Susan Stephenson’s emails to friends and family, from Tibet, 2003

(at left, the front of one of the reception center for the newly arrived Tibetan refugee children)

A village we passed on the way to Lhasa, built around one of the many Milarepa caves. Piles of yak dung dry on the walls for fuel, yak horns bring good luck, and the prayer flags are on short bushes as we are above the tree line.
Stopping for tea on the 'friendship highway' between Kathmandu and Lhasa. The beds of the two room Tibetan house double as restaurant benches. This little girl is telling me all about Lhasa as I drink Tibetan butter and salt tea.
Even in early fall the high passes are covered with snow, piles of rocks left by pilgrims, and prayer flags, and prayer. . .
At this pass children came to the car to offer ammonite fossils. Yes of course I bought this one and it is always with me.

October 28, 2003 - ROAD TO LHASA

Hello friends,
I’m so glad that I didn’t have any more details on this roller coaster ride (emotionally and physically) from Kathmandu to Lhasa ahead of time; I might not have come, and am so glad that I did. Just experiencing the windstorms and cold and bad roads, and imagining the refugee children making the trip, over snow and windy, freezing mountain passes, hiding and hoping for food and sometimes a ride, and taking 20 days to do it on foot, was worth the experience!

In Kathmandu I met up with Tony and Gail Rossi from home. Gail is a textiles expert, and Tony leads tours to Tibet and China through Humboldt State University where he teaches geography. I could not be traveling with better guides.

Before dawn on October 24th, we were picked up by the driver and guide who would take us to the border of Nepal and Tibet. Five hours, counting many police checkpoints, through the lowlands, rice terraces, banana trees, then up into deep ravines of the Himalayan foothills, over places where the roads had been practically washed out by the recent monsoons. It was amazing to look back from several view points, and see the tiny winding road we had just taken, a little strip of pale hugging the cliffs and disappearing into the vegetation. And I remember how much easier the trip looked from the mountain flight.

The first sad moment was at the border - entering the legendary Tibet we crossed under a huge arch that read “Welcome to the People’s Republic of China." There were many poorly dressed Tibetans and Nepalese men, women and children waiting to cross the border from both sides, probably to day jobs, some virtually in rags, and Chinese soldiers in spanking new uniforms and good cars. For the Chinese, Tibet is knows as “The Treasure House of the West”, but it doesn’t seem to be treasure for all.

Our papers were not ready so the first night we staying a dorm room, the four of us. We took a walk through the border town which was one street hugging the mountain road, and had food in a little Tibetan cafe where a young Tibetan girl spent the time trying to explain to us what was going on on the Tibetan video that was playing, and the pictures of the Potala on the wall.

I had started taking Diamox, for prevention of Acute Mountain Sickness, or Altitude Sickness, three days before the trip, but still suffered slight headache and nausea. Gail, on the other hand, had two serious attacks. The first was when we stopped for lunch at Tingri. The typical eatery where we stopped was richly decorated with beautiful Tibetan colors and images on wall and ceiling. A bench lined all of the walls and small tables lined the room next to these Tibetan rug-covered seats (no chairs) and an old stove in the middle room warmed us. The room was filled with pilgrims and other Tibetans in warm but ragged clothing. We were enjoying reading the menu, and assumed that “oxygen - large or small” was on the same level of interesting English misspellings as “chocolate craps” (crepes) had been in Kathmandu, when suddenly Gail almost passed out and needed the oxygen immediately. Thank goodness it was on the menu.

Her second bout occurred later in the car. We had bought oxygen to take along and it was a very good thing because as we crossed the highest pass, Gyatso-la, 5200 meters (17,000 feet - over three miles high) in the dark and whirling snow of the night, she had a very serious attack. I held the oxygen tube in one of her nostrils, while the driver went like mad to get her to a lower altitude, and the guide, and Barbara, rubbed her hands and fingers to increase the circulation, and Tony prayed. Finally she began to come around and could make some movements and sounds. It was very scary.

For the two highest altitude nights of the 4-day trip I spent the whole night sitting propped up in bed because I could not breathe lying down. My resting heart beat was 80-90, instead of 60, and I had several panic attacks and didn’t know if I was going to make it to my 60th birthday - it was like suffocating slowly for hours. I had taken the Diamox as recommended, perhaps more than I should have because by the end of the trip my skin was covered with a rough red rash, and hundreds of little open sores - a side effect of the drug. So, do you think you have heard enough about Tibet, or shall I go on?

