Tibet: Shangri-La?

I went to Tibet expecting to find Shangri-La, the utopian land of long-lived enlightened beings described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon.  It was something I'd dreamed of since seeing the classic 1937 Frank Capra film starring Ronald Colman and Sam Jaffe.  But as is too often the case . . .

Our flight from Xi’an was quite comfortable.  Wide-bodied European Airbuses are roomier than their American counterpart, ironic considering that Americans usually have wider bodies than their European counterpart.  The food was the same, though, typical air fare with an Asian accent.  Linda Fang, our beautiful and dutiful tour director asked us to save anything we didn’t want from our boxed breakfast to give to the school children we would visit later in the morning.  That would be my whole breakfast.  Aside from the food, there was another thing just a trifle disconcerting.  Cruising at 35,000 feet, one doesn’t expect to see mountains peaking above the stratosphere.

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The 90km bus ride from Gongga Airport to Lhasa follows the Brahamaputra (Tsangpo) River—on both sides. The airport is actually only 45km from Lhasa, but there is no bridge. So you must go where there is a bridge, cross it and return on the other bank.  The Brahamaputra is a broad 1,800-mile-long river with beginnings high in the Himalayas.  It streams eastward until it reaches the five-mile high mountain Namcha Barwa, where it makes an abrupt right turn around the base and doubles back before coursing down through India and Bangladesh. Shortly before entering the Bay of Bengal, it merges with the Ganges.  The stream was now swollen from the August monsoon and raced along as if it had an urgent date with destiny.  Although the road in most places was just a few feet above water and even less in others, Dava, our local guide said that surprisingly the road never floods.

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There were no villages along the way, merely a big Buddha cut into a mountain hung with shiny white silk shawls (hada ).  Like the mountainside and the recently repainted 7th century Buddha of the Rock, we too were draped with such shawls, gifts from Dava.  More awaited at the hotel.  The Tibetan tradition of presenting hada to guests is reminiscent of the hospitable Hawaiian custom of bedecking visitors with leis.

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Vendors on the riverbank peddled yak rides, and antique coins and artifacts of recent mintage and vintage.  There were also yak skin boats, a major source of transportation for the folk hereabout.  We were supposed to take rides in them but the water was too swift.  Too, there was a possible liability problem.  We were told the boats quickly become waterlogged.  Perhaps if they were rubbed inside and out with the ubiquitous yak butter . . .?

Click for larger imageOn the outskirts of Lhasa, we stopped to visit a school.  It was also a pit stop, though only one person dared take advantage of the facility. This “happy room” at the edge of the hard dirt playground was only a hole in the ground, with a 2 ½-foot high mud-brick wall around the privy for privacy—which would be sufficient for a child.  But the sight of a  six-foot-two Frank Perdue look-alike attempting to get low enough so that vital parts weren’t visible brought peals of laughter.  It was like the mime routine of disappearing into the distance.

The school had two small classrooms, each with 10 or 12 students. Their uniforms were soiled, most appeared malnourished, and some had sores on their faces.  In the first classroom, the younger children sang us a rhythmic folk song in Tibetan.  Although none tapped their feet, clapped their hands or even moved their bodies, the song really swung!  The older kids in the classroom next door sang the same tune.  They didn’t move their bodies, either, but the song still swung.  On request, we sang for them.  I was pushed into service as choir director.  Even though we moved our bodies, Row, Row, Row Your Boat didn't swing at all.

Dava said the children boarded at the school Monday through Friday and went home for the weekend. OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) contributes money to the school from the kickbacks they receive off the shops they send us to, parents pay a pittance, and some of us offered gifts of pencils and pens along with the breakfast boxes. Nothing was said and no one asked what, if anything, the Chinese government kicks in—other than the all too apparent life-sized poster of Tibet’s “liberator” Chairman Mao.

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At an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level, Lhasa is the world’s highest city.  Here, “Roof of the World” means exactly that.  So it was suggested that after lunch we return to our rooms to rest and acclimate to the altitude.  It was sage advice, so we took it—along with several drags from a big plastic balloon filled with oxygen.  Everyone also took Diamox, a drug designed to help ward off altitude sickness.  I didn’t take it because my body is drug intolerant, at least intolerant to the kind that doctors and mothers give you.  Strangely, I was the only one who didn’t suffer some sort of negative reaction.

