Tibet might be thought too harsh a terrain to sustain such open, easy attitudes as those that animate the Tibetan people, but it certainly does. Being the highest region in the world over a vast area (average elevation 4900m), Tibet is awesomely beautiful, often implacable, with a delicate, lived-in, harmony, worn at the edges. With such a long history as a Buddhist theocracy, Tibet has developed her imported religion to an exceptional degree both philosophically and artistically. This remains despite 60 years of Chinese rule that has ranged from radical social engineering to obscene destruction to paternalistic colonialism. Despite continuing poverty and hardships most of the people do not share the desire for the kind of rapid development that is taken as granted by Beijing and much of the rest of the world.
There was a dream that I clearly remember, from pre- or early primary school days, which went like this: I am running through a dark, rocky valley in cold rain. I look behind me and see a cluster of boxy, monastic stylebuildings clinging improbably to a high cliff face and illuminated by flashing lightning. Then I am looking at the buildings from the opposite side. I feel I was running away. I had this dream many times, as I recall, and at some point I came to think of the scene as Tibetan. I used to wonder what was happening in Tibet as I looked at the world map on my wall. In my late teens I visited Samye Ling Tibetan monastery in southern Scotland several times. Populated with many Tibetans in exile, it was an inspirational place for me: the warmth and peace, the beautiful tanka art, the air full of Tibetan incense and deep-drone chanting of the monks. During university days I read “Magic and Mystery in Tibet” by Alexandra David-Neil, who entered Tibet repeatedly disguised as a male pilgrim in the early 20th century. The book was filled with vivid tales of levitating monks, reanimated corpses and other paranormal powers. I wondered as I planned my trip if I might possibly find the place from my dream. As it turned out, I did not. Maybe it was gutted in the Cultural Revolution. Maybe it is just here and now.
My journey from Laos through south-west China took me across the fringes of the Han Chinese empire through regions once controlled by peoples like the Bai and Naxi; mild and mountainous lands now in Yunnan Province. The areas around Dali and Lijiang are lovely but increasingly crooked in the thrawl of tourism. Almost nowhere is unaffected and over-development is taking a heavy toll. The biologically and culturally invaluable Nujiang Valley recently succumbed to the Chinese government’s voracious addiction to hydroelectric dam construction. They also want to do the areas number one trekking attraction, Tiger Leaping Gorge. Few rivers on the eastern periphery of Tibet escape bondage to the grid and road construction is spoiling many valleys. Most remaining unmolested areas are on the cusp of incorporation into the modernization juggernaut. It is all about roads. Only the land itself retards the assault but armies of Chinese scientists conspire new strategies to stretch the limits of civil engineering. Dozing male Chinese tourists come to life in the presence of these technical marvels of road and dam, obviously enthralled.
The road construction boom – part of China’s “modernize the west” campaign – also has most of the main streets in the region’s towns ripped up. Between towns I enjoyed a couple of complete but already deteriorating resurfaced routes but an equal length of monstrous work in (non) progress. As an ex-geologist I could deduct the sequential processes at play. First, great swathes of roadway, say 150km long, are desurfaced all at once. Then piles of rock and gravel are dumped on alternating sides creating a kind of slalom course. This is left to weather for some undefined period so that mud and landslides cover the “road”. Subsequently, armies of navies are brought in to toil in the elements without ever actually finishing a section, though huge trucks rumble up and down endlessly. Add to the mix overcrowded minibuses and broken rear suspension and you have all the elements for a harrowing 8-hour journey. I enjoyed a few of these.
Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is half the size of the area generally considered historical Tibet. Half of the Tibetan region of Kham is now in Sichuan province. To the north, Qinghai province is mostly comprised of what used to be Tibetan Amdo; a huge area. Other regions such as Ladakh are inside modern India. No matter where the political boundaries have been drawn, there is no mistaking when you move into Tibetan territory. The sudden presence of stupas, the people’s colourful dress and a steep increase in the smile quotient give it away. Moving northwest through Yunnan, toward to the Sichuan border, I came to the edge of Tibet country around the renamed town of Shangri-La, a kind of Tibetan Lijiang packed with tourist shops – culturally deblooded and rehydrated with commercial electrolytes. Despite the presence of quite possibly the worlds’ largest prayer wheel, turned by tourists like oxen at the yoke, what I was looking for lay beyond. I traveled for three weeks through the high valleys of Kham, briefly crossing into the plateau grasslands of south-east Amdo and back, then flew from Chengdu to Lhasa and joined a tour that took me to Katmandu.
