Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part IV, Homeward Bound

Retracing our steps, working our way back to Paro over the course of the next three days, we had a chance to shop, check our email, reflect and regroup in now familiar Thimpu.  Our official meetings were finished, but there was still work to be done.

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The drive back between Punakha and Thimpu could not have been more different from our previous summit days before.  This time the sky was blue and, as we reached Dochula we had a 360 degree view of the Himalayas all around us.  As we waited for the pass to open, we explored the 108 chortens build by the Queen mother commemorating those lost in a brief skirmish with India in 2003 as well as the temple built in honor of the 4th Druk Gyalpo which contained paintings by Karma Ura.

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Returning to where it all began outside Paro, on our last day we climbed to Tiger’s Nest.  At my regular pace it would have taken about an hour, but for our group it took three.  Slowly we ascended, savoring the now comfortable conversation as much as the view.  I worked consciously not to make the destination the whole goal as we meandered our way up, catching glimpses of Takshang on a competing peak across the deep divide.  After finally reaching Takshang’s elevation, the path turns toward the mountain face and one must descend hundreds of steps only to climb back up to the final destination perched impossibly on the cliff above.

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Dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava Rimpoche the tantric mystic who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and who flew on a tigress and landed on that sacred spot that is said to resemble a dagger, Takshang defies all reason.   To build the foundation, Regent Tenzin Rabgye mixed hair with flour and water and tossed it out.  Where it stuck, they placed small stones, then larger and larger stones on top until the foundation emerged.  Despite two significant fires in the 20th century that destroyed documents and most of the temples, the foundation and the statue of Guru Padmasambhava Rimpoche survived unharmed.  Taksang was rebuilt upon the original foundation.

Inside Taksang, the new Abbot welcomed and served us tea and biscuits before giving us a personal tour of several of the 11 temples, two of which are closed to outsiders because visitors might bring bad omens and cause harm.  The primary temple is built around an auspicious and powerful cave that is accessible only to the most senior of monks and only at certain times of the year.  The rest of the time an imposing face festooned with offerings blocks the entrance.  In this temple, those who have powers charge the place while others receive. We sat before the statue in a light filled temple as many, many pilgrims, including a beautiful young boy with glasses in a gold gho earnestly worshiped.

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The descent was much faster, even with a quick stop for tea along the way, and we got to the bottom to find Namgyel, back from a quick trip to India, waiting.  It was like greeting an old friend.  He drove us back to the guesthouse where we had our final meal together and then Gembo offered his final surprise, a culture show.  Performers in elaborate costumes shared cultural heritage through song and dance and even got us up dancing.

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After the show, our group attempted a wrap up session, but it was the least successful initiative we undertook on the trip.  Too many emotions, thoughts, ideas, feelings swirled and the energy was too solemn.   Overwhelming gratitude to our hosts clouded our ability to rationally analyze the important elements of the trip and to lighten up and just talk.  At least that’s how I felt.  We said goodnight and turned our attention to the mundane tasks of packing for our departure, reasoning that for a reflective bunch such as us, the meaning would reveal when it did.

Despite continual togetherness for eleven days, we never really established the true impetus for the generous invitation and treatment we received on this journey.  Gembo told us on our first night together that learning other traditions equips you with a way to see your own culture.  That Bhutan has the desire to slow down the process of modernization and to maintain the culture, tradition, way of living and whatever is possible of the values and the goodness that Bhutan has as it modernizes. To do so well, they need right intervention and good decisions in their leadership.  Values must be in the heart of any good decision maker.  A perpetual student and curious to a fault, Gembo reasoned that experienced teachers of Christianity can link values and teach as well as learn from each other so as to eventually walk on same path, aligned.

Gembo, Sabina and Namgyel took us to the airport the following morning.  We bid farewell with promises to keep in touch, hearts heavy with gratitude for the experience of a lifetime.  While we all went to Bhutan for our own reasons, collectively something big happened.   The group is just now getting around to putting thoughts on paper in a much more reflective way than mine.

Returning to the beginning of the journey, I can only offer that the essence of an artichoke is its heart, and is fiercely protected.  It isn’t immediately obvious and takes hard work to reach.  Whoever was the first to discover the sweet reward of an artichoke must have been wise and persistent; patient, purposeful and resolute.  All qualities I hope I gained a little on this journey.  The deepest and most profound moments and stories of our trip are like that artichoke, protected, and hidden deep within…for now.  I will write them, maybe for a book one day and only at the grace and agreement of those involved.  For now I hope that these tales give you some of those tasty morsels on the outside and a desire to dig deeper with me, eventually, to the heart.

To Gembo and Sabina, all I can say is “Name same kadin chhe.”  Thank you beyond the sky and earth.

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Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part III

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As we climbed toward Dochula on a winding, bumpy, unfinished road that connects Thimpu and Punakha, our driver Dorji jockeyed for position around a continual stream of anthropomorphic dump trucks.  After about 30 minutes we began to see snow and by the time we reached the 3150 m peak we were in a white out.  We couldn’t see a thing, but we were happy to stop and have a little lunch at the rustic café at the top.  A group of American students on an Interim trip from Singapore American School engaged in rollicking snowball fight. We ate a simple lunch, discussed rewiring consciousness in Christianity (as you do) and headed down the other side of the mountain to the breadbasket of Bhutan.  Arriving in Punakha we went for tea and again engaged in a philosophical discussion, this time of sin and karma.  Wow, Gembo’s intellectual stamina is formidable.  I thought my head would explode during some of our teachings, as I just couldn’t take it all in.

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Gembo consciously chose places for us to stay that were not tourist hotels. Perched a solid 30 minutes above the main road into town, the local family farmhouse on three acres he carefully selected for us was a complete delight.  It was not at all fancy, but gave us the experience of living in a Bhutanese family home.  The family went to considerable lengths to make us comfortable and though we were sometimes chilly, the beds she bought for our visit were warm and cozy and we had everything we needed.  We were invited into her efficient kitchen when we arrived and we sat cross-legged on mats around the wood stove as we sipped hot sweet milk tea.  Using ingredients from her garden and her cow, our hostess created wonderful meals she served in the main room of the farmhouse.

