At a Tibetan Market Where Yak Leather and Chicken Carriers are Cheap

4370_001Booths lined the perimeter of Barkhor Square.  At such an early hour of the day, Tibetans were setting up their wares, stacking items in a haphazard way as early-bird shoppers perused the merchandise.  One booth sold everything metal:   pots, pans and utensils in every imaginable shape and size, stacked one on top of the other on the ground, spilling out the sides and front. Another sold everything plastic:  buckets, containers and plates.  Other booths sold meat, vegetables and grains like barley, a Tibetan staple.  At one stand, a vendor called out prices while locals picked up pieces of imported fruit, smelled them and placed them back carefully.

I wanted to buy everything, even the things I had no imaginable needs for—a metal carrier for a live chicken, a barley sifter, a three-foot prayer wheel, a yak leather belt—anything for such cheap prices.   Instead, I bought a set of prayer flags for ten cents, twenty of them strung together, rolled carefully and wrapped in the daily Chinese Communist paper.  The flags would remain in my backpack until I reached the highlight of our Tibetan journey—the Mount Everest Base Camp.  There, at the highest destination at 5400 meters above sea level, we would string the prayer flags with the rest of the flags from other visitors, travelers and pilgrims.

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

I couldn’t bargain too hard when I knew the Tibetans relied heavily on purchases by foreigners, and competition was fierce with so many stalls selling similar items.  The owner’s wife was squatting behind the booth, delicately gluing tiny pieces of coral and turquoise beads onto metal jewelry boxes while her toddler played with a mini set of prayer flags, fanning them out like paper cutouts.

When I turned around again, a beggar woman with a small child in tow pressed up against me, her dirty palms gently prodding my arms.  She was possibly the same age as me, perhaps younger but it was difficult to tell from the permanent creases on her forehead and her tired eyes.  When she opened her mouth to plea for money, I noticed her gums were black and most of her teeth were gone.  She was poor.  And not poor like back home in Vancouver.  Even the beggars I had encountered in Beijing were never this disheveled.  This Tibetan beggar’s clothes were so shabby and covered with large holes that at first I thought she had mistakenly missed the armholes when she put on her shirt.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed for the exotic ideas about Tibet that had held for so many years.  All I had seen so far was suffering, squalor and oppression.  It was almost too much; poverty crowded my vision wherever I turned my head.   With my clean clothes, wad of cash in my money belt—more than any of them would see in a lifetime—and a passport that could take me to practically any country in the world, I was always going to have more, always going to be ahead.  My fingers would never be caked in mud, with lines of dirt making their permanent place under my nails.  And I didn’t know if I should feel pity, relief or guilt.

I had grown up in a middle class neighborhood in east Vancouver, a popular hub for newly landed Asians because of its affordable housing.  I always had enough growing up, but our family couldn’t afford too many luxuries, like annual vacations or new clothes.  While my elementary school classmates showed off bright crisp clothes in September, the price tags clipped the night before, I wore hand-me-downs.  While the other kids took piano lessons, I taught myself a few bars on my fake piano:  a wooden desk etched with keys. At dinner, my mother would urge my sisters and me to eat the vegetables that lingered in our bowls:  Be proud of what you have.  Some people don’t get enough to eat.

Now I was in a country where the class divisions were poor and poorer. These were the people that my parents had used as a bargaining tool to get us to eat our horrid spinach.

I slipped a few yuan in the beggar’s hand.  She nodded and carefully folded the bills, which disappeared in the tattered folds of her clothes.  Then she was gone.  And I was left with guilt that I couldn’t do more for her.

This is an excerpt from THE SAME SKY.  For more excerpts, click here.

What First Intrigued Me about Tibet


Potala Palace

My curiosity about Tibet went way back.  As a kid, I was an avid stamp collector, and I remember scouring the globe for this obscure place, Tibet, that didn’t have its own stamps.  Every other country had its own.

“Because they’re part of China,” my dad shrugged and went back to mowing the lawn, the air thick with the smell of grass and new spring.  As I pulled out weeds with my small fists, I was determined to get to the bottom of it.  How strange.  Even odder that their leader, the Dalai Lama, with his big thick dark glasses and his kind warming face that reminded me of hot soup on a rainy day, wouldn’t go back to Tibet.  He seemed to travel a lot but just never went home.

I learned years later that the Dalai Lama’s life had been threatened, and he had fled his homeland to escape the Chinese occupation.  I couldn’t imagine another country invading Canada and our Prime Minister having to escape or be killed.

Then I hit my teenage years and forgot about faraway countries that had no stamps and a homeless leader, and I concentrated on school, boys and why my body was changing so much.  It wasn’t until after my university days that a BBC documentary about Tibet awakened my desire to travel there again.  As my eyes followed the procession of Tibetan monks trailing the prayer wheels circuit, I thought:  I have to go there one day.  Everything seemed so peaceful. The way the colorful prayer flags decorated the exterior of temples and mountain passes, like ribbons on presents.  The way the saffron robes graced the creaking floors of wooden temples, while the low, soothing sounds of Tibetan trumpets echoed in hallways.

