Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lhasa/Beijing/Atlanta, June 2007

As you can see from the date and location, I am back in the States. Wooohoooo!...(sort of). I had thought of keeping that part of this blog until the very end and making it a surprise but now I guess I won’t. Its 5:30 in the morning on my second day back and the battle over sleeping patterns has begun in earnest. The first night was easy. After traveling almost 25 hours to get from Beijing, my body was just plain exhausted. The flight from Beijing to Newark was incredibly comfortable thanks to the rare and total blessing of having all three of the seats in my row to myself! That meant priceless full vertical body prostration on an international flight and deep, deep sleep for almost all of the 12 hour flight, which in some ways was disappointing because that flight is probably one of the most beautiful available flying over Mongolia, far eastern Siberia, within 600 miles of the North Pole, across northern Canada then down through Quebec and Newfoundland into Newark, NJ. But considering I have already flown that route in May of 06 when Leigh and I came back to Atlanta for my sister’s wedding, I took the pills and slept about 9 ½ hours! Ironically, the trouble started after arriving in the States – delay in Newark. Started as 1 ½ hours and then as the snowball effect culminates, ended up being a 4 ½ hour delay putting us landing in Atlanta and the rooster crowing hours of 3 am! Ouch. So by the time I got back to my mom’s house, where I’ll be staying this summer, my body didn’t care that my mind was trying to tell it, “It’s only 3 in the afternoon, we shouldn’t be sleeping...” Instead, it was say hi to mom; lots of hugging, a beer, and then lights out see ya!

Today has been a different story of sorts. The circadian cycles have not fully caught up and at 3 this afternoon I was downing some coffee to stay awake and at midnight I was drinking a beer to try to fall asleep! Does anyone have good jet lag remedies? If so, I’d love to hear them. I hate using the sleeping pills and the caffeine to try and force my body chemically back into rhythm. Any more natural and harmonious methods would be much more ideal.

Obviously I have mixed emotions about being back but all in all, I’m ready for it. The adventure of China wore thin after awhile and the language and daily logistical struggles kept me constantly fatigued. Anyplace you stay for more than a few months, where you try to make a living by finding or going to work, where you live day in and day out without much traveling or touring, where you know the short cuts and hidden alleys, where you have established favorite eateries and grocery stores, where you know the place better than some of the taxi drivers and you become the default guide to anyone who visits you, anyplace like this becomes your routine, your habits, your new ‘home’ and comfort zone and I think that no matter where that is, how exotic, it can become ordinary and therefore – I won’t say boring for that is just lack of imagination – less exciting. I think the hardest thing for me was not having steady work, not having something I needed to do everyday, something that helped me feel like I was ‘doing something’, moving forward, helped me feel like I was needed. The contemporary Tibet photo project that I’ve been working on the last year plus has had its incredible moments and it’s a project and a body of work I feel proud of and committed to. But there were times, especially towards the end there after I had been working on it for so long and was getting a little bored with it (or at least it wasn’t as interesting), where I just didn’t feel like all. Wouldn’t even want to look at my camera, much less take it out and go work with it. I had become burnt basically on the self assignment and without having any other paid assignments or wanting to get into any new projects; I basically took too much time off during April and May and became really restless. It became a real professional challenge and something I feel I didn’t handle very well but learned a lot from.

Another part of my frustrations being there was not feeling like I had many people to spend time with other than my wife. Don’t get me wrong about this though. This adventure has done nothing but bring Leigh and I even closer. We literally spent 90% of our time together over there and I believe it was extremely beneficial and strengthening to our relationship. We were talking about last night. It’s baffling how I have been gone for over a year and a half and so far I’ve seen my mom, my two sisters, my dad & stepmom, my aunt and one of my best and oldest friends and none of them have made a significant or memorable attempt at asking how my time was there. Leigh and I think that nobody seems to either know how to start that conversation or that what we have just done is so beyond anyone’s daily lives that there is little real comprehension. And talking with other travelers in Lhasa and other ex-pats living and working in Beijing about this, their experiences are the exact same. They go home and nobody asks about their time. Maybe because they don’t know how to ask? Maybe because they don’t care? Maybe because they feel inadequate because they haven’t done anything different since you left? But it is just baffling to Leigh and me that nobody asks us, I mean really gets into a conversation, about the daily experiences, the details, the ups and downs, the funny stories, etc. We lived and worked in a foreign country for over a year, Tibet of all places…aren’t you interested, aren’t you curious? This is all to say that luckily Leigh and I don’t have to ask each other what happened. We don’t have to wait for the other to tell them their stories or have to ask for them ourselves. We don’t have to struggle to find the right words to explain our daily adventures, to try to remember the funny stories or incredible moments. We were both there all the time to experience together, to have those moments, those stories, all those days shared and sacred.

But back to finding people over there to spend time with…In general, we made some really incredible friends. People I hope to stay in contact with and visit the rest of my life. But I was definitely frustrated and felt quite lonely on many occasions, mostly because I wasn’t really able to talk to anyone. We take language for granted so much. We don’t think about how we can communicate with those around us here in the States, how we can read all the signs, all the menus, watch the TV. It’s so familiar and normal. But take that privilege or ability away and I felt immediately and profoundly lost and disconnected. I think the language barrier is one of the most difficult things to overcome and Lhasa just doesn’t have a good location to study Mandarin. There is one for studying Tibetan but it involved registering at the University for a summer session or the 2 year program. Besides with Leigh know Tibetan so well, why double up? It was frustrating to me not having a place to study intensely if I wanted. Lhasa is designed by the authorities as a temporary stop over on people’s tour, not a destination for habitation. Not only do they not have any good places to study Mandarin, but there are only a very few places for a foreigner to stay long term (and of course those places are incredibly expensive). Our place in the Gorkha Hotel was fantastic and very comfortable and we felt incredibly lucky to have found it and get it for such a good deal (we paid roughly 400 USD per month for the place – 1 large sunny bedroom, 1 usable living room with eating table and couches and TV and 1 kitchen/bath combo where the burners and toilet were almost within physical reach of each other…almost could scramble eggs and take a pee simultaneously!). But our situation was not the norm and there were other long term folks living there who were staying in one room hotel space with no bathroom (down the hall) and no cooking abilities. Personally, I don’t know how they managed.

I say this because Leigh and I made some incredible friends while we were living there and it could be a place we would live (at least for a couple more years) if there were 1) language schools so that I could study, 2) more available work for either one of us – the Chinese are very keen on keeping any employment in country for their own citizens, which is admirable and understandable but sometimes impractical…say in photography for example. This small community of friends we developed over the short time we were there became very evident when they honored us with a farewell picnic party a couple days before we were leaving for Beijing. Besides the physical landscape, it is the people I will miss most (as for the food…let’s just say Tibet doesn’t have a great culinary reputation…for good reason!). When I say picnic, most images generated are probably of sitting in the open fields on a blanket and sharing a small meal from a basket of bread, cheese, fruit and wine, right? Well, in Tibet, they take picnic to an entirely new level of sophistication and luxury.