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As half of our group is Christian clergy, Sunday morning we had our own little Eucharist in the farmhouse before we headed out for our meetings.  This was a first for all of us, as Gembo and Lam joined us for the service.  With this simple ritual our group had reached a new level of intimacy and trust.  It was another beautiful moment to add to the list.  Our lovely breakfast was a meat porridge and brown rice with cilantro, onion, garlic, ginger and chilies.  My new favorite.

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Tucked behind the stunning 17th century Punakha Dzong is a small government ministry building where we spent many hours over the course of the next two days.  The main meeting room, elaborately painted in yellow and orange clouds topped by ornate dragonheads, is furnished with stately couches and low tables.  His Eminence, Letshog Lopen Rinpoche, is one cool monk.  He radiated confidence as he breezed into the room with authority wearing darkened shades and sporting a small mustache and long, thin Confucian beard.  A scholar, philosopher and administrator, he was curious about our group and why we had come to Bhutan, and put Gembo through the paces translating all that he had to say.

Sabina’s opening questions always set the tone for our meetings, demonstrating that we were here as practitioners and here to learn.  Her skill earned our group respect and deepened the level of the conversations and interest in exchanging views.  With closed eyes he would listen to our questions, then come alive with philosophical responses such as likening creation/realization to tasting an apple.  Explaining that the taste itself is creation/realization, but when we talk of tasting, the processes that leads to tasting are the foundational steps and equally important as is tasting itself.  Priming soil, planting the seed, water, sunlight, time… all of these elements prepare for that moment of tasting.  To achieve Mahamudra, therefore, all steps are practices, attained within one’s mind along the path.  Got it?  After two intense hours of discussion, we shared a quiet catered lunch and then he abruptly bid farewell and left even before I worked up the courage to request a photograph.

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On the following day we met His Eminence Tshglop Rinpoche responsible for social service activities for the Sangha.  Our conversation was entirely different, but equally enlightening.  Establishing that we were comfortable and enjoying our stay in his country that might lack services but has happiness and tranquility, our conversation centered on effort, continual practice and service as key elements in the pursuit of mahamudra.  I was interested to hear from him that among older monks, they rarely if ever see mental problems.  He seemed to suggest a link between generation of wisdom and staving off dementia.

After several hours in that room, and on the one day when bright sunshine beckoned us from outside the windows, we were restless, but we had another remarkable moment just ahead.  Our driving companion and quiet, good natured friend, “Lam” who had accompanied us for two days practicing English and bantering about the food now changed hats and joined the list of respected experts with whom we shared dialog. Gembo translated as Lam Jampel Sangay, District Abbot of Pemagatshel District Monastic Body shared with us his deep knowledge and reassured us that the key element of spiritual practice is to have faith in the path we choose.  As long as we have total faith, we are on the right path.  This wisdom, among many other pithy teachings Lam shared, made staying inside a little longer worth every second. 

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With the mornings spent in meetings, our group was anxious to move our bodies in the afternoons and of course Gembo had a plan.  On the first afternoon, we hiked to Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten, a newer temple built by the queen mother with a massive mandala in the center “Victorious diety over the three worlds” and a stunning 360 degree view of Punakha valley from the top.   We discussed fear and imagery and whether they are learned or ingrained.  Mom wondered if Yeung might take issue with Gembo’s assertion that fearis conditioned; that the images are not inherently scary.  We heard about the divine madman and his antics on the way up, and about temple architecture as we descended in a rainstorm. 

On our second afternoon in Punakha we visited both Punakha Dzong and Khuruthang Lhakhang, the latter of which had survived a terrible flood.   When we finally returned to the farmhouse in the evenings, we were treated to a lovely stone bath one night, dancing with the host’s adorable eight-year-old daughter, and deep conversations over lovely hearty meals.

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On our way out of Punakha we stopped at a nunnery where we met a lovely young nun named Pema who gave us bracelets and told us she would pray for us.  She spoke perfect English, and was articulate, earnest and soft-spoken.  Though we all could have stayed in Punakha for much longer, it was time to begin our journey home.

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Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part I

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“If it doesn’t work out, we can visit another temple.”  – Gembo

Why is it that the best stories are the hardest to write?  When nothing big happens, the words flow easily.  When I spend twelve days in a continual state of “I-can’t-believe-how-lucky-I-am-to-be-here,” I don’t know where to begin to write about it.  Such was the case with my trip to Bhutan last week.  Far beyond a travel adventure, this trip had meaning and importance more than I can even begin to understand or convey in a blog post.  The only thing I can think to do is to write it in a series; like an artichoke with a few tasty morsels on the outside to be greedily consumed before picking my way through the fibrous, unpalatable layer to eventually reveal the sweet essence hidden deep within.

Visionaries come in many forms.  Ours were a Bhutanese Buddhist monk in flowing red robes and a deferential but celebrated economist and Anglican priest who, together, wondered what might happen if they invited a small group of Christian contemplatives to spend ten days in dialog and shared practice in the Buddhist Himalayan country where Gross National Happiness and the values of the monastic body infuse a rapidly modernizing country with an ingrained collective conscientiousness.  Here is our story…

Touching down at Paro airport after a night spent in Bangkok, Pip, a Christian contemplative from New Zealand who had spent time as a Buddhist nun in Thailand, mom and I navigated our way through customs and were greeted on the other side by our hosts; Lopen Gembo Dorji, Secretary General of the Monastic Body of Bhutan, and Sabina, an American woman living in the UK who had been our primary contact in the logistical planning of the trip.  Erik, an intense young American Christian studying at Naropa Univeristy in Boulder, and Oswin, a Christian monk from Mirfiled, UK with a specific interest in Japanese art rounded out our group.  We were a somewhat unlikely “delegation,” spanning a thirty year age range and with varying degrees of wisdom and practice, but with an unrivaled earnestness and sense of gratitude for whatever stars had aligned to bring us together for this experience.

Our host Gembo had attended secular school though university and then became a monk, an unusual trajectory, as most choose one path or the other much earlier in life.  Once he became a monk he did a three-year retreat and lived alone in deep practice in the mountains for years before being beckoned back to service by the central monastic body.  Gembo is fluent in English, politics, economics, history, religion, culture, philosophy, and has a particular gift for story telling and teaching.  While he expertly serves with grace and skill, his heart is in his practice.  Gembo is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.

