Yogurt Banquet Festival

August 20-25: Llasa, Tibet, China


On my way to the train station after five days in Llasa, (3600 meters) the capital of Tibet Autonomous region in China, I had completed a circle …starting and ending… at the same place. But there is more to the story…my Tibetan Buddhist guide, Tenzim, would approve.


After a 22 hour train journey from Xinging to Llasa,  Tenzim discussed the Yogurt Banquet Festival known as the Shoton Festival, particular to Llasa. It would begin in the morning with pilgrimage to the Sera Monastery and Drepung monastery. ‘Would I like to go?’ We would join pilgrims from all over Tibet to complete an up hill climb to see the unfolding of a 37 by 40 meter thangka (see previous post for explanation of thangka) from high above the Drepung Monastery. It would mean an early start and possibly 4 kilometre walk. ‘Would it be too much for me in this altitude?’ My only question was, ‘what time?”DSC_0329

The Shoton Festival, also known as the Yogurt Banquet Festival, has been held since the 11th century (this date may vary). The Shoton Festival, usually held in late August or early September, it is the second most popular festival in Lhasa, only following the Tibetan New Year. The origins was on the occasion when farmers would offer yogurt to monks who had finished meditation retreats after staying in the caves and shelters to avoid walking on summer insects and unintentionally killing the tiny critters.

A drizzly morning welcomed us as we joined a long line of pilgrims, many of whom had started at 4am to be present for the once a year unrolling of the thangka. The approach to view the thangka began far from the mountain; Chinese army and police lined the route for crowd control. As we wound up the mountain paths I looked backward and forward at the sea of people from all walks of life. Elderly women and men pushed past me, young children squeezed between the skirts and pant legs, young mothers carried babies on their backs in back packs made of a blanket and cinched with a wide rope under the baby bottom. The solemn chanting of mantras and reciting sutras in a low hum helped me with my own steps forward and pulled my feet forward and upward. People looked at me, greeting me with a smile: ‘hello’…’where are you from?’…I knew I was welcome on their path.


Making it to the top (very grateful for the cool, cloudy weather) and standing below the massive embroidered thangka to which more than 40,000 people had come to pay their respects, I had this rare opportunity to participate in a sacred religious event. Tibetan ceremonial scarf made of white silk that represents respect, kindness and good wishes are thrown towards the thangka. People buy incense to add to the incense furnace. We stand under the grand thangka and admire it as an ancient work of art that has been preserved for four centuries.

Then onto tour Drepung Monastery (founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choge Tasha Palden (1397-1449), one of Tsongkhapa’s, founder of Yellow Hat sect, disciples – see previous post). A visit to the kitchen, the familiar yak butter fragrance permeates the room where massive ovens and vats are used to prepare daily food and drink for the monks. More stairs to descend and we rest with Tibetan families who have made this devotional journey. Then the walk back to the city…round trip 13 kilometers (at 3,600 meters). A welcomed late lunch of Yak curry and naan and then to the hotel to soothe strained muscles!


My seat near the stage!

The next day at the Shoton Festival, there is another opportunity to enjoy the local festivities. Tenzim explained that the Tibetan opera would open at 11 am in Norbulingka Park ( built in the middle of the 18th century during the reign of the 7th Dalai Lama and served as the Summer Palace of Dalai Lamas). Tenzim warns that only the elderly enjoyed Tibetan opera because they are the generation that understand the symbolism and intricate stories. So he doesn’t expect me to stay long. Seven hours later….


My preconceived idea of going to an opera is a theatre with chairs and intermission. I was in for a new cultural experience when Tenzim positioned a small stool near the outdoor, tent covered 360 -degree stage. I would soon experience a non-stop opera, no intermission for musicians, actors, or audience. The musicians played continuously and actors came and went as new characters were introduced to the story, no bathroom break, either, as the opera was so crowded that returning to my space would be impossible.



