Friday, June 3, 2011

Tibet 1.10 - Epilogue - Feeling the need to stop being selfish with the memories.

On June 11th, 2009, I left Chicago for China and my wonderful trip to Tibet. A trip that was chronicled here on my travelblog. Now, some two years later, I'm feeling the need to wrap up my telling of the adventures of this trip so I can begin to use this blog for its intended purpose. There are many stories from Tibet that never made it onto my blog, but only one that is currently prepared, and I would be remiss if I failed to share it with the rest of the world.

Anyway, before I begin this story, I must say that the last two years have flown by and I have missed many opportunities to share blog-worthy events. Completing my first marathon, a trip to Edinburgh Scotland for IMC9, another trip to Edinburgh (but this time in Texas) for my first job interview. Instead of having these events scream by as if they were images I glimpsed from a moving train, never to be viewed again, I am feeling the need to blog again, if just to keep a snapshot of the moment for posterity. But I first must conclude my Tibetan trip properly. Enjoy.


Tibet 1.10 - My 4th of July - July 4, 2009

American Independence Day, and I didn’t even realize it until later. But today was a good day. After a full day of being a tourist, and Jun’s overnight in a military hospital, I decided I needed to go out at least once to collect while I was in Lhasa. Jun said that this habitat was the most likely to have mushrooms, so I figured I’d give it a shot. The other draw of course was that it was supposed to be near this monastery outside of Lhasa. Later I learned that it was female monastery. I wondered if this bore any relation to a convent. Wouldn’t that mean that men were forbidden? Well it appeared that I didn’t need to worry.
After many turns and much searching for the monastery, including asking a Tibetan pilgrim for directions who proceeded to ignore us (clearly one of the many individuals who resented the Chinese presence in Tibet) we finally found the right road. A long, winding, steep, dirt road that led up a ravine toward the monastery. Along the way we passed yaks and goats that belonged to the monastery, but we also started to notice that the landscape became progressively greener. A good sign.
Finally we arrived at the monastery. It seems pretty remote and deserted, except there was one woman with a mask over her face typical of Tibetan style. She noticed us but continued about her business. Again I felt like I was a bit of an intruder, but Jun seems impervious to such insecurity. I’m glad for it too, because her confidence gave me the courage to follow her and Susan into the monastery for some tea.
Given that there were few mushrooms, the day for me seemed as if it was a bust. But the experience at the monastery was one of the most memorable of the whole trip. I was kind of bashful being a white dude going into a female Tibetan monastery, but Jun was so nonchalant I felt compelled to follow. Once inside, I had to stoop through some doorways and stumble over random steps that would be a code violation in the US. Stopping to take a photo of some prayer wheels I briefly lost track of Susan and Jun. Slightly panicked by the sudden exposure to observing women decked out in their long and vibrant burgundy-red robes I scrambled to catch up with my female compadres. It’s hard to explain, but I felt as if their gender that I felt shielded me from being a blasphemous intruder into this sanctuary. Like I was going into an exclusive club but, “Hey, it’s OK! They’re members and I’m with them.” Admittedly my paranoia was foolish, but I have to admit that in retrospect it was also amusing.
I caught up with Susan and Jun in the monastery kitchen and sat down with them to have some tea. Their tea was the best! But they also had various snacks about and knowing me, I need to have a nosh with my tea. Right in front of me were these pastry like things. These pear shaped dough-balls that were more pointy, brown overall, but died red on the top. I was encouraged to try one and did so willingly, picking one up and taking a bite out of the top as if it were an apple. Susan and Jun did not expect me to use this tactic to eat it, but, to me, it seemed like the obvious method. Anyway, the expression on my face after that first bite must of been hilarious cause Susan just went off laughing. Suffice to say, the taste wasn’t great... actually it was quite disappointing. It was basically a giant butter ball made with barley flower. I’m not sure if they cooked it in any way, and the butteriness of the item was actually rather rancid. Anyway, I took a few more bites to cover my displeasure before giving up on the thing. Fortunately the tea was so good that I didn’t mind accepting a couple more cups to wash down the remains of my barley butter ball.
After the lovely tea, we took some quick pictures of the place which was quite beautiful with some amusing decor. Old fashioned, western-made wallpaper lined the ceiling. Something one might find in their eccentric great aunts house. Wallpaper that hadn’t been changed in over 40-50 years. Faded colors of candy-cane designs and hearts containing scenes of rabbits having tea, girls with parasols, and other Alice in Wonderland inspired visions. That kinda wallpaper. The women that were working in the kitchen at that time seemed to warm up to the idea of having their picture taken as well. This was amusing as not just an hour earlier, Susan tried to have her picture taken with a group of the “nuns” as she was pressing plants. However, just as our driver raised the camera to take the shot, they all turned away at the last moment. I guess this was simply bashful reaction, and not some sort of formal aversion given the eventual opening up of the women from the kitchen.
Anyway, that was such a nice and memorable visit. Afterwards, we continued on down the hill and collected a few more times. Again, there wasn’t much in the way of fungi as it was the dry season for Lhasa.