The awe-factor continued with Gembo’s co-host.  The woman I knew by email as our coordinator, Sabina Alkire, turned out to be a hero in my book, and the same age as me.   Founding director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, a PhD economist and ordained Anglican priest, Sabina is the protégé of Nobel Prize winning Indian poverty expert Amartya Sen, and is also the economist behind the measurement of GNH in Bhutan among other things.   With this resume, one might expect a formidable presence, and yet Sabina treads lightly in all that she does, gracefully and humbly leading our group with an artistic skill that was a delight to experience and an inspiration.

Gembo and Sabina created an 11-day itinerary for our group that would cover three towns on the West side of the country, Paro, Thimpu and Punakha.  Our schedule listed meetings with senior members of the monastic body including three of the five Eminences, Dasho Karma Ura, the architect of GNH and Director of the Center of Bhutan Studies, and two vice principals of monastic schools.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed into the private chambers of the temples and monastic schools, served tea, biscuits and roasted rice by monks, and treated like honored guests.

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Modernization in Bhutan has come fast.  Mobile phones were introduced only a decade ago and are now ubiquitous.  Even the monks carry and answer mobile phones all the time.  It was a regular occurrence to hear cell phones chime in the temples, and there seemed to be no particular concern about it.   While Wi-Fi for tourists is still mostly accessible at Internet cafes and international hotels (I went three days without checking email), the insidious attraction of constant connectivity and electronic entertainment has not spared this small kingdom.  English usage is spreading too.  Secular schools are now taught in English while the monastic schools continue to be taught in the traditional Dzongkha.  Television and radio are widespread, with mostly Indian content on the TV.  This is a rapidly modernizing country, but with a desire to do so consciously.

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Our first night was spent in a guesthouse outside of Paro with a view of the majestic Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan’s most famous attraction more commonly known as the Tiger’s Nest built on the edge of a cliff.   We would later return to Taktshang on our final day in Bhutan to make the ascent once our bodies had acclimatized to the altitude.

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Our accommodations were simple, but perfectly located.  As we prepared for our first meal together, I eyed my almonds and granola bars, reasoning I could supplement after the meal.  I had done Internet research on food in Bhutan and found a series of drab photos of grey food, mostly chilies in cheese sauce and red rice. To my delight, I found these to be woefully outdated.  The food in Bhutan is delicious!  A few years ago people discovered a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables and began growing them in the off-season in and around the beautiful rice terraces.  With clean Himalayan water and good rich soil these plants grow plentifully.  Every meal we ate in Bhutan included vegetables as well as some local favorite dishes like eze – chilies, onions, tomatoes & cheese — and the delicious emadatse – hot chilies and cheese.  There was nothing gray to be found ever.  I returned to HK missing the food in Bhutan.

The first temple we visited, Kechu Lhakhang, was built in 651 AD.  Visiting a temple has a very specific routine we learned.  Remove shoes and step over the entrance into the temple.   Facing the statues, bow three times, hands in prayer over head, in front of face, in front of chest, and then lower to the floor and touch one’s head to ground, then return to standing and repeating two more times. Next, rest an offering gently to one’s forehead, say a prayer and place the bill on the altar.  If a monk caretaker is present, a small drop of saffron-infused water is poured from a beautiful peacock feather adorned pitcher into the palm of one’s hand.   Drink it, or place it on the back of your head.  We repeated this ritual at each temple we visited.

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On our way to Thimpu the next day, we visited Dungtse Lhakhang, a chorten-shaped temple built by the famed iron bridge builder Thangtong Gyelpo in the 15th century.  Inside the mandala inspired temple we scaled smooth ladders in the darkness up to the very top level. With flashlights and some small electric light bulbs we marveled at exquisite detailed paintings depicting dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmonakaya.  Gembo was a walking encyclopedia of Bhutan history, Drukpa Kargyu and Vajrayama, and could identify and tell us the meaning of every image we saw.  Avalokiteshvara, Guru Rinpoche, Mahakala, the divine madman, chakra sambala, bodhicita, tantra… these words swam in my mind as I tried to capture what I could.  I was wishing I had studied more before I went.  On our way out, circling the temple clockwise and turning the prayer wheels as we went, I was amused to see the young caretaker family share a coke and a smile.

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Bhutan is glorious countryside.  As part of their effort at conscientious modernization they have protected 70% of the land, most of which is national parkland.  Bhutan’s economy is supported by hydroelectric power it sells to India, special cordyceps (a medicinal “caterpillar fungi” popular in Chinese medicine) sold mostly to China, agriculture, and high-end tourism.  Bhutan’s relations are closely tied to India and not at all to China.  Even the national currency, the Ngultrum, is tied to the Indian rupee.  On the two-hour drive from Paro to the capital city of Thimpu, we snaked along, high above a river on a bumpy two-lane road reminiscent of the last 15 miles into Telluride that regularly gets cut off by mudslides, marveling that this was one of the “highways” in the country.

The story will continue in the next post.  Stay tuned..

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Girls’ Night In

As I gather my thoughts to write about Bhutan (a daunting task that really should be a book, not a blog post), I decided to share another unique story first: 

Last November I attended the most unexpectedly terrific dinner party ever.  Knowing that I would be in London for one night on a trip that took me to Rwanda and Oxford, I sent a message to Gwyneth Paltrow to see if she might happen to be in London at the same time.  Gwyneth and I met years before when I lived in London and, even after I moved to Hong Kong, we kept in touch and I sometimes visited her when I was in town.  Despite having relocated to Los Angeles, Gwyneth happened to be working on a movie in London and would be there during my visit.  She invited me over for dinner.

I had been to her house a few times for lunch, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with our kids and once with her whole family, including her brother and his wife.  Having made the mistake of asking her sister-in-law what kind of photos she takes when I later learned that she’s one of the most famous photographers in the world and was opening a solo show at the Tate Modern that same week, I wanted to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself again.  I sent Gwyneth a message asking if anyone else was coming and she replied that yes, a few great ladies would be joining.   “Who?” I asked.   “My best friend Stella McCartney and Adele.  The singer.”

Oh my.  Seriously?!

