Cold adventures on the Friendship Highway

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November 15th 2007
Published: November 15th 2007
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Yes, Tibet is cold. I am now in Shigatse, on the road from Lhasa to Kathmandu. I am travelling with Emilie, a Swiss woman called Natalie, a driver, and a 'guide'. I say 'guide', because the man, who has a hoarse voice similar to Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather', takes his duties very lightly. He is mute most of the time, and when we ask him for some information, he mumbles monosyllabic replies or gives blatantly wrong answers. Emilie asked him the other day what the name of a big mountain overlooking a big lake on the way was. He mused for a moment, and replied, 'eh.... Himalaya range!' Oh really? We thought it was Montblanc! Yesterday, we visited Zhalu Monastery, which was originally built in 11th Century, and he insisted it was new and built in 1988. We wouldn't mind, really, but for the fact that we had to pay for this man's services, including his entry ticket for Everest Base Camp. The driver, a jolly little moustachoed Tibetan man with a strange taste in Tibetan rock music (complete with guitar solos, raps and mournful choruses), has taken a shine to me and is busier winking and smiling at me in the rear mirror than watching the road. This doesn't matter too much, though, because he only drives about 20 miles per hour, while drinking copious amounts of Red Bull and hitting the horn of our Toyota Range Rover near-constantly. So, yes, we are a jolly little crew, and it's only day three of a week-long trip!

After spending yet another night in a freezing cold hotel room, in Gyantse, we decided that enough was enough and paid extra for a hotel that had some form of heating (but no hot water). Blissful, we retired to our beds, only to realise, at about 6 am, woken up by the angry shouts of a Dutch man, 'helllo! helloooo! is there anyone here? WE HAVE NO LIGHT!!', that there was no electricity in the whole hotel, and hence, no heating either. Wrapped in blankets and thermal underwear, we shuffled to the breakfast room, where we (sort of) regained our sense of humour after some hot tea. Most of the town still doesn't have any electricity, but I managed to track down an internet cafe that works. This cold (and Tibetan public toilets: shitty holes in the ground) certainly makes me appreciate life's little luxuries a lot more, and on a more serious note, it really shows me how cushy we have it in the West. And I have undergone somewhat of a Tibetan transformation: I have bought a big traditional fur-lined wrap-around skirt (most Tibetan women wear those), and a wrap-around Pashmina blanket, which I wear most days now - they are so warm. The Tibetans seem to find this a) very amusing, and b) very likeable, as most of them stop me in the street, give me the thumbs-up sign, feed me milk sweets, take my photograph on mobile phones, or, as it happened in Lhasa the other day, undress me in the middle of the street because they don't like the way I have wrapped it.

Despite these minor challenges, I absolutely love Tibet. Yes, there are many things that are not so great and downright heartbreaking, especially politically, but the land and the people are loveable. You simply can't be in a bad mood for long here - the smiles of the Tibetans are infectious. As Kathy recently put it, 'lots of shit at ground level, but look up, and it's glorious'. I realise more and more that, when travelling, it's the locals and the human contact, not the tourist spots or monuments, who really make the experience special. People's stories, faces, the intense staring, smiles, greetings and eye contact between strangers (unheard of in Britain), the mutual curiosity, the quirks. Even though the language is not always there, human beings can make themselves understood somehow. Just sitting on a bench for an hour can be very amusing. And the strange thing is that , although often quite deep connections are forged, there is little attachment. Some connections may last, others may not, and most people I'll never see again, but that's fine - it's all about fully enjoying the time I spend with them.

Emilie and I had a great adventure the other day when we visited a remote nunnery in the mountains near Lhasa. Actually, we were aiming to visit a monastery with 'friendly monks', but got lost and ended up at the Nunnery. And this was an excellent experience. It was a really cold and windy day, and when we arrived at the near-deserted place, we were freezing cold and hungry. In the temple, we fantasised about being given tea and food - a fantasy that soon became reality. From above a staircase, a young nun waved at me and brought a plate of freshly fried potatoes, which Emilie and I quickly devoured. Soon, an old nun appeared from across the courtyard and brought us some bread. A few seconds later, we were asked into a room, where a sick nun lay on a bed, and another young nun chanted mantras, where we were given tea, just as we had visualised: with the exception that it was yak tea. Now, if you have never had yak tea, it's basically normal tea with the addition of rich yak milk, which is very greasy and fatty, and has a sickly smell. I find it almost undrinkable - but in this situation, we couldn't really say no. The worst thing was that every time we took a sip (holding our breaths), the old nun would refill our cups. So we developed a strategy of not drinking until we were about to leave, and then drinking it quickly in one go. This worked, and we left the friendly nuns, after showing them photographs of our families and exchanging telephone numbers (because, of course, they all have mobile phones!). Seriously though, I wouldn't mind doing a retreat in one of these nunneries for a few months, they are usually in beautiful locations, and their lifestyle is very focused.

