Thursday, September 16, 2004

June 24 - Dartsedo (Kanding) to Trango (Luhuo)

We had another long day ahead of us travelling to Luhuo. I was already tired from the previous day's 8 hour trip, and it looked like we were in for another long day. The plan was to make it all the way to Kandze (Garze,) but the drive was just too long so we stopped in Luhuo.

I was surprised at how cold it was when we got up in the morning. The rain had stopped, the sky was clear and we could see our frosty breath as we waited outside the hotel to find a restaurant for breakfast. We chatted outside the hotel with two other Westerners who were traveling by bus. As it turned out they were two the only a small handful of Westerners that we would see on the entire trip. We found a tiny restaurant and had an excellent breakfast of sweet hot soy milk, sweet egg soup and sweet deep-fried dough (my kind of breakfast.)

As we resumed our trip we began to see the beautiful variety of landscape and architecture that characterizes the Tibetan countryside. the valleys had become wider now and the road almost always followed a river. The mountains, worn with age, were rounded and covered in an emerald green velvet carpet. Summer wildflowers of yellow, red, blue and white shimmered on the lush grass.

In the morning we saw a lot of tall stone houses. They were usually three stories and more or less a square shape with the top being slightly narrower than the bottom. The top floor always had a chunk missing, either on the corner or the middle, giving it a gap toothed look. This open area seemed to give people a place to hang laundry and perform other outdoor tasks. The bottom floor was often the "barn" where animals were kept. In general, these houses were enormous and spread widely apart, housing several generations of family members, .

The construction was of colored stone or brick with colorful window panes (red, yellow and blue) framed by a section of whitewashed brick. The lintels above the windows were painted with beautiful carved geometric designs. After lunch, we saw more houses in a low horizontal ranch-style, often made both of stone and long red painted logs.

As we drove on, the roads began to get rougher and the ride was often quite bumpy, creating a constant need to reposition the luggage in the back. It was constantly bouncing loose and bumping us on the head or landing in the backseat. As the trip progressed we became quite adept at strategically packing so that we had fewer of these problems.

There were often long stretches of road with huge trees on either side whose leafy tops formed long green archways filtering the sun and cooling the air. Depending on the time of day and the altitude we experienced quite remarkable changes in temperature. The morning cold gave way to a beautiful dry heat which gradually cooled again as we ascended to the high mountain passes (sometimes covered in snow.)

It becomes quite difficult to remember which passes we went over on what day. I believe that it was on this day when we ascended one of the more dramatic snow covered ones. The hightest point is always marked by multi-coloured prayer flages. At that spot, we all got out of the car to take pictures and shout "Ki ki, So so, Lha Gyalo" ("Ki ki, So so, Victory to the gods), the traditional cry that is sent up when once reaches the apex of the pass.

Charlene Reader (on the right in this picture) was quickly dubbed "the reference librarian" by the group in our car. She had brought several good guidebooks and maps and was always able to tell us the elevations of the passes we crossed and the towns where we stayed.

In the late afternoon the roads became quite rough (Rinpoche says never to say that a road is "bad" because roads are constructed from the very difficult labor of human hands) and the cold rain began again. It was getting dark by the time we reached Luhuo so we found a somewhat rougher but still decent hotel where we stayed the night. This was the first hotel whose bathrooms only offered squat toilets, but the water was hot so we could have refreshing showers before dropping exhausted into bed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

June 23 - Chengdu to Dartsedo (Kangding)

We spent the morning doing our final shopping and waiting for our land cruisers to arrive. I went out to find a cybercafe to e-mail the article I was writing for the Town Crier newspaper. I wasn't sure when we would next be in a town with e-mail access. As it turns out, the article never got published because while I was in Tibet the newspaper underwent a change of editorship. The new editor was not as interested in the article is the old one was.

It took a bit of hunting to find a cybercafe but when I finally did the proprietor was incredibly friendly and generous. He set me up at the computer and returned a few minutes later with a Coke saying: "I pay, I pay." I gladly accepted it, only to have him return a few minutes later with a similar offer of a couple of free cigarettes (which I declined.) The hour of Internet use combined with a Coke and the potential cigarette offer all ended up costing me a whopping 2 Yuan (somewhere around $.30 Canadian.)

When I returned to the hotel, everyone was waiting and ready to go. We all chose our cars and headed out on the road. The other three group members who ended up in my car were Michele Kuhlmann, Diane Frederick and Charlene Reader. The three of us spent pretty much every day of the next three weeks in that car, and we turned out to make quite a fine team of travelers. Our driver did not speak much English but informed us that his name was Mr. Wong and we all started him on the process of learning our names. He seemed quite affable and the trip got off to a good start.

