Pilgrimage within the Pilgrimage

I spent the final week of my trip in a small Indian town called Bodhgaya (described in above post), sitting under a Bodhi tree trying to find enlightenment. Well, not exactly, but I am soaking in the vibe from this place, where 2600 years ago a 35 year old Siddhartha Gautam, soon to be known as the Buddha, found enlightenment after sitting for 49 days straight under a Bodhi tree. Today, a large Buddhist community has been built around a descendent of the original Bodhi tree and this small town has become the major pilgrimage site in the world for Buddhists.

I set off from Nepal with hopes of reaching all four of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, starting with Lumbini in Nepal (Birth), Sarnath (First teaching), Bodhgaya(Enlightenment), and Kushinagar (Death). I began the pilgrimage with a lot of suffering (perfect practice for one aspiring Buddhist), enduring a 24 hour bus journey from Kathmandu to Lumbini after an epic, all-day saga to get my Indian Visa. Eventually with a transit-visa in hand, I meandered to the bus station and hopped on a night bus headed towards Lumbini. Despite not being able to fit in my seat, I managed to finally fall asleep, expecting to wake up in Lumbini. I woke up groggily to hear that we were less than half way, due to a broken bridge. In great Nepali form, it took hours to figure out what to do and eventually a path was created through the small creek for buses and trucks to pass. I confirmed that I have in fact developed a sense of patience, as a trip of about the distance from Boulder to Vail took 24 hours and I felt quite content. I made some new friends, and despite being in the absolute middle of nowhere, there were people selling things from roadside carts and bicycles like water, fruit, peanuts and other snacks to pass the time. I met a great guy who was getting a masters in English literature and hoped to travel to America some day. Seizing the opportunity to speak with one of the first educated Nepalese I’d met, we talked politics and policy and he helped me discern some of the nonsense occurring in Nepal by the Maoist separatists.  I lost a day (or did I gain one?), diving into a new book and catching up on Simpson episodes and podcasts on my iPod. Ironically, my friends Al and Nicole left Kathmandu about 15 hours after I did and we both arrived at the same hotel within a half hour of each other in Lumbini.

IMG_4205 After a great night’s sleep, we toured Lumbini the next day. I was expecting mayhem and an over-touristic feel to the place, but ultimately found it to be extremely peaceful and relaxing. Despite plans from the Chinese to build the largest Buddha statue in the world and a mega-resort in Lumbini, today a small building surrounds the exact location where Buddha was born. This building surrounds the ruins of an ancient monument and itself is surrounded by a peaceful garden colored by thousands of prayer flags. We had a nice meditation and then jumped on our 60 year old rented bicycles to explore IMG_4208the Lumbini Development Zone, a large area where each sect of Buddhism has built a temple for their pilgrims. Most were quite unimpressive compared to the real thing in their home countries, but I did enjoy the Japanese World Peace Pagoda, where we sat with two monks for 20 minutes and chanted for world peace, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” as we played  drums and the sun set quietly behind us. I finished the evening with some yummy street vendor samosas and retired early before the town shut down completely at 8pm.

We hired a private car for the ride to the border the next morning in order to circumvent the major Maoists strikes going on in Nepal that kept most taxis and buses off the road for a few days. Before I knew it, I was in India.  She was in full glory first thing in the morning – the smells, the guys trying to rip us off and the delay in getting our jeep driver to leave (he refused to budge before the full quota of 15 people in a jeep was reached!). I had some ridiculous idea of side-tracking to Kushinagar and catching a night train to Varanasi, not fully comprehending the speed of travel, the sometimes overbooked Indian trains and short days of December! Ultimately after a series of trials, we decided to skip Kushinagar (probably the least interesting of the 4 sights) and move onto Varanasi via bus.

Varanasi, where to begin? Lonely Planet describes it with: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all".