We later learned that instead of flying back to Kunming, Jun decided that we all drive back in one big caravan. I groaned at the thought because I was not looking forward to the loooong trip back by car. Bumpy dusty roads, white-knuckled roads along cliff sides with 1000+ foot drops and no railing. My underwear is riding up on me now just thinking about sitting in those linoleum seats for hours on end. However, there were a number of eventful moments on the ride back. Early on we were delayed because a landslide had blocked part of the road. The army later came with a bulldozer to fix the road. We also came across a Tibetan Wolf. I failed to get a picture of him, but I’m glad I didn’t get my camera out because I would likely have taken a photo of the still alive but eviscerated sheep. Apparently we had interrupted the wolf’s kill. Hopefully it came back later to finish off the poor creature. But not after we spent, in my opinion, waaaay too much time gawking at the disturbing sight of a suffering animal. Naw, that image is seared in my mind. I didn’t need to get out my camera for that.
Suffice to say, we made it back to Kunming alive and well. I spent the next few days wrapping up my specimens to be shipped back to the Field Museum. I then left for Beijing to visit the Microbiology Institute and examine some Calostoma collections. I was surprised to meet up with my friend Ryan Kepler who was there for the summer looking for his Cordycepts. His advisor, Joey Spatafora, showed up the day after I arrived and I had a blast visiting the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven with him for my last day in China.

All in all it was a fantastic trip. The kind that makes me wonder how I got so lucky as to find such an incredible occupation.

Best not to question too much, and just make sure to enjoy the ride. Underwear wedgies and all!


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tibet 1.9 - Lhasa at last - June 3rd 2009

FYI: click on any photo to view it in more detail.

Three weeks after leaving Kunming and a few small misadventures, we arrived in Lhasa. I have been reading Peter Hopkirk’s book Trespassers on the Roof of the World and I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of many of the western explorers Hopkirk writes about. Almost all of the western travelers in Hopkirk’s book never made it to this enigmatic city. It remained a mystery to the western world until Francis Fitzgerald “invaded” the city on a diplomatic mission involving a british arsenal and several thousand soldiers in 1904. This was all under the guise of establishing free trade with the Tibetans, but it was actually fueled by the paranoia of assumed (falsely it would be revealed) diplomatic ties between Russia and Lhasa and that such a conspiracy would put Russian soldiers perilously close to British India in mysterious lands just to the north. The sad truth however is that the Tibetans were (are) a tragically private people seemingly on the point of xenophobia and that they gave no one, British or Russian, access to their country. The level of secrecy was so high that brutal punishments were carried out for failure to successfully turn away outsiders. Such punishments extended to those hired to assist these intruders to travel in Tibet, wittingly or otherwise.
Some of these stories reveal a savage culture that existed in Tibetan society. This seems to sharply contradict all the similar reports of their friendly and inquisitive nature, which is a side to their culture that I myself have experienced. But now that I’m in Lhasa, I can sort of begin to understand some of the paranoia they had about permitting access to foreigners. Other than the Potala (The Dali Lama’s palace), the Jorkam, and a few other Tibetan buddhist monuments and monasteries, Lhasa is pretty much a Chinese city now. There was a lot of modern businesses and restaurants in Lhasa, all run by ethnic Chinese. Of course, as throughout Tibet and much of China, there was a considerable military presence. That and there seemed to be a lot of begging and pan-handling happening. Open destitution seems to me to be a contradiction to the ideals of what is supposed to be a communist country. However, assuming my understanding of Tibet’s history is accurate, it seems that economically the people are no worse off, and perhaps its arguable that the standard of living for the average Tibetan has increased under Chinese dominion. Still, it seems there is plenty more that could be done to improve the livelihood the the Tibetan people, thought I must admit, my experience and knowledge of their situation is way too limited to make any real authoritative assessment.

