Friday, March 21, 2008

The Tibetan Situation

Above is an ancient Mani stone defaced with Maoist graffiti in the Ganesh Himal region of Nepal.

Scour the message boards and video sites, and you'll find a very polarized take on the riots in Tibet. The Chinese government point of view is surprisingly well-represented in these nooks and crannies of the internet, possibly because of a PRC-organized spam campaign. When this viewpoint is expressed in video, it is generally accompanied by bombastic, militaristic music.

Given the polarization, it's difficult to discern any middle ground in these debates. There's an order of magnitude difference in death toll estimates between the sides. The Chinese cite the Qing Dynasty's presence in Tibet from 1600-1900; the Tibetans say the presence was minimal. The Chinese refer to pre-1950 Tibet as a society of slaves, but others describe the division of labor as broad and reasonably egalitarian. The "Free Tibet" crowd cites 1.2 million deaths and 6,000 destroyed temples in the initial invasions of Tibet; the Chinese government calls these figures gross exaggerations.


I'm trying to hear out the Chinese viewpoint. However, there is one series of arguments that continually strains credulity, and thus casts doubt on all the Chinese contentions: to quote China's communist party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, the Dalai Lama is a "wolf in monk’s robe, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast". He sat contentedly on his throne, overseeing a slave society that worshipped him as a god. Currently, he has no interest in practical solutions for Tibet, since the strife enables him to cavort with Hollywood darlings like Richard Gere. The CIA funds his operations in Dharamsala. Blah, blah, blah.

There is no evidence for these claims. Search YouTube and you'll find myriad videos of the Dalai Lama. He preaches only non-violence. Unbeknownst, apparently, to the Han Chinese who flood the message boards, the Dalai Lama has had harsh words for Tibetans who resort to violence. The violence instigated by monks demonstrates that these Tibetans certainly are lacking a traditional grounding in Buddhism, courtesy of the Chinese.

The argument that the Dalai Lama was a repressive God-King is absurd. He was a mere teenager when the Chinese army swept into Tibet. In fact, his early exposures to foreigners and his fascination with science/technology gave reasons to suspect that he might well have transformed Tibet, if given the chance.

As far as I can see, the arguments for CIA funding are real stretches. It's true that the CIA funded Tibetan paramilitary training more than 50 years ago. I've yet to see the scantest evidence that it's true today. One thing for sure: if some anti-Western politician in the Congo has a car accident, you can be certain that someone will accuse the CIA of masterminding it.

I'm hardly a fan of the Bush administration. But Condoleeza Rice expressed the current situation succinctly: "There has been a kind of missed opportunity here for the Chinese to engage the [Dalai Lama]”. The Chinese propensity to demonize the Dalai Lama is utterly out of touch with any evidence. The last Chinese leader who met with the Dalai Lama was Mao himself, who had some words of praise for the 15 year old. Since then, one has got to wonder if China's succession of leaders fear that the incarnation of Chenrezig will place a whammy on them if close physical proximity is allowed.


The Hans seem rather astonished that the Tibetans would revolt. They are allowed 2 or 3 children, unlike ordinary Chinese. University entrance requirements are lowered for Tibetans, and many other minorities. The Tibetans receive funds and medical care that they never saw 50 years ago. Roads and trains now access Tibet. Etc.

When debating the situation in Tibet, the Chinese are quick to invoke the historical treatment of American Indians (not to mention the English treatment of Scots!). One might be tempted to point out that these crimes were committed 150 years ago, that Americans can and do express regret at their government's actions in these realms, etc. This is sometimes a mistake, however. The Chinese, you see, are not necessarily arguing that American actions were criminal or regretful. They are arguing that the American actions were necessary for the progress of the Indian population. Why, then, should Americans criticize the Chinese for the advancement of the Tibetans? Stability, harmony, and "progress"...the Chinese find it nearly incomprehensible that some folks have other priorities.