At teatime we visited a lower middle-class family in the suburbs for what I assume was the Tibetan version of high tea.  Yak butter tea was served, along with several homemade treats: puffed-wheat, puffed-barley, puffed-corn and puffed-rice; a strange wafer-pretzel-cookie made of unsweetened yak cheese; and a surprisingly good flaky pastry—the only thing anyone had a second helping.  The tea benefited slightly from the addition of powdered barley, which made it the Tibetan staple, tsampa, yet the benefit was indeed slight.  It had an instant warming effect, though, which made it clear why this is the national dish.  Temperatures at this altitude vary from morning till night as much as sixty degrees daily.  So you need quick-burning calories.

The household comprised an elderly woman, her daughter and granddaughter. A young boy, a grandson, also attended the tea party.  He lived with his father, however, not with them. We were surprised when we learned the women’s ages.  All were younger than they seemed.  The thin atmosphere at this altitude does little to block UV rays. That combined with the dry air causes the skin to take on the texture of tanned leather.  The granddaughter already appeared well into her thirties but was barely twenty.  She was unwed, and to show her lack of marital status she wore an apron different in color and pattern from the older women. The colors and patterns struck me as Mexican or possibly Peruvian, as did the women’s features. 

The house was small and clean. Buddhist trappings hung on the walls and a shrine sat on the mantle next to the 29” color TV.  There was no picture of the Dalai Lama, however.  Since 1996 it is forbidden to display his photo.  In another room were a washer and a dryer, a refrigerator and a microwave.  These we learned were the usual appurtenances, even in poorer homes.  The toilet was a hole in the ground in a small room outdoors.  On the back porch was a workstation for fabricating tourist items, which we were pressed to buy on our way out.

We had a less-than-spectacular dinner at the hotel and retired early.  Tomorrow would be a big day and we would need our rest.  The ***Tibet Hotel is second best only to the ****Lhasa Hotel, a former Holiday Inn.  Though nowhere near as elegant as the **** and ***** hotels we had grown accustomed to in China, the recently opened section we stayed in was pleasant and comfortable. Our room overlooked a pair of rock ponds containing goldfish, and beside them a small gazebo. Misty mountains merged on the far horizon.  There was television but, unlike the hotels in China, no CNN or any programming in English.  For all I know, not even in Tibetan.  The first thing any conquering nation does is impose its language and culture.

The hotel's food, especially the breakfast buffet, was very poor: watery OJ, underdone bacon and sausage, hard-boiled eggs.  Still, it was better than the alternatives, rice porridge or tsampa. The service was worse than the food.  A complete table setting was rare.  Always a knife, fork or spoon was missing, sometimes all three.  You were either completely ignored (assuming the servers even arrived) or they removed your half-filled plate while you went for more coffee (once they got around to making it).  The servers’ uniforms and the tablecloths were soiled, and got worse each day.  I suppose this is because the laundry facility was two women tap dancing on the bed sheets in an outdoor spring.  We were lucky the napkins were paper. 

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There was an Internet café in the older wing, but the monitor was minimal, the modem too (about the power of Dixie cups and waxed string—though not as fast).  Plus, everything was in Chinese, which made surfing impossible.  The lobby furniture, while scarce, was exquisite. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen: hand-carved wooden chairs and a small settee.  Instead of padding and fabric, they were inlaid with marble.  Which was not only beautiful, it was surprisingly comfortable.Click for larger image



After an early breakfast I walked about two miles to the Potala Palace, the former home and the permanent resting place for most of the 14 Dalai Lamas. With the current Dalai Lama in exile and unlikely ever to return, it is now a holy museum . . . and gift shop. When we passed it the day before I noticed a public square where I thought I might be able to photograph the whole palace in one shot without benefit of a wide-angle lens, which I lacked.  Unsure if the bus driver would stop on our scheduled visit later that morning, I didn’t want to chance missing it.  I also had a hunch the sprawling brown and white buildings would look best in morning light.  The hunch paid off.Click for larger image

The brisk walk was difficult, though not due to lack of oxygen.  The sun barely over the horizon burned into my eyes.  Even with my sunglasses on, the rays combined with the emissions of trucks, buses and taxis made me almost blind.  Much of the pavement was rough and badly broken, or missing entirely except for the rubble.  Dozens of early-bird food vendors in front of block after block narrow storefronts took up the only flat space.  Several were making what appeared fried dough in their smoking-hot oil-filled woks.  I’d love to have tried some but guides and guidebooks alike warned against it. Dalai’s Revenge!  The street reminded me of Mexican border towns I’d seen in the early ‘50s, or Barcelona and San Juan a few years later: pitiful squalor. 