IMG_4226 Varanasi is a very raw and visceral place – a sacred place for Hindus on their most sacred river – the Ganges. This is were many people go to die, to be cremated on the riverbanks (ghats) and ultimately have their ashes deposited into the river. Throughout my four day stay in Varanasi, the sky was constantly filled with ash and smoke, as hundreds of bodies are cremated a day. As you walked the alleyways of town, you would often need to quickly slide to the side of an alley as families carrying their deceased loved-ones wrapped in an orange sari down to the ghats to be cremated. At times I was quite overwhelmed watching this scene – so much death and sadness all concentrated in one place. The buildings right behind the ghats are eerie places where the sick and old wait to die – preferably you die near the Ganges to save your family the trouble and cost of transporting your body many miles after death. The entire funeral happens in the public eye – depending on how much money you have you might be able to afford nicer wood for the cremation, and your caste determines where exactly the burning occurs. I learned a lot about the actual process in Kathmandu, but needless to say seeing it up close and personal was a very heavy experience. After viewing the burning ghats once or twice, I found myself wanting to avoid the areas, not only to respect the privacy of the dead and their families, but to avoid my own feelings that death brings into awareness.

Life and death are intermingled however. As body after body is burned (~ 3 hour process) and its ashes floated into the Ganges, the mighty river is also acting as a transportation hub, bath tub, IMG_4238washing machine and sewage plant. Despite carcinogenic levels being hundreds of times the deemed safe level, every morning countless thousands of Varanasi residents – men, women, sadhus, cows and water buffalos descend to the river to bath and wash. In the same holy water that their ancestors were cremated into and that the raw sewage of their village empties into. Its almost incomprehensible to us in the West, with our safety standards, clean drinking water and microbe killing soaps. Sometimes when traveling you have to put these standards firmly behind you, as the people of this land have been undergoing such rituals for hundreds or thousands of years and seem to get along just fine. You will too for a few days.

Wandering and driving the streets and Ghats in Varanasi was one of the most intense sensory experiences of my entire journey. First, December is wedding season in India, and in carnival, parade-like fashion, I witnessed many couples  and families celebrating their union, complete with fireworks, drums, light shows and generally week-long festivities. This was an incredible contrast to the scene occurring just a few blocks away on the river, as many individuals were passing IMG_4259away and leaving their bodies to be united with nature. One will never forget the smells of Varanasi either. Ashes, burning bodies, chai tea, sewage, spices, restaurants and on and on were intermingled as you wander around. One afternoon after a leisurely morning in the Aum Cafe,  I traveled to Sarnath with Al and Nicole on a pimped out auto rickshaw (picture a 3 wheeled go-cart with a hand break and pimped out stereo system). Getting out of Varanasi was yet another Varanasi sensory delight – the road was PACKED with pedestrians, bicycles, auto rickshaws, cars, buses, cows, delivery trucks, motorcycles, on and on.  There are no traffic lights, no rules and IMG_4220no police. Somehow everything just works and we interweave within inches of so many other vehicles and people. Our drivers friend appears and disappears three times in the midst of the traffic (all Indian rickshaw drivers seem to have buddies who like to tag along, especially when there is a foreign woman in the back to stare at through the rearview…). Eventually we break out onto open road and I relax in amazement at how anyone gets anywhere in India.

Sarnath turned out to be very cool and I wish we had gone earlier to enjoy the day at the park where Buddha gave his first sermon. There are ruins of an Asoka temple, the garden where Buddha gave his first enlightened teaching and a small temple where monks chant Buddha’s first sermon each evening at sundown. The garden is one of those rare places in India where you can relax, sit, read, meditate or otherwise without pesky Indian touts bothering you. The energy of the place was great and again we watched the sunset as various pilgrimage groups paid their respects to this holy place.

I feel like there is so much more to say about Varanasi, but it it is really a place one just has to experience on their own. The cell block hotel, the mighty river, the hashish salesmen, stampeding holy cows, dark and winding avenues and the amazing world of life on the Ghats. Words just can not do justice to sensory experience you will have there. We will leave it at that.

Next stop: Bodhgaya, the final stop on the Pilgrimage.

