Finding out Tibet is not the untouched wonder I had hoped for.
18.08.2007 - 26.08.2007 5 °C
I swear that the bus rolled and the only thing that saved us was that it bounced back off the bank and continued to slip and slide along the mud track while wallowing from side to side on its busted shocks.
You know that feeling you get when things are totally out of your control. Well, that was firmly knotted in by stomach amplified by the fact that we had a 50/50 chance of dropping over the unprotected cliff and down 300m into a torrent of white water. It was like a badly filmed horror movie and all I wanted to do was get out and walk. However there were three Aussies on the bus and national pride would not allow it. I shared nervous glances with the German bloke beside me, and at my possible last meal of a boiled sweet. I turned up my Ipod to full noise, cursing myself for having paid $390 dollars to put myself in this situation. The bus was surrounded by a group of 50 people yelling and shouting and climbing on the roof finally I could smile and relax. Stepping off the bus into the rain I was glad to be on terra ferma, even though I was in the thick of the mob of Money changers, porters and hawkers all fighting for business before we crossed teh border from Nepal into Tibet.
They had been abandoned by their driver at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain and mud on the side of the road. I woke to find them begging to be given a lift. We caught up with the white Toyota van, that had just left them stranded, half an hour later. We watched in horror and a slight feeling of justice as the driver got knocked over by the ice cold raging river that was up to the doors of the van he was trying to attach a tow rope to. The 4 wheel drive managed to tow him out of harms way and then back into it as they pulled him back across this river that flowed across the Friendship Highway somewhere just inside Tibet. 22 hours after we left Katmandu we crawled into our lumpy cold beds four to a room at 4350m in Nyalam somewhere on the road to Lhasa.
Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, had the forced organized tour that the Chinese Government makes tourist do, so that they can visit their occupied territory, kept up like the last two paragraphs it may well have been worth the money.
However, maybe to some readers delight, the Friendship Highway became just that …. a good highway. The accommodation moved from damp dark dorm rooms (alliteration he he) with leaking roofs and toilets that were a 50m walk away and didn't flush ( they just filled up with shit ) to twin rooms with TV, aircon and hygienic seals on Western flush toilets. The food remained crap with a piece of bread and a boil egg for breakfast, then … “get out here, you have five minutes to take photos!" and “spend your money in the restaurant as I get commission!” and thus the exciting 4x4 adventure turned into an everyday organized tour, … except it had 60 independent travels who didn't want to be on it.
My Aussie tour mates and I did laugh at our non English speaking drivers' consumption of cigarettes and cans of Red Bull. Pumba, as we had affectionately come to name him did add some excitement when he managed to back the landcruiser into me while I was taking photos from a view point and hence forfeited his tip. (Maybe he did speak English after all !!!!)
So, cynical of "China's Tibet"? Yes very! Don't get me wrong people, the country in stunning with dramatic mountains, beautiful lakes and breathe taking vistas. The Tibetan people are amazingly friendly and curious, and brighten your day with beautiful smiles. In the more remote places they are pushing their noses up to the window of restaurants, like kids at a candy shop, looking at what is going on with all these odd looking foreigners…. especially the one with the blond dread locks who they think is the Yeti.
After coming from India and Nepal where everything is for free, ( even when you are getting ripped off) this stepped up to being heavily discounted in China. I was arguing over the price of a bottle of water with a Chinese shop keeper. My argument was that the clearly marked RRP on the bottle was 3 Yuan and that his asking price of 8 was a little steep even for the Himalayas. His argument was if I didn't like it to piss off back to my own country. My counter argument was: “why didn't he do the same!”
Following the irony we arrived one of the most remote and holy cities in the world, Lhasa. I had been looking forward to this moment the whole trip only to have it crushed by multi story concrete buildings, neon signs and Karaoke bars. The fact that it is illegal to bring a photo of the Deli Lama to Tibet and if you try the smallest protest such as wearing a “Free Tibet” tee shirt you will be band from Tibet and Mainland China for life. However, apparently, it is perfectly fine to have hard core porn and sex toy stores on every corner. (Well at least in the area of our tour provided hotel.) I am sure that this is an intricate part of the "cultural Revolution" that I just do not understand.
In the old city Tibetan culture is still struggling along with the hard core carrying out the pilgrims circuit by clapping their hands above their heads in a sort of leg less star jump, then dropping to their knees, then lying down on the ground at full length making sure that they bump their forehead quite hard on the ground. They then stand up and take one step and repeat the whole process, a very committed, all be it, time consuming, and by the look of the bump on their forehead a painful act. The temples set in amazing locations and albeit repetitious are stunning. They mainly consist of a few thousand Buddha's, a couple of gold Stompa’s, enough money offerings to finance the whole trip over again, monks with shaved heads in maroon robes talking on cell phones and drinking coke, and are lit by rancid yak butter candles, the smell of which is hard to get used to.
At this Sera Monastery, they have a stone garden where the monks are allowed to blow off steam and practice their patience in a debating session. When I first got within ear shot of this place I thought the Chinese army was putting down a riot, well, I will let you watch the video of this very peculiar debating practice.
The Potala Palace, the Deli Lama's residence, and you know when he comes to visit. It is an incredible structure, dominating the sky line of Lhasa, although possible more interesting for what you don't see as you wander through 30 of it's thousand or so rooms. But at the end of the day, I think it sucks when you have to deal with the frost nipped faces of Tibetan nomad children on 5000m snowy pass in the middle of nowhere trying to sell you prayer flags. Or when you walk down the streets of Lhasa and the only people begging for money are Tibetan.