Click for larger imageAs I passed the statue of two golden yaks at the center of a major intersection suddenly the sidewalks were tiled.  It was like passing through a time warp into the way Barcelona and San Juan look today.  School children on bikes, dressed in the same uniforms I’d seen on the students the day before, but cleaner, would slow down, wave, smile and shout, “What’s your name?”  I’d tell them then ask theirs.  Although English is mandatory from grade three in Chinese schools, evidently “what’s your name?” was the only English these kids knew.  None replied, merely laughed and raced on.

On the square across from the palace venerable Chinese women practiced tai chi. At the foot of Marpo Ri, elderly Tibetan women and a few old men chanted om mani pedme hum as they fingered their beads or spun small prayer wheels (mani) etched with the same mantra.  Before they reached the steps leading up to the palace, they paused  to twirl a long line of large prayer wheels, also engraved with the prayer.

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After I’d finished shooting I the 9:30 bus.  I don’t wear a  exact time, but I figured there  I was in the bike lane, dodging   men on bikes with carcasses of across the back and women on their lungs from the noxious ex-

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started back, rushing to meet watch, so was unsure of the  would be plenty if I hurried. pedestrians and pedicabs and  pigs and sheep stacked high   bikes in face masks to protect  haust fumes. 

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Walking in the bike lane was risky yet it was far faster.  I could’ve crossed the boulevard and taken a pedicab (Tibetan rickshaw) or a taxi but there was a problem.  It meant crossing the street.  And there was neither an underground crossing nor a stoplight.  And it was the crush of rush hour.  Soon, though, my concern passed.  A curio shop in one of the crib-like storefronts lining the boulevard had a clock on the wall: 9:05.  Great, I thought.  Plenty of time and I’m almost there. 

Time quickly grew short.  Somehow I missed the hotel.  I could’ve sworn it was across the street from the blue-glassed insurance building, but the buildings I saw through the gate facing it had no giant red balloon arching the entrance.  Neither was there a sign saying Tibet Hotel, merely some small Chinese characters I couldn’t read.  And everything looks different afoot than it does by bus.

By the time I reached the traffic light at a main intersection several blocks later, I knew I’d gone too far.  So I turned back.  Just to be sure I’d chosen right, I stopped to ask people in both English and Mandarin which direction the hotel was.  The reply was invariably blank stares.  I also queried a uniformed guard, who looked like a doorman and was standing inside a gated modern complex that looked very much like the hotel (which is a maze of motley concrete buildings scattered about in no seeming order and with no direct entrance to the new wing from either boulevard!).  He pointed toward the rear, so I followed his finger, looking first behind this building then behind that.  When he and a coworker began laughing uproariously at my helter-skelter search, I realized he hadn’t the slightest idea what I’d asked. 

Back outside the gate of what I later found out was the Nepalese Embassy (lucky I wasn’t shot) a well-dressed elderly gentleman on a bicycle noticed my quandary.  “What are you looking for?” He asked in excellent English.  “The Tibet Hotel,” I replied.  “It’s straight ahead,” he said, nodding in the direction I was now going.  Dismounting, he continued. “It’s on my way.  I will walk you there.”  We walked back a few blocks and sure enough there it was.  Now, I could have found it on my own.  Workmen were inflating the big red balloon over the entrance. It read TIBET HOTEL.