The road from Yunnan into Sichuan goes over a 5000m mountain and that is partly composed of mud and shale. The road slides off in the rain, of which there was quite a bit. It takes a long time but once you are across you feel like you have really reached Tibet; high tawny grasslands, broad domed mountains and Olympic valleys with rivers either shallow-braided in the flats or churning strongly through granite boulders. Copses of birch and aspen lend a bright golden yellow to populated areas by the end of September. Traveling north and west through Kham, into areas with progressively less Han Chinese immigrants, the road sometimes passed through thickly forested valleys below 3500m, cloud shrouded and usually full of snaggy moss draped pines, with hemlock and cedar. Half of Tibet’s forests extant at Chinese invasion in 1959 have gone, mostly from Kham, causing extensive siltation and floods downstream. This crisis has decelerated somewhat recently and much of the countryside I saw was in relatively good shape. Unfortunately, a lot of region around Xiangcheng is blighted by another hydroelectric mess of tunnel blasting and slag heaps like those common further east. A side trip to Yading Nature Reserve rewarded me with my first up close view of majestic snow mountains but it had to be shared with lots of Chinese tourists and their litter. The southern Kham villages are often impressive. Many people occupy houses built like castles, thick-walled and enclosed, containing people, animals, crop-storage and a courtyard. Fine stonework, carved windows and balustrades, cheerful painting and ubiquitous prayer flags add plenty flavor.
Independent Tibet country travel outside TAR is cheap and safe. The people are just so nice. You can go where you want and there are always the minibuses. Hitch-hiking is sublimely easy. I never felt anxious because locals were always coming to me and offering help or checking on my well-being. The endless enthusiastic greetings of ”Tashi Dele!”, the smiles and the proactive acts of kindness start to put you in a state of euphoria. You begin to wonder, if everyone here is like this, what are we, in the west (or China) doing wrong? Inside TAR where political oppression is more prominent, people are a little less effusively friendly and being on a tour subdues the local influence. For the visitor there are also shortcomings of course. Food is basic, English is minimally spoken, the toilets are often foul (creating layered shit mountains is preferred to flushing) and no less than in China people litter with impunity even in the most pristine locales. Everything just flies out the window, plastic bottles included.
Almost out doing their native scenery, the people of Tibet, you rapidly realise, are also visually astonishing. Occasionally it is because they are so filthy but more often because of the outlandishness and themed variety of traditional dress. Even the impoverished seem to spend a substantial portion of their income keeping up appearances. The women wear gorgeous embroidered silk dresses and have their hair immaculately braided 106 times and set with huge stones of turquoise, amber, coral and silver jewelry. Weighty stones are sometimes attached tilted to the head, like small, coquettish top hats. The men are less fancy and very characterful. In most towns of Kham, notably Litang, the nomad men come in from the country and wander down the streets looking like some cross between Marlon Brando and a Tartar wino; sheepskin hanging from one shoulder, great boots, curved daggers and often one gold tooth. They ride chopper motorbikes adorned with cow hide fringe and woven motif covers. They like to have their photo taken if you are low key about it. Tibetan children with sun-bloodied cheeks and altitude-induced, dangling snot jump at the chance to have fun with foreigners. They are almost never bratty. Around monasteries pilgrims come in numbers to walk Kora circuits and spin their prayer wheels; often the elderly with the most astonishing weather-beaten faces and hard-forged will, they walk the path they know with complete resolve. It’s a pleasure to join them, without trying to capture them on camera, for a short piece of their journey. The reverence shown by these strong, poorly-educated people to their venerated icons and persons is rather incredible. Mumbling mantras, bowing, rushing around to touch every image, receive the priestly blessing, or add fuel to each yak butter candle, they can seem more pressed than the most hyperactive camera-toting tourist. Whether through superstitious belief and want or sophisticated conviction, the majority of ordinary Tibetans appear to operate within a faith system beyond anything experienced by the average westerner and verging on the mystical or psychotic. Maybe it’s all quite normal if you are Tibetan.
Litang, in the middle of Sichuanese Kham is in broad yak country at 4100m. Enough to give me mild altitude sickness. It was a varied three-hour minivan ride through otherworldly boulder country, rounding something like the shoulder of Atlas and rushing steep tumbling valleys. The market area was in construction disarray but the place was heaving with colourful nomads. Up top, beyond the peaceful, pretty old town where women were making hay, spread an impressive monastery complex; gold-spired retaining walls undulated across the hills. I could wander around freely inside, absorbing the art. I came across all the lamas, rolling out from lunch, spiriting around a picture of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. There was a titanic, exquisite gold Buddha, under scaffold, originally carried from Lhasa, in a hall bathed in sinuous, meticulous murals stretching to the distant ceiling. Yellow sacks of juniper foliage were piled high like they were being set aside for winter. Monks and volunteers busied themselves painting and cleaning. Partly, this was a regular scene. Most monasteries seem to be planning an expanded future though even their fulfilled dreams would pale compared to the old days when monasteries were the size of towns. Outside, the yard was an open air workshop for metal tantric statues. The image is popular in the west; an avid, multi-armed god, multiple faces receding on the sides, mouth to mouth with his multi-armed, buxom, bejeweled consort who is literally dying in his arms. Kalachakra. As tantric practices are reserved for higher initiates, the conjoined celestial loins are usually modestly wrapped in yellow cloth, so it was interesting to see everything on display. Very detailed. Immediately thereafter I was suddenly dizzy and nauseous with altitude sickness so perhaps it was too much for me.
