderful ride into the mountains full of views of the famous tea gardens) and then on to what is sometimes called Upper Dharamsala, but properly Mcleod Ganj - right to the door of a good hotel. I had a hunch that Mcleod Ganj was the place to be and it turned out to be correct. Dharamsala itself is like many little cities in India and doesn't seem to be a nice place to hang out at all, but just up the hill fifteen minutes is the small but beautiful home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The roads in India are famous. Famous for being barely worthy of the term road. And there is no exception here in the Dharamsala area. It is always an amazing adventure to take a taxi up or down the steep curvey one lane road that is filled with people, motorbikes, cows, dogs, and cars of all shapes and sizes. In McLeod Ganj there is an abrupt change from an Indian world to what can only be described as Dalai Lama Land. The whole place is really only a couple of small streets but reminds me a lot of Kathmandu, although they call it "Little Lhasa". Before the Dalai Lama came here in early the 1960s there was almost nothing. An old hill station for the British to escape Delhi's heat, when they left the area was inhabited by a few local peoples but was in no way a foreigner's destination. Since the Tibetans have come the whole area is experiencing a kind of economic boom and all my taxi drivers have wanted to point this out to me. Although they are all Hindu they thank the Dalai Lama heartily for coming to their home.
The Kangra Valley from McLeod Ganj:

Here's a view of part of the town:
The view from HH DL's Namgyal Monastery
There are cyber cafes with Skype every few hundred yards and all manner of restaurants and shops catering to the traveling westerner. The streets are literally filled with young Europeans and Americans at the end of their summer vacation.

Here's the main drag:

The Free Tibet Campaigners are everywhere present with their flags and banners. I was walking down the street as the Tibetan Olympic Torch ran through and at first I didn't recognize what was happening.
By the end of the first day I was already a little fed up with the propaganda. This is the heart of the exile rhetoric, the heart of the propaganda machine whose tactics are almost just as absurd as the Chinese. The question for me is how not to become a complete cynic when people here seem to know little of the actual situation in Tibet and care only for some dream that they have created, a dream of a Tibet that never was and never will be.
One of the nights I spent in McLeod Ganj I attended a very interesting presentation called "New Realities in China and Tibet: After Protest." Given by Robbie Barnett of Columbia University, August 5th, 2008 at the Surya Hotel. It was an excellent talk where I met some really great folks. Barnett was well spoken and full of information. I also met the peeps from www.thetibetconnection.org and the Dutch woman I saw on the street in a traditional Chuba speaking fluent Tibetan.
Awards for best quote of the evening go to:
Bronze Medal:
"Where's my wife?"
"I think we've lost our dinner group."
"Oh well, I can always remarry." -Ronnie Novick
Silver Medal:
"Some people have said that if the Dalai Lama had been involved in planning the protests, everyone in Tibet would have protested. I think there is no question that this is a true statement." - Barnett
Gold Medal:
"Resettlement of 100,000 nomads because you want to protect the grass? You'd think someone would have expected social unrest." - Barnett