I sat in a crouched position these hours completely enthralled as those seated around me. Tibetans from the city and countryside sat on the cold stone floor or on blankets or on small stools. They brought large thermos of tea and boxes of yak yogurt biscuits, dried fruit and meat. The hours flew past within the midst of joy and excitement, laughter, and tears, as we watched the opera. The ever present prayer beads glided between fingers and hands, an intractable part of their lives in anticipation and appreciation of the performance.


DSC_0444DSC_0686Dating back to the 14th century, the performance style epitomises Tibetan culture, combining drums, cymbals and bells, piercing recitatives punctuating choruses, villains, leaping dragons, swirling ladies with long silk sleeves. In 2006, the Tibetan opera was awarded national intangible cultural heritage status and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2009. Most of its repertoire is based on Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

Back to the required tourist itinerary…places one must see but, honestly, paled in comparison of the last two days that immersed me in the living culture. Nevertheless formal systems are the foundations of traditions and culture to understand a society and its history. Potala Palace’s ancient architectural complex is considered a model of Tibetan architecture. Located on the Red Hill in Lhasa; it is 3,700 meters above sea level and covers an area of over 360,000 square meters, measuring 360 meters from east to west and 270 meters from south to north. The palace has 13 stories, and is 117 meters high;


Potala Palace.                                                                                                                                            (to Samantha: I thought of your spinning classes while struggling up the stairs!),

Monks Debate at Sera Monastery, the younger monks sit on the ground, each with a monk above him, grilling him on Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. Each question is presented with great thoughtfulness and special gestures, and when it’s time for the seated monk to answer, the standing monk claps sharply. If the answer is judged to be wrong or incomplete, the standing monk berates the seated monk.

Ganden Monastery is at the top of Wangbur Mountain (4300 meters) . Here Tsong Khapa came at 13 years-old to eventually begin the Yellow Hat sect and build the Ganden Monastery in 1409. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1959 and rebuilt in 1980.


Ganden Monastery

The Jokhang Monastery, built in 648 AD, the Tang Dynasty in the style with characteristics of Nepalese and Indian architecture. can claim to be the center around which the city of Lhasa developed. to name a few. It was built in Tang Dynasty. The statutes of Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wencheng and Princess Chizun, another wife of the Tibetan King are enshrined in side halls.


Jokhang Monastery and incense stoves

Living crafts, people sitting along alleyways or within small stores, making their craft that are used in daily life is not seen often in the West. In the Tibetan autonomous region, the making of articles used in daily religious life can be found near a monastery or in the market place. For example, in Llasa, one sees young men sitting in lotus position, eyes inches away from the canvas painting the intricate design of a thangka (see previous post); or printing sutras on wooden tables to be place in a prayer wheel; or carving small statues, or moulding object such as the work of Mr. Luzhin Gyang Tso.

He has been making these objects for the last 14 years, called Taza. They are containers to place ashes of loved-ones after a Tibetan sky burial. These small containers have dried barley blessed by the Buddha at their centre with each point representing 108 Buddha stupas.

They are bought to be placed on a mountain after a love-one has passes away. Along with these, medallions are positioned at the mountain tops to the Buddha of wisdom and compassion.

Closing the circle of my Llasa visit, we end at Jopoli, the Holy Mountain, not on a tourist itinerary. As I began in the procession to pay respects to the 400 year old holy thangka, I end at the holy rock of hundreds of Buddha rock painting. Here is the place where 100 yak butter candles are lit, here, in this quiet square that belongs to a Buddhist nunnery. Young and old people prostrate, and give offering to their ancestors, it is the end of a clockwise circle walked each morning of prayers and prostration. I sit in a shady corner feeling a part of something special; a universal expression to something greater than an individual, a spiritual energy, a dedication to beliefs to make sense of life.