It didn't take long before we were out of the smoggy city and into the countryside. Rolling hills were graced by corn that was already full grown. Terraced farms were in abundance, making use of every possible square inch of land. Tall thin trees with long trunks and oddly shaped fluffy tufts of leaves at the top dotted the landscape. Some stood straight up and others leaned wildly in all directions. They reminded me of the "Truffula Trees" from a Dr. Seuss story long ago. They turned out to be bamboo.

Within an hour the hills had become steep cliffs, sometimes covered in thick green ferns and sometimes stripped of all vegetation to reveal sheer diagonally etched rock. The valleys between the cliffs began to narrow severely with sides that plummeted precipitously at sharp angles to rushing rivers below. Goats were clinging to the cliffs with such surefootedness that they looked like they had been glued on. This was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" territory and it was stunning.

A little geography lesson is probably in order at this point. If you look at a historical map of Tibet you will see that the Drichu (Yangtze) River runs north and south through the Eastern province of Kham. After the invasion, the Chinese annexed everything to the west of the Drichu as part of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces . Everything to the east of the Drichu is now politically considered to be China and everything to the west is what is known as the "Tibetan Autonomous Region." As a result, one can travel through the vast majority of Kham without needing any special permits other than a regular Chinese visa. It also means that the blend of Chinese and Tibetan cultures is quite pervasive. Our trip from Chengdu to Dartsedo (the red star on the map) took us out of the sub-tropical Shichuanese landscape into the higher and more open valleys typical of Tibet.

We stopped at a little roadside restaurant for lunch. This was the first of many humble establishments with bare floors, rough hewn tables and peeling paint on the walls which were still somehow able to provide amazingly delicious food and embarrassingly low prices. Our group was only going to be eating vegetarian for the first week or so until we adjusted to the local food, altitude and climate. Our drivers, however, were quite used this territory so they ordered fish.

While we were waiting for our food I went off to find the washroom (known everywhere across China as the W.C.) To access it I had to walk through the kitchen. There I found the cook with a big meat cleaver in her hand chasing a shiny gray catfish as it flopped wildly across the floor. I new that it's head was soon to be parted from its body, so I said a quick Phowa prayer for the release of its spirit into a better future life and raced out of the kitchen. I had no desire to witness the imminent slaughter.

As we got back on the road after lunch and began the ascent to our first mountain pass at 2700 meters the scenerybecame even more dramatic. Mr. Wong put on a CD revealing a rather surprising taste in music. He seemed to be a fan of American Muzak. It was all stuff you might expect to hear in any North American elevator and the kind of thing that you don't pay much attention to. But I was diverted from my conversation when the song "Aline," began to play. (Click on the second "Aline" link on the page if you want to hear it, the one by Richard Clayderman. I think this is the very Muzak version that was playing in the car, in fact.)

"Aline" is a 50's era French tear jerker that has been a feature of every sing-along at every family gathering that I have attended since my birth. The lilting rhythm, the typical I-VI-IV-V-I chorus chord structure (hum the base line of "Blue Moon" here and you've got it) and the melodramatic chorus (Et j'ai crié, crié, Aline, pour qu'elle revienne, Et j'ai pleuré, pleuré, oh! j'avais trop de peine) have made it a natural for lusty interpretations sung with varying degrees of seriousness and mockery for well over 40 years.

Happily, it seems that no matter where I go I can't escape my French Canadian heritage. Last year in Nepal it was Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche playing the spoons as I sang "Ah, Si Mon Moine Voulait Danser" at Phakchok Rinpoche's birthday party, this year it came in the form of an unwitting serenade from Mr. Wong's stereo.

Next up wasThe Carpenters' "Yesterday Once More." I could not resist the temptation to join in on: "Every Sha-la-la-la, Every Wo-wo-wo, Still shines/ Every shing-a-ling-a-ling, That they're starting to sing's, So fine." When we got to the part where he's breaking her heart, all four of us were joyfully singing at the top of our lungs to Mr. Wong's great joy. Not to be outdone, he flipped the switch on a little LCD screen that was mounted on the dashboard. Soon we were driving in a mobile karaoke bar. "Careless Whispers" and "I Will Always Love You" were just two of the videos complete with scrolling text that we could sing along to. The combination of this music and the stunning scenery that was rolling past our windows was one of the most delightful experiences of East-meets-West I have ever lived through.