At the end of the presentation someone asked how many of the monks in the video Robbie showed of the protests were really Chinese military dressed up to incite unrest. Robbie stifled a smirk just in time and rather admirably responded with a long delicate explanation of the actual situation of Tibetan monks and Tibetan people. People here in Dharamsala are often completely clueless. Tibetan monks have never been anything like the Bhurmese or Vietnamese monks who defy authority with total conviction in non-violence. The simple fact is, Tibet people are a fiery bunch. Even many people who have studied their history seem to think that the battles between monasteries are ancient history unconnected to the current situation inside and outside of Tibet. Even after Barnett gave his explanation someone still said, but monks aren't supposed to do any violent acts. Although it has been a longstanding policy of the Tibetan government in exile to create a rosy picture of Tibetans it now seems to be backfiring because people don't really understand the needs and wants of the people they say they are fighting for. The people who circulated the photos claiming that military officers dressed up as monks and rioted are doing more to hurt the Tibetan cause then anyone. It is amazing to me that people call for truth and dignity and then try to use crude lies and insubstantial evidence to "convince" others to join their movement. But then, this is the suffering and ignorance of Samsara, and Samsara is known to be endless.
Amit on my first night in McLeod Ganj
Amit, the Tibetan speaking Hindu: "Marcus, I really feel that this society we live in, this world of consumerism and corporate living is going nowhere. This whole world culture is doomed...it's hopeless."
I was about to sign for the last available room in Pema Thang Hotel when a young Indian man walked in and asked if there were any rooms left. He spoke in perfect English and looked like an American college student, so as he turned away after hearing I had taken the last room I made an impulsive decision. The only place left was a beautiful room with two beds and a balcony overlooking the Kangra valley, and it was a little expensive. I had no idea who this guy was but he somehow struck me as a good person so I stopped him at the door and told him to take a look at the room. "If you want we can share it," I said. He hesitated at first and wanted to know if the owner was OK with that. He stepped back inside the office, turned to the Tibetan man behind the desk and started speaking fluent Tibetan. It was hilarious and I knew then that I had made a good choice. It turns out we were born in the winter of the same year and he lived in a small hill station village filled with Tibetans. He had even attended a Tibetan school until 9th grade and didn't have any non-Tibetan friends until high school. Amit now works in a call center in Delhi (currently for Orange, the European cell service giant). Amit is soft spoken and polite; he eventually explained to me that he had become so fed up with corporate life in Delhi that after work on Friday afternoon he just got on a bus and ended up in Dharamsala. He had no plans except to relax and take a bus on Sunday evening so that he could arrive an hour late for work on Monday morning. This was the first time he had ever traveled anywhere by himself. We wandered the streets together running into Ayoko from Tibet University and Brian from Where There Be Dragons. We ate Thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and sat on our balcony drinking glasses of wine. He was such a sincere person, clearly distressed about the world, and I was so glad to meet him.
If you are ever in McLeod Ganj for any reason, stay at Pema Thang or Hotel Green as a second choice. Nowhere else even comes close, Pema Thang is the best by far. It is run by Tibetans and the views from its rooms are excellent. The only downside is the lack of internet access (Really, I mean, expecting internet in a hotel room in India, who do I think I am?). Hotel Green does have internet, even in some of the rooms! But those go fast so book in advance.

Meeting with Dragons:
I met up with three leaders of a tour group from a company called "Where There Be Dragons" at the famous restaurant and bar, Mcllo's. Famous apparently because 007 (Pierce B.) had dinner there years ago and his picture is still up everywhere.
One of the most interesting discussions I had was with the Tibetan guide from Nepal who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He agreed with me about how most Westerners don't perceive the diversity of the Tibetan people (let alone understand it) and the fact that most Tibetans would not want to leave China even if somehow given a free pass. He told me of many people he met who had come to India for a better life and found business to be not so great so they returned home. It also seems that many people sneak back and forth to India or Nepal. I don't know for sure, but there must be some kind of "Underground Railroad." This man also said that Tibetans educated outside of China in India or Nepal face difficulties when returning to Tibet in terms of getting jobs when their Chinese is not fluent. In fact, he noted that people he knew who were the children of government officials and/or party members were far better off than those who "didn't follow the Chinese rules." It was interesting because as I made certain statements about what Westerners don't understand he was hitting the table and smiling in agreement and then gave an example of how different Diaspora Tibetans are from Chinese Tibetans: There was a man from Kham who "escaped" to Nepal and at the Tibetan welcoming office there he said he was going to meet with "the one whom you take refuge in" (he had meant his root lama). The people there took him all the way to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama, assuming that this is who he meant. In fact, he was not of the dGe lugs pa lineage at all and was not looking for the Dalai Lama. Even Tibetans get confused sometimes because they forget that the Dalai Lama is not really considered to be the one true leader of all Tibetan peoples. This is just a part of the rhetoric used in Diaspora - dGe lugs controlled communities - and certainly because of the "Star Power" that the big DL has cultivated in the West.
The night before I met two men from Amdo who had escaped from China about eight years ago. I asked them if they liked it here in India and they made sour faces and said it wasn't so good here. They didn't like the food or the people very much and wanted to go back home.

