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Lhasa Luck, All of It Bad

Racked by altitude-induced headaches--or maybe just bad karma--a pilgrim finds a mountain meditation retreat anything but nirvana

October 29, 2000|CHERILYN PARSONS | Cherilyn Parsons is a freelance writer and novelist based in Santa Monica

It proved auspicious, as the Dalai Lama might say, that I had packed "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" for my long-awaited trip to Tibet last July. The sacred guidebook aims to prepare people for the most frightening trip of all: the journey after death.

My trip wasn't that bad. Really. I'm not writing from the bardo, as Tibetans call purgatory. But this trip wasn't supposed to be bad at all.

As my plane swooped over the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau, I shivered with excitement, not fear. Tibet has been called Shangri-La, a forbidden land, a Lost Horizon of mystery and peace. In my "Fourteen Days in Tibet," I planned to meet burgundy-robed monks dispensing wisdom. I would sit in high meditation caves. I would trek over sweeping vistas that would change my life. I would return, I hoped, at least a little enlightened.

Buried deep in my suitcase, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" lamented people like me: "Oh compassion on these suffering conscious beings/Who wander in the life cycle, darkened with delusions. . . . She has no friend."

It was true I had no friend traveling with me, but I had explored much of the world alone, and I hadn't thought twice about solo travel in Tibet. My plans were simple enough: After a quick tour of Lhasa, Tibet's capital, I would hire a Land Rover to take me to Nam Co, or Sky Lake, at 15,000 feet. I would spend a week meditating in Nam Co's hermitage and caves. This would be the high point, literally and figuratively, of my trip.

I considered it a small matter that I would be entering Tibet semi-illegally. Chinese law requires that tourists come to Tibet on group tours. Travel agents in Katmandu, Nepal, suggest that independent travelers join a fabricated "group" to enter Tibet, then ditch the group and travel on a Chinese visa. I had secured my visa ahead of time by saying my destinations in China were Beijing and Shanghai.

Did these lies create bad karma from the outset?

My fake group never materialized at the Katmandu airport. Someone from a travel agency at the airport told me to get on the plane anyway. At the Lhasa airport, I was the only loner in the long line of groups passing through Chinese immigration. Desperate to belong, I latched onto a real group. I gave my papers and hotel vouchers to the group's leader. A few moments later, I was on my foster group's bus for the two-hour drive to Lhasa.

Ha! I was in! Exactly how, I wasn't sure, but who cared? I sucked in the sharp air, marveled at the terrain, enjoyed the buzz of dizziness from the altitude. Lhasa is at 12,000 feet. I live at sea level in Santa Monica. My mind felt elevated, keen; I was entering a marvelously altered state.

Because I'd surrendered my vouchers, I was stuck with my foster group's hotel, which wasn't the quaint, Tibetan-run place I'd reserved, but a dive. I would have moved, but something was happening to my marvelously altered state. I was getting the worst migraine of my life. I was nauseated too. Was this altitude sickness? How could it be when I had climbed 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney years ago? This was so pedestrian.

And painful. For two days I lay racked with it, unable to tour Lhasa. In bed I read "The Book of the Dead": "She is going to another life-realm, entering a thick darkness, falling into a great abyss."

I wanted out of the abyss. The migraine pills I had with me would shrink the blood vessels in my brain--vessels that were already struggling for oxygen--so taking one didn't seem like a good idea. By the third day, it seemed like a fine idea and I swallowed one. The pain abated.

I could finally get out of bed--just in time to see my foster group leaving for the rest of their tour.

I was alone again but not without resources. I had packed five days' worth of delicious backpacker food to sustain me on my planned Nam Co retreat. I blessed my foresight as I stirred hot water into freeze-dried spaghetti marinara in my Chinese hovel.

My strength returned. I still had lots of time for Nam Co. Every goal worth having has its challenges, I thought.

I decided to build up endurance before venturing to Nam Co. I climbed the steps to Lhasa's Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lamas and seat of government. The Potala is a phantasmagoria of scarlet chambers, monstrous statues and jeweled stupa tombs holding relics of the enlightened dead. Tibetan Buddhism isn't for the weak. Wrathful deities with popping eyes wave swords at you. Goddesses sport tiger skins and necklaces of skulls. Hungry ghosts bedeck the walls in "wheel of life" mandalas held in the mouth of a demon.

"Such amazing works of art," I stuttered to other tourists, pretending that these demons weren't going to give me nightmares.

At night "The Book of the Dead" jeered at me: "Your lies will not help." These demons would "rip out your heart, pull out your guts, drink your blood, eat your flesh, and gnaw your bones."

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