Now what do you wear to a dinner party of four that includes the world’s most beautiful Oscar winner lifestyle guru, an OBE top fashion designer daughter of one of the Beatles and a Grammy award winner with the most stunning voice ever?  I opted for black skinny jeans, a sequined racer back top and a gray cashmere coat sweater with little heel boots.  I know next to nothing about fashion anyway, but I think it was OK for the evening.

Gwyneth’s home is lovely and she took great care of us.  She served beautiful food and we indulged in great conversation that flowed seamlessly from the mundane to the ridiculous and back again.  Sometimes we were talking about work/life balance and raising children and then they were comparing notes on changing paparazzi laws and how terrific Beyoncé is.  I could contribute to some conversations, and not at all to others, but the fundamental feeling I had was that we were four moms with very different lives, but who all love and want what’s best for our children.

At one point during dinner after I finished telling them about my trip to Rwanda and how I had worked in Somalia years before Stella says, “Christ, we all feel like wankers compared to you.”  I laughed hard and told Stella that I wanted to have that engraved on my tombstone.

Stella and I bonded over Ed Ruscha, my favorite California artist who had done an Iconoclast episode with Stella I had recently seen.  I gave her my card and hoped I might hear from her, but didn’t get her contact details.  Hugs goodbye with all and I was in a taxi home, pinching myself from a truly fun and wonderful night.

A few weeks later sitting at my desk in HK a message arrived from “Merry Sam” with nothing in the subject line.  I nearly deleted it thinking it spam, but then decided to read it.  It said,

“Hello.  I am writing on behalf of Stella who has asked if you could let me have your underwear bra / pant sizes, shoe size and also your children’s ages and names please.  Also the best address to send you something please.  Many thanks.”

I pondered this strange message and then replied,

“Hi.  I’ve never received an email like that before.  Are you serious?  If so, I’m psyched.  If not, well, you have a lot of random info at your disposal.  Here goes…”, and I listed the information requested.

A few days after Christmas in Colorado I returned from skiing to find a box waiting for me with a return address “Stella McCartney.”  Opening the box there were four beautifully wrapped silver packages with red ribbon, one each for my children and one for me.  All were addressed by name and signed “Stella.”  Each kid had received a beautiful outfit, and a nightgown for me that fits as if it was custom made.  I was so touched that she thought of me and even with her extraordinarily busy schedule sent beautiful gifts for no apparent reason.  I was (and remain) rather speechless with gratitude.

I share this story because it’s too good not to.  The cult of celebrity is so intense, so revered, so reviled and such a mystery.  My biggest take away from the night was that these are women with extraordinary talents, but even bigger hearts.  Moms who want the best for their kids, like we all do, who are trying to make life work for their families and to share their talents with the world.  I am as inspired by the depth of their character and thoughtfulness as I am by their resumes, and I was so honored and thrilled to have spent an evening in their company.

Now on to karma knitting in Bhutan…

Bhutan Bound

Few things cause me greater discomfort than group meditation and cold, and yet in a few days I will willingly, gratefully spend 10 days fully immersed in both.  My mother was invited as a guest of the central monastic body of Bhutan to travel to the small Himalayan country, and she kindly secured an invitation for me to accompany her.  What I lack in heartiness and spiritual fortitude I hope I can make up for as the group’s chief photographer and scribe, the pragmatic optimist in a gathering of mystical heavyweights.

On the purely mundane level, I have never liked cold and since I was old enough to make my own decisions, have done my best to avoid it.  My college search revolved around temperature.  I picked Virginia because it was warmer than my home state of Pennsylvania and applied to schools exclusively in that state.  After college I moved to sub-Saharan Africa and then Los Angeles and except for two years in frigid Boston for grad school and a year in damp London, have lived in places where it doesn’t snow ever since.  My fingers go numb if it drops below 70 degrees.

My two coldest memories involve my mother, and I fear Bhutan may be the third.  I couldn’t have been more than seven when mom took me to the Poconos for a day of skiing where my loose knit mittens immediately absorbed the wet snow from my numerous falls, threatening frostbite to my little digits.  I can still recall the deep ache and tingling burn as they slowly thawed by the radiator in the nursery as she skied the rest of the day.  It took me a decade to attempt the sport again.

Years later, mom and I traveled in the dead of winter to Matinicus Island off the coast of Maine to interview year round residents for an article she was writing for the Island Institute’s periodical.  Exiting the prop plane onto the dirt airstrip on a gray, sunless January day, my lungs ached as I shallowly breathed in the biting cold air.   Our overnight hosts had a small home that was long hospitality, but short insulation.  I felt a little panicked at the idea of possibly freezing to death on that island and instinctively consumed the entire plate of hummus someone had made for the voyage, probably intuitively trying to store up some fat.

As I check the weather, Bhutan’s temperatures are scheduled to be just above freezing next week.  While East Coasters in the US are currently experiencing similar temperatures, the difference is that in New York while outside is cold, inside is heated and lovely.  From what I read, this is not the case in most places outside the fancy Aman resorts in Bhutan.  Our itinerary involves outdoor trekking to see magical, majestic sites and time spent in meditation and conversation with monks in monasteries throughout the western part of the country.  I’m taking everything warm I own and was pleased to read in the NY Times today that shivering is the body’s way of converting bad white fat into good brown fat which might help counteract my inevitable overconsumption of emadatse, the fiery hot chili cheese sauce that’s a daily staple of the Bhutanese diet.

As for group meditation, I am equally ill prepared, but well intentioned.  A birthright Quaker, 15 year practitioner of yoga, daughter of a Christian mystic, novice participant in Buddhist conferences at Hong Kong University and voracious consumer of neuroscience research, I sit at the intersection of faiths and science, a dismal practitioner of meditation, but with a deep sense of its individual and collective transformational power.  We will learn about the Mahamudra practices in Bhutan, and witness chanting and ritual as we talk with monks who have completed the 3-year/3-day/3-hour meditations at Cheri among other traditions.  If I return home with one thing from Bhutan, I hope it will be a greater patience with my own practice.  I expect to be uncomfortable most of the time I’m in Bhutan and I have to say at this point, I am totally comfortable with that.

(If you want to hear how it goes, click the link to follow this blog and stay tuned…).

Rwanda Revisited

Rwanda is an optimist’s paradise.  Naysayers and cynics move along.  This post is rife with inspiration, innovation and resilience in a country that 19 years ago was in unimaginable turmoil.