Visiting His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa at Gyuto Tantric University
The main steps (above) looking up at the shrine hall and (below) looking down at the monks' quarters.
I woke up earlier than I needed and had breakfast at Pema Thang (Lotus Field). Surprisingly there was quite a bit of sun and a nip to the air. I was able to be comfortable in my blazer until around 10am when I found myself waiting in a large square room underneath the main building at Gyuto Tantric University. I waited with fifteen people from Hong Kong, one woman from Taiwan, and one Chinese-American from San Francisco. Lama Phuntsok and his mustache arrived around 10:30 and although we had only met once before it was like seeing an old friend. He was very kind and even his mustached smile was somehow calming. By this time I was getting antsy and excited in a rather nervous way. I had been practicing some things I would say to the Karmapa in Tibetan and was trying to think about how to phrase my question. I kept repeating phrases in Tibetan in my head, hello my name is... I am from... I have studied in.... I have a question but sorry I will have to speak in English to ask it...and so forth.
My passport was taken and the Indian guards wrote some information down in their books and searched me thoroughly. This was the first time I have been thoroughly searched since entering Asia. They didn't just pat me up and down and not ask what was in my pockets. They reached into every pocket and looked at each item suspiciously. By the way they stared at it, for a moment I thought they might not let me carry a packet of gum in my pocket. Eventually everyone was made to stand in a line in the hallway. I was alone and everyone else was in one group so I was made to stand in front. I dutifully followed our Western-dressed guide up several flights of stairs, stopping to take off my shoes and then halting part way up the final stair case. We waited, and waited, and just as my mind began to wander and I realized I really needed to go pee Karmapa walked quickly by the doorway at the top of the stairs looking down at us with his customary glare. Soon I was up on what seemed to be a rooftop balcony. I waited with Lama Phuntsog while the large group entered together. At first I thought I would wait quietly in suspense, but instead I struck up a conversation with Lama Phuntsog and soon other Lamas were standing there asking about Anna-Brown and chatting about learning Tibetan. They all remembered how hard she had worked for the Karmapa's visit to America and were curious to see who I was. All of a sudden the large group was leaving and in the door I went. I don't think Karmapa wanted me to go through the prostration business, but I did anyway. Then I received his blessing and a small manila envelope everyone gets when they visit. I sat on the floor near his couch and spoke a few sentences of Tibetan and then launched into my question.
The Karmapa seemed to be all business and I didn't want to waist his time. He listened patiently and thought about what I was asking him, but as soon as the answer was clear the interview was over and off I went.
I followed Lama Phuntsok down several flights of stairs again and into a back room that had a large map of the United States on the wall with all the dharma centers connected to the Karmapa's office clearly marked with green, blue, and red stars (red for Nalanda Bodhi). This same room had a small cordoned off area with two beds facing each other and another connected area with a kitchen. I sat on one of the beds as I was asked and assumed I was simply waiting for a moment while Lama Phuntsok checked on accommodations. Instead, I was given a 'latte' and then several other people came into the room and lunch was served. Soon there were three people sitting on each bed and Lama Phuntsok was sitting on a stool near the doorway. The conversation became lively almost immediately as someone's brother began arguing about something to do with a hunger strike that was happening in Delhi. Apparently six monks are refusing to eat as some sort of protest against the Chinese; this was day seven. I was trying to listen to all that was said but could only get a few ideas here and there. I felt very welcome there and although all of these people held somewhat important positions at the monastery, everyone was lounging around as if they were in a dorm room. In fact, the room was the size of a small dorm room and there were books all over the place.
Several people were talking loudly when Lama Phuntsok suddenly stood up looking like a frightened teenager. All of us tried to stand as quickly as possible as Karmapa swept into the small room. He gave a rather severe look to the group and I thought he was about to growl, but perhaps he saw me in the crowd and decided against it. He simply said "sit" (in Tibetan) and nodded at one of the men who followed quickly behind him as he swept out of the room as fast as he had arrived. To me he seemed every inch the monarchs I had read about in novels growing up. I could imagine the palace intrigues he endured and the political and religious decisions he was making every day. He did not seem to me to be a passive member of a religious organization; this was clearly his castle and he was clearly in charge. However, as I spend more time here at Gyuto I find myself wondering if this young man who holds the name Karmapa might not have any friends. Of course he has hundreds of thousands of "friends" (followers) and the lamas around him are certainly more than friendly with him, but does he have buddies he can just hang with? Does he have the time to 'just hang'? I hope that the Tibetan tradition has recognized the sacred right of all young men to just hang out sometimes. Perhaps not. He seems to be surrounded by people that are either teachers or advisors and he is himself a kind of political entity, never anywhere without his entourage. When I was in Tibet I saw the places he used to play and the large number of Lego sets he had, I bet he would have liked to have taken some of those when he escaped to India.
The main shrine hall at Gyuto, which is a Geluk tantric college built as the second Ramoche monastery (a place down the street from me when I was living in Lhasa).
The next time I saw Karmapa was in a line with a bunch of Tibetans and a few other Injees. Every so often all high lamas have to give public audiences and teachings. This week there would be no large public teaching but there would be a short public audience. In Tibet there would have been a few thousand people pushing and shoving each other to get closer and a hundred monks would have been enlisted to keep them in line and filing past Karmapa in some sort of order. Here there were maybe fifty or sixty people and still the old Tibetan grandmothers pushed and needed to be kept in line by large monks. (If you ever wondered where the fire of the Tibetan people comes from, you have merely to watch an ancient wrinkled grandmother trying to see her lama, they are the fiercest of the bunch and you should probably just let them cut in front of you.)
Everyone was filling past bent over out of respect and getting a little blessing and a red protection cord from the Karmapa. When he saw me he gave a little smile and asked when I was leaving, stopping the continual flow of the line. Then he said he had something for me to bring back to the USA. This is how I came to spend several days around Gyuto Tantric University, waiting to receive whatever parcel I was to be the currier of.

