Dawa Drolma (my traveling partner)’s best friend from university works in Shangri-la, and she was thrilled to be able to meet up with her. Abby, a designated American name from school, is a charming young woman and it was a pleasure to have her helpful presence. Also a former student of Michelle’s, she spoke a fair amount of English. She and Dawa Drolma were, indeed, very close and it was quite interesting to observe the sweetness of their reunion. Abby, whose name is Dolma, is quite fashionable, and by the time we parted ways, Dawa’s wardrobe had taken on an air of glitzy chic.  They were like sisters…teenage sisters. Annoying and charming at the same time.

Dolma asked if we would like to visit her village, and I, of course, jumped at the chance. A home visit, especially staying a noght or so with a local, beats the tourist path anyday. She told me she had two sisters living with her mother, one of whom was blind. Also, that her father and mother had separated, and as a result, when her eldest sister married, her husband came to live with her in her mother’s home. Usually, a married woman goes to live with her husband’s family. In this case, because the household was lacking a male, it was considered diminished in social stature and perhaps even unstable. ???? The house was now blessed with the indomitable energy of two children, Dolma’s niece, ????, about 4, and her nephew, ????, 8?.

Of course, the significance of these details didn’t register with me. I was pleased that I had purchased some Nivea creme for myself, and as I hadn’t used any, I had a gift for this blind girl.  Shallow concern, but innocent.

We had a lovely few days exploring the Kham village of Hongpo. Situated along at the base of a sacred mountain along a few mile stretch of a beautiful tributary, walnut trees grow alongside prickly pear cactus, and the stream bubbles gently down the hillside.  The village is well situated, with a culvert-like diversion heading right past most dwellings, so water is easily accessible, altho if one lives downstream, as my friends do, then it behooves one to arrise early so as to get un polluted water. The have devised an interesting way of pputting a stick in water to create a little spout.  Then the kettle is positioned so the water goes right in and the pot does not have to be submerged.  Clever.

The ride to the village had been breathtaking, both in scenery and in terror. While the main road from ShangriLa was well maintained, even paved with cobblestones for many miles over the pass ( just think of the people laying those stones), the road to Hongpo village was a frightening affair…especially when one looked back across a traverse to see a thin shell of pavement held up by a few sticks. Never mind that the road was simply a narrow shelf zig-zagging up a sheer, rubbly drop-off.

I spent several days photographing the village and meeting Dolma’s neighbors. Oddly, there was no blind sister. Since Dolma had gone out of her way to tell me about her, there was a quiet gaping hole, but something kept me from asking about her.

Finally, the last afternoon of our stay, Dolma asked me if I would like to meet Gyi’an. “Of course,” I said. And I was truly looking forward to the introduction. We, Dolma, Dawa Drolma, and I went out behind the house, past the pig sty to the animals cribs, and a pathetic, thin person emerged, wearing a hat with a very long duck bill. The sight was disturbing and confusing. Then Dolma explained she lived there. Still confused, I caught a glimpse of her face and didn’t believe what I saw. It was a very brief glance, and I imagined that I had been mistaken. But I had not. One of Gyi’an’s eyes protruded out of the socket, a shiny translucent mass about the size of a golf ball. Her other eye was a goopy glob of total blindness. Otherwise a beautiful eighteen year old, Gyi’an was a freak. And one in agony. The bulging eye caused searing pain unless she was perfectly still.

Dolma’s mom asked me to photograph the blind girl, and thinking she wanted to include Gyi’an in the family album, as it were, I worked with the waning light of the last day we were there, positioning her cap just so to make a very nice picture camouflaging her deformity. When I showed it to ________ , Dolma’s mom, she emphatically indicated “no.” She wanted me to photograph Gyi’an’s blind eyes and show the photos to western doctors to see if they could help.

This was quite remarkable, as tradition has it that Western doctors should never be consulted. Had Giy’an had seen an ophthalmologist when she was four, her glaucoma could have been successfully treated. But, for whatever reason,  __________ had changed her mind. It was now that Gyi’an’s mom was ready to look outward, for she asked me to bring Gyi’an’s plight to the attention of the western world.

