The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, March 8, 2010

High Altitude Mind Muddling

February marked the arrival of Charlie and Caths for 2 weeks of hardy adventuring over the Himalayas and also the time for us to say goodbye to Nepal. After being settled for 4 months we were ready to point ourselves homewards. But before we left Kathmandu we managed to squeeze in a Bollywood wedding feast with the VSN gang, a trek to watch the sun come up over the Langtang mountains and more Dal Bhat than one should eat in a year. The combination resulted in a week of pure joy and the shits. A suitable departure from a land that provided us with great highs and a few rather tedious lows.

We once asked an American women who had lived in Tibet for 6 years for her impressions. She paused, then sighed and said, 'If you are not confused about Tibet then you are not looking hard enough'. After keeping eyes very wide open for two guided trips across the Tibetan plateau we think its safe to say she's hit the nail on the head.

'We're off', Nick announces as we heave our worlds onto our backs and head across the Friendship Bridge back into China. This time, I said to myself, I am going to make a big effort to like China. I spoke too soon. Ten minutes later we were told by an officious PRC army man to wait 3 hours at the gates of immigration. We weren't allowed to go through without our guide. Our guide was missing. We collapsed resigned in a hungover heap on the fag and spit soaked floor to observe everything that swirled around us. Most entertaining was the gaggle of women in front of us who were shifting nervously, keeping one eye on the border officials and the other on their snotty nosed children. Before long we realised they were busy smuggling crates of fake Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky. The tiny women each strapped twelve one litre bottles around their waists before covering themselves in saris and waddling and clinking back into Nepal. All they got was a friendly pat on the back as they swayed past the Nepali border police.

'We're off', Nick announces for the second time as we meet up with our guide, Lopsang. The first hurdle, immigration, completed with a bit of relief, the second hurdle, icy roads winding above 500ft drops, would be tackled in the morning. In his new ridiculously oversized down jacket, Nick quickly took on the role of Gandalf, leading three slightly rum-fuddled hobbits into the forbidden kingdom. Cue an epic 7 days of mysticism, mountains and being bloody freezing.

The Western obsession with Tibet is not unfounded. On driving across the Tibetan plateau it is hard to believe that 2.7 million people manage to eke out a life on this high altitude desert. Rural Tibet's continuing medieval life only magnifies this. Clusters of traditional mud and wood houses litter waterless, frozen and brutally windswept plains. The crumbled outlines of forts at dramatic vantage points hint at both wars gone by and the sheer civilisation-eradicating power of the mountains. Young men still walk for empty miles lugging goods from one settlement to the next, kept warm by giant furhats and knee high felt boots. A horse and cart delivers the weeks' barley to a toothless, dusty miller. Children stare at you with hollow black eyes, not playfully or curiously, but as if looking at something from another dimension. As Everest looms in the distance and the road sweeps through dilapidated villages, you quickly become transported into another time.

But worlds collide so sharply here that you have to constantly adjust your views. Just as you've got accustomed to the old, up jumps the new. One night we bedded down in icy, shared rooms of a traditional guest house. 120km later we were driving past shopping malls, computer shops, and the concrete and glass fronted hulks lining the 6 lane streets of Shigatse. The small guest house was a magical world of hand painted bright walls and ceilings, traditionally dressed families and communal cooking around a dung fire. We even had a mute monk tucked up round the fire watching us intently. The new hotel in Shigatse was made up of a broken TV, dim lights and chill impersonality. But we had to admit that a warm shower and sit down toilet does beat squatting over the iced up poo gulley the previous night. That morning we huddled up for 2 hours outside the traditional guesthouse waiting for our minibus to start. A small, grubby girl spent the entire time throwing stones around a dusty track for entertainment. In Shigatse Chinese children took it in turns to whizz around the marble paved main square on an electric remote controlled car.

China's 'development' in Tibet is rooted in attracting Han Chinese to set up shop there. Not an easy feat, given that its one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. It is not surprising that money drives Chinese people to move here. Money and a promise of all the services they could ask for in the hinterland. Consequently towns in Tibet are made up of polar halves – the Tibetan old towns and the Chinese new. The Tibetan side is always a collection of traditional buildings, buzzing with human life, people praying, communal eating and children playing. Tibetan people were born there and continue to live there. This is naturally how communities exist and develop though time. On the Chinese side nothing is natural. Poorly built concrete is going up faster than residents are moving in. Towns immediately have a horribly depressing, ghost like feel. Gyantse, 175km from Shigatse, looks ancient and impressive from a distance. A huge fort rises above the town and a gathering of Tibetan houses huddle beneath an impressive monastery. But on arrival we stepped out of the minibus into piles of litter and human waste, which drifted hopelessly around town in the biting wind. A 10 year old boy with a deformed face grabbed Nick's trouser leg repeating relentlessly 'money, money, money'. As you turn to look down the road stray dogs are more populous than humans, a dead one lies in the middle of the pavement and some Tibetan children are using the gutter as a toilet. The Chinese have brought with them running water, toilets and rubbish disposal schemes. Maybe this town got left out, or maybe the Tibetans were never shown how to use them. Either way, the development of small villages into towns had happened too quickly.