7 Days in Tibet

Somehow, some why, I didn’t blog about my experience in Tibet immediately after being there. Between my notebook scribbling and photos I’m going to try to piece together my experience. First I have to say that I love the Tibetan people. They are beautiful, spiritual, friendly and extremely hospitable. The perseverance and commitment to their faith in the face of what amounts to imagecultural genocide by the Chinese is incredible. This story really begins three months ago when I was traveling through Western Sichuan and was first introduced to Tibetan people and culture. It was then that I decided that I would return to Tibet, despite the difficulties and expenses levied by the  Chinese government. As I explored Mongolia by jeep, I managed to put together a tour to Tibet via a sketchy company in Kathmandu, managing this from the one or two Internet cafes in the Gobi desert. The stars aligned, and eventually I found myself on a train to Lhasa with permit in hand.

My first moments in Tibet were heart-breaking and disappointing. My driver met me outside of the station and as we pulled away and drove towards downtown Lhasa my initial thoughts were – “is this really Tibet?” , “Why is everyone  Chinese here?”  Why does it look like the infrastructure is being built to support many, many more people than already live here?” My heart sunk as I questioned my decision to travel through Tibet, driving through what amounted to a ghost town as my driver explained that everything was being built to support the immigrating Chinese who were arriving by the tens of thousands after receiving lucrative offers from the Chinese government to relocate their families and businesses to Tibet. Fortunately, my driver informed me, I would be staying in Old Lhasa in the Muslim quarter, the only part of the city with any Tibetan character left. I checked into a nice hotel and met my travel partners for the next 10 days, Maaike from Belgium and Matthijs from Denmark. Currently, foreigners are unable to travel in Tibet without a driver and guide. For me to see Tibet, I had to pay the Chinese government more money than I would have preferred to secure my permits, land cruiser, driver and guide. Fortunately I got a decent deal after hearing that my travel partners had paid 50% more than I did for the same trip!

Over the next 3 days I explored the grand historical sites in and around Lhasa,  the Potala Palace, The Jokhang, Sera Monastery and the Dalai Lama’s summer palace (former), the Norbulingka.  Our guide (who I won’t name because the Chinese secret police are always watching), displayed some interesting Lhasa 100 behavior the first day – we thought he was being lazy by preferring not to explore the Potala Palace with us, but later learned that it simply broke his heart to visit the place that was once the spiritual Mecca for Tibetan Buddhists, now relegated to more of a historical museum. It was still an incredible place, one of the few historical Tibetan sites not pillaged by the Chinese during the cultural revolution. Thousands of pilgrims were paying homage to the Potala- chanting, lighting butter lamps and making offerings to the various shrines inside. The Potala houses a rich collection of tombs and cultural relics that date back to the 5th Dalai Lama’s reign in the 13th century. We continued to visit other sites, noticing the subtle differences between those still used for religious events and those left stagnant by Chinese intrusion and restrictions. Slowly our guide began to trust us and explained some of the events he has witnessed in recent history including seeing people being shot during uprisings right before his eyes. He was always cautious, understanding that his career and reputation were on the line if the Chinese government overheard some of his words. We respected this, not digging too deeply and generally supporting what appeared to be his desire to let out some frustration to people who would listen.

My favorite part of Lhasa was not the official sites, rather, it was simply wandering around the Jokhang area, observing the pilgrims, eating dinner on the street while wandering the alleyways and exchanging smiles with the ever curious Tibetans, most of them enroot on a kora. A kora is a holy circuit that pilgrims undertake to mount up good karma. There are many koras in Tibet, such as around the Potala, around Mt Kailash near the Nepali border (Tibet’s holiest mountain), and even around Lhasa itself. But arguably the most important and meaningful is Barkor as it surrounds the Jokhang Palace, the holiest temple in all of Tibet. At the Barkor you will stumble upon hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims in their traditional garbs circulating the 1kmLhasa 097 route around the Jokhang. They come from all regions of Tibet and beyond, walking in a clockwise manner so that the religious monument is always on their right (going anti-clockwise is bad karma!). Many do these koras simply a few times a day, some for hours… some for even DAYS!  And all this time you also see these Tibetans constantly waving around hand-held prayer-wheels. A prayer is inscribed on each wheel, and the more times you swing it round the more good karma you accumulate. But as if walking around koras for days was tiring enough, countless Tibetans are seen prostrating around koras like the Jokhang and even just simply in front of it. Prostrations are sort of like a religious squat thrust, and our guide explained that some devout Tibetans will prostrate for hundreds of kilometers all the way to Lhasa, sometimes taking months to accomplish such a journey. Therefore Old Town Lhasa was were I enjoyed myself most – watching and observing, once stumbling upon a small monastery where the monks were hand making paper and Buddhist sutras with small printing tablets – they were surprised to see me but still managed to show me around as we shared smiles and laughs without otherwise being able to communicate. I enjoyed watching daily life first thing in the morning and then again immediately after sunset when the most action is happening.

