Free Tibet (PART 1)

This month I am taking a break from blogging about environmental issues as I wanted to share with you one of my travel writing and photography pieces. ‘Free Tibet – An Epic Journey Through the Wilderness of a Woman’s Heart’ was written the year after I returned from Tibet and Nepal, and contains material taken from journal extracts during my travels. Although the story reflects the events in my life at the time and the journey was a powerfully cathartic one; in the light of recent developments in my life, it now seems strangely prophetic. I started this blog to share my experiences as an Environmental Warrior, but also as a platform for my environmental activism and art and writing projects. I have been interested in Tibetan Buddhism for many years, was active in the Free Tibet movement for many years and have done some preliminary research into Tibet’s crucial role in the global environment and climate. This piece is an introduction of my love for this beautiful country, its culture, its environment and its people.

For me, Tibet is a process, a powerful, cathartic voyage of truth and self-discovery. I am lost, empty and disconnected from my heart. I come to one of the most spiritual places in the world to find myself again. I am searching for clarity, for a sense of meaning and purpose to my life. I know I will have a profound inner experience. I feel at peace, with myself and with my decision to come here, to Tibet, to the roof of the world.

My journey begins in Nepal. As the aeroplane descends into Kathmandu and the clouds part, I can see lush green fields of rice, perfectly formed layers cut into the earth like steps. Tiny houses dot the landscape, perched precariously atop tall, straight mountains. There is a sense of simplicity and order amidst the poverty. The Nepalese walk barefoot along dusty roads, while beggars and scrawny ducks scrabble around in the dirt for food. My taxi is slowed by an old cow wandering aimlessly down the middle of the street. I arrive at the hotel, where my Tibetan guide Pema is waiting for me.

Pema and I make plans to meet later for dinner, so I retreat to my room to relax and prepare. After waking from a restful sleep, I meditate to stay centred and begin writing in my travel journal. I leave my hotel and walk to the centre of Kathmandu, feeling calm and at peace, but Thamel market is noisy, distracting me from my silent reverie. I try to remain detached from my environment, but the hot, humid sun beats down on me relentlessly.

I walk slowly down alleyways and back streets, unaware of what treasures may be hidden there. The rich, warm colours of a handmade Tibetan rug catch my eye, the abstract shapes of primitive animals woven from threads of blues, ochres and reds. The pattern reminds me of a beloved fictional character and heroine from childhood – Ayla of the Mamutoi – from the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. For a long while I sit and watch artists paint traditional Tibetan thangkas, using colours mixed from the natural pigments of the earth.

I see a young woman and am drawn to her grace and the way she carries herself. She seems at home here, so comfortable experiencing a culture very different from her own. I realise she is a part of me I am unable to express, lying dormant within me, hidden so deeply I must be reminded by someone outside of myself before I can recognise her in my own heart. I make a promise to honour her presence in my life.

I climb the steep mountain to Swayambhunath Stupa, an isolated temple high above the Kathmandu Valley, where rows of butter lamps burn inside temples and ragged monkeys fight each other over wedges of watermelon, spitting out the small black seeds as they bite into the soft, red, watery flesh. I watch a group of young Nepalese boys playing an animated game of chess, their excited voices tumbling over one another. I cannot understand what they are saying, but I sense their competitive spirit as they urge each other on.

An old Tibetan woman is combing her long black hair. Her wrinkled face and weathered hands betray her age, yet she is still beautiful. She mutters incoherently to herself and I am told she is remembering how her life in old Tibet was changed forever when her country was invaded and she and her family lost their freedom, and almost their lives. Here in this haven, far from home, all she has left are the memories of her life before the Chinese.

The people are isolated here, in their thriving community, but the writing is on the wall, a message scratched in charcoal upon the stone temple, a line borrowed from a song made famous in popular music: “Mother, should I trust the government?” Should I trust my inner wisdom, or something outside of myself? I am faced with the same decision in my life. Do I trust my intuition or the words of a man whose lies are disguised as love?

It is early morning when I leave Nepal and it will be another three hours before I reach Tibet. Flying over the Tibetan plateau, over lakes so blue they merge with the sky, I am humbled. The Himalayas come into view, eight hundred kilometres of earth and snow, stretching on forever. Their massive peaks emerge above thick cloud cover. I am so overwhelmed with emotion I cannot stop my tears from falling. I step off the plane and my heart starts pounding, not from the lack of oxygen, but from the realisation I am standing on Tibetan soil.

