China by duvet

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Number 17 (29th June 2004 - 10th July 2004): China by duvet

Apparently, many westerners are exposed to Tibetan at an early age:

Luke Skywalker: "Where is Princess Leia?"
Ewok (in Tibetan): "Paddy field, yak, refrigerator"

Anyway, in order to get there we had a 4hr drive north of Kathmandu. Of course, allowing for bulldozers pushing lorries out of the way whilst rebuilding the life-threatening precarious road, and us walking stretches where the tiny Suzuki car just couldn't make it, we arrived at the border after at least 7. Taking rooms at Kodari we peeped out through steamy windows, over a great river crashing in the ravine below, at a Tibetan mountainside on the other side.

An early morning crossing of Friendship Bridge was followed by a temperature gun to the head recording a non-SARS 26, and the completely over the top shiny posts and red rope of Chinese customs in grotty Zhangmu. A misty road wound up and up with waterfalls tumbling on to the vehicle, to the unfortunately named Nyalam (literally, 'road to hell'). Comfortably warm, yak dung smoky rooms with grinning Tibetans and salt butter tea and dried yak meat entertained us each evening, before we retired to colourful, cosy rooms piled high with blankets. But just what is the etiquette of 4-in-a-row communal holes in the floor?

Rapidly gaining altitude at the Lalung La ('windy pass') at 5,050m, the first indicators of altitude sickness were felt. As the air pressure drops, less oxygen makes its way into the lungs and some quite unexpected effects are experienced: insomnia and loss of appetite in particular (disastrous for us).

Our first great bit of serious off-roading saw us rattling across rugged rock and river strewn valley floors in between bare jagged hills, waving from our comfy seats to brightly coloured locals riding to the 4 day festivals (where on earth were they all coming from?). Arriving at the world's highest monastery at Ronghbu, we caught the first glimpse of the mighty Quomolangma (Everest 8,848m; to give you some idea, the much older Ben Nevis peaks at around 1,350m). In addition to the border checkpoint, the second major incursion by the Chinese government was witnessed: a rather obtrusive Tupperware box and outrageously expensive hotel set back, as if uninvited, from the Tibetan village and monastery. Singing and drinking (strangely, beer by the shot glass) helped the now worrying sleeplessness.

Early morning rewarded us with stunning, sleeping bag views of the world's highest summit set against the sharpest blue sky. Scrambling out we set off on the 2hr breathless ascent to the Base Camp, noting a few weird local rodents gerbils and meerkats?!?) and spectacular rock strata on the way. It's also worth mentioning that if you want a tropical tan in about 2 minutes then this is the place to be; in all honesty the sun is so close you can touch it (with bad results if you thought factor 10 was sufficient). The pressure changes also brought about more unexpected results. To try to explain this with a not too completely irrelevant example, imagine a toothpaste tube filled at sea level. Now, take this tube to 5,000m where the air pressure is lower than the pressure of the toothpaste tube contents. Therefore, when the tube is opened, the contents are extremely keen to depart the tube, so to speak.

Ascending further to a pass at 5,220m we encountered an extremely happy, red-haired and windswept crowd of Tibetans dancing round guitars, prayer flags and khatans, each bedecked in a huge range of beads, daggers and the occasional pin-striped suit. Losing the last glimpse of Everest we descended switch-back for several hours, stopping at some hot, sulphurous springs complete with a toothless happy woman and her grubby-faced children. An ancient watermill slowly ground barley for tsampa (the peculiar Tibetan staple dish, scooped in balls and somehow eaten). Our other daily dish was sanje (rice, potatoes and a sliver of yak meat).

One particularly aesthetic part of the regular scenery is that of nomadic yak herders, with their big black tents (made entirely from the waterproof yak's tail) and their smoky, grubby-faced children. Striding across the bleak plains to one family we introduced ourselves, hand outstretched as only the English can ("paddy field yak refrigerator?"), and we were shown inside the tardis of accommodation: piles of skins, dried meat and cheese, butter making equipment and in the middle an old kettle suspended over a stove of smoking yak dung. Admittedly with some persuasion, Emma achieved a life-long ambition and rode a yak. Lhatse was then our first experience of an almost entirely Chinese town, with locals having disappeared before a selection of terrible new constructions were thrown up (half of the tiling having fallen off long before their completion, no doubt).

An ever-increasing Chinese presence was felt with Shigatse largely revamped in full tack, although the town remains Tibetan and has the spectacular village of a monastery: Tashilunpo. Built on the side of a hill with cobbled streets and 15th century Tibetan monks' dwellings, a large amount was destroyed during the, ironically called, 'Cultural Revolution'. Whilst this Maoist policy is sickening to discover in Tibet, it is important to remember that this was happening all over China. The strength of this monastery was reduced from 3,000 monks to just 300. There are 3 sects of Tibetan Buddhism and the one represented here Gelungpa) is particularly popular: it's founder went on to become the 1st Dalai Lama (not a phrase to banter around mainland China). Several destroyed halls have been rebuilt, and an amount of looted artefacts returned. A huge Maitreya future Buddha, 26m tall) fills one hall, and built with hundreds of kilos of gold plus pearls, corals and ambers is pretty impressive. One hall was filled with tonnes of grain to hide the contents whilst the Chinese army was stationed, unaware, outside. The monks are very talkative and visitors are predominantly local and Chinese. We managed to get permission to return at 6pm to find our way through the silent maze of streets to sit in the ancient, low-beamed assembly hall to hear the young ones chanting and slurping their butter tea. Butter. Butter candles. Butter. We found the kitchens (of course) and, welcomed in, we found walls so thick in butter we almost lost several inquisitive fingers. Now here was something we could understand: the Tibetans belief and philosophy may be with the Buddha, but they appear to worship the greatest substance known to mankind: butter.