IMG_3502One thing that I (or anyone) could not avoid seeing was the heavy Chinese military presence. Every entrance to the old town was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, the rooftops around the Jokhang were riddled with snipers and regular patrols of fatigued soldiers interrupted the colorful stream of pilgrims on the Barkor circuit, Tibet’s most famous Kora. I made the dreadful mistake of showing my guide a photo of the Dali Lama that I had on my iPod, a serious crime worthy of expulsion, directly under a camera with a microphone in the Norbulingka Palace. (Luckily no one noticed!). I breathed a sigh of relief that my trip to Tibet wasn’t going to be abruptly cut short, but was reminded of the seriousness of the conflict between China and Tibet.

Interestingly, I had a very difficult time sleeping in Lhasa, always feeling like my heart rate was high and simultaneously experiencing a sense of anxiety. At first I thought it may have been the altitude, but immediately upon leaving Lhasa these sensations went away. After careful examination, I think I was channeling the energy of the place. I have an undefined sacral center in my body and I’ve discovered over the years that I am very sensitive to the stress and anxiety of others. If I am not careful, I will often accept this anxiety as my own, when in Zhangmu 003 fact it comes from without. Generally, being aware of this energy has always been a very subtle process for me, but in Lhasa it felt hyper-active. There is a tremendous amount of tension and anxiety amongst the citizens of Lhasa, both Tibetan and Chinese. Just last year, major unrest unfolded in Tibet, centered in Lhasa. Unfortunately, the root issues that caused this unrest have not changed, and I personally believe this will not be the last time we see violence here. As much as enjoyed visiting Lhasa, I doubt I will ever go back. Within the near future there will be very little left of anything Tibetan beyond historical monuments. And as I learned more and more about the plight of the Tibetans during the remainder of my trip through Tibet, Nepal and India, I just don’t feel comfortable supporting the Chinese occupation and "’modernization” of Lhasa.

Enough about Lhasa – on day 4 I struck out on the road with Maaike and Matthijs, heading West towards the Himalaya and Nepal on the Friendship Highway. Incredibly, what used to be a multi-week journey is now a paved highway on which one can drive from the Nepali border to Lhasa in a single day!

IMG_3605For the next 6 days we passed some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.  First up was Lake Yandrok, one of the highest lakes in the world, checking in somewhere near 15000 feet. The next several days sort of blurred together as I remember passing through the heart of Tibet – Gyantse, Shigatse and Tingri, headed towards the great Himalaya range and Mount Everest (Qomolangma) herself. We passed glaciers, mountains, small villages, farms and pastures. We saw yak, deer, goat, and sheep wandering the high plains in search of grass. Each city that we slept in was similar to Lhasa in that there were newer Chinese areas and existing Tibetan “old towns”. A highlight for me was walking visiting the beautiful Tashilimpo monastery in Shigatse, walking the Kora high above the city with Maaike and stumbling our way back home through the cobblestone streets. We had some good laughs at a tailor shop where a nice Tibetan guy fixed a hole in my down jacket for only 50 cents.

IMG_3697 We quickly discovered that two stars in Tibet does not imply a warm shower or comfortable room, and therefore spent some cold evenings as we were traveling at the tail end of the tourist season, with most places not equipped for heating or electricity. This was fine with me, preparing me for the conditions in the Annapurna range, as well as giving me an idea of exactly how arduous it would be to spend a winter in Tibet. Three weeks later I read 7 Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer and it brought me back to many of the places I had visited. If you have not read it, and you are into adventure-style books, I highly recommend you pick it up. In the 1940’s Heinrich broke out of a POW prison in India and managed to go overland through the Himalaya and Tibet to Lhasa. His travels and cultural experiences of one of the first westerners to know Tibet is incredible. He ultimately became a friend of the young 14th Dalai Lama and has acted as an emissary to Tibet for the West throughout his life.

