Arriving in Xining | Touchstones of the Sacred | Touchstones of the Sacred

Arriving in Xining

July 1 – Beijing Airport

After a night of close calls and an overbooked flight from LAX to Beijing that I almost didn’t get on, here we are in the sleek modern airport of Beijing. There is a crisp efficiency in the air amidst our 6 am fumbling with the money converter trying to pay for our coffee float (that would be coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream!). It is hot and muggy as we await our last leg into Xining. I must say, I am disappointed they don’t have WiFi here!

Although China was never on my ‘places to go’ list, I am somewhat of a hero to the two 6 year olds who helped officiate our benefit last week. Henry my grandson, when I asked him a couple of years ago what he wanted to be when he grew up, told me, “I want to be Chinese and climb mountains”. His buddy, Jeremy, is taking Mandarin in kindergarten and gave me a few language pointers on my way out the door.

The great thing about the 18 hours of flying is the forced lethargy. My down pillow has this magical way of fluffing itself against me in just the right places – finally, nothing to do but sleep. Through the course of multitudes of tweaks and changes, pounds of trust and patience and a mountain of divine grace, here we are

There was anticipation with this trip of a sort of ‘waking’ up and finding myself in a strange country and saying to myself “now, how did I get here?” The last four months have been a whirlwind of ideas igniting into blazing hot transformative fires. Something inside of me took on the job of project manager thank God! I’ve certainly never put together a benefit fundraiser or even been to an auction. Or attempted to raise $10-20,000 in 5 weeks! A team of dedicated volunteers worked together with my miracle project manager/fundraiser person and, low and behold, we pulled it off!

July 2nd – Kumbum Monastery

We (that would be my trusty companion and videographer, Jeffrey with the blue eyes) stood there blankly starring at the empty conveyor belt as everyone walked away with their luggage. Our smiling driver, carrying the welcomed words “Tsongkha Hotel”, was there behind the security barrier patiently waiting for us as I did my best to sign language to him that our luggage was not here. Jeffrey and I headed toward the nearest luggage office doing our best to believe the words “we will try to get it tomorrow”. So much for the façade of airline efficiency!

Driving through the town of Xining with our 3 new friends, none of whom spoke a speck of English, I got the impression of sprawling dirt – some loose and some shaped into partial building structures. The dust and dirt made our eyes water. But it was also wonderful – the unexpected and occasional Chinese letters in brightly colored paint, the vast expanse of mountains hugging the fields of yellow mustard (or I think that is the plant) in the valleys and the undeniable awareness that we were in a place unlike any we’d been before.

After about an hour, we saw the village of monasteries ahead and at the same time suddenly everything was greener and there were sparkling gold rooftops pointing toward the sky. The perfectly level lines of what looked like wide decorated steps cut into the hillsides stretched before us – many of them, all differently colored. They are like an invitation – “Welcome. You may take any set of stairs you like for your climb up to enlightenment.”

Foolishly, I’d assumed someone here would speak English. No luggage, no English. Can’t get through on the phone to my one English speaking contact here, Jamin; no local Internet café. Sign language didn’t even work. Nor does our Chinese phrase book. My adapter was in my suitcase somewhere between LAX and Beijing and I had 3 hours of battery left on my computer, which carried all my contact information.

Finally, I conveyed my need to use their computer and e-mailed Jamin, who is American and an angel. Then I waited. Finally, the sweet girl at the front desk came running for me. They all seemed as concerned for us as we were for us. At least we were all teamed up on the same side!

Oh, the sound of English! Connection. It was Jamin. Then we got in touch with the wonderful Helen Chan, manager of the hotel in Hong Kong. She spoke English and was an angel in trying to help us with our luggage.

Our hotel is part of the commercialization of the Lamastary that surrounds us. Ancient painted buildings perfectly built into the mountainside – etchings and carvings whose pealed and faded paint seems like a wrinkled old woman filled with a treasure of history and lore. Along the dirty pink and white tiled streets are shacks leaning on each other, each holding those beautiful Tibetan treasures that I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for back in Marin County, California. We greet the Tibetans with Tashi Delek – there is always the ready smile. Young Tibetan children laughing “hello”. Where does all this joy come from?