Click for larger imageSitting atop Marpo Ri (Red Mountain) is one of the world’s most magnificent structures, the 13-story, 1000 room Potala Palace.  Construction was begun in 1645 by the fifth Dalai Lama upon the ruins of the palace built in 637 by Songsten Gampo.  It would take almost 50 years to complete and #5 would not live to see it (though his death was kept secret from all but him for 15 years). The Potrang Karpo (White Palace) was finished in three years.  The Potrang Marpo (Red Palace) opened its doors in 1694 after a 42-year hiatus.  Two more stories were added to the Red Palace in 1922.  Before the fourteenth Dalai Lama was deposed, the palace served as both holy residence and temporal offices.  It is now a Pray ‘n’ Pay.  Entrance to most rooms is forbidden, as is the taking of photographs—unless you’re willing to fork over $100 for permission.  Of course you can purchase post card packets at the gift shop of the shots you’d like to take.  Nothing is sacred.  Everything has its price.

            As a courtesy to older travelers, the bus drove up the mountain to an entrance on the ninth floor.  This was very considerate, even for us youngsters.  For the wooden steps are steep and narrow, dark, and slippery from all the spilled yak butter.  From the bus stop we would walk up four flights, start at the Golden Roof at the top of the world and proceed to work our way down.

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A portion of the roof on the west wing had collapsed from the recent monsoon and was covered with plastic.  It seems the center section hadn’t fared much better.  As we walked up the stairs to the higher reaches, heavy rhythmic thuds reverberated overhead.  At first I thought it might be some sort of religious drumming.  Then I looked up.  Several women were pounding the roof with long fat-ended wooden poles to tamp down newly added clay.  They looked like they were churning butter.  On another roof, boys were putting finishing touches on the uneven clay with what appeared large wooden pizza paddles.  Click for larger image

Inside, the dusky palace was crammed floor to ceiling with ancient scrolls, statues, and jewel-encrusted gold and silver slathered stupa, each larger and richer than the next.  Dalai V’s tomb bears the most gilt of all: 3,700kg.  (For those who don’t speak metric, that’s more than four tons.)  Unsurprisingly, all things worthwhile were safely stashed behind glass, and a fire and burglar alarm system was in place.  Surprisingly, the Chinese took none of this treasure when they invaded Lhasa in 1951 or when they put down the uprising in 1959.  And they caused very little damage either time—at least not here.   The Red Guard also left the palace largely unmolested when in the fervor of the Cultural Revolution they trashed just about everything everywhere else.  Dava said that Martin Scorcese’s crew did more damage to the palace during the filming of Kundun than the army and guard combined. 

The palace abounded with bodies: gawking groups of tourists, overbearing TV crews, devout dowagers, worshipers of all ages rushing about with bowls of yak butter, and bald-headed monks clad in red robes slippin’ and a slidin’ from one lucre-littered glass booth to the other with cellphones tucked tight against their ears.  Llaptop lamas were frantically uploaded to Buddha all the prayers the faithful had scrawled on slips of paper and tossed over the top of the booths together with big bills.   Palm Pilot priests counted the cache of cash put forth for those prayers, plus the income from the incense and the tubs of yak butter to burn.  (Yak butter was the source of lighting for the whole place, other than my headlamp, and the sole source of the foul odor and slippery floors.)  Novitiates squawked into cellphones to their brokers, bankers, bookies and to order pizza or Chinese takeout. 

It could have been the NY Stock Exchange.  Or worse, Vatican City!  Except the Potala doesn’t have its own travel agency, and the junk sold in the gift shop actually pertains to either the palace or to Buddhism. Quite unlike the Papa’s boutique, which sells black felt paintings of dogs playing poker and statuettes of trattoria owners watering the wine. In fairness to Catholic priests, though, who  actually minister to the flock while shearing them, the Tibetan monks' only service to those pitiful souls supporting them is to pray.   And they certainly need praying for.

I skipped the afternoon visit to the Sera Monastery to just relax.  I’d seen enough monk-y shines that morning.  Cynthia later said it was fun to watch the lamas-in-training in heated debate.  Anytime one made a point, he would slap his hand down.  The debates were over such esoterica as “if no one’s there to hear it, how loud is the sound of one hand clapping?”  I’m glad I missed it.  Rest was best.