Eventually we made it to Everest Base Camp, awaking at 4 am and leaving Tingri in order to watch the sunrise. Although it was nice and clear day, the winds were ripping through the valley and one could barely snap a photo Everest Base Camp 037 before needing to retreat to the car. Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side is 5200 meters (16640 feet), and as you can imagine, especially in early November, quite cold! My travel partners decided to head down hill with another tour group, but as spending time in this magical region was a priority for me, I asked my guide and driver to spend the night up there so I could explore during the day. They begrudgingly agreed and I struck out on foot for the afternoon – feeling slightly dizzy from the altitude, first heading to the small Yamalung hermitage where Guru Rinpoche meditated and received empowerment from the Buddha Amitayus. There are several small temples, a sacred spring and numerous carvings; and a temple enclosing Guru Rinpoche’s meditation cave contains a hand and footprints of the saint.  I was alone in the cave and sat zazen for 20 minutes, soaking in the unbelievable energy of the place. I explored the hermitage, ducking between endless prayer flags and offerings that have accumulated over the centuries. The rest of the day I wandered aimlessly in the valley, seeing only one Yak herder and a number of deer. Finally when my fingers couldn’t bare it any longer, I returned to the guesthouse (more like a cement block with a bed in it), to huddle around the stove with the handful of other guests and guides who braved the evening at over 5000 meters in November. Despite the temperature in my room that night dropping to 20, I slept soundly with about 11 blankets wrapped around me.

The rest of the trip consisted of a long drive to the border, with a few stop offs at schools and small villages so we could interact with the locals outside of the big cities. The road down to Zhangmu (border town with Nepal), was the final part of the Friendship Highway being paved, an incredible feat of engineering as the road drops thousands of feet through a perilous canyon. We were delayed several times by rock slides and planned demolitions. Zhangmu 033 We paused briefly at a high pass to get a glimpse of the Annapurna range I would soon be hiking in. After spending the night next over a discotheque in Zhangmu, we woke up early, crossed the border and found a driver for our transfer to Kathmandu. That day I found myself in one of those deeply meditative mindsets, a balance between consciousness and pure awareness. As we drive through amazing scenery and continued to descend all the way to Kathmandu at 800m I was jotting notes down on my iPod as the drab colors of Tibet gave way to tropical forests and beautiful saris. I’m not sure what triggered the flow of awareness for me, but it is one I will not soon forget.

Suddenly we were in the chaos of Kathmandu, the most populated and congested place I had been in over 2 months. I found myself checking into my small guesthouse, transitioning to the next phase of my journey.

Tashi Delek!

Reflections @ 6 Months

Thank you to everyone who wrote to me recently, I realize now that I projected an image of being quite pathetic a few days ago! I’m back in Kathmandu, looking at spending a week here as I wait for my India Visa to come through. I made the mistake of not beginning this process before my trek and am now faced with numerous days of queuing, waiting, queuing, waiting, and hopefully I’ll have a visa in my hand on Friday. Several people I met at the embassy had this turn into a multi-week saga. There are definitely worse places to be than Kathmandu. There is a great traveler vibe, an abundance of western comforts like book stores and coffee shops, perfect weather and cheap food. The major annoyances here are the tiger balm touts and excessive noise pollution. I didn’t do anything touristy on my first run through the city so I’m planning on seeing a few sights between coffee shop visits and blogging 🙂 I have not updated my blog since leaving Beijing over a month ago – sorry!