Back in town I shared my $2 room with a couple of monks. I felt secure but it was problematic because they wanted to watch TV with interference for sound, slept at 9.30 and got up noisily at 5.30. Despite government restrictions on their numbers, short-shorn, red-robed monks are everywhere and I enjoyed the pleasure of their company. Tibetan monasteries were always essentially universities so one should not expect every monk to be a saint. Many are very young. Like eight. The extreme deference shown by ordinary Tibetans to their monastic brethren seems susceptible to problems. The monks are pedastlised, as, I suppose, is almost universal. There can be the appearance of haughtiness from lamas. I can’t blame them given the state of the rest of us but not everyone is in the Dalai Lama mode. Within the ranks relations also seem very hierarchical. Perpetually being venerated by juniors or waited on hand and foot by your flock has got to be hard to handle psychologically. Fortunately, the Tibetan spirit makes for a good bit of monastic rambunctiousness and human warmth and the overall impression of the monastic community is of gentleness and openness.
In the early morning of departure I was having breakfast momos in a small, bare, main street Litang eatery, enjoying the rare peace and quiet, before the incessant revving of truck engines, squeal of scooter motors and blind reconnaissance of the horn set in. The peace broke abruptly with the blast of a klaxon and the first roar of maybe 100 huge army trucks that thundered through the town. All other moving things dived for cover. Endlessly they came, taking 15 minutes to pass. This was apparently a daily occurrence for the poor folk of the town.
It was a harder travel day descending bumpy canyons to Ganze where we joined the main north route of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. At first, I was disappointed by the town; another case of urban issues and unkempt surrounds. But walking further across freshly harvested barley fields with my Polish friends we came to a monastery and beautiful Chorten (large stupa). It was a gorgeously worked and grand structure housing shrines and stairs and a little haven of peace and butterflies in the garden sprinkled with marigolds. The sweet old lama enjoyed sitting with us holding our hands. High up on the hill beyond the fields lay a monumental Om Mani Padme Hum in white stones bound by hundreds of prayer flags; one of many such spiritual billboards you see around towns. We sat there, perfect cotton floss cumulus clouds held on to the turning radiant sky. Their shadows breezed the patchwork land where men tilled the soil and all was well beneath the warm autumn sun.
The afternoon wore late so we passed back to town but I was drawn to the big monastery set as usual above the town in the back. Stony lanes climbed like vines to its golden flanks. It had 500 monks and a similar count of years. The first large building was a pagoda of orange psychedelic mosaic. From the forecourt was one of those views, far beyond the town and fields, of god-hewn mountains that seemed to be reflecting some mystical light from the air itself, galactic cirrus clouds, oceanic sky and all the textures of the earth in ochre. From below me, in a tree-shaded yard, came the sound of many monks who were, to my ear, jabbering. The debating session was drawing to an end. I had never seen the aggresive slapping technique they use to confer slam-dunk delivery on their question like an epistemological Bruce Lee. They do it a lot. I thought there might be a scuffle. But actually it is often more of a quiz than debate, and the subordinate monks take it like, well, monks. Forthwith everyone issued out and into the assembly hall. The gathered locals crushed in and around the open doors with measured haste. I sidled onto the huge porch after them and settled as innocuously as I could in the back with a view inside. A few funny looks, smiles. The older people had a patient wisdom about them. As prayers were intoned the holy tea came out and there was an eager press of activity to fill each bottle from the kettle. Then a red strip of cloth was eagerly draped on each head. Luckily I was helped with procedures. For the rest, people were stoic or chatting a little while the monks chanted and intoned prayers inside. The wind grew cold. A collection hat was passed. Finally there was a small ruckus to receive a tap on the head from a blessed photograph and the congregation dispersed into the dusk. There was such a strong calm energy, power of faith and small acts of welcome (once they knew I was seeing things out) that I felt very emotional. Joyful. I knew the love supreme all the way back down, smiling with the older ladies stopping to spin prayers on the way.