Heading to Shangri-La

On my second trip to Asia, Michelle arranged to have me travel with a young student of hers, Dawa Drolma. Extremely intelligent, she was, of course, equally provincial. From a small village in Qinghai Province, she graduated from Qinghai Normal University* in Xining, a very large city in the far west of China, but she had no travel experience. She did, however, speak English very well.  It was a tough job for her in many ways.  The Chinese spoken in the regions where we spent much of our time was difficult for her to understand, so communication was exhausting. As her main task was to function as translator, it must have been quite frustrating.  Also, we encountered some strange happenings that could only befall illiterate strangers…us!  But those stories will come later in the story.

Yunnan Province is rich with the remnants of many indigenous cultures.  In China, there are 55 ethnic groups co-residing with the predominant Han Chinese, and 25 of these can be found in Yunnan. Wanting to see  cultural diversity, the trip was planned accordingly, dipping south west into the lowland rice and tea regions, where the Yi, Naxi, Bai, and Mosuo societies can be found*.  Bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, this canyon-filled landscape is verdant and lush, with the vast diversification of natural species gracing a habitat that has plenty of water and sun.  But in the northwest, Yunnan borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the place most of us call Tibet. It is this part of China where we find the Diqin Plateau and mountains soaring to the heavens.  Kawagebo Peak ascends a mighty 22,110 ft (6,740 m).

On my itinerary of “must sees” was a town called Shangri-La, basking at an altitude of well over 10,000 ft. It is supposedly the paradise James Hilton referred to in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, but I was attracted to it because of its historical Tibetan town.  As it turns out, Dawa Drolma’s very best friend from college lives there. Visiting Dolma turned out to be life changing


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The big question

There are many reasons why I am going to China in February, the majority of which I have yet to discover. Perhaps by the end of the journey, I will have a better understanding of WHY I am going, but right now I don’t. I only know that I am.

This question comes up with most people who learn of my adventure, and I don’t really know what to say. The trip is a big undertaking and in some ways quite unreasonable. I am sixty six, I have broken bones in both feet, and I speak not a word of Tibetan. My command of the mandarin language is limited to saying “I do not speak Mandarin very well” and “hello.” And, to boot, whilst I will be visiting people whom I have met, I am traveling by myself!

One friend suggested it was the extreme nature of the trip that makes it appealing. Although I have found myself in trying circumstances in my travels, I don’t actively search them out. Plus, more and more, I like things to be easy and comfortable. Another pal questioned whether it was a deeper exploration of Buddhism or maybe a sociological study. Partially. My husband said matter-of-factly “you are going to visit your friends.” While this is true, there are unquestionably more comfortable times of the year to do so.

Certainly, attending Losar, the high Tibetan holiday celebrated over a 16 day period starting February 19, is an important part of this journey. I want to be with my friends at this time when they are deep in their Tibetan world, free to be who they are — engrossed in pageantry of their beliefs. And, it will be extraordinary to experience Tibetan Buddhism in full swing. I expect it to be wild. Giant brass horns (akin to diggerydos), drums, and chanting, strange costumes and exotic dancing. So, yes, there is an interest, but I don’t think it is what drives me.

Curiosity, that old friend, has an important role (but, of course!). How do these Tibetan friends of mine live in the winter? What do they do with themselves. In summer their daily tasks are nonstop. Simply getting water is a chore. The eldest son’s wife in one family I will visit again was always up before dawn, walking to the pasture miles up the road to milk the yaks, then returning to prepare breakfast for everyone. Then back to the pasture. This is life. The butter needs churning; the cheese must be made; dung, yak and sheep, must be gathered for fuel; wool must be gotten, combed, and spun to yarn; homespun wool is sewn into sacks to carry the barley which will be ground into tsampa. On and on. But in winter it is cold…VERY COLD. In one home I visited on my second trip, I saw only a tiny wood burning stove, exhaust pipe not even rising to the ceiling, let alone through it. The stove was used for cooking, at least in the summer. But, nothing I saw could heat the great room in which the stove was pitifully central. How do they live in the cold? I will see. For this house is one where I will stay for six days.


12/24/14. Tonight I celebrated Merry Festivas Eve sharing a crab dinner with dear friends Sharon and Helen. When the conversation got around to my pending trip, new ideas merged into consciousness relating to the “why.” One is that I need to be out of my comfort zone to feel like I am alive. This is true, within certain parameters, albeit I am not certain sub-freezing temperatures are within those parameters. And the other, which resonates deeply, is that of trust. I am compelled–nay, closer to obsessed–by the desire to take this journey, and, because the passion is there, I can simply trust that it the right path.

