As I knew what I’d be like in the morning, I took a shower the night before because even though Kathmandu does offer hot showers (IN YOUR FACE, INDIA!) I decided it would be best to squeeze every last second out of sleeping as I could. I’m not a morning person. So up up bright and early (well not that bright, it was still dark, but it was early) and onto the minibus that would be taking me and a handful of fellow wayfarers over the border to the Forbidden Kingdom of Tibet.
Now as you know, I’m a bit of an independent traveller, but the Chinese government don’t take kindly to westerners mooching around Tibet without a chaperone. As a consequence and as there is simply NO OTHER WAY to get from India into China, I had to join a tour group. It would take us a week to get to and explore Lhasa, but I guess I might as well stop to smell the roses as I don’t have a choice and the guy waving the roses under my nose I need to keep sweet as I jump back and forth into Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan over the coming weeks.
My comrades on this journey were none other than politics graduates Tobin, Stuart and Sam, Sam’s girlfriend Nikki, a Dutch couple called Jerhan and Sarah, a guy from Nepal called Brukas and a woman from Thailand called Newe.
The journey to the border was one of typical Nepalese madness – potholes, crazy drivers, blind corners and perilous pitfalls, but we made it as far as we could before the gods of the mountains well and truly blocked our path with a kick-ass landslide which had taken out half a kilometre of road – and one that stopped just inches from some dude’s house. He must have been praying to the right gods that night.
So our bus stopped and we had to pick our way on foot across the hazardous terrain, getting our feet wet crossing two rivers on the way. We then took a couple of shared taxi jeeps the rest of the way to the frontier. The Nepalese side of the border was the usual – easy as hell – they didn’t even check our luggage. The Chinese side, though – eek! – if the guards standing sentry at the border gates wasn’t enough to put the willies up you, then the seventeen x-ray machines and small army of bag-checkers certainly were.
But were they interested in looking for guns, or drugs, or explosives? Nah – they were all on the hunt for something MUCH more dangerous – pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama. So much so that my comrades had to rifle through their Lonely Planet, ripping out references to any (and all) of the three ‘T’s – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. China in a way reminds me of a little girl who thinks that by shutting its eyes, sticking its fingers in it’s ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA it can drown out the sound of anything it doesn’t want to hear.
The sad thing is, China’s probably right. I mean, I’m too scared to upload this blog until I am well and truly out of this place – you know, just in case. And every other nation is terrified of incurring the wrath of the People’s Republic by inferring that, well, maybe China could work a little on making the place a People’s Republic (I guess the Autocratic Dictatorship of China just doesn’t have the same ring to it).
So I was the only one left with the Tibet chapter of my China Lonely Planet intact. This was because I had taken my cue from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and downloaded the damn thing onto my damn iPod “the bad” Touch. Didn’t think of THAT now, did you, Lao Che?
One thing that I found quite disturbing as I crossed the border was the Everest expedition gang that was also crossing over at the same time. Healthy young men in their 20s and 30s, with octogenarian grandmothers ferrying their equipment (heavy blue barrels on their backs, held up by a strap worn across the forehead) over the border for them. Un-be-f—ing-lievable. What the hell were they thinking? I mean, it’s $25,000 just for the permit to attempt Everest, surely they weren’t short of a few readies to pay some local teenagers to help them? Or, you know, carry the damn stuff themselves? Lazy buggers.
Anyway, I said ta-ta to our Nepalese guide and said nee-how to our Tibetan guide on the other side. Her name was Doma and yes she was Tibetan. Her brother (whose name I never discovered) drove our minibus.
That night we stayed in the microscopically small town of Tingri, just over the border from Nepal. This is when I found out that most of the lads on the tour were politics students. Vive le Revolution, Agent Calavera! If there’s one thing Tibet’s got to talk about, it’s lots of politics.
Wednesday started early with us all bungling ourselves onto the minibus for a long drive – we were all suffering from altitude sickness so some degree, but some were worse than others. Newe, the nice Thai lady, was looking the worst out of us all and it was decided that today we would press on all the way to Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, as there was a hospital there if need be. Altitude sickness is rather unpleasant – your head feels like it’s going to split in two, your joints ache, you feel nauseous and sick.
It was all a bit too cloudy to see Everest as we raced by, but we did get out of the bus for the Gyatso-la Pass, at 5220 metres above sea level, you might just be able to guess why everyone was feeling a little dizzy – a week ago I was in Calcutta – pretty much at sea level. This was the highest I had been since this journey started back in January last year (as this trip does not involve aeroplanes!) and boy my head was letting me know it – the prayer flags strung out across the landscape looked like bunting from a 1970s street party. I liked it.
We covered another few passes before hitting Shigatse in the afternoon. We all went out for a bite to eat and were left up to our own devices until the following morning. Shigatse being a sleepy town there wasn’t much to do, but we ate dinner together and I stupidly drank beer which did nothing good for my hangover.