Gyuto is actually down below Dharamsala and doesn't get quite as much rain. So far it has been noticeably hotter but also sunny for part of the day.
The entrance from the reception area (above) and the walkway art (below).

Nearby is a cool place called Norbu Linka, named after the real Norbu Linka in Lhasa. Norbu Linka means Jewel Park and that it is. It is a kind of park and cultural center with art exhibits, a cafe, and a small museum (all closed for me of course, as it is the off-season). But the most interesting thing about the place is not what is inside any of the many buildings; it is the architecture and design of the place as a whole that is really fascinating.

My favorite spot:

Everything seems to be built out of stone and almost every single walkway and building is curved and rounded. The stones are set at all kinds of strange angles to create unique designs in the pathways and on the walls. Many small flat stones are set on their side to create uneven ground that looks far more interesting than smooth marble or cement.

I wanna live here:

There's also running water everywhere.

Japanese Koi Pond with a cool Tibetan feel.
More coolness with rocks

The Norbu Linka has a shrine hall of course, but inside infront of the huge Buddha statue was a pile of chairs and tables set up for some kind of meeting, which you usually don't see in a monastery. On one of the chairs I found a pamphlet about recent responses to the protests in Tibet and a bunch of half-true information about what is happening there. As I exited the shrine hall there was an old nun doing prostrations and it occurred to me that politics and religion have always been connected in the Tibetan mind.


My Lhasan Experience

A NEW POST! I'm trying to return to Tibet with some of what I have written below, soon I will update more pictures and a few more trips and then I'll try to catch up with myself here in Kathmandu.
Our lovely Foreign Student's Dorm roof.

Spring snow from our roof. It snowed only a few times in the city itself, but it never stayed for long. Once upon a time:

I think the snowman's name was harold, he didn't live very long in the high-altitude sun.

