I'm sure there's an argument to be made against the panda photo opportunity offered by the Chengdu research bases ("Only in China!" I've heard many people say with disdain), but that's not the position I'm going to take. The one-year-old panda I have my arm around in the picture below couldn't have been happier, chomping away on his bamboo and grinning at the camera. The Bifengxia research base offers even more options for the truly panda-crazed, such as a three-minute panda "experience" in which you can suit up in zookeeper coveralls and go into the panda enclosure for playtime, or volunteer opportunities lasting from half a day to a week or more, where you can bathe and feed the pandas (and perform other, less glamorous duties like cleaning out cages). The money the panda base makes from offering these packages to tourists goes toward supporting the base, which was one of the nicest zoo-like animal habitats I have ever seen. Having been to Chinese zoos in the past, I will simply say that I am very impressed with how nice the pandas have it.
Matt waiting for our train to come in at the Chengdu station:
On Barkhor Street during our first evening in Lhasa:
Wednesday provided us with the most intensive introduction into Tibetan Buddhism that either of us could ever have imagined. First we went to Jokhang temple, located smack in the middle of the busiest street in Lhasa and teeming with pilgrims, then to Drepung monastery, and then to Sera monastery. I have been to monasteries and temples in China before, but nothing prepared me for the intricate paintings on the walls, the rooms upon rooms of golden Buddha shrines, or the scent of yak butter and incense that filled our nostrils as we tiptoed around red-robed monks chanting their unintelligible mantras.
Our Tibetan guide, Tsultrim, tried his best to explain to us the significance of each major statue or painting, filling our heads with the names and histories of Tibetan rulers, Nepalese princesses, lamas, and Indian Buddhas. It was as fascinating as it was impenetrable--it seemed to me that no amount of studying could ever reveal all of the complexities that surround this world religion. We Westerners love to throw around the few Buddhist words that have made their way into our vocabulary, touting our belief in karma or gurus or mantras. But the reality is that most of us have no idea what those terms actually mean in their wider context. If Tibet taught me anything, it's that I have a lot more to learn.
After eight hours of meeting the various clay and wooden forms of Past Buddha, Present Buddha, and Future Buddha, Matt and I had to admit to ourselves that the temples were starting to run together. But one experience truly stood out, and that was the monks' debate at Sera monastery. I won't explain all of the history here because I will definitely mess it up, but for those of you who want to know more, this Wikipedia article should be able to clarify a few things and direct you to more scholarly (and trustworthy) sources.
The monastery was founded in the 15th century, and after all these years, the age old tradition of debate is now open for the public to witness. Matt and I were wholly unprepared for the noisy, occasionally seemingly irreverent behavior of the hundred or so monks who filled the courtyard to take part. A system of claps is used to signify whether the monks agree or disagree with each others' responses to their questions, so the air crackled with the sounds of monks clapping and camera shutters firing rapidly amid the din of what sounded like some pretty heated spiritual arguments.
On Thursday, we spent the majority of the day at the Potala Palace, which is the main attraction in the city of Lhasa. Built by a great Tibetan king in the 7th century, Tibetans once believed that it must have been built by the gods--that human hands could never have created such a beautiful (and massive) structure. Photographs are prohibited inside the palace, which was very similar to the many temples we had visited the day before, except that everything was done on a much grander scale. Solid gold Buddhas fifteen feet tall stood sparkling with precious gems that glimmered in the light of the yak butter candles. Ancient scrolls lined the shelves of entire rooms, and monks sat in every corner murmuring prayers and softly rattling their beads.
We emerged from the palace exhausted and in awe of all we had seen. We may have come to Tibet hoping to learn more about the culture and history of this ancient land, but what we realized as each day passed was how complex and (to us) incomprehensible this society was and still is.
I cannot get involved in the conflict between Tibet and China, and am not even sure that a Westerner like myself has the right to judge the situation at all. The only thing I will say on this matter is that having lived in China for nearly a year and a half, and having studied this country and its language for longer, I do not see how Tibet can seamlessly fit inside of it. What I saw and experienced was nothing like anything I have ever seen or experienced in China. And I will leave it at that.