Our rooms are Tibetan style – windows that open onto the plaza. Earlier is was thundering, now raining. Very few lights outside – only the occasional sound of a meditation bell, or laughter or a rare 3-wheeled car in the distance. Jeffrey and I are both in awe of this place. There are no words, but a feeling of deep gratitude, openheartedness and complete contentment.

Tomorrow we meet Jamin, hopefully get our luggage and find an Internet café to let everyone know we are safe.

July 3 –Our first Tibetan market – I could live on goji berries!

The rain and thunder left us a gift of extra shinny golden rooftops this morning that glisten in the gentle sunlight. It is perfectly quiet and peaceful here – being held in this container of crimson robes and secret prayers. Monks on bicycles ride by and there is that strange 3-wheel car again. I keep wondering about the building damage here. Jeffrey said there was an earthquake back in 1984 or so, but I keep wondering what it was like in the spiritual quake of the 1960;s. A 20 something sweet monk was following Jeffrey around in the grocery store last night, teasing him, punching him in the ribs, affectionately putting his arm around him. I wondered if he’s lost his father long ago and gravitated toward Jeffrey’s large and gentle nature – or those very unusual blue eyes standing out amidst all of us dark eyes.

Goji berries in the grocery store – probably about 20 cents a bag. Whole Foods, $8.68 a bag. Maybe I’ll go on a Goji berry diet. These Tibetan women are so beautiful and seem to carry so much dignity. They don’t beg or have the look in their eyes – that look of desperation and hollowness I so often see in hunger. They are very poor, but they are not starving – and they are happy.

Walked through more market stalls again today. I was looking for Ginseng and tried my best to explain, but all they kept bringing to me were large bags of dried herbs. About 7 of us – all laughing together in one of the small stalls in the market, trying to understand. Suddenly, a smiling man runs into our little stall, which is becoming quite crowed, with a can the size of a coke can. Liquid Ginseng! “So Big” I said. I gestured to everyone – “Let’s get some cups and we can all drink”. (The Tibetans somehow understand sign language much better than the Chinese). The woman behind the counter quickly produced about 10 paper cups, someone else poured, Jeffrey filmed, and we all toasted “Tashi Delek”. “We are friends now”, the owner conveyed, and dropped his price of turquoise by 100 Yuen.

Off to Xining to meet dear Jamin.

We’re back in our little car. There is the driver, another cute Tibetan man who adores Jeffrey, and the two of us. Xining is dusty and busy. Crossing the street is a major event – it’s as though the cars dare you to get in front of them. You stand in the middle of the street with cars going past you on both side, weaving in and out of each other at break neck speed. Jeffrey and I find ourselves in numerous conversations about whether we really need to get to that store/ restaurant etc, if it means crossing the street.

We have tea with Jamin, meet our translator Tashi and will finalize plans tomorrow. Jamin, who set up our transportation and translator after months of e-mail correspondence, has skillfully handed us off.

Horseback riding in Tibet?

Shortly thereafter, we got our very awaited phone call from Rinpoche. Next thing we knew, we were all sitting around a table having tea together in the little room next to a hotel he’d previously lived in for three years. He is a dear. We are planning out our schedule to go to both Gebchak and Dechenling. OK, ready for an auspicious coincidence? Upon meeting Rinpoche, Tashi realized that his father and Rinpoche’s father were best friends (Tashi’s father died a few years ago) and he and Rinpoche had met several times over the years as children!

Tashi is so wonderful. He clearly adored his father and couldn’t wait to call his mother in Yushu, a town where we will be spending a few nights while, believe it or not, his sister and her friend make the malas! After that, we will head toward Dechenling via Nangchen, where we will stay with Rinpoche’s sister and his esteemed father, Lama Sazha. In Dechenling, about 7 hours from Nangchen town, we will take the last hour on horseback, which Rinpoche is arranging for us. From there we will go to Gabchek.

Rinpoche insists that we move into Xining because there is much business to be done in the next few days. We take the elevator up to the 14th floor and take a look at the rather unappealing rooms. Oh well, at least we have a couple of days of respite in Kumbum.

