Tashi Delek from Lhasa, The Holy City, at the heart of the Rooftop of the World! A wild & wacky week of travel covering maybe 2000 miles, countless mountain passes, and some of the planet’s most beautiful terrain brought me here over a week ago.
My route to Lhasa took me from the NW reaches of Yunnan north thru areas which are officially closed to foreigners by the oppressive Communist imperialists which have occupied Tibet for the past 53 years. In addition to forbidding access to large areas of the country, China imposes huge entry fees on every foreign visitor. Whether by land or by air, the trip will cost over $200. Going freelance I hitched, bussed and walked into Tibet for 161 Yuan, less than $20. Although subverting the Chinese authority & avoiding loathsome backtracking were major incentives for attempting this clandestine path, I can assure you that the $180+ savings is no small token for a budget traveler like myself.
But it was the unparalleled Himalayan scenery which really made the journey unforgettable. After the initial euphoria of making it safely to Tibet and the joys of once again speaking English subsided, I’ve begun to take in some of the many attractions of this famed and revered land. Many of these places own the title of “the highest on Earth” which will henceforth be truncated to “THOE”.
Day 1: Break on through (to the other side)
Crossing into Tibetan land wasn’t nearly as daunting as I’d imagined it to be. A public bus agreed to take me from a sleepy town on the border after we’d stopped for lunch. I’d only been able to book the ticket in China to the midpoint lunch stop, but the driver was happy to make some extra cash. He even let me eat for free at the exalted “captain’s” table. My 1st official Tibetan experience in the town of Yanjing was one of my favorite. The dusty main dirt road thru town was flanked with shop fronts resembling saloons casting me in an Asian version of an old John Ford film. When I was spotted by the local public security bureau (PSB), Chinese for “sheriff”, he must have taken me for a harmless drifter because I never got the “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” speech. Was invited by local monks to stay at the monastery high above and across the Mekong form the town bus regrettably declined in favor of getting further along my path.
Day 2: The Odd Couple
Quickly procured a ride the following morning with a small, friendly and remarkably quiet Han Chinese driver who was accompanied by a tempermental Samoan-looking Tibetan hulk. They unfortunately switched seats when we arrived at the 1st of what would be several multi-hour road blocks I endured over my 6-day trip. What we were told would be just over 2 hours lapsed into 4 1/2 hours stuck on a hillside adjacent to nowhere. The Chinese aren’t inclined to keep a lane open for alternating traffic passage when they repair roads. In this case they were actually destroying a perfectly good thoroughfare to build a massive bridge to avoid a small canyon. The resulting drive-time savings of this asinine project might be 8 minutes. Once freed from the hot, dry purgatory the new driver sped wildly along the serpentine terrain, imperiling livestock and village children alike, all the while smoking more than damp firewood. But hey, they got me to the junction from where Lhasa was nothing but west (&up & down & up….)
You keep on knockin’ but you can’t come in
Once in the town of Markham, a town renowned for its rejection of aspiring sneaky foreigners, I managed to keep a low profile and procure a nice room for 20Y. I dropped off a bag and asked for a key despite the annoying tendency in China to keep any and all room keys in the hands of hotel employees, not guests. When refused I locked the door & followed the woman to do the paperwork. But wait! She suddenly looks pale and stares at me incredulously as if I wasn’t meant to close the door. She tried the key to no avail. A brilliant Chinese deadbolt system makes it painfully easy to permanently lock a door, in this case with some of my most valuable possessions inside.
After a standoff during which we both accused the other of incompetence (“We don’t have such hair-brained locks in the US,” I clumsily explained), a resolution was determined. Minutes later I’M the one staring incredulously as a rooftop carnival unfolds. A length of electric wire was hastily wrapped around a small length of rebar protruding from the roof on one end and tied around a small Chinese man on the other. I was not so horrified about the the 3-storey fall which I was about to witness as I was concerned about what the ensuing calamity would mean to my illegal hitch-hiking plans. But alas, smoking a cigarette all the while, the man was soon nudging the thankfully cracked window open with his foot. Disaster avoided.