Sometime later in the concert we arrived at the first mountain pass of our trip. The pass at Er Lang is actually a recently built tunnel that cuts through the mountain at the 2700 meter mark. Just before entering the tunnel there is a polished stone marker with a song inscribed on it. The lyrics were in Chinese characters so I don't know what it was about. The music was written in western notation though, so I hummed the mysterious ode before passing through. If any readers of this blog can read Chinese and have good eyes, please let me know what its about.

As soon as we started our descent I became incredibly sleepy and no matter how hard I tried I could not keep my eyes open. This was probably a combination of the altitude and the Diamox which I had begun taking. It was the first of many times when I would feel guilty for dozing off because the stunning scenery was simply not to be missed. At the highest point of the pass we were looking down into the valley as small white clouds stretched out below us like puffy steppingstones to infinity.

The drive turned out to be longer than expected and we didn't arrive at our hotel in Dartsedo (Kangding) until 8 PM. Since this was rainy season the downpour had begun somewhere around 4 p.m. and had not let up. Several sections of road were completely flooded and even the relatively high clearance of our Land Cruisers was not always enough to get us smoothly through. At one point we drove headlong into a submerged rock and the car lurched to a dead stop. We all pitched forward and the luggage came rushing up to meet us from the back, striking us in the head and scattering in the backseat.

Unloading luggage at the hotel was quite an ordeal since earlier in the day it had been thrown randomly into the various vehicles and no one knew exactly where their stuff was. The cold rain came pouring down as we scrambled to find the things we needed and leave what was unnecessary for an overnight stay. The next morning we packed much more strategically to ensure that each person's luggage was in their own car and the smaller overnight bags were easily accessible.

Once we got in the hotel we went through the first of many bargaining sessions to negotiate fair prices for our rooms. As we later found out, our drivers would always rush into to the hotel first, ask the clerk to hike the room rates and give them a cut of the profit. Then our wonderful friend Vivian (a Chinese student and patron of Rinpoche's who lives in Bangkok) would begin the haggling to try to bring the price back down.

Finally all these rituals were complete and we headed to comfortable rooms where we passed our first night in Tibet.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

June 22 - Chengdu

We spent a pretty relaxed day wandering around Chengdu. Breakfast was provided by the hotel (eggs, various vegetables, steamed buns and tea) but no coffee. So several of us made a trip to the McDonald's next-door in order to get our caffeine fix. It seemed a bit shameful to be hitting a McDonald's after less than 24 hours in China, and at home I would normally turn my nose up at their coffee, but this was a life or death situation so we bit the bullet and drank our fill.

If Chengdu had a tourist district we were clearly not staying there. Every other building in this area was either a bank or a show room for high end bathroom fixtures. Judging by the proletarian style concrete apartment blocks that stretched for miles in every direction, the average citizen of Chengdu was not purchasing these showers with multiple heads, Jacuzzis, fancy toilets and bidets. This was confirmed by the virtually empty showrooms. Yet there must have been at least 10 of these places spanning the block where hotel is located.

The department store next to our hotel conveniently sold everything from underwear to digital cameras to groceries. It also had a myriad of employees all standing at attention in their various departments just waiting for shoppers to come and spend. The ratio of clerks to shoppers well surpassed the teacher-student ratio of the average Ontario public school and would make any principal green with envy. I guess in the Communist world people have to be provided with jobs whether there is an actual need for them or not.

The purchasing system also added employees to the payroll. After I decided on the sweater that I wished to buy, the clerk who helped me choose it, filled out a form in triplicate, handed it to me, and pointed to another clerk standing at the counter not far away. I had to present her the slip and pay her. Then she pointed back in the direction of the original clerk indicating that I needed to take one of the three copies back to her. I had to go through this routine with every purchase that I made. It was not possible for example, to buy a sweater, a pair of pants and an umbrella, take all three to the "slip Lady" and pay her for all of them at once. Each item had to be obtained from the clerk working in that section who had to fill out a slip. Then I had to take it to the "Slip Lady." All this regardless of the fact that each of these clerks was within easy spitting distance of one another. They were all friendly, however, and seems to find my confusion over the mysteries of the system quite entertaining.

