Canyon Sam received a 2010 Open Book Award.

At the beginning of my fifth week, I flew from Chengdu in western China to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, a three-hour flight over the ice-blue Himalayas, into what seemed like one of the most inaccessible corners of the earth. Before the Chinese takeover, Tibetans had long shut themselves off from the outside world. In the twentieth century, only a couple thousand foreigners had ever set eyes on the holy city of Lhasa: seven hundred of them British troops who invaded in 1904, a few intrepid explorers, a handful of officials, and a dribble of Westerners in the early 1980s who came in expensive, organized tour groups.

Then, six months before my visit, in the fall of 1985, Tibet opened to anyone holding a Chinese tourist visa. Extreme weather conditions effectively closed it for the winter, but with the spring thaw, travelers trickled in—mostly independent travelers, backpackers like me, of whom I was the sole representative on the small sixty-six-passenger plane, among the silverhaired Chinese bureaucrats in drab, post-Mao fashions.

From the moment I arrived in Lhasa, I could sense something different. Even the air was different, pure and dry. The small plane landed on a vast barren plateau—I had never seen such long, clean horizon lines and such intense, indigo-blue skies. There wasn’t anything around—no buildings, no airport personnel, no electric lines, no signs, no indications of civilization.

After a two-hour bus ride, we arrived in Lhasa, where a few bicyclists leisurely pedaled along the wide, sunny main street; this was nothing like the jammed freeways of riders I’d seen in other cities in China. Snowcapped mountains ringed the valley, towering behind soft-sloped, brown moraine hills. Old ladies sitting on the sun-blanched street curb fingering their prayer beads tracked me as I walked down the main street and grinned as I passed, sticking out their tongues in the traditional greeting. I was struck by the bright white quality of the sunlight, the deep saturated blue of the massive sky, the air so clean and crisp it almost singed my lungs going down. I liked the relaxed atmosphere, the sense of space. Unlike everywhere else in China, Tibet was uncrowded, and one rarely saw a motor vehicle.

Over the next two months, particularly while trekking in the countryside, I had extraordinary experiences in the pristine mountains, rivers, and plains of Tibet’s high desert plateau—which, I learned later, is the highest and largest landmass on earth. I was welcomed warmly wherever I went—so completely different from my experience in China. I developed an affectionate relationship with Tashi’s mother, Amala. I found the people devoted to their faith, with a rare quality of equanimity and acceptance. I loved their easy humor and openness, their warmth and generosity.

Later that summer, I was floating up the Yangzi River. I’d reluctantly left Tibet to resume my travels: I am Chinese, I should like China, I told myself. I had gotten the last bunk available in a 12-passenger cabin, the upper bunk by the door. The first morning I discovered why.

From a speaker mounted in the hall, one foot from my head, a voice screamed garrulous government directives and martial music blasted at eardrum-splitting volumes at six o’clock. This was the same broadcast that railed at people everywhere in China; speakers hung from buildings and telephone poles, in cities, in the countryside. They were even wired into train compartments. Plugging my ears or covering my head with a pillow couldn’t block out the shrill directives and political slogans, which blared for a solid 20 minutes.

From the traveler’s co-op in Lhasa I had borrowed John Avedon’s award-winning book, In Exile from the Land of Snows, about the modern political history of Tibet since the Chinese takeover in the 1950s. For the first time I learned in depth of the brutal destruction of the culture and people. More than 95 percent of Tibet’s monasteries—equivalent to a Western church, university, and library combined—had been demolished, thousands of them. Tibetans claimed that more than a million people were killed. Religious art and literature was looted or burned. Over the next 25 years, the Chinese attempted to brainwash these devout people, to break them and strike Buddhism out of their hearts and replace it with fervent Maoism.

At six o’clock every morning on the ship, and several times throughout the day, the public address system blasted the state harangue. I took refuge in the dog-eared text, in the vivid handful of profiles of Tibetans—fascinating, each one of them. But by the end of nearly four hundred pages, I realized that not one of the profiles had been of a woman. Were we to assume that women’s experiences were the same as men’s? I doubted that was possible. It was as if women didn’t exist. Or, if their experiences were different, they didn’t matter. Yet my richest experiences of Tibet had often been with women.