Sorry, that's the only happy stuff I got. When I went back to Tibet there wasn't much picture taking allowed. Here is something I wrote not long after arriving in Tibet for the second time in the spring of 2008:

I. When I first moved to Lhasa in September of 2007 it quickly became apparent that I was living in a Chinese city, not a Tibetan city. This didn't deter me from wanting to study in Lhasa because it was easy to get used to what seemed to be a bad situation turning better each day. I focused on studying and trekking on weekends. Other than the ban on staying overnight at Tibetan's homes it seemed I could do anything I wanted. At the end of September I was invited to represent the foreign student's department of Tibet University at the 58th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. The depressive feeling of living in Lhasa hadn't yet seeped into my pores and it was easy to blow off the absurd propaganda about the happy and developing Tibetan communities of TAR. The successful Tibetans I met at the party and elsewhere, seemed to have a genuinely positive view of their prospects for the future. Of course the situation was difficult, but the Tibetan people were managing it as best they could. As time passed, however, I began to realize that while police in full riot gear were not on every street corner, and the monasteries were not closed, and Tibetans didn't have to present special identification to get home after work, the overwhelming feeling in Lhasa was one of an occupied and depressed territory on the far edges of a society that cared little for the welfare of its minorities. The first thing one notices when living in China is the blatant racism that is apart of everyday affairs. Not just of Han to Tibetan, but of Tibetan to Tibetan, Tibetan and Han to foreigners, Tibetan to Han, Han to everyone else. Knowing this kind of racism has been mixed with a lifetime of lost opportunities, lack of education, and poverty, not to mention religious oppression it should be a surprise to no one that violence erupted in Tibet.

I was in Seattle on break from classes at Tibet University--enjoying the espresso and other amenities of the first world--when I heard about the riots in Lhasa. I had bought my ticket from Seattle to Beijing weeks before and when I saw that first video on the BBC I thought that returning to Tibet would be impossible. I immediately tried to Skype my friends in Lhasa, but the internet was turned off there. Every time anything remotely political occurs the internet at the university is shut off for a period of time. After a few days I did get through to them. They had heard nothing but what parents and friends had been able to tell them over the phone. They saw smoke filling the city on Friday the 14th and were not allowed out of their dorm. They were required to stay inside the university grounds for five days; luckily they had some supplies of food and could explore the relative safety of the gated campus. Some were very distraught and left; others were in a state of shock but stayed on.

I didn't worry that they would be in any physical danger. A Tibetan mob couldn't get over the wall into the university, but even if they did, they wouldn't attack the foreign students, they would ask them for help. I figured the worst the Chinese government would do was deporting all foreigners for their own safety. What worried me, and still does, is the mental health of my friends. There is a climate of depression in Lhasa. It would be too simple to say that we become sad for the Tibetan people. It is more the case that there is a kind of mental milieu, a whole 'Lhasa state of mind' that seems to breed fear and depression. There is an undercurrent to culture in Lhasa that cannot be described as healthy and I think the rampant alcoholism may be a sign of this.

At first the teachers in the foreign student's department stayed in the lobby to make sure the students didn't attempt to leave the building. While they had a news blackout and saw only smoke in the distance, I learned that overturned cars were burning in front of the Jokang, the holiest temple in Tibet. Tibetans were killing Chinese and fighting with Muslims two blocks from the university. Later, I learned that after the 14th of March police and military were allowed to fire on civilians. During the first days after the riots tanks and truckloads of military personnel filled the streets of Lhasa.

I wasn't sure if returning to Tibet was a good idea, but as things calmed down in Lhasa and my friends told me they could go out in the city again, I decided I would try. Several of us had left Lhasa for the winter break and most of us were trying to return for the second semester. Each day I heard news that the students were allowed farther and farther out from the university. On the 19th they could go only to the nearest grocery store, a block away. They were issued permits with time limits that they had to show as they exited the guarded gate of the university. At each crosswalk there were, and still are, between three and six military personnel in full riot gear standing at attention. By the time I arrived in Lhasa on the 2nd of April the passes were still required but had no time limit and were not often checked. We were told to return to the university every evening by six thirty, but there was no official curfew in place. Today the permits are still required but they are merely a formality now. Our student cards are checked only when we travel close to the Barkor area and getting into the Barkor itself seems to be entirely up to the boys on guard when you pass through. While I assume there is some sort of protocol set by the local government, it is apparent that application of any such protocol is haphazard. This seems to be the rule with Chinese law at the moment. Even travel into and out of Tibet seems to be a question for both travelers and customs agents.