We arrived at the Picnic Park around 11:30 in the morning and found our ‘tent’ – really a small cabin like house surrounded by willows and bamboo and other ‘tents’ for other groups. There were table and chairs, couches, blankets and even a ma jong table. For entertainment, we brought baseball gloves and bats and balls, a volleyball (but no net), regular playing cards and UNO cards. For food, everyone brought one or two dishes. I brought the infamous Lehman cobbler. For those of you fortunate enough to know Heather then you might have been blessed at some point with her divine cobbler. I can’t say enough about this dish other than it was created on the 6th day of Genesis, just before God took his rest because He wanted something to east while relaxing! Needless to say, besides my Grandma Martha’s green been recipe, it is my prized recipe. And of course it was a huge hit at the picnic where most folks had never heard of cobbler before, mainly because baking things and fresh fruit are both sort of novelties. There turned out to be about 30 people that were there or came by over the course of our 12 hour picnic. Yes, 12 hours! It wasn’t just one meal, but two. We covered lunch and dinner while hanging out together in the willows and the sun. There was ma jong, which Leigh and I finally figured out to play (only on our last day there of course!), there was cricket with a tennis ball, there was group wrestling (hilarious!), card playing, circle volleyball, singing and lots and lots of chang (local barley beer) drinking. It was such a beautiful day with so much fun it was no surprise that there were lots of tears as the farewell kata scarves were put around our necks at the end of the evening. It was the perfect farewell to Tibet. And sad I am to be away from it now, but with the place (and my new friends) holding such a strong place in my heart now, I know I will be back. It’s just a matter of when, not if.

The days and weeks leading up to our departure and good bye picnic party were actually really uneventful. The days were getting warmer and the streets more crowded with tourists, but Leigh and I continued our work – she with the artists, me with my camera – and the time kept flying by. Some days were spent shuttling boxes of our things to the post office for shipping to Georgia or Oregon; some were packing up the room and finding a place for Leigh to return to after our visit to Beijing. Sure there were big plans to go to this place and visit that place and do this and that ‘before we leave’, but most were filled with our respective projects and being with each other.

There were two interesting happenings I should tell you about. The first had to do with my middle finger. It got a pretty bad infection called Paraychia I think. I’m a nail biter as most of you know and have been for 30 + years now but this is the first time it has ever cause me this much pain. Apparently, I got an infection on my right middle ‘birdie’ finger and the tip of my finger swelled up real big and real red and it hurt real bad. I could feel the thump of my heart in my finger with each beat. I tried to soak it in alternating hot and ice; I tried Arnica gel and another anti-bacterial lotion. Nothing was working so we finally looked it up on the internet (you can find ANYTHING on the internet these days) and came to discover the name and treatment for my infection. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something I could treat myself and I would have to go to the hospital and have my finger cut open and drained! Not an encouraging thought there in Lhasa. There are many modern aspects of living in Tibet these days but I wouldn’t say their medical facilities or training are one of them yet. Anyway, with a friend acting as translator accompanying us to The People’s Hospital # 2 emergency department, we went to get my finger taken care of. One could tell immediately some of the differences in socialized and privatized health care. For one, there was absolutely no waiting besides the time it took us to pay our $.50 registration fee and find the doctor’s room. According to our friend, they were sending us to the bone specialist area. When we found the doctor, a young Han man, the doctor took one look at my finger and said we would need to remove the nail first thing. Whoa, no you won’t! Not only is that a form of voluntary torture, but we can fix this without taking my fingernail out, chief. So after explaining to him calmly that we wanted to try just cutting open the finger and draining the infection (who are we to tell a doctor how to treat a condition…but we read it on the internet so it must be true!). He said fine and that he would be happy to do it but that I should wait for a more ‘sterile’ room to become available and that wouldn’t be until the next day. Not wanting to wait (b/c it really hurt and I could already see large pockets of pus under my skin – I know, totally gross) but I was all for doing it right then and was about to say so when my ‘married gene’ kicked in and quietly reminded me to consult my wife about this. The look on her face told me not only was I an idiot for even considering such a thought as having my finger cut open in a dusty, dirty and unsanitary environment and how did you ever manage to survive this many years without my superior infallible logic but we were definitely going to wait until tomorrow when something more hygienically acceptable became available. It’s amazing, but all of that in one look. Chalk one up for the married gene. That afternoon we get a phone call from the doctor and he had found time and a room so we could come back and get it done today. Great! We hop back in a taxi and get there. The room he takes us to is worse than the first one! At this point though, Leigh’s level of expectations had taken a nose dive and her most important priority was to take care of my pain and problem. So she reluctantly agreed to let him go ahead with everything. Me, I was just thrilled to finally have a possible relief for my throbbing finger after 5 days of quietly suffering. When they started to bring out the scalpel and alcohol-ing my finger, I had to stop the nurse and doctor and ask them about anesthetics. The thought of getting my finger cut open with a very sharp knife was none too appealing in the first place and then to do it w/o anesthetics? My thoughts were racing - Don’t scream. Find something to bite down on. Be a man. This is how it was in the 18th century. The knife isn’t too rusty. Be brave, be brave, be brave. OH GOD IT’S GOING TO HURT! When my question to them was translated about anesthetics, they both just looked at me like I had a tree growing out of my head and said, “Of course we’re going to give you anesthetics for your finger. It was only during the wars when we didn’t have those to give.” In other words, you idiot, do you really think we are barbarians? But come on! They wanted to pull my fingernail out…I wasn’t about to take the chance! After the Novocain shots in my finger, they performed the minor surgery and then wrapped my finger up well and sent me on my way to come back a few days later for a bandage change. Over the course of a week, I went to the hospital 4 times and all 4 times I just walked around giving everybody the bird….and no one had a clue what I was doing. It was great. One of those ‘only funny to me’ cultural moments. Regardless of my jokes here, they really did treat me right, took very good care, were very tender and concerned for me and my finger now had totally healed with hardly a scar to show for it. And the total price for minor finger surgery in fairly medieval conditions by a doctor who really just wants to pull finger nails out (maybe leftover from KGB days or something), 2 shots of Novocain with a pray to God new needle, 4 hopefully new but at least pretty clean bandage changes over the course of a week, and all with no waiting in reception areas for hours at a time - $4.50 US. Not bad for socialized medicine, eh?