Continual controlled panic was the way I described my visit to Rwanda in October 1994, just months after a brutal genocide saw the massacre of a million people in 100 days.  On that visit I slept on the floor of the destroyed Ministry of Health office in Kibungo, eerily listening to dogs howl as they raided shallow graves for sustenance.  Tufts of hair and pools of blood still stained the floors of the new office space under consideration, and we’d speed up as we passed churches still full of the remains of those who’d fatally reasoned that the church would be a refuge rather than a mass grave during the worst of it.  I never saw a dead body that trip, but empty villages and the smell were enough to connect the dots in my imagination.  I never thought I would return.  Ever.

Yet last week that’s precisely what I did.  Invited as a strategic advisor to Vision for a Nation, a registered UK charity with a mission to make vision assessments and affordable eyeglasses available to all, I traveled to Rwanda and spent three remarkable days consistently impressed and inspired by what I saw and experienced.

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With 11 million people in Rwanda, Vision for a Nation’s goal to give every person (over 8) in the country an eye exam and provide relief for correctable refractive error is ambitious, but now that I have been there and seen their approach, I believe it is possible. VFAN was born from a simple adjustable lens technology and ‘train the trainer’ model that enables nurses to diagnose and correct refractive error in the 45 health centers throughout the country.  The adjustable glasses have dials on the sides which, when rotated, slide one lens in front of the other until the unique prescription is achieved.  Those with refractive error walk into a health center and walk out with glasses completely eliminating the need to return to the center to pick up custom glasses or the inefficiencies of pairing donated glasses from the developed world with end recipients.  It’s inexpensive, efficient and instant gratification.  Other benefits include diagnosis and treatment of cataracts, conjunctivitis and other easily treatable eye ailments.  Working in partnership with the Ministry of Health, VFAN will soon launch a public awareness campaign through a highly organized communication system in the country to educate and inform the public about vision care.  Eye care is generally not a life saving intervention, but it certainly improves quality of life.  This is one of many public health initiatives the MOH has embraced to improve the lives of those in Rwanda.

http://www.visionforanation.org

Speaking of the Ministry of Health, we were fortunate to have a private dinner with the remarkable Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho one night in Kigali.  The list of health initiatives she has implemented to improve the lives of Rwandans is impressive.  She is entrepreneurial, philosophical and pragmatic with a “can do” attitude I’ve never seen before in Africa.  She’s a total pro.  Dinner conversation included great one-liners like, “The best idea on the table is the one I take.”  “Money will come.  Good strategy is the important thing.”  “I want to die happy of what I have achieved.  I don’t want to be the richest in the cemetery.”   Her initiatives include the 80/40/20 plan to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 80% for those under 40 by 2020.  To do this she began by implementing very concrete public health changes including mandating helmets for motorbikes, seatbelts, banning smoking in public places, cooking stove improvements and other initiatives that didn’t cost much, but had a huge impact.  She was the first to offer the HPV vaccine, countrywide, to schoolgirls of a certain age.  Her work in reducing HIV AIDS in the country is legendary.  Her entire staff has all gone to graduate school at the expense of the ministry and many are beginning PhDs now.  Government workers are mandated to do an exercise of their choice on Fridays during the workday and pay a fine if they do not.   She regularly tweets (as does the President) and responds to every tweet she receives.  She has 10,000 followers and has a regular Monday with the Minister show two times a month to address public health issues.  The Honorable Minister is a global health leader, not only for Rwanda.  I was honored to share a meal with her. 

Rwanda has two unique programs that contribute to its continued growth and improvement.  If I understand correctly, the Muganda is a compulsory gathering the last Saturday of every month at which time the entire country, divided into local communities, comes together to work from 7-10 on an improvement project and then from 10-12 to meet and share information.  They will paint a house that has fallen into disrepair, collect trash, build a road, or anything that the community deems as an improvement.  As a result, the country is tidy, fresh and continually improving.  Similarly, the Urunana radio programs reach an unprecedented percentage of the country with a soap opera-like ongoing storyline.  Intertwined in the programs are community health and agricultural messages.  This is one of the primary vehicles for spreading information throughout the country.  So radio that was once used for inciting violence is now used in a similar way for improving lives.

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Beyond health initiatives, last spring, in preparation for the TEDxHappyValley “Radical Resilience” event in Hong Kong, I was teamed up as a speech coach for a remarkable 27-year-old entrepreneur Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, founder of the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali.  Elizabeth taught me more than I her during the process.  When I agreed to go to Kigali, I knew that a visit to see Akilah would be important.   Akilah Institute for Women is a three-year training program for women.  Women apply, take an entrance exam, provide references and interview for spaces at Akilah.  Those selected do a foundational year of math and English language as well as leadership training and then embark on a two-year program in one of three disciplines, entrepreneurship, information management or tourism.  Women receive career counseling, do internships, and continue with leadership training and practical skills development throughout their studies.  The first graduating class in 2012 had 100% job placement.    I had the honor of having lunch with four of their current students.  I was completely inspired and humbled by their poise, intelligence, determination and vision for their futures.  I can’t say enough good things about Akilah!  If you’re looking for a good place to invest in women’s education, this would be my top recommendation.

http://www.akilahinstitute.org

Above and beyond these formal gatherings, I was inspired to meet others who are consciously building businesses in Rwanda.  A friend of a friend has launched an organic coffee farm on his family’s heritage land after having fled Rwanda in 1959.  Upon returning, he was given back his family land and is now gently learning the coffee business, producing some of the world’s finest artisenal products.  I can’t wait to try some.

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Radcliffe, made the effort to fly all the way from Nairobi to visit me during my short stay in Rwanda.  I was so touched and happy to see her!  We worked together 20 years before at OFDA and have both led circuitous international lives since then.  Reconnecting with an old friend from those formative years was grounding and inspiring.  I feel so blessed.

Returning to Rwanda under much better circumstances was cathartic.  I know it isn’t perfect.  I’ve read the articles and heard the naysayers about Rwanda, but in this post I choose to see the country as it should be, celebrating those things that are working and truly inspired by earnest, innovative efforts on the parts of so many people to make things good in a place that hasn’t always been so.