There is plenty of Tibetan culture to enjoy in Lhasa, especially in the old town. The Jorkam is one of the holiest temples in Tibetan buddhism and with the number of pilgrims packing the place it is easy to see why. For a westerner like me, it costs around 90 yuan (about 15$) to get in, but there are lines of Tibetan pilgrims that wander in freely, to pray and prostrate at the numerous shrines in the building and give small denominations. This was part of the charm of visiting such a site. Sue, Jackie and I all went to the Jorkam to see this site, and it was a little uncomfortable rubbing and bumping up against all the other Tibetans in the dark cavernous confines of the Jorkam. There are no electrical lights or windows with access to sunlight in the Temple. Predominantly lit by yak butter candles and what little light filters in through the atrium from the upper levels the Jorkam is relatively cool and cave-like, a little stuffy and slightly claustrophobic..... OK for some it would be very claustrophobic, but it was fascinating nonetheless. We did feel like intruders in a sense, with all the pilgrims staring at the out-of-place westerners. But I just needed to remind myself that we did buy our tickets from the monks of the temple, and that although the Tibetans are a deeply religious people who are protective of their believes, this is not to say they are inhospitable. On the contrary, as I’ve come to learn, they are actually quite open and willing to share their culture and religion to those that were respectful and interested.

Outside of the Jorkam there were also many pilgrims showing their reverence and devotion in two ways. First, prostrating involves starting from a standing position they kneel down to their hands and knees, then they slide their hands forward touching their stomachs and forehead to the ground. They would then reverse this motion until they were again at a standing position. How many times they would end up doing this, or what the significance of such an action was, I do not know. However the level of devotion to prostrating was evident in the sophistication of the gear which involved special padding or “shoes” for the hands, which would aid in the sliding movement. The second display of reverence involved walking in a clockwise direction around the Jorkam. Tibetan’s walked clockwise around all buddhist structures such as stupas and even the Potala. The clockwise direction seems to have some significance as well since that is the direction in which they spin their prayer wheels. Unfortunately I’m again ignorant as to what this significance means. Perhaps this needs to be the subject of a future blog....

In Lhasa we managed to do a bit of shopping. I was looking for some Tibetan quilts/tapestries and some prayer flags. We found the tapestries at this artisans collective on the eastern end of the old town. They also had a number of other crafts for sale at the place, supposedly all created by local Tibetans using traditional methods. The benefit of shopping at this place was that all the proceeds went back to the Tibetan communities. Sue scored the biggest, paying a nice sum for this beautiful Tibetan rug. She (and almost myself) was sold on the fact that these rugs were made from 100% Yak wool, which by nature is supposedly more dirt and stain proof, and retains the dyes better than regular sheep wool.