When I heard the outmoded term Lamaism applied to Tibetan religion in books I thought it sounded like an inaccuracy of cultural understanding. In fact Tibetan practice does appear as substantially a complex system of lama worship. The tradition of the Tulku lama reincarnation lineage institutes many hundreds of lamas and abbots as living Bodhisattvas, repeatedly emanating themselves into the world. New incarnations are found as young children using the same process used to find new Dalai Lamas; notably, information provided by the previous Tulku on his deathbed and, in order to certify the youngster, his identification of the previous Tulku’s possessions. This process is not always plain sailing – the succession of the 16th Karmapa in 1981 was marred by a schism involving the Dalai Lama that has never been resolved. High lama’s pictures are unabashed objects of worship. For this reason the Dalai Lama’s picture is banned in TAR. All manner of worship of graven images and magical objects are rife. It is believed almost anything can become imbued with magical powers if it is around powerful lamas or work dedicated to the Dharma. Tea, ritual objects, animals, photos, body parts of the deceased. Those religious relics that survived the trials of recent history are kept in chapels deep inside monasteries in vaulted gold stupas. The teeth of saints and such like. Four tons of gold was used in the case of the stupa tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama in the Potala Palace. It was magnificent. The notion of idolatry is loaded and culturally specific. It is not a cult of personality but ostensibly a culture of spiritual power, attained through transcendence of self.
It is clear that mystical practices in Tibet, and their academic and practical dissemination in society were highly developed. Great spiritual teachers abounded. The question of to what extent politics and religious institutionalization have clouded the records of these teachers is important, however, and usually ignored in the west. Religion was politics in Tibet and politics is always gritty. The great fifth Dalai Lama was known to massacre his opponents and a number of Dalai Lamas were assassinated by inside forces. Religion was also business, as in medieval Europe. The church had the money and responsibilities. The majority of people were serfs in the old days, indentured to the monastery or aristocratic landowners, with almost no rights and heavily taxed. Today’s modern pilgrims eagerly change their hard-earned notes for small change (1 and 5 Jiao notes = 1 to 5p) from a monk with a big sack of loose cash. This money is dispensed liberally throughout the shrine rooms forming great piles and drifts. It gets everywhere. The practices one can observe every day in Tibet evidence two things: the religious passion of the people and the potential for corruption, especially in the current climate. But for the most part, it seems, cultural integrity holds.
I arrived in Manigango, a two yak nomad town I grew to like very much but this time I shot through, and having found a Tasmanian travel companion over lunch, we caught a ride in a large truck bound for Yushu in Qinxai/Amdo. The truck rumbled and squeaked over a high pass then switch-backed down to Zhongian, a historic Tantric university of means set below a spectacular glacial valley. We waited a couple of hours to gain access to the spacious monastery hotel as a stream of colourful nomads, mostly piled on motorbikes, cavalcaded past us toward the exit. We shared the hotel with groups of monks arrived from distant parts for a big gathering. It was the last night. There were tent kitchens, fireworks and thundery rain. It was fun and friendly but then I got something of a shock when I was sure a monk tried to pickpocket me on the dining couch! Right in front of the bifocal gaze of His Holiness. Monks are often touchy-feely but he was pretty much in my pocket. I hope I was wrong. The next day it was impressive to see the tent town set up for the 1000s in attendenance. We mounted an assault on the glaciated hanging valley but were repulsed by boulders, torrents and rain and never cleared the tree line. However, we were rewarded by the autumnal scenery and an took shelter in a hermitage cave.
Another weird monk experience was during the 6-hour no-suspension minibus ride going from Zhongian to Serxu. Some Tibetans stare. Certainly so for one mousy young monk leaving the Zhongian gathering, swiveled as he was in his seat to peer at me searchingly for minutes at a time while I was being being beaten to death by the back seat. I tried to frighten him away subtly but his disturbing gaze continued. Maybe he was an extraterrestrial. Or else he thought I was one. We were handed off to another driver in Serxu. He was the worst I had and that’s saying something. Mini buses drivers are fiendishly capricious about leaving. They just want you inside the van then you may be abandoned, locked in while the driver disappears. When things look like leaving they trawl the town interminably, sometimes even when full, to maybe pack in a couple more. Roads are rough and rolling and people vomit. I had claustrophobia attacks in construction zones. One older well-girthed nomad man kept standing me cigarettes but then spread himself in the middle, like he was birthing. All his weight fell on me as he nodded off and went slack and crushed me against the metal wall. One good thing was the sing-alongs. Sometimes Tibetan music videos, which tended to blend into one and other, were played on the visor. They all were lovely pan shots of Tibetan landscape and tradition: yaks and nomads, long-sleeved dancing beauties, people making momos. You would think they were issued by the Tibetan tourist board. The singers yodel lilting melodies evoking the wounds of love and nation as they wistfully tread the countryside plucking a lute. Some of the music is catchy and many passengers and drivers join right in or may pick up a tune of their own, yodeling and all. With our crazy driver we skirted through Serxu town and monastery. The ladies were all wearing broad, circular, fur-lined hats concentrically decorated. Amdo fashion. There were legions of people roaming the village and surrounds. Another big gathering was in full swing but we had to continue on.
