Some Chinese fishermen walked by the road as we headed along the river out of Lhasa. My government-mandated guide and driver both chuckled from the front seat of the white Land Cruiser that I was required to ride in by Chinese regulations. No public bus for me in Tibet like in the rest of the world.
Okay, I'll bite, I thought.
"What's so funny?"
My driver, a 60-ish Tibetan man in tinted 70s-style glasses,didn't speak much English and didn't answer me. My guide, a fluent English-speaking Tibetan in his 40s, did.
"Tibetans don't fish. We find fishing to be really funny."
That didn't really answer my question, so I tried again.
"Because eating a fish is a sort-of cannibalism. In Tibet, we have something called water burial. That is where the body of a dead person is chopped up and fed to the fish. There is also sky burial, where the body is chopped up and fed to the birds. The body is not the person, because the person's spirit will be reincarnated."
Eww. So either way, I realised, someone's got to chop you up. That can't be fun for the chopper. Anyway, I'm allergic to fish, so I wasn't really worried about accidentally eating anyone.
We were heading from Lhasa to the town of Gyantse today, another 300 metres higher. En route, we were passing Kamba-la Pass, which would put my altitude tolerance to the test at 4,700 metres. That's fifteen-and-a-half thousand feet – lots. I was pretty sure I'd never been anywhere that high before in my life.
But about ten minutes after we'd started, we stopped. I looked puzzled,but my guide Jack explained.
"There is an interesting rock carving here."
The driver waited with the car and our luggage, as he would for the next four days. Jack led me past a whitewashed incense-burning stupa to a cliffside covered in prayer flags, paintings, and Buddhist rock carvings, which were painted in bright golds, oranges, and blues. Lovely.
And alongside the cliff, as we drove away, white ladders were painted. Stairway to heaven? I inquired as to their purpose.
"I told you about that before," said my guide. "We saw them at Drepung Monastery. Remember?"
Uh, no. The four days I'd been in Lhasa were a whirl of sensory overload, of pilgrims,monks, monasteries, prayer flags, bell-ringing bicycle rickshaws, and Chinese soldiers. I didn't remember seeing ladder paintings at the first monastery we'd gone to.
My guide explained the ladders to me again. But I hadn't adjusted to his accent yet. I did what I'd been doing for days, which is pretend to understand. Whenever I do this, I get renewed sympathy for people who pretend to understand me when I speak too fast.
We drove on, passing more fishermen, then stopped at a rest area with toilets and souvenir sellers.
"You should go in here," said Jack. "This is the best public toilet you'll see until you get to Nepal."
I nodded and went in. The stench knocked me back, and I remembered then that the reason of taking paper into the loo is not necessarily for its clear purpose, but rather to cover your mouth and nose so you don't get the dry heaves. A Chinese woman from a tour bus squatted in front of me, considering me curiously as she did her business. I had forgotten about the door-less squats in China of ten years ago, since China's toilets had improved so much now. But the toilet consultant's reports that had been issued prior to the Beijing Olympics hadn't made it to Tibet yet. I hurried through and got out of the "best toilets," then walked back to the vehicle.
"It's okay?" I noticed the guide and driver hadn't visited. But they're guys, it's easier for them.
"If that's the best…" I started, then just grimaced.
Both the guide and driver laughed. No translation required.
We drove on, eventually turning off the main road.
"That is the way to Nepal," said my guide, pointing back where we'd turned off. "We're taking the Southern Friendship Highway. It is more scenic. We'll be back on the main Friendship Highway tomorrow night at Shigatse."
And with that, we wound our way up a mountainside for a few hours.
The road was narrow but new. At first, I ignored our driver having a hot-rod habit – he wanted to overtake and pass everyone.
But when he started to overtake on hairpin turns, where he couldn't see the oncoming traffic, I started to think about a book I'd read about an American woman who had been at the point of impact on a bus in Laos. I didn't want to be airlifted out of Lhasa on a helicopter, and the third time our driver veered into the oncoming lane at high speed when he couldn't see around the turn ahead of us, I groused at him.
"I'd prefer to arrive in one piece, please."
But he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Tibetan or Chinese, so this went nowhere. And I thought back to all the people I’d known over the years who panicked in the face of local traffic customs. Panicking gets you nowhere. People drive however they drive. But this... this wasn’t custom. This was playing chicken.
The next time, I exploded.
"Do NOT take blind corners in the wrong lane!"
The guide gently translated. To his credit, the driver didn't overtake on blind corners after that, but I was still in a lousy mood for the next hour.
We pulled over at the top of the mountain, next to some prayer flags. I stomped up the hill, gasping and inwardly cursing my inability to breathe deep at altitude but too proud to let it show. I stopped at the top and looked out over the mountain pass, past the prayer flags to the ribbon of asphalt, and the green lake of Yamdrok-tso just below.
