A Travellerspoint blog

I Never Saw the Milky Way

The first week of September, Doris and I were asked to take part in the making of a tv movie about Mt. Everest. The people in charge of recruiting foreign cast members for the film had approached us nearly a month before, and we were able to set our wage for the film. We were told that we would be taken to Everest Base Camp, and would be filming there for a day and then returning home. The night before we were supposed to leave in August, Doris got a call saying that, due to some problems, there would be a delay, but they would let us know when they needed us.

About a month later, Doris got a call at 10:30 pm saying we would need to be at the hotel where the film cast and crew were staying, that night and we would be leaving early the next day. I was at a nangma with some of the new students (more on them later) and didn't make it home until after midnight, at which time I had to quickly pack what I would need for the weekend at Base Camp. I was tired, but excited. I had never been to base camp and could not afford to go on my own. The rules here require that foreigners hire a car, driver and guide, and have proper permits to travel to Base Camp, and then there is also the ticket that has to be purchased and accommodations.

Anyway, we arrived at the hotel, which was clear across town and seemed a little sketch to us. At the reception desk, we spoke with the "English-speaking" receptionist, who kept asking us which travel agency we were with. We kept telling her we were with the movie people. Finally, she said she understood and knew who to contact, so she called someone, woke him up, and told him, in Chinese, that his two foreign female friends were here to see him. I was laughing to myself, and she was a bit embarrassed when she was told he had no idea who she was talking about. Finally, she figured it out and took us to the other building where we ran into the Tibetan guy who had been translating for us with the Chinese movie people. He took us to the room that had been set aside for us, and to our surprise, was actually quite nice. The bathroom was larger than my bedroom, about the size of my bedroom and kitchen put together.

We woke up at 5:30am to shower and get ready. We were supposed to leave at 6:30am and were ready to go on time, sitting on the bus where the young Chinese guy in charge of us put us. We were quite surprised to learn that the entire cast was Tibetan, the crew was Chinese, the script was printed in Chinese characters, but the dialogue was all performed in Tibetan. As it was, by the time everyone was on the bus and it was all packed, it was after 7am. We got on the road. The trip to Base Camp is quite a long one, and the plan was to make it to Base Camp, film, and return on Sunday.

Not to long into the trip, we stopped, the guys got off to relieve themselves while all the women waited on the bus, then we started again. In our convoy, there was the bus, a minivan, and an SUV. A bit outside of Lhasa, they passed around cookies and milk...our breakfast. I wasn't too thrilled about eating cookies that early in the morning and Chinese milk and I don't agree if we have to meet directly one-on-one. Doris and I spent most of the next couple hours sleeping.

We went up the Kambala Pass, which leads to Yamdroktso, a very large and beautiful lake. We drove around the lake and on the other side, reached a fork in the road. One fork leads toward Everest, the other leads toward another city to the South. This is the fork we took. It crossed over a tiny bit of the lake and was bumpier than any amusement park ride I have ever been on. A couple of times I was sure the bus was going to fall over, the ruts were that deep.

However, we made it safely across and continued, but not to Base Camp. About five hours after leaving Lhasa (and as many stops for guys to pee,) we almost reached our destination. The road we were on was being paved, with the pavers working their way towards us, and the road past them covered in hot asphalt. There was no option but to climb over the base of the mountains next to the road to reach the camp set up for making the movie.

Now, I've been living in Lhasa for a year, so I'm reasonably used to the altitude and I'd never experienced altitude sickness...until that day. The climbing was actually quite easy compared to how it has been in the past. I've gotten in much better shape since I arrived. However, the combination of the climbing and then staying at over 5000 meters (16500 ft) led to some altitude sickness for me. I didn't think much about it at first and honestly it wasn't so bad. By the end of the day though, I had a pounding headache and was close to vomiting, but didn't.

Anyway, when we reached the little camp, we found that lunch was waiting for us, in the form of a freshly killed sheep that had been simply boiled in an enormous pot. The sheep had been purchased from the nomads that live in this small, beautiful place at the foot of a glacier, and killed by the young men from the Lhasa hiking school, who were also serving as kitchen workers, extras, and general go-fers. The sheep, because it was freshly killed, and had eaten wild grasses and flowers, tasted quite mild compared to other mutton I had eaten in the past. However, mutton is not my meat of choice, nor is it Doris'. A short while later, one of the actors, a middle aged man, offered us tsampa that had been given by the nomads. He explained that tsampa is never purchased among Tibetans, but is freely given, and the receiver may give something in return, but it is not a business transaction. This tsampa was very nice and I was given a lot of it to eat.

