The African Safari. For many it’s the pinnacle of a lifetime’s worth of wanderlust, wrought in the childhood dreams of far away places and exotic animals. Like a magnet, the pervasive pull of the cradle of life draws people from around the world to its savannahs teaming with life and its breathtakingly endless African skies.

While each of our dreams about African varies from person to person, I would guess that the spirit of all our dreams remains the same: the opportunity to encounter some the rarest, most beautiful and dangerous animals in the world, the Big 5. But the safari promises not just an encounter, for any of us could get that at our local zoo, but an encounter with the Big 5 on the animals’ terms, in their habitat, in their home.

But as I travelled across that mighty continent, I realized that there was a catch, one that put a damper on my entire experience: Safaris can’t always deliver on their promises.

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Its worn yellowish façade looked faded and weather-beaten from years of abuse at the hands of the harsh Tibetan elements. Juxtaposed to the polished ivory-white bone of its much younger counterparts, the bowl seemed to exude a sort of primeval energy, as if thousands of years of Tibetan history were contained within its brittle exterior.

But did I dare break the most sacred of western taboos, purchasing something made of human bone? Would such an act call forth the ire of the gods, cursing me for dishonouring a person’s remains, or would it, as thought in Tibetan culture, allow the person to continue to live on through use in religious rites and art?

Whatever the consequences, in that moment they were the farthest thing from my mind, as my only worry was that the dried and brittle bone would be too delicate to survive the rest of my trip through Tibet, let alone the arduous return flight home. But pushing away such questions, I began something I never would have dreamed of doing…haggling over a human skull.

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For those perhaps seeking an ardent defence for your right to put up inflatable Christmas decorations (can we even call them decorations?) on your lawn, or festooning thousands of gaudy icicle lights from your roof, or otherwise uglying up the holidays with your over-the-top ornaments, I’m sorry to say, you won’t find it here.

That being said, nor will you find here an impassioned case for the traditional religious definition of Christmas, one that decries the consumer driven focus on Santa Claus instead of remembering the birth of Jesus Christ, mourning the fact that the  true meaning of Christmas may very well be lost forever.

Instead this post is a simple counterpoint to a holiday themed issue I raised last year, the issue of the changing language of Christmas; where it’s taking us, and whether or not we should be worried about it.

While I concluded last year that Christmas was, for better or worse, no longer a religious holiday, but instead a generic cultural holiday, as many diverse minorities choose to celebrate it in their own unique ways, I do believe that our culture has taken its rejection of the original roots of Christmas just a little too far.

In fact, one might go as far as to say that the language in both the public and private spheres this holiday is an example of cultural and religious tolerance run amuck, a veritable mine field of talking points that one should avoid lest they have some sort of holiday faux pas blow up in their faces.

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The wind rushed down the barren valley, tearing through my layers of clothes, sending a chill through the very core of my body. I had foolishly climbed the exposed eastern slope of the barren Rongbuk valley, mesmerized by the subtle dance of a veritable field of green prayer flags flying in the wind. It was there, despite the bone chilling cold, that I took some time to reflect on my epic journey.

Looking down on the valley below, at the ancient and weather-beaten Buddhist Rongbuk monastery, I was amazed that it was from this exact spot that mountaineers, adventurers and thrill seekers the world over officially began the dangerous ascent up the daunting North Face of the tallest mountain the world, the one locals call Qomolangma, Holy Mother…the one we know as Everest.

Finding a spot amongst the flags, I couldn’t help but wonder what feelings of amazement, wonder, and relief that the sight of this monastery must have evoked in those early adventurers, for until recently Everest was considered to be so remote, so dangerous, and so difficult to reach that it may as well have been on another planet. But alas, for wanna-be adventurers like me, those days were long past.

In the days before 4×4 Landcruisers, traversing the worn and bumpy dirt track was done on foot, a journey that for one of my travelling companions who had visited Everest some twenty-five years earlier, took the better part of a week. Despite the fact that I was actually glad to find a 4×4 Landcruiser to drive me to the monastery, as my companion told his story of how things used to be, I felt that something was missing from my experience.

But then it hit me, the attraction of such remote natural wonders like Everest is not simply in seeing the tallest mountain or visiting the ancient Rongbuk monastery, but in the journey itself.

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A bolt of lightning tore through the tumultuous Tibetan sky, momentarily illuminating the dirt track in front of our Landcruiser. The driver glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror, understanding fully that an uncomfortably bumpy dirt track would turn into an impassable quagmire if the storm managed to overtake us.

But amidst that darkening scene the sky in front of us told a completely different story, as dark browns mixed with rich reds and vibrant yellows to form one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen. Then, after just a moment it was all gone and our 4×4 was once again plunged into total darkness. We were racing across the high Tibetan plateau, 5000 meters above sea level, in the middle of nowhere, and our journey to the immensely spiritual Mt. Kailash had barely begun.

Little did I know when I left the sleepy little Tibetan town of Lhatse earlier that day that it would be the last time I saw a paved road for the next four or five days. While I knew that completing a three-day high-elevation hike around Kailash, one of the most religiously significant mountains in all Asia, would take sacrifice, I had little notion the sacrifices would begin days before I actually laid my eyes on the mountain itself.

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Mr. Lee Meet KFC

The temperature outside was an unfathomable 3461 degrees Celsius, or at least that’s what the information screen mounted at the end of my train car told me. Of course, minutes earlier the display had read -1340 degrees C, so either I was on the surface of Mercury or the device wasn’t to be trusted.

Regardless, the train was a welcome respite from the blazing heat I had experienced the preceding days as I had wandered the surprisingly Western looking streets of Beijing.

I had been in China for only three (3) days and while I quickly had become adept at dodging the ridiculously overpriced tea girls wandering the streets, I had yet to see anything that I would consider distinctly Chinese, or better yet, distinctly communist.

While my experience in rural China would be much different, what I discovered in the metropolitan hubs was nothing like what I had expected: Cultural seclusion had morphed into uncritical cultural adoption, a feeling of communist camaraderie had turned into egotistical self-interest, and the self-titled beacon of communism in the world had, as a matter of fact, become quite capitalistic.

In fact, as one particularly insightful guide had quipped during a tour of the Forbidden City, “the Forbidden City,” indeed much of China, I discovered, “…not so forbidden anymore.”

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Since the People’s Republic of China entered into Tibet over 60 years ago, the communist country has faced one particular lingering issue, one that it simply can’t get control of. You see, the problem for China since its “liberation” of Tibet is that the picturesque Land of Snow nestled amongst the towering Himalayan mountains has been, unfortunately for the Chinese government, filled with Tibetans.

For years the Chinese government has tried everything it can think of to placate the Tibetan masses. They’ve tried oppressing them, killing them, humiliating them, and forcing their politico-spiritual leaders into exile, but strangely none of those tried and true methods of winning the hearts and minds of a conquered peoples has seemed to work.

However, in recent years the Chinese government has instituted a different solution to the Tibetan question, an approach that is deviously simple and devastatingly effective…they’re breeding them out.

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