100 yak butter candles


On Mani Payne Hom (Tibetan mantra for ‘Hail Pure Lotus’)

Tenzim, Tibetan guide, and I at Barkhor Market the old market of Lhasa that encircles the Jokhang Monastery.P1010342 Tenzin


(all rights reserved, copyright 2017, To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Xiahe to Xinging to the Roof of the World

DSC_0087Thu, Aug 17 Xiahe • drive to Tongren
Fri, Aug 18 Tongren • drive to Xunhua • drive to Xining
Sat, Aug 19 Xining • depart by overnight train to Llasa



Yellow line from Xiahe to Tongren, Green line from  Tongren to Xuahue to Xinging. (This is part of a map that the hotel in Tongren kindly gave to me.)

IMG_0038Understanding China is nearly impossible with just two weeks of travel. Everything is new…the sounds, the systems, the food…but trying to understand the complex history beyond my textbook education often leaves me struggling to sort out this varied and diverse culture and history. One dilemma is to understand how the Chinese government is structured on a local level. China is divided into huge provinces; the further one travels westward the more complicated it becomes. There are three autonomous regions (as I understand): Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinghang. Then there are many autonomous prefectures that give minorities a voice in local governance. The areas I traveled through in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces are subdivided into autonomous prefectures that give minorities a voice such as the Hui and Salar people (Muslims) and Tibetan.

Leaving the Xiahe and continuing through the Song ke Grasslands, the road passes the Labrang Monastery, one of the six great Tibetan monasteries for the Yellow Hat sect. On the road to Tongren, the plan is to visit several Yellow Hat sect monasteries beginning with the Wu Tun Monastery in Longwu 7 kilometers outside of Tongren and at the end of the three days, the Ta’er Si (Tibetan: Laptah) Monastery, the place where Tsong Khapa Lozano-draper (1357-1419) founder of the “Yellow Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, is thought to have been born in 1357 in the area of Xining. (In Llasa, Tibet, (China), I visit Ganden Monastery, which is at the top of Wangbur Mountain (4300 meters) . Here Tsong Khapa came at 13 years-old to eventually begin the Yellow Hat sect and build the Ganden Monastery in 1409. (It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1959 and rebuilt in 1980.)

For explanation for the meaning of the colour is yellow for Yellow hat: http://study Buddhism.com/.en/advanced-studies/history-culture/Buddhism-in-Tibet/the-origin-of-the-yellow-hat )


The road to Tongren winds along steep mountains and descends into valleys and passes grasslands where nomads graze yaks and sheep for the summer months. Along the road, we stop at a mountain village named Shang Pen Xi, a village where Gen Dun Qun Pei, a scholar ( 1903-1953) who spoke eleven languages, was born and who is honoured in the town square. (I later see the same bronze statue at Ta’er Monastery in Xining.) The mountain walls and steep passes affirm why these area were left to develop on their own.

Tongren (Tibetan: Rebkong) is small monastic town, Qinghai Province. At the Wu Tun Monastery, I am introduced to thangka (Chinese: Regong) art which is a Tibetan Buddhist painting that depicts a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. The monks at Wu Tun Monastery have had a reputation for creating detailed images of Buddhist deities meticulously painted on stretched fine-weave canvas. Pigments are hand ground from brightly coloured stone such as turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli, gold and silver leaf ground with a resin.

Most thangkas are intended for personal meditation or teaching historical events concerning Lamas or myths associated with certain deities. Tibetan Buddhist painting developed from widespread traditions of early Buddhist paintings that still can be seen at the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang on the Silk Road ( on my itinerary). Historically, most artists were monks. The thangkas were either commissioned or given as gifts. In Tongren, the art form spread to families and at least one male member of almost every family painted the thangka. Today women are allowed to paint thangka art. Rarely is a thangka signed.
I was fortunate that on the morning in Tongren by chance an art school, Qinghai Rebgong Art School, had opened for an official visit and we were able to enjoy the open doors of the school and visit the workshops.