Day 3: Runnin’ up that hill
Getting an especially early start, I managed to easily elude any watchful eyes. Only once did I go off-road thru the barley fields to circumvent what might have been a buzzkill in the form of a checkpoint. But that was hardly the hardest part of the day. Hours passed during which the vehicles seemed to carry only Party cadres with whom I wasn’t welcome to ride. Instead of whiling away the hours on the roadside, I thought I may as well walk in the direction I need to go…in the hot sun…carrying 2 fully loaded packs…heading into a sparsely populated region that lies over 4000 meters in elevation. Hey, it was good training for the trekking I’d hoped to do,right?
I timed the vehicles which shunned me as they climbed to what seemed to be a pass in the distance. If it took a slow truck 12 minutes to get there I figure I could make it in just about an hour. Over 2 hours later I was on a short cut to which I’d been directed by a local yak herder. I took it only because I had a good view of the switchbacks below & figured I could get to the road in time to flag down the increasingly rare potential ride.
Of course (as always?), Murphy’s Law took effect. I’d been lucky to glance back in time to see an SUV speeding up the hill at 5-10 times the rate of the trucks I’d timed. Kickin’ it into high gear, I pushed up the shortest but steepest line to the road and successfully hailed the miracle ride for which I’d yearned for hours. It wasn’t miraculous so much because it brought me over 3 major mountain passes (one of which might have been THOE) spanning 11 hours’ time, but because the 3 Chinese men inside were such exceptional chaps. They didn’t smoke, spit, or play annoying loud music. They even bought me lunch! Sure they still threw every plastic bottle and other piece of garbage right out the window, but littering even in the most pristine places is a national pastime.
Drug of the Nation
At my 2nd multi-hour road block in as many days, I noticed a monastery atop a hill nearby. With little else to do but amuse the loitering locals with my bearded presence, I meandered up to it. I was immediately accosted by dozens of friendly monks who gave me a tour of their recently restored abode which was destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. One of them was quick to show off an amulet he was wearing which featured a contraband photo of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Knowing of this cruel and cowardly Chinese restriction I had brought several pictures of the Tibetan God-king into the country & told the monks as much. For the remainder of my visit I couldn’t get 3 steps away from every monk and eventually every villager nearby. The novelty of being surrounded by 30+ Tibetans isn’t as fun as it sounds due to their prevailing disinterest in bathing. Had to refuse their repeated pleas of “Please give me photo of Dalai Lama” because the Chinese men, however cool, might have taken exception to such a defiant act.
Houston, we have a problem
In the same town as the photo-crazed monks, tragedy of epic proportions struck. In one of the most stunningly beautiful regions in the world, my camera slipped into a coma. The most picturesque people I’ve seen surrounded by myriad ideal backdrops had to be preserved for posterity by only my often-insufficient memory until I got to Lhasa. Or so I’d hoped. Another definitive example of how Tibet is separate and distinct from China is the paucity of populace in the “provincial” capital. Bucking the Chinese average of over 6 million, there are just over 200,000 people in Lhasa. As a result, there is no demand for a new APS camera, leaving me hopelessly burdened with 61 rolls(!) of unexposed film I’d purchased cheap in Japan. My last-gasp effort was to try and get someone to fix it. When the guru tinkered with it for only a few seconds, it seemed to revive. I must have stumbled upon a camera faith-healer. It’s been working fine ever since.
Day 4: Rawok-tso: The Crystal Lake
Again easily procuring a ride & again stranded due to road work, I had many hours to pass in the thoroughly unexciting town of Rawok. Fortunately there is a huge lake on the edge of town next to which the waiting time flew by. Instead of trying to repaint the picture of a place so stunning that it moved me to tears, it’s best I break from my normal routine and simply insert, unedited, the passage from the travel journal.