The second interesting thing we did before leaving Lhasa was to go on a day trip to a monastery called Tsurphu, the traditional home of the Karmpa (third highest in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama). Of course, the Karmapa took off to India several years ago so he could be the teacher he needs to be and it is only there (or at least ‘outside’) that he can do that. I am happy to discuss the current state of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, religious freedom, human rights, etc in great detail with any of you personally, but I do not wish to put any of this in writing here. The monastery is a couple hours, which turned into 4 b/c of all the local hitchers getting on and off along the way, at the end of this beautiful agricultural valley to the west of Lhasa. It known as a great spiritual retreat center and many of the hermitage cottages located scattered up in the mountains near Tsurphu are habituated by monks doing the required and very impressive Sakya lineage (I think) silent retreat of 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. Yes, that’s roughly 1,188 days without talking! That’s incredible. I’ve done some 2-3 week stretches in my life of silent retreat but I eventually started talking to myself, or the animals I would see. I wonder if that’s acceptable. To talk to yourself sometimes during a silent retreat? You’re really only verbalizing the mental wanderings you have so it’s like thinking out loud. But then again, it is out loud, so I’m not sure. Interesting and amazing nonetheless. It seemed like a really long bus ride b/c of this one Israeli man sitting with his friend across the aisle from me who talked the entire time virtually w/o stopping! I’m sorry, I don’t care what language you’re speaking b/c it doesn’t matter…if you talk that much non stop, then there is no way you are really saying anything. “You talk a lot, but you’re not saying anything” – David Byrne. If anyone is a candidate for the 3-3-3 silent retreat, it was this guy! Leigh and I walked the out kora, which took us up the valley a ways past the monastery and then up onto the ridge directly behind the main temples where the majority of retreat house are located. It was a beautiful walk and a gorgeous day. Sun bright and strong, the wind gentle and cool and the sky a deep, deep clear mountain blue that only happens at high elevations. (I already miss that sky terribly). We saw a small herd of blue sheep, which are pretty rare these days. That was really special. It was one of those hikes which subtly reminded me of all the innate beauty that defines Tibet, the rare wonder that makes it a sacred place to so many and the undeniable awe I feel living in that stunning landscape. After the walk, we tarried on at the monastery restaurant and had some simple noodles and momos (which we have learned to make so invite us over to your house and be prepared for the dumpling parade!) and talked for awhile with some of the monks, who are always quite nice, curious and tender. For the last hike in Tibet (for who know how long), it was great.

Well, the sad day finally came, like we knew it would. Time seems to be inevitable in its movements and progressions. It was time to leave Lhasa. On Monday the 21st of May, we got on a plane bound for Beijing. We arrived in the late evening to be picked up by T of the Red Gate Gallery. He was the co-curator with Leigh of the Tibetan contemporary art show, New Works from Lhasa at their 798 gallery space ( and A very kind, thoughtful and genuine man, I liked him immediately. He was extremely generous to Leigh and I and put us up in his San Li Tun apartment for our entire stay in Beijing. The apartment was simple, comfortable and very convenient. We loved staying there. After sharing a drink with us, Tony left us to our new ‘home’ – he was given a good friend’s diplomat house who would be out of town, a definite upgrade for the two weeks! After an extremely relaxed sleep, we awoke to our first day in Beijing to steady rain. That’s like showing up in Phoenix and having it rain the first day in town…it just doesn’t occur all that often and really was an unusual introduction to the city. And of course, we were unprepared for it. But having lived in very dry Tibet for a year and being a Georgia boy accustomed to more moisture than I was getting and realizing that rain for this city was a true blessing not to be cursed, I didn’t complain too loudly.

We had some very good sandwiches and coffee for breakfast – the food in Beijing was really good and we totally spoiled ourselves on it – we went out to the 798 art area to see the gallery and Leigh wanted to get to work immediately. She was taking this opportunity to exhibit the artists in this gallery very seriously and wanted the show to be outstanding (which it was but more on that in a sec). I went to print the photographs of Gade (one of the artists) and my collaboration on the ice Buddha installation in Lhasa. I think I might have mentioned in one of my previous blogs about this day back in December when I went out to the main river with a group of the artists to make some photographs of one of them putting an ice Buddha back in the river from which it came and photographing it melting. It was a fun day and there was about 10 of us all out there having a picnic and cheering on the melting process. One of the final products from that project was a series of 8 photographs showing the gradual melting of the Buddha back into the river. There were also 2 other photographs, individual stand alones, that showed a close up of the ice sculpture and another that put it in a very modern and industrialized context. Anyway, those 10 photographs were going to be in the show and they needed them printed. So there I was, minding my own business when BAM!!!, I’m exhibiting at the most famous and hottest gallery in all of China. Sometimes, life is just full of wonderful surprises and adventures! After dropping off the files for printing, I met the Lhasa guide book people we worked with in November (remember them?) for a delicious lunch of sushi. Riding the zing wave of post sushi delights, I caught a cab out to the 798 space to meet up with Leigh and Tony and see the gallery. Little did I know at the time just how much this place would become the center of our universe for the next 10 days. Following a nice afternoon in the gallery, we met up with more friends for a fabulous dinner at a delicious Jaca (pronounced haka, one of the 56 official minority peoples in China) and then out for a few post dinner, celebratory drinks at a couple different bars, one of which was called Bed, a small complex of private, intimate, quiet rooms, dimly lit interiors and cushions spread all over the floor and against the walls with low tables with really good jazz played at just the right volume for energy but not overwhelming the conversations. Very classy, very cool place. This is all to say that our first day in Beijing, a city that honestly I was not looking forward to visiting that much…or at least had very high expectations for, was completely indulgent to all the senses and my first impressions of this capital city were very favorable.

The next few days were spent in preparation for the upcoming and highly anticipated opening on Saturday. The show went through several different visual incarnations before finally being settled on, some of which I stood with T and helped talk him through the layout, moving pieces from one wall to another, continually tweaking things until it was just right. It was really a fun but sometimes frustrating process because it was very much like a puzzle, once you moved one piece all the others had to be adjusted. And to stand back and see how much time and consideration a gallery of this caliber spends on laying out the show was insightful.

During this time, Leigh and I had very little time together for relaxing. Most of it was spent (for her at least) at the gallery helping set up. I tried to make the most of my time there, seeing some sights, but I spent a lot of time editing my Tibet body of work and putting together a small collection of 25 to show T for professional feedback and to see if he could get me some exhibit space here in Beijing in the coming year or so. It was a long and tedious process going from something like 25,000 images that I shot this year to 25! Ouch. The first couple cuts were actually quite easy, but it was the last 80 or so down to 25 that was the real challenge…and I still feel like it’s not quite perfect but close. I’ve made a gallery of them on Picasa ( and so you can check them out, but keep in mind this is a work in progress and will change slightly in the coming months. But this will be the project that keeps me busy for some time. I want to make a book of these contemporary Tibet images, a nice 150 + page photo book showing what Tibet looks like today. I would welcome any and all critical comments you might have, so please have a look! T was very encouraging and thought of the 25, six or seven were ‘very beautiful’ (with the rest being interesting, unexpected and some even humorous) and encouraged me that I definitely have an exhibit here and in his opinion a really good show too. He immediately thought of two or three galleries in Beijing that I should talk to and even started talking about ones in Australia (where he’s from) that he knew would be interested in them. So, needless to say, it’s very, very exciting! I can see the potential of this project and I feel strongly that it could really happen. But I told him that I wanted to first secure a publisher for the book and then I would start thinking about lining up gallery shows for this work. I want them to go together, the book and the exhibits, so I’m trying to be strategic. I’ve never done this before, make a book or put on a solo exhibit on a scale like this, so I’ve got a lot to learn. It’s such a blessing, however, to have trusted friends and critics in your corner helping and advising you how to proceed. Such a blessing! But that’s really what it takes I think – someone or someones who believe in the project or believe in me as much as I believe in it (and me). It seems that this might be slowly happening. Fingers crossed…