Embossed embroidery is another part of the thangka art form, however, little is documented about this art, which is often seen attached onto thangka paintings. I visited one artist, Qi Mao Tai, in her home and she takes me through the process of glueing pieces of silk on stiff paper, known as embossed embroidery, which she explains is usually commissioned.

Like a line drawn across the mountains, we leave the Buddhist area and see Chinese style minaret in the skyline as we enter a Muslim area. On the way to visit the 10th Panchen Lama’s birthplace, I see people constructing a mud brick building. Asking the guide if we could stop, we scamper to the site where a large group of farmers have gathered to build a house for a neighbouring family. I was interested in the construction material of mud, clay and straw, which is are materials used in the countryside of Egypt and Northern Nigeria.

In Xuahue, we have lunch with a Muslim family in their garden. Helen, the guide, explains that wheat is the main crop of the area and that Chinese come to this region for the wheat noodles. Of course, our lunch is yak stew with wheat noodles while we sip 8 treasure tea. But I could only count six: rock sugar, red chili, green tea, walnuts, goji bean, ju-ju bean. Boiling water is continuous, replenshing the bowl throughout the meal.

Xuahue is mainly populated by Muslim who are known as Salar. The Salar people mostly live in Qinghai-Gansu border region in Xuahue Salar Autonomous prefecture and Hualong Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai. Also there are Salar people in Xinjiang in Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. All this matters to me because it is one of the great ancient Silk Road stories. The Salar people are descendants from the Salar tribe coming from Central Asia: Oghuz Turks. Two brothers Haraman and Ahmad lived in Samarkand area in the 11th century because of persecution from the local king, they and some family members fled with a white camel (a statue in the middle of the town today) DSC_1260and a hand-written Quran (still survives in Jiezi Mosque in Xuahue). The group trekked though the northern Silk Road route and ended near Xiahe while others passed through the southern route and entered into Qinghai. They intermarried with Tibetan, Hui and Han Chinese, and Mongols to form the Salar group. The Quran they brought is preserved in Xuahue at Jiezi Mosque, which I tried to visit but because it was Friday, I was unable to view the Quran but was assured it was protected “in a special box where temperature and humidity are fixed and ultraviolet rays and harmful gas are kept out.”
We are fortunate to visit Xuahue Mosque named He Don ( meaning East River Mosque) built in 1485. In 1988 the mosque was put under heritage protection. Little information is known about this mosque even after a search in Chinese by my guide.
The main prayer is supported by massive wooden pillars, minaret has 6 cornerstone and 17 meters high.

Then a three hour drive to Xinging, the capital of Qinghai Province. Here the altitude is 7,000 feet. Xining has been an important trading center since the 16th century. Only a day to visit Buddhist monastery of Ta’er and stop at the 14th century Dongguan Mosque, which is said to hold tens of thousands during the Eid celebrations.


Xinging is where I leave for Llasa, a 22 hour trip on an overnight train that would take me to the Roof of the World, over the 5000 meter Tangla Pass into Llasa at 3600 meters. I fall asleep listening to laughter of Chinese men in the corridor and soft Chinese music coming from another compartment.

Back to the Wall...
A friend of mine asked if I was noticed by passerby. I think the curiosity is mutual so when someone says hello or wants a picture, I am quite happy to oblige. A lovely example of this was on the third day in Beijing when I visited a portion of the Great Wall of China. I had climbed up one side of a mountain and sat looking across the valley to the other side. What looked like a white ribbon wound its way down the wall. I was fascinated and wondered what group would be so organised as to dress in white and stay in single file. Soon they were out of sight and I descended from the stairs as well. When quite by surprise , I found myself in the midst of a group of girls all dressed in white and quickly realised they were indeed the ribbon across the Great Wall.

ps. Length of Great Wall: “At its height the Ming’s Great Wall covered some 6300 km. Hundreds of side spurs and secondary defence walls protected further valleys, in total, an incredible 50,000 km of wall was built. (-from The Silk Roads by Paul Wilson). In a couple of days I will see the end of the Great Wall, ……km from Beijing.