Anyway, this was our first day to play tourist. Unfortunately it had to come at Jun’s expense. Apparently an injury she suffered about a month prior in Vietnam had become infected. As a result, she had to receive antibiotics by IV at a local military hospital that day. Despite this unfortunate turn to our trip, it was nice to have a day without work. Honestly, I hadn’t planned on doing much work around Lhasa, since the area was all alpine desert where the chance of finding mushrooms was very slim to none. But gladly, I decided to go out the next day. That ended up being another memorable experience to my trip... despite my making only one collection.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Tibet 1.8 - The Mystic Valley (July 1 2009)

I love the forested parts of Tibet. Here we are so high, the forest looks like it is on fire with all the clouds clinging to the mountains like smoke. Yesterday we landed next to a beautiful alpine lake. The lake is fed by glacial waters and as a result is completely turquoise in color. On the lake is a small island on which sits a buddhist temple. Prior to our arrival, Jun referred to this area as a hidden treasure. Well hidden it is no longer. They (the Chinese government) has expanded and paved the roads, built a parking lot for cars and tour buses, and are building a large visitors center in order to charge tourist who come into the area. From what I can tell, admission to the area is pretty much limited to visiting the temple on the island, yet from what I understand, newly built footbridges too the island.

Anyway, we are staying at a ‘resort’ of sorts. I share a little cottage with Jun, Jackie and Sue. There is a nice front porch where we can hang out on and watch all the pigs and piglets rooting in the surrounding yard.

Today we ended up collecting in a place that I like to call the mystical valley. To get there we had to go down a dirt road that was restricted by a gate. We had to wake up the guard who was fast asleep in a windowless shack. It was kind of amusing as we could hear him fumbling in the dark of his little hut for some clothes only to stumble groggy, hair a mess, into the daylight, to let a few American and Chinese scientists through his gate. Despite the inconvenience to him, he seemed quite amicable. Probably the most action he would see all day from his relatively remote corner of China.

As we drove I noticed what seemed to be many new buildings that I assumed represent the increasing prosperity among the Tibetan people. I can only imagine that it is compensation from the Chinese government for the commercialization of the lake area. I feel safe in this assumptions since I noticed that the frequency of new homes dropped off the farther into the valley, and from the lake, we traveled. As we drove the stone Tibetan homes were less frequent as the communities were built up with the traditional rustic log-cabin type structure.

The the farther we got into the valley, the more remote the setting and more breathtaking the scenery became. The valley stretch off in either direction, fading into the distance behind a mist of clouds and rain. The river that wound through the valley, and the one that fed our lake, was the same beautiful turquoise like the lake. On the opposite side of the valley you could see the white cascades of a massive waterfall that, even from a distance, trembled with a roar you could feel in you chest. Though it was the clouds and rain overcast the valley you could still make out the shadowy peaks that silhouetted through the mists. As these were the immediate peaks that shown through the low-lying mists, I imagined that on the ridge behind loomed even larger and more ominous mountains.

Part of the mystical quality of this valley was the feeling of being in a place that few outsiders experience. We drove as far as we could into this valley with our vehicles. There was no road after this, though we knew the valley

and the Tibetan communities that lived there continued on. Many of these communities live entirely off the land and their livestock. Yaks, horses, pigs and other livestock roam the land freely. One amusing moment was when a yak started following Jun. She didn’t know what to do, or why the animal was following her, but decided to keep moving. The yak, perhaps recognizing it’s mistake, soon left her alone. Later on we noticed something that might explain the animal’s bizarre behavior. While we were eating lunch a Tibetan woman was chatting with and luring her yaks back to her home. They seemed to be like puppies or dogs following their master. I noticed she was wearing red and wondered if the yaks had become imprinted to the color. Until Jun came to the valley with her red jacket, the Tibetan woman’s sweater was really the only thing in the valley that was that color. Anyway, an amusing episode to say the least.

Since there was so much livestock around the meadow, the place seemed heavily grazed. Not unlike every other place in this part of the world where people depend upon their animals for subsistence. However, that didn’t stop there from being numerous species of Primula, Ranunculus and other herbacious flowers carpeting the ground. Toward the edges of the valley, the forest creeped into the meadow with, fur and spruce trees. This is where I started to look for fungi and found some nice stuff. An Inocybe, a few Amanitas, and a nice Gymnopus collection. I’m particularly interested in the Gymnopus I’ve been finding considering it was the topic of my master’s thesis. I like to see if any of the species I’ve been collecting add up to something new.