>Sitting atop and abutment that is surrounded by turquoise waters the >likes of which I’ve never seen. Jagged peaks then surround the lake >first with dry green pine and grey sandstone, then frosted with >marshmallow snow. Breaks in the mostly overcast sky send shafts of >gleaming light to render some snow blindingly white as well as adding
>brilliant dark blues to the colorful scene.
>Along the eastern shores dry, sandy lake bed sprawls providing >grazing land for yak,goats, sheep, horses, and whatever else, like a >stray dog, might wander by. Many unfamiliar varieties of birds also >enjoy frolicking about the bucolic setting. The austere beauty is >even harder to believe as it overcomes the steady din of dump trucks
>servicing the road heading west. I suppose without their meddling I >wouldn’t have this 6-hour layover with which I’ve been able to touch >something truly special.
>And to think I was angry when I heard of the delay! I always know >what’s best until I rediscover once again that I don’t know squat.
>The spiritual experience I had not-so-secretly yearned for in Tibet >has already begun.Perhaps I wouldn’t have been dropped to my knees >by the power of this valley had I been looking for the best angle >for a snapshot.
Days 5 & 6: On the road again
Resisted temptation to slow down the last couple days as the onset of China’s largest national holiday loomed. Got to a town within a day’s drive of Lhasa on the 1st day of the week during which a stampede of Chinese (think over 20% of its 13 hundred million people) scatter like cockroaches all over the country. The town of Bayi instantly struck me as the ugliest Chinese-style insta-city I’d ever imagined. How the country which invented Feng-Shui (“wind-water”, rhymes with “tongue day”) could have a city so utterly devoid of it – in Tibet no less – boggles the mind.
Thought I’d found a decent room as I’d signed in, paid, and unpacked my bags when the clerk bounded in the room shaking like a chihuahua. It seemed that he forgot the holiday was afoot and/or that he shouldn’t have booked a foreigner. “You Must Go!”, I deciphered from his frantic cackling in Chinese. After briefly denying his desperate plea, I agreed, but only if he take me to the comparable room toward which he gestured. My instincts were good as the cheaper hotels were filling up by the second. When he finally found lodging above a Muslim restaurant I again signed, paid, and dropped off a bag and went to retrieve the other.
Upon my return 2 Chinese boys were sitting, smoking, and watching loud TV in the room that I’d been told was mine and mine alone. A very long standoff ensued during which I was again being told to leave. Fat chance! They just refused to make good on the promise they had uttered minutes earlier about the room. They now said I could have it for triple the price. After hours of tense argument I was close to clocking several of the countless Muslim men who’d surrounded me in an attempt to intimidate me. When they moved as if to take my bags and throw them out a window I envisioned the men going out the window next.
At long last I was offered a different room with a Tibetan father-son team who smoked but a handful of cigarettes all night and whose TV was many decibels below that of the Chinese. The agony of simply getting a bed when all I’d wanted to do was sleep subsided slightly once lying down. Yet there is only one way to describe the evening. Worst. Check-in. Ever.
The following morning I quickly caught a ride in a late-model luxury sedan averaging easily 120 Km/hour. When going thru town posting 30 KM/hour speed limits, he would be going 130! Making the 7-hour trip in 4 1/2 hours and setting my eyes on the Potala for the first time, the resentment from the previous night diminished and I rejoiced that I’d completed the journey.
Big top on the mountaintop
After soaking up the tourist vibe, speaking and reading English (as in menus) again for a spell I found myself swept away on a tour which took me to Mt. Qomolangma, THOE, a.k.a. Mt Everest. After peeking at the Rongphu Monastery, THOE, went up to Everest Base Camp at over 5200 meters. Was greeted by a tent city offering food, tea, lodging (at the “Hotel California”!) & impulse items. The local post office is of course THOE but they charge a whopping 7 kuai in addition to postage for a rubber stamp that says “EVEREST”. Although the views of the peak were nice on the lovely clear day, the peak looms over 1000 meters less than Mt. Rainier does over Seattle and hence is less impressive in a way. But I’m glad that I made the pilgrimage now before the Chinese decide to deface The North Face by adding a chairlift.
