Sunday, January 8, 2012

Roads Less Traveled

 Pilgrims at the Potala, the former home of the Dalai Lamas

And so begins a new adventure.  Not quite a journey overland to India, or a harrowing Aeroflot flight into a Himalayan landing strip in Tibet, but an adventure just the same.  This comes at the encouragement (read insistence) of family and a few good friends....I think, perhaps, as a way of giving me an outlet for my political musings and insights, or as they call them...rants! Perhaps in hope that I'd stop posting to Facebook and losing friends.

"View from the Valley" both describes the environment I write from...a beautiful Kentucky valley surround by woods, wildlife and interesting neighbors and gives me a bit of leeway in selecting my subject matter.  It allows me to reflect on past journeys, family life, and my particular brand of political editorializing...often at the same time as one frequently informs the other.

As happened this morning:

Earlier today, while taking a mental break from listening to the latest GOP  debate, I read a story online about the top 45 places one should visit in 2012 and found Lhasa, Tibet on the list. It talked about the opening of Lhasa's first luxury hotel, the plans for two more, shopping malls, and other signs of modernity reaching deep into the Himalayan mountains.

For some people, this is a positive thing and a sign of industrialization, economic opportunity and entry into the modern world. For me, however, this is exactly why I found myself overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness and loss.  Lhasa is the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism, the former home of the Dalai Lama and all his predecessors, and many years ago, just before my visit, the target of the Chinese invasion, both militarily and culturally. The opening of this hotel and other modern "advances" represents to me a further repression of the Tibetan people.  While you can take over a country by military force you cannot take over their history, their spirit and their heart...leave it to tourists and foreign investors to do that.

I entered Tibet in 1985, shortly after the Chinese government opened it for individual tourists. There was one guest house for both Tibetan and foreign visitors, with the foreigners staying on 2nd floor and Tibetans on the 3rd...which was a good thing since at that altitude even the climb to the 2nd floor was exhausting. The foreigners (all 6 of us) shared a dorm style room with beds piled high with blankets against the very cold Himalayan nights and we all shared meals in a common kitchen serving local produce, grains and beans stir fried in massive woks over open flames.  Our shower consisted of getting a bucket of hot water from the kitchen and standing on the balcony while asking someone pour to it over you! I was able to visit a nearby monastery and spend time with the Buddhist monks, play with local children and visit with Tibetans that were not there to serve or make money off me...some would call it friendship.

(Me in Tibet, 1985)

My one experience with the outside world beginning to make it's foray into this stunningly beautiful valley at the top of the world was when I heard that the Chinese had just opened a telephone post...a low lying, cement building just out of the center of Lhasa where one could go to make a telephone call.  

I decided to make one of the first international calls... to an old friend in St. Louis who I thought would be thrilled and excited to get a call (collect) from Tibet in the middle of the night.  I had to first explain that I wanted to make a call to the United States, then help the operator find the code for the U.S. and then wait 3 hours for the call to be connected. 

I suppose making a call from the newly opened luxury hotel in Lhasa will be much easier, but at what cost to the Tibetans? Life for them can never be the same. Chinese is rapidly becoming the language of Lhasa and English will now soon follow.  Buddhist ritual and family life will inevitably change as a result of foreign influence and the need to serve foreign visitors.  Life will become more about catering to the influx of tourists.

A friend I made in Bali (another story) once responded when I inquired if she'd like to visit the United States, "Is it better than Bali"? While I could tell her it was very different and could tell her about movies, escalators, museums, high rise buildings, etc, I couldn't honestly tell her it was better.  She knew about life in the west, she was a teacher and played hostess to many foreign visitors at her home, yet she wasn't interested in either visiting the U.S. or having a western life style come to Bali, which sadly, as in Lhasa, it has.  

Somehow I doubt visitors to the new Tibet will get to play with local children, share food in a common kitchen, drink yak butter tea with Buddhist pilgrims in the monastery courtyard, sit and meditate with the monks or even....make friends.

At least that's the view from my valley.


  1. That´s a pity. I´ll never understand why we insist in erasing every sign of cultural enrichment, forgetting the magic of not living out of your house in the same way that you are living inside it. We´ll become blind ... and, what is worse, we´ll pay for that.

    Oh, and after that, of course, welcome to the blog world, Jay

  2. 200 years ago, your valley in Cain-Tuck was untouched by "Progress". One of the things that drew you here and held on to you was the tenacity of the locals to hold on to their heritage and simpler way of life.

    David and Ivan are watching a show about time travel right now. David asked Ivan if he could go back in time, which era would he choose. Ivan replied, "Actually, I'm pretty satisfied in my own era".

    Change is inevitable. And although we will always mourn the loss of simplicity and honesty in living, we have to embrace the quality of life that comes with modernization. It is bittersweet.

    Just hang on to the truth that a people will never forget their heritage. Those of us that live in the valleys of Kentucky are living proof.

    Oh, and congrats on the blog!

  3. I'd agree, although I feel this change (as the similar change in Bali) was forced on the people by a foreign government...albeit one that considered itself the rightful rulers of those countries...China in Tibet and Indonesia in Bali. Also, both these countries had very strong spiritual roots and practices which will have a difficult time surviving in the world that's been forced on them. I'd compare it to the fate of the Native Americans (who the Tibetans reminded me of in many ways) rather than the good folks in our beautiful valley.