I’ve also started work on another ‘side project’, a portrait project that is related but not the same style or content as my contemporary Tibet images. Check it out here –

Leigh and I did manage to make it to the Forbidden City one morning and that was a total zoo and honestly just a bit disappointing. However, it was hot, hazy and so crowded we felt we were swimming in Chinese tourists! There were moments of being there, quiet corners off the beaten track within the walls, which we really enjoyed but the timing was great as most of the buildings were being renovated for the upcoming Olympics. I can’t even begin to describe just how much construction and renovation is happening right now in Beijing. You think the ‘boom’ is bad in places like Atlanta or Denver? It seemed the whole city was being built or rebuilt while we were there. Cranes, scaffolding and orange protective wrap was the architectural style that I saw in Beijing. And that city has Olympic fever like you wouldn’t believe. There are signs everywhere with the countdown in days, hours, minutes. Paraphernalia litters the shops and streets. The official mascots, the Friendlies (one of which is supposed to be a Tibetan antelope), are everywhere. Olympic fever has gripped the nation, at least the eastern side of it. It’s amazing and underlining the general buzz of the city there’s a level of excitement and anticipation that’s half ‘let’s get this over with and get on with our lives’ and ‘we are about to show the world how superior we are'.

We also got to visit the Great Wall, or at least see parts of it from afar, when we went with all the artists on a Red Gate (they really took care of us and the artists…I mean first class treatment the whole time we were there) sponsored field trip to a place called The Commune. The place is a private plot of land that butts up against part of the Great Wall out a little past Badaling – still almost 2 hours out of town. The owners of the place, a fancy hotel chain, invited 20 or so architects from all over Asia to design a house using their own unique country and culture as inspiration. So for example, the Japanese architect used almost all bamboo and very clean, zen-like interiors when he/she designed ‘the Bamboo house’. And there are about 30 houses scattered in a beautiful branched valley. One can rent them for the night or a weekend or a week but you gotta have some big bucks b/c I think each house goes for about $1000 USD per night. It ain’t no Appalachian log cabin for $69.99 a night, but I can’t say I liked all of them. We didn’t see all of them, not enough time, but Leigh and I did get a lot of architectural design ideas for our ‘dream house’. It’s a very famous place and well regarded and even won a special design prize at the 2005 Venice Biennale (sp?). It was like taking an elvin enclave of shelters nestled in the nooks and crannies of the wooded mountains and adding a heavy dose of Frank Lloyd Wright and Four Seasons Hotel ( We had a delicious lunch there and then walked around to check out some of the houses. Unfortunately, we thought it would be possible to take a short hike up through the woods to the Wall, which would be untouched and uncrowded as it was one of the very few privately owned sections, but the government had just passed an edict like the week before that no one was allowed on this part of the wall anymore. Talk about bad timing and disappointment! It would turn out that that would be the closest I would come to the Great Wall during my time in Beijing, so I wasn’t able to walk on it like I wished, but what I could see from the Commune and the drive to and from was stunning. Kind of like the Grand Canyon in the sense that there really is only one word to describe it: Great!

So the big day finally arrived: the Opening! Months of preparation, timeless hours on the essays, bios and picking the pieces…the day was finally here for the artists (and Leigh) to shine. And did they ever! The show was a HUGE success. Beyond everyone’s expectations. Truly a great show that created tons of buzz and has almost sold every piece! It was extremely well attended and there were some very, very important collectors and curators that came. The seems to be a lot of interest now from Hong Kong and Shanghai galleries, Australia museums and other places in Europe and the US. It was such a success that Red Gate would like to do another group show next year, in 2008. One of the artists was offered representation by Red Gate gallery (huge deal) and like I said, most of the pieces have sold (and there were like 35 pieces or so, some as high as $23,000 US…I even sold 2 edition sets of the 8 photograph series and 1 individual photo…and what a rush!), either at the opening or even before the event. And it seemed that everyone’s reaction was one of pleasant surprise. As in they walked in thinking, ‘Oh, Tibetan contemporary art…it’ll be quaint and maybe cute’ but as soon as they walked in you could see the look on their faces that said, ‘Wow! Real art!’ Afterwards we all went out for a huge 50 person dinner (again courtesy of Red Gate Gallery) that was incredible and then out to a couple parties before finally dragging home exhausted, elated and totally content around 3 am.

It was fantastic event and a total validation to the artists and also for Leigh. I am so proud of her. She really, really put her spot on the map with all this and lots of very important people were complimenting her and even asking her to help them increase their contemporary Tibetan art collections, etc. She was even offered a job at one point! So, so, so proud of her. All her hard work and all that energy to be so well received by a sometimes very unforgiving audience. Stunning work, Leigh. Be very happy with yourself because you really did something special. We had a great day, especially Leigh. And the artists were a little overwhelmed I think. I don’t think many of them were really prepared for the amount of attention they received. There was the opening, but there was also an Australian journalist who did a large article on them, there was an artists’ talk, there was another journalist who is doing another piece on them with individual portraits, one of China’s premier art critics came to the show and enjoyed it so much that he invited them to his house for a dialogue with contemporary Chinese artists. I mean this was a big deal and I’m so happy it was such a success. I think this only bodes well for the future of the artists and Leigh as well.

Everything after that this was completely anticlimactic and actually still a bit hectic and centered on 798. But we managed to walk around the galleries a bit, do a little shopping and continue to enjoy the delectable Beijing cuisine. Finally, on June 1st it was time for us to leave…and sadly to separate temporarily. I, back to the States. She, to journey back by train with some of the artists and a couple gallery owner/friends to Lhasa for another 2 months of trying up loose research ends and an incredible month long field trip with an academic group from Princeton. So here I am, struggling with jet lag at 5:30 am, back in the States and trying to find my center, feeling ‘in between’ right now – not really there, not really here. And she is now back in Lhasa about to kick some more ass and enjoy some more blue, blue skies (which I miss dearly already…there is no sky like a Tibetan sky). So, 479 days after coming to Asia (42 days in Nepal and 437 days in Tibet), I am now just another American, living in America, speaking English and blending in…now longer the exotic ‘living in Tibet’ prestige to go with my introductions but another anonymous and unremarkable Westerner trying to find his way. It’s not that bad, believe me, but there is a significant let down after living so high, literally and figuratively, for so long. It’s going to take some time to make my adjustments, as I’ve always felt that reverse culture shock is the worse. But I’m very excited about reconnecting with my family, my dear friends and enjoying again the wonders and pleasures that the US has to offer with new perspective, fresh eyes and a humble heart.