This isolated place, tucked away in the Himalayan Mountains, where McDonalds and Coca Cola hadn’t penetrated, fascinated me. There would be no Starbucks on every corner, no ads constantly flashing in my face, or at least I didn’t think so.  I wanted to experience that seclusion, to let my fingers run down the walls of temples where only my footsteps could be heard padding up and down the stairs.

My curiosity for Tibet never left me, but it would be many years before I would travel near that region.  Not only was it difficult to get there, but Tibet had been closed to tourists for many years.  Instead, shortly after university, I traveled to other places in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.  But now that I was at Tibet’s doorstep, it was time.

And then there was the lure of Mount Everest, its first base camp by the border between Tibet and Nepal.  Imagine standing at the foot of the highest mountain on earth!  Throughout high school, I had read fascinating stories of those who succeeded and many who perished climbing to the formidable peak, the ground littered over the years with their frozen corpses.

I could go anywhere after that.  Thailand, with its beautiful beaches.  Burma, with its hundreds of abandoned Buddhist temples dotting the landscape.  Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples.

I wanted to cruise down an unknown street and try a different concoction of food every day, to get lost in a crowd, to be nameless, to relish the transience of meeting others who didn’t care about knowing my past or belonging to my future.  I wanted the here and now, the freedom to be engaged in the moment.

This was an excerpt from THE SAME SKY  For more excerpts, click here

When The Bus Broke Down in Tibet

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The bus slowed to a halt.  Then it lurched forward and coughed black fumes and stopped again. I was finally in Tibet and yet, our bus had officially died only twenty miles from the airport.  It seemed like we were never going to get to Lhasa.

A few Tibetan men with lit cigarettes dangling from their chapped lips stepped off the bus.  Their jackets were worn and faded by the sun, and lines of thread dangled from the frayed hems of their pants.  They squatted by the side of the road and played cards in the dirt.  The driver pulled tools from a box under his seat and immersed himself from the waist up under the hood, banging and twisting things.

I needed to go to the bathroom and I wasn’t sure about leaving.  The bus could get fixed any minute now.

I peered out the window to find the driver’s legs still sticking out from under the hood.  His friend tossed a part of the engine up and down in the air, higher and higher while his buddies laughed.  Tools were scattered all along the front of the bus and obviously, this was going to be more than just a short stop.  It was already afternoon and night would soon be coming.

Getting off the bus was like trying to walk up a crowded escalator.  Every seat was occupied, with three people crammed into the two-seater seats.  Others, who spilled into the aisles, brought their own wooden stools while carrying bags, live animals and fruit on their lap. I stepped over them and passed torn brown suitcases held together with string. Near the driver’s seat, live chickens, bound by their feet to a shabby straw basket, squawked.

When I stepped out, the sun’s intense rays glared down on me, cooking my black hair so my head was hot to the touch.  It did not really occur to me before that being at such a high altitude meant being closer to the sun.

The dirt road stretched out as far as I could see, and as I walked, I admired how smooth and bare the landscape was.  The sky was a brilliant deep blue, the kind of purity in color that I first discovered in my kindergarten paint set before learning of other shades like baby blue and peacock navy.

There were no houses, animals or people in sight.  The bus was a tiny speck at the bottom of the road and up ahead was just a straight line.  However, when I passed a bend in the road, I discovered a small wooden shack. I made a bee-line to it, each step of the way as excruciating as the next.  My bladder was going to burst.  A small outhouse was just off to the side.  It was a tiny concrete box with no doors and two holes in the ground divided by a waist-high wooden partition.  I ran in.  Relief.

With my pants still wrapped around my ankles, I hobbled out into the daylight; I couldn’t bear the stench any longer, and my eyes were starting to water.  As I bent over to pull up my pants, I heard a gasp from behind me.  I whipped around and tried to cover myself with my hands, but it was too late.

I had just mooned my first Tibetan.

She was a short but sturdy woman in her 30s with a full balloon-like dirt-brown skirt and a cream colored shirt.  Beautiful turquoise beads speckled her thick black locks. She carried a homemade broom made out of straw in her hand and a plastic dustpan in the other.

“I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed.  “I was just leaving!”

She eyed me up and down without any expression on her face.  And then  she repeatedly pointed towards her emaciated vegetables and then again at her outhouse.  Her face displayed not a hint of animosity but more curiosity with a slight tinge of fear in her eyes.  Her mouth was reduced to a tiny red dot below her nose.  Maybe she didn’t know how to take me since I was a foreigner but I looked Chinese.

I finally extended my hand out, but she didn’t shake it.  Remembering something I read in my guidebook, I clasped my hands together and bowed my head, the traditional gesture to greet a Tibetan, especially when entering a temple or someone’s home.

Then she smiled, showing her little brown stubs of teeth.  We laughed nervously, and I pulled out a bag of peanuts from the airplane for her.  She pushed it away from me, still maintaining her smile.

We stood there for several minutes grinning and nodding, until finally, I waved goodbye to her and began walking back to the bus.  Down the path, I turned around and she was still at the top of the road, waving away until she looked like a tiny grain blending into the background.

This excerpt is from my book THE SAME SKY – Chapter 4 Sparkler.  For more excerpts, click here.