The Wall


Mutianyu, China – April 2016

When viewed from above, it doesn’t seem so intimidating. A ribbon draped over the landscape, as if carelessly tossed aside.

The young traveler peers out of the tower window. We have come to the end of the line for this section. The wall beyond is crumbling and overgrown. “It would be easy to just jump onto it.” He turns to me. “What do you think would happen?”

I motion towards the window. A police officer has appeared. “That might answer your question.”


We descend and retrace our steps, pausing to take photos. Other tourists appear, colorful dots in motion. We outran them to the far tower. Now, it’s careful steps down the steep stairways. This is the first hike of the year. My legs are rubbery.  He scurries ahead, but I’m not far behind.

A sigh of dejection. “I was hoping there would be no tourists,” he says.

“Actually, I thought there’d be a lot more. Not as bad as the Badaling section, but I think we’ve been lucky. Anyway, they add some perspective to photos.” Post-adventure serenity has taken hold. I don’t have the motivation to muster up any disappointment. This hike on the Wall is a chillout session.

One day ago, we were in North Korea. It’s hard to come down from that kind of high when you’re young and famished. But I am nearly twice his age and weary. Satiated. His quest for adventure has just begun. He reminds me of myself at that age. “I like war zones,” he declared one evening at dinner. “I want my death to define my life.” There were no looks of shock or eyerolls from anyone. We were, after all, in North Korea.

I turned to him with a wistful smile. Remember the days when you searched for a place to mirror the turbulence inside? A familiar, comfortable place. “May you get the shit scared out of you and live to tell the tales, son.”

A few narrow escapes were enough to disperse my angst. It’s not so much death that scares me, but what I’d have to live with.

The voyage to North Korea required the demolition of the wall that I had constructed over a lifetime. Every sensation was crucial. My mind is blown, but my circuits are fried. Time to retreat. Not behind a barrier, but into a shelter. The bricks are replaced, one by one, until I become impervious to bombardment again.


“Look,” I point towards the mountains in the distance. Ancient watchtowers and torn threads of stone. Unrestored, lesser sections of the Great Wall.

“It would be so cool to go out there,” he says.

I smile. “Yes, it would.”


The stream of tourists thickens as we approach the cable car station. I point at one group’s selfie stick and make a thumbs up. “Selfie stick, yeah!” They ham it up for me.

Tower to tower. Ascend. Descend. Ascend. A man in costume appears. He sits on the steps. Immobile. Oblivious or indifferent to the sound of our cameras.


Over the bend and through the tower.  Two familiar faces appear, moving in our direction. More members of our North Korea tour group. A father and son from Canada. Earlier, we ran into another member of our group on the shuttle bus from the main entrance. He had already bought his round trip cable car ticket and we had our ski lift/toboggan tickets. We would arrive at different parts of the wall. Besides, he had a taxi waiting and couldn’t linger. We marveled at the synchronicity of our meeting and then went our separate ways.

The father and son took an organized tour, something I would have done if I had been alone. The young traveler and I decided to meet up at six o’clock and take a local bus, so we could get out here before most of the other tourists. There is something comforting about being amongst local people. Crammed in, unable to fully communicate, but somehow more at peace than I would be with other foreign tourists.

We speak of North Korea. Faces flush. Eyes glow with the tranquil intensity that only adventure can bring. The Zen of discovery. We are all pleased with our tour company.

“They’re doing a tour to Afghanistan,” the son says.

“I saw that.” My heart leaps. “They keep the exact itinerary secret for security reasons.”

We agree how awesome it sounds. How cool it would be if a group of us went on the same tour. Then it hits me: at long last, I have found my tribe. But why does this realization fill me with such sadness?

Now, it’s my turn to sigh. “Afghanistan. I can’t do that to my husband.”

After a long moment, the men nod in understanding.

And now, there is nothing more to say. They must get back in time for lunch. We have a wall to climb. Handshakes and farewells. See you around. With our preference for offbeat travel, it’s possible our paths will cross again one day.

The young traveler and I march on. The wall rises before us in one dramatic ascent to the final watchtower. It is wild beyond. At your own risk.

I look at him and nod, “Go.” He leaps over the wall in one swift motion, bounds up the steps and vanishes.


Pyongyang Underground


Pyongyang, North Korea – April 2016

Some have speculated that the Pyongyang Metro is an elaborate hoax. The three stations that tourists are allowed to visit are the only stations that exist.* All of the commuters are actors. Everything about North Korea is an illusion, they say. You can’t trust anything you see.

It is a long, steep descent. As we glide down the softly lit escalator, an ardent female voice chirps a patriotic anthem. Commuters drift by on their way up. They stare ahead, faces devoid of expression. The few who turn to gaze as we glide into the depths respond with icy glints of contempt or flickers of curiosity.