Trip Report: Yunnan Province, China

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Our suitcases are barely unpacked, but I fear if I don’t write this update immediately I might forget a detail from our eye-opening trip to Yunnan Province in Southwestern China with the Shetty family this week.  Yunnan is home to half of China’s ethnic minorities and hosts the most diverse terrain imaginable, from green, fertile rice terraces in the south on the Myanmar and Laotian border to soaring peaks of the snow capped mountains bordering Tibet in the North.  Our trip traced the southern trade route where tea from the Kunming area was picked, taken to Dali to be made into cakes and then transported up to the higher elevations where Tibetans exchanged meat and jewels for the desired tea that they couldn’t grow at elevation.

I did my research before we left, but it did not prepare me for the stunning beauty of the region.  Bright blue skies, crisp autumn air, wide vistas and sparkly blue lakes, as well as a window into China’s rapid transformation has finally ignited an honest interest in China for me.

 

We began our trip in Kunming, the capital of the province, home of the Yi people, and the endpoint of the infamous Burma Road.  Larger than I anticipated (as all Chinese cities inevitably are), Kunming is a city of 7.2 million that is vying for “spring city” green capital status.  Last year alone the government planted 5 million trees and continues to plant more even as construction moves at an equally rapid pace. We arrived in Kunming late in the evening and immediately encountered two other HKIS families in the lobby of our hotel.  We headed out to find some dinner and ended up at a bar with some lame Halloween decorations on Green Lake where we wolfed down some surprisingly tasty “across the bridge noodles” while a Chinese man sang Mandarin pop in a smoky room.  Tobacco is a hugely profitable crop in Yunnan, and smoking is still epidemic in the area.  The kids were beat, so we headed quickly back to our Green Lake Hotel down the street.

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We were up early the next morning to meet our tour guide Mike and head to the Bamboo Temple about an hour’s drive from downtown.  This Tang Dynasty Buddhist temple perched on the side of a hill overlooking the city is peaceful and green.  It is known for the 500 arhats (statues) that were made of clay by famous sculptor Li who renovated the temple in the 19th C.  He went into the town and captured the expressions of local people, creating the life-sized statues that seem to stare as you walk by.    A bit eerie, but cool and the setting of the temple is great.

Back in the van we drove two hours to the Stone Forrest in Shilin.  We had a passable lunch at a tourist spot outside the park then went in on foot to explore this geological wonder.  Reminiscent of Stony Batter in New Zealand, huge rock outcroppings littered the horizon for as far as the eye could see.  These, however, used to be under the sea rather than volcanic as were those in NZ.  Our guide was skilled at leading us off the beaten path to explore the park without the throngs of Chinese tourists, but every once in awhile our paths met and we became the primary attraction.  Mr.E’s blond hair was like a magnet to the Chinese tourists and they aggressively sought photographs with him and the other children.  While the others were happy to oblige, Mr.E was not.  He thought they were laughing at him and would yell, “Tell them to shut up.”  He even rightly shoved one person who got too close in trying to cozy up to him for a shot.

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After the Stone Forest we headed back to town with a stop at a touristy shop where we were presented with demonstrations of both silk and tea.  Rod couldn’t resist the purported health benefits of a pillow made from the excrement of silkworms and bought one.  We also bought some pu’er tea that looks like a cow pie, and headed out as quickly as we could.  We found a great restaurant on Green Lake for dinner that night called 1923 and our guide and driver joined us for the meal, helping with the ordering.   Kunming is known for its delicious produce and specifically its mushrooms, so I feel a special affinity for the region being from the mushroom capital of the world.  We ate some truly exceptional mushrooms on this trip!

Our final event of the evening was a show called Dynamic Yunnan at a theatre in town.  Like most Chinese mega performances, it is perfectly choreographed and this one is particularly innovative.  It’s a fusion of traditional ethnic folk music and modern dance created by world famous performance artist Yang Liping.  It was a little long. Sidewalk, in particular, loved it.

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The next morning we were up early for our flight to Dali.  Our guide, Elena, met us at the airport and from that moment on we were in great hands.  We would be treated to Mandarin lessons, the best food in the most unlikely locations and an earnest and thoughtful tour of some of the world’s most beautiful territory, all while driven around in a comfortable Toyota van for our two families with a skilled driver whose family had been wealthy home owners in Lijiang, then lost everything in the Cultural Revolution.

We started our adventure in Dali at a really tasty restaurant (Shui Shang Ren Jia) near the Dali Prefecture Museum on the edge of Erhai Lake.  All the kids upped their vegetable consumption quotient on this trip in spades.  Next we went to Erhai Park.  We climbed 287 steps (how do you think we got the kids to the top?) to a beautifully manicured scenic park perched above the lake and surrounded by mountains.  From that vantage point, Dali New Town looked just like Queenstown.  The kids got their first Mandarin test as we looked at the gate and they had to name the animals and colors.  Elena had trained as a teacher before she changed professions to tour guide, so we hit the jackpot in finding her.

We descended the stairs and got back in the van to head to Dali Old Town for a walk about.  Dali Old Town is authentic and low key.  It feels “real” despite some tourist shops and, to me, has a Berkeley vibe.  Dali is predominantly home to the hard-working and sensible Bai people.  Elena referred to them as the “Jews of China.” Hmm?  I had forgotten my coat on the trip, so I picked one up there and the kids had fun running around the car-less cobblestone paths, crisscrossing the stone bridges over the many streams that ran through the center of town and trying fried yak cheese (not so good!).

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On our way from Dali to Xizhou where we would spend the night, we made a stop at the lake where we did our most touristy thing of the whole trip.  We didn’t really realize what we had signed up for and I think I would skip this if I go back, but it was beautiful to be out on the lake and certainly a memorable experience.  We were suited up with bright orange life jackets and sent out on a long skinny boat rowed by a graceful old man in a cone shaped hat.

The sun was just beginning to set and, while it was chilly, it was a gorgeous time of night to be out on the water.  As we rode along we looked back and behind us saw a boat with a woman rowing and a man standing up.  On the rails of the boat perched about a dozen huge black birds.  When we got out a bit further the man began to hit the side of the boat with a long bamboo stick and the birds jumped in the water.  Then he started to yell and a bird surfaced with an enormous fish in its mouth, which he scooped up in a net and held high in the air.  Another boat of Chinese tourists joined us and we all took photos as the man manhandled these birds quite aggressively.

