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That Day in Tibet

I recently “discovered” Instagram. Oh I had heard about it before, some of my friends had told me how cool it was but I chalked it up to yet another in the endless cycle of social media apps that I just didn’t have the time to keep up with. All of the apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest require time and effort, and I have a hard enough time organizing my day sometimes to keep up.

But I decided to give Instagram a chance and in order to participate I decided to look back at some of my trips. So I am going through my trips and uploading a favourite picture each Wednesday. I decided to start with the trip I talk about most, my trip in August 2010 to India, Nepal and Tibet.

I had wanted to go to Tibet ever since I was very young. I can’t remember exactly where I got the idea but I do know that one very major appeal was that it was remote, exotic, and unique. So after years of thinking about it, in 2010 I finally decided to go.

After a little research into that area of the world I found that the easiest way to get a visa was to join a tour who would do the paperwork for you. Due to the sensitive nature of the area the Chinese government is hesitant to issue personal visas, so group visas are the way to go. The British company Explore was selected and a trip to India, Nepal and Tibet was on. Group trips are usually not how I choose to travel as I worry that they would be too restrictive but other than the logistical issues I am very happy that we went with Explore at this time.

The mix of people my sister (she wouldn’t let me go alone) and I met on this trip were amazing. As a group we were looking to do more than just look around, we were there to experience these areas of the world. In particular we wanted to interact with our environment and the people we met. It wasn’t a consious choice, it was just the unique mix of individuals on the tour. The advertised scheduled tour was a mix of hiking and driving over 21 days between Lhasa, Tibet and Kathmandu, Nepal.

When hiking over mountain passes sometimes you have to make your own trail. Amazingly this pic does not show how steep this actually is!

The trip was amazing but nothing can beat that day in Tibet. It started like many had already. We had camped in a rocky field on the edge of little village between two mountain passes, one of which we had hiked over the day before and the other we would hike over that day. We were in good spirits, the afternoon before we had taught a village worth of children how to throw a frisbee using a paint can lid. That morning we were hoping to say goodbye to the kids but unfortunately they were no where to be seen. The plan for the day was to hike over the second mountain pass and down into a monestary where we would be sleeping that night.

I love mountains and believe that hiking in them is the best way to understand what they are all about. Hiking in Tibet is a mixture of loose rocks, amazing sights and dealing with exhaustion caused by elevations over 3800 meters above sea level. By about 10 am we were all packed up and headed out of town and began the steady climb to the top of the pass. Any progress where you have to gain elevation in Tibet is slow and even though the top of the pass wasn’t really that far away we took well over 2 hours to get there. The group consensus was that the top of the pass was the best place for lunch but as we were hiking darker clouds had gathered.

The rain started slowly at first cutting our lunch short. As we headed down the dusty slope it got worse and the normally dusty tracks began to become muddy rivers. The further down we went the more the runnoff concentrated causing the last section of the decent to the monestary to become a hectic race against time to get to relative safety against being washed away.

We made it to the monestary in what seemed to be just in time. Our guides took us through a mysterious door and straight to a room where benches ringed the edges. This was to be our room for the night so we took our chance to stake our claim to a portion of a bench and dry ourselves out.

We were mostly dry when our guides came into the room to let us know that if we wanted to see chanting monks on this trip this would be our only chance, so wet or not we all headed up the hill. As we were about to enter the temple a couple of us donated so that we could take pictures, a difficult task as no flash is alowed and it is very dark. Without a tripod good pictures are next to impossible.

Walking around the edge of the room in a clockwise direction (the manditory route) the seriousness of the monks was apparent. Chanting never stopped, as if even breathing was not allowed. Every monk was at a different place in the prayer so even if I could have spoken the language I am sure I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what they were saying. It was exciting and strangely calm all at the same time.

The monks ranged in age from very old to quite young. As we walked around the temple many of them started to make eye contact with us. It seemed to be something that would have been forbidden as their glances away from the prayer cards were quick and they never stopped chanting. As we stayed longer the glances were accompanied with smiles.

Monks outside the door to our room.

After our circuit around the temple we headed back down the hill to our room. We thought that was going to be it for the day but a few hours later the roles were reversed. On their dinner break the monks skipped eating to come down and visit us. Being surrounded by over a hundred monks, none of whom speak english was a little odd. We were at a little bit of a loss but luckily Chris was there. Chris had a way of making things happen and it was his idea to create challenges. He gathered a few rocks, made a pile and then proceeded to throw pebbles at it to see if he could knock them over. After a few throws we started handing out pebbles to any monk who was near to see who had the best aim. I can’t remember for sure but I think it was one of the monks who was able to knock it over first. What proceeded was a series of strength challenges from arm wrestling to an odd finger wrestling match and a game of what is the largest boulder you can lift.

What do monks do to keep strong? Lift the closest boulder… they are everywhere!

While some of us were proving how strong we were out came the phrasebooks. We started to try and practice our Tibetian which was semi successful and it was at that time that the one young monk with some english was shoved towards us. As it turns out the sum total of his knowledge consisted of WWE wrestlers names.

After about an hour of this and without warning one of the older monks determined that the fun was over. I didn’t hear him speak but every monk just took their chance to smile and wave and they were off within a moments notice and that was it. They were back on the clock for chanting after their dinner break.

It is now about seven and a half year on from that and I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Looking through the pictures in order to pick the best ones is very hard as amazingly I don’t have a ton of high quality ones. Being in the middle of a mass of red robed monks makes it hard to step back and photograph the event but I am glad that I didn’t. I think that if I had a lot of really good pictures I would probably have not been a part of the event…. and that is what I really love about that day in Tibet.

Some of the monks even came into our room and checked out our stuff…. they were hilarious!

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