Traveled kilometres from August 6th to August 25th, 2017, in China:

Beijing to Xian: 912 km

Xi’an to Lanzhou: 623 km

Lanzhou to Xiahe: 233 km

Xiahe to Tongren: 107 km

Tongren to Xinging: 167km

Xining to Llasa: 1919km

Llasa to Lanzhou: 2127 km

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Previously, in Xi’an


August 6 -11 Beijing ,  train to Xi’an (red line, see map)

August 11-14 Xi’an, train to Lanzhou ( orange line, see map)

August 14-15 Lanzhou, car to Xiahe driving to Yellow River , boat to  Bingling Si Caves

August 15-18 Xiahe, this is the region of the Tibetan Plateau, Gansu Province camp among nomadic people. (Green line, see map)


As much as I would like to post many photos, these highlights will have to suffice.  Previously in Xi’an, the days were spent walking the ancient city wall, built in 1370 AD still completely intact, surround the old city. It is over 12 kilometres around, with four enormous gate towers situated on each of the north, south, east and west sides. DSC_0275

Folk paper-cut art, as a world intangible cultural heritage, has nearly thousand years of history in China. The creator uses their hands to cut ordinary paper into different wonderful shapes of objects to express their special philosophy to communicate with the world. An afternoon spent with master paper-cutter Yang Fan  revealed  the patience, skill and creativity needed to design and produce paper-cut art.  Yang Fan born in 1981 in Shan city Province,  specialty is paper -cut series of Chairman Mao , Shaanxi opera faces, and village scenes.


At the Xingjang Museum in Urumchi, above paper cut was found in burial tombs dating back to 420-589 AD , unearthed at the Astana Cemetery in Turpan.

Xi’an is the site of the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Guarding the tomb is the Terra Cotta army of 7,000 life-sized figures. Peasants digging a well stumbled on the warriors in 1974.DSC_0325

“Inside Painting” is a unique and special painting art in China. Artists mainly use transparent material such as crystal and glass to make the bottle and then after drilling and polishing the bottle, they paint inside reversely with a special hook. Here the artist writes “Mae” in Chinese (far, top right-hand corner) my granddaughter’s name that means ‘plum blossom’ in Chinese.DSC_0406DSC_0402

The highlight of Xi’an was to attend a 3-hour performance (no intermission) by the Qin Opera, the traditional Chinese opera of northwest province of Shaanxi where it was called Qin (seeQinqiang Wikipedia). They performed The Orphan of Zhao, a tragedy based on revenge (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/.wiki/the orphan ofZhao). (Sorry I have no access to google to instant link information to a website).


Xi’an Opera House

The performance was a brilliant marriage between precise movement to chimes and drums, and facial expressions to movement of body and costume. The facial makeup is used to exaggerate special facial expressions of the actor or actress. The facial makeup is usually consistent with the design of the dresses worn and traditional style of the performance. The use of colour and design for facial makeup are determined by status,characteristics facial features and traits of the role of the drama. Each colour has its own symbolic meaning.


The Great Mosque of Xi’an was built in 742AD under the reign of Emporer Zuanzong Li Longi in Tang Dynasty  in Chinese architectural  style. It has survived centuries till today, being renovated in the Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing Dynasties.  This subject deserves its own post so I will postpone writing more until I can give its the attention it deserves, until then here is the minaret:


Traveling to Lanzhou by train through the centre of high mountains marks and important centre for Silk Road travelers; where the caravans from the West met the Yellow River which led to markets throughout eastern China. In ancient times Lanzhou served as a garrison town providing forces to protect the Middle Kingdom from enemies who might advance down the Hexi Corridor from the west. Lanzhou is hemmed in on two sides by high mountains with the Yellow River flowing through its centre.