Gyantse was probably a picturesque town not so long ago, but its spectacular British-Indian fort currently presides over a huddled group of medieval Tibetan houses and a mud street full of poor Chinese construction. The very old Palcho Monastery, representing all 3 sects, is absolutely wonderful. Small compared to Tashilunpo (3,000 monks reduced to just 30), its puzzle-roofed and original internal architecture is outstanding. Watched over by ancient Buddha statues, most in their original clothing, we drifted by the dusty collection of 600 year old wood and gold bound vellums stacked high against the butter-blackened walls of the 'library'. The 9-storey Khumbum Stupa is pretty amazing against its 'mini wall of China' mountain backdrop. Each of its intricately painted 77 chapels contains a set of Buddha statues from various communities (eg India and Bhutan). Khumbum literally means 10,000 images (of the Buddha). The monks here are very chatty, and it was here that we witnessed the comedy cliche of a monk getting caught playing with his mobile phone.

The final push for Lhasa was made amidst increasingly fertile valleys. All we had to do was cross one extremely cold mountain pass with the beautifully suspended billion tonne Karo La glacier, and skirt the holy Yamdrok Tso Turquoise Lake) for an hour or two. Then the full force of the rains was brought upon us (we probably shouldn't have actually eaten that butter). As dust turned to mud no road was actually seen for hours as we undertook the most brutal of off-roading, heroically wading rivers finding crossing places, and pulling vehicles out of deep holes. All fun and excitement then came to a halt when a huge landslide brought everything down into the lake. For hours we squatted with locals as dynamite and a very adept digger attempted to scratch away at the vast rockfall, made very difficult due to everybody's unwillingness to allow any more rock to fall into the holy lake (not even boats are allowed on it). After about 5 hours a passageway had been cleared and just as vehicles were being reboarded a strange cracking sound was heard above us and two absolutely huge perfectly cubed rocks slowly bounced down the mountainside. Panic ensued but, much to the locals dismay, one only clipped an army vehicle before coming to rest in the middle of the cleared path. And out came the playing cards again.

As with most cities, arrival in Lhasa was an anti-climax: Tibetans are essentially country people and, compared with the villages, the capital isn't an overly pleasant place. Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama, is huge and possibly the largest palace in the world. However, as with similar vastly over-priced city structures (eg Edinburgh Castle), the greatest pleasure is gained from its simply being there, always looking down over you. The impressive Jokhang Temple is surrounded by an ancient bazaar, but Chinese overhauling of the whole area is so over the top with billboards stuck on the fronts of beautiful old buildings and the most unpleasant plastic street lamps ever witnessed, rendering the whole area sterile and rather depressing. Given the option, we would greatly recommend travelling from Lhasa to Kathmandu, rather than vice-versa.

Heading north down the other side of the Himalayan Plateau was an unexpected pleasure as we boarded a local sleeper bus to Golmud. It rather looked like the living room floor at 10am following an over-invited party, with shiny silver poles sticking up everywhere supporting the next layer of bed-sored, smoking snoozers. We spent the next 25 hours comfortably propped up against our bags, snuggled under white (?!) government-issue duvets. And despite the window next to us leaking and the temperature dropping to zero for the first 20hrs, China was entered in 12 worth of luxury. For risk of offending, we can't describe the Chinese truck stops en route. Scenery predominantly consisted of our long straight road on a bed of bleak, rock and yak strewn valley, permanently surrounded by snow-topped mountains, before we dropped abrubtly into the Tsadum Desert on the other side.

So what is the story of Tibet v. China? Historically, the once forbidden kingdom was 'invaded' by China in 1950 and for almost 10 years civil disturbances, mostly peaceful, opposed the occupation. Then, with much force, China moved in and the Dalai Lama with thousands of followers fled south into India and Nepal. Over 6,000 monasteries were reduced to 31, and the official description of this is the ironically called 'Cultural Revolution' (Mao's little mistake). It is important to remember that this was happening all over China, and not just in Tibet. There are plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding it all. Tibet has been accused of having a feudal theocratic society, and for treating women particularly badly (apparently, the word for 'woman' in old Tibetan actually means 'inferior birth'). Monasteries were accused of being armed villages of monks complete with military warehouses and private armies, with the main activity of monasteries being to rob the surrounding peasants. This would certainly explain the destruction of so many monasteries when the Chinese army moved in. The strangest things to us is that the west (particularly America) supports the Dalai Lama as the legitimate leader of a country, under the banner of 'Free Tibet'. This contradicts completely with America's dislike of, for example, the religious leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei. There certainly appears to be far too much western romanticism involved.

Destruction continues all over China, amidst controlled spending and rebuilding in full Chinese tack. The biggest problem appears to be that witnessed on the Andaman Islands in India: dilution of the indigenous population. Benefits are offered to Chinese families to settle here, such as the right to bear two children. Spying is apparently rife, and although you know that it may not be a good idea, conversations keep starting, particularly with monks. In order to keep money in the community, as everywhere, it is advisable to avoid the expensive government hotels and stay locally. There is, of course, a slightly more sinister reason for China's interest in the region. Parked casually in one town, we saw a government van with the foolishly translated name on the side, 'Chinese Exploitation of Minerals in Tibet'. Does this all sound too much like a Scooby Doo plot? It was also interesting that some of the younger English speaking Chinese we met were openly talkative about politically seditious topics such as Taiwan and Tiannamen Square, but as soon as Tibet was mentioned conversation became very awkward and stopped.

One final point to be mentioned is that stressed by several Tibetans: most of the Chinese in Tibet (and everywhere in China) are such good people, and their food is delicious! This reminded us of the same point made in Iran, "we may have problems with the politics and politicians, but we are all the same people."

Butter Bill and Ewok Ems
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