We chatter. There is so much to talk about, so many things we want to know. We are still decked out in our Palace of the Sun finery. Most of the guys are wearing suits and DPRK pins. I’m wearing a colorful new skirt that swirls when I spin around. As the platform comes into view, a shiny new train pulls into the station.


Our Western guide claps his hands. “Cool! We get to ride one of the new prototype trains. I haven’t ridden one yet.”

The train hesitates as we take photos of the Kim Il-Sung mural. A warning bell sounds. We hop on. The doors slide shut. The passengers blink and shift in their seats, a gradual awakening from the trance of uniformity. The tour group spreads out. Some just ride, some take photos. We beam at each other. Why are we so exhilarated? It’s just a metro ride, for crying out loud. A schoolgirl gets up and motions me to take her seat. I shake my head. She insists, so I sit down.


Another member of our group sits across from me. The man next to him narrows his eyes at me. I keep my face neutral. No condescension. No pity. No desperate camaraderie. Smiles can backfire, make things worse. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his expression soften. When I look directly at him, the sides of his mouth straighten. I look away and look back at him a few times. His eyes light up and a slight grin appears. In spite of himself. He points at my camera and shakes his head. I nod. Okay. But I break my own rule of not taking photos of people without their consent. A quick flick of the wrist and the deed is done. The result is priceless.


Most of our group of twenty-four are men. There are two couples. Only two of us are solo women. Except for three, all of the men are young enough to be my sons. I find myself wistful in their presence. They are so inquisitive about this mysterious place. So respectful of the culture and of the older members of our group. Their parents deserve to be proud.**


The train halts. We spill out of the carriage. Kim Jong Il towers over the staircase. Candy-colored chandeliers illuminate delicate cityscape murals. Those of us with cameras scurry around. So many images, so little time.


The guides herd us towards the next train, a sturdy retro type. We embark at the back of the carriage. The stench of urine hits us full force as we step inside. Some of us look at each other and stifle grins. The Korean guides are embarrassed. They beckon us towards the front.

“Wow, they sure go to great lengths to fool tourists,” I whisper to one of my companions. He nods, eyes shining.


We weave in and out of the passengers. Again the slow reaction to our arrival. The initial coldness. I pause in the middle of the aisle. Two middle-aged ladies sit on the right. Two higher ranking military men sit on the left. Colonels, possibly. The force of their glares makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I grasp the bar above me and stare straight ahead, face neutral again. Just be with them. Just be.


The departed Leaders bestow their benevolent smiles upon the passengers. I step forward and peer through the window to the next carriage. The passengers stand motionless, phantoms lost in reverie. A slight commotion to the right. Some of the group have lined up to take photos of a pigtailed little girl. She giggles and squirms on her grandmother’s lap. Her grandparents are delighted at the attention. They give me an expectant look. I hesitate. She is adorable, but the ruckus around her makes me cringe. I smile at them, but I cannot bring myself to aim my camera her way. I retreat to my original place.

When I look at the military men, they smile at me in unison. Deep, sincere smiles. A soft radiance wells up inside, spreads through me, infusing my atoms.

We stop, but do not alight. People file off. People file on. An elderly woman takes a seat next to the military men. She notices me, starts to rise, and offers her seat. Sparkling black eyes. Toothless smile. Every line in her face glows. I shake my head. No way. The military men laugh. She laughs. Warmth emanates from the middle-aged women to my right. For this one precious moment we share a bond of simple happiness. It doesn’t get any realer than this.


Then it is time to leave. Waves of farewell. The doors slide shut and the train vanishes into the dark tunnel. We ascend, breathless. The chatter resumes.

“They’re just people going about their lives.”

“No one will ever believe us.”

“We may as well have witnessed an alien invasion.”

We look at each other and laugh.

It was just a metro ride, for crying out loud.


*There are now Pyongyang metro photography tours which visit all sixteen stations.

**On the last evening of the trip, I mentioned to one of the young men how pleased I was that they were so cool to me, since I was old enough to be their mother. He told me, “You would be the coolest mom!” I was stunned speechless for a few seconds. “Now, that’s something I’ve never heard,” I replied. “If anyone says anything about it, they say it’s a good thing I never had kids.” He was horrified that anyone would say such a thing, but I assured him it was okay. I am used to being scorned by the Motherhood. I’ll never forget his words. So many unforgettable little things, extraordinary in their simplicity, happened during this journey.

The Freedom of Cynicism


Beijing, China – April 2016

Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum. I remember the words, but I’ve forgotten what they mean. They are still the first words that arise when my anxiety goes haywire. I would have needed them if I had chosen to visit the Forbidden City or any of the other so-called must-sees of Beijing. Instead, I strolled down the hutongs that surround my hotel. Narrow alleys crammed full of tiny shops and restaurants. Fish tanks and crates full of dead frogs. The thick aroma of raw meat and decomposing vegetables. Barely another foreigner in sight.

