Intro to tibet
Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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It was great to ride in company, but as the road deteriorated even further, coming to resemble a dry riverbed- big rocks on loose gravel- Pawel and Magda's skinny tyres and road wheels became a serious hinderance. It was while waiting for them to push their bikes down a descent that I realised we would have to split up soon. We'd managed to lose Stephan. He fell behind on the road out of Mazar, a tiny truck stop that was the first 'town' on the map after the Kudi checkpoint. He'd been talking about splitting off and doing longer days, in order to reach Ali in time to extend his visa, so we reasoned that if he was going to do that, he'd catch us up. (I, in particular, reasoned this whenever Pawel and Magda looked inclined to wait for him). Two days later he waved to me from the passenger seat of a passing truck.
It took surprisingly little time to develop a rhythm. I woke up each morning, cooked porridge with as many 'extras' (raisins, peanuts, bits of biscuit, fruit, sugar) as I could spare, and coffee or tea (Pakistani grains with milk and sugar, until they ran out and were replaced with green jasmine tea). The dry air and light fabric meant dew or ice evaporated quickly in the morning sun, so I waited for the tent to dry before breaking camp. Most days I was camped near the beginning of a climb, so would spend the morning grinding up a pass, with the afternoon devoted to reaching the next climb. Since villages tend to be located in valleys, this rhythm meant that if there was a village, I would reach it around lunch time. If there was no village, I made do with biscuits and sweets. I averaged around 70km per day, albeit slowly. The only consistent feature of the almost entirely unsealed road was its shoddiness. The variety was simply whether I was stuck in sand, snow or mud; jolting over corrugations, potholes or aggregate.
Ngari (west Tibet ) was one big campsite. In the wilds, the nomadic way of life has remained unchanged for much of the population, despite the Chinese influence on the villages. The 'Chinese influence' has been to build new towns adjacent to existing Tibetan settlements, constructed out of flat-slab concrete and painted yellow. I assumed these were intended for Chinese settlers. It wasn't until much later that I discovered the insidious truth: Tibetans were compelled to spend their own money (or borrow) to build 'modern' houses, replacing their current homes. That this policy was bankrupting many Tibetans and depriving them of their traditional, culturally and environmentally appropriate, family home was an appalling discovery. To find that one of the rationales was to make Tibetan towns appear more 'modern' for visiting tourists (viz. me) was galling.
Several times I wandered aimlessly through a newish, smartish ghost-town in search of food or accommodation, before realising that everything I actually wanted was two hundred yards away in those scruffy dwellings behind. The best Tibetan houses, where they could be found, looked ancient by design- one or two storeys, generally with strong, inward sloping walls to stand up to the weather, washed-white with red-decorated lintels. In Ngari, wooden shacks and canvas tents were more common. Most homes had a courtyard for their livestock. In more agrarian areas the houses were second-storey bungalows, with the animals housed below, warming the living quarters with their body heat, while the drying wheat harvest provided roof insulation.
Inside there would be one or two rooms, a huge wood- and manure-fired iron stove on which water was boiled, hands warmed, food cooked. A chimney would snake its way through the room and out the roof, providing central heating to the space. Low bed-benches, spread with bright, yak-hair blankets, lined the walls. Unlike the Chinese buildings, the Tibetan homes did not jar with the landscape. The Chinese concrete constructions seemed to decay before they were finished. They were generally too large and inefficient for the climate and had ambitions to plumbing and heating that were undermined by poor workmanship.
Any discussion of Tibetan towns must emphasise the distance between them. Riding two or three days between tiny villages was the norm, so I had to be totally self-sufficient. Fortunately, as a camper, it was often possible to be a beggar and a chooser, and hold out for a pretty patch of grass away from the road and near a stream. I pitched the tent about an hour before dusk and immediately started cooking dinner. I was always famished. I abandoned the packets of instant noodles, with a sachet of dried taste and neither calories nor vitamins to commend them. Instead I bought proper, flat noodles and cooked them with a random selection of extras. Spicy pickled vegetables from a foil sachet were a staple, as were shrink-wrapped cooked chicken legs, shrink-wrapped dried marinated tofu, raisins, peanuts and some 'chicken stock', which was mainly MSG. This diet represented total cultural immersion, since noodles with whatever is available is Tibet 's second national dish, after tsampa, and is called thenthuk. Momos, widely available among exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, were surprisingly hard to come by. Where I could buy Tibetan food at all (in many villages the only restaurant was Chinese-the Tibetans have no culture of 'eating out' and not much by way of cuisine) it tended to be rice either with vegetables and offal or yak chunks and potato.
Tsampa was the real Tibetan taste. Roasted barley flour, mixed by hand with yak butter and yak butter tea until it formed a dough. This was either sticky with grease or dry and flaky depending on how much butter was used. Both ways it ended up a gluey, insoluble, unswallowable bolus. I never acquired the taste. Tsampa is eaten all day everyday, washed down with the almost as execrable yak butter tea. On the other hand, a delicious breakfast of kyo-ma (tsampa porridge made with yak butter tea, sugar and on a very good day, raisins) was occasionally available from locals. Tibetan homes tended to double as a kind of shop or restaurant, but one with little interest in actually selling anything-more like a storeroom really. If they had what you needed, and could be persuaded to part with it, then you could have it. Availability of tsampa was never an issue if there were people around, nor was communication in the normal sense- I could pronounce 'tsampa' and 'kyo-ma' without too much trouble. The problem was persuading people that I honestly wanted it. They were so firmly convinced that foreigners wouldn't like their food that even pointing to the sack, holding out money, making eating gestures and saying (more or less) the name of the food, I still came away empty handed. A couple of times, after the householder, in great trepidation and scepticism, duly provided me with kyo-ma, they were so shocked and delighted to see me tuck in they refused my money.