After my last post, I should clarify some things around my trip home. Its also time for everyone’s favorite post – my bi-monthly, “Reflections”. First, my decision to come home in December was actually made IMG_3904almost 2 months ago, during my travels in China. I reserved a flight using frequent flyer miles, knowing I would have the option to cancel the flight if I decided to stay on the road. I can’t quite recall my decision making process, but it was at this time where I began to feel a sense of momentum and speed to my travels that had gotten a little out of control. It was during this time that my plan to travel through Mongolia, back to Tibet and onward to Nepal and India became real, and the days ahead were no longer as free and open as I once envisioned. People since have asked or suggested – Why not just stop? Just sit still, change course and throw out all of the preconceptions? The irony is that this feeling was no different than one that nagged me the past couple of years at work. Its not that I didn’t want to go to the places I did – I very much did. Its more that there was an undercurrent of not being completely true to myself in some way or another.

  Its clear that there is something much more fundamental at work in one’s sense of freedom than outward appearances, physical location or commitment levels. Needless to say, I endeavored ahead. I saw and experienced an incredible amount in a few short months. I have not a single regret. But I am exhausted. I mentioned a few days ago that this feeling doesn’t go away no matter how much I rest. Its my body (and spirit I believe) telling me to go home and rest.

It’s not just for physical reasons that I am coming home. I’m considering my forthcoming time at home an opportunity, an exploration if you will. I significantly overestimated the amount of time I would have during travel for investigation of the more practical aspects of life. Examining career possibilities, networking with people from home and teaching myself Spanish were all on the list when I left. I laugh now, but in Japan I started a concept of using one day a week as a work day where I would sit in a hotel or coffee shop and do some of these things. The burdens of travel, the quality of Internet in 3rd world countries and the speed of my travels quickly made this an idea of the past. My notebooks are riddled with one liners and thought bubbles that require a 24 inch screen LCD, a comfy chair and Google to investigate more thoroughly. I find myself frequently wanting to reach out to call people, to discuss something, quickly to realize I’m nowhere near a phone or even if I am that its 4:37am in the Colorado. My business school professors would consider this a midyear review.

A midyear review in conjunction with setting ideas into action. This entire trip has been about ego deconstruction, self awareness and exploration of truth. Seeking to be a vessel of divine will, not a creature of whim and momentary desires. I’ve been able to sit with many different aspects of myself, digging deep into my habits and my conditioning. I’ve broken down a number of these to their roots, seen how certain fears and attachments to the past drive my actions and words. There are many, ohhhh so many, aspects of being that continue to ask for my patience and careful watch to reveal their true nature to me. The people and places of the world have been great gifts for me in this discovery process. But right now I want to experiment with the application of these gifts in my daily life in the place where I plan to spend a large part of my life – Colorado. The meaning of a retreat is to go away, reflect and to return. I mentioned in my 4 month reflections that long-term travel, the endless vagabond journey will never be my forte. I have collected many golden nuggets from this journey and my bag is getting a little heavy. Its time to bring them home and smelt them into something useful.

Why would I pick the coldest months of the year to return to Colorado? Well, steep turns in knee deep snow at Berthoud Pass comes to mind very quickly… 🙂

The truth is I’m just ready. I miss my family, my friends, the small daily joys of my existence in Boulder. And despite our countries share of problems and clear disregard for so many things – I’ve never missed her comforts and opportunities so much.

Annapurna awaits

Friends. I’ve been in Kathmandu now for almost 4 days. 1 day turned into 2 and 3 into 4. I had hoped to catch everyone up on my adventures through Tibet, but ultimately I have run out of time. You’ll have to make up your own stories for now from the photos I posted… I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I got here, but am feeling much better after loads of good food, some massage and plenty of sleep. A few personal issues from home also left me quite emotionally drained, and in combination with the hectic travel schedule I was running on empty. This is the first city I’ve spent more than 3 nights in since Indonesia, over 2 months ago!

Tomorrow morning I leave for the Annapurna region of Nepal to attempt the two-week Annapurna Circuit trek, one of the world’s classics and another life-list item for me. I’ve spent my time in Kathmandu quite idly, not doing a single tourist activity. Just talking to locals, soaking in the hectic place, resting up and simply catching my breath.600px-Chaine-annapurna

My dear laptop will be in storage for the next few weeks, so I’ll be offline for a while. Thank you to everyone who has commented and e-mailed me as of late, I really appreciate the support and feedback.