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Alice Yang
Yang is a contributing columnist for the Fort Bend Star.
Alice Yang is a student at Columbia University. She can be reached at gy2151@ Columbia.edu.
This column expresses the personal opinions/views of the writer. If you would like to express your opinions/views regarding the column, write a SIGNED letter to the editor. Name can be withheld by request with a valid day time phone number.

Seven days in Tibet - Part one


We were to arrive by train. Two days of a grueling bump and grind. With chips and fruits in the bag and pajamas on the bunk bed, we played cards by day and slept (well, sort of) by night.

As we got closer and closer to the final destination, as the scattered Eastern Chinese cities turned into Western desert and mountains, a curious phenomenon happened.

Something exploded in our luggage bag.

Frightened, we quickly opened it up to find the mysterious source and finally realized what happened.

Some of the chip bags have popped by themselves.

Welcome to my last travel adventure of the summer. The last and the most anticipated: mysterious and culture-rich Tibet.

Besides being the highest plateau on Earth, which by the way, caused the pressurized explosion of my Lays due to change in elevation, Tibet has its own unique culture of Buddhism, nomadic roots, and highland yaks.

Yes yaks. These darlings are like a furrier version of the cow. Through the train window, you can see herds of them, black and white, grazing lazily on plateau shrubs or just aimlessly chewing on their cud.

We were on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which traveled directly from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibetís capital. Due to the change in elevation, oxygen levels dropped gradually as we climb higher on the plateau. We were warned upon arriving, to walk slowly and talk less, because a depletion in oxygen may mean a trip to the emergency room.

So I stepped out carefully, taking full deep breathes. But immediately, my mind was off the oxygen dilemma as my eyes slammed shut to the light.

Iíve never been in a brighter place in my life! The sun was not just shining, it was millions of yellow-white laser points pieced together. I quickly put on my sunglasses, only then, could I carefully open my eyes to observe the surroundings.

Tibetís average altitude of about 4000 meters means itís the closest plateau to the sun and sky. The next higher place would be the tip of Mt. Everest. Literally, you want to reach out your hands just to see if you can touch the clouds, even though you know thatís ridiculous.

We arrived at our hotel room only to realize the roomís on the 4th floor and thereís no elevator. I, being stupid and a little cocky, thought climbing the stairs would be a cinch carrying a luggage in each hand. But by the end of the first flight, I was huffing and puffing like a fish out of water. You could just feel, in your lungs, the lack of oxygen in the place. And itís not a pretty feeling.

The first site we visited was of course Potala Palace, the hallmark symbol of Lhasa. Considered as one of the ďnew seven wonders of the world,Ē Potala was first built for King Songtsen Gampo and later completed and renovated for the Dalai Lama. It served as a religious living quarter for highly respected monks and now is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The palace sits on top of a hill. The architecture is unlike anything Iíve seen before. It somewhat resembles one of those ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats, you know, step pyramid-like, but it is white in color and decoratively red and black around the windows and stairs.

Needless to say, climbing it was a feat, but seeing traditional monks and worshippers along the way made me forget the intense need to hyperventilate.

The place even felt sacred. Above, the sky so intensely blue and clouds so purely white that it looked like something from a kidís coloring book. You felt this silent connection with Nature, Creation, or whoever made this beautiful Earth. The windows of the palace were lined with these white cloths that moved in waves as the breeze hit, adding fluidity to the palace, making it come alive. It didnít feel like a man-made structure; with the moving cloths and sturdy walls, Potala seemed like part of Natureís plan.

There was a contrast in music. Outside the palace doors, a group of workers sung out in vibrant voices to a traditional Tibetan song, while inside, the dim-lit candled rooms offered the drift of heady incense and monotonous Buddhist chants.

As we stepped in, immediately everything was quiet and solemn. There were many glittering Buddhist statues, dimly lighted by the candles. They were golden, bejeweled, and varied in form and size. Some of the rooms were the living quarters of the lamas. Others held walls stacked with Buddhist scripture. It was like walking through a maze. Climbing stairs to reach a room, so many sharp turns, everywhere lighted only by the flicker of candles, some corridors no light at all. If I was by myself, for sure I would get lost. And a little scared.

Outside Potala, directly under the hill of the palace is the grand courtyard. This was the best place to take pictures, and many Tibetans carried traditional costumes for you to try on. Little decorated carriage cycles creaked around the square, and several monks can be spotted resting on the ground, fingers silently moving over strings of Buddha beads.

The strangest thing I saw had to be the men who bowed and kowtowed flat on the ground with each step they took leading to the palace. Their faces were dirty, glistening with sweat, their cloths ragged, their shoes torn. But in their hands were two spongy grips so that when they kneeled and positioned themselves flat on the ground, their hands would be protected from the hard concrete.

Each step, they repeated this act of worship, oblivious to the surroundings, eyes on the Potala. It was an extreme form of religious devotion; the palace and Lhasa to Tibetans is like what Mecca is to Muslims. Itís the most sacred destination, and many journey from far away to make the pilgrimage. Some, who are extremely poor, even sell all their belongings to reach the place by foot. They bow with each step to show their devotion, bow with each step all the way from their hometown! Some take several years reach the destination; indeed, their hard journey and dedication to faith is admirable.

However, some may never get the chance to make the pilgrimage. Whoever has is considered lucky. And then I realized how lucky I was to even be in Tibet, let alone visit the sacred palace. It was something unforgettable, the palace, the surroundings, and most of all, the devoted people of the highland plateau.

Alice Yang is a student at Columbia University.
She can be reached at gy2151@ Columbia.edu.

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   Last Update:  August 29, 2007