After lunch, the crew set up and they started filming parts of the movie. Doris and I were left to our own devices. We spent the afternoon sleeping in an extra tent, wearing our heavy clothes and makeup which had been done by the makeup artists for the film. As evening approached, we were awakened and told to go down to the river where filming was taking place. We went down where it immediately started hailing, then raining. It was frigid.

While they decided what to do with Doris and myself, we stood there waiting, and chatting with one of the actresses, with whom Doris had dialogue. Eventually, the three of us ended up sitting together inside one of the tents for nearly an hour, until they determined that their generator was broken, and with no electricity, could not continue filming that evening.

It was nearly full dark by this time, and we made our way back to the kitchen tent, after I had rather ungracefully fallen into the river trying to jump across. We sat for a while in the warm tent, then went outside to wait for the bus which could now come directly to us. It was then that I saw the Milky Way for the first time.

The band of stars stretched across the sky in a shimmering ribbon that one could almost reach out and touch. The nomads who see this phenomenon every night are indeed lucky.

Honestly, I would have enjoyed the experience more if I had not been suffering a bit from the altitude. As it was, it was a moving experience. The altitude sickness however, caused the young man in charge of us to panic a little. He kept trying to force oxygen on me, and I kept insisting I did not need any. He popped up a little later with some Chinese medicine for headache, which I took. Later, while we were still waiting for the bus, the Tibetan actors also showed their concern and one of the actresses provided me with some rhodiola pills. Rhodiola is an herb which grows here and Tibetans use it to help with adjusting to altitude. It is available here in the form of pills and teas, which are quite tasty.

Finally the bus arrived and we made our way through the pitch black night, the path lit only by a couple of cell phones. I nearly took a fall slipping in some relatively fresh yak dung on the side of a hill. Luckily, I caught myself. Once we were on the bus, we were in for nearly an hour's ride back to a small town we had passed on the way. Once there, it was almost midnight. We went to a small Chinese restaurant where we all ate together. While we waited for food, we were all given something to drink which we were told would keep us from getting colds. It was Coke, they said, boiled with medicine. The medicine turned out to be just ginger. Let me say that it is one drink that I will be happy to never have again once I am back in the States--boiled Coke with ginger. It is amazing what people in other countries do with Coke.

Eventually, we made it to our hotel, about 1am. Doris and I shared a room with the two actresses and quickly settled down, since we had to be back on the bus around 7am.

Morning came early and we went back to the camp, where breakfast consisted of our choice of bread and Chinese sausage, instant noodles, and coffee or tea. Doris' scene was the first to be filmed that morning. After, we went back to the warmth of the kitchen tent. A few minutes later, I was called and told to go down to the river. I was to be an extra from Base Camp. The plot of my scene was that the main characters, who had been lost on the mountain, were spotted and I and the boys from the hiking school, were to be rescuers and help them down the mountain.

To this end, we were set to run across the camp. So, we ran, first in one direction, then in another, then in a third. Then, once the proper angle was established, we ran across the camp a couple of times until the director was satisfied. Once that was finished, we moved to the base of the mountain, where two of the actors had already climbed halfway up. The camera was set at the base and the boys and I climbed partway up and waited for the order. Because we were the rescuers, we were to run up the mountain to the actors...that's right...run.

So, we stood there, waiting to hear the order to run from the megaphone. It was barely audible, but we did indeed hear it, and ran, up the mountain. The first two takes I was able to keep up with the boys. The third take, I was a bit behind, and by the fourth, I had to simply stop. There was not an ounce of oxygen left in my body and my legs refused to move another inch.

That was the final take for us. I collapsed on the side of the mountain, too exhausted to move. One of the boys laughingly offered me the oxygen pillow, which I gaspingly refused.

After they shot another scene, we broke for lunch, which consisted of more freshly killed sheep, and instant noodles, or boiled eggs and bread or any combination of the above. Doris and I were told we would not be needed for anything else and just to relax and rest. The rest of the team moved up to the edge of the glacier to film the final scenes of the movie.

Several hours later, it was freezing and raining and Doris and I were bored. So, we got the bus driver to let us on to the bus where we played cards until they were finished on the glacier. Then, we thought we were going back to Lhasa, but there was some final filming that had to happen. It wasn't until 8pm that we started back to Lhasa. I slept most of the way back, mostly because I didn't want to watch the driving, especially across the pass.