I'd ask the Han to see things from the Tibetan point of view. Not only did the Chinese flush the Tibetan's revered leader into India, but they denounced him in the harshest terms. They still denounce him. Not only do they denounce him, but they attempt to redirect Tibetans' feelings of reverence to new authority figures (e.g. Mao) and doctrines (Maoism) in the most fustian manner imaginable. Witness the Chinese efforts to select and groom new, Maoist-friendly candidates for the positions of certain incarnate lamas. A new-generation Dalai Lama who promotes the view that religion is the opiate of the masses! Truly bizarre!

Until the Chinese adopt a reality-based attitude toward the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, they should not be surprised at the Tibetan's lack of "gratitude".


In one online discussion, a defender of the Chinese approach did suggest that the venom directed at the Dalai Lama may be intended to focus Han Chinese anger off the Tibetan people, and onto a single scapegoat for the "good of the nation". Not entirely implausible. Oddly tantric. If so, however, the Chinese may be forgetting that the focus of their anger is the also the focus of Tibetans' aspirations.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I need to replace my watch's band and battery. Normally, the watch repair guys operate off a cart, but my soi has a glass-enclosed shop. It's way small (say, 6' X 4'). Even so, the purveyor has managed to air-condition the joint.

I show the guy my watch, and ask him how much. Not more than 200 baht. How many minutes must I wait? 10 minutes. I tell him I'll have lunch, cross the street, and find some "Kao Soi Gai". Delicious Northern Thai cuisine, though it'd be even better in a place like Lampang or Chiangmai. The noodles are key, and nobody seems to get them right in Bangkok.

I slurp down the Kao Soi, and return to the shop. The guy hasn't begun the repair. That's to be expected, so I'm not irked. He invites me to sit on a stool in the shop. "Songs for Life" music is playing, and he begins the repair.

He interacts with a number of folks via a little sliding window. First, there's a boy who opens the window and asks a question. The purveyor closes the window without an answer, and the kid smiles. Second, a guy has an issue with his leather watchband. He gets redirected to a shoe repair shop. Another guy has some kind of question. He gets ignored, walks away, shows up again a couple minutes later, exchanges a sentence or two, and stays.

The cost is 180 baht. Opening the door, the music segues into myriad voices, and the temperature soars. There's a woman chatting on her mobile phone, blocking the way to the soi. She's not aware of me. There's no reason to be aware of me. No sane person would care about such a momentary impediment.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Shambu Gurung

Last year around this time, I was planning for another foray into the Himalayas. Hoping that my old porter and friend Shambu would be game for more trekking, I e-mailed the trekking agency where he worked. Here's the response:

Sorry to tell you that Shambu Gurung who live at Pokhara and was working with us (Mandala trek) is dead 4 years before by heart attac in mid night in his house at Pokhara near airport. Please you can contact us at address below (mandala Trek) if you need more information .

This sucked. I'm not one to get melodramatic, or reflect on the afterlife, but it would be nice to immortalize the guy a here goes...

We met 20 years ago in Pokhara, Nepal. I was looking for a porter, and he happened to be around, dragging a cheap cigarette. He was 19 at the time. That means he was about 35 at his death.

So we did the Annapurna circuit. It took about a month. Shortly into the trek, he pointed out his village...wayyyy up one of those terraced hills. There was nothing there for tourists, and the village was slowly withering away cuz the young people preferred life in Pokhara city. But those were his roots...a "gurung" somewhere between the city and the deep Himalayas.

His English was good, and he enjoyed talking philosophy. He didn't seem to hold any special respect for the Tibetan Lamas, or formal religion, but he was impressed with the spiritual attainment of his bosses at Mandala Trekking....he said, "you can feel it".

Along the trail, we befriended a number of folks. Most casual trekkers have about the same pace, so you wind up seeing them in the guest houses night after night. Mostly, there were the Japanese...nice people, all of them. One was named "Shingo Awaji". There was a European couple whose travels paralleled ours for a week or so. They would have loud sex at late hours. At one point, Shambu pounded on the "wall" (if it could be called that) and I muttered some epithet about Germans. The response: "veee are not Germans, veee are Austrians". One wonders how their bodies were entangled at that exact moment.