From Lanzhou, a car then a boat on the Yellow River brings me to Bingling Si Caves,set of 183 Buddhist grottoes carved into the Yellow River Gorge in Gansu Province. Statues, clay sculptures are from the Wesern Qin Dynasty. The small twigs between the rocks are asking for old people to overcome the bending and buckling of old age. DSC_0689

After nearly 10 hours on the road, the next four days are spent on the Tibetan plateau with nomadic Tibetan camp out side the village of Xiahe in the region of Xiahe. Set in a mountain valley on the Tibetan Plateau, Xiahe was once an important city in the ancient kingdom of Tibet best known by Labrang Monastery in the centre of the town and sixth largest monastery.


Map courtesy of Norden Camp pamphlet.

Yesterday,  I took a 2 hour drive through the mountainous grasslands to Norlha Textile Workshop, founded by American/French, Kim Yeshi, who revived the techniques of weaving Yak wool. (See : http://www.norhla.com)

Here are some moments of daily life for a nomad in this area.


The camp is located in the Sang ke grasslands. It is a nomadic life, in the winters the herds are brought down to the valleys and in the summer, the herds and the families move to higher mountain  for grazing for yak, sheep, and goat herds. The Yak is an impressive animal and the people in this area use the Yak wool (the Yaks shed hair once a year and the hair is collected from the fields) to make their tents, bedding, blankets, clothing. Yak meat is tender and lean, it is prepared in a variety of ways: yak steak, yak sandwich, yak soup, yak bone marrow.  Yak yogurt,cheese,butter, milk, all are staples at every meal. Even yak pizza! Honey is the main sweetener, bees enjoy the yellow flowers which resemble marigold flowers.DSC_0885


Fields of Marigolds

Herding Yaks and collecting dung


Milking Yaks



Tent dot the summer residents in the high mountains where they find abundant grassland for their herds.


Mountain god pray flags, every summer placed at highest points on mountain ridges for blessings.

Tomorrow heading out to Tongren, still on the Tibetan plateau. Tongren is home to many minorities. I will have a chance to visit mosques, and Tibetans who follow the Buddhist traditions. Then onto Xining and a 22 hour train ride to Llasa that is a distance of 1956 kilometres. Xining is 2,300 meters above sea level but we will go through the Tangla Pass which is 5000 meters high. The train is pressurised with  with oxygen for passengers.

Probably from Lhasa, I will find Internet to post again.



(all rights reserved, copyright 2017. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)


Liu Yunjiang, the Cricket Man

Peering down into a black carved ceramic bowl as two crickets are shaken out of the chambers that house them, I watch how they land softly and crouch at the bottom of the ceramic ring. These are fighting crickets, bred and valuable to be entered into competition.Mr. Liu breeds crickets for fighting. I met him on the third day of my journey in Beijing.

A Chinese amusement as pets for their song but also crickets are selected to be for fighting. In 12th century the first record of cricket fights were recorded. Traditionally in Chinese cricket fighting males are only bred to females with three tails  as Mr. Liu conveys through a translator. The male and female have an ornate wedding bed, a miniature enamelled box open on both sides.

Mr. Liu  explains that cricket antenna’s are sensitive.Most cricket masters use blades of grass to touch the sensitive antenna that instigate a fight however Mr. Liu created a slender tool with 3 rat whiskers at the end  like a brush to give softer stroke to the antenna. In a cricket competition the loser is the cricket that firsts turns away or raises its wings. Another important tip ,for any would be cricket owner , is to never pick a cricket by hand as the legs are delicate and break easily.


Read: “Chirps and Cheers: China’s Crickets Clash, and Bets Are Made” – The New York Times.