A fellow student and friend of mine at Tibet University had tried to get back to Lhasa from Kathmandu and was unable to get Air China to print him a ticket. They required confirmation from the Chinese embassy and a special permit to enter Tibet. The embassy in Kathmandu told him his papers were in order and they thought he would probably be allowed in, but they refused to say if he could or could not cross the border into Tibet. He flew to Chengdu instead of Lhasa and was able to get a ticket with a special letter from Tibet University explaining his situation. I also had a similar letter faxed to me in Beijing; however, I did not need it to purchase a plane ticket to Lhasa. It was actually surprisingly easy, but I did have a friend, a local Chinese man, who helped me get the ticket. Another friend of ours tried to come overland to Tibet and was turned back at the border even though she had the letter and permits to enter Tibet. She will have to fly to Chengdu from Kathmandu and enter from there.

I went to the airport in Beijing several hours early assuming that there would be a long security check process. I prepared a calm attitude and as much documentation as I could muster. When I got to the front of the first security line the woman looked at my ticket and then back at me and then back at the ticket, and then she asked me as if assuming there was a mistake, "You are flying to Lhasa?" I said yes and she told me I had to go to a special line in the airport, number 25. I was led to line 24 by a pleasant young woman in uniform. There was no number 25. At this point I thought, here we go, let the games begin. But soon enough another station was opened next to 24 and I was told to go right over. Three people looked at my information and simply seemed puzzled. I don't think they really knew what to do with me. I presented them with the new letter from the university explaining the situation when asked for a permit to enter Tibet and they were all rather amiable and let me through; all in all it took longer for me to get through customs in Canada. They didn't even rifle through my computer bag. When another fellow student of mine had flown through Lhasa they had searched all his bags thoroughly and removed an Economist that had an article about Tibet, but when I arrived in Lhasa I waited for the police to search my bags and they barely looked at me. I entered Tibet with little to do, as did three other students who have recently returned to TU.

The taxi ride to the university afforded me my first sight of the damage on Beijing Lu. A Bank of China I had often used to withdraw Yuan was completely destroyed. Most of the damage seemed to be burnt-out shops, quite a few of those classic Chinese garage-door style clothing shops were destroyed, black streaks of soot painted the rest of the buildings. Some larger buildings were damaged by fire, several three-story buildings were totally destroyed and a few shops were still fixing their front windows. Halfway down Beijing Lu from the Potala--near the bus stop--one of the larger Chinese market areas had been burned out and people were trying to sell the remaining merchandise on the sidewalk. Every corner and intersection was filled with military and police in full riot gear. Many of the streets that lead towards the Barkor area had ten or fifteen police blocking them off. When later I walked along Beijing Lu people who lived down those streets were allowed through the police line if they had special permits. I watched as some passed with little problem and others were refused. The Barkor kora area itself is now totally shut down. There are plenty of police but no shops or vendors anywhere and no pilgrims. The Potala has now become the place to do kora in Lhasa and each day hundreds of pilgrims can be seen circumambulating there instead of the Barkor.

All the police I have encountered so far are very young men. It often seems that they just want to practice their English with foreigners when they stop to check your ID. Yesterday I saw a platoon practicing movements in the street, none of them could have been over 19 years old. They were trying to be serious but the boys in the back were laughing and carrying on. I haven't seen any sign of the tanks, only military trucks full of soldiers.

The worst of the situation as far as I can tell is coming in the form of neighbors informing on neighbors. I cannot say how bad it is at the moment, but I can say that their are Tibetans giving each other up to the authorities as a way to settle old grudges and not necessarily because of participation in rioting or plotting of any kind. The sense of a united Tibetan people is nowhere to be seen, except perhaps in the western media and in the scenes of Khampas, notoriously anti-Lhasan, hoisting the Tibetan flag. Not that anyone should have expected much differently. I have been reading some of what phayul.com prints and as much as it might be interesting to believe, they are printing obviously false information. There was never a cell phone black-out, as far as I know. There have been very few rumors of Tibet University students being arrested in association with the riots, but there certainly wasn't a large group of students arrested. However, one person I met was told he had to cut his hair to look more "Chinese" and less "Tibetan". It is certainly a difficult time for Tibetan teachers and students at the university but they do not discuss the issues with us chee gyay. Unfortunately, I do not think that the overt oppression they are experiencing now is very different from the downward social constitution that allows for their customary state of repression. There seems to be little chance of the Chinese people learning about moral deference anytime soon. What worries me most is that their will be yet another policy shift and life for Tibetans will get even worse. However, May 1st Tibet is supposed to be opened to tourists so we'll soon see what events may bring for the future of Tibet.

