Enough of tarmac, the bank of China and “Hotels for Foreigners”. Enough of stir-fried pork with green pepper (Duncan’s staple diet) and the Han Chinese. We had seen the Ying, Bristol2Bombay went to Tibet to find the Yang….
The Sitting Room of Degei Gompa
It’s 8 ‘o’ clock in the evening; all is dark but for candlelight and some glowing coals. We sit on cushions around the room, each next to a monk. They wear their traditional red robes and sip yak butter tea whilst reading Tibetan scripture. We do the same but instead of prayers we are reading “Bleak house”, “The Odyssey”, “The Japanese Buddhist Organization Writings of the Dharma” and… err…”Harry Potter”. The fifth one mind (it’s well thick).
We have befriended two wise monks; they live on the vast plateau of Ganzi. It stretches for miles and is only ended when the land veers up to form alpine peaks. This contrast of high and low is varied only by the summits of temples which there at least four of in the close area.
It’s an incredible feeling being all alone in this clay compound, in a Tibetan highland, with two monks. We spend our days simply watching the tabletop that surrounds us from the flat-roof. We taste Yak meat in many forms, all of which are chewy. The Sampa is a greater success- a dough mixture that you mix together with your hands- lovely washed down with Yak Butter Tea and sugar.
Earlier on our host (Llama I) showed us a photo of the Dallai Llama. This man handled the photograph like a precious jewel and had wonder in his eyes as he passed it to us. They narrowed to anger and his fists swiped through the thin air on account of the Chinese forcing his leader away. A powerful introduction to the problems in Tibet.
We only stay for one night but quickly adapt to life here. There’s not much speaking, we communicate with eye contact or smiles with our friends. One morning at breakfast I look up and see our monk resting his head on Sam’s shoulder. It’s a sudden “Jeez I’m in Tibet” moment! The plateau is very peaceful, it’s bleak but is also clearly lived in – the Tibetans seem in harmony with their surroundings. Before we leave the monks mutter prayers for safe travel.
Before Degei Gompa
It began in Chengdu. We started it there because we had to start it somewhere. And also because some Americans kicked up trouble – (don’t they always 😉 – around Lhasa, the consequence being a tightening on restrictions for foreigners. There was far too much talk of permits, tours and travel agencies for the group of four who had been six months on the road and were battling with budgets the size of bolemics. We constructed a route through the Tibetan prefectures of Kham and Amdo, or on a Chinese map across the northwest of Sichuan, and then North through eastern Qinghai.
Chengdu is the equivalent of Bristol – it is the fifth largest city in its country. Whereas there are 500,000 citizens of Brizzle, Chengdu has over 10 million. It is very difficult to grasp the size of China- a big city feels the same wherever you go. One observation however is that thus far Chinese cities have lacked any charm. Far too much boring concrete. Note to Hu Jintao- tell your people to stop making babies and start studying architecture!
We spent our time visiting endangered Pandas (along with the retired population of Holland it seems) and attending a Sichuan Opera. The latter was certainly not Madame Butterfly, more of a very enjoyable cabaret that included shadow puppetry and girls spinning tables on their heels. There was one hilarious sketch in which a man came home to his wife who had found out that he had been with a lady of the night. She wasn’t that angry, just enough to make him balance a candle on his hat and crawl under an array of household objects. After such athleticism, all was forgiven. It was a humorous representation of how often women hold the power in Chinese relationships. We have lost count of the number of times a poor man has been hauled off a bus or out of a shop and been slapped silly by his discontent partner. Chinese Women wear the trousers.
Within twenty minutes of leaving Chengdu we were chugging our way along rolling hills, which soon grew to mountains. Prayer flags and Yaks appeared, it got colder. The people changed. Their noses protruded, their hair thickened. Their language changed. They grew. A Lot. The average Tibetan lady is at least the height of any of us, if not taller! We were all slightly surprised when we realised that we had reached Tibet. It was much closer to modern China than previously thought.
Kangding was our first spot, a large market town sitting in the shadow of a seven thousand metre mountain. My favorite area of Kangding is what I affectionately called the “surplus strip”, ten or so shops in a row all selling Chinese military gear which was hard wearing and cheap. Sam’s favourite area of Kangding was everywhere apart from here where he could pick up warm Tibetan coats and socks. Alec and Duncan stuck to a fetching sky-blue ribbed woolen polo neck ‘ala Stephen Merchant’ (D) and a very tight fitting cardigan (A). That night we enjoyed a game of poker with a mixed bunch. A Lawyer from Salisbury; a Quebec separatist; and a Chinese speaking Bostonian working for the US Defence department. You meet very interesting people in these out-of-the-way places.
