Star Date:  July 2006
  Shangri-la, Tibet


Hello Dear Family & Friends!

'Tashi Delek!  Depo yin bay?'

(Hello - How are you?  Tibetan)


"Some Tibetans believe our present world of war, disease, corrupt inequality and environmental desecration, is the self destructive age of Kali; to be followed by a new age of peace, ethnic harmony, environmental balance, and human dignity, yet to come.  This future is Shambhala, sometimes called Shangri-La. "

('Searching for Shangri-La' :  L. Brahm)



Shangri-La!  The search for the elusive peace of Shangri-La has enraptured mankind through the ages.  James Hilton's 1933 book, 'Lost Horizon', describes it as "a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, grasslands with yak and sheep,..... in which ethnic groups of different religious beliefs are living in harmony and golden temple pavilions touch the sky."  For some it is located on the Southern Silk Road, for others in remote Tibet or Qinghai, still others claim that Zhongdian or Shangri-La, in the mountains of western Yunnan, (on the road to Lhasa,) is the place.  People from various spiritual paths agree that Shangri-La or Shambhala is within us.

Joseph's search was not in vain. With snow clad mountains, yaks and thirteen ethnic groups playing together it seems that this may indeed be  Shangri-La. Being in the right place at the right time, he happened on to a 3 day celebration where all the people from surrounding villages, in their best ethnic costumes, gathered for dancing, singing, yak and horse races, and a Mastiff dog exhibition.  It was here that he welcomed me back as I flew in from Hong Kong via  Kunming, after celebrating the lovely wedding of Mariah & Shane in Hawaii. 

Having been named the "official Shangri-La", this sleepy little town, is just gearing up for tourists in search of a taste of the Lost Horizon.  Parts of Old Town and the surrounding villages remain untouched and the neighboring valleys exude this peace of dreams. This lost valley will not disappoint the dauntless traveler.  But don't leave it too long as perhaps development will force the logistical quest for Shangri-La to continue.  Or......just stop wherever you are and get lost in the Shangri-La within.

In the Old Town Square the locals of all ages gather nightly to dance (from 7-9pm).  It is a real happening.  The music is blaring as more and more locals gather to form circles within circles.  Old ladies chat merrily, pretty girls giggle as the young men show up dressed to the nines, and a few tourists stumble along and get caught up in the human whirlpool. Don't miss attempting a step or two - they love to have you join in.

We made friends with the owners of a tiny food stall next to the vegetable market, and as often happens we were soon part of the family.  Sporting a tall white chef's hat our new friend would take special care in the preparation of our vegan fare.  He even would put on his idea of western music, Kenny G, and nightly Joseph would ask if he could have the honor of dancing with me, much to the delight of the crowd waiting outside.  Always so much fun!   A short bus ride (#3) out to the 300 year old Ganden Sumtselling Gompa is a good way to catch a glimpse of the surrounding countryside.  Make sure to take time to wander the paths through the small neighboring villages and valleys.  You may just find what you are in search of!

Red tape and permits are the name of the game when planning a trip to Tibet.  Without a doubt it is an effort well spent.  After being told we could go up to Lhasa by public bus we quickly changed plans.  Foreign travelers Joseph knew were turned around after 3 days hard going and were sent back to Shangri-La.  Plan B.  Check with Denzing -Tibetan owner and travel guide at the Himalayan Garden Inn.  His connections with Tibet helped with the process. (see below)  While flying across the Himalayas we marveled at the mighty snow clad giants peaking through the clouds.  They stood like sentinels to "The Rooftop of the World".  Lhasa, this ancient, holy city dating back to the 6th century and the center of the Tibetan Buddhist Kingdom has long been shrouded in mystery.  Only open to foreigners since the 1980's, the capitol of Tibet, still holds secrets at every turn.  The area round the1300 year old  Jokhang Temple, with pilgrims circumambulating around the 'kora'
(pilgrim circuit), sends you spinning back in time to the rhythm of the mantras and revolving prayer wheels. The rituals of Tibetan Buddhism are all encompassing for these simple folk.  No matter how senseless it may seem to the overwhelmed and sometimes disgruntled foreigner, just one look at the broad smiles or twinkling eyes suggests that something is working.  Joy is exuded from every pore.  Most of these tough, resilient pilgrims are from out in the surrounding villages or nomads from the grasslands, where human life often hangs in a precarious balance with the harsh elements.  On vacation themselves and like little children, they walk around with wide eyes in awe of the big city excitement.  The mood is contagious and inspiring.  As we speak, we are on our way out to join in with the pilgrims on their evening 'kora' around the Jokhang, swept up in a river of joy! 