So give me a call (just got a new cell phone – 404 354 0536) or just come over for happy hour (noonmidnight everyday)! I look forward to seeing you or talking with you soon to catching up and reconnect!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lhasa, April 2007

It’s April already?! Where does the time go? What happened to February and March? Wow. At this rate Leigh and I will be rolling around in our RV wearing our crushed velvet matching jogging suits visiting grandkids all across the US in no time! I guess we are either having a lot of fun, very busy or most likely, not paying attention to calendars. One of the most common questions we have to each other is “What day is it?” I have to admit, I love not knowing what day of the week it is, and not having to know. The concept of time is money just doesn’t apply here. How refreshing! Nobody ever seems so busy they can’t meet you for tea, play a game of snooker (my new favorite game) or share a meal with you. And making plans? Well, if want to hang out with somebody, you don’t call them two days ahead of time and schedule ‘hang out’ time. You don’t even need to call them the day before. You just call them up whenever you want to hang out and say, “You want to hang out?” and they’ll say “Yes! Where?” It’s a given that you’ll do it immediately. And when you do call to make plans a couple days in advance, like Leigh still does often, they tell you to call them back then; they can’t think that far ahead!

That’s not to say Leigh and I aren’t busy. We are very these days. She even more so than me and it doesn’t look like it’ll let up until we return to the States. The Gallery is open again as of April 1st (though you wouldn’t really know it by looking at the walls as there are large white spaces from artists who have yet to put anything up…slackers!), and she is busy running around making time for interviews and looking at their new works, etc.

In fact, just last night there was a very interesting talk given by one of our friends who was visiting from the US. He is the Executive Director of Art Papers (, an international publication with a circulation of 170,000 dedicated to talking about contemporary art. Last night he gave a talk at the gallery and asked a lot of challenging questions. For example, he asked how many of them had business cards they could give him at that moment. Only 4 of 14 had them! Here is one of the most important figures for their careers they have met in the last couple years and only 4 of them had business cards!? He made a good point when he then said, “Alright, you four that gave me cards, you’ve just been featured in the latest Art Papers and your exposure there just created 100 new collectors of your work. The rest of you, you just missed an incredible opportunity to change your lives.” It was a strong and somewhat harsh example of what he was talking about – preparing for success, but a necessary one. The reality is that the business and work ethic here and the Western one can be very, very different. But his point was that if you are going to deal with the West, you have to be aware of how the West works. The rest of the dialogue that our friend led was good, despite the chatty and scattered attention of the crowd. At first the artists were very reluctant or shy and didn’t say much, but after awhile (and getting impatient with one or two artists talking all the time), it became quite an inspired and passionate group discussion. There were many locals there who weren’t artists and it was good for them to hear a lot of these issues, challenges and thoughts around contemporary art as they are not exposed to it here at all. It was pretty much an unprecedented event and I’ve never seen so many people in the gallery at once. It was packed, which was a big surprise to the artists.

As for me, well I don’t know where I am right now. There’s a lot going on and it is a very challenging but interesting time for me personally. Since I’ve returned from Amdo, I haven’t really been doing much but somehow have no time to do anything. Unfortunately, I haven't been updating my website at all. I’ve got plenty of new images I’d love to put up there (and take down a few while I’m at it) and actually I want to create an entirely new section of the site dedicated to my personal (i.e. Fine Art) photography. With the break in those communications lines around Christmas near Taiwan, the internet here hasn’t been the same. It's getting better but anything more than dial up speed at this point is an improvement! Thus I still have to send out the blogs via email and not direct everybody to the website. And the blogs are coming much less frequently than I want them to. But I can't force them and nor do I have much time anymore as spring has arrived and that means busy, busy, busy again (at least in theory). Where did the lovely, slow, lonely winter go?

I have hit a recent period of strange mind space and bad luck. I’m not sure which caused the other but it has been one of those ‘when it rains, it pours’ sort of time periods. As far as I can figure, it started with the first series of rejection letters from graduate schools. The first two, from University of New Mexico, Arizona State, were really no surprise. They are probably in the top 3 or 4 MFA photo programs in the whole country and their aesthetics didn’t really line up with mine. But when I applied, I figured what the hell. Why not? The next two really kind of threw me. One, from University of Washington, was dejecting because I really thought I was a strong enough candidate to make it into at least that school. Definitely a 2nd or 3rd tier program and yet I still didn’t get in. Aren’t I good enough? The next one, the fourth rejection letter in about a week, was from the University of Arizona. This was definitely a good school and one that I really wanted to get accepted to. The professors were young and enthusiastic and doing really good work. It was kind of funny. I didn’t really know how much I wanted to get into this school until they turned me down. It’s too bad, really. Personally, I think that too many graduate schools have a preconceived notion of what a successful grad school candidate should look like, what kind of background, experience and portfolio they should have. I, unfortunately, didn’t fit into those molds and therefore was considered undesirable. I think it’s sad when you have someone of my talent, with my international working experience and with my undeniable passion for creation, applying for graduate school and being rejected. What sort of people are they accepting? What does this say for the future of our arts? Part of me thinks that it’s the universe telling me that grad school isn’t what I need at this moment, that there is something else out there waiting for me to turn the corner and find it. Part of me thinks that maybe I’m not good enough have enough potential or have enough focused drive for graduate school. Another part of me thinks that it is the schools’ loss if they cannot think outside their boxes and realize the potential that I have. Regardless of the reasons, I have not been turned down by 4 of the 6 graduate schools I applied to. Not an uplifting ratio.

I received all of these notices just before I left for Amdo so my time there was a bit on the dejected/depressed side, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Upon returning to Lhasa, I received some good news – the external hard drive that I bought at the first of the year (Jan 1st) had finally arrived in Lhasa. It only took the package three full months to arrive. That’s the last time I used surface shipping for anything! I was excited because I had started to get pretty tight on memory space, even though I already have 3 other external hard drives here! Yes, that’s right I have enough photography from my year here to fill almost 1200 GB’s of storage. That’s 1.2 million MB’s for those keeping track. Or to speak in total Star Trek terms, 1.2 Terra Bytes. I don’t know exactly how many images this is, but it’s well over 10,000 at this point. I could open up my own photographic stock agency with what I’ve accumulated in just one year. Not all of it is from Tibet (I did go to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia on assignment this year), just most of it. This is all to say, I am desperately relying on these hard drives. Anyway, when I got the new hard drive I copied over everything I shot from Tibet in 2007 to it. This took the entire night as there were about 300 GB’s of photos already from 2007. When I checked the drive in the morning, it had all seemed to copy over fine, so I made the HUGE STUPID IDIOTIC MORONIC mistake of deleting everything I just copied from the original source, making this hard drive the only place my entire 2007 Tibet collection exists. I think you know where this is going. I then rebooted my computer after being on and working all night. And wouldn’t you know it, but when the computer came back on the hard drive was missing! After repeated tearful attempts at getting it back and only getting error messages saying things like ‘unrecognized drive’ and ‘drive needs to be formatted’. So now I have one defunct hard drive that hopefully has all of my 2007 Tibet images on it somewhere. I have sent it back to the States to a data recovery company in hopes they can find them and get them back. Miraculously, however, I still had everything I had shot from my most recent trip to Amdo still saved on my Nikon Coolwalker (basically a portable hard drive used in the field when shooting, ( And I had made back ups on DVD of everything up to the end of January, which I had just mailed home to mom before I left for Amdo. So if those are intact and usable and the Coolwalker saved my ass for March…otherwise, I basically lost one month of images...including the New Year’s celebrations. It is bad…very, very bad…but not quite as life shattering as it could have been. But it’s still bad.