There was a nutty, marijuana-smoking woman on one of the stops, babbling away in English, French, and German. I decided to sleep in a little hut outside the guest house, and Shambu got pissed at me for that. But why?'s not like there were dangerous animals or humans at that particular, isolated place.

That woman claimed she was going to climb the Annapurnas solo. We never saw her on the trail again...speculating on her whereabouts became a running joke for us.

At the Thorong-La pass, he got altitude sickness, so I carried the backpack. He didn't protest at the time, but I never let him, the professional porter, forget it. Still, we got in a game of gin-rummy at the top of that pass (we played gin rummy constantly).

When we made it to the guest house, there were two Tibetans having a heated discussion. It was all in Tibetan, with the exception of an occasional "sense" or "nonsense". Shambu explained they were debating the meanings of these English words. It was hilarious, actually, if you can imagine the setting.

At some point, he got married. It was a bit odd...she was maybe 8 years older, of different caste, and with a child via some previous relationship. I'm not sure what the real story was there. He alluded to another woman he impregnated along that trail (in Manang, perhaps), so maybe he has a child.

I returned to Nepal in 1995. I wanted to go to Everest with him, but he had some kind of hangup with Sherpas, and never ventured into that region. So he hooked me up with his friend "Issing". Issing was an excellent porter, though his lack of English and his traditional ways meant that there wasn't much communication.

After Everest, we did a short trek to the Annapurna sanctuary. There's no need to speak of the wonders of trekking in the can read that elsewhere. But it was good to experience that stuff with a guy like Shambu. It was his job, of course, but there's no doubt he understood that he lived in a special place, and there were facets of his life that were charmed.

We also went to Lumpini, where the Buddha was born, with his wife. His father and brother lived in that area, renting wood that was used for concrete forms. It was actually a decent living. His family somewhat disapproved of his low-status job, so I loaned him a big wad of rupees, and we played "high-stakes" rummy with the whole family looking on aghast.

Of course, I only saw a small piece of his life. He mentioned his friends/customers in Taiwan fondly. He also mentioned one situation (near Manaslu, I think) where he worked all night to free up a snowy trail for his clients...he repeated that story a number of must have been a big deal. I mention all this on the off-chance that one of these folks stumble across this blog.

I had thought that we would meet every 10 years or so. We'd be 75 years old, drinking rakshi, and talking about whatever. We might even hobble into the mountains for a short trek...I never considered that it might work out differently.


I wrote the above in April of 2007. Upon arriving in Nepal in May, it was pointed out to me that it's not entirely implausible that Shyambu is alive and well, and his former bosses were lying about his death. He did speak about quitting the agency and starting his own, in which case his employers may have "disowned" him. There would be some potential financial incentive in fibbing about his death, as I might then be inclined to pay Shyambu's former agency for trekking services.

Most likely, he's dead. But there's a bit of a mystery now, and perhaps I can look into it on my next visit.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

squished things

That's a jazzed-up cockroach.

A couple years ago, I made a point of photographing squished things in the streets of Bangkok. Not a difficult task.

My girlfriend tells me she was in a taxi when the driver pointed to a farang: "That farang is ba (crazy). He rides a unicycle and takes photographs of dead of animals." She didn't bother to inform him that the farang in question was me, her boyfriend!

These creatures are caught, frozen, in pretty much the position they were in a millisecond before they met their fates.

For more immortalized critters (and a banana!), check it out:

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Lad Prao Road, Sunday Afternoon

lad prao road

Here's a mile or two of Lad Prao Road in Bangkok on a Sunday morning, 2006.

In case you're wondering how the animation was done, it was like this:

1) Make stills of every frame of the video. There's shareware for that.
2) Alter the stills as you wish with Photoshop. You can automate that, so it's not as if you're manually editing 3,000 .jpg files.
3) Reassemble the new .jpg images into a video. Again, there's shareware for that.

You can alter ordinary video in some interesting ways in a single step with Premiere Pro and other video editing programs. In this case, Premiere Pro didn't give me the result I was after, so I opted for a more laborious approach.