Watch: “The General of Pets: The Incredulous True Story of Cricket Liu”

Tonight I am in Lanzhou a three hour train ride through the centre of a mountain range. The last two days were spent n Xi’an , the official start of the Silk Road. My introduction to this giant country has been one of jaw-dropping awe in the magnitude of development in infrastructure…roads, rail, underground…all public signage is in Chinese and English. Organisation of 1.4 billion people in this diverse topography is clearly a challenge and yet it is a society that seems to pull together. Noticeably 99 percent of the tourist are Chinese and this is significant when the Forbidden City , only , receives 30 to 40,000 people a day. The organisation of movement of people is outstanding. Roads are lined with flowers and though there are complaints of traffic, I did not experience traffic congestion as I have in Cairo, Lagos, and New York.  Riding trains, I have the opportunity to experience the vastness of agriculture lands, industrial areas, and mountain ranges and this country is impressive. The only downside is the Internet or lack there of. Google is banned, Yahoo does not work well and once accessed, the Internet is slow. Therefore, though I am having profound experiences, I may not be able to share them or to a much lesser degree. IMG_0005

Lanzhou is known for it place in the Silk Road where caravans from the West met the Yellow River that was used for moving themselves and exchanging goods. Today, I travel to the areas of Bingling Si Caves, accessible by boat to visit 183 Buddist grottos carved into the Yellow River canyon walls.

While I have some Internet access, here are some highlights from the last few days.


Great Wall of China

Internet is slowing…not sure how long I have…

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi)P1000757

Nĭ hăo China!

All Packed and Ready to Go 

One of my esteemed readers (thank you, Murtala) recently commented, “Perhaps this incredible adventure is the longest travel in your life.” That sentence has stayed with me over the past month, turning it over in my mind, considering a lifetime of travel. And yes, it is the longest, intentionally studied, travel that I have attempted. However, my unparalleled adventure was when I followed my soon to be husband, in 1971, to Beirut, Lebanon, and found myself, within a year, in West Africa. In those days, communication was by post or a telephone call booked at the central telephone exchange. Then, water was boiled and filtered in a ceramic container; now, water is purchased in plastic bottles and everywhere! Forty-seven years later, the world has changed, significantly….email, mobile phones, Facetime, credit cards, ATM. Travel arrangements are confirmed and tickets are purchased  over the Internet, no need to send a telex and wait days for a reply.

“One enters into a great sandy desert, where neither water nor grass is to be found. It is necessary to look at some high mountain in the distance, and seek for abandon bones, to know how to guide oneself and recognize the path to be followed. Hsuan-tsang, AD629

All packed and ready to go on the Silk Road. A term coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.  The Silk Road was never a single road but a vast network of trade routes stretching from Xian (Chang’an) to the Mediterranean. Travelers have written about trade routes as far back as the Han Dynasty around 100 BC but ancient mummies in the sands of the Taklamakan Desert indicate travelers to China some 2000 years ago. In the twenty-first century, the Silk Road, has a new name, The Belt and Road, a development strategy focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, the People’s Republic of China, the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the ocean-going Maritime Silk Road to Europe. The exchange of goods and thought perseveres.

19th century map of northern silk road. Names highlighted are cities on my journey.
-Central Asia, Kathleen Hopkirk.Eland Publishing 1993.


21st century Chinese railway map: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/railway-map.htm My trip is exclusively, China by rail.

The years living in Nigeria and Egypt instilled the desire for continuous learning, which encouraged, though late in life, this journey through China and Central Asia. Study of Egypt’s five thousand-year history and Nigeria’s considerable diversity of people and culture prepared me for China’s immensely long and incredibly complex history. Empires have risen and fallen but the vastness of the territory from China to Central Asia is daunting to comprehend. First stop, Beijing…to be continued.