So with the hard drive failing and the rejections letters from schools coming to basically back to back, I have not been feeling very enthusiastic towards photography lately. I think it’s a combination of these unfortunate events happening, being tired and getting pretty burnt out on this book project as it’s the only think I’ve been thinking about for the last like 6 months. Probably not surprising that I haven’t picked up the camera really in about 10 days. I just haven’t been able to get back on the saddle lately but I don’t have the time left to extend this self pity wallowing any longer. If I’m going to do this project right, I have to get back out there and get the work done. The last few days I’ve been using the excuse that we’ve had friends in town and I need to show them around, etc. But they left today, so now I got no reason not get be out there working again…and this is the plan. Just where this plan takes me in the next few weeks and coming months, we shall see.

Many of you have started to ask us about when we’re coming back. Well, our return plans are still up in the air. I'm waiting to hear back from the last 2 schools, but even if I do get in to either (PNCA in Portland or WSU in Pullman, WA) I'm not sure I want to go. I'm in a strange mind space right now and pretty burnt on the photo thing, so I’m probably not in the best place to make a life changing decision right now. Part of me is definitely ready to make it back to the States and start figuring out the next step, the next settlement destination, the next path. But I also know there is so much here still to be done, I just can't leave yet! That said, our tentative plans have us arriving back in the States around the middle of July, packing our stuff in a truck and driving to the west coast, Portland, Oregon most likely (unless I get into WSU and we decide to move to rural eastern Washington state). If I can ride this wave of homesickness and feelings of rejection and decide not to go to any schools, I might find the stamina to stay here through July at least, maybe even stay through the summer. If I get accepted to a grad school, then I will need to be back by July, so we can pack, etc and be on the west coast by early August to settle in and get ready for hell (i.e. grad school). I also have one of my oldest and dearest friends getting married at the end of July in Colorado, so that is a major factor in the planning process. Leigh is committed to a trip with a bunch of Tibetan art historians that will carry her all over Tibet for a month starting in early part of June, and then she wants to come back here to Lhasa to finish up some loose ends, etc before being ready to come back. The prospect of bringing home a puppy seems more remote now. The logistics of our travel schedules this summer and a variety of other factors have put a reality brake on the puppy train unfortunately. We haven’t given up the idea completely but it just doesn’t seem realistic the more we talk it out. There are Tibetan mastiff breeders in the US (,, so we could always approach them when we get settled if we are still focused on that breed, which I think we are.

The weather has definitely changed in the last two weeks here. The trees have brilliant green leaves on them now and they burst out seemingly overnight. It's quite warm in the sun these days and my poor face caught the brunt of a 3 hour afternoon car ride back from Tirdrum just the other day. Thank the Goddess for aloe! The wind and dust has picked up again. Just yesterday it was so dusty we couldn't even see Pabonka, which is only about 7 kms away! The nights are cool and very pleasant, though. We spent some time on top of the Gorka roof with our visiting friends having our favorite
Lhasa beer (Stout Lodge) and gazing at the full moon the other night. It was very nice. More white faces can be seen everyday and people here are definitely switching into 'tourist' mode. We can't walk around the Barkhor now without getting at least a few "Hello! Lookie, lookie!" yelled at us, whereas during the winter it was as if we were just one of the locals. Alas, Tibet is not our private playground anymore like it was in the winter....

I should finish up my descriptions of Amdo. I left off with us having seen the huge tangkha, or religious painting, at Labrang. Our next destination was Repkong, the home of one of the oldest and most renowned schools of art in Tibet. Because the town of Labrang was full of pilgrims and tourists, we could not find a local bus traveling to Repkong, so we had to hire a private jeep (not the cheapest route by any means) to take us the 4 hours over the pass there. Luckily, we found this one young woman from Slovenia who jumped in at the last minute and shared our expenses with us. She was a very nice young woman and worked for a travel agency there in the capital, Ljubljana, and was mapping out different routes through Amdo for them. We had a good conversation around racism (Slovenia was very involved in the Croatia/Albania conflict of ’99) and international travel. Traveling is such an incredible opportunity to find kindred spirits and have interesting conversations. And luckily for us, but unfortunate for the world, English is the common tongue at this point. Arriving at Repkong, we found our hotel and bid her and the driver farewell.

Repkong, in Central Amdo, just south of the Yellow River, can in many ways be considered the heart of Amdo. Its principal monastery predates the ones in Labrang and Kumbum by at least two centuries and the county itself possesses 36 smaller monasteries. The land around Repkong vary from rolling grasslands which support the nomadic camper groups, through forested gorges (though these are shrinking), to an agricultural zone near the county town itself. The ethnic mix is also fascinating, for there are four villages inhabited by completely Tibetanized Tu people while in the valley to the east lies the Muslim Salar, to the north is a Hui autonomous county and to the south is Sogwo, a Mongol autonomous county. The town is located on the banks of a medium sized river and the wide main valley and many of the smaller side valleys are rich growing lands where wheat, barley, potatoes and a variety of other vegetables are grown. The town of Repkong was up to 70 percent Tibetan just a few years ago but the architecture, both religious and lay, has a very Chinese appearance. This is definitely not on the beaten track and we seemed to be the only white faces many of the folks there had seen in quite awhile.

After checking into our overpriced but comfortable hotel, we began our leisurely exploration of the town. We had come to see the carrying of a large Maitreya statue through the town but didn’t think that was until the next day, so we spent most of our time enjoying the festive atmosphere at what appeared to be a local festival market near the town’s center. There were many gambling games, from rolling huge dice what had pictures of one of six different animals on them and you bet on which animals would be the three dice (kind of like a country version of slot machines). That was very animated and popular. There was another game where you had to throw a ring around a washbasin that contained your prize. Of course, when Leigh and I just took one of the rings and walked over to one of the basins and tried to manually fit it over it barely fit with like a half inch to spare…so I guess carnival gamers are the same anywhere…seems doable but in reality the odds are terribly stacked against you. Finally, there was another game where there was this flying airplane going around in circle and you put money on which color or number it was going to stop on (yes, a country version of the roulette wheel). There was also a place behind all the games where you could rent these electric cars for your little kids to drive around in circles. Of course there were all kinds of different foods available, even a cotton candy maker! It was fun to walk around and see Tibetans enjoying themselves, though a little disappointing to see how eagerly they would throw their money at these gambling games.