Walking around Chengdu, I quickly remembered how much I love being in Asia. There is something about the bustle and the energy that makes me feel immediately at home. The city is much cleaner and more orderly than Kathmandu where I spent last spring. There is a sense of prosperity in the air and people are all busy going about their daily work. Again in contrast to Kathmandu there is not a beggar to be found. Unfortunately, however, air pollution is such a problem that there is a heavy veil of smog that hangs over the city at all times. Even the sunny days are gray (I have seen the future of Toronto, if we don't smarten up, and it's not pretty.)

Bicycles are such a predominant fact of life in China that there is a dedicated bike lane next to the sidewalk on every street. This lane has a curb to its left so that cars can not cross into it or park on it (something that would make riding down College St. a much more pleasant experience.) Because of this extra bike lane, crossing the street requires a good deal of vigilance. We had to watch both for oncoming automobile and bicycle traffic, and often found ourselves successfully avoiding one stream only to be caught up in the middle of the other.

All manner of people from young to old could be seen riding just about every kind of bicycle, from little rickety ones to swanky electrified models. Since Chengdu is a relatively rainy place, most bikes have a clever bracket attached to the front handlebars on which an umbrella can be placed. It was very common to see people riding down the road with their umbrellas open to shelter them from the rain.

A large part of the afternoon was spent exchanging money. Khenpo Yeshe Phuntsok, our contact from Kathok monastery, had black-market connections! We were able to get a better exchange rate from him then from the bank. We had to tell him how much money we wanted to exchange, then he made a call to a woman who arrived later at the hotel with a big suitcase full of money. One by one we went into the hotel room where she had set up shop, counted out our Canadian or US currency, and were given our Chinese Yuan.

Since it was unsure that there would be other opportunities for exchanging money during the month of our trip, it seemed like a better idea to exchange everything that would be necessary for the Jeep rental and all the expenses of the trip. At 6.04 Yuan to the Canadian dollar, the $3700.00 that I exchanged netted me a whopping 22,348 Yuan (all in bills no larger than 100's.) You can imagine the size of the resulting stack. Traveling around Tibet with such a huge pile of money in my bags was clearly going to be a challenge.

Shengjong Rinpoche, the head of Kathok monastery, treated us to a sumptuous dinner in a private dining room at our hotel. He himself did not come, but Khenpo Yeshe Phuntsok and another lama came to dine with us. This was the first time that the full group had assembled, and there was lots of talk of the various books that we had read in preparation for the trip, comparisons of the types of clothing and other supplies that we had each brought and the medications and natural remedies that we were carrying. One thing became abundantly evident. Among the 12 of us we had a veritable pharmacopia on which to draw in times of need.

The dinner was comprised of at least 20 different dishes all presented on a huge round table with an enormous glass Lazy-Susan. This was the first of many such amazing Sichuan-style dinners that we would enjoy over the next month. Often on our travels we would eat in small roadside restaurants that were far less fancy, and yet the majority of the time the food was similarly spicy and flavorful, just the way I like it.

Back in my room, ready to retire for the night, I started to get to know Dan Hasse who would be my roommate for the duration of the trip. My first impression of him was that he was a really interesting twentysomething who would prove to be an affable traveling companion. He turned out to be the best one that I have ever had, and this is saying something considering the often close quarters and grueling conditions of our trip.

We went to bed anticipating the beginning of our journey the next day.

Monday, September 13, 2004

June 20-21, Chicago-Beijing-Chengdu

The flight from Chicago to Beijing was easy and uneventful. We arrived in Beijing around 3 p.m. for a 6 p.m. flight. A very helpful airline employee came with the wheelchair for Rinpoche and guided us to a spot in the Airport where we could wait. The flight had been postponed until 9 p.m. and we had to wait until 6 p.m. to check in with our luggage. So we took turns sitting with the luggage while various members of the group looked around, had tea, and so on.

The airline employee came back at 6 p.m. to tell us that our 9 p.m. flight was now canceled. There was a 7:15 p.m. flight on Sichuan Airlines (as opposed to the China Airlines flight we were supposed to take) but we were informed that two of our group would have to sit in the first-class section. We happily agreed to this only to find out that they expected us to pay the difference between economy and first-class prices. No amount of reasoning could convince them that since they were the ones who were canceling and rescheduling our flights they should also pay the difference in price. One of the China Airlines employees even reprimanded me, saying that it was no wonder we were having difficulty with cancellations and so on since we had been foolish enough to buy our tickets so far in advance (April 14.) As far as he was concerned there was no way that an airline could guarantee that a flight whose tickets had been purchased two months previously would actually fly at the stated time. That was only the first example of the many ways that they do things very differently in China than we do in the West.