BEAUTY - the altitude was not so bothersome sitting up during the day in the 4-wheel drive car that took the six of us over some of the most beautiful land on earth. Here we are at the very top of the world. The guidebook says that the landscape is beautiful but monotonous, but I didn’t see any monotony. Instead I tried to capture every fold and color and movement of light and shadow in my memory. The most brilliant blue of the sky one can imagine, rust, reds, blues, and browns of the mountains and the only vegetation a dark red-brown low brush and sometimes fields of low growing dark green feeding herds of sheep and black yaks. As the sun rose and set the blue was even more beautiful in contrast to the red-orange-yellow edges of the white clouds. I gave up trying to take pictures because no single photograph could begin to capture the vastness, shape, and color of this magnificent landscape.

Several times we passed a single driver on horseback in the fading light and snow, returning with his sheep and yaks to one of several little black nomad tent for the night. Once we saw ahead a furious dark gray dust storm and hoped it would blow away from us but it did not. I closed my eyes, covered my nose and mouth (no easy decision in a place where oxygen is rare and precious) and prayed that the driver could see.

In between the high and scary passes, the car being stuck in mud for hours, and the terrible hotels, with dim light, no heat, and an outside toilet which was a hole in an outhouse cement floor which one approached with toilet paper, a candle, and trepidation, we visited several beautiful old monasteries, and passed pilgrims on there to and from holy sites. Each high pass is covered with piles of rocks, mani stones, and prayer flags. There was beauty everywhere.

The houses of the villages in this cold and windy place, high above the tree line, are all connected, for warmth, yak dung drying on the sides walls and piles on the top for use as fuel in the winter, prayer flags fly from short branches (no bamboo of tree branches here), and always traditional painted decorations in lovely colors above the doors and windows. The new Chinese road, sadly, passed right through the middle of several lovely Tibetan villages. In the middle of one a woman stood dejectedly next to a smashed-in wall of her house where the new road would go by. During the beginning construction of the road all wildlife was killed so the Tibetans in these areas are very hungry, they work on the road (very old women to very young children) when the regular work is finished, and taxes are up. It was hard to be neutral about the effect of this road on the Tibetans, and the fact that large, noisy trucks would soon be driving right through the middle of this village, within feet of living room space.
As I said, an emotional and physical roller coaster.

Finally we entered Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. In the past the Potala, a giant building of 700 rooms, situated since the 7th century on one of the two hills of Lhasa, was the first sight anyone would see. Not so today. One must drive for almost an hour past modern, green-glass, efficiently ugly, Chinese structures before even catching a glimpse of the Potala, which has been the seat of the Dalai Lama since the 15th century.

Our hotel, the Yak Hotel, is beautiful, with Tibetan decorations and murals on the outside and inside of the building, guest rooms with handpainted scenes from Tibetan history and philosophy, decorated ceiling, good Tibetan and European food, and Mozart and Afro-Cuban music playing over breakfast in the lovely dining room. That’s it for now. Welcome to Tibet.
Blessings, Susan

Susan on top of the Potala, Lhasa, Tibet — where she chose to celebrate her 60th birthday.

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- Asia Series" paintings, Tibet, India, Japan - Montessori Overview - Birth to Twelve+




Lhasa, population 200,000 - elevation 3700 m (12,000 feet)

Hello friends,
I’m at home now in Trinidad, California, awakening from 48 hours of sleep. It is 4:30 in the morning, and I am going through my trip journal to fill you in on the last days - as I was unable to safely email from China anything about Tibet.

As many of you know, Jim and I have been helping the Tibetan Children in the Montessori classes of the refugee communities in India for a long time, and I visited there in the fall of 2002. We are often asked why these children leave Tibet, and if the situation for Tibetans in Tibet is as bad as one hears, or if it is exaggerated. My trip was largely to find answers to these questions. I know that I cannot possibly, in such a short time, begin to understand the total picture, but I can tell you what I experienced.
The first morning in Lhasa, October 28, Tony led us the few blocks from the hotel to the 1300 year-old, golden-roofed Jokhang Temple which is the spiritual center of Lhasa, just as the Potala was once the seat of government and the winter home of the Dalai Lama (now his home and the center of the Tibetan Government in Exile is in Dharamsala, India).