As we made our way up the hill towards the monastery, the crowd became thicker and more agitated. The energy was high and people seemed very excited all around us. When we passed through the gate of the monastery we saw why: the statue procession was happening today not tomorrow! And it was such a scene! There were hundreds of Tibetans crowded around this cage on wheels. Inside the cage, well away from the enthusiastic groping of the locals, was a medium sized and beautiful statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Pulling the cage by a long threaded and knotted katas were both monks and laymen. Surrounding the cage were a group of monks and laymen, some with long sticks, some using just their robes’ sleeves to try to beat back the crowd when they wanted to move the statue a few feet further. Then standing on the cart by the cage was a monk who seemed to be directing the direction of the cart ever so slowly back to the monastery. It would go like this: the monk on top would yell instructions to the folks pulling it and they would begin to inch it up the hill further towards the monastery, then the men around the cage would beat back the crowd with the sticks and robes (not violently, just forcefully) so the cart would have room to move, the cart would move a few feet and then they would stop and the crowd would rush forward again trying to bonk their heads to the cage. Bonking the head on the cage was especially important of the children, some of which were literally thrown at the cage head first! Mothers would hand their infants to complete strangers in a surging crowd and that person would then bowl his way through to the cage and try to delicately (as delicate as you can with a throng of enthusiastic masses heaving around you) touch the infant or child’s head to the cage. Incredibly, I only saw one child that really got rattled by the iron bars, bringing tears to their eyes. For the most part, everyone was having the best time, laughing, yelling, singing. And following the statue in its protective cage was a large group of older women who just followed the cage a respectful distance and sang a blessing song over and over again. The sounds of their united voices and their little impenetrable knot of womanhood there at the back was a beautiful piece of strong stillness and serenity in the roiling masses of humanity around the icon. Eventually, the statue made its gradual climb back to the monastery and there was taken back inside with much blessing, singing and reverence. There it would be replaced on the alter and await the adventure of coming out again next year.

Having seen the statue parade, it was time to shift our focus to the art schools and artists that make Repkong famous. The next few days were spent visiting the schools and artists in the area. Slightly north of the town, the two renowned painting schools Repkong, known as Sengeshong Yagotsang and Sengeshong Magotsang are located within their unique and idyllic village settings. Almost every house is an artist’s studio and we spent some time with a few, seeing their incredibly detailed and colorful work and just hearing their life stories. The Repkong school of art, known as Wutun in Mandarin, was established by the 15th century and, by the 18th century, it had spread to cover much of Amdo, as indeed it still does today. Almost all of the work executed here over the centuries was lost, unseen by the outside world, during the destruction of Amdo’s monasteries in the Cultural Revolution; but due to the dedication of a few elderly masters the tradition is now being carefully handed down to the next generation. The style broadly follows that of Central Tibet, but the infusion of cultures brought by contact with the Mongols, Tu and neighboring Chinese makes the work distinct. This is reflected in the ethnic origins of the people of Sengeshong themselves, who are said to have come from Western Tibet and to have intermingled over the centuries with neighboring communities. This became very apparent to us while we were visiting a family of artists and brought with us an Amdo translator who could understand Lhasa dialect. So Leigh would speak Lhasa-ke to the translator, the translator would then translate into Amdo-ke to a younger son of the elder artist, then the son would translate into Tu language for his father (because he was Tu and didn’t know Tibetan at all) and to get the answers would require the whole process in reverse! It was quite amazing. Personally, I have not seen traditional arts as distinct or as beautiful since visiting the Guge kingdom back in October. Regrettably, nobody was working at the moment because it was still too cold and the paint wouldn’t react very well to the weather. The artists had to wait for the warmer weather before they could begin their work again, so the depth at which we could understand the processes and work was somewhat limited. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable and thoroughly remarkable place to visit.

It was at this point in the journey where Leigh and I went separate ways. She, feeling she had much more work to do in Lhasa, went back on the train; while I, not having any responsibilities in Lhasa and thinking that I needed to explore deeper into nomad country, hired a personal guide and translator (a somewhat expensive but very necessary purchase) and continued south into the heart of Amdo.

Our first stop was the Mongol county of Sogwo. Taking the bus from Xining, where I met JG the translator, we rode a several hours through the valleys and over the passes until we arrived at the county capital Henan (which in Mandarin means south river). Sogwo is a region where the dominant population is ethnically Mongol but so thoroughly integrated that only a few distinctive cultural traits remain. These, including the Mongolian writing are actively encouraged by the local and regional Chinese governments to both encourage tourism and keep at least little segments of the population from identifying with the Tibetan people and common cause. The yurt, the round felt tent of the Mongols, can be found here in abundance and slight differences in dress and jewelry can be detected. I was interested in this area because of the assumed differences in facial features, dress and customs here, but I soon realized that as time passes, both the yurt and the slight differences in dress seem to fade away. The land around Henan, where we stayed, is all rolling grasslands, broad expanses of land dotted with yak and sheep herds. A perfect environment for grazing and thus populated with almost nothing but nomads. The town itself is really nothing to write home about – a long strip of pavement where shop and administrative buildings line each side and where the people ride in on their motorcycles (the modern horse) to buy supplies, play a game of pool, recharge their cell phones or buy a TV and satellite dish. Even though they may only have one small solar panel outside their tents or small houses that has enough charge to power a 60 watt bulb or a small radio, many nomads will still buy a TV and satellite dish as a sign of wealth! It’s crazy and totally modern. Sadly, we didn’t find any tents with TV’s but there were a couple shops in town selling them that were quite popular.

Making some local contacts, my guide and I went out into the countryside as soon as we could to spend some time with some willing nomads. Now, don’t get the wrong impression…when I say nomad, I’m not really talking about a family group that lives in a tent year round and move about all the time following their herds as they follow the supply of grass. The nomads that are here are usually based in a house for much of the winter. The house will have three or four rooms, a large glassed in south-facing porch and will have two or three generations living in it – from grandparent to kid. The house will be surrounded by ‘their land’ all of it fenced in at this point. This to me was one of the most surprising things to see – fences breaking up and dividing the grasslands into individual plots. This, to me, goes against all thoughts on roaming herds and the freedom of wandering. But there they were, fences dividing neighbors, barring short cuts, containing the families’ herds. A strange sight, reminding me of the ‘subduing of the frontier’ that happened in the States during the 19th century when ranchers moved from free range to individual plots. When I asked people about the fencing, they all said that it was a good thing because now they don’t have to spend their entire days watching the herds, etc. They can let them out into the ‘back 40’ for example and not have to wonder if they will wander off. But these are also the same people who think a dam on the river is a good thing. They see one surface benefit but don’t have the abilities or exposure to critically think about the deeper, long-term impact these so called ‘improvements’ have. I personally think that it is a technique used by the authorities to keep the nomads in place and stationary. A settled population is much easier to control than one that never sleeps in the same place twice. It is also the first of many subtle steps the authorities are using to gradually gather the nomadic population here in Tibet into the folds of a modern economy and society. After parceling out the land will come electrical wires and then TV and phone lines and then water pipes and little by little, maybe without even knowing it, these nomads will no longer be moving around but shopping at Target, throwing their garbage out into the yard and watching the nightly news getting fed propaganda and worrying about things and people they have absolutely no connection with!