If we did not agree to pay the difference we would have to wait for an 11 p.m. flight, and we had people waiting for us in Chengdu, so we bit the bullet and all chipped in for the extra $250 that the upgrades cost. Against my protestations I was one of the ones selected to sit in first-class (Rinpoche being the other.) After such a long journey from Toronto I wasn't feeling very good about enjoying the luxury while others had to suffer through economy. I didn't have to worry about that for very long though. First-class on Sichuan Airlines means you get a slightly wider seat and that's about it. I promptly fell asleep and only woke up when we arrived in Chengdu.

As we stood by the luggage carousel in Chengdu we were trying to strategise about how we might get to our hotel. We had arrived later than our Chengdu contacts were expecting us and we weren't entirely sure that they would still be waiting. We had actually gotten one step ahead of the game, because it turned out that one of Rinpoche's bags had not made it onto the plane. Filling out a luggage claim form and communicating the locationour hotel to airline employees who hardly spoke any English took quite a bit of time. While a couple of us were working on this, a couple others worked on getting taxis that could accommodate us and the enormous amount of luggage that we had with us (Rinpoche had brought as many hockey bags full of clothing for his relatives in Riwoche as he possibly could, so we were quite heavily laden.)

We walked out into the parking area of the Airport and were pleasantly surprised to see Khenpo Yeshe Phuntsok (Rinpoche's contact from Kathok monastery) waiting for us with a van and a car. The night time drive into Chengdu gave us our first view of the city. 13 million people live there, and it was all brightly lit with many stores and restaurants still being open in spite of the late hour.

The National Hotel is a very pleasant seventies vintage, clean place to stay. I ended up in a corner room, and my roommate for the trip was not arriving until the next day, so I had lots of space to spread out and get ready for sleep. I was happy to find that there was lots of water pressure in the shower and plenty of hot water. So I felt clean and relaxed when I got into bed and turned out the light for the night.

Back At Last

Hi friends:

It has been a crazy summer. I really wasn't able to post to this blog from Tibet. The e-mail access there is just not fast enough, and also not available enough for regular posting. But I took tons of notes while I was there, and I'm going to start posting them now. Since returning, the summer was still very busy. I spent most of my time organizing His Holiness Phakchok Rinpoche' s Toronto visit, and then working to make sure that it was running smoothly while he was here. Although we didn't have much time to plan, it turned out to be a very good visit with so many people volunteering so much time. His teaching was excellent. And I'm constantly amazed that someone so young can display not only so much knowledge but also so much wisdom when he teaches. When I first became a Buddhist I thought that I would never really buy into the "reincarnation thing." But there are many logical reasons why it makes sense, and then experiencing such a highly evolved person as His Holiness, pretty much seals the deal. We are already starting to work on plans for his visit next year. I'm looking forward to his yearly presence with us here in Toronto. But now back to business. Here comes the travelblog.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi Everyone: This post was actually written on the plane from Chicago to Beijing (June 20). Internet access has been pretty sporadic and I couldn't access the blog for a while. A lot has happened since this post, but it will be a start, anyway:

The frenzy of packing and unpacking, the doubts about what I have brought and what I have left behind, the anxiety about money, medicine and loved ones left behind have now subsided.

As soon as I got to the airport and started the customs/immigration proceedures, the natural rhythm of travelling kicked in and leaving home, I felt at home.

The dynamic polarity of leaving vs. going is fascinating. Leaving is hard. Cutting attachments (even temporarily) is to me always a prefiguring of the final departure (the one requiring no airplane and not touching back down any time soon - at least, not in the same form; the ultimate flight.

Saying good-bye... One more kiss, then one more, then one more... Finally, the final one. "See ya." "See ya." Then out the door. A true preparation for death. Imagine the final "See ya" ever. The ultimate letting go. Then...

But then there's the going part too: New challenges and adventures with fellow travellers. Early intimations of how these disparate personalities will gel and clash in the crucible ahead.

As we took off I said Guru Rinpoche mantras, happily aware of the fact that my own Guru Rinpoche was seated directly behind me. I could hear the clacking of his mala as he recited his own mantras, and remembered that I am truly on a pilgrimage. I'm not sure to where, what or why, but these are all exciting questions to ponder. It makes me wish I had brought Canterbury Tales along with me to have the company of that rag tag band of pilgrims too.

So now the last few days neuroses and anxiety have subsided and the road ahead looks promising, indeed.