This part of Tibet, like the higher plateau areas of Kham, does not have such spectacular peaks but consists of wide valleys under grass, bracken and seasonal herbage. The hills rise big and round, reminiscent of Scotland on steroids. We crossed the border into Qinxai province. This is the best yak country. Stretching far to the west the high plateau called The Chang averages over 5000m in elevation, yet here the yak thrive with wild bull specimens growing to two meters at the shoulder; about the same size as the jeep you would need to go find them. Most of the livestock here are pure yak. Even an average domestic yak is a very impressive beast, still Pleistocene in its countenance; much more so than the diluted, half-breed dzo cows found commonly elsewhere. Driving through this area it soon was apparent that something big was happening with the nomads – resettlement. Cheap concrete houses sprouted around villages, with animal stockades and Chinese owned greenhouses. The Chinese government in fact has had an explicit policy since 1998 to remove all nomads from their land. The excuse is protection of water and land resources but government policy has been disasterous for the land since collectivization. The Tibetan landscape that we see today was created by the nomads and their herds and managed successfully for thousands of years, maintaining an increased biodiversity. Exploitation of resources and control of the population are clear implicit policy goals, and the result will be complete degradation for nomadic culture and loss of their knowledge. “They can still sing and dance”, as one Chinese official was quoted.
We arrived late in the city of Yushu. Former bandit country (as was much of old Tibet) and people with a reputation as the friendliest folks in the country. The crème de la crème of the amiable. But entering Yushu seemed like entering hells own construction site. The city was a wreck. My god what have they done? Old ladies held base spinning prayers before semi-ruins. Profusions of blue tents increased progressively as we entered. I was in shock. Had the Chinese government gone insane completely. Then my companion Patrick twigged. It was the obstinate two year wounds of the Sichuan earthquake. I was still more vexed. What?! After two years still like this! Appalling. We discussed the disaster in the first evening with our Muslim restauranteur but had some trouble on the numbers like years and casualties. Well, you never know until you know. We discovered belatedly that the earthquake was in fact in March 2010 and 2500 died. There were many billboards advertising the armies heroic response in rescuing buried victims. Our initial disturbance had been lessened as we left the half demolished bus station by a smiling lady who led us clear to the monastery hotel when our initial accommodation choice was found to be missing, replaced by tents. Other people also seemed very happy to see us. All smiles. And so it went. The friendliest Tashi Dele filled folks in Tibet were as billed despite all their calamity. More genuine cheerful greetings than one would ever imaginatively predict in a town where teams were still gutting condemned buildings. Truly Tibet’s finest. We ran into a journalist from the Star in Germany who was following the Mekong to its nearby source. He hadn’t seen any other tourists all week and was surprised that we had come. I confessed our former innocence of facts regarding the situation and said we thought it was a great place.
Near Yushu we visited the Wenchu Temple dedicated to Tibet’s great King Songsten Gampo and his Chinese princess bride who converted him (and consequently Tibet) to Buddhism in the 7th century. They stayed there en route home. The importance of the temple has led to installation of what may be the most illustrious collection of prayer flags anywhere. Strung between towering crags, draping the precipitous mountain like an infestation, the withered, weathered translucent rags, each printed with scriptures, form a virtual forest that provides happy habitat for a great herd of goats. Also in Yushu is probably the worlds largest pile of Mani prayer stones. Each stone carefully carved with a mantra, the pile is so large as to make a ten minute kora circuit around it. Despite seismic damage it was mightily impressive. From what purer time date the stones at the bottom of the pile is anyone’s guess. On the hill above the town, the badly damaged old monastery (the monks were living in new prefab buildings) and the views of the whole ravaged town brought home the gravity of the situation. Below a shattered lodging I found the shards of a painted mandolin, and I gave a small prayer for whoever may have been playing it on that morning six months previously.
I returned east solo hoping that the gathering at the sprawling Serxu monastery was still going. It was. Motorbikes discretely parked, the surrounding moors were full of nomad tents, groups of galloping, banner wielding horsemen, throngs of monks and every other kind of local all there to attend the ceremonies provided by visiting high lamas. Hundreds paced the long, sinuous kora under umbrellas. Folks were having a good time despite the weather. A big characterful crowd was waiting outside the huge assembly hall which contained innumerable rows of monks. Unsurprisingly, there were no beds at the monastery hotel. I was ushered to a room where the abbot, about my age, serious and guarded in action was counting a great wad of cash. After a time he looked me over and indicated to put my bag on the floor, where I could sleep. Adding the money to a large container he told me with a sweep of the hand to go play and return later. I sallied forth and soon met some friendly local guys who invited me to their van for energy drinks and half explicated tales of devilish Chinese plots to cause the Yushu earthquake. Thereafter I was adopted for the day by two young student monks, Lusang Tsejang and Soname Dojie who looked like romantic poet-musketeers and earned good Buddhist merit by guiding me around the huge complex, into its very innards, secret reliquaries, and assembly rooms, and also to the best Tibetan baroque-decorated restaurant in town which was populated by their colleagues, furry nomads and wandering blind beggars. After dusk I gave my thanks to the abbot who touched my hand gently to his cheek with a smile. Perhaps he was relieved I had not stolen his hotel money from the empty room when I went back during the day. I squeezed into a packed minibus driven by a Goliath-sized, bearded nomad fellow. He wanted someone to squeeze into the drivers seat with him but realized the impracticality of this and then bore us like an angel, slowly, on the one hour drive to Serxu town, his gold tooth grin glinting occasionally in oncoming headlights.