We were led to the Dawa Guesthouse on our 2nd day in Lhasa.  Fifty feet from the Jokhang kora and down a back alley brimming with activity we are always right in the action.  After walking side by side with the Tibetans for a while we often just sit inconspicuously out of the fray and watch as hundreds of devout pilgrims (thousands during the Saga Dawa celebration) pass by.  Some are prostrating themselves along the ground, some are in deep meditation while chanting "Oh Mani Padme Hum", others are just cheerfully talking or yakking on their cell phones.  The kora circuit passes through the infamous Barkhor Square and raucous market selling fur hats, daggers, yak butter, jewelry, thangka paintings, monk robes, hats and scriptures, 10 foot long copper horns, new chupas for the pilgrims, and newly added t-shirts and cell phone holders. Feverous bargaining has been going on here for hundreds of years as traders from the world below brought treasures to exchange with the top of the world.  Not much has changed as the haggling continues, except for the new art shops behind the stalls and the groups of bewildered tourists wandering along taking advantage of the epitome of a "Kodak moment"!

The Potala Palace (or mythical mountain), a world travel icon rated with the Great Pyramids or Taj Mahal, is perched above Lhasa, with a commanding view of the whole valley.  Built in the 7th century by the 33rd Tibetan king, Songtsan Gampo, it covers 130,000 sq meters and the religious Red Palace has 13 floors and reaches up to 3,700 meters above sea level (over 12,000 feet).  Amid once colorful paintings, incense and butter lamps, the treasures, stupas, and statues displaying gold and semi- precious jewels trace the history of Tibet and the lineage of the first through 13th Dalai Lama (strangely the current or 14th Dalai Lama is omitted).  The history of the surrounding White Palace, the center of political operations for past Dalai Lamas, tells of Tibetan troops invading surrounding Nepal, the Silk Road and Kashgar, and Yunnan.  With the assassination of Songtsan Gampo, the region broke into independent feuding territories and ended their expansionism.  Rivalry between the Red Hat and Yellow Hat sects of Buddhism resulted in power struggles that cemented the secular and religious power of the Dalai Lamas. They in fact ruled Tibet in every way.  With tens of thousands of monks weighing the scales, it seemed inevitable that change should result.  The heavy handed 'liberation' of Tibet by China in the 1950's brought international disdain, (funny 'liberation' is same word currently being used by the U.S. in Iraq, where already over 1 million have died).  Had the top heavy Buddhist hierarchy separated church and state, would they have ensured better preservation of their culture and religion??

Undergoing massive renovations, the Potala Palace is currently cordoned off, with only a small portion open to the public.  There isn't a monk to be found but instead brown coated helpers keeping a watchful eye on tourists.  All helpers supposedly reading or chanting scriptures were sound asleep.  We rested for a moment in one of the main chapels. The helper was busy shoveling small donated paper notes into gunny sacks. These he hid in a cupboard.  The larger bills from all over the world (including at least 10 $100US) were stashed in the base of a stupa.  Joseph just had to catch this 'money counter in the temple' in full swing.  He reminded us, "No photos" then promptly pushed Joseph back into an alcove to take as many photos as he wished - away from the ever present surveillance camera. He quietly complained that all the money goes directly to the Chinese government, not the temple.  Tashi, the front desk clerk of our hotel, told us that unlike the old days where an 'extra' or first son of a Tibetan family was sent off for a life in the monastery, now a young boy has to apply for a Chinese permit to enter a monastery, and pay a substantial amount for teachers and living expenses.  Many worthwhile N.G.O.'s are active throughout Tibet and are involved in craft co-ops, language lessons and projects such as schools, health care, orphanages, etc. in the rural villages.  Make sure before you donate money, anywhere around the world, that you carefully research what percentage actually touches the group you are trying to help.  Governments and administrations tend to eat up large portions of funding, even in the well known organizations. With a world such as ours where does one begin?  Let's not forget to check out what problems plague our own backyards, i.e. Native American human rights issues, before trying to right wrongs half way around the world.

Seeking out more remote monasteries allows travelers to avoid the tour circus and have a quieter, more leisurely, look at monastic life.  We took bus #302 out to Drepung Monastery (formally home to over 7000 monks). Having to walk up the hill was a strain on our acclimating bodies but the leisurely pace allowed the day to unfold into a delightful adventure.  Most people take the little motorized wagon up and then walk down.  We ended up exploring Nechung Monastery first and following the dirt path up the hill through pastures of sheep, meditating monks on rocks, long term hermit monks in little rock shelters, mani stone carvers, and large groups of pilgrims.  Not seeing another tourist at Nechung Monastery we were able to slowly walk around and observe the symbolism represented, while Joseph shared his  knowledge with Dan, our new friend from Boulder, CO, and myself.  Years of research has given Joseph a vast background in symbolism while fresh new eyes spotted obscure symbols.  At one point a monk was ritualistically attaching a yarn "eye of God" to a side alter.  We told him that they use the exact same object in South America.  His eyes bugged out and he exclaimed, "Is that so?"  His limited English stopped us from exploring the subject further or from providing an explanation on the significance of hundreds of snakes and serpents painted throughout the temple. (More 'Naga lore' as seen in other corners of the globe?) Discussing spirituality is difficult enough in one's native language, yet alone in a foreign tongue.

