Very Big Brother on the South Silk Road
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Forget everything you have read in newspapers, on the web or seen on television. It's all lies and propaganda.
The PRC is currently addled with the rare affliction of Olympica Nervosa (extremis).
Tibet is officially off limits to individual travellers.
I'd been planning this ride for a few years, and during the time watched the 'semi-autonomous' province slowly become more accessible to outsiders.
At the end of last year, the TTB (Tibet Travel Permit), the ubiquitous US$200 per person cash cow, had even been binned.
Lockdown. Everybody who belongs in, stays in. Everybody else out, and stay out!
Agree or not with the fundaments of the dissension, the pragmatist in me can certainly understand how and why an authoritian state would react in such a way to a social stability threat, or at least an embarrassing chapter in the lead-up to their big day.
However, understanding autocratic logic in no way sweetens the pill I had to chew on.
Earlier, I'd approached the 'kingdom in the sky' from the south, through Nepal, only to be rebuffed by the Chinese authorities in Kathmandu.
Sorry pal, the Olympic torch hasn't even burned through Lhasa yet. Come back and see us in September.
Under the tightest security, the flame burned through the thin air, of course without incident.
Soon after, signs began to go up in Kathmandu offering the vaunted 3-5 day bus rides up on to the plateau, to Lhasa
The decision was made to make a new approach from the north, from the safety of mainland China itself.
So I hauled myself across the top of India, through Pakistan, up and over the Karakoram Highway, and then spent a four day hell ride (all with absolute paradoxical pleasure) along the southern silk road through the bottom fringe of the sand pit better known as the Taklamakan Desert, over the Altun Shan range which fringes the desert and the Tibetan Plateau, to finally arrive with dusty bus-bum-numb amusement in Golmud - the middle of China, the middle of nowhere.
But it's the closest place of any import to get the required permission, and a bus or train ticket south.
Spend an evening de-numbing and head off to the permit office at 9am, Saturday, which I had been assured would be open.
Of course it wasn't, but a well-penned note to 'Foreigners wanting to travel to Tibet' taped to the door offered an out-of-office number.
Hi, can I come and pick up a permit on Monday?
"No ... not possible ... impossible ..
No matter which way I turned the handle, the door would not open.
If there was one thing I learned during 11 years in Hong Kong, it is that if a minor bureaucratic functionary says no, it means no no no!
However, Mrs Not Possible went to pains to point out that I should not get the wrong impression.
"Tibet was not actually closed to foreigners."
You just have to be in a group, of the same nationality, and have booked from abroad.
Individual travellers, sadly, uhm, for the moment .....
Travellers' cafes carry rumours of travel agencies that bypass the 'abroad' criterion, but where the hell am I going to find three other South Africans in Golmud, near the east end of the old south silk road.
I'd only come across one South African in six months of travelling, and she was a grey-dyed blonde Durban-based trinket trader in downtown New Delhi.
More murmurings of top-end hotels packing a mob into a 4x4 and sending them off on a 'fully inclusive' at rates far more suited to the fat-walleted, blow-dried blow-ins and bow-outs than the average sojourner
The downside was that I was looking forward to the pressurised-cabin train ride over the 5,000m snow and ice plateau just as much as seeing Lhasa's magical white palace Potala.
Seems destiny does not have Tibetan Buddhism on the books for me just yet. What is it? Have I killed too many fish? What about the ones I threw back?
And that was just the climax of a four day ride across the desert where I didn't know where I was half the time, landed up sleeping in tiny towns that do not seem to exist on any map, and got stuck in some crazy parallel time zone.
Where the hell am I, and what time is it? Odd questions to ask when standing in a bus reservation office.
And that was just crossing one province of China, Xinjiang - bigger than Alaska, and home of the Uighurs, who speak a kind of old Greek/Turkish sounding language, with a coruscated tongue. Plenty of tshkr sounds.
No pigs. Most are Muslim. Plenty sheep, goats and cattle. Great kebabs everywhere.
People look like they are from one of the 'Stans. And they probably are.
Catch a bus out of Kashgar, in the extreme west. The ticket is printed with Xinjiang time, and departs as planned.
Next stop Hotan (after passing Yengisar, Markit, Yarkand, Karghlik ... do you hear those Mandarin sounds?). The next bus ticket is printed with Xinjiang time. But departure is Beijing time. Two hours earlier. If you don't ask, you will miss the bus. Period.
Then book a bus to Charklik - this time Beijing time in print and reality.
Only problem is the bus doesn't get to Charklik, but stops in some kind of nameless, timeless desert village.
"What, nobody told you the bus doesn't go to Charklik," I am asked, in word and sign language.
Hokay, when's the ride to the next town then?
I am taking a crash course in illiteracy. I cannot read, speak or understand Mandarin. There is a peculiar, wry pleasure in having a glimpse into what it means to being completely illiterate, and mute.
All the towns have Mandarin and Uighur names
I can read the words of the towns from the translations in the guide book. But making them sound correct is a large problem in the land of multi tones.
But necessity is the master of invention, and I am beginning to tune my ear to the cadence. And then 'of course' discover that a country the size of China is bound to have dozens of regional accents.
All the non-official people (and most officials) are incredibly friendly, inquisitive, but if you can't handle being stared at, don't do China's back roads.
