***I am convinced that the cuteness of Asian babies is unparalleled by any other race of child on Earth. It quickly became clear that Tibetan babies, with their ruddy cheeks and wide eyes were no exception. Bundled up like Eskimos with skin peeking through their split pants (an Asian alternative to diapers that turns the world into a bathroom at the baby’s discretion), the little ones were the center of our group’s attention at every encounter. And to our delight, the temples we toured were teeming with them. The Sera Monastery was no exception. Pilgrims crowded around the narrow corridors of the temple, babies in tow. But there was something different about the small Tibetan faces here. “Lhamu, why do all the children have black dots on their noses?” I asked our guide. She explained that the marks were soot, smudged on by monks to ward off evil spirits and help the child sleep at night. “That’s what I need!” my friend laughed. Our first night at the high altitude had been a restless one for most in our group. Lhamu smiled cryptically: “Okay.” Winding our way through the inside the temple was a feat as always. The narrow corridors formed a maze often bottlenecked by the sheer volume of visitors. Impatient pilgrims pushed their way through our crowd as we stopped, frequently, to admire the vibrant colors and ornate statues through the haze of incense. The line slowed behind a particularly narrow turn, and we stood, joking around as we waited for an opening. It wasn’t long before the crowd cleared a bit and we surged ahead and around the corner. I saw a monk. A curtain. Several candles. And bloop. Before I knew what was happening, the monk’s finger was reaching toward me, then withdrawing again just in time for me to catch a quick glimpse of the oily black substance that was now smeared across the tip of my nose, Dalmatian-style. Ahead of me, my friend was wearing a similar expression of surprise and soot. We laughed and looked up to see Lhamu smiling at us from beside the monk. We had been blessed with a bit of local color.
***A few days at Lhasa’s 12,000 feet had been brutal enough. The cold days and breathlessness at the slightest exertion was more than enough to convince me against the extreme altitude. And yet here we were, 3 days into the trip, boarding a bus to take us higher to the neighboring town of Tsedang— elevation 12,500 feet. But the agenda was what it was, so, armed with backpacks full of long underwear and Diamox, we set off on the next leg of our journey. By evening we had unloaded the bus and settled in to our hotel— nice, Chinese-style lodging with beds like cinderblocks. We unpacked, ate dinner and, bored, looked to the town. It was immediately clear that Tsedang was no Shanghai, nor even Lhasa, but restless and curious college kids that we are, we set out regardless, eager to explore. We wandered down the street aimlessly, popping in and out of little convenience stores and clothing shops as we went. Chinese snacks. Cutesy cell phone trinkets. Mountains of gloves sheathed in plastic. Many of the same items we knew from Shanghai. Suddenly, we spied a large crowd of children mulling across the street. Curious, we drew closer and became instant celebrities. School had just ended and the children were dispersing toward home. “Ni Hao!” We practiced our broken Chinese and responded to their broken English, covering the gaps with profuse smiling. A group of preteens loitering by the road caught our eye. They stood huddled around a box-like contraption that projected music as they popped and jumped to the beat— school children by day, b-boys by night. Excited by the attention, they invited us to a local square where they frequently practiced. So we gathered under the dim light of flickering street lamps, watching as their glowing blue school uniforms twisted to embody what issued from the tiny radio. We stood that way for much of the night— shivering in the cold, Tibetan and Americans alike huddled in a common appreciation for good dance and Justin Bieber. When we finally picked our way back to our hotel, freezing, at the end of the night, we found our rooms the temperature of ice. The thermostat on the wall offered little solace— it was disconnected, as, according to hotel staff, it wasn’t yet cold enough to warrant use. Turning to the next best thing, I stuck my numb fingers under the faucet and stood enjoying the warmth. Catching my reflection in the mirror, and I gasped— blue! My lips! They’re blue! Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen or the perhaps it was the cold. I’ll suppose never know. What I did know was that I had found the colors I was looking for. -Kealy