The evening got weirder when the man came on our boat with the birds and proceeded to perch them on the head and arms of our children.  All we could think was how we would answer those questions about being in contact with birds and livestock when we got back to Hong Kong?!

Elena had promised us a wonderful meal in downtown Xizhou at a local place, but when we walked up my heart sank.  The restaurant was dark, dank and by western standards, grubby.  It didn’t have a restroom, so we ventured down the street to the public toilets.  This was the most disgusting bathroom experience I’ve had post-Africa.  Having lived in China for a few years I am adept at the ‘squatty potty’ and have taught my kids to use them too, but this one hit a new low.  I won’t bother to describe, but…wow.

Back in the restaurant (a lot of hand sanitizer later), I sat skeptically by as we all consulted the cabinet of fresh ingredients that would be prepared for us on the spot.  A few minutes later the dishes began to arrive and we were all blown away.  The food was so incredibly delicious.  The kids actually said it was the best meal of their lives and the adults agreed!  Perfectly spiced, fresh ingredients prepared simply but with great skill, we could not stop eating.  When the owner pulled out his guest book and we read comments from travelers around the world who had had the same experience, we were convinced that we had discovered a treasure.  The Golden Flower (Jin Hua) in Xizhou is a must do experience for those whojudge a book by its cover. And at about 250 yuan ($36) to feed nine of us and keep the parents in free flowing beer, it was the beginning evidence for us that price and food quality may be negatively correlated in China.

The only disappointing thing about eating dinner out that night was that we arrived at our hotel late that evening and realized that we had found another treasure that we were not going to be able to enjoy long enough.  Remember earlier I referenced that David Brooks article in the NY Times about the Hamish Line?  Well, this place was all Hamish.  The moment we arrived the owner of the hotel, Brian Linden, approached the kids and announced that we were just in time for his son’s 16th birthday party and did they want to see the cake?  He took them into the kitchen as we began to take in the exquisitely restored traditional Bai courtyard home, refurbished to be both a comfortable retreat center for guests from around the world and their home.

An American couple that spent a lot of their lives traveling in China, Brian and Jeanee Linden opted a few years ago to leave the US and to home school their two boys while operating a visionary place where visitors can experience authentic China.  I loved everything about it from the twenty- something ivy-league guys who made their ways there to work with the Lindens (providing inspiration to Dudah who now wants to apprentice there as soon as he’s old enough) to the place itself and to Brian and Jeanee, whose passion for China and people is infectious. Within ten minutes of our arrival we were singing happy birthday to Shane, eating cake and signing camp and Beatles songs as Vinny, their VP of Business Development and a Dartmouth grad, played guitar.  Our family will return to this place again, I am quite sure.

Reluctantly we left the Linden Centre the next morning to tour the Xizhou morning market (another thing on Sidewalk’s ongoing list of animal-related discomforts in China).  Dudah’s untied shoelaces dragged through animal blood and other muck, and my husband tried to prevent the start of a new global contagion by wiping them down later with hand sanitizer.

Afterwards we got in the van and settled in for a three-hour drive up into the mountains to the picturesque town of Lijiang.  The drive was bumpy, but by the time you go it will be smooth sailing.  Huge road construction projects are underway to have a state-of-the-art divided highway linking these cities in order to manage the throngs of Chinese tourists flocking to this paradise.  I fear, like Bali and other amazing spots that have been partially ruined by their beauty, Lijiang will suffer a similar fate, but for now it’s still lovely.

We arrived in Lijiang in time for a late lunch at yet another solid spot (Jin Sheng Li Shui), then out to tour the Old Town.  Lijiang, home to the Naxi people, is a backpacker paradise.  It’s a series of windy walkways along water streams filled with wifi cafes and strong coffee, bars and funky little restaurants, along with their fair share of tourist shops.  It teeters on the precipice of Disneyland, but isn’t quite there yet.  It’s stunning in the wood carved architecture and hillside construction.  We wandered and took it all in, but eventually began to feel the fatigue of nonstop touring and opted to head to the hotel for a quiet evening.

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We had decided to splurge a little bit and stay at the Banyan Tree on the outskirts of town.  I had not intended to splurge quite as much as we did, as traveling with 5 people often necessitates booking two rooms.  That I knew.   What I didn’t realize was that we had booked two “spa rooms” that created a ridiculously huge compound and had my kids in another building in an adjoining private courtyard with two Jacuzzis; disconcerting, but very nice.  They won’t forget that experience and all but Dudah may be ruined for the future backpacker youth hostel right of passage.

We all rested up and the next morning felt refreshed and ready to tour the Dongba Museum and Black Dragon Pool Park on the edge of town.  It was a perfect crisp clear morning with puffy clouds and turning leaves and we spent several hours circling the lake as Elena told us about the culture of her hometown of Lijiang.  We laughed at the English translation of the signs in the park like “Unrecycle” and “The Grass is Sleeping.  Please don’t disturb.”

We headed to Shuhe old town close to our hotel for lunch.  It’s a much smaller and quainter version of Lijiang, but still charming with waterways, cobblestones and bridges lined with shops and restaurants.  Elena knew of a dumpling place she recommended (Xi’an Xiao Chi) and we headed there to sit in the sunshine while a couple from Xi’an hand-made five plates of dumplings for our crew.  We devoured them along with a few beers and I must admit, they’re even better than Din Tai Fung’s!  Our entire bill came to 105 RMB, less than the cost of a scoop of ice cream at the fancy hotel where we stayed.

Next we headed further out of town to the banks of Lashi Lake where we mounted horses and were led up into the hills on a trail ride through spectacular countryside. None of the adults were keen to ride horses when we arrived, but by the end we were all pleased we had done so.  It was a highlight for the kids and riding to the shores of the lake was picturesque.  After the horses, we headed straight to dinner in Lijiang at a place that specialized in Across the Bridge Noodles (OK, but not my favorite meal).