Later that night there was dinner with a floorshow—generously called a “Folk Opera”—in a cozy hotel restaurant named the Mad Yak.  The buffet featured yak dumplings.  Excellent!  (Considerably better than the show that followed.)  After the buffet table was cleared of dishes then removed to make room, the performance began.  Two boys, aged approximately 10 and 12, sat and proceeded to bang unmercifully on drum and cymbals for a number that featured male acrobats.  Percussionists and acrobats never quite meshed. The two-boy band switched to a double reed screech-horn and an out-of-tune two-string banjo sort of instrument for the following turn, this one a dance starring a giggle of girls dressed in colorful native costumes.  Next, the younger boy did an impromptu solo, singing in a squeaky falsetto (this must have been the opera part) and alternately strumming and plucking the now more-out-of-tune two-string-banjo while simultaneously attempting a sort of spastic Buddy Ebsenesque clog dance.  Barefoot!  Asked to stretch (due to a long costume change), he repeated the number as best as he could remember what he’d just done.

The comedic finale made up for the rest of the evening.  It involved a yak herder and two mad yaks, hence the name of the restaurant, with two persons to a yak skin, hence the long costume change.  This was an audience participation number.  Which is to say that the yaks broke loose and with the yakherd in hot pursuit ran throughout the audience upsetting tables and chairs and spilling drinks, while audience members leapt to their feet to avoid being splashed and/or propelled into pratfalls.  Evidently, tort litigation is not as popular in Tibet as in America.

After the show, Cynthia and I took advantage of the $20 per hour full-body massage at the hotel. Talk about room service!  These masseuses, who also doubled as beauticians, were a precious pair of the prettiest adolescents imaginable.  Dressed in Madam Chang peach-colored silk dresses, they looked like porcelain China dolls.  They stripped us, laid us face down on our beds, and after slipping their slit skirts high on their thighs they saddled up.  It’s amazing how much pain someone so small can inflict.


Dava warned us to ignore the hordes of women and children begging in the bazaar at Barkhor, an ancient historical plaza to the west at the foot of the Potala.  “Give them nothing. It makes them lazy.” Following his admonition was difficult, particularly when confronted by one gaunt woman with hollow eyes, and an all-but-dead child strapped to her back.  It was even more difficult to ignore the dirty little waif who hugged my legs and murmured over and over as I dragged her along, “Hello, hello, I love you, I love you, give me money!”  She had her hands in both my pockets. 

            The bazaar was composed of dozens of stalls vending jewelry, newly made antiques and newly minted ancient coins, religious artifacts such as prayer wheels, rosaries and statues of Buddhas Past, Present and Future, musical instruments such as drums, cymbals and giant horns used to call the yaks home, and colorful clothing and costumes, including the Tibetan hat, a wide brimmed, flat top felt hat similar to sombreros worn by Spanish dons, but with out the dingle berries.  Everything here has its price—which is usually as much or little as the vendor can get, even if they sell at a loss.  Bargaining is the keyword here, but once you begin negotiations you must buy.  Otherwise you’ll be chased throughout the bazaar and some vendors sell knives.  The same goes for touching.  You touch it it’s yours.  So, ladies beware!

            There was a striking young woman selling jewelry.  I wasn’t interested in the baubles but was enchanted by her.  She had a pair of cymbals  that I thought might make a nice gift for someone.  So just to be in her presence a little longer I began to haggle.  Her opening price was 50 yuan, about six dollars.  For all I know they may have been worth it, but what’s the fun in that?  I countered with 15 yuan, about a buck seventy-five.  You have to start somewhere.  Her mouth opened in mock horror, as if I’d insulted her.  Her eyes narrowed, a gold tooth gleamed. “Forty yuan!” she countered.  I upped to twenty.  She smiled shrewdly and two brown eyes twinkled. “Thirty!” 

We finally settled on half her starting price but only if she allowed me to take her picture.  She agreed.  I snapped her photo and paid.  She wrapped the cymbals in newspaper and handed me change.  I thanked her and turned to go. She motioned for me to wait, reached down and picked up a bracelet.  Then she took my hand in hers, slipped the bracelet over my wrist and smiled, the warmest most welcoming smile I’ve ever been on the receiving end of.  The bracelet's beads are made of pulverized yak bone (in most of the world it's  called plastic) with the inscription om mani padme hum, not in Tibetan but in Chinese characters. After all, nowadays everything is made in China.  This mantra is usually, though incorrectly, translated as “Behold!  The jewel in the lotus.”  Its true meaning cannot be translated, however.  For within the six syllables are the meanings of the total teachings of Buddha.  The elastic band has stretched and most of the characters have rubbed off the beads, but I still wear it. 