II. On May 1st Tibet was not opened. I went to a special meeting held for foreigners in Lhasa, mostly populated by NGOs, missionaries, and two of us foreign students representing Tibet University. The meeting was held in the same fancy hotel that the 58th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China was held at, but this time it was an intimate gathering with perhaps twenty people sitting with the director of foreign affairs in TAR. There was an attempt at openness and they wanted everyone to ask questions, which may have been an attempt to get each of us to speak while being filmed. I don't know that any of it was used on the news, I didn't see myself on TV, but the whole meeting was essentially an attempt to pretend that things were normal and under control. The director was very very nice to all of us and simply lied the whole time. He promised that Tibet would open "very soon"--this was his mantra and he repeated it many times. Now, almost July, "open" is not a word to be associated with TAR. He also promised that each of the people in the NGOs who had issues would be able to solve them and said that they could personally come to his office on Monday and he would meet with them. As far as I know, this never happened. In fact, the situation for NGOs is worse than ever. Why? Because China does not need NGOs; why would such a developed country need an NGO? Word of advice: Never set up an NGO in China, set up a "business"--then you can help who you want. In any case, through the Tibetan grapevine--do believe in it, the Tibetans have an amazing ability to transmit information, perhaps faster than the internet, although its accuracy is often far less reliable than Wikipedia--I have been made aware of a meeting in Beijing in which it was decided that laws would become stricter in TAR after the Olympics and the laws already in place would actually be enforced, somewhat unlikely in the end, but a foreboding prospect that spells hard times for Tibetan peoples. Supposedly Tibet will be opened but this time they will be serious about the law that says you have to come with a specific tour group and stay with that tour group and so forth. This hasn't really been enforced very well over the years and I think the Chinese have decided they'd better fix that problem. But, in my humble opinion, it is hard for the Chinese to fix any of their problems, mainly because their main fix-it tool involves large numbers of heavily armed boys. They have an abundance of hammers, but they need screwdrivers, which they have, but no one seems to know how to use them.

When the Olympic torch was going up Everest the streets were locked down again and some Tibetans were stocking up on food, afraid that they would not be allowed out of their homes for days or weeks. In the end things were relatively calm, we were not allowed down Snowland road for a couple of days, and of course the Jokhang was off-limits, but this was applied half-hazardly and it was not so hard, as we discovered on the third day, to simply take a small side street and go around the police in order to get to Summit Cafe. Yes, yes, those of you who are in the know don't go there because it is run by Christian missionaries. Well, I guess I am a sell-out. I want my espresso. I want my cappuccino. I want my fake New York Style Cheese Cake with strawberry jam on the side! Besides, everyone working there is Tibetan and lots of cool educated Tibetans go there, despite the fact that sometimes you will also see a missionary. Best coffee in town and free wireless all day, what more can you ask for? Anyway, there were lots of dressed up groups of young police patrolling the streets but I didn't see them doing much except trying to stay awake and attempting to find hats that fit.

Since the first section of what I wrote above I have learned of more disturbing happenings in Tibet so I thought I might revise my earlier statement that "The worst of the situation as far as I can tell is coming in the form of neighbors informing on neighbors." This is one of the worst things, but many many monks have also been "disappeared" and there are camps of some kind set up to "receive" them, ostensibly they are to be reeducated because they forgot communist principles the first hundred times they were forced to study them. I am extremely wary of the news coming from Tibetans outside of Tibet. I wouldn't believe much of the specifics given by "Free Tibet" people. As far as I can tell they make stuff up as much as the Chinese do. But they just happen to be vaguely correct in the sense that lots of bad shit is going down over there. Still, the picture given to many Americans is not accurate, and neither is the picture given to many Chinese. My perspective is partly in agreement with Chinese propaganda, but for very different reasons. They say that the "splitists" are only making it worse and I agree. People genuinely wanting separation of Tibet from China are delusional and actually hurting Tibetans in Tibet with their protests. But people who want to make life better for Tibetans in China and who want to stop or slow the cultural disintegration taking place there really need to get their act together and separate themselves from the "splitists".