Thursday morning we headed out with our guide to the fabulous Tashilhunpo monastery – one that takes up half the mountainside. There we learn about the two Lamas – the Dalai Lama and the Penchen Lama. The Penchen Lama doesn’t get as much press as the Dalai – the latest one (number 11) is a teenager living in Beijing. But if he ever wants to come back to his temple in Shigatse, I’m sure the locals would be overjoyed to have him.
One thing we came across in the monastery complex (it’s like a small town) was a courtyard filled with monks debating, Tibetan style. This involves the teacher quizzing the younger monks about scripture and if they get the answer wrong the teacher rocks back on one leg, steps forward as if to throw a cricket ball and then SLAP! he claps his hands together like this:
It’s all very choreographed and all very cool.
That night was a little more interesting than the last, as we hit the karaoke bar and watched a string of (remarkably talented) local singers belting out Tibetan classics and receiving white silk scarves as a accolade depending on their popularity. One kid with a magna hairdo and shiny shoes got four scarves. He must have been the local Elvis. I have to say I did get a little jealous – where was my scarf? But I doubt they would have let me do my world famous Total Eclipse of the Heart in the style of Louis Armstrong anyway.
The next day we headed out to Gyanste, a slight detour from the road to Lhasa, but a welcome one. More authentically Tibetan than the Han-infused capital, it’s the home of the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery – notable for housing the biggest Stupa I’ve ever seen. A Stupa is a religious monument that you see in many Buddhist countries, they usually look like a marshmellow cake with big brother eyes painted at the top. Only this marshmellow was big enough to house 10,000 Images of Buddha. Crikey!
Tibetan Buddhism is deeply infused with influences from Hinduism, and nowhere was this more obvious than the many many statues and pictures depicting various ‘aspects’ of Buddha, ranging from the chilled out type familiar to us in the west to angry bad black mofo Buddha breathing fire and stomping his enemies into dust. Our tour guide kept calling this one ‘Buddha of Much More Powers’ but the parallels to the Hindu black goddess Cali were strikingly obvious – right down to the necklace of human skulls…!
On Saturday we finally rolled into Lhasa. A strikingly modern city, which was a little unexpected (although I was pre-warned), this is not some ramshackle Shangri-La in the mountains. Our hotel was amazing though and I would heartily recommend it to anyone – not only run by Tibetans, it was the most boutique boutique hotel I’ve ever stayed in – over 300 years old (mind your head!) the attention to detail was amazing.
The next day was the big one – the utterly stunning Potala Palace – the winter residence of the erstwhile Dalai Lama. Opulent but brimming with character, this massive edifice dominates the Lhasa skyline – 13 stories high, over 1000 rooms and once home to tens of thousands of monks, it’s just a list of superlatives followed by the word NICE in large friendly letters.
I tell you what though, one thing that may not sit well with your westernised view of Tibetan Buddhism (but something that is the damnation of all religion) is just how much gold, money and wealth these temples enjoy. The tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas (housed in the Potala Place itself) were only just short of the ostentatious dead wealth of King Tut – solid gold caskets as big as a house bedecked with fabulous jewels. Jeepers! And you’re telling me that religion – all religion – isn’t just about the readies? But Buddhism is all about improving yourself, right? Hmm, well if stuffing fivers into the cold indifferent hands of golden statues to bring yourself good fortune is improving yourself, then go for your life, mate!
Another thing that spun me out were the people around the temples doing their worshipping. Jeez, I thought Muslims made a meal of it! But in Tibet you see people launching themselves at the floor head first as though there’s a madman on a shooting spree across the street – resulting in massive whelks and bruising to the forehead. And, just to make things extra nonsensical, some of them are doing it for money. Weird, just weird.
Anyway, Lhasa was a sweet place – lovely people, lovely scenery and lots of stuff to see and do. And no, visiting Tibet does not ‘prop up’ the big meany Chinese government: trust me, the pennies they get from handing out visiting permits are buttons compared with how much they are earning from international trade. Going to Tibet primarily helps local Tibetans – it strengthens their culture, gives them money in their pockets and – best of all – makes it difficult for the Chinese to commit atrocities when there are thousands of tourists swanning about with camcorders (although having said that, I often think of a certain Super Furry Animals song when it comes to the Chinese government).
I’m not counting Tibet as a separate country on this journey. Sorry. I suppose I could do, but at the end of the day, unlike Palestine, Kosovo or Western Sahara, I can never see it becoming a real independent and sovereign nation – even the Dalai Lama has given up on that dream – he’s now resigned to requesting greater autonomy from the Chinese. Yeah I know it’s sad. But it could be worse… they could have been annexed by India. Sikkim, anyone?
Well with our tour of Tibet drawing to a close, Tobin and I jumped on the Tuesday morning skytrain to Beijing. For me this meant two nights on a ‘hard seat’ (exactly what it said on the tin) as the highest train in the world (and engineering masterpiece) snaked its way down from the rooftop of the world. Lots of card games and banter helped pass the time, but the fact that my computer (once again) went do-lally meant I couldn’t catch up with my blog and my pictures of Tibet on the hard-drive hung in the balance. I would just have to wait and see what the capital of China held in store when I arrived on Thursday morning…