What were women’s lives like during this tumultuous period? Why weren’t they portrayed?


The next day, after breakfast, we all climbed up to the roof to install new prayer flags—brilliantly colored flags in turquoise, scarlet, goldenrod, emerald, and white on a stand like a tall sapling. The cousin slipped it into a hole in a corner of the roof. The middle sister, donning the traditional fur hat in the cold brisk air, performed ablutions at the small trough altar decorated with spikes of dyed magenta, yellow, and green reeds stuck in tsampa dough. All the family members lined up, pulled their arms back, grasping a pinch of tsampa between their fingers, and then called out together in one spirited shout: “Tashi delek, phun sum tshogs a ma bag gro sku khams bzang gtan du bde bat hob par shog!” and tossed the tsampa high in the air. It meant, “Good luck and good fortune in all aspects of life! May all sentient beings be well! Peace and happiness!”

We had tea and gazed at the tops of the mountains, their base obscured by all the tall buildings. In the distance, we saw plumes of smoke wafting from high up on a foothill. Pema said she had climbed up there before to make incense offerings, but the altitude—she patted her heart and pretended to gasp for air—made her short of breath.

Maybe it was the ceremony, or the fresh winter morning air, or the view of the mountaintops, but the mood felt light and happy.

Tashi told me that the Paljorkhyimsars’ nephew had called me that morning and invited me over for New Year’s. I had wanted to go anyway, to pay my respects and give Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar an offering for Losar.

“When should I go?” I asked.

Tashi said a lot of people were coming over today, and that they’d stay all day. I didn’t doubt her, judging by the day before.

“Now,” she declared.

I left shortly before noon and walked through empty streets. It was the first time I’d seen them without mobs or walls of traffic. For the first time, I could really appreciate the mountain air and broad vistas I associated with Lhasa. For the first time, I enjoyed just being in the streets of town again.

I found the building easily enough. When I climbed up the side staircase to the second floor, an unfriendly woman answered the door of what I thought was the right apartment. She shooed me away when I asked for the Paljorkhyimsar house. I went up to the third floor and saw an unfamiliar gate. I was in the wrong building. I left and walked around the narrow, winding old lanes.

In one lane, I saw pony rides for little kids. The twisting lanes hemmed in by traditional-style buildings almost made me think I was in old Lhasa. Everything was on a different scale. The narrow, circular design and uneven stone paths made people slow down, made all transport move at a slower pace. China created exactly the opposite conditions when it wanted to develop a town: it widened the roads and built boulevards and huge plazas, to facilitate mass movement—military processions, tank convoys, splashy Party ceremonies. I remembered that from 1986.

After walking a bit more, I was sure that I had been at the right building complex before, so I went back. I climbed to the third floor but found the right door this time, spying the orange glow of the heater dish through the curtained window.

Inside, Karma and his daughters were working at the small living room table rolling dough and cutting meat on a big thick chopping block. Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar sat at the end of the couch in her spot. When I entered, they cleared the table and moved to another room.

I sat down next to Mola on the couch. This time, she talked directly to me in a kind of hoarse whisper. Her words were not intelligible because so many of her teeth were missing, but I wouldn’t have understood what she was saying anyway, since it was in Tibetan. I took her hands in mine. Very warm and quite fleshy. How wonderful to have that direct connection, without intermediaries. In our last meeting, I had felt some awkwardness because we’d all never met before and Tashi and I had needed to get home to help greet guests. This felt a lot more relaxed and leisurely. I gave Mola a red envelope with some money, the traditional offering at New Year’s. She slipped it inside the front of her chuba.

The large color television displayed a Chinese rap band—all quick camera cuts, hard-hitting bass lines, and young, muscled guys jumping and jerking on their guitars behind Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar’s head. What a contrast: the old century and the new. What China had wrought then and what it has wrought now. One dark, weathered, nearly mute and losing life force, and the other spasming and roaring into the future, loud, noisy, and self-conscious.