The day was interspersed with rain. There were some buzzkill moments when we lost our other mycologist, Feng, in the woods. Apparently he did not realize, that when we stopped briefly on the drive back to look at the plants that it was supposed to be short. We ended up losing track of him in the rain and cold for about an hour. He turned up though, and on the way back found a monster Leccinum. Obviously this turns and old addage on it's head into, “No bad deed goes unrewarded.”

Later, the sun ended up coming out and we made yet another stop where there were no fungi. So I ended up assisting the botanists and ended up collecting what Jun tells me is a new plant species.... Go figure! Glad I could help.

I loved this place. It was definitely one of the more enchanting moments of my trip....


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tibet 1.7 - When they stick their tongue out at you... (July 30)

Yesterday I was in Bayi, which I guess is the second largest city in Xizang. Our group was walking to lunch and I noticed an elderly Tibetan woman walking in the same direction, spinning her prayer wheel and glancing at me. Many of the places we’ve been have not been opened up to tourists other than Chinese, so me and my western colleagues have been the recipients of many a curious stare. This made me uneasy until I learned that all I had to do was smile and give a nod or a wave. Such a simple gesture seemed to break through the awkward barriers of uneasiness and insecurity as the locals responded eagerly in kind. From perplexed to enchanted, almost every Tibetan returned a big ol’ grin and waved back. I was told Tibetans were friendly, but experiencing it is something else. I can only imagine that they must have been told the same thing about westerners.

Anyway, I did the same trick with the woman on the street, but her response was quite new to me. She stuck her tongue out at me! Now, it wasn’t your typical “nya-nya, na-nya-nya” type tongue, but more of the tongue-depressor type tongue.... (Sorry, that’s the best visual I could come up with.) If I wasn’t reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Trespassers on the Roof of the World”, I wouldn’t quite know what to make of this. Apparently, the sticking out of the tongue in this fashion is a traditional greeting in Tibet. After the woman did this, it did take me a little time to process it and I found myself thinking about it at lunch. In the end, I felt rather touched to have experience such and interaction.

“An old Tibetan woman stuck her tongue out at me in greeting.”

How many people can say that?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tibet 1.6 - It’s good to be a Ph.D.

One of the luxuries I’ve been able to enjoy on the trip is the fact that I’ve been given my own room at every location we’ve been. A few months ago I would not have gotten this treatment, and to be honest, didn’t quite expect it now. My understanding is that it comes with the addition of a few extra letters to my name, and the fact that with these letters you are essentially promoted to another class of citizen here in China.
Anyway, I wanted to introduce the team:

Jun Wen - Smithsonian Curator, botanist, and organizer of the trip. Rick Ree described her as a “Force of Nature”. That almost sums her up.

Sue Lutz - Jun’s assistant from the Smithsonian.

Jackie Van De Viere - U of Ill. at Chicago/Field Museum graduate student. Working on systematics of Primula.

Nie Ze-Long - Associate Professor, Kunming Institute of Botany. One of the co-organizers of the trip.

Xie Lie - Postdoc in botany and KIB. Also did a 1 year postdoc with Jun at the Smithsonian and was one of the people to pick me up at the airport.

Yang Fusheng - Associate Professor, Institute of Botany Beijing. Nice guy, but don’t know much about him.

Niu Yong - Ph.D. student in botany, KIB. Nice guy. Good with photography. Accompanied Jackie on some of her previous fieldwork in China.

Li Gudong - One of the youngest graduate students. Masters student in botany at KIB. Has been given the task of booking our rooms and coordinating our meals at each stop. I wonder if he had gotten stuck with this job because he’s the ‘rookie’ so-to-speak.