When we arrived back in Lhasa, the bus stopped for everyone to eat. Doris and I stayed on the bus, resting and not wanting to eat at the particular restaurant chosen. The young man in charge of us came back on the bus with our pay. We expected to be paid for only one day, but instead were paid for two.

After everyone finished eating and was back on the bus, we all went back to the original hotel in Lhasa, where Doris and I were given a ride back to university, where we arrived filthy and exhausted. While it was definitely a worthwhile experience, I'm not sure that I would do it again. I suppose that qualifies as my fifteen minutes of fame, huh? I can't help but hope that they cut out my scenes. I don't know how I feel about 1.2 billion people seeing me run on television...

Posted by michab3 01:12 Comments (0)

Another School Year Begins...

Well, this site has been firewalled for a while, and unfortunately, doesn't load so well through a proxy server. Since I am writing now, it is obviously out from behind the firewall. Every day provides new firewall adventures, here.

This summer has been pretty busy. Some friends of mine came to Tibet for part of the summer, for various reasons. One was doing research, and two others were here on their honeymoon (congratulations, again!) I spent the month of July hanging out with my wonderful friends. It was the next best thing to going home for vacation.

The school year has started again. Right now, there are three old student, me, Doris, and Joe. Two new students have already arrived, a woman from Brazil and a young man from Switzerland. The rest of the students won't be arriving for another week or so. As a result, we are having classes that are about whatever topics we want. This week, we had one lesson about playing traditional Tibetan dice games (to be continued next week), one about modern literature (also to be continued), and a lesson in astrology. Next week, we are going to continue those three topics and have a class of Tibetan cursive.

I'm excited about the new students coming. There are supposed to be 24 altogether. I'm sure there will be some fun ones in the group. Nearly everyone was gone all summer. Most students left either right before the semester ended or soon after. Doris went to Switzerland, Joe was in the States, and then Achana went traveling. It was quiet in the dorm--still is.

I've been spending a lot of time out. I've met a lot of new people lately, Tibetans, admittedly mostly guys and mostly in drinking establishments. There is one really nice, cozy place Doris and I have been going to. It is basically frequented only by Tibetans and usually by the same ones. It is good practice, both for language and singing. The guys there like to play guitar and sing a lot. I don't know many Tibetan songs, and due to a lack of lyric availablity, can sing even fewer, but it is nice, just the same. A couple of nights ago, I was there, and one guy came over and asked if I remembered him. I said no, and he was disappointed. Apparently, we danced together on New Year's Eve at Tang Club. I apologized, but seriously, when you meet a big group of people and dance with them, eight or nine months ago, it is tough to remember one person. Of course he remembered me, because there aren't many foreigners in town. I promised not to forget him, again.

On kind of a sad note, my computer has crashed. I am waiting on my XP setup disks to see if I can save my computer. I'm not so sure that I can, but I'm going to keep my fingers crossed. It's been three weeks already since it went down. Right now, I am borrowing a friend's computer.

On a happier note, I am working with a friend to set up a business or project putting Tibetan music on the internet, probably for download. I'm not sure when things will be completed for this, but it is in process. Stay tuned for more information on that.

It's been really cold here lately. I know it is September, but it's jacket weather already, and I'm thinking about breaking out my space heater. Lots of rain here as well, nearly every day we have some rain or drizzle.

I heard that there are racquetball courts in Lhasa. I'm going to make a little field trip with the new students to the cheese factory and the hotel that supposedly has the courts is on the way. If there are, I'm going to be ecstatic and I will even have someone to play with. Doris' Swiss-Tibetan friend plays squash, which is similar, so he said anytime I want to play, give him a call.

I guess that's about it for the moment. I'll work on staying up to date, now that the page doesn't seem to be firewalled anymore.

Posted by michab3 20:09 Comments (0)

Tshurpu

Things have been a bit hectic lately. Between class, helping people leave and friends being in town, it's been a long couple of weeks.

First, the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect, recently had a birthday. Some friends and I went to his monastic seat, where he currently isn't sitting because he lives in India. The monastery, Tshurpu, was built in the 12th century and is quite lovely, nestled among verdant green mountains. It's about a two and a half hour bus ride from Lhasa. My friends and I were packed onto a bus of Tibetans, who were thrilled that we were students and going to visit the Karmapa's monastery on his birthday.