The bus up to Tagong was our first taste of the bumpy roads. There was a familiar process which was very amusing for the first time, not so after a few hours:
dreaming …zzz.z….Yak tea…. zzz…flatbread…. zzz..Tibetan ladies..zzz JOLT , wake up mid-air, then fall a few feet back into your seat. Hear cry of Samwise as he hits his big head again ! This method of travel gave us a taste for discomfort and pain. A bit like the Buddhist young men we watched from the window walking for miles, and each step would bend on their hand and knees to touch the floor. It was all part of the deal in Tibet.
It was bad weather for this leg; drizzly sleet and we could only see a few metres around. Just when you thought it was all miserable and you had reached the end of the world, a glowing Black tent and a smiley Tibetan would appear to brighten things up.
After Dege Gompa
After leaving our Buddhist friends behind, we felt we had nothing better to do with our time than hitchhike. It always seems to bring adventure. Within minutes, adventure personified screeched to a halt in his yellow car. It looked like a bad Chinese fake of the Ford Focus and the Fiat Punto combined. Out popped the head of a Han monk. He wore lighter yellow coloured robes and along with it, a sinister grin.
I said 80 Yuan to Manigango (a town at a crossroads that we needed to get to). I should remind everyone that we had just left the kindest and most gentle people existing, who were monks. This meat-headed guy was also a monk. We hadn’t the power to detach one from the other. If a third Tibetan monk had pulled up in a go-kart offering a ride to Djibouti we probably would have jumped right on in as well. We loved these guys – we thought they were all great all of the time.
So when he cranked up the price to 120 we thought, “he’s just thinking about the Buddha statue he needs to repair”. Or, when he pretended to veer off the mountain face I thought, “he’s not conforming with the western habit of taking life too seriously”. When he placed his hand on my upper thigh I thought “he’s probably…..”, no forget that, I thought “lets get the hella out!”. After many childish antics; much playing of his police siren that had been recently installed and much “leaving-Jona-to-sort-out-the-problem-with-the-crazy-monk”, we escaped from the car of doom. Hell is yellow, not red.
The Khola Pass (5000 metres)
A side trip to a town called Dege followed the Lhasa road for 50 or so km. The journey there passes across a spectacular 5000 metre high gateway. On the way up, and down, our driver navigated winding dirt road up steep slopes. It all lived up to expectations, the highlight being when we stood on top and felt to be on the summit of the world. We saw miles of vast grassland to our East leading eventually to the big cities of Beijing and Shangai. To our wild-west side was Tibet, the pilgrimage road to Lhasa and then Nepal. The snow was ultra-white on top and the multi-coloured prayer flags were stark against this background. It felt like a holy rainbow, or something.
Many Tibetan pilgrims have walked this route past Dege, the location of many Tibetan books and scripture, towards Nepal. They are walking to India, to a place with religious freedom: to their leader. They have neither of these things in their homeland any more. All of the English speakers that we met had learnt in Daramasala, it was exciting to imagine going on such an odyssey by foot.
We met Rich from Southampton among the red ink and wooden printing blocks of Dege printing lamasery. He came along with us into Qinghai, which was all a part of his overland trip back to England. He always had a cake or a biscuit handy when we (more specifically Duncan) were hungry. He had learnt to be assertive after a year r so in India, we were sure to pick up on a few tricks to add to the group repertoire.
The Chinese Siberia
I have only one distinct memory of Qinghai. It was after a few hours on a bus, which was on a very long and straight road. It came to a standstill, and we jumped out to see a lorry-crash and the resultant mob of a hundred or so people. No one was seriously hurt but for half an hour or so it felt like a mix of Tibetan/Chinese society was brought together. We all pushed the multi-tonne lorry to the side.
There was the boy from Qinghai, with Tibetan coat who was surprised to see four whiteys in his back yard and who wore a broad smile. There was the region’s high-monk who had an impressive beard and was one of the few to not help in the pushing. He was driven by a Chinese chauffeur, who had been educated in Shanghai and spoke perfect English. Then there were the Han policemen who were a number of fat men in power, unfriendly and prone to riding a continuous power trip. We were pushing (with plenty of loud grunting) amongst the rural hordes of China, the Lorry Drivers and construction workers, the mortar who hold China together. Finally a few hundred metres away stood a nomad by his black tent herding in his Yak.
Just when bones were ready to break and sinews snap from all of the pushing, we were away again.
The rest of Qinghai is an altitude-sick and bus-weary blur to me. It must be the flattest place on earth, miles upon miles of scrubland with the occasional sand dune or even small river. A town (Maduo) marked in bold on our map turned out to be a one street town of ten or so buildings. We saw mysterious, large metal capsules (nuclear waste?) and fenced off hut compounds (political prisoner camps?). Qinghai is known for both, so it’s possible. We all agreed that if any of us get in trouble and need to go into hiding, southeast Qinghai is the place.
We passed a KFC in Xining and realised that Tibet had come to a close for us, a fortnight of hard but ultimately rewarding travel.