The Barkhor is a circular path that encircles the Jokhang Temple. As it is the end of the growing season and harvests, beautiful rosy-cheeked pilgrims from all over Tibet have come to pay homage, and to walk the path or kora, around the temple and other holy places in Lhasa. Such colors and costumes I could not have imagined possible! Each family/social group is identifiable by the number of braids and the beads in the women’s hair, the skirts and aprons, the hats and hairdos, the fabric patterns, the way the babies are carried, the jewelry, and so on. Large incense burners over six feet tall dot the path and one has to stay alert and out of the way of the men, women and children prostrating, or bowing with the forehead touching the earth, as they make there way around the Barkhor. Little shop stalls offer for sale monks’ robe fabrics, saddles, prayer wheels, fruits and vegetables, beads and clothing, strings of dried yak cheese, musical instruments and Tibetan CD’s and tapes, beautiful Thangkas (religious paintings), prayer flags, nuts and grains and spices, and anything else of value to the pilgrims and visitors. Incense fumes and a chorus of chanted mantras fill the air.

My favorite moments were being swallowed up, surrounded, by a group of pilgrims who were so happy to have made it to Lhasa and the Jokhand, and who were chanting “Om mani padme om” in several different pitches, all coming together and creating overtones, musical vibrations, of peace and warmth, providing a feeling of being safe in the sounds that reminds me of the wind in the redwood trees, and the calming ocean waves at sunset at home. There prayer is one of gratitude, of wishes not for stuff or success, but for the happiness of all beings on earth. I loved being part of this kind of worship.

What I have just described was one of the good things. However, scattered among the pilgrims were small groups of Chinese soldiers whose job is to make sure the Tibetans do not gather in groups where they might create a feeling of anti-mother-country (China) sentiment. Their presence is felt everywhere. Earlier in the trip, when our guide was beginning to show me around the Tashilhunpo monastery where the Panchen Lama lived in the past, I asked him about the Chinese selection of Panchen Lama. He hesitated, looked around with a frightened expression on his face, and told me he could not talk about that and to please not ask questions inside the monastery buildings because video cameras record everything that is said and done. This is when I started noticing the fact that I am indeed in an occupied country.

Even the internet is watched carefully, and blocked at every turn and I could not write freely by email without worry about endangering Tibetans. Here is a site about the internet control in China:

I was fortunate, due to contacts from Europe and N. America, to be able to have meals, and private conversations, with several of the local Tibetans - for their sake I cannot say more about who they are. What I have learned is that, even though there is a network of people working within Tibet to help children get out, it is extremely dangerous for all concerned.

Even though on the surface the Tibetans can practice their religion, they can only do sincerely at home in private, or under the constant eyes of the Chinese soldiers in public. Pilgrims worshiping seems fine but that is probably because they keep moving and do not live in Lhasa.

Even though Tibetan history is taught in some schools, it is from textbooks that have been rewritten by the Chinese government. The punishment for straying from this strict control is (1) loss of job or license to work, or inability to get a passport to leave, (2) “reeducation” by prison sentence and/or torture, (3) being given up to the nonpolitical prisoners with no protection, (4) death. And now Tibetans have to register and have a card to even access the internet to send email!

Here are some internet pages accessible outside Tibet for more information:
1 - Human Rights Watch - Tibet

2 - human rights watch - internet blocking in China

3 - Chinese occupation

4 - Tibet presswatch online

I cherished the moment that I was walking around the Barkhor and saw two Chinese policemen peeling an orange to give to a very young Tibetan child who had wandered over to them. I know that most Chinese people are, just like the Tibetans, just like us, concerned with their daily happiness, friends, family, food, shelter, etc. They hear the official propaganda and do not understand why the Tibetans value their culture, religion, traditions, and the Dalai Lama, more than new roads and modern buildings. And I realize that without access to the international news on the internet that we take for granted, it is impossible for Tibetans and Chinese alike to get another view of their situation. The Tibetans with whom I was able to talk candidly were very happy to hear that there are thousands of people around the world who are working for the sake of the Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet.
BIRTHDAY - On October 29, I spent my 60th birthday visiting the Potala Palace, a tour that took three hours. I saw three small European tour groups, but mostly was again surrounded by hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims touching their heads to the gates in front of the beautiful statues, and offering money and the white blessing scarves called katas, and yak butter which they added to the flaming wicks in small golden cups in front of the many shrines. There were video cameras aimed at us from the ceiling at every turn and several groups of Chinese soldiers on every floor. Just keep moving.

As we neared the floor just below the roof, chanting and drums of a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony taking place on the roof could be heard. I asked my guide to inquire about this and was told that it was private and no one could attend, so I sat very quietly with several groups of pilgrims and listened to this marvel occurring in occupied Tibet.