Asking Tibetans directions is likely to lead to being escorted or fed. Sometimes you do not have to ask. Arriving in Serxu two guys pulled up next to me, drove me to a cheap hotel and then took me out for dinner. In the morning, a middlle-aged monk called the Aya who spoke almost no English took me by the hand from a minibus going nowhere, had breakfast with me and called a lady English teacher to have her ask how he could help me. On arrival back in Manigango he gave me a scarf and his prayer beads that he had worked on throughout the trip. Borne up by this I wandered out of town in mid-afternoon in hopes of hitching to Dege, with its famous old printing monastery, the greatest storehouse of sacred literature in Tibet. Between me and Dege lay Chola Mountain and the 5000m Tro-la pass. I had given up waiting when at the last came a huge petrol truck. They took me into the cab. Elevated, spacious and cushioned against the rough road, these trucks are the perfect ride. The driver was Chinese and had his little daughter of about three years with him. His mate slept and fiddled with his mobile phone the whole way. I tried some communication but they were thoroughly taciturn. I did not mind his concentrating on driving. The road ran through gorgeous country up a big valley to an endless series of switchbacks that hauled us spectacularly onto the shoulder of the mountain, then down the other side by way of an even more precipitous section. We arrived on the edge of Dege at dark and I was glad to get away from those guys. Located adjacent to the TAR border, there was the high likely-hood that the Public Security Bureau would force me into an over-priced and dingy tourist hotel but by cover of darkness I found a really nice family run place. My room had the novel feature of being the through way to the front door for all the other guests.
Dege monastery was fascinating, surrounded by dyed-in-the-wool pilgrims, and with gorgeous fixtures. It houses a vast collection of woodblock prints which are in constant use. Pairs of printers work together, synced like a machine, fitting, inking, pressing and retrieving the sheets every four or five seconds. From the roof I enjoyed the commanding location and meditated until absurdly loud, militarist calisthenics music burst from the nearby high school. I moved to the 1000 year-old tantric monastery just up the hill. The interior was bedecked with marvelous, spiralling, fabric-covered columns and some of the most terrifying, sexually illustrative tantric murals which make you feel, from a western perspective, that you could be in the belly of some satanic cult. The good-humored monks were gathered before the row of statuary at the front creating an intricate mandala out of fine, coloured silt, meticulously tapped in place according to the time-honored template, and finally swept away like all the other dust on the floor upon completion, bringing the creators into unattached alignment with the impermanence of the world. Since there was not much else to see in gorge-constrained Dege – the approach is a gash just slightly wider than the river and several hundreds meters high – I decided to hitch straight back. In half an hour I was picked up by a boisterous Tibetan couple in their 4 x 4 who whisked me back to Manigango in half time, launching bottles and candy wrappers out the window, and several hundred little, multicolored prayer papers at the pass, as is the tradition, which curled prettily in dayglo rainbows as the wind sucked them into the abyssal blue.
Next day I hiked and hitched from Manigango to Lake Lihun where glaciers come low down the side of Chola Mountain. One guy kept gesticulating that I should take him up on an unsolicited ride so I yielded to his wishes. I was swinging my leg carelessly over a wrapped package on the back when I saw there was a yak horn sticking out of it and aborted the manoeuvre awkwardly. After I did get on, the bloody thing unwrapped itself and fell, suspended from the bike by string and swinging around in an attempt to spike the wheel spokes and kill us. It then fell off altogether and bounced along the road to no apparent harm; those lashy eyes still looked emploringly, frozen in their last moment. I decided to walk. Near the head of the lake I paid my entry dues. None of the income was apparently applied to clean the garbage scattered around the rocks and grass at the near end. I bore toward the east shore, still obscured, and found the trail led to a nomad family’s low stone dwelling. I was summoned by one man for butter tea, which I was getting down successfully, sat there in the warm sun, when monastic chanting suddenly droned from the blue tent before me. A large, maroon and yellow contingent was in there performing some spiritual public service for the community who, in return, vigorously plied the clerics with endless bowls of tea and hot curds as well as plenty plastic bottled soda, even Red Bull. Coming out the head lama cast me a doubtful glance and took a walk so the rest got to hang out, cheerfully prod and test me (arm hair check), while the apparently second ranking monk wrangled with me, mimicking my sillier western intonations. I played along and joined them for ceremonial lunch in the tent where I was joking around with prayer scarf on my head when I was ejected so the real business could begin again. I finally did make it to the far end of the lake where the mangled ice crunches its way down from high on the breast of the mountain to terminate in surging waterfalls. Viewed across a kilometer of bog and silver braids of river it was awesome. I hitched back in another big petrol truck. Friendly Tibetans this time. There are not actually that many of these trucks; I was lucky.