My grumpiness melted away. We continued on – even higher! – to the summit of Kamba-la. Here I had to pay an admission fee, but the view of the green lake and mountains was stunning. I walked around taking photos, posed with a Tibetan mastiff and yak for ten yuan each to their friendly owners – my guide had alerted me that while I may think it’s odd to pay for photos, this is a way of directly contributing to the personal economy of local Tibetans who are keen to make some extra money – and visited what was definitely NOT the best toilet in Tibet. I'm wondered if I could just not eat or drink for the next three-and-a-half days.
We drove down to the lake next, then stopped for a delicious vegetarian lunch in the chilly town of Nangartse.
After lunch, we continued on past a glacier, stopped, and look past it at a mountain range.
"That is Bhutan," said my guide, I thought wistfully.
"What, Bhutan is right there?"
"Yes. We are the same people, you know. Different countries, same people."
And here I was, bound for Nepal, then into India, then back up to Bhutan. It seemed silly.
"Can we cross here?"
"No, only local people."
We drove on to Gyantse, to visit Pelkor Chode Monastery and Gyantse Kumbum. This meant nothing to me initially, just a jumble of words,until we went into the 500-year-old compound, to find floor after floor of rich tiny chapels full of religious treasures, paintings, and statues. Truly remarkable.
A tiny gray-haired woman in traditional Tibetan dress and a single braid stopped us to greet Jack, whose name wasn’t really Jack, but that’s what he’d ask tourists to call him. She spoke cheerfully to Jack, taking a break from her clockwise circuit, slowing her twirling of her prayer wheel. She laughed and joked with my guide,and after we took our leave, he said to me that she is always there when he arrives and always has a kind word.
There were monks here – not as many as there once were as nowadays, monks had to apply to Beijing for permission to join a monastery. Permission is not granted too often, so thousands of monks live in exile in monasteries across the border in India.
The monks of Gyantse laughed as they walked around, and they openly stared at me. Tibetan monks were as different from Thai monks as Tibetan Buddhism was from Buddhism of South-East Asia. Tibetan Buddhism is a combination of the animist Bon religion, endemic to Tibet, combined with Buddhism and the Hindu gods. The result is a colourful cast of characters and a lot of circles – walking in circles, twirling handheld prayer wheels, twirling entire rows of prayer wheels, single giant prayer wheels, fingering beads on a necklace around and around, painting circular artwork called the wheel of life. Everything is cyclical and nothing is permanent. We're born, we grow, we die, we start over.
And then there's the scary blue guy. And the gods with lots of arms, and the third eye, and sometimes you'll see a statue of a god with several heads, one looking in each direction. Add this to the colourful paint, the smell of burning leaves and incense, and the ever-present yak butter that is added to already over-full pots of yak butter, and for me, at least, you get sensory overload.
The complicating factor of the foreign overlords wasn't helping me to easily comprehend this weird and wonderful Tibetan society. I didn't understand China's right to Tibet anymore than I understood anyone’s right to declare ownership of a neighbour’s yard based on a technicality at City Hall, but I do understand how things that happened in the past can later be rectified. There did seem to be some attempts by China to right the wrongs of the past by pouring infrastructure money into Tibet.
But the cynical among us term this “hearts and minds,” similar, for example, to a society offering to build roads in Congo in hopes of getting more favorable mineral rights. But then, hadn’t I taken great pleasure in the existence of those roads after my day-long trip through the mud that covered 230km? Hadn’t I been filled with gratitude and relief at the sight of tarmac?
Of course, it's most likely a bit of both. And when charming Chinese tourists hurried over to help me translate a sign and innocently welcomed me to "China," I couldn’t help but see that regular citizens are friendly, as they are world-over, and certainly meant no harm to Tibet. As an American, I have been welcomed by the cultures I visited no matter who is currently governing the USA and no matter what current policies are in place. Most of the rest of the world can separate the government from the citizens. Why shouldn't I?
When I was truly exhausted and overwhelmed, my guide deposited me at the hotel. I walked around the corner to the Internet café, where I used the ancient version of Internet Explorer on the old PCs for about five minutes before the Great Firewall crashed me out of my web proxy I was using to get onto Blogger.
"The Great Firewall is kicking my butt today," I sent to (banned) Twitter by using SMS-to-Twitter on my international SIM card. My phone was able to be like Genghis Khan, to use a gate through the wall, but the lengths I had to go to for simple online tasks were absurd.
"Welcome to the life of the average Chinese dude or dudette," wrote back a friend in my former home of Kuwait.
Where, of course, we also had been censored. But Chinese censorship was making me pine for the relative Internet-freedom of the Gulf.
And that in itself gave me new insight, and made me laugh a bit at the absurdity of the world.
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