Finally we climbed to the roof. The beautiful chanting was still going on and a Chinese soldier began to mock the sounds by performing a break dance in time to the drums. Everyone looked away in shame and embarrassment.

Amazingly, the Tibetan woman who takes pictures of visitors on the roof for a fee asked my guide if I would like to join the ceremony. She opened a locked gate and led the two of us way across the roof to a small room where six monks were seated at two long tables in front of an alter, chanting as they read from books on the tables in front of them, one beating a very large drum, all pausing now and then to sip the yak butter tea next to their books. There was a very different feeling in this room. I forgot that I was in occupied Tibet and felt exactly like the time more than a year ago when I sat with hundreds of people at the temple next to the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India. It crossed my mind that the stories of Tibetan Lama’s being in more than one place at a time, at lest in spirit just might be true. Sometimes during the talking between chants, the monks repeated the name “Dalai Lama” and their faces lit up with happiness. It felt very much like His Holiness was in this room with us—in Tibet, on the roof of his old home, The Potala. My guide stayed for a short time then sat outside while I stayed in the room, tears of happiness on my face, at the good fortune of being present at this ceremony, and of this magical 60th birthday on the roof of the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet.

Descending from this, one of the most famous architectural wonders of the world, we ate lunch at an all-Tibetan local restaurant for pilgrims and for those who have market stalls near the Potala. I was the only non-Tibetan there among about 200 people, young and old, turning prayer wheels as they ate. In the evening I was surprised by a birthday party, complete with cake and gifts of katas, given by four Tibetans. I think that the word had spread quickly that I was there to help the Tibetans and could be trusted. They told me that this was a safe restaurant and they were free to answer my questions and to tell me their stories.

A few months ago Jim brought my attention to an article in the New York Times about a project for the blind in Lhasa. I contacted them and made arrangements to visit. This was one of the most uplifting experiences of the trip. A young Tibetan girl named Kyla was our tour guide. She had come to the center from another town three years earlier, when she was 14. At home she had been able to do nothing but help around the house a little bit, and had no school education at all. Within three years here she has learned to read and write in braille, and speak, English (her spoken English was almost perfect), Tibetan, and Chinese. She has written a play about ecology that has been performed in front of large audiences, and she is looking for her own apartment and plans to open a tea shop with a blind friend and to continue teaching at the center.

Three or four years is the limit for being at the center because there are so many others on the waiting list - so no time is wasted. I was able to leave some warm clothing, money, and the Tibetan Montessori 3-6 manual that the Head of the Montessori training at the Tibetan Children’s Villages in Dharamsala, India had sent me. I think it will be very valuable to the school.

I left Tibet early, saddened but inspired even more to help the Tibetan cause. There is much to think about, like forgiveness and understanding. On the way home, in Chengdu and Hong Kong, I spent some time with lovely Chinese people. The Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Price for his attempts to dialogue with the Chinese, instead of blaming or hating them, is my model.
Tashi delek,

June 7, 2004,
I would like to share one more thing. Our son, Michael, who is a senior at Brown University in Rhode Island, spend the last semester traveling around the world on a university program called Semester at Sea ( The 600 students traveled to Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Tanzania, India, and several places in Asia - all by ship. We consider this his initiation to the citizenship of the world. While he was in India he spent some time in an orphanage run by the Mother Teresa nuns.
I’m sure anyone reading these emails, will also enjoy this one from Michael.
Blessings, Susan

Dear Mom and Dad,
This morning 2 friends and I went to the Mother Teresa Orphanage and spent a couple of hours with the people there. All the kids there are the ones that no parents will adopt because they have some kind of physical or mental defect. A lot of the kids had Polio and couldn’t walk, and one little girl was only about 1 foot tall and had a very deformed face, she had no arms either only hands growing out of her sides. We spent a lot of time with her because I think that no one really plays with her because of all her imperfections.

There was another boy who had very weak legs so we spent a while moving his legs for him and trying to get him to exercise them. Eventually he began to straighten and bend at the knee and then he got very happy and started laughing when I touched his feet and moved his toes. None of the women who ran the place spoke English, and all of the kids were completely mute except for maybe one or two. We didn’t really know what was wrong with some of the kids and we couldn’t ask cause we could not communicate with anyone but we managed to help with some things. We went upstairs to a room where there was a bunch of sick boys lying down and then we found out that they had measles and other diseases.
In a way a feel that it has opened up for me what is important in life and what is not so important. And I know that this feeling might not be with me for very long, but hopefully each time, it sinks in a little deeper and stays with me longer.
Love, Michael