As mentioned in Part 2, my sister was my traveling companion with the 23 Big Noses who were venturing into mostly unknown territory. She and I told each other repeatedly that it was difficult to believe that two women who grew up on a farm in middle Georgia could be traveling in places so far removed from our culture. We were in awe of entering Tibet. After leaving Tibet, we were in awe of Tibet itself.
Tibetis said to be the highest region on earth, at 16,000 feet — thus the high altitude pills each of us took prior to entering the country. Most of us have seen pictured the very large Buddhist monastery (Potala Palace) perched high on a hill on the outskirts of Lhasa; imagine seeing it in reality. We were allowed to climb to this seat of the Dalai Lama, but by this time my knees had really failed me so I was relegated to walking around the base, taking photographs, and observing the people. Rather than feeling cheated, I felt so very fortunate to be this close to a shrine that is comparable to the Bethlehem Church to Christians, the Wailing Wall to Jews, and the Dome of the Rock to Muslims.
The Tibetans have their own language but of course they have been expected to learn Chinese since becoming part of that “autonomous region.” Wu, our guide throughout the trip, would converse with our local guide and when they had difficulty in understanding each other, they reverted to English. Most of the Tibetans could not converse with us, but when we walked along the outdoor vending streets (Bokhor Bazaar), they knew to say, “One dollar; one dollar.” But of course nothing was! Yet, the exchange rate was quite reasonable so bargains were to be had.
Outside the city of Lhasa, our group was taken into the nomadic grasslands to visit with pastoral families living in small villages on the mountainsides. Yak milk, yak butter, yak butter beer — all were served. Most of us agreed we would stick to our own varieties, but this was not relayed to the locals.
It was cold in Tibet — quite a shocking change to our bodies from the extreme heat of China. Of course we had been prepared, but we had not been expecting an unheated hotel. It seems “it was not yet the season.” We just asked for more blankets.
We were able to attend a lecture by a Tibetan physician who was trained in both Eastern and Western medicine. Most of us felt we would be in good hands if we had needed medical care there.
When leaving Tibet, it was as though we were departing an ancient world, headed back into something a bit more like our own, if not quite: China.
Pandas! What American citizen has not expressed at least some level of interest in these ever so cuddly looking bears — and we went directly to their homeland, the Szechuan Province. The city of Chongqing has a wonderful zoological garden that compares most favorably to the zoos of our cities. But what most of us wanted to see, of course, were the pandas.
There has been so much poaching that pandas have become endangered so now are carefully protected. They are fat little creatures. If the Chinese eat rice, the pandas gorge on bamboo. What a sight to see them continually stuffing their mouths with long bamboo shoots pausing only to pose for us. That is correct: these animals, whether by experience or instinct, would stop eating for a while, look at us (Was that a smile?), walk around a bit and return to their individual “roosts” and begin eating again. We were in love.
After a three night boat tour of the Yangtze River, we were off to Shanghai, our city of departure. One of our most unique experiences sounded quite mundane. We took a subway to the Shanghai Art Museum. The uniqueness was the subway. Our guide had us line up with four people in a row, one at either end of where a subway car was to stop. We thought this was a bit odd until we experienced it. When the cars arrived, one would think it was impossible for so many people to emerge. And when we tried to enter we had to cram ourselves in, quite literally. The subways of New York City, London, and Paris would pale beside these; we were as intimate as we could be without being intimate.
It was all worth it as it made it possible to stroll through the Shanghai Art Museum. We were reminded that though we often feel no cultures have art like our western cultures, indeed others do. This was a wonderful way to conclude our visit.
Intellectually each of us knows that individuals everywhere are so very much alike, just separated by languages and cultures. Submersing ourselves in another culture, even for so short a time as three weeks, enables us to internalize this oneness as human beings.
Carrie Nelle Moye is a Santa Rosa Beach resident and former foreign correspondent in the Middle East. She recently visited China and Tibet to continue her quest to see as much of the world as she can, "as that is the best learning experience ever." Read previous parts of Moye’s travel log at thewaltonsun.com