This summer I fulfilled a lifelong dream of travelling to Tibet. Many people assumed that I had already been there as I had studied Tibetan Medicine with Khenpo Troru Tsenam in the 1990’s, but this, although an amazing experience in itself, was based at Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, a little Tibetan enclave in the Scottish borders. During my Tibetan Medicine training at Samye Ling it had been originally planned that course members would travel to Tibet in order to study medicinal herbs in situ and to learn about making Tibetan Medicinal formulae. There was even a suggestion that we might spend time in Lhasa doing clinical studies and sit exams there. However, as the Samye Ling course evolved, various obstacles to this arose and the Tibetan side of the study was put on hold while we concentrated on the precious opportunity to study the Gyushi with Khenpo Tsenam.
I had always hoped that there would be a way for me to continue my clinical studies in Tibet but the responsibilities of motherhood and the demands of building a herbal practice meant that I had pretty much let go of the idea. Of course just when you let go of something completely life has a habit of presenting you with opportunities you weren’t expecting. I had met Dr Nida Chenagtsang last year in London and as a result of this meeting I attended the International Academy of Traditional Tibetan Medicine Congress in Estonia in April. Somehow the idea of me joining the 2016 Sorig Tour group was seeded as a result of these events.
The plan for Sorig Tour 2016 was for the group to spend time gaining clinical experience at two different locations in Amdo and to spend three days at high altitude studying the native medicinal flora. This involved camping at 3800m and we were instructed to bring a very thick sleeping bag. Thank goodness for Google and international climate data in order to select an appropriate level of insulation. I never knew there was so much involved in choosing a sleeping bag.
Most people were spending just over 3 weeks on the tour but I opted to fly back after 17 days. Better a shorter time than to not go at all I told myself. Even cutting the trip a little short meant that, with travel of two days each way, I was away from my clinic for 3 weeks. It was very hard work preparing for my absence in terms of scheduling extra appointments and making more medicines than usual, but the upside of this is that it allowed for a magical contrast between a very ‘full on’ schedule before leaving and the experience of sitting on an empty and remote mountainside surrounded by grazing yaks a few days later.
I left the UK on the 23rd July and after a fun journey involving three plane connections (and plenty of sleep I am glad to say) I arrived in the bustling city of Xining on the 25th July. I found that I was the first to arrive so I had plenty of time to rest and acclimatise. We were already at the beginnings of highish altitude (2275m) and the organisers had wisely scheduled two days in Xining for us to rest. This gave me the chance to finally meet my dear ‘twin dharma sister’ Karen who happened to be in Xining at the same time from her homeland of Australia. We spent three hours talking non stop (as well as eating delicious Tibetan food) and it felt as though we had known each other for our whole lives!
As the rest of the Sorig Tour group arrived I knew that this trip was going to be a wonderful experience. What a warm and lovely group! It felt good to be amongst friendly folk with a deep love of Tibetan Medicine and its Buddhist roots.
Not only were my fellow course participants a lovely bunch but we also had a fabulous team of translators, guides and helpers. Just as well there was help with the language aspect. Although I had been studying Amdo dialect on Skype with the very patient Gyamtso (who was one of the translators on the trip), my grasp of Amdo dialect was still pretty rudimentary and I was only able to understand people when they spoke very slowly. I had been struggling to ‘undo’ my previous learning of the Lhasa Tibetan dialect, embedded somehow in my brain from my time studying Tibetan Medicine at Samye Ling and a series of tutorials while I was living in Oxford. Even now I still find that I naturally resort to Lhasa pronunciation as a fall-back position. Clearly much more work would be needed for me to be proficient in Amdo dialect but I knew a few conversational phrases and several medical expressions and I was optimistic that I would improve through exposure.
After two days in Xining we headed out towards Malho, a journey which took the best part of a day. I was so excited to see that Tibetan culture was thriving in the area to which we were travelling. The journey was marked with ‘firsts’ – my first herd of yaks seen from the window of the bus, the first prayer flags on mountain tops, the first stupa, the first mani stones, the first prayer wheels, the first people dressed in traditional nomadic outfits, the first Tibetan mastiffs guarding flocks of sheep and the first golden roofed temple on the hillside. I was also ridiculously excited about watching the altitude reading climbing steadily higher on my little altitude meter.
In the next part of this blog I will describe my experiences studying clinicals in Malho, firstly at Dr Machik’s Tibetan Medicine clinic and secondly at the Traditional Tibetan Hospital with Dr Nida. Part Three will be about the herb study and the mountain camp. If you would like to be notified when either of these are published, please follow this blog or check my Facebook Page.
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