Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

One of my most indelible memories from India is of cows wandering the streets with impunity, protected by their holy status. Likewise, in Pokhara, Nepal, I was alarmed the first time I shared a sidewalk with a herd of buffalo. But humans are an adaptable species. After many visits to India and Nepal, freely wandering cows and buffalo seemed commonplace to me. In fact, I thought such cultural differences no longer had an ability to surprise me. Until I came face-to-face with unique species of Tibetan animals on a recent overland journey through the high Tibetan plateau.

It began on the drive from Lhasa airport to the city center. Just as we reached the outskirts, a herd of shaggy black beasts sauntered in front of my car and stopped traffic on the highway. “What are they?” I squealed. “Those are just yaks,” my driver replied. I scrambled for my camera but couldn’t get to it in time. However I soon learned that this wouldn’t be my last opportunity to see yaks.

Yaks at Tibet's Yamdrok Lake wear embroidered decorations and are saddled with bright woven carpets

Yaks at Tibet’s Yamdrok Lake wear embroidered decorations and bright woven carpet saddles

Perhaps more than any other Tibetan animals, yaks define the culture of Tibet. Products from yaks are used to feed, clothe, and provide shelter typical Tibetan families. Their skulls and horns are carved into combs and pipes. Coarse hair from their backs is woven into tents that block out the chill winds of the high plateau. The finer hair found lower on the yak’s body is woven into Read More

Himalaya Journey provided an excellent tour, including sightings of a variety of Tibetan animals that are indigenous to the high plateau.

Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantse, Tibet

I didn’t notice him at first. But as my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the Assembly Hall at Pelkor Chode Monastery, I caught a movement. A maroon-robed monk stood at the base of the massive bronze statue of Shakyamuni. He moved serenely, refilling flickering oil lamps set between delicate yak butter sculptures. It wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t noticed him. The monk was Lilliputian compared to the 26-foot high bronze of the Historical Buddha.

Built during the early 15th century, Pelkor Chode is an ancient walled monastic complex in Gyantse, Tibet. Buddhist monasteries are almost always affiliated with one specific sect of Buddhism, however Pelkor Chode Monastery is unique in this respect. From the very beginning it was home to universities representing three different sects: Gelugpas, Sakya, and Gedang. Read More

Shop in Old Lhasa offers an eclectic mix of merchandise

Never one to follow the crowds, I wandered away from busy Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet. I had completed an obligatory Kora (clockwise circuit) of the Jokhang Temple, dodging prostrating pilgrims and crowds of tourists, but now the back streets beckoned. Just a block from the temple the teeming crowds dissipated and I was the only foreigner in sight. Tibetan women in traditional striped aprons sat on stoops, twirling prayer wheels and muttering mantras. Toddlers with sagging diapers waddled after stray cats. Workers towed bulging hemp sacks down the gray flagstone pavement on wooden dollies.

The lanes grew narrower as I penetrated deeper into the traditional neighborhood. A pyramid of yellow plastic containers dominated one shop in Old Lhasa. The sweet, slightly rancid scent gave them away as tubs of yak butter for altar lamps. A postage-stamp sized cafe advertised Read More

Yamdrok Lake, one of the most sacred lakes in Tibet

Tibetans believe that lakes are the abodes of protective deities and therefore invested with special spiritual powers. Yamdrok Lake, located approximately between the capital of Lhasa and the town of Gyantse, is considered one of the most sacred bodies of water in Tibet.

Local folklore relates that a fairy maiden was concerned that nine small lakes were in danger of drying up. Worried that creatures in the lakes would die, she threw 350 grams of gold into the air, recited a mantra, and merged all the small lakes into the one large one we see today.

However the sacred nature of Yamdrok Lake has to do with its role in discovering the newly reincarnated Dalai Lama after the present one passes into parinirvana (dies). Following the death of a of Dalai Lama, Read More

In Tibetan Buddhism the noses of children are marked with soot to protect them from evil spirits

All across Tibet, I spied kids with black marks on their noses, like this young boy at Sera Monastery in Lhasa. Our guide explained that in Tibetan Buddhism folk tradition, placing a smudge of soot on the nose of a child is believed to ensure good sleep and provide protection. Parents routinely bring their children to the monastery where monks apply the mark, using soot that has deposited on the walls from the long-term burning of butter lamps. I was curious about the “protection” part of the belief, so I did a little research.

The practice apparently derives from an ancient legend about two villages located on the opposite sides of a river. The village on one side of the river was filled with evil spirits who constantly sowed strife among the inhabitants. The village on the opposite side of the river, free of evil spirits, was a place of harmony. One day, two evil spirits crossed to the other side with a plan to sow dissent in the harmonious village. The first spirit would Read More

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, capital of the autonomous region of Tibet in China

I’d seen it in pictures, of course. The magnificent Potala Palace, rising vertically from its perch atop Red Mountain in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. This number one destination on my travel wish list had long eluded me. Until now. After years of waiting, I had finally made it to the exotic kingdom that some believe to by the mythical Shangri-La. I stood on a viewing platform across the street from the iconic edifice and drank in its 13 stories, the inward-sloping walls that measure up to 16 feet thick, and its more than 1,000 rooms. As a devoted Buddhist, I knew the palace was home to the Dalai Lama until 1959, when he fled in the face of the invading Chinese army. I knew that it contains more than 200,000 statues and nearly 700 invaluable murals that depict some of the most important historic events in Buddhist history. I even knew that the Red Palace in the center of the immense structure was used for religious purposes, while the white portion was used mostly for administration and government purposes. But what I hadn’t contemplated was actually climbing to the top of the Potala Palace. Read More