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Published: November 15th 2004
The mother of them all!!
Pushing open the door, the darkness and thick acrid smoke combine to create an eerie mystical atmosphere. I pick my way through the narrow room past men wearing red tassels in their hair and long sleeved sheep skin coats, complete with twelve inch blades by their side. Others wear cowboy hats, baseball caps or balaclavas. The women have dark plaited hair, an eclectic array of necklaces, bracelets and thick multi-coloured rug-like dresses with bells jangling from their waist’s. I take my place at the end of the room, furthest away from the yak-shit powered stove. It’s crowded, warm, and in stark contrast to my room, positively cosy.
It’s early, but these guys have been awake for hours. They’ve already covered 20km in the snow at temperatures touching minus 25C. This is just a pit stop; they’ll complete the remaining 35km in the snow, at 5600 metres above sea-level, before nightfall. It’s busy in here; eating, drinking smoking and chanting. A man pulls out what looks like a yak leg from inside his oversized jacket, feasting on it with all the decorum of a ravenous Henry VIII. It’s passed around until all that’s left is the bone, which is smashed, and
the contents sucked out. