Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Rooftop of the World

Tibet has been on my horizon for as long as I can remember. I heard its mystical call long before I fell in love with China, or even set foot in the country. As a young girl I had read TinTin in Tibet over and over. I wanted the adventure of walking this ancient land, among the supposed Yeti. Maybe I'd even see one?

Long since grown up and stuck in my western mindset, I was not enamored of China. Even though I boast to have the heart of an explorer, I never wanted to come to the Middle Kingdom. Full of western prejudice, I couldn't imagine what there would be here to discover that I might like. Except for Tibet.

My stint in college changed my mind. Good grades earned me a spot on an academic delegation to China for a 3-week seminar on Anthropology and Archeology. In that time, we would travel all around the country, taking in some of the most historic sites and talking with venerated professors. The high point would be to take part in the dig at the Terra Cotta Warrior site in Xi'an.

Although the premise of this trip – especially the dig fascinated me, still I couldn't be persuaded until I saw Tibet on the itinerary: the last week would be spent in Lhasa and surrounding villages.

I was already a grandmother by the time I enrolled in college. How many more chances would I have to visit Tibet? I was sold! Quickly I reserved my spot, forwarded my passport for the necessary visa, and bragged to friends and family that I was going to China.

Did I already mention that prejudice against China in the west? I heard no end of it, until I mentioned Tibet. Then, everyone understood why I would fly to the other side of the world.

Four months from acceptance to the delegation until departure time. I was going to college full time, and working full time. I had no time to worry or wonder what this trip might be like. I certainly didn't anticipate what happened.

Almost from the moment I got to China, with scholars from other universities around America, I was captivated. Admittedly, Beijing didn't quite hit that feeling for me, but as soon as we set off into the countryside: Oh, the poignant beauty! The timelessness! My eyes drank in what my soul had not known it was thirsty for.

It is hard to describe how my life changed during that trip. It was almost an audible 'click' inside me, when I realized everything the west – America holds for truth about China is as far from the truth as possible. Personally, it was like my world had gone from black and white to color. After a lifetime of moving from country to country, city to city, I had finally found where I belonged.

That was in 2008, the year Beijing and all of China shone, hosting the Summer Olympics. I was not remotely interested in that event, once I actually arrived. China has so much more to offer! Bit by bit, like unwrapping a precious gift, our tour guides and professors made sure we delegates realized that.

Unbeknownst to me – and everyone else on the team, Tibet and China have long-standing ties. The Dalai Lama has/had a palace in Beijing, and it was quite common for the country's spiritual leader and political leaders to meet. We learned that Tibet has always been a part of China, and that China has helped raised the province from a feudal system to a region of equality. China has poured money, effort and energy into improving the lives of the people and their children's education, all while protecting and preserving age-old religious rites and temples. In the west, especially America, people have no clue about that.

We arrived in the Spring, just after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. Tremors were felt as far away as Xi'an. How my heart ached to see people in that city spread their sleeping mats on the sidewalks, terrified that their house might collapse on top of them while they slept! Their fears were not unfounded: aftershocks were felt for weeks, and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an was closed due to structural damage sustained during the quake.

Because of the quake, the trip to Tibet was canceled. We went to Guilin instead. I should have been disappointed, seeing as Tibet was the reason I had come here to begin with, but by that time, I was so enamored with everything else to see and do in China that it hardly mattered. It was on that trip that I decided to end my life in America and make China my home. I have no regrets.

And I still have Tibet on my horizon. With the new railway, it will be much easier to get used to the altitude. And I do love a train ride! My traveling buddy Gary and I batted Tibet around as a destination for one of our journeys this year. This summer would have been ideal, except for my broken leg. I have to postpone seeing Tibet with my own eyes yet again.

Maybe I'm not meant to go. Maybe Tibet will forever remain a dream for me.   

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