I like this last one. 🙂


Beijing Shop-Girls

On foot, I made my way to the quaint Beijing art and antiques shopping street and of course got pulled into an antique store by a charmingly persuasive, youngish shop-girl, who came out of her store to “admire” the necklace I had on. Good ploy! I was treated to tea, which is a lengthy and ritualized affair and met her assistant, who kept bringing objects for me to look at while I was savoring the tea.  It was actually quite lovely, and the shop had some nice things. In fact, several of the objects I purchased there remain my favorite mementos of that whole trip.

“Joan” spoke very good English and Mai spoke a little.  We got into a lengthy chat about San Francisco, California, and America. Upon taking my leave they asked if I would like to join them for dinner, to experience hot pot in the non-tourist part of Beijing where they live.  Yes indeedy, say I.  Well not really.  I probably said, “Yes, thank you very much.  I would enjoy that immensely.” And off  I went.

The July evening was not too hot, tempered by a slight breeze, as I retraced my steps to the shopping street, wondering if they would really be there. They were waiting for me and I was greeted by genuine smiles. I reflected that they were lovely young people.  Curious, ambitious, well-mannered, and fun. We got along well, and I fantasized that we could put a great Beijing tour together.

The hot pot place was teaming with Chinese people. Not another Caucasian in sight.  We sat outside midst the throngs, grabbing an open table with the peculiar hot pot cooker in the center.  Excellent guides to hotpot etiquette, they revealed the magic of this tasty Chinese cuisine. In due course, they asked about my travels.  When I told them I was headed to visit some Tibetans in the West, they were both taken aback.  Why would anyone want to visit Tibetans?  Then Joan cautioned me, “Tibetans are filthy and disease ridden.  You must have your shots up to date if you are intent on visiting with them.  But,  really, they are deplorable, and you shouldn’t go.”

I thought of the words from the song from South Pacific, “You have got to be carefully taught.”  And I thought about my own biases, not the least of which were the negative notions I had about mainland Chinese in general.  Different, but much the same as Joan’s in terms of disparaging prejudice.  Remember, China was the country I loved to hate during the Olympics.

The footnote to this experience is that two years later, in a different part of Beijing, I actually recognized Joan on the street!  Amazing as that is, her story was even more wondrous.  She had taken the new fast train to Lhasa, and loved it — both the train and Lhasa.  She now has Tibetan friends, with whom she stays in touch via the internet…and “yes” she plans on returning. She also proudly sells Tibetan trinkets in her store.  I spent quite sometime looking at pictures of her sojourn and it was clear that the trip was special and she had a wonderful time.

While there are plainly conflicting feelings about and probably motives for the train, it certainly opened the heart of one young Han Chinese woman.




Madeleine arrives in China

I arrived in China in 2005 in a drugged stupor.  This was due to the fact that I, who rarely takes sleeping pills, was advised by a friend to take two of the little pills she handed me. Whatever they were, I think a half of one would have sufficed.  Fortunately the flight had been overbooked and I was upgraded to business.  That was cool, as I actually slept well in my narcotized state.  Truly before I knew it, we had landed… I was baffled, to put it mildly.  In the airport, I was so groggy that I just floated from one arrival task to the next, including getting in a cab, well NOT a cab, a car to take me to the hotel.  JUST what Michelle had advised against.  There are poachers at the Beijing airport who come and “grab” you before you get to the official cab line. They usually charge exorbitant rates.  The hotel I booked was way downtown in the Hutong, the old district of Beijing…a long ways from the airport and hard to find even by Beijing natives.  The ride was both terrifying in my drugged state (where was he taking me, really?) and magnificent (the lights and sounds).  Can you imagine!  I had no idea where I was going, spoke not a single word of Chinese, and was seriously stoned.  But guess what!  The driver got me to the obscure little hotel, and the charge was same as a cab.  Whew!

The Far East Hotel is a great little place, and was perfect for my first stay in China. Smack in the warren world of old Beijing, it caters to students and budget-minded tourists.  I think the rate was $25/night.  Certainly comfortable enough, I would stay there again.  In fact I might!  The lobby was vibrant with many languages, and the reception people were trying hard to accommodate. In the bowels of the hotel, vast cauldrons of boiling water provided guests with, amongst other things, safe water. Decanted into delightfully decorated thermos bottles and delivered to our rooms, brushing teeth and making tea were not health threats. When I stayed in the hotel again in 2007, the thermoses were replaced by those instant boil tea pots in each room.  It didn’t feel nearly as safe as the water that had been boiled for a long time.  Also, by then much of the Hutong was slated for major destruction, Massive highrises were going up in their stead.  It will be interesting to revisit.