We have yet to receive our luggage or our beads which are being Fedex’d from India, but I am learning not to worry.

We will miss it here at Kumbum. We always are laughing with the staff, trying to get them to understand, and vise versa. Finally, we found a word in common – tofu! I am in heaven. Lots of tofu and veggies.

It is truly a privilege to be on this journey. A Chinese speaker was at another table tonight and Jeffrey and I did our very best to eavesdrop. He is part of a project here called The Bridge Project for Tibetans. He spoke about how the Tibetans are between worlds, with no world of their own. He described their language as beautiful flowers, which soon may be lost.

These are the most beautiful, open, affectionate people I have ever seen. They are the embodiment of loving kindness. Tashi tells many stories that are heart breaking – old people going to hospitals where only Chinese is spoken and having no way to communicate.
Tomorrow we move to Xining.

July 4th—I will never take Mercury in retrograde lightly again!

We took the one hour bus ride into Xining and said a sad good-by to our friends at Kumbum. Taking the bus in foreign cities is always such an experience – at least once! We traveled through hillsides and small villages, picking up and dropping off people carrying everything but pigs. One good thing about not having luggage was that we traveled light!

Found out today that our luggage is probably still at LAX. Meanwhile, we have our driver and Tashi ready to roll, and Jamin, our travel connection, getting ready to go out of town. The driver, Mr. Lee, was getting increasingly irritated and anxious. I hadn’t met him yet, but he seemed pretty uptight The four of us sat around a somewhat dark café this morning – dark because all the electricity is out, a fairly common occurence – trying to make phone calls to Hong Kong, Beijing, Los Angeles and India. Finally got through to India. Seems that our beads couldn’t be sent because of a bad rainstorm there, but will arrive Friday night. I promised Jamin that we would leave on Saturday morning, no matter what. Jeffrey had the swell idea of calling my daughter Leslie. Funny, she said “Mom, you sound a little bit stressed”.

Now, I was planning on roughing it, but that was supposed to be in Nangchen, where I would fashionably don my new REI ‘wear for 10 days and not stink’ clothes. And those cool underwear that say on the label something like “17 Countries, 17 Days, 1 pair of underwear”.

I, however, am still in the same clothes I wore to the airport 5 days ago and they are not the “wash and wear and no stick kind”.

Jamin sat back in his chair and suggested we made a “b” plan. This didn’t seem to be working out. “No, I said firmly. It will all work out”. Somewhere inside of me, I knew that the very miracle of us being here in China spoke volumes more about this journey than these immediate circumstances. Tashi, bless his heart, looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s going to be OK”. He was right. I felt like I was in one of those children’s movies where the heroe and/or heroine has to go through all of these hurdles before reaching some great destination. Well, I wasn’t any heroine and all I knew how to do was pray as hard as I could. I knew Leslie would get right on it – she is efficient and assertive and, besides, we have travel insurance and, if nothing else, they will get on it.

Oh, and at the end of my conversation with Leslie, I said “Please e-mail me as soon as you know something – NO! there is no electricity in town. I can’t even get e-mail!”. We all burst out laughing! What else can you do? Was this some kind of cosmic joke?

Then we trudged off to the camping stores. We bought 2 sleeping bags and I bought a warm jacket – all for about $100. I’d waited to purchase a jacket until we got to China, since everything seems to be ‘made in China’. I found my perfect jacket, took it home and guess what? It was made in Portland, Oregon!

So, we checked into our new hotel, aka guest house. We are on the 14th floor overlooking a pretty lake. The smell is terrible from the sewers The air is layered in dust and smog and cigerette smoke. Everyone smokes. Jeffrey is a trooper and somehow we manage to put on a smile, grab a cab with Tashi and head for the Tibetan market to see what we can find in the way of beads – just in case. On the way we stop for Chinese food – delicious! Lots of beads at the market,. We even find elastic for the wrist bands. Bought a pair of pants and a lovely skirt, apparently a necessity  for women on long trips as the only facade of modesty while peeing on the roadside. And did I tell you how absolutely wonderful, open and kind these Tibetan people are!