Driving through the Yarlung Valley, I notice many small farming structures made from clay bricks. The Tibetans are forced to build houses for the Chinese that will eventually drive them away, out of their own country. Dry, desert sands sweep across the land in waves. A cart drives slowly by, the Tibetans on board grinning widely, waving as they pass. Tsetang, the birthplace of Tibetan culture, is now a modern Chinese city. I cannot see anything that even vaguely resembles the past. There is nothing left of the old town. I am disillusioned. This is not the Tibet I had pictured in my mind.

I head towards Yumbulakhang Monastery, through a land so beautiful, it takes my breath away. I have this incredible feeling I have been here before, in some other time. I am drawn on a deep primal level to the mountains and feel a connection to the Tibetan people I cannot adequately describe. I cannot take my eyes away from their faces. I am fascinated by the distinct angles of their flattened faces and the underlying bony structures, and I wonder what life experiences created the lines and crevices on their faces. I sense a familiarity in their gentle eyes and dancing smiles. Even amidst the poverty and oppression, their spirit shines through. I want to talk to them, hear their stories and know what they have seen and experienced in their lives. I want to capture their histories photographically, to document their lives, and their stories.

Climbing the steep steps to the monastery is tiring at high altitude. A fierce dust storm blows in and I nearly lose my balance. Inside, the old monks are praying and chanting, amid beautiful ornate scriptures and golden Buddhas, thousands of years old. Outside, I spin the prayer wheels absentmindedly. Sitting cross-legged on the stone monastery walls, overlooking fields of green, I contemplate my life. At the base of the mountain, I meet two young Tibetan girls, all smiles, giggles and pink clothes. They stare at me, fascinated by my height and the colour of my skin. I photograph a scene reminiscent of a favourite Georgia O’Keeffe painting. An old yak decorated with colourful tassels and rich brocades is being paraded around by a proud Tibetan elder. I learn the yaks are revered as a source of life by the Tibetan people.

White stone chortens are nestled inside rocky crevices in the mountains and stone stupas line the roadsides. I learn the form of the stupa is derived from the shape of the leaf of the sacred banyan tree. I experience a slow, gradual acclimatisation. The dirt roads are bumpy and dust flies in all directions. I pass holy mountains; Buddhas carved into rock faces and huge billboards advertising modern conveniences, the slogans written in giant Chinese characters blocking uninterrupted views of the Himalayas. I am deeply disturbed by this.

Samye Monastery bustles with activity. I walk among the ruins and watch the pilgrims praying. Trucks piled high with passengers head out on the long road to Lhasa. I hitch a ride on the local bus to the Brahmaputra River. The Tibetans hang their bodies out the windows, laughing and shouting as the driver tries to dodge the potholes and rocks strewn across the road.

At the river’s edge, I board a motorised wooden rowboat. Two pilgrim women take their seats, in traditional Tibetan costume. Their tanned, weathered faces are captivating, and I gesture with my camera, seeking permission to take their photograph. One of them is shy and avoids my glances and the camera lens, while the other one is curious and inquisitive and laughs at her attempts to hide her face. There is a panorama of snow-capped peaks in the distance.

The boat reaches land and I embark, and then continue my journey through sacred land toward the holy Tibetan city of Lhasa. I am fascinated by sky burials and scan the surrounding mountains, hoping to see one of these sacred ceremonies in progress. I know it is disrespectful of me to want to witness this private ritual so I try not to look, as though my uninvited presence may be sensed in some way.

The ruins of Drepung Monastery are cut into the side of a mountain. The stone entrances are so low I must stoop to pass beneath them. Tibetan prayers are etched in bright colours on boulders. A lone monk takes a long flight of stone steps to the top. I stop to photograph his ascent and I realise that life is hard here in Tibet, where an ancient culture is fading fast. Old monks meditate in small rooms, while tiny blue and golden Buddha statues line up inside assembly halls. I am fascinated by doorways and photograph every one I see, symbolising my need to go through a doorway in my mind.


Words © 2005 Environmental Warrior
Images © 2004 Environmental Warrior

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