When we arrived, we first drank some tea and ate breakfast, since we had left Lhasa at 6:30 in the morning. Then, we began our tour of the monastery. At the entrance to the main temple, we had to argue with the man selling tickets. As students here, we try to pay tourist fees as infrequently as possible. Finally, at the urging of a monk from Tshurpu, the old man let us pass, and since we usually make offerings to the various deities in the temples, fees are a moot point anyway.

Inside the temple, the monks were chanting. We began our circumambulation by making change from one of the many offering plates. Then, the others offered butter. While three of us were waiting, a fourth was speaking with one of the monks. She then came over to us and gestured for us to come back. When we did, we received blessings from the most important statue in temple. The monk lifted it, and as we bowed our heads, and made a prayer, he touched it to the tops of our heads, while reciting a prayer, himself. He told us that the prayer or aspiration we had made would come true.

We continued our pilgrimage, making our way upstairs to the various temples there, and finally into the apartment of the Karmapa, himself. There, we received katas from the monk stationed in the room. Others have seen the Karmapa's legos and comic books, but I confess I was not looking for them, and didn't see them.

After we had seen all the temples at Tshurpu, we went down to the river for a picnic, which seems to be only a verb in Tibetan, linka dang (linka, by itself, means "park"). Others from our bus were already at the river, sitting on blankets, drinking tea and eating. We tried to find a nice place by the river, but it was a little difficult because much of the river bank was swampy...as I found out. I was standing by some rocks, turned to follow my friends, and found myself calf deep in mud. Luckily, I did not lose a shoe or get sucked under, but the mud stank of cow and/or yak poo, as both were present by the river. It did provide a wonderful opportunity for me to wade in the river, which was cool and relatively clean. We sat by the river until the bus was ready to leave. This is a very common Tibetan custom. Tibetans love to picnic and to take their time about it. They will sit and drink and eat for hours, napping in between meals.

While we were sitting by the river, we were facing a green mountain, which seemed to be home to quite a number of vultures. They would fly by five or six at a time. We counted more than twenty vultures while we were resting.

On the return trip to Lhasa, we stopped by a creek, believed to have been blessed by the third Karmapa. Everyone got off the bus so they could wash their faces and drink from the stream. The emptied out thermoses and water bottles so they could fill them with this blessed water. Even the dogs got a sip and a dip.

Then, we visited Nenung Monastery, a very small monastery way up on the side of a mountain. When I say it was on the side, I mean it. The drive up scared me. I was the only person on the bus who feared for her life. The Tibetans thought it was hysterical that I was afraid, but imagine being on a bus, the road is no wider than the vehicle, the turns are sharp, and the incline is steep. At one corner, the bus actually stalled and started to roll backwards. Unjustified fear? I think not.

This monastery is the seat of one of the heart sons of the Karmapa. There are four special students belonging to the Karmapa, called his heart sons. This one is now fourteen years old. We had the opportunity to meet him briefly. He had spent the morning debating, and by 4pm was undoubtedly exhausted. Each of us from the bus filed in with a kata and sometimes a money offering. The Tibetans performed prostrations before offering the katas and money. Then, each of us received a blessed string to wear around our necks. I looked at his face, and poor kid looked exhausted. I can't imagine having to spend the day studying or practicing rituals, then debating, then having to meet all these people. It must be really tough.

Finally, we made it back to Lhasa, uneventfully. I was happy to be able to remove my stinking, damp shoes and my half chuba, which was also speckled with mud, and just relax.

Posted by michab3 02:04 Comments (0)

Chak tsel

This morning, I had the opportunity to go along with some friends who were making this a devotional day, being the last day of Saga Dawa. They decided to perform full body prostrations (chak tsel) around the Potala palace. Full prostrations are a common form of devotion here. You can see people performing them clockwise everyday around the Jokhang, the Potala and even the Lingkor, which takes three hours just to walk.

The prostrator starts by putting the palms together and touching the forehead, throat and heart, then kneeling. The body is then stretched out until the nose and forehead touch the ground. The hands are stretched out in front then brought over the head, palms together. Then, the individual pulls back to the knees, stands up, walks three steps (or the full body distance), and performs it all over again, while praying.

This is a strenuous activity, and really serious prostrators, some of whom have prostrated from their homes to Lhasa, have large callouses on their foreheads and noses from the repeated touching to the ground.

I went along as a helper. My job was to carry and provide drinks or food or whatever, to those who were actually prostrating. In order to get this done before it got hot, we were at the Potala about a quarter after 5 this morning. The Potala korra takes maybe half an hour to walk if one walks at a reasonable pace. To circumambulate it with prostrations takes anywhere from 5 to 7 hours. (I hears someone say three, but I don't buy that. You'd have to really be booking to make it in three.) So, the prostrations started at 5:30 this morning...in the rain. It had been raining during the night and was drizzling when we left. The walkway around the Potala is incredibly uneven, making large puddles everywhere. Not only was it going to be a long and strenuous morning for my friends, but a cold and wet one as well.