Beijing to Tashkent: Following the Silk Road, the countdown



Here it is! My dream voyage finally in place. Seven years ago I said to a friend that I was too old to take this trip and I listened to myself list the many excuses as to why I should not and could not attempt such a trip. Then, early in 2016, things happened. Friends, my age, had heart attacks, strokes, cancer. Some survived, a few did not. My husband was critically ill and I had an accident requiring surgery. Then in October of that year, I had a sudden realization, maybe an epiphany, maybe not,  but the clarity to know that this was my chance to travel the Silk Road. If I was going to go, it was now. So I began. And today, I am one month away from boarding Egypt Air plane to Beijing. The trip will take two months.

My plan is to traverse China mainly by train. In the ‘stans’ most transportation will be by road.  My interests are many. Though I am well aware that this journey is late in the context of the ancient silk road still, I will see what has survived in the cultures and crafts and of course, experience the land that hundreds of thousands of people have travelled and have met their fate.

My plan is to share this experience through this blog. As many of you know, I have a strong dislike for social media but with the strict orders of some friends, I have added my name to Instagram. My goal is to write about subjects that interest me on my blog and post a picture or two on Instagram that connects to the blog. This seems rather cumbersome to me but I am told this is what I should do. If all fails, I will resort to keeping a diary, a scrapbook, and a picture album to be shared on this blog at a later date. (Update one week before travels: I have studied Instagram and have decided that it is not for me. It is not the platform that I seek to share my experiences so I have deleted my account.)

Much of my interest about the Silk Road stems from research, studying, photographing and writing about traditional crafts in Egypt and Nigeria. Indigo, silk, glassblowing, equestrian festivals, bread making are just a few of the subjects I will seek out. More over, I am fascinated with the movement of Islam through these countries and have many opportunities to visit Muslim communities throughout this trip. But too, I am well aware that while something is sought after another thing is found.

The original mission of this blog is to archive my work and share my deep connection to Egypt and Nigeria. Bear with me, as I change writings to a travelogue for the duration of this journey.  It will be experimental, no doubt a challenge, and most definitely, an opportunity.



A Ramadan Iftar to Remember

Enter in Peace and Safety

In celebration of Eid el-Fitr, the 3 day feast after 29 days of fasting, this post remembers a lovely Ramadan summer evening spent at the Demirdashiya el- Khalwatiya Sufi Order in Cairo. I do not profess to have knowledge about sufism. This post is intended to share an uplifting experience that was organized by Amir Abbas Helmi and the Friends of Manial Palace, an iftar (breaking of the fast) at the palace, mosque, and grounds of the Demirdashiya Sufi Order.

On the gate of the entrance, the plaque reads, Qasr (palace) Abdul Rahim Demerdash Pasha, donor of  Demerdash Charitable Hospital, for hospitalization of patients and the poor, 1928.

Iftar tables in the open portico next to the mosque that has cells for silent meditation during a sufi gathering,  on lower and upper floors.

The Khalwatiya, a Sufi brotherhood (tariqa), came to Egypt during the Mamluk period. The Demirdash family was of Circassian Mamluk ancestry, arriving in Egypt with the name Taymmourtash around 1517. Muhammad el-Demirdash el-Mahmudi founded a Sufi order —al- Tariqa el-Demirdashiya—soon after the Ottoman took control of Egypt. The responsibility of continuing the order passed down from father to son, and Sheikh Abdul Rahim Demirdash Pasha  assumed the mantle from his father, Mustafa, at the age of twenty-four. The Sufi order was made up of prominent scholars and merchants, which, along with his considerable wealth, gave Abdul Rahim influence in parliament, where he served, in various positions, for nearly twenty years. In 1928 , he donated his property on Queen Nazli Street (now Ramsis Street) to build a charity institution, the Demirdash Hospital, now a part of Ain Shams University Hospital.

Cells for individual sufis in the background. The key element of Demirdash Khalwatiya  philosophy  is silent meditation.

A peaceful but active order is dedicated to inclusion of all religions, gender, and peoples. All are welcome to visit.

For those who would like a complete discussion of the Demirdashiya al- Khalwatiya Order, read: Visionaries of Silence by Earle H. Waugh (AUC Press, 2007).