Once a year I work as expedition physician for TCS or Starquest Expeditions. Here is my journal from one trip:
Wednesday 10 October in Beijing we split up, half to visit the Great Wall (which I saw from the plane) and my group going to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. We ate lunch at the famous Hepingman Beijing Duck Restaurant (ask your Chinese friends, they probably know it). We drove past 12th century hutongs (only 400 neighborhoods remain). Signs are still up from October first National Day (which was celebrated for a week). Beijing still has nine million bicycles, but four million cars make traffic worse. Even the freeways and ring roads have bike lanes and bus lanes.
Thursday 11 October we took Air China to Chengdu and then Lhasa. The altitude of 11810 feet was immediately apparent. Now I can sympathize with my heart patients who must stop to catch their breath on each flight of steps. The bus to the airport passed yaks in the fields and ten army bases. We visited the SOS Children’s Village, were I had tea with yak butter. The Brahmaputra Hotel sits on the bank of a tributary (Lhasa River) of the river of the same name (and doubles as a museum of folk art). We were greeted by staff in traditional costume doing a yak dance and pacing shawls around our necks.
Friday 12 we climbed 200 steps to the top of the Potola Palace and bought a ticket for one hour to rush through where the Dalai Lama (the reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara) lived winters until 1959. The oldest part dates from the 7th C, but most of the thousand rooms were built after the 17th C, when the Dalai Lama became the leader of both the religion and the state. Next we watched the daily theological debate between pairs of monks at the Sera monastery. Finally we toured the most holy Jokhang temple, where worshippers were prostrating themselves, circumambulating clockwise, turning prayer wheels (clockwise) and burning votive candles of yak butter. Padma Sambahava had sited this temple where there had been a lake that represented the heart of an underground she devil who had been preventing the construction of any Buddhist temples in Tibet. He followed with temples on her arms and legs, and they stayed up. Inside, we were gasping from the lack of ventilation and fumes of incense and burning yak butter. In the street market outside, I bargained for a thangka of a wrathful Mara holding a mandala and surrounded by the eight auspicious symbols.
Saturday 13 we visited the excellent Tibet museum, then took the China Eastern flight to Xi’an.
Sunday 14 we saw the terra cotta warriors (still being excavated and reassembled), the Shaanxi Provincial Museum (archaeology through ceramics), and the Wild Goose Pagoda, where Tripitaka returned with the sutras from his Journey to the West.
Monday 15 we saw the Famen Temple. In the 2nd C Emperor Ashoka united India, converted to Buddhism, renounced violence, and distributed relics of Buddha around the world. There is still a tooth in the temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka. All of the relics in China were thought to be lost until the tower in Famen collapsed in 1981. Reconstruction excavation revealed a treasure that had been sealed underground since the 9th C. Included were four finger bones elaborately packaged. Four are fakes made of jade, but they are worshiped alongside the bone. We also visited another imperial tomb in Yangling, near the airport.
Tuesday 16 we finally boarded our Fokker 100 for Ulan Bataar. We stopped in the Shaolin Temple outside Zhengzhou. The temple is in a beautiful mountain setting, and is the home of both Zen and Kung Fu (developed by monks who were bodyguards to the emperor). The town around the temple is full of martial arts schools, and we saw thousands of boys in red uniforms drilling outdoors. We reboarded the plane and flew to Mongolia.
Wednsday 17 in Ulaanbaatar we visited Gandan, the one monastery left standing by the Communists. It has an 80 meter tall golden Buddha surrounded by prayer wheels and thousands of small statues, visually stunning. We drove to a ger (yurt) where we were greeted with salty tea and cheese and treated to displays of horsemanship. We saw a museum full of dinosaur fossils from the Gobi desert.
Thursday 18 we flew to the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi outside Dalanzadgad. We dug dinosaur fossils, rode Bactrian two hump camels, and slept in gers. The star gazing was outstanding.
Friday 19 we flew back to Ulan Bataar, refueled in Chengdu (again) and landed in Kathmandu.
Saturday 20 I watched the sun rise over the Bodhnath Stupa and later we walked the 17th C town of Bhaktapur, where the Hindus were sacrificing goats to Shiva and putting the blood on their vehicles. We then took Druk Air to Paro. Bhutan is like Montreat NC, with fieldstone buildings, pine trees, and clean streams, but with a very different religious tradition, another mile of altitude, and the Himalayas in the background. We saw a watchtower converted into a museum and a fortress that is now half municipal building and half monastery. The monks were as young as five, and larking around the holy places.
The national costume is a plaid bathrobe. I saw the Paro valley rice cop being harvested, archery practice, and hundreds of stray dogs.
Sunday 21 we climbed to almost 10,000 feet to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, along with local pilgrims, because it was a holy day, and sat with the monks chanting om mane padme hum 108 times.