I emerged onto a busy street. The smell of incense took over. Shiny gold Buddhas and vibrant prayer flags appeared in the shop windows. I arrived here, at the Yonghe Lamasery, a few minutes after it had opened. At the first smoking urn, I lit three sticks of incense – the recommended offering – and stuck them amid the others. The locals raised their sticks to their foreheads and bowed. And the words came back to me.


There once was a time when I was captivated by Tibet and Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism. I was drawn to the distance, the aloofness. It was a faith of high places. I went to see the monks when they passed through Grand Rapids, Michigan. The guttural chants and clashing cymbals were more jarring than soothing. The deep, gusty horns stirred the stillness, and I heard the voice of the vast Himalayan wind. I read and reread Sogyal Rinpoche’s classic, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, until it fell apart. Then I bought a new copy. I’ve forgotten what happens during the bardos, the stages of dissolution that the soul goes through after death and before reincarnation. The different Buddhas and what they stand for have faded away. And yet, the concept of impermanence is so deeply rooted in my consciousness that it influences everything in my life.


I feel a sudden urge to clasp the incense in my folded hands, raise them to my forehead, and bow. Instead, I close my eyes and breathe in the thick smoke. It is not my culture. I wander into the various halls. The Buddhas gleam in the smoky darkness. At each one, I pause and reflect.


In June 1998, I took a road trip from Grand Rapids to Washington D.C. with my littlest sister and a work colleague who had invited herself along. The Tibetan Freedom Concert was a two-day festival to benefit the Free Tibet movement. The first day, we crammed ourselves in amongst 60,000 others. We had managed to wriggle our way almost to the front by the time Sonic Youth took the stage. The sun blazed down, burning my sister’s round face to a crisp. The MTV cameras soared overhead for crowd shots. We were briefly sucked into a mosh pit during Radiohead. A few minutes of adrenaline ensued and then we were spit back out.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the air began to crackle. The crowd had thinned and we had moved all the way up to the metal fence in front of the stage. Herbie Hancock had just taken the stage. I turned to look behind me, at the sky above the stadium. A dark cloud crept into view. It was the color of a fading bruise. Purple-black with a fluorescent yellow-green tinge. I felt an atavistic dread.

I turned to my companions. “Uh, guys. I don’t think we should be holding on to anything metal right now.”

They turned to look. The cloud covered half of the stadium. We stepped back into the crowd just as a huge clap of thunder shattered the air.

My colleague’s eyes widened. “Holy shit, it struck inside.”

Herbie Hancock and his band fled backstage. The concert floor cleared as people took refuge from the storm in the inner halls of the stadium. The rest of the concert was canceled. One person had been struck by lightning and several others injured.

The next day we went back for more: Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Pulp, Dave Matthews. Those are the ones that I remember. The saffron and orange-robed monks lined up across the stage. Dignified and stoic. A drunken meathead next to us bellowed, “Get off the stage! Guns n’ Roses! Woohooo!” That was when we decided to move up to the seats.


The tour busses have arrived. I drift away from the main halls, into the dark, quiet corners where the faithful pray to more obscure entities. A monk sits in a chair next to a window, the pages of his book illuminated by a ray of sunlight.

Before we returned to Grand Rapids, we went to the Free Tibet rally at the Capitol building. I was not just someone who came for the music. I was the real deal. And yet, if you had asked me for specifics, I could have only parroted the vague facts that I had memorized.

We listened as various politicians and activists spoke to the large crowd. You can make a difference! Together we can change the world! And the chants: What do you want? Free Tibet! When do you want it? Now! David Crosby, Perry Farrell, and R.E.M did acoustic performances. My colleague swooned when Richard Gere showed up. The final prayer was delivered by Sogyal Rinpoche.


I look back at my naïve younger self with embarrassment and affection. I wanted so much to seen as a Good Person. A Good Citizen of the World. Did I really trust those who shield themselves behind podiums and platitudes? At least there was no preaching at family gatherings. My activism consisted of a Free Tibet sticker on my truck and the pilgrimage to the concert. My innate aversion to collectives kept me from joining any activist groups.

It’s been eighteen years. I have lowered my gaze back to the Earth and drawn the perimeter of my concern near. I now focus on that which I can experience for myself. Tibet fell off my travel radar. The concerts fizzled out. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, the main organizer, passed away in 2012. The news saddened me, because I got the feeling that he was a gentle, sincere person. My second copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying disappeared. I think I might have given it away. Numerous allegations of sexual abuse have been brought against Sogyal Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama has yet to criticize him. Years ago, I would have been crestfallen, but now such revelations only provoke a snort and an eye-roll. My instinctive wariness of gurus is, once again, validated.

At a hall near the entrance, a woman turns a prayer wheel, dispelling negative karma. When she moves on, I step forward. The grooves pirouette under my fingers. Holy braille. A smile comes to my face. Some may call me cynical, but I’m much more content now that I’ve released myself from the obligation of trying to change the world, of being a Good Person. I watch the ponderous rotation for a few seconds before turning away. Let the world go on spinning without me.