The next morning we were on the road again, headed this time to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  Heavily controlled by the “guns” as Elena called them, this area feels like Wyoming or Colorado.  Wide-open planes and soaring snow-capped mountains tower in the distance.  It’s spectacular and not what I expected.  We went to an extremely touristy show called Impression Lijiang that hubbie dubbed the “Propaganda Racial Harmony Show”, but was in fact visually stunning.  I think he was just cold because we had to sit outside!  It was OK, but not as good as the show we had seen in Kunming. Next we rode sanctioned buses through the Malibu Canyon-like terrain to the Blue Moon Valley where we spent the next few hours marveling at the turquoise waters of the pools.  Elena said the color came from the copper in the mountains.  It was picturesque and we had a picnic along the banks of the pools in a private little spot and enjoyed skipping stones and wandering around.

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On our way back to town we went to our first Lamasery, the Yufeng Temple, where Elena gave the kids a wonderful lesson in Buddhism.  I wish I had it video taped, as I think she wrapped a whole college course level into one lesson.  We explored the temple and the 600-year-old camillia tree that is a significant attraction there, but a kitten in the courtyard was the highlight here for Sidewalk and Mr.E.

Our final adventure for the day was apple picking.  Though intimidated by the very aggressive tied up dog on the property, we had a great time climbing into the trees and picking apples.  Lijiang has the tastiest apples I’ve ever had, so it really was fun to get them ourselves, and will be a family memory that our very first apple picking experience was in China.

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Dinner that night was our greatest challenge yet.  Elena had talked up a Muslim beef restaurant that sounded fantastic, but when we pulled up we were squeamish.  Hunks of meat hung from the ceiling and an entire wall was lined with drying cow intestines.  It was gross.  The place looked filthy, but we loved Elena so much we didn’t have the heart (or the guts) to decline, so we took a deep breath and sat down.  True to form, the dishes that appeared on the table minutes later were delicious and everyone but Sidewalk ate well.  You’d need Elena there to order for you and you have to be willing to suspend your idea of hygiene, but it’s worth it in the end.  The food is cheap and good, and I have to brag that no one on our trip got sick even once, while other HK families traveling in the same region but taken to more typical tourist restaurants all suffered intestinal blues.

Saturday we had to be up before sunrise in order to get on the road to Zhongdian.  If you look it up on a map it will probably say “Shangri-la” as this is the moniker the town has adopted for tourism purposes. Zhongdian is thought to possibly be that place, inspired by Joseph Rock’s National Geographic articles and popularized by a 1933 novel called Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

On the way up to 11,000 feet we had our first glimpse of the Yangtze River and then saw it’s power in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  We climbed the 500 steps down to the viewing platform above the deep gorge and then back up again while a few Chinese tourists opted to be carried in chairs by two men.

As we drove along the windy road to Shangri-La the terrain got fiercer, drier and the architecture changed.  We were entering Tibetan territory.  The houses are enormous, made of mud and straw pounded into two-foot thick-sloped walls.  Traditionally the livestock live on the bottom floor and the families live above, but the Tibetans are generally a well-funded nation and those traditional houses are now outfitted with sun porches, glass roofs and parking lots.  I think the livestock – yak, cows, buffalo, goats, more and more, are being relegated to their own separate living quarters.

Arriving in Zhongdian is like arriving in a Colorado frontier town; a little rough around the edges, but with an appealing little downtown area.  We were hungry, so Elena took us to Red Heart Snacks, another one of her gems that you would never choose on your own, but is completely worth it.  The food here was different.  The Tibetan influence has added Yak butter tea, pizza crust-like bread and meat-stuffed buns.  Still, there were delicious fresh sautéed greens and eggplants with tomatoes and perfect potatoes.  They even had fire-roasted chili peppers, which made our travel companions very happy.  We walked around old town and bought a few souvenirs, wandering the cobblestone walkways adorned with Tibetan prayer flags and Internet cafes.  It was less charming than we anticipated, but still interesting.  A good collector could score some wonderful things here, but I am a terrible shopper, so came away with photographs and memories, and a few trinkets for other people.

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Just outside of town, perched on a hill is the very impressive Songzanlin Monastery, built to house two thousand monks.  Undergoing renovations at the moment, it is still a dramatic site to behold, modeled almost exactly on the Buddhist temple of the same yellow branch in Lhasa.  We climbed the stairs and entered the main hall.  Elena again explained the pictography and customs inside.  I chuckled to see a monk, seated cross-legged on a pillow counting the pile of money to his right as he talked on a cell phone and absent mindedly blessed tourists and handed them a wood prayer bracelet.  Is nothing pure anymore or was it ever?

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Still, it’s a lovely visual to see monks in burgundy robes walking around the grounds with their prayer beads.  The monks build their own houses on the grounds of the temple, and villagers come to assist with honor.  Across the pond below was a hillside that was pointed out to us, as it is the site for sky burials.  Now this sounds innocuous enough by the name, but in fact, in Tibetan culture a common way to dispose of the human body after death is to chop it into 108 pieces and then place them on the hillside for the vultures to consume.  We were also told that the same could be done and then placed in the stream to return most quickly to nature.  I must admit I made a mental note not to eat fish that night.

Our final wow moment came when we drove around behind the Lamasery to a place called the Songstam Retreat, which would be our accommodations for the night.  Set over 21 acres of land looking out on the monastery, this collection of 24 structures built of hand-cut dry stones and wood is spectacular.  One building houses a Tibetan restaurant and a lounge that felt like a ski lodge out West in the US.  We went for our welcome drink and met another family of dear friends from HK who were also there that night.  For dinner, we set the eight kids from our three families up in one room for their first Western meal of the trip while the six adults had a Tibetan meal in the adjoining room.

We were up again before sunrise, had a quick breakfast then headed to the airport, but not before we experienced a few snow flurries.  We flew back through Kunming and, though we had to kill four hours in the airport and suffer KFC for lunch, we survived and arrived home by dinnertime. The kids are off to school this morning and I can’t believe the trip has now come and gone.  In every way the trip was a grand success and I can not recommend it highly enough, particularly as the region is developing at a breakneck pace and will soon replace rugged charm with bland efficiency and some of the beauty may be lost.  Go right now!

And one final word; traveling with another family was a complete delight and has transformed my approach to family vacations.  Though their kids are not the exact ages of ours and they didn’t know each other well before the trip, the got along famously and reduced the amount of sibling fighting that would have gone on considerably.  Kids are happy when they have friends around, and so traveling with another family, particularly one as nice as theirs, was a complete delight for all of us.   I took 500 photos on the trip and wish I could attach them all as each one tells a part of the story.

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