Emilie and I walked up another level, where there were more nun's houses in a courtyard, and we were asked in by the nuns there. It was here that we met the Big Buddha, a huge nun with a big round belly, who sat on a sofa in the sun and asked us to sit next to her. We were asked if we would like some more yak tea. 'Yes please!', I answered enthusiastically, while Emilie elbowed me in the ribs and hissed 'Thanks for that!' into my ear. I sat down next to Big Buddha, who started to play with and smell my hair, whilst sticking out her tongue ('shall I leave you two alone?', Emilie asked), touching my hands, my legs, my bag, whilst other nuns threw sunflower seeds and cold potatoes at her, which she devoured in seconds. After another cup of yak tea, we were on our way (leaving Big Buddha behind, who happily reclined on her sofa again and fell asleep), and, as we reached the main temple, both felt pretty sick: stomach cramps and an awful sense of nausea, which accompanied us for the next two days. C'est tres bon, le yak tea!

We also passed a sky burial place (they are traditional burials, where the bodies of the dead are left for the birds to eat: Tibetans believe that in this way, the dead person gets carried into the sky by the birds) the other day, and I remembered that the first time I really wanted to visit Tibet was when I heard of these sky burials, in college over ten years ago. Tibetan spirituality and traditions are so rich and complex, even now, and I'd love to spend more time here to learn about them. Last night I saw something on television, about a new musical about Tibet in Beijing, called 'The Mystery of Tibet' or something like that. It's looked wonderful, and it's the story about an old Tibetan woman who wants to make a pilgrimage. It has great Buddhist imagery in it, and exquisite dancers (with the dubious exception of dancing and singing yaks!). At the end of the pilgrimage, the old woman meets the Goddess, who is a fabuluous, sensual dancer, and then she is transformed into a young girl again. I'd love to see that, although it seems like most of the actors and dancers are Chinese.

Yesterday, we spent a day in Gyantse, a charming little village, where people live like hundreds of years ago in little clay houses with cow dung drying outside, cows in the street and in yards, dusty children running up to us, taking us by the hand and playing amongst much screaming and laughter, posing for photographs and inviting us into their homes. Gyantse, 263 km from Lhasa, is at the base of a natural amphitheatre of rocky ridges, and houses the Pelkor Chode Monastery and the Gyantse Kumbum (meaning 'a hundred thousand images') - a truly remarkable building. It's a huge chorten (stupa) crowned with a golden dome and umbrella and seven levels, all of which have an incredible amount of little chapels (about seventy in total), which you walk around in a clockwise way. They are so beautiful that they are famous among scholars of Tibetan art throughout the world, and they are said to be a type of initiatory path. On the ground level, there are mainly the protective deities, plus some dazzling Goddess chapels, all of which are covered in very old and glorious murals. I walked the path from the bottom to the top (which takes a couple of hours) in meditation, chanting mantras, and it was quite an experience. From the top, you have the most stunning views over all of Gyantse, to the fort, over mountains and beyond. The actual monastery has a very impressive and eerie protective chapel, with severed heads and limbs, gruesome paintings and statues in which a monk drums, chants and sounds gongs - it felt very shamanic indeed.

Here in Shigatse, I suffer a bit with altitude sickness (hence you are treated with my anecdotes, because I'm too tired to do much) - headaches mainly, and strangely, aching teeth. However, Tashilunpo Monastery is opposite our hotel, and is said to house 700 or so friendly (and handsome?) monks, so I aim to visit this afternoon.


15th November 2007

I wanna
see a picture of you dressed in Tibetan clothes! Have you seen any Lhasa Apso dogs? xxx
18th November 2007

Tibetan clothes
Will try and post one next time! The ethnic look has increased since an old lady plaited my hair tibetan style!!
25th November 2007

fur lined clothes
Id love to see the tibetan clothes... please post a phoot! Love Stephen

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