 A few stalls down, another tradesman was hawking the same cymbals.  His opening price was what I had ultimately paid.  Who cares?  Her picture alone is worth a fortune.

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Lunch was in a Nepalese restaurant near the bazaar.   It was far more enjoyable than the Tibetan cuisine and much of the Chinese food we’d had.  The Nepalese love barbeque, as do I.  The chicken kebab was especially good.  Unlike Tibetans, Nepalese eat both fish and fowl.  And why not?  Nepal is upstream and upwind!

After lunch we were offered our choice of trips to the Jokhang Temple or Norbulingka, site of the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace.  The Potala was only the winter residence, and there was a great ceremonial procession when the Dalai Lama moved back and forth.  It must have been a grand sight, even though the two palaces are merely a couple of miles apart.  Norbulingka (the Jeweled or Treasure Garden) was also just a stone’s throw from our hotel—as the crow flies.  Not being crows we took the bus.  The back gate was near us, but since the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gayatso (Kundun) took flight to India it has remained locked.  And it is a big park.  And the entrance is on the far side.

            The New Summer Palace was completed in 1954.  It is modest, as palaces go, nowhere near the size of the Potala.  But its setting in a 100-acre garden focused around a medicinal spring is exquisite.  The palace is as unpretentious inside as out: a sparsely furnished study where the lad received tutelage and took his meals—a teapot and a small cradle of yak butter and barley sit beneath photographs of his family before and after the Chinese invasion, kept in waiting for his return,; a small bedroom with a single bed, though the headboard and footboard are exquisitely carved; even the throne room is unspectacular, merely a large chair wrapped in gold leaf and draped with shawls.  The only luxuries are a modern bathroom (circa 1950s) and two handsome radios with wooden cabinets in the bedroom and den.  Kundun loved listening to the radio, especially to world news and jazz.  As at the Potala, photography is not allowed inside, though I did manage to sneak shots of the memento case and larder, thanks to the spy view on top of the Yashica T4 that Marvin Schwartz loaned me as backup to my own T4.  

It was from this palace and park that the 23-year-old Kundun escaped just minutes before the Chinese began to bombard it.  The Chinese say they fired a few warning shots just to try and scare him.  It apparently worked.  He hasn’t been back.

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            Our last supper was a “Western” dinner at the hotel, yak burgers and French fries.  McDonalds it wasn’t, yet it was surprisingly good.  Mine was rather rare, but I prefer it that way.  It proved a mistake, however.  The following day I came down with a case of the Lama’s Revenge that, despite repeated doses of an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal, lasted six days.


Breakfast was served before dawn.  We had to catch an early-bird flight to Chongquing to begin a four-day cruise down the Yangtze.  When I passed through the lobby on the way to the dining room, I noticed a couple of traveling companions on the settee.  They were both glum—extremely so, even for Republicans.

            “Good morning,” I said, cheerfully (the runs hadn't yet begun).   They both stared morosely into the distance.  Not wishing to add to their discomfort, I decided to go on to the restaurant, thinking perhaps they’d had a spat.  But that wasn’t it.  Bill said something that stopped me in my tracks.  While we slept, half a day and half a world away another group of people of medieval mentality, these, fanatics who malpractice another religion born during the Dark Ages, had hijacked four jetliners and crashed them into America's centers of power and wealth: one struck the Pentagon in Washington D.C.; two brought down both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.  No one was certain where it was headed.  The White House?


 In the mid-1970s, I had dinner with a man who had just returned from creating a large-scale communications network in Saudi Arabia.  He said something that struck me and firmly stuck:  “Arabs are like children.  All they want is understanding and love and respect. …and if they don’t get it, watch out!” 

I did not find Shangri-La in Tibet.  Nor a nation of long-lived enlightened beings.  But everyone throughout the world can be thankful for at least this: Tibetans are pacifists. 




© copyright 2002 Robert Bowers