We sat together alone for quite a long time while the rest of the family kept busy in the kitchen. Periodically, I studied my Tibetan phrasebook; otherwise we sat there quite contentedly without speaking. The family’s New Year’s altar—with the pastry totem, ram’s head, and candy bowls—stood along the top of a cabinet on the wall opposite. One of the girls came and turned down the TV. At another point, when it got cold, she came in and turned on the heater. I found it very peaceful. I realized that there was always activity at Tashi’s. With the house and all the family members and household help and goings-on, I could never hunker down for a period of time and be silent with my thoughts. How great it would be, I thought, to just tuck myself away for a day in a library, somewhere quiet and cozy.

I felt heartened to be able to see Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar and make an offering to her. In the States, I had become so miserably despondent about this project at times, what with the scores of rejections over the years from agents and publishers. Clearly the material was important; one graduate school professor of mine said, “You’re sitting on a gold mine.” But the endless frustration of hiring editors, scraping together funding, and rewriting the book countless times in different genres—oral history, historical narrative, dharma book—not to mention the lack of support for artists doing political work, had beaten me down.

But when I had enough distance, like now, from the comfortable American life and its daily concerns, I saw things differently. Nearly eight thousand monasteries demolished, and thousands of years of culture destroyed in 20 years. To give 20 years of my life to unearthing this women’s history and getting it out was just a thimble in an ocean, the blink of an eye. Look what these people had suffered, what they had sacrificed: their whole lives.

At lunch, Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar constantly urged me to “Choe, choe,” when I paused in eating or drinking. Her family gave her a serving of momos, handmade steamed dumplings, and a bowl of hot savory milk to go with it. I was pleased to see that she enjoyed eating so much.

When I finally got up to go, I faced her and took her hands. I suddenly felt deeply sad. The others bustled around, looking for a khata for me. It was the last time I’d see her, I thought; she was ninety, and I didn’t come to Lhasa often. My throat felt dry and tight. Tears sprang to my eyes. Her story was so important and her survival so miraculous. It was such a privilege to have met her and to have her share her life story with me. Her chapter was the one I workshopped and reworked so much; it was the one that moved people, the tale that set the tone for the scope and depth of the women’s life experiences and revealed how different these were from what had been known as Tibetan history.

Karma and one of his daughters walked me out to the street, to an intersection a stone’s throw from the Jokhang. He kept saying something to me and gesturing, pointing back at the house and then down at the ground. I think he was telling me to come back and visit. Come anytime. Nobody has hospitality down like the Tibetans, I thought. He was just so kind; I could see it in his face, even though I never understood a word he said.

At the Barkhor, more market stalls were open today than the day before. People were wearing their finest chubas and walking the kora. Some did prostrations in front of the Jokhang. I could feel a sense of peace from the temple, from the people doing prayers. It didn’t move me like the first time I had been here years ago, but I could still feel some tranquil, tender feeling in the air around the temple when the pilgrims were there. It required an effort to see the mountains, but I thought, What a wonderful thing to have the Jokhang and the Tibetan faithful and the mountains still here.

It was a change for me: to just appreciate what was there and not be focused on what was not there anymore, on what had been taken away. That always put me in an angry state, agitated and embittered.

As I walked home, I passed the family’s old monastery house and hardly gave it a glance. I noticed that I was more able to be in the present the longer I was here. Day by day, I was letting go of the past. Moving on. Once, I met a rock climber in an airport. I told him I had liked the sport well enough when I dabbled in it years ago; the problem came when I looked down after climbing up. I had no trouble going up because the concentration it required forced me to be totally in the present moment, but when I looked down three thousand feet and saw the distance I could fall, I freaked out.

The remedy for that, he told me, was to camp out on a high shelf for a few days, at two or three thousand feet up. Then the perspective that used to bring terror would become normal, and the fear would vanish.

Copyright © 2009 by Canyon Sam. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.