Suzanne Chicoine gave me contact information for various publications that might me interested in my travel writing. I only sent my pitch out on Friday afternoon, but I already have one hit.

The Town Crier, Toronto's conglomeration of nine free monthly neighborhood papers wants two stories from me: a before piece explaining who we are and why we are going, and an after piece with tales from the road. Although it won't come close to paying for the trip, I'm excited to be paid for writing for the first time. The first piece should appear sometime around July 7 and the second a month later. I think it will end up on their website a few days later:

My friend John (of the fastest friendship forged in a fortnight fame) and I took this online personality test online based on "The Little Prince" John is a writer of blistering honesty and aching beauty with a love for dependant clauses that can only be described as Neo-Proustian. Although we answered differently, we both came out with the following analysis:

"You are the pilot, and the voice of the story. You are the one who creates and tells the stories for those who could not be there. You are unable to be comforted but wish to comfort others. There is a great something missing in your life. Do not forget that you are much loved. Let your sorrow be comforted..."

It seemed like an apt send off.

So be careful what you wish for, expecially if you wish big, because you may just have to follow through...

Saturday, June 12, 2004

A Monkey in the Buddha's Lap

As a prelude to the journey, I'm posting a story I fashioned out of some of last year's email posts from Nepal (with excellent editorial advice from Glenda M.) I would definitely love to get into the travel writing business. What traveller wouldn't, I suppose. I am fascinated with the way that my mind opens up to new insights as a result of moving my body to new locations. Adding the element of being paid to do it would be perfection itself. Enjoy.

A Monkey in the Buddha's Lap

After six full weeks in the Kathmandu valley I had still not seen a single monkey. Pictures of monkeys scampering through temple courtyards are quite common and I was excited by the prospect of these ancestral clowns as daily companions. What I came to experience was a different story.

Greater Kathmandu has satellite communities on either side, both of which contain large Tibetan expatriate communities. Each of these has an imposing stupa, a round structure representative of the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. The area surrounding the Boudhanath stupa where I was living is relatively flat and largely devoid of trees. The Swayambhunath stupa, on the other side of Kathmandu, is set on a small mountain that rises high above the city and is covered with thick vegetation. So the monkeys were all lodging on the other side of town.

The taxi drive from Boudha to Swayambhu is less than a half hour, so there was no great obstacle to calling on my monkey friends at any time. But life in Boudha got very busy very fast. I was spending my days studying the Tibetan language and the gyaling; an oboe-like shawm played in temples, which requires a circular breathing technique similar to the didgeridoo. My daily lessons and other involvements with new friends in Boudha meant that the trip kept getting put off.

On my final day I took action. Auto-rickshaws and tuktuks belching noxious black smoke, the cacophony of beeping horns and the lazy cows reclining in the middle of major thoroughfares in comically oblivious languor were old hat by now. My mind was fixated on the one thing I had not yet seen.

Upon arrival at the stupa devout pilgrims were already spinning myriad colorful prayer wheels while circumambulating its base. Running, playing, chattering and munching among them were the joyful monkeys I had waited so long to see.

As I began my own ascent up the thousands of narrow stairs to the top of the stupa I passed between two impressively tall Buddha statues, seated in the usual serene cross-legged repose. The devout may consider them objects of veneration, but monkey karma dictates that Buddha statues are equally good for jungle-gym fun. One somewhat quieter monkey was seated happily in the Buddha's lap, eating some grain or seeds, which had fallen into the begging bowl in his upturned hand.

Over the course of six weeks in Nepal I had often felt like those monkeys. My faltering attempts to master the Tibetan language must often have sounded like so much monkey chatter. The frequent squawks I had made in trying to play the gyaling had provided a great deal of comic relief for the monk who was my patient teacher. But through it all there was also the nourishment provided by the loving-kindness and compassion of the Buddha whose philosophy and way of life had started me on this pilgrimage about five years before in a small Toronto temple.

Since Boudha has more temples per square inch than most other places on earth it also has a very large number of Rinpoches. Rinpoche is the Tibetan word for "precious" and is often used as a term of veneration for high lamas who are incarnations of previous great masters. I always think of them as spiritual prodigies. They demonstrate higher than normal spiritual capabilities at a young age, similar to the way that musical or artistic prodigies show early signs of mastery that go far beyond their years. Tibetans have perfected a system for finding these adepts and putting them through rigorous training in order to ensure that their gifts are maximized and put to the greatest possible use for the welfare of human society.