That evening I climbed high on the ridge above the valley outside Manigango and watched the sun turn Chola into iced mango and peach-pink meringue. A precisely aligned full moon rose with inscrutable patience over the sweeping eastern horizon as the lights went down, and I felt like a cosmic fulcrum. Returning back in the twilight I surprised upon a big animal. It was the size of a large dog, squat and shaggy so that I could not see its legs and it appeared to float along, 20m distant. I followed it a little and when it turned to give me a look I got the clear impression of a badger. But I do not think there are giant badgers in Tibet. Perhaps it was a lynx. I was so happy. Anytime I have encounters with wildlife I think it’s a blessing from above. This indicates the same narcissistic religious personality that also has me interpret each misfortune as a result of my misdeeds. It is a childish though not entirely uninformed way of thinking. Just sometimes, it rings true.
My escape back east was marred by two days of the worst traffic and hotel conditions but redeemed by the beauty and serenity of my destination, Danba. On the very edge of Tibet at 1800m, peopled by closely related Qiang living in Tibetan houses, the region is deeply cut by roaring rivers. Massifs rise from the valleys up to splendidly perched bowls and side valleys, where, hidden from below, village culture is strong. The hillsides are full of apples and walnuts and squirrels, great gnarled grandfather trees and flower fields, lazing cows and haystacks, clear ponds and streams; an idealistic vision of rural life gone past punctuated famously by dozens of ancient, tapering stone watchtowers up to 60m high. On my second day I hiked across a ridge between the villages of Zhonglu and Suopo. Luckily I had asked directions from a farmer. He invited me in for yak butter tea and chilli pork explaining I would need the food for the climb (which I had underestimated). He gave directions as best he could with his hands. Unfortunately I missed a little side trail and went straight up to the ridge crest where the huge mountaintop bowl around Suopo was surrounded by cliffs. On the strength of a small blue rag hanging on a bush I divined a trail down, at 60 degrees. This eventually disintegrated into a morasse of cow trails through thorn bushes from which I somehow emerged after thirty minutes, quite disheveled, at the base of a ruined watchtower. It took four hours to get down to the road but that was fine; it was one of the loveliest places I have ever visited and a happy end to my journey through eastern Tibet.
Lhasa and the journey on the friendship highway to Everest Base Camp and Nepal were fascinating and gorgeous but tours always lack some vital element. Inertia. Chance. The dizzying array of bustling, important monasteries was like a visual circus. It is ironic for a tradition based on transcendence of the senses that at least one of them is almost overwhelmed in temples. It was sad to see inflammatory Chinese policy such as a clichéd monument to the heroes of the revolution opposite the Potala and Dico’s fast food chicken gleaming at the end of the square before Jokang Temple. “Autonomy” in the much reduced Tibetan state is serviced by minions dancing to the tune of Chinese autocracy. Preservation is the name of the game given the huge erosive impact of Han immigration and industrial and commercial development, but still Tibet has a mysterious influence that reaches across the globe, partly on account of cultural dispersal caused by the Chinese invasion in 1959. It is not only the humanizing, self-effacing ambassadorship of the Dalai Lama that instills popular fascination. People sense in many aspects of Tibetan culture that something unique and irreplaceable was nurtured here. That despite some grim historical conditions, there were subtle, beautiful qualities which, like the hum of life in an old growth rainforest, have to be experienced first-hand to be appreciated as an innate value; one of a thousand such cultural intangibles that are incrementally crushed under the bulldozers of big business daily, but one more example of a power that resonates through the halls of possible futures.
“EPILOGUE”, October 8th, 2010
I purchased my Chinese visa in Bangkok at the end of July. The embassy staff spoke little English. I requested a 60 day visa without mentioning plans for travel in Tibet as this can cause serious complications and deposited my passport for processing. Returning three days later I found a dual entry, 30 day per entry visa stuck inside. I had not requested a dual entry visa and had no use for one. An unintelligible squiggle was marked next to the 2 indicating the number of entries. I pushed back in line to inquire with the jaded lady behind the tiny, chest-height, speaking grill. Do I have to leave China for second entry? She laughs like it’s a stupid question. No! I am not convinced. But…2 entries, 30 days per entry. Are you sure? I wave my hands to demonstrate leaving and returning. Yes, yes. Not a problem. 60 days. Agitated people are pressing in from behind so I wander back out through the crowd with still some slight doubt in my mind despite the emphatic response. My Lhasa to Katmandu trip was finalized in Laos. I was in regular communication with the Lhasa tour agent office and scanned and emailed my passport photo page and visa for them to process my Tibet travel papers. These I eventually collected from the office in Chengdu without a hitch on September 30th.