A moment in the day: I wait in the sun smoking a Hangshan cigarette and watching a young girl play with a long red string. There are people passing and staring at me but the police don't bother. I watch as twenty soldiers march buy, barely able to hold their riot shields up, some of their helmets slant to the side and they don't seem to like today's hot sun much. In contrast the police in blue uniforms march in groups of eight or ten and don't so much march as drag their feet about the city. The place I picked to sit is one of their meeting spots and they exchange duties and patrols there. One young Chinese cop has been trying to get every passing policeman to switch hats with him, he's has no resorted to trying to grab their hats from them and he checks their size each time finding them too large. He exchanges half-joking insults with what appear to be his friends, but isn't able to find a hat that fits. In between the piece of concrete I sit on and the policeboys a steady stream of old Tibetan pilgrims pass, malas in hand, prayer wheels spinning.

I left Lhasa in early June and visited Kathmandu for a day before meeting AB in Paris for two weeks. On June 19th the Olympic torch was in Lhasa. All my friends were locked in again as usual. Only certain Chinese people were allowed on the streets to see the torch. Many Tibetans were very afraid and didn't leave their homes at all. I am not sure if many would have been allowed anyway. But today, June 27th, Lhasa is more open than ever and I have been informed that there was a sighting of non-Tibet University cheegyays near the Barkor. Who knows how they got there. --NEWS UPDATE! I just talked to a tour guide here in Kathmandu who says he will be getting official notice from the Chinese (good news he thinks) as to whether or not he has the permits to take tour groups on short trips to Tibet. He says there will be restrictions according to the country you are from, Americans will have a harder time traveling. Also, the permits will be for shorter periods of time than before and the places one is allowed to go will be heavily restricted. So, technically, as of this week Tibet is open to tourists.

Lets go back in time to happier days when the same oppression existed but was not as visible or overt:

Marcus and friends take a trip to Shigatse and Gyantse!

Our first stop on the way to Gyantse.

After a cold cold tea break with oranges instead of biscuits we got on our way to Zha lu Gompa, one of the oldest existing monasteries in Tibet.

Zha lu is famous for the unique architecture it displays primarily on its roof and inside a large square passageway covered with ancient paintings.

Alice, Anne, and Jeannine reading...

...the stone inscription at the gate:

First we entered the protector shrine to pay our respects:

So far it has been rather unusual to see the Karmapa's picture under the mouth of a protector. In Tibet the Dalai Lama's image is forbidden but the Karmapa's is not and you can find him in monasteries of many different types all over Tibet. Perhaps he is standing in for HHDL or perhaps he exerts influence in many different areas, an interesting thing to contemplate given the recent talk that he may be the next face of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world. The Dalai Lama himself specifically told him publicly that when he died the Karmapa was to become an important leader for the Tibetan people.

A small area in the main assembly hall where monks perform their various daily tantric rites:

In the main hall also reside the sacred texts, part of which is what I work on preserving for the TibetanHimalayanDigitalLibrary:

And here are the wood blocks used to print the texts:

Some of the most amazing wall paintings in Tibet. They are a special style, I can't remember the name of it now, but you can see the different colors and the many smaller figures surrounding the main Buddha image, which are the hallmarks of this style that I believe was brought from an area which is now Nepal. (Thanks to Alice, who's Tibetan is awesome, we were able to take pictures):

Outside you can see the unique roof influenced by Mongolian conquerors of China.

You will see some of this style in Beijing. It is particularly this green color that is not common in Tibet.

After Zha lu it was on to the exciting city of Gyantse. There are two Nangmas in Gyantse, right next to each other. We were the only business there and the kids at the doors fought over which we should enter. In the end both were pretty lame. But we did get to see nonstop Michael Jackson videos projected in an empty room.