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche gives a dharma talk every Saturday morning to which many westerners come. He usually delivers it in Tibetan through a translator, but often gives illustrations in English. These never fail to be hilarious and filled with jokes and laughter. He loves to make fun of his thick accent and his difficulty with English pronunciation. The word "balloon" which usually comes out "bloon" is a constant feature repeated with much humorous effect. "Peak" and "pick" are also good for lots of fun. When he laughs, he rocks back on his seat, throws his head back and lets go with a high pitched cackle. The whole audience can't help but laugh along.

One evening, Phakchok Rinpoche (Chokyi Nyima's nephew and the head of my lineage) asked me to come and meet the monk who would be my gyaling teacher. The monk, Ngawang Tenpa, was quite late so we talked for a couple of hours and had dinner together.

His father, Chokling Rinpoche came in while we were eating. He is a very large and jolly man. He was still standing at the door when Phakchok Rinpoche told him that I was from Toronto. "Toronto!" he said, with a big smile on his face "Go away, you must have SARS!" Then he jumped back and hid behind the door curtain and kept laughing and peeking out to see if I was still there. Seeing this imposing and important man jumping up and down, laughing and playing a child-like game of peek-a-boo was a wonderful first impression.

All of the lamas I met spoke fluent English, but I lodged with a family who only knew Tibetan. This, I hoped, would accelerate my linguistic progress. Sentence structure proved to be one of the biggest challenges. Since in Tibetan, like in German, the verb comes at the end of the sentence I always found myself getting to my "action words" far too soon. Then I had to back track to insert all the rest of the grammar. I also had to get used to saying things like "a just arrived from India man" instead of "a man who just arrived from India."

My host family took to having me "translate" the BBC news for them every night during supper. I could never give them too much detail, but usually got the gist across. A typical description of a political demonstration would go: "These people like/don't like Saddam Hussein, and are making a lot of noise." It probably helped me practice more than it helped them understand the situation, but we had a lot of fun with it.

Ngawang, my gyaling teacher, decided that he wanted me to teach him some English as well. I would translate phrases from Tibetan into English for him. He doesn't write in English, so he transliterated all of it with Tibetan characters. Then he tried bravely to wrap his tongue around the inscrutable English language (especially those devilish "th" "v" and "f" sounds.)

Since in written Tibetan there is no separation of words, only of syllables, he was left to his own devices as to where one word ended and another began (a similar problem that foreigners have in reading Tibetan.) His attempts would often come out like: "To dayI willgo to themar ketand buy some cheese." Every mistake he made (and there were plenty) was greeted with his own gleeful self-deprecating laughter. I decided he was a good example of the approach I should take to my own Tibetan studies.

I definitely progressed faster at the gyaling than at language. I guess I'm more intuitively a musician than a linguist. Soon enough I found some ease in playing the instrument, and although I still made a few squeaks and squawks I made quick progress. Phakchok Rinpoche would be visiting Toronto at the end of the summer and I hoped to be good enough to play during his stay at our temple.

As the weeks went by I was asked to play at three different pujas. The first was the monthly "Dakini Tsok" which takes place on the twenty-fifth day of the Tibetan lunar month. The gyaling is always played in pairs with one player being the leader, determining the tunes, and so forth. So I played "second" for that puja. I was a bit nervous at first, but the monk and I had already been friends for some time so the atmosphere was comfortable and I soon relaxed.

The next was a feast offering on the solar eclipse day that took place during my stay. Phakchok Rinpoche and about twelve lamas and monks came. Rinpoche said I should try playing, and after it was over he said he was very pleased with my progress. I was even more nervous at that Tsok because of all the lamas, and a different playing partner, but he was also very easygoing, so stress was kept to a minimum.

The following day was the first of two days of funeral pujas for a monk who died while in retreat. There wasn't much playing to be done, but Ngawang Tenpa and I played together. The gyalings that they had in the funeral shrine room were old and hard to play, so I was happy when the next day at the cremation I was relieved of my duties. There were twenty lamas and monks in attendance and many better-qualified players than I.

The funeral puja took place in an "outdoor building" (roofed, but not entirely enclosed by walls.) The monks sat on marble benches, which protruded from the walls. The shrouded body was brought from a cold room where it had been kept on ice and was put on a funeral pyre. The pyre was in another roofless area separated by a short wall, so we couldn't actually see the body burn.