I waited to make sure they didn't need anything, then I began walking the korra. It was nice to walk while it was still dark and people couldn't tell I was a foreigner. Once the sun came up, there were masses of people, most with a comment, although for once, the fat comments were not so prevalent. Mostly people were thrilled to see a foreigner wearing a chuba. Women would ask me if I was alone or if I had friends on the korra, and guys would give me a thumbs up. My butt was only touched twice, by women who were really happy to see my chuba.

Every time I came around the korra, I would ask my friends if they needed anything. I, myself, took a few rests along the way. Each korra is a little over a mile, and while I started out walking rather quickly, my shoes were soon soaked and it is a bit painful to walk in wet socks, although that is nothing compared to full body prostrations.

My friends managed to complete the korra in five and a half hours, a good time in the rain, when the hands aren't sliding so well, and the clothes are heavy. They even stopped for a longish rest with Tibetan tea and bread on the back side of the Potala.

I wore my pedometer today and burned over a pound just by doing korra. Another friend has agreed to go with me everyday if I want, so that I can get a little more exercise in than I already get from walking almost every day.

By the time the morning was over, I could not even count the number of times I had heard, "A ma!" a Tibetan expression of surprise, which slipped from many mouths when people saw my chuba. It was nice, though. They say the rain makes Lhasa people happy, and I definitely have to agree. People all seemed to be in a good mood today.

Posted by michab3 21:04 Comments (2)

Hanging Out

First of all, I want to say that my photos, such as they are, have been updated at: community.webshots.com/user/michab3. If you are interested, take a look.

The last week has been remarkably uneventful. At the beginning of the week, we had a meeting to tell us a few "important" things. The first was that there were a lot of students not coming to class and leaving Lhasa without telling the office. In the beginning class, there is now only a single student, and will be until the end of July--poor girl. My own class has had the best attendance, with 75% (3 out of 4) almost every single day. A couple of days there have only been two of us, but that is rare. The intermediate class has the worst attendance. Most of the students are still here (which is not the case with the beginners) but they choose not to come. They are, in fact, missing a teacher, which the office has refused to replace, so they are paying for a class they aren't taking because there is no instructor. An example of the Chinese system. I learned last night that my class, and the other pre-intermediate class will be losing a teacher before the end of the semester, because she is taking a summer English course at the University of Oslo in Norway. My guess is that we won't receive a replacement either.

The second topic, people leaving and not telling the office, was of particular importance. We each have a small blue book which we must give to the office whenever we leave Lhasa so they can record where we go and when we leave and return. However, for weekend trips, none of us have ever bothered about it. This time, though, a couple of students went to Xining, a city far from Lhasa---wait, everything is far from Lhasa... Anyway, they went and didn't tell the office, and were gone for over a week. They got their panties in a twist because if "anything happens, we don't know and can't help." Also, if a student does something inappropriate, the university is responsible and someone would undoubtedly get in trouble. Of course, they also report where we go to the PSB, Public Security Bureau. That way, the government can also keep track of where we go. Nice, huh?

The third topic had to do with a thief in the building. Two people had things stolen from their rooms, without damage to the door. This meant one of two things. Either, someone had the key, meaning the reception staff, or someone went in through a kitchen window, meaning a child or very small person. Apparently, the office ruled out the possibility of someone from the staff. That is "impossible". After all, they have worked here so long, and are trusted. (Personally, I don't trust them that much. They are sneaky, lazy, and sometimes one has been completely insane.) It never occurred to them that it might be the child of the maintenance man and his little friend. They were stealing things from people all winter because they were running around here completely unsupervised. Instead, it had to be someone's friend or language partner doing the stealing. It seems a bit farfetched to me that it wouldn't be someone with a key.

That was the gist of the meeting.

What else? There was something I was going to write about... I'll think of it eventually.

So, the official last day of class is July 20th. Looking forward to that. I have to say though, that life is pretty easy here. The last couple of weeks, friends and I have spent almost every afternoon drinking tea and hanging out. There are a lot of really attractive guys out and about now. The eye candy is nice.

All right. I'm just kinda babbling now. I'll write again soon.

Posted by michab3 17:44 Comments (0)

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