First question is always 'where do you come from'. Nam Fei is South Africa. Easy enough to say. "Where is that?" In Fei Jou (Africa). Except a lot of people don't understand this. I learn it can be said Fei Dou, Fei Tou, Fei Tor, Fei Jor etc.
At present, picking which listeners will understand which specific sound still eludes me.
And all the way along the road are the police and army.
Roadblock after roadblock. Probably 20 in the four days.
Passport, all out, what's in the bags?
Amusing, unless you're all made to wait next to the road in the midday summer desert sun for an hour as one so-called dodgy looking character has his papers checked and rechecked.
I chance a look at a PC terminal when my name is entered. Up comes my info: somebody translates the name of every checkpoint I have been through, every hotel I have stayed at, where you always have to register as a temporary resident on a form, which is submitted, of course, to little brother to bigger brother, big bigger brother and biggest brother. Every person, everywhere. God help the data base mechanics.
A hotel is a hotel, is it not? Of course not.
Some for foreigners, most not.
Many are not permitted, or do not carry the documents, to register foreign guests.
In one small town, I attempt to tell a taxi driver the name of my hotel "Xxxxx Binguan" (binguan = foreigner/better hotel).
The name does not come out right, and we arrive at the most expensive binguan in town. He just mutters "binguan, binguan".
I induce him to another. Still to expensive. Take me to a cheapie.
I walk in the door, and the little 10-year-old girl sitting on the receptionist's chair next to her mum almost falls to the floor. "No, no, out, out" can be the only words that mum is saying. Her arm just points to the door. Out. Kindly.
Closing in on Golmud, the last night stop is at the end of an eight-hour jeep ride up 4,000m into the mountains. The final 1,000m ascent is along the shale, boulder bed of a trickling river. If your karma is bad, a flash flood will have no mercy. I warrant it is the end of the summer snow melt.
Near midnight drive into a complex of buildings. Definitely not on a map. It is an asbestos mine migrant worker's compound.
What's the name of the place?
I am travelling with two Mandarin/English speakers, and they translate.
Into a classic apartheid era mineworkers' dormitory hostel. Smelly rooms, ranky dank sunken mattresses. A TV! US$1.50 per night.
The local cantina is still open. Mutton soup. A big bowl, piece of fatty mutton, heart, kidney, intestine, unknowns, a few veggies and hand-pulled noodles. Totally delicious, if you keep your eyes closed. But a treat for 'hot pot' officianadoes.
Awake to see the night shift switch bus seats with the day shift. Everybody is wearing a very thick face mask.
A dash for a morning constitutional. Architecture true to form. Four walls, a long flat concrete slab with six elongated holes in it. A shallow-drop, about 1.5m on to a dug out ledge. Months of drop. Squat, function, flee. One can almost admire the beauty of the minimalism.
Board our transport and drive into the mine proper to seek more passengers.
It is a grey day. Low dusty clouds block out the sun. The earth is grey, covered in inches of the finest of grey dust. Mountains, 10m high, of grey dust line the road. Buildings and houses are covered. Everybody on the bus is coughing and choking. Outside the bus the world is black and white. Grey, precisely. The apocalypse has arrived early here.
Workers on the bus, going to town, all wear downturned eyes, blotched cheeks. There are no smiles, even though some have just showered and put on their Thursday best. This is not a happy place. It is impossible to open a bus window to take a photograph. The pictures would be for others. This is one sight not possible to forget.
And finally to Golmud.
Happy days, from here to Tibet.
Think again, buddy.
To Dunhuang, to see the Caves of 1,000 Buddhas (Mogao Caves), one of the world's great repositories of ancient Buddhist art and relics.
This is the end of the Silk Road, almost the official entry point into old Imperial China, the Middle Kingdom.
Bits of Great Wall, old garrison forts, old control gates. All huge sun-baked, bleached mud edifices.
The 'caves', actually man-dug grottoes, are magnificent. Hundreds dug into sandstone cliffs over the past 2,000 years. All the walls and ceilings are painted with thousands of Buddhas and all his attendants. The colours mostly hold true. Statue after statue fill the hollows. Two Buddhas are about 15m tall. That's about five storeys high. I look straight on at an ankle.
The grottoes were mainly sponsored by Silk Road traders, making tribute to the heavens for having crossed the treacherous road successfully, or asking that they survived the trials ahead of them.
All the paintings of the Buddhas had tiny amounts of gold in their eyes. Most have been gouged out.
I have yet to discover how these fabulous relics to the past failed to fall to the ministrations of the Red Guards during the 'Out with Old, in with the New' phase of the cultural revolution.
The local speciality dish: thinly sliced, braised donkey with chilly and garlic dip. Damn delicious. And mutton dumplings.
Onwards, towards Tibet's second city, Xiahe (Shee-ah-gha ... took me a while to even get that right), which is in the province of Gansu. I don't need a Tibet permit.
At the bus station, naturally get told no, there is a decree of no buses to this destination.
Debunking, of course, means no foreigners, as I spot the odd Tibetan monk in the bus waiting room.
I am now, like it or not, in Lanzhou, recently officially posted as the most polluted city in the world.
Don't be fooled. I'm loving every minute of it.