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!