And all this confusion is even before you've stepped into a 1400 year old monastery. We visited five on our tour and not once did I get bored of the sensory overload of these places. Shaven headed monks float through whitewashed, cobbled streets in long maroon gowns. Bannisters and walls are rubbed smooth by the passage of pilgrims for hundreds of years. The sounds of chanting pilgrims, banging drums and the smells of incense fill the air. Queues of people from all over Tibet stand patiently before entering the chapels and temples and lay down gifts to the gods. Giant gold and bronze statues flicker in the soft light from yak butter lamps. Turquoise and coral adorn the belts that keep felt or fur cloaks around old pilgrims' bony bodies. 
All walks of Tibetans travel for miles to pray at these holy places. But it's no ordinary prayer as they prostrate themselves along roads, pavements, public squares and dusty alley ways. Reaching up to the sky and then falling in a wave motion right down to the floor, over and over again, for hours, days, weeks. People who can barely walk shuffle too and from the floor in arthritic pain, while toddlers copy them unaware of what or why they are doing it. By far the most harrowing sites in Tibet are where this ancient religious world collides with the oppression of the Chinese. Hobbling pilgrims get roughly searched by policemen before being allowed to worship their gods. In Lhasa the pilgrims share the holiest prayer circuit in Tibet, The Barhkor, with gun toting PRC army men. Whilst pilgrims drag themselves clockwise around the tiny cobbled streets, their moment of walking with god, 12 army men stomp around anti-clockwise, their comrades watching menacingly from the surrounding rooftops. But worst still, some circuits are entirely built over by the Chinese, leaving pilgrims to risk their lives prostrating across busy traffic intersections. One of the greatest displays of subservience we have witnessed anywhere in the world. If not for the presence of the communist aggressor maybe we would all be horrified by the fact people put themselves through so much for a religion they know so little about.

Tibet's huge monasteries used to be the biggest in the world, housing up to 10,000 monks. In 50 years this number has dwindled to around 500. Understandably, there is not much attraction for monks to study in a land where all the religious leaders have disappeared and so most have fled to join the other 100,000 or so Tibetan exiles in India or Nepal. To give you an idea of the Chinese control of the religion, the 2nd most holy lama behind the Dalai Lama is the Panchen Lama. He is chosen by consulting a holy lake which gives you the direction of the village he is in as well as clues such as the colour of the door, the number of cattle the family own including their markings. However, after the death of the 9th Panchen Lama, Beijing decided they didn't like the new one chosen in Tibet so they found their own who now lives in Beijing. Our guide explained that nobody now knows where the Tibetan lama is. However, having already spent 5 months in jail as a political prisoner he was reluctant to go into too much detail. Some of the elements of China's work here makes you shudder. All houses are given a Chinese flag to fly above their door, if they don't they are put on the list of political troublemakers. At the time of the PRCs 60th Anniversary soldiers outnumbered Tibetans 8 to 1 in Lhasa.You can only learn Tibetan up to 10years old in school, giving the language little hope of survival. The Potala Palace, once political and spiritual heart of Tibet, is now a museum. Whilst politely acknowledging the existence of every Dalai Lama since the 6th Century, it quietly ignores the one that is still living, the one that fled for fear of being kidnapped over 40 years ago. Monks that work at the Potala palace are no longer allowed to be called monks, they are simply workers. Tibetan's have no access to information about their once spiritual leader but still they bow down to his old thrones at the Potala Palace and all the monasteries. A nation of subservient people, be it to the Dalai Lama, invading Mongolians throughout history, greedy Tibetan landlords or the Chinese government. These people have been bowing for as long as they can remember.

We left Tibet with more questions than answers. How much fresh fruit and veg, running water, electricity, roadways, infrastructure and investment does it take to justify crushing an ancient culture? What would Tibetan's do with themselves if they were 'free'? Is the Dalai Lama a massive coward for running away from his nation? What is China so paranoid about?

All this confusion was only heightened by leaving Lhasa to spend 50 hours on a train heading East to the swanky, cosmopolitan, successful city of Shanghai. The same country, the same time zone and the same government but world's apart. But Nick will fill you in with more on living it up with a mate Shawry in Shangers. For now its time to pack – in 12 hours time we'll be boarding a train to Irkutsk in Russia to throw ourselves across a hopefully very frozen Lake Baikal!

No comments: