Lying alone in an unheated hut on the shores of Namtso Lake in central Tibet, I spent a sleepless night contemplating death. Maybe it was the altitude or the exhaustion, but mortality suddenly didn’t seem so bad. My personal and karmic accounts felt settled. I had made countless offerings to the Buddha in the prior days and sent postcards off to most everyone I loved. I had left letters for my family back home. I recalled a particularly touching birthday celebration the month before my departure, and thought it might be fitting if it were my last.
In late spring, even at 16,000 feet, Tibet’s days were sunny and pleasant, but the world turned painfully cold at dusk. I had followed the kora [circumambulation] trail around Tashi Dor, the tiny monastery set into the towering rocks along the lake’s stony shore. My reward was a spectacular sunset over the calm, sacred waters, but I returned to my room shivering uncontrollably, having been thoroughly unprepared for the evening’s precipitous chill. A single outlet hung above the frigid bed, and I made the foolish choice to charge my phone rather than plug in the electric blanket my guide had offered. I tried to write one last postcard to a friend, but couldn’t hold the pen still enough to complete even her name.
Travel to Tibet had been both easier and harder than I expected. A visa for China took just three days and two quick trips to the consulate. The essential travel permit for the Tibetan Autonomous Region required hiring a local tour company, but that could be done with a brief exchange of emails and, eventually, a modest wire transfer. Booking a flight to the Roof of the World was considerably easier than buying tickets to a Taylor Swift concert.
Arriving in Lhasa that week felt oddly familiar, its urban sprawl reminiscent of Bangkok, Jakarta, and other bustling Asian capitals. Traffic snarls and designer shops brushed up against ancient temples and prostrating pilgrims. My quirky little hotel, once famous as a cheap backpacker hostel, now had occasionally reliable Wi-Fi. I could eat excellent curries pre- pared by local Nepali immigrants and enjoy top-notch espresso from a Tibetan who had spent 15 years in Europe and spoke fluent German. There was even passable pizza. Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few weeks later, I lost cell phone reception more often than I had along the Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Shigatse.
Yet outside the major cities, my Tibetan journey changed entirely. Electricity remained nearly ubiquitous, but plumbing became a rarity. The cook at a roadside teahouse chatted on her smart-phone while laboring over a yak-dung stove. Food in the villages was often simple and plain, the vegetable offerings reduced to onions, potatoes, and perhaps a few lonely leaves of cabbage. The dirt roads snaking through the mountains seemed better suited to yaks than cars, and saw little traffic of either. Local children would sometimes follow me through the streets of smaller towns and dare each other to touch my foreign skin.
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