Down by the River
Water costs up to several dollars a day in Tibet due to the hot, dry clime & price gouging from having to import bottled water from other provinces. Why they don’t bottle the pure glacial runoff locally is beyond me. To save a bundle of cash I merely head to a river & use my water purifier to filter water every few days. The crowds that gather once I’m spotted are as amused as they are amusing to me. They stand mouths agape for the entire 15 minutes. No matter what we foreigners do, it’s generally different, strange and fascinating to the locals.
From the “You can’t make this stuff up” Department
The Tibetan word for Tibet: “Brrrr.”
But the name may be deceiving as scalding hot days are the bane of existence for much of the year. It’s the extreme fluctuations which pose the real problem. On a trek that made my 12,000-foot hike look like a walk in the park, I camped just below 17,000 feet – and without a tent! The 4-day trip was cut in half due to a frozen water filter which was a blessing in disguise as a silver-dollar-sized blister formed on my foot at the end of day 2. Another bitter cold night followed by a limping jaunt over a 2nd 5000+ meter pass didn’t sound so great in hindsight.
Three+ Dog Night
Nam-tso, an alpine lake that is THOE can boast some pleasant scenery, but what I’ll remember most is the sleepless night I spent there. For once the Chinese are off the hook as the culprit wasn’t blaring karaoke but feral dogs who barked non-stop from the moment my head hit the pillow until the sun came up. Had fantasies of doing a favor for the local Buddhists whose religion discourages harming animals. But my conscience intervened unlike when mosquitoes are the subject of my murderous urges.
World’s coolest vacant residence
The Potala is not just the most famous building in Tibet but indeed one of the most distinctive structures in all the world. The Chinese are aware of its allure and gouge the tourist for an astounding ONE HUNDRED Chinese dollars (yuen) for the privilege of touring the home of the Dalai Lama, who’s lived in exile in India for over 40 years.
Determined & undeterred by a few fences and ramparts, I eventually strolled unmolested thru a service entrance for free. Furthermore I met a Tibetan guy who remembered me from the nightmare hotel debacle in Bayi during which he’d briefly translated. He quickly offered to take me thru the entire palace where he worked, including many restricted areas, in effect giving me a free guided tour. And what a tour! The collection of ancient relics within is unsurpassed. If only its owner were there too…
Devotion in motion
The advent of Saga Dawa, the celebration of the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha sees droves of pilgrims at holy sites all around the countr…er…province. At one such locale in Lhasa, the Jokhang, a small enclave offers afternoon solace to the weary devout who’ve been marching the kora for much of the day. I stumbled upon this surreal scene where warm, weathered faces greet the visitor and every available right hand spins a prayer wheel. The inner sanctum features a live band- a group of monks who chime in every 15 minutes with a flourish of wacky horns and percussion. The spirit in the room was as palpable as the pungent odor of burning yak butter candles.
Philanthropist in disguise
Despite being fully prepared to play by the rules & buy a $100 bus ticket toward Mt. Kailash, I was compelled to change my plans. The man in charge of the 1 and only bus company allowed to take foreigners was a Chinese from Shenzhen, the town in China bordering Hong Kong. One can expect 2 traits from people of that town -better English skills than most Chinese and a bloodthirsty lust for financial gain. Having gone in earlier & had my questions answered, I felt good about returning and paying the deposit on the ticket. But wait! The man suddenly “doesn’t understand English very good” and says the deposit is 100%, not the 30% I’d taken pains to clarify & solidify earlier. Furthermore, the man claims he works at his office only “to make friends and help people” making “no money.” I know enough of Chinese business ethics to see that the guy is full of it up to his ears even more than most. The choice to hitch-hike was clear as I left without mustering a goodbye. The freelance route resulted in huge financial savings, provided extra adventure to an already exciting plan, and denied a lying chump the chance to altruistically overcharge foreigners using corrupt techniques.