So, here we are. It’s about 6 or 7. I rarely know what time it is or what day it is. My eyes are burning from the smog, my nose is recoiling from the smell. Xining is one place you can erase from your ten top places to visit before you die. But it is also fun and a great adventure. The people are so friendly – maybe because we are the only westerners we have seen here. Sort of a fun curiosity.

Oh, my, I just realized that there are fireworks going off outside. I can hear them, but unfortunately, the air is so thick you can’t see anything.

P.S. Still no electricity, it will be an interesting evening. Darn, and my camping headlight is in my luggage!

P.P. S. I will never take Mercury in Retrograde lightly again!

July 5th—“What a difference a day makes”

We got our luggage! The electricity went back on! Jeffrey found his mini memory Cannon card! I found some XL long underwear (but they’re still too small)!

But most of all . . .

Rinpoche met with us again– us being Tashi (who we both love more and more with each passing day) and Jeffrey, the jewel (actually his last name).

We mapped out our trip day by day. Each night we will spend in either Tashi’s home or Rinpoche’s sister’s home. He even wants to set us up in the Monastery instead of camping, something we still have to discuss today.

He asked me why I do this. Why is compassion important? Why am I here? And why am I here – in this samsaric existence. He said I must know these answers to make a difference.

He spoke deeply about this life, his life. He spoke about the importance of the Dharma. He told silly jokes. After hours of drinking endless glasses of tea, he walked us to the Tibetan Ministry building, up the 4th floor. The doors opened and we were in a huge, colorful, Tibetan/Napelese nightclub. We ate yak and lamb and beef and shrimp and some kind of veggies I’ve never seen before and yak butter and flour balls and rice and I danced a lama dance with a bunch of tipsy Tibetans and we all laughed at the bad jokes about the lamb being b a- a- -a – a d.

So much more to tell. Jeffrey is beside himself. Tashi feels so blessed and joyful. I am even deeper in this wondrous, magical dream that started just a few months ago . . . .

Tomorrow, we go to Rinpoche’s home for lunch and wrap up last minute details for our journey to Tibet.

July 06 – Lunch at Rinpoche’s

Today we had lunch at Rinpoche’s home. Jeffrey, Tashi and I and about 5 monks and/or lamas. We ate yak meat and lots of veggies, drank wine because Rinpoche knew I liked it – the consideration and hospitality is amazing here. Tomorrow, we will take Lama Chuying with us to Yushu. I am learning that everything that happens seems to have some purpose. Jamin tried to get us a 4th person to cut down on costs, yet what could be more auspicious than starting our journey with this wonderful, openhearted Lama!

Tashi Rinpoche is on my left – this wonderful man had just had us over for lunch in Xining before heading to the Nunnery. Chuying Lama is who Jeff has his arm around and who drove the 10 hour drive down to Yushu with us. We later stayed with Rinpoche’s family in nangchen both before and after we went to the Nunnery. The night before, Jeff, Tashi, Rinpoche and I went to a local Nepalese nightclub and had a wonderful time. Tashi Rinpoche and his family were very instrumental in making this journey successful and I will be always grateful to him.

Hot Pots – so delicious!

Jeffrey and I have strangely found ourselves starting sentences with “One thing that I like about Xining . . . . .” We love the people. There is always a very ready smile and laugh with my incessant sign language. They are also extremely honest. The streets and alleys are alive with people selling chickens, dogs, cheap trinkets – they sell anything, but there is not one person begging. They seem fascinated with Americans and we laugh that this must be what it’s like to be a celebrity.

We had our best meal tonight. About 5 staff standing around us. The owner walked past the tables in the restaurant with me while I pointed to things we wanted to eat – the entire restaurant enjoys it and everyone tries to help. Thank God for my family evenings of playing charades! We had Hot Pots – a delicious broth that, upon boiling, you put in lettuce, meat, shrimp, and mushrooms – anything you want. Then you eat the cooked food – so good! You spoon out the broth, add cilantro and onion and have the best soup you’ve ever had! Ice-cold beer tops it all off! Our food angel literally stood at our table taking us from bite to bite – Jeffrey laughs that she practically fed us!

Tomorrow morning we leave for Yushu.

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