Feng Bang - Ph.D. student in mycology at KIB. He has an interest in ectomycorrhizal fungi (who doesn’t?). He has also helped me to identify some of the fungi we’ve collected. Found a gynormous Leccinum (see picture).

Hu Yongfu - AKA ‘Rodney’ becuse he reminded us of Rodney Dangerfield. A bit of a jokester. He drives the little red Mitsubishi van that goes by the nickname ‘little red’. He’s also seems to be a bit of a cheapskate as he tries to get the other drivers to take all the luggage because it weighs down his car and reduces his gas milage.

Zhang Xiaopeng - Drives the white Toyota van which has become the “support vehicle” that carries most of our luggage and the botany supplies. He’s also a bit fond of barley wine as he ended up purchasing 10 cases of it when getting supplies for the trip. This pissed Jun off to say the least.

Ma Hongqi - Driver of the silver Mitsubishi SUV. Seems to have problems with directions as earlier in the trip he was continuously making wrong turns. Once we started heading into Sichuan instead of Xi’zang (Tibet) because he went strait instead of crossing a bridge. That put us back by about an hour. He’s also ‘Muslim”. I put that in quotes because he doesn’t eat with us since most every meal has a pork dish, but I have seen him sit down at the dinner table to drink beer. That confuses me because I didn’t think drinking alcohol was permitted in Islam. Perhaps he practices a particular brand of islam where it is permitted.

Anyway, that’s the crew. An interesting bunch, and for the most part, we all seem to get along pretty well.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tibet 1.5 - Finally some real fungi... - June 27th

Sorry it’s been a while since my last report. After our stop in Markam we were in Bomi. There the fungal collections picked up quite a bit. I’ve also somewhat intensified my attempt at video documenting. I’m fortunate that my new Macbook Pro has the capacity to handle all the photos and video that I’ve been collecting. It’s becoming a challenge to try and keep up with the management of my files, collect and describe fungi, and video document this trip. Sadly my attempts to keep a traditional scrapbook/journal of my trip has fallen by the wayside. I’ve even failed to collect one beer label to put in the book, though that’s not to say that I haven’t been drinking beer. At least I got a Tibetan sticker for the front of my journal. In retrospect, I guess I should be somewhat glad that collecting fungi hasn’t been all that intense. Otherwise I would not have been able to document the trip as much as I have.

But that seems to have changed as of yesterday. Right now I’m in Linzhi Xian (xian = county) and we are staying in the village of Lulang. Yesterday we went to a mixed terrestrial alpine forest, very much like what you’d find in N. America, and I was able to make close to 20 collections. I was able to get some spore prints from the few Laccaria specimens I collected, which made me happy. So the trip has picked up a bit for me on the scientific end. I’ll only have a few more days of being in this kind of habitat so we’ll have to see how many more collections I can make. In the meantime, I’m going to try to document the trip as well as I can.

Before arriving here in Linzhi we were in the town of Bomi for several days (June 21-23). An interesting town surrounded by tall, snow capped mountains. I’m amused by the inquisitive stares by all the locals. Westerners don’t come to this part of China. Most Tibetans have never seen the likes of people like me. I love their reactions whenever I stare back and suddenly smile and wave with a jolly “Hello!” Their first response is a somewhat startled surprise, but it is quickly followed by enthusiastic smiles and responses of “Hello” in kind. It’s always a revelation for me how much weight and power a simple gesture of friendship and respect can carry. I guess it also helps that the Tibetan people are unabashedly curious and friendly to begin with.

Today we visited a subtropical forest. There we were met by the other extreme of moisture that prevents mushrooms from fruiting. The coolest part about the trip was the old bridge that we had to cross. Apparently the path we used was an old road that would take you all the way to India. Besides the lack of fungi, the moisture provided optimal conditions for leeches. Sue got initiated finally. She’s seems sufficiently creeped out by the whole experience.

I realize that I haven’t introduced my colleagues on the trip. I’ll have to do that for the next installment.