One of the many checkpoints in western Tibet is in the military town of Saga. Having failed to avoid detection, I tried to play dumb and have some fun with the local militia. Once thwarted attempting to pitch my tent a stone’s throw from the army post, I reluctantly went into custody. The army jeep which transported me was upholstered with puppy dog checkerboard which one would sooner expect on a baby’s blanket. Once inside the office I patiently endured Gestapo tactics which kept me in limbo for nearly 2 hours. Upon being asked for my passport a 2nd time, I insisted the uniformed agent add “please” to his clunky request to “give me passport.” Eventually he complied. The ordeal which I fully expected would result in potentially hefty fines ended without any money exchanging hands. Perhaps my lack of willingness to admit I speak any Chinese had made extortion too difficult for the authorities. I left them scratching their heads as I departed by asking in relatively flawless Chinese if they could direct me to an inexpensive hotel nearby.
There is of course a staggering proliferation of prayer flags in Tibet strung across every bridge, mountaintop, pass, rooftop, etc. Then there is the custom of tossing decks of colorful paper prayer cards from similar locations. But the most intriguing form of leaving a human mark upon nature results from the practice of sky burial. This ritual, which I gratefully yet somewhat regrettably did not witness, entail chopping up a 3-day-old human corpse & feeding it to the vultures, in effect providing the deceased with a living grave. But the remains (whatever the birds and wild dogs don’t eat) need a home too. It’s up to the loved ones to then disperse the dead’s personal effects at holy locations around the land. The small mountain of often brand-new clothing seems a bit out of place in a country of generally desperately poor subsistence herders. (Note: I later learned that much of these clothes around Lake Manasarovar come from Hindu pilgrims who “leave their old life -and its clothing- behind” after being purified by the lake’s holy waters.)
Not-so-relaxing stroll around the lake
Lake Manasarovar may just be the holiest lake on Earth. It’s said that if one submerges in its waters the sins of 100 lifetimes are washed away. In my case it washed away the dust and grime of 5 parched days on the road as well. The turquoise depths of the massive lake represent the female realm complimenting the phallic spire of Mt. Kailash visible from its shores. The kora tests the fortitude of the pilgrim with variable weather & harsh dry surrounds. The wind seems to blow only counter-clockwise (resulting in a bitter cold headwind) or not at all. If you think the latter sounds better, think again. Swarms of gnats make the acquaintance of the visitor whenever the wind dies. But the hell hounds guarding shepherds’ homes were the most annoying of all. Slinging rocks to keep them at bay drained precious energy reserves needed for the last leg of the 110-kilometer trek.
Once I finally reached “civilization”, the town of Hor Qu where any city street serves as a toilet, I found only a Tatooine-like post-apocalyptic wasteland. At last a semblance of life surfaced where a modestly-priced primitive hotel & overpriced food allowed my wounds to briefly heal before the next excursion.
It’s a hard concept to grasp for Americans who generally think that anything should be available at the right price -“money talks”, right? But, as mentioned earlier, certain 20th-century amenities aren’t exactly plentiful in rural Tibet. That’s part of the allure of travel to such a region. At no cost could one obtain internet, unsoiled bedding, or a gourmet meal. Indeed, of the many joys of the pilgrimage to western Tibet delicious food was most certainly not one of them. In fact, the 3-weeks between Lhasa and Xinjiang were the most atrocious dietary days since my youth when Lucky Charms sounded nutritious enough for me. Subsisting largely on whatever food I could carry, the road provided only an occasional break from the staple food -gorp (trail mix)- which kept me moving. Two favorites were Chinese versions of Rice Krispy treats and Twinkies. The lowlights were depressing nutrient-less instant noodles and the mind-boggling lack of protein at local restaurants. When there was meat on the menu, is wasn’t yak or lamb, the only animals visible for a thousand miles. No, somehow still the only meat available was pork trucked in from God-knows-where.