Amidst much chanting and playing of drums, cymbals, bells and gyaling, the pyre was lit. Many different types of offerings (everything from soy bean oil to sticks of bamboo, tall dried grass and strips of cut up cloth with mantras printed on them) were prayed over and then added to the fire. The whole range of offerings was repeated until the body was entirely burnt up. It took about four or five hours in all.

After it was finished I went to see what remained of the body. A light breeze was blowing and ashes from the unbelievably small pile of grey dust were already being picked up and showering the earth from which they had come.

Music was a theme at more lighthearted occasions, as well. One spring day I was invited to Phakchok Rinpoche's birthday party. It took place on the lawn of a large and lovely apartment building owned by his father, Chokling Rinpoche. A beautiful, large tent with colorful Tibetan designs was set up, and a sumptuous buffet was served by an attentive staff dressed in crisp white uniforms standing behind tables covered in starched linen on which delicious food steamed from gleaming silver platters. Chokling Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Dechen Paldron (Phakchok Rinpoche's ever elegant mother) and many important lamas and monks were in attendance, as well as a large group of western students and supporters.

After dinner Chokling Rinpoche summoned me to his side. In a very loud voice for all to hear, he said: "Sing us a song." I guess Phakchok Rinpoche had told him that I was a musician. I was a bit taken off guard by the command for a performance, but when a Rinpoche says, "Sing" you sing!

There is a song that we sometimes sing at the Riwoche Temple in Toronto on special occasions. It is a hymn of praise to Padmasambhava, the tantric master who brought Buddhism to Tibet. It seemed appropriate, so I launched into this rather slow and lilting devotional song.

They listened respectfully but as I headed back to my seat Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche cried: "Sing another one. This time not so slow!" To which Chokling Rinpoche added: "Rock and Roll!" Chokyi Nyima said he wanted to hear a Canadian song, and suddenly, "Ah, si mon moine voulait danser" (Oh, if my monk would only dance) came into my head. Given the number of monks in attendance it seemed appropriate enough.

As I sang Chokyi Nyima began to bang his spoons in rhythm on the table. I don't think he had any idea that French Canadians play the spoons when these types of songs are being sung, but it was a perfect moment of cross-cultural symbiosis. They continued asking for more songs and I had to perform five in all before the "concert" was finished.

When I started the third song, Chokling Rinpoche decided it would be fun to sing along, so he jokingly imitated what I had just sung a few seconds in delay. For the fourth song Chokyi Nyima joined in and we sang a very cacophonous trio. Everybody was rolling with laughter seeing their revered lamas being so spontaneously silly, and although I wasn't sure exactly whether I was playing the role of singer, or court jester, I was happy to facilitate the levity.

Finally they requested O Canada, which felt a bit strange to sing by myself in that setting. I was pleased when about half way through Chokling Rinpoche raised his hand and cut me off, saying: "Okay that's enough." and the concert came to an abrupt end.

Good lamas have the ability to help us not take ourselves too seriously by over-identifying with our feelings and experiences. Often they do this by keeping us just a little off balance, so that hopefully, we can get a glimpse into the impermanent and ever shifting nature of human self-identity. This experience certainly had that effect on me. It also gave me quite a bit of notoriety around town. For the rest of my stay I would bump into monks on the street who would point at me and say: "You're the one who sang at Rinpoche's birthday." Then they would launch into their comical version of western singing. There was lots of laughter and friendly backslapping for weeks to come.

It is said that monkeys who spend their lives around sacred places are very fortunate. They are living out a karmic connection, which will result in better rebirths culminating in final enlightenment. Maybe I was once a temple monkey and am now just a little further down the path to ultimate realization.

Since returning to my temple in Toronto, and to Sonam Rinpoche, the perfect lama who guides it, I have proudly played the gyaling in the ceremonial processions and rituals for Phakchok Rinpoche's visit. I have also been asked to sing twice more for lamas here in the west. My lama has started to help me with my Tibetan studies, and I have begun to teach the gyaling to other temple members. Next summer Rinpoche wants to take a trip to Tibet. I will gladly go along, meet more masters, visit more temples, and lap up whatever I can from the Buddha's begging bowl.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Shaw Festival Programme Shot Posted by Hello

Nine Days to Go!

Since last year's emails from Nepal were such a hit, I decided to try the blog format for missives from Tibet. I'm not sure how often I'll have email access, since we will be in a lot of remote places, but whenever I get to a spot with a cybercafe, I'll post. Apparently there's a way to do telephone posts too as sound files. If I figure that out, and it doesn't cost a million dollars I might try that too.

Off to shop for necessities. More ruminations later.