We followed pilgrims to a back door leading into the labyrinth of Drepung Monastery.  We had an entertaining afternoon observing monks at work and often at play, as we visited off the path shrines, climbed wooden ladders through dark passageways to inner courtyards, and ascended rooftops for spectacular views.  The monks were always happy to see us and liked to fool around or joke with us; one monk even squirting water across the only path leading to the center of the complex.  An inverted umbrella shielding our way brought on laughter of approval.  After their lunch and nap we followed an ant trail of monks to a courtyard to observe the ritual of debating scriptures of dharma.  A fascinating combination of hand clapping, animated yelling and spur of the moment responses allowed for mutual study of the complicated scriptures.  It was only here, in the welcoming shade of the courtyard, that we saw a handful of western tourists, after almost 5 hours of exploration (debating often starts about 3pm). 

Once settled into our new home near the Jokhang Temple we began exploring our surroundings and soon had our favorite vegetable stalls: one Tibetan, one Chinese, one Muslim.  The new Chinese part of town now boasts modern boulevards, hospitals, internet cafes, department stores, designer clothing shops and bad imitations of outdoor high tech gear.  The old town areas are a maze of stone walls, narrow alleys  decorated with picturesque courtyards, small shops and tiny cafes. A couple of favorite hang outs were the corner rooftop Makye Ame Cafe to surreptitiously watch the sea of pilgrims below, a tiny Tibetan cafe selling potatoes of every description (curried ones our favorite) and relaxing in the tranquil outdoor courtyard of the Gorka Hotel amidst rabbits, birds, prayer flags and delicious whole wheat buns (our first in a year in China).

As we were walking up to our room to finish this month's webpage we were invited to the wedding of a Chinese couple we met last night at dinner.  Part of a fun group of eight friend's from Shanghai, (who just traveled overland from Chengdu to Lhasa); they decided, on the way, to get married in Lhasa.  Our hotel was transformed into a gala wedding party complete with ritualistically presenting scarves ('katas') around the necks of the happy couple, filling water goblets, lighting candles, blessing with juniper smoke, blasting firecrackers, toasts with exploding champagne, a feast with over 20 tasty dishes, cake, and many photos. We taught them the American custom of tapping glasses and having the bride and groom kiss, something they enjoyed.  We told them that the following day was our 5th Wedding Anniversary and, to our delight, the whole room of new friends toasted to our continued happiness. What a memorable evening!  You just never know what will happen in a day! 


And so it goes...........................................................Next  Mt. Kailish and western Tibet.  Being in Tibet is so remote that it feels, at times, like it is of another world.  From our world to yours.  Take care, keep smiling and let's remember to take time to search for the Shangri-La within.



Love, xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph


Travel notes:

$1.00US = 8 Yuan

To help adjust to high altitude:
Rhodiola natural herb: available at a Chinese pharmacy.  Take 2 capsules 2x before meals.  Not after 5pm.
Diamox: 1/2 tab 2xday (half the dose does the trick)  Take 2 days before and 3 days after arrival to high altitude.  Check with doctor.  Prescription $80 in U.S./ $3 in China.

Shangri-La: stay at Himalayan Garden Inn, to the right of the square in Old Town. Stay in the 1st floor rooms w/bath: 60-80Y.  Denzing, friendly Tibetan owner and guide will help with visa extensions (which are easy and a pleasure here) and with Tibet travel permits(300Y). Hopefully the need for these permits will be phased out with the train's arrival in Lhasa in July?  phone: 06?8230670

Lhasa:  stay at the Daxa Guest House, South  Bakor Jidui St. No. 1, try room #311(don't forget earplugs for the evening and morning shop activities below)
80Y -(bargain less for 1 week or more).  Say hi to everyone from us!
phone: 0891-6912119








Proud horsemen at the festival in Shangri-La.


Circles within circles of lively dancers, representing all the
ethnic groups of the Shangri-La Valley.


During a loud, lively 'puja' at Ganden Gompa, this jolly old monk tried on
Joseph's glasses and gladly modeled his yellow hat (not unlike those of
ancient Hawaiian royalty). One minute later, this now apparent
head lama, got up and led the ceremony for over 300 monks.
 (Too bad he wasn't still sporting the cool glasses!)


The ancient Potala Palace, veiled in mystery, soars high above Lhasa.


This happy monk proves that the bigger the prayer
wheel the better!


Golok women, Tibetan nomads from the harsh northeast,
proudly display ornate coral and turquoise headpieces.


Khambas, from eastern Tibet, swagger around with dagger's or
swords at their waist and long black hair braided with red yarn.


Devout pilgrims prostrating for hours or days in front of the
Jokhang Temple.


Love those glasses and gold teeth!


Debating dharma scriptures at Drepung Monastery.


These monks, resting in our lobby between 'koras' around the
Jokhang Temple, wanted their picture taken with us.  The
picture Joseph deleted had the monk on the left busily
rubbing the hair on Joseph's arm.


The newly wed couple, Da bin Wang and Bin Xu. May you have
many happy years together!





Our cook in Shangri-La.

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