Whether or not Lake Manasarovar is the holiest lake on Earth is a moot point. That Mt. Kailash is one of the world’s holiest peaks is however not debatable. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from 1000s of mile away spend small fortunes to visit and walk around the revered massif. Although completing 108 revolutions around the mountain is said to assure enlightenment in this lifetime, I’m content to roll the dice & take my chances with just one kora. After the 110K trek around the lake, the 52K loop may sound rather tame. But consider that the high point of the route rises 1000 meters above the lake to an elevation of 5630 meters (18,700 feet) and the journey takes on a new dimension.
But with that said, the truth is that my method of travel -walking- is downright cushy juxtaposed to the throngs who choose to prostrate themselves the entire way. Instead of the 1-4 days it takes to walk, these devout can expect an entire month to elapse en route. The very existence of people so utterly consumed with faith lends hope to a view of a world clouded with war & discord.
That’s not how I spell relief
After a brief stay in the western border of of Ali dodging authorities for the last time, I was able to shower, give away my last picture of the Dalai Lama, & eat decent food for the 1st time in weeks. Would have stayed longer in a town with an interesting mix of Tibetan, Muslim, and other Chinese, but had to pack it up in a hurry when a local restraunteur arranged a ride for me with a trucker, keeping a cool 1/3 of the price for himself as commission.
The fact that I had technically crossed the border from Tibet must have escaped me in a small town en route when I casually relieved myself in someone’s yard where goats & a small junkyard of defunct vehicles reside. Afterward a man strolls up & calmly explains that the cost is 6 dollars (50Y). After a long stand-off which entertained a good % of the village, I got out of town without paying for what would’ve been the most expensive piss in my life.
You can’t make this stuff up Dept., Part 2
In a very Muslim region bordering Pakistan, the local language (Uyghur) word for fart : Osama.
The tremendously long journey was to end late one night after cruising thru the high plains of Aksai Chen, a deserted area claimed by both China and India. My reward for enduring 3 days on the long, bumpy road (that also happens to be THOE) from Tibet to Xinjiang in a cab-over truck was a road closure. After sleeping in the bed (hard metal kind, not soft & fluffy) of the truck, I awoke to find that the bag with my camera in it was missing. But alas, the camera endured once again as it was being used as a pillow by one of the many (up to 8) people who’d been crammed in the cab of the truck.
Top 5 signs that Tibet is NOT part of China
5) HA-llou vs. Tashi Delek : Chinese people wait until you’ve walked past and then yell “HALLO!” and laugh. Tibetans smile, look you in the eye and greet you using the local language.
4) Wildlife vs. Dinner : Tibet is teeming with wild animals – antelopes, rabbits, birds. Every species larger than a baseball is extinct or teetering on the edge due to overpopulation and exotic dietary fetishes in China.
3) Devotion vs. Consumption : There may not be a more devout populace than the Tibetans. China has over a billion godless souls who worship only money and their TVs.
2) Spit vs. Swallow : Instead of spitting everywhere constantly like the Chinese, Tibetans swallow their pride & live a quiet, humble existence of Buddhist reverence.
1) War vs. Peace : Where the Chinese have invaded & declared war on it its land, the Tibetans wage peace as exemplified by its leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, The Dalai Lama.
It’s now time
The Tibetan people carry on as if the suffocating Chinese presence has not pigeonholed the local culture into a show for the tourists as a display in a zoo. The Chinification of Tibet, such as a large Chinese flag atop the Potala, will be getting much worse soon. The death knell for Tibetan culture within Tibet may come within 2 years when a rail line, THOE, connects China to Lhasa. More so here than perhaps anywhere on the planet, come now, or don’t bother.
I hope this has provided some inspiration to any who wish to experience what’s left of a beautiful vanishing culture before it’s too late.