There are places we travel to in our minds wishing with all our might that one day we will visit this dream destination. There are lands we travel to where we recall every sight, sound, smell, and even the voices spoken in languages unknown to us. There are places we visit that forever remain stuck in our souls and where good karma follows us home. Tibet is that place for me.

It is a hard journey to get there and it is hard to travel once there, especially when visiting in the dead of winter. We took two flights totaling more than 18 hours, but that was nothing compared to the altitude sickness that smacked us down. The sickness arrived before our luggage, visiting within minutes of landing in Lhasa, the highest capital city in the world, with an elevation of 11,974 feet. The younger members of our group were brought to their knees. Headaches, nausea, sweats, and shortness of breath followed us everywhere. Luckily, being a tough old broad, I adjusted rather quickly except for the invisible elephant that sat crushing my chest in the middle of the night for the first 72 hours. Shivering in our freezing hotel room, I would quell my panic by meditating in an attempt to slow my breathing as I tried to gulp air like a fish out of water.

The main purpose of our trip was to visit the North Base Camp on Mt. Everest. It was Dave’s dream, which soon became my own. But first we had to acclimate, so we spent our first days in and around Lhasa.

Imagine entering a check-point and then suddenly rounding a corner and being swept away into a mass of religious pilgrims, forever circling clockwise around a large outdoor square surrounding what we later learned was Jokhang Temple. There were colorful prayer wheels whirling, women in vibrant traditional clothing, canes of the ancients clacking on the stones, babies crying, and old men chanting as we were pulled into something deeper than ourselves. Imagine smelling the pungent smoke of the incense seeping like coal dust into your pores and making its way into your soul.

At one point I nearly tripped over a pilgrim who was two years into his religious journey and only 1,000 feet away from his goal of achieving a better future for himself and his family; this accomplished by devoting himself and his life for those years to the Buddha’s teachings. I watched as his scraped and dirty hands first clasp together at his forehead (to think of the teachings of the Buddha), then at his mouth (to listen/speak of the teachings of the Buddha), and then his hands moving to his heart (to feel the love and compassion of the Buddha). Then, with morbid fascination, I watched the man as he soared like a tightly bound eagle just a few meager feet forward and the crashes prostrate on the ground. The only thing moving were his charcoal black feet, which twitched in anticipation of rising once more so that he may move ahead, only as far as his body length to start the entire process over, day after day, week after week, year after year, and mile after mile. Truly, if he can show this sort of dedication, I can surely see that my slight “suffering” is nothing compared to his. Suddenly, this cold ache I have been feeling since I arrived has disappeared and I have never felt quite so alive and warm.

While in Lhasa, we visited artists whose tiny shops house pigments so bright they are blinding and gold- flecked paint used to color the Buddha shines brightly in the sun. We visited Portala Palace, a vast complex that used to house thousands of monks, but with the exile of the Dalai Lama by the Chinese government, few monks, remain. We saw ancient carved wood blocks of religious scrolls several thousand years old and colorful sand mandalas painstakingly created by the monks knowing all the while that they will eventually be destroyed by a future Lama signifying the end of time as the Tibetans know it. We watched children, their noses painted black by the monks to protect their health in a land where children still die young. And we saw yak eat yak, consumed yak cheese (not a favorite), and drank yak tea (just plain gross). But perhaps the most interesting thing we saw was the monk debate at Sera Monastery. It was loud and intense as groups of red-robed monks questioned one another, kicking their legs and slapping their hands – palms down when the answer needed more thought or elaboration and palms up when they were going down the correct path. It was truly a site to behold.

Soon our time in Lhasa came to an end and once again we packed into government tourist vans equipped with cameras and microphones that record and “see” everything we say and do. We became collectively passive in hopes that our guides would not face repercussions because of our words or actions. A woman from Australia explained that native Tibetans are arrested every day for protesting the occupation by the Chinese. They are outnumbered, have no weapons, and as more and more Chinese are relocated there, the native numbers dwindle. But they also don’t fight back because they believe that due to the indiscretions of a past Dalai Lama, that their nation is paying the price for those actions that occurred centuries ago. Karmic law is evident to them as it is being played out now, and so the Tibetans wait, believing that things may change or not, but that it is their duty to pay the price of those that came before them.

We also got used to the frequent checkpoints as we climbed snowless mountains in a land once famed for its snow-capped ranges. Anyone who doesn’t believe in global warming needs to visit Tibet, where the mountains now resemble the arid rock-filled ranges of Nevada. Ancient glaciers are almost gone, and I was shocked to find so little snow on Mt. Everest when we finally arrived.

The night before we ventured to the Mt. Everest base camp, we went to a scenic location an hour away in order to capture this vast mountain at sunset. It was a rare, cloudless evening, and Everest shone with the last rays of the sun swarming upon it, casting a golden light upon her remaining snow. My mouth dropped slack in awe and prayer flags flapped in the breeze, sending out the chanting of the earth. As the sound carried itself outward, the suffering of the earth and her people were attempting to be reduced with each flutter.

Unfortunately, sleep eluded us as we huddled in our long johns, jeans, sweaters, parkas, and blankets as there was no heat or running water in our room at this late date in the tourist season. There isn’t a word in the English language for this type of bone-encasing cold. We ate a steamy breakfast of yak soup and watched as the sun rose over the Himalayas before setting out for Everest.

After hours of switch-back narrow roads, we arrived at the path that serves as the entrance to the base camp. We walked along at 17,060 feet with oxygen that refused to feed our bodies, which suddenly slowed and seem suspended in time. The fierce wind threw herself upon us as steady footing became elusive. Never have I felt a wind so strong and unrelenting. Then we climbed the final small hill that marked the arrival at the camp, only to find Mt. Everest shrouded by dense clouds and the ever-present prayer flags being ripped by the wind as if laughing at the irony of it all.

We had come all that way only to be denied Everest in all her glory. Yet, the beauty of Tibet’s people and culture seemed to make up for that as we stood on the mountain, for there is something about Tibet that calls out to your heart and stirs even the most callous amongst us. Even if you cannot see Mt. Everest or hear the chanting that envelops this amazing nation, somehow you take it all back home with you in your soul.