We were fortunate enough to spend the day with a family of herders. Arriving before the sun rose (they had warning we were coming and agreed to hosting us), we stayed until after dinner. It was great. There was a man and his wife. They were probably about my age, maybe a little younger. They lived with his mother and father. They did not have any kids yet which makes me think they were younger. They had not received electricity yet and besides having fences telling them where they could go, lived a very loose and light life during the winter months. In the morning the woman (it is always the woman who works the hardest) would milk the mother yaks, gather up all the dung to dry and use for cooking/heating fuel, drive the sheep herd into one area of their land and then drive the yak herd into another. It’s not that they can’t be together in the same place but I think they eat different parts of the grass and it’s better to rotate (for the most part nomads still have a very innate sense of ecological balance and understand almost without thinking about it the importance of keeping this delicate land in balance).

Well, I don’t know what I expected their daily routine to be but they pretty much ate all day long. From breakfast till dinner they were gradually snacking almost all day long. Being winter and not as much work to do – hardly any milk to gather, no yogurt or cheese to make, no herding up and down the higher mountain valleys – they spent a lot of their time inside the house they lived in, next to the stove, drinking tea and nibbling on dried or boiled meat, fried dough and small candies. We talked a lot about different things. Local gossip for the area, JG the translator told them a lot about being a guide, etc, I told them about where I’m from and my family. It was just a nice relaxed lifestyle…no deadlines, no watches, no appointments, no phone calls, no TV’s. Of course I would go absolutely bonkers within a couple days! But they seemed very easy going, quick to smile and kind. When it was time to drive the sheep to gather water, I followed. When it was time to gather in the yaks for the evening, I followed. At one point we were sitting on a hill overlooking the grasslands below dotted with yaks and sheep, the sun was setting, the clouds were racing by, the wind was stiff but crisp and clean and the older man started telling us stories about the place, its history, his history and basically events that happened there and to him that I regrettably cannot share with you here. Ask me when I get home and I will surely tell you the stories I heard in Amdo. They are not pretty. History can be brutal.

Amdo doesn’t have the same restrictions that central Tibet has. They are much more open, free and willing to hang out with foreigners. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are around virtually every neck and prominently displayed in many of the main temples of the monasteries. People are more willing to share with you their past, something almost no one will do in central Tibet. The oppressive air that covers you while in central Tibet (and it’s currently getting worse with the new hard line provincial secretary in place) doesn’t exist in Amdo. It just feels freer and more open and this is reflected in the people’s attitudes and self image. People in Amdo are happy to be Tibetan and are not afraid to say it loud and proud. They are not afraid to criticize the Chinese openly and in public. Their self confidence is strong and evident. It’s just a totally different country almost. And all it takes is a provincial border crossing and the rules are different. Same, same but different.

Our next stop after Henan was Rapgya, further south and on the banks of the Yellow River. Hiring a local taxi from Henan, we drove the 200 kilometers through the land of huge brown ground eagles, through high red rock canyons and down into the massive and gorgeous Yellow River gorge. Located at the base of the sacred Mount Khyung-ngon, or Blue Garuda, is the very important Rapgya monastery. A branch of Sera monastery here in Lhasa, Rapgya was founded at the advice of Dalai Lama VIII in 1769 (during this same time Daniel Boone begins exploring the Bluegrass State of Kentucky; Father Serra founds Mission San Diego, 1st mission in Calif and Napoleon Bonaparte was born). The complex has been substantially rebuilt during the last decade, but a few old artworks did survive. The architecture of the modern temples is functional but unimaginative, much like that in Repkong, an interesting and mostly clashing collection of Tibetan and Chinese styles.

Though the monastery was located in an incredible location at the base of this unique mountain and on the banks at the bend of the Yellow River, we were there to visit the first private school in Tibet located at Rapgya. Rapgya has always had the reputation of being very independent minded and even today is carefully watched, especially the monastery, for ‘suspicious activity’. The incarnate lamas that have presided over the monastery, even quite recently, have been well known Tibetan independence supporters and strongly believe that if Tibet is going to survive it is up to Tibetans to make it happen. This philosophy helped to found the Rapgya School, a Tibetan only private school located beside the monastery. Housing both monks and laymen (females are not allowed to attend this one – there is another private school just for women 15 kms away), the school teaches classes in traditional medicine, religious debate, natural sciences, English, Chinese, Tibetan, mathematics and computer science. There are around 200 students in attendance and most of them stay on campus and come from all around, sometimes as far as Lhasa or western Tibet. Students are required to speak in only one language at a time with no mixing of words, which is a real problem in places like Lhasa where it’s very similar to Puerto Rican Spanglish. For Tibet, it is a very sophisticated and unprecedented establishment. Luckily, JG had a friend who was an English teacher there so we were able to take an inside tour of the classes. It was really strange but refreshing to see nomads, town folks and monks studying side by side. Too many times do I think that the education received in the public schools and the monasteries are too incongruous, where either one or the other is below average. But here the standard of education was pretty high as was obvious by visiting the English classroom and speaking with several of the students there or visiting the computer classroom where a packed roomful of monks and other students were being taught Microsoft Word in Tibetan! This is the sort of thing that makes a society emerge from a traditional society into the modern world with cultural identity and nationalistic pride. It was great to see and very encouraging. Sadly though, this type of place is definitely the exception to the norm.

While in Rapgya we were able to connect with another family and spend the day with them. This family lived more in a village on the ridge overlooking the Yellow River but they still had a lot of animals to tend and didn’t really have any agricultural fields to care for so I considered them more herders than villagers anyway. There were more people living in this house than in Henan though – an older man and his wife, their two sons, one of the sons were married and his wife and child were there too. They had their own alter room too which showed the slightly larger size of their house, the more settled nature of this family and the level of wealth they had compared to many others who couldn’t afford or couldn’t maintain a whole room of statues, scripture and alters. Like my time in Henan, I just followed around the women of the household (they were the only ones doing any work!) most of the day, from milking in the morning to driving the animals up into the hills to gathering them back in the evening. And again, after hanging out with them it became apparent early on that they didn’t have much to do but eat throughout the day. So we hung out around the dung-fed stove and talked and joked and ate and drank most of the day. And similar to Henan, the older man of the house had very sad stories to tell which I cannot repeat here. Let’s just say that things have been very hard for most people here for a very long time.

Besides an all too brief visit to the Golok capital of Tawu because I was getting very tired and worn down after almost 3 weeks of hard travel and intensive daily work, that was the last place we visited in Amdo. We traveled back to Xining so I could catch the train back to Lhasa. And here I am, two weeks later finally getting it all down on paper. Whew. I hope you enjoyed. I’ll be back soon enough with other adventures I’m sure. Much love and many blessings!