Actually it was eight…who can afford Seven Years anymore? I arrived back in Kathmandu two days ago and have been going through decompression ever since. What a phenomenal experience. My trip consisted of a four day drive to Lhasa, two and a half days in Lhasa, and a flight on Southwest China back to Kathmandu.
Pretty rough travel, the Friendship(?) Highway from Nepal to Lhasa is one of the best roads in Tibet, but it rates up (or down) there with overland travel in Cambodia. Landslides, craters, hairpin curves with 1,000 meter drops – makes the 5 freeway in LA seem like a gentle jaunt through the country. Actually, imagine a 23 passenger bus riding down a stream bed with occasional cascades – that’s a pretty good indication of road travel in Tibet.
Actually, I wish I had my mountain bike – would have been great, aside from the 6 or 7 passes in excess of 17,000 feet. I really fell in love with the warmth and humour of the Tibetan people, the grandeur of the mountains, the vastness of the Tibetan plateau, the squat toilets with no water, and the rancid yak butter/salted tea. Actually, I lied about the toilets & the tea. Funny, tea in Tibet is actually more like cheese bouillon. Mmmmmmmmmmm.
So from the border, we arrived in Nyalam, a small truckstop town. From there to Xigatse, and the Tashilumpho Monastery, seat of the Panchen lamas. The main chapel contained a 23 meter tall Maitreya Buddha (I think it was Maitreya… our guide, Dawa, was a little less than informative or interested in showing us around. “Over der – Buddha, Yeah fift Buddha.
From Xigatse we went to Gyantse, home to an amazing monastery called the Kumbum. Along the way, we saw the north face of Mount Everest – cute little hill…then past the Turquoise Lake. Fantastic. Rode a yak on Karol La pass. You know, ordinary stuff.
To arrive in Lhasa after such extreme desolation, what a shock. Lhasa is for all intents and purposes, a modern Chinese city – it’s clean, organized, and the modern parts, ugly post-modern everything-on-a-grid school of architecture. But the Potala, the Barkhor, Sera and Drepung, the Jokhang, Norbulinka, the Tibetan quarter – absolutely amazing. A little unsettling seeing all the Chinese soldiers watching people praying and circumambulating, and all the surveillance cameras in the Potala and Norbulingka. And there is no mention at all of the 14th Dalai Lama – enemy number one of the Chinese state.
China is, I feel, trying to allow Tibet to be a little more Tibetan than they have allowed in the past, though. I think they realize if they have a “safe” Disney version of Tibet, it will keep bringing the considerable and frequent tourist dollars into China/Tibet. But in Lhasa, Tibetan are the minority, and Tibetan the second language. Seems China is moving all it’s “extra” Han Chinese into Tibet with tax incentives and the lure of being able to have more than one child.
So what were the people on the tour like, you might ask? Let’s suffice to say that I won’t being doing a group tour again. Ever. My roommate, a very nice English in Australia gentleman, was a doppelganger for Aunta Clara in “Bewitched”. He blamed the altitude, bit I think a few fuses might have burned out a decade or so ago. Also had a overbearing hypochondriac waiter/speedfreak/ex-hippy with a bad face lift, two Dutch couples, a Russian couple, a hilarious French woman in her fifties, a French prig who spoke unintelligible English and sneered at everyone, a fantastic German woman doctor, a great Aussie from Melbourne, and an ex-stockbroker from Hoboken. Could have been a play.
Some complaints I heard? “There is no microwave in the hotel!” “I’m cold.” “I’m Hot.” “The road is too bumpy.” “Free Tibet!” (said as a joke at a Chinese checkpoint.) “everybody should be free”…duhhhh.
I’d never seen such cultural insensitivity, such bad “humour”, actually, such stupidity, from grownups. They were in a third world nation controlled by a Communist country against the natives wishes – what were they thinking? Holiday in Paris? Mints on the pillows? Maybe I’ve been roughing it too long. They really worked my last good, though mostly frazzled, nerve.
Yeah, I think everyone should be free to make choices and decisions regarding all aspect of their lives, and, yes, that is not the case in Tibet at the present. But ill-timed jokes and simplistic attitudes are not exactly the best venue for disagreeing with China in Tibet. Do that at home – write your congressman, boycott Chinese goods, whatever. But by going to Tibet, you have to play by the rules China has set down. If you don’t agree, do go. Period.
And Lhasa, I think, could use a good English school, as the only words I heard in Tibet were, “Lookie, lookie. I sorry. I love you.” Actually, I guess one could get by pretty well on just these words. Tomorrow, I leave for Bardia again on my way to Delhi. Send good tiger vibes.
PS: I had a Nepali explain what Nepal, India and Tibet were acronyms for…
Nepal – Never Ending Peace And Love
Tibet – Tibet Is Beautiful Even Today
and my favorite…
India – I’ll Never Do It Again.