I must remember to ask Tenzin how to say that phrase again, I think upon waking, rubbing away the sleep that had crusted over my eyes. It takes me a few minutes to realize that the Tibetan phrase I just dreamt of isn’t actually a phrase at all—it is complete jibberish. It’s seven, but it’s still pitch black outside and the sun won’t be up for at least another hour and a half. I lie in bed, listening to the sound of my alarm, disappointed that I wasn’t actually dreaming in Tibetan, and think on how it takes two days by train from Lhasa to Beijing, yet the two cities go by the same time zone. I can’t even imagine what time the sun rises near Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet.
I drag myself out of bed in the darkness and do three sun salutations in an attempt to wake up. I change into jeans and start layering on my clothes—a shirt, a sweater, a vest, and a scarf—while wondering how I’m ever going to survive December. While the daytime sun is rather enjoyable, heating up the room quite nicely, it doesn’t appear on my gaudy yellow window shades until ten-thirty, and the evenings are starting to feel brutally cold—even inside.
I grab a cup of hot water, a notebook, and my English-Tibetan-Chinese dictionary to work on an oral essay for the morning’s class. I am interrupted just past eight by the sounds of Chinese music blaring from the loudspeakers outside my window. As hard as I try to concentrate, the music makes it impossible, so I resort to making breakfast and turning on music of my own to drown out the sounds of the morning exercises outside.
The pressure cooker is the only pot that I own, out of necessity and frugality, and I am fondly reminded of my summer spent in the villages of Ladakh as I use it. Despite it being mid-July, the nighttime was brisk, and I spent those days huddled around the dung-fueled fire of a Ladakhi family’s kitchen, listening to the pressure cooker shriek and wail while it worked.
I wanted Ladakh to be Tibet before I had arrived. I was naïve at first, but it did not take me long to realize that, while both regions lie on the same vast plateau, share similar religious beliefs and a similar written language, they are two separate and distinct places. In Ladakh I lived in rural villages, irrigating the rapeseed fields by diverting glacier stream water with shovels, gathering cow dung from the fields to make fires, holding the baby cows while my host mother milked their mothers, walking them up to the pastures to graze during the day, and helping with the barley harvest. The month was quiet yet far from idyllic, as the long, exhausting days were filled with farm work. Although the farmers of Tibet lead similar lifestyles, it’s not feasible to stay on a farm in Tibetan regions of China.
Instead, I live in Lhasa—a bustling city with sights and sounds begging to be ingested, a city that is literally growing by the millisecond, with St. Regis hotels, movie theaters, and bars popping up everywhere. In the Barkor the sight of knock-off sneakers in piles and bootleg coats that say “Hortn Face” instead of “North Face” are common; the smell of potatoes cooking in buckets and rolled through alleys on wheelbarrows fills ones nostrils; ears are flooded with the sounds of Tibetan music blasting out of tiny televisions in the Barkor, and shouts of prices being repeated behind bullhorns.
Both were opened to tourism around the same time, yet Lhasa has undoubtedly been more swiftly developed than Leh. Despite the modernization, away from the busy city streets and the alleys of the Barkor, the world goes quiet at night, and the stars attempt to shine through the light pollution to be as bright as their Ladakhi counterparts. Upstairs on the roof of my house, I close my eyes, and as the streetlamps disappear, I see myself back in a Ladakhi village, sitting, staring south-ward at a line of snow-cappped mountains in front of me, taking a break from the farm work to bask in the warm sun and the crisp breeze.