I awoke early (3:30) that first morning and went for a walk after my ritual ablutions.  Most of the town was still asleep, but not all. The Hutong is very old, and it has much character.  One knows where the communal toilets facilities are with no problem (sniff, sniff). I also explored out of the Hutong in a modern neighborhood with concrete apartments.  As the sun rose, I watched people doing their morning exercises.  Public exercise is de rigueur whether in groups or solo. And I saw men, always men, carrying bird cages, walking determinedly.  So I followed one. They meet their friends, who also have birds, and set the cages up fairly near to each other so the birds can have social time, like they are all on a tree.

One unexpected sight, and one that I was to see if in one form or another over and over again, was that of people sleeping in public.   My morning meanderings that first day bore witness to workers crawling out from under plastic tarps on building sites and people camouflaged for the night in trash heaps.  I don’t know how to process this visual information and find myself haunted by the apparent discomfort as well as the underlying social context.

On the other hand, I was delightfully surprised to see how people in Beijing dote on their dogs.  Seriously…  What did I think?  Hmm.  Yup.  I had heard the Chinese eat their dogs.  Well, maybe some of them find their way to a plate…but not these urban canines.  



Michelle in China

My niece graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Women’s Studies. During her time at school she spent a year in Spain, and investigated as much as she could of European culture in her spare time.  After graduation she expressed a desire to explore cultures in the so called Eastern Hemisphere and signed up with Volunteers in Asia, a good-will program out of Stanford.  She was assigned a post teaching in the far west of China, a very long way from home and family.  We were all a bit freaked, but as it turned out, her journey sparked adventures for all of us.  Her assignment ultimately had her teaching English to Tibetans who had made it to the Chinese University in Xining.  There was much that was eye opening, not just the typical foreignness, but from her perspective, the consistent diminishment of women was visible everywhere…including her classroom.

Michelle 2005

Michelle 2005

It was soon apparent that her female students were not actively participating, and thus not doing very well.  Upon inquiry, she discovered a cultural roadblock. Asking questions in front of men is not admired in the traditional Tibetan culture, thus all of the young women were thwarted in their efforts to keep up with the guys.  Rising to the occasion, she suggested they come study with her on the weekends.  Several did, and not only did their English improve, they formed a women’s group to delve deep into what it means to be female in a Tibetan world.  Out of this endeavor came an insightful book, Heavy Earth, Golden Sky: Tibetan Women Speak About Their Lives, edited by Michelle.

A book written by Tibetan women with stories from their lives.

A book written by Tibetan women with stories from their lives.

These women ultimately formed a very productive non profit organization, Shem Women’s Group.  Facilitating fundamental improvements for their villages by getting grants, they purchased solar panels and solar cookers, provided potable water to spigots in villages, and even built a bridge.

The unwavering powerhouse behind this group was, of course, Michelle.


In 2005, I went to China for the first time.  I did not really want to go. The Chinese were the competitors I LOVED TO HATE in the Olympics.  I had embraced popular notions about the arrogance and cruelty of the Chinese in regards to Tibet, and I was scared of the pollution.  But my beloved niece had gone to teach at the university in Xining, a large town in the far western reaches of China.  At an altitude of 7200 ft, it is on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. My niece’s students were Tibetan, studying English.  That these kids made it into a Chinese University is quite extraordinary.  They were the brightest of the bright, and came from families supporting their studies. Most remarkable is the inclusion of young women students, as in the traditional Tibetan culture it was not thought that they had the ability to be anything but the labor force for their villages.

working the fields for her entire life, this woman from a remote Tibetan village wanted me to make images that would highlight the plight of women's toils.  Gansu Province, PRC 2005

Working the fields for her entire life, this woman from a remote Tibetan village wanted me to make images that would highlight the plight of women’s toils. Gansu Province, PRC 2005

Tibetan woman in Agricultural Tibetan village. Sichuan, PRC 2007

Tibetan woman in Agricultural Tibetan village. Sichuan, PRC 2007