A week into the tour, half way from Lhasa to Mount Everest, we were in Shigatse, Tibet’s second city. In the morning we visited Tashilhunpo Monastery, home of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second lama. I had seen him the previous day on Tibet Information Service TV; little video player consoles that provide easy-access propaganda in hotel foyers, stations, government offices. First I watched coverage of the 2008 Lhasa riots, led by “Tibetan separatists”. Hundreds of people laid waste to the ever-expanding downtown Chinese shopping areas. Black smoke billowed over the city. Tibet was closed to the world for several months. The military presence in Lhasa was beefed up and has never gone down – soldiers with sub-machine guns still march around Barkor market square and the souvenir and vegetable stalls. Secondly, I watched a piece on the Panchen Lama, certainly one of Tibet’s most controversial characters and probably one of the Chinese governments dirtier political machinations, recorded during his recent visit to Shigatse. The 11th Panchen Lama was selected by the Dalai Lama in 1995 using the traditional, mysterious process for locating Tulku lamas. He was six years old and living in Amdo. Shortly thereafter he was kidnapped by the government and has not been seen since, supposedly still living in an undisclosed “safe-house”. The Chinese then miraculously found the “correct” reincarnation, despite a dearth of experience in that department, and presented him to the world as a little boy, pointy yellow hat and all. Since then he has lived and studied in Beijing. He comes to Tibet about once a year to visit his home monastery. The news piece had him visiting happy domesticated nomads who were receiving terrific government-provided education and health care. The Panchen Lama said everyone should try to take advantage of such good government policies and live together in peace. Inside the monastery his portrait was ever present but never in a place of preeminence. Rather it was placed equally alongside his dead predecessor. I gather displaying his fairly attractive visage is more or less compulsory though certainly portions of the Tibetan religious community see their future bread buttered on his side. The Panchens had quite the most stunning golden tomb rooms. The effigy recesses were adorned with swirling rainbows as old Panchen’s mortal incarnations dissolved into the spectral eternity of Nirvana. In some cases this rainbow dissolution of the body is reckoned to occur while the great lama is alive. I wonder if the Chinese Panchen can do that?
Returning to the van feeling quite spectral myself, our Tibetan guide Nema was a bit agitated and needed me to return with him to the Public Security Bureau station where he was getting our special permits for the Everest region. Some stamp was missing in my passport. I was not clear which; one just follows along the tide of bureaucracy. Inside the station a greasy, unkempt middle aged cop came out with a slim book and started waving it at me. The immigration rule book. He directed me to the article specifying 500 yuan ($75) daily charge for overstay. I was still not clear in what way I had overstayed but any inquiry or contestation was met with immediate dismissal. My heart sank and nerves rose as it became clear that my assignment to the doghouse was a foregone conclusion. The boss arrived, a smart looking, light-haired lady in her 30s. Maybe she would be more reasonable. We were summoned to her office.
“You have broken the laws of my country!” she berated me, pointing accusatively at my visa. “Why did you do this?!”
“Eh, really, I don’t under-“
“You can say nothing!!” Her voice was so shrill. Exactly the tone you would expect from a maniac Red Guard accusing you of being a reactionary pig during the Cultural Revolution. “You write letter now! Exactly what happened!”.
I wrote a one page letter detailing my immigration history and throwing in some apologies for not properly understanding immigration laws, indicating my overstay was unintentional but my responsibility. After we read it through she smiled. This was exactly the legal documentation she needed to proceed.
“Since you have apologised we can finish quickly. Please sit down”. We conducted an interview. It was noted on the statement that since I was cooperative and had a “nice smile” I would be issued a replacement visa and my fine reduced from the maximum 5000 yuan to only 3000 ($450). She was even helpful enough to note that I had uttered “thank you” for this when I had not. We got some tea. She smiled magnanimously. Somehow I could not smile back, even though I was so “lucky”. After about three hours and a trip to the ATM we were done. The new visa was issued. Nema would have to return later to face further interrogation, a 1000 yuan fine and the possibility of being blacklisted as a guide next year. The travel agency would be hit up for 5000 yuan. Quite a lucrative business.
We caught up with our patiently waiting group members and joined the drivers for a quick lunch. The story was reiterated and then the drivers began discussing it with four Tibetans across the table, a young woman and three men. I was focused on my food when suddenly a bundle arrived from across the table. 800 wrapped up yuan. A tear was falling from the woman’s eye. The money, $120 was for me. I was rather dumbfounded. I tried to return it. No…it’s too much! They insisted. I cant! Again. Four, five times. Please take it. Nema came in. I forced half the money into his because I was feeling very bad for him. I did not really know what to do. The locals did not seem so happy about this but I thanked them profusely and made my exit. Later the drivers became really angry with Nema for accepting the money and he returned it all to me. A feud developed between Nema and the drivers over it and I felt responsible. I think I still do not really understand Tibet, but I love it.