The dusty old road led our 4x4 away from Tibet's Everest Base Camp, through the plateau and back to the steep switchbacks down the mountains to the Friendship Highway that connected now-distant Lhasa with the Nepalese border. We crawled along slowly, our creeping mileage offset by the more-rapid change in altitude. Finally, we hit tarmac, took a left, and pulled up to a rural roadside restaurants for some noodle-and-vegetable soup.
We pulled into a small parking area and walked into the single-story, rickety old spot. A large eating area was curtained off from other sections, and like many rural Tibet establishments, had benches lining the wall. Intricately painted, colorful, waist-high tables were in front of the benches, and a long rectangular woodstove was the room’s centrepiece. A boxy old CRT television in the corner blasted a Chinese comedy show. Half-full plastic bags of water hung from the ceiling. These are intended to ward off flies, though I’m a little unclear on the specifics.
My guide and driver wandered off for some downtime, and I sat alone, lost in thought and a bit stunned by my last eight days of culture shock in Tibet until some Indian-American women struck up a conversation. They were travelling with their families, but had left Everest early when one of them had gotten altitude-sick. They now waited for the rest of their group.
But one of their group had become seriously ill a few days ago, and was in a hospital back in Lhasa. The group was scheduled to depart for Nepal tomorrow, same as me, but they were on a group visa.
And now I understood the perils of travelling on a group visa to Tibet. You must all leave together, which doesn't allow for emergencies or changes-of-plans. I’d been annoyed that I couldn’t find other backpackers to share my costs back in Chengdu, but now I could see that aside from the extra costs, there were benefits to travelling as a “group” of one.
(Note: As of this writing, the Tibet travel permit requires that a group must contain at least five travellers from the same country. This could change to any number or any country without notice, and no permits are being issued until at least the end of October 2012)
On we went, until we began to descend down the side of Matsang Tasango gorge. The road through here had only been finished a few years ago and was in constant peril of landslides as it snaked down a canyon full of waterfalls straight from Himalayan foothill ice melt. My driver pulled up under one of the waterfalls and put the 4x4 in neutral.
"Free car wash," explained the guide, as the vehicle was thoroughly doused.
We continued on, winding around and around to the scruffy, mountainside border town of Zhangmu. Getting in was tricky as the entire two-lane road seemed to be a giant parking lot for colorful Nepalese, Indian, and Chinese trucks. Only one lane was active, since the other was parking, and the one lane had vehicles going in both directions.
And the trucks were a lot bigger than us.
In time, we found our way down the hill, threading through the onslaught of international commerce, and approached a hotel.
Which sucked, so I asked for another.
The next one didn't allow foreigners and the final one was really bad.
"Let's see Mandala," I said.
That was a new hotel behind a temple that we'd driven past as I said "How about that?" and was ignored. But now they grumpily let me check it out.
Mandala was decent, so we checked in and said our good-byes for the night. We were all sick of each other.
I went across the street to the internet café for my final lesson in how incredibly frustrating China's internet-censorship policies are. I was looking forward to Kathmandu tomorrow night.
And while walking back across the street to my hotel, a man smacked my left breast.
I stopped, more surprised than angry. And there he was, smiling back at me as he walked away.
"PERVERT," I yelled at him. "THAT'S DISGUSTING. YOU SHOULDN'T DO THAT. YOU'RE DISGUSTING."
He kept smiling and walked. Some European tourists nearby averted their eyes and studiously avoided me.
I don't know if the guy was actually a pervert or had the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. He didn't look real bright. But I do believe in making a ruckus when someone does something unacceptable.
I was a little weirded-out by Zhangmu now, but I was still hungry, so I walked down the winding road to a little Tibetan restaurant for some rice and veggies, before going back to sleep. My guide was asleep early too, though he later told me that this didn't last long as the driver had enough wine with his dinner to snore heartily through the night.
And in the morning, we raced down the hill ahead of the pack to Immigration, ten kilometres away.
"We're first! We're first!" Jack was gloating. When other guides showed up with their clients, he reminded them. When the reunited Indian-American family lined up behind us, he reminded them too.
"When will Immigration open?" At some point, I realised we'd been first for some time, having arrived just after 8am.
Jack shrugged. "It isn't always the same."
And then Immigration opened at 10am, when a Chinese guard slid aside apiece of sheetrock that had been acting as a barrier. We hurried through the door, leaving photocopies at one desk, then passed some guys who glanced unenthusiastically in my backpack (presumably checking for illegal books, which I had safely hidden on my Kindle), then past a final checkpoint.
I handed Jack his tip. He'd been a good guide. It wasn't his fault I didn't want a guide or a driver, or to be minded for nine days. We shook hands.
I felt sad for Tibetans and Tibet and the destruction of their culture, but I hadn't dared try to get anyone to speak to me off the record, as this could risk their safety. The Tibetan college student near Everest had gotten close, but when I asked for specifics about her fuzzy legal status after she’d studied in India, she’d waved me off.
The country was developing rapidly and its rich, fascinating culture that attracted millions of tourists a year was being destroyed by development, tourism, and the government of the country sending both. I come from a relatively comfortable and transparent society, and it isn't for me to say whether it's better to have new roads or autonomy, or if the former would have happened anyway alongside the latter, and actually, no one can know what would have happened here had things gone differently in 1959, before I was born. What was clear to me, though, was that the past half-century had presented a society of non-violence with a tricky, impossible, and overwhelming situation, and that there really should be a vote on the whole situation, by people who live in Tibet. But the world is busy with questions of resources, violent occupations, and intractable disagreements, and no single world power seems to have the nerve or manpower to take up the issue of Tibet with China.
Conventional wisdom is that the best hope this little country has is for a bubble-bursting economic implosion in the bigger country. And all bubbles do inevitably burst.
But no, there is another possibility.
The Chinese backpacker, new to the scene and roaming the backroads of Asia. These kids are learning about the bigger world. And they are China's future. They are meeting Tibetans, learning about the problems in the region, and quite interested in the local culture.
I have no proof, no anecdotes, and certainly no data. But these kids are charming as hell, bright, and open-minded.
Perhaps they will, in the future, work with Tibetans abroad and internally to solve what today seems to be an unsolvable problem.
And with that thought, I looked back to see my Tibetan guide waving me on, encouraging me to go, as if to say: “before they change their minds and take a closer look at your bags.” How many times had he watched others take that walk to freedom, I thought, rather dramatically.
I shouldered my rucksack and walked quickly out into the morning drizzle, over a fog-enshrouded river, across the bridge to where I was again independent and free to travel, go on any website, and stay wherever I saw fit.
A walk of just a few metres utterly transformed my status. This sense of relief and freedom was a privilege, I thought, and was one I hoped to remember when I’d think back later to restrictions Tibetans live with every day.
I was getting cold and drenched, but soon I’d be on a bus headed to Kathmandu, so I wasn’t miserable.
Welcome to Nepal.
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