Monday 22 we flew back to Kathmandu to reboard our charter jet. I took a picture of Mount Everest just as the Red Sox won the pennant. We continued to Bhopal, where our guide told us her personal experiences with arranged marriage and the disaster the night of 2 December 1984 when the Union Carbide plant leaked methyl isocyanate gas and 9000 people died in four hours. We saw the stupa and column erected in Sanchi by Ashoka in the 3rd C BC. It is a Muslim neighborhood now.
Tuesday 23 we were late getting to the airport because of another religious festival (India has 60 a year) this time Dussehra, when a statue of Durga, consort of Shiva (aka Parvarti, Uma, Kali) is carried in a grand parade and submerged in the lake. We eventually flew to Bodh Gaya where Buddha achieved enlightenment and now there are temples from all Buddhist countries, and a descendant of the tree he sat under. That evening in Varanasi, we went to the Buddhist temple to pick up twenty pedicabs, which zoomed us through the dense commercial streets to the river bank where fourteen priests were performing the evening salutation to the river with the lights and music of a rock concert. We boarded two boats to watch the ceremony from the river, then visited the riverside crematorium. (Hindus come to Varanasi to die.) We ended the evening with an elegant dinner at the Raja Ghat.
Wednesday 24 we returned to the Ganges at 5:30am to see morning ablutions. We visited the deer park at Sarnath where Buddha preached his first sermon. Ashok’s stupa still stands, but not his column, and the monastery is a ruin. There is still a deer park, and a Jain temple. We flew to Siem Reap, a new airport with lots of new hotels, closer to Angkor Wat than the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
Thursday 25 as the Red Sox won the first game of the World Series, we rode elephants around the Bayon temple, built in the 12th C by Jayavarman VII. It is covered by huge faces of Jayavarman VII that are also called Buddhas because he too was a reincarnation of of the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara. We crawled through Ta Prohm, which is still covered in banyan, kapok and cardamom trees and popular for shooting movies. In the afternoon, we explored the less reconstructed and less crowded ruin at Preah Kahn and finished up at Angkor Wat (built by an earlier king) as it began to rain.
Friday 26 we flew to Danang. We visited a museum of sculpture of the Cham kingdom, who were Hindu Malay people who ruled the middle section of Vietnam in the 12th C. (It was a Cham invasion that caused Angkor to be evacuated. Angor Wat was the best preserved temple because Buddhist monks stayed behind after the government moved permanently to Penom Penh.) I stayed behind at the hotel to tend to a patient and missed the tour of Hoi Au. (We finally got our first traveler’s diarrhea. Blame it on India.) With the extra two hours, I got a haircut, and waded in the Pacific at China Beach.
Saturday 27 we drove to three hours through beautiful scenery to Hue. At the Tu Hieu Pagoda (home of Tich Nhat Hanh) we joined the noon chant and walking meditation. At the Kinh Tein Pagoda, we heard a talk from the abbot and ate lunch. I came back early to check up on patients.
Sunday 28 we flew to Luang Prabang. On the drive in to the hotel, we visited the village of weavers and the ethnology museum. In the afternoon, we took a boat up the Mekong River to see the Buddha statues in the Tam Ting Caves and joined the monks chanting at dusk at the Wat Xieng Thong monastery.
Monday 29 we flew to Macau and refueled as the Red Sox won the World Series. We flew to Osaka and drove to Kyoto.
Tuesday 30 we saw the Todaiji Temple, which was overrun with tame deer and Japanese school groups. It is the largest wooden structure in the world, built in the 8th C and rebuilt twice again when it burned, and containing the largest Buddha in Japan. There we ran into a TCS Around the World group with Leader Lynn Turner and lecturer Wayne Ranney, whom I knew from Jewels of the Indian Ocean in 2005. Their physician was Stephanie Roseborough from my own group! We saw them again at the nearby Shinto Kusaga Shrine. After lunch we visited the Yakushiji Temple, also from the 8th C, with a pagoda and an ancient university. We saw a just-completed set of paintings commemorating Triptaka’s Journey to the West, although they call him Sanjo Ginjo here.
Wednesday 31 we walked next door to the 13th C Sanjyusangendo Temple, with its one thousand Buddha statues. We rode the bus to the 17th C Nijyojo Castle, home of the samurai shoguns who ruled until they abdicated to the emperor after Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan in the 18th C. The “nightingale” floor was designed to squeak when walked upon, and the room screens were painted with beautiful tigers and nature scenes and gold leaf. We continued to the 14th C Kinkukuji Temple. We couldn’t go inside the Golden Pavilion (covered with gold leaf and the subject of a Yukio Mishiima novel based on the monk who burned it down) but the grounds were lovely. After lunch we walked around the Jishoji Temple, its Ginkaku Silver Pavilion and the tea house where the tea ceremony originated. We finally left the crowds of school groups at the Nanzenji Sanmom Gate and finished in the serenity of the Hojo Zen Garden.
Thursday 1 November I spent the morning in the Kyoto National Museum. That evening I flew home. Over the Pacific, I rendered medical assistance to a passenger, telling the pilot we did not need to divert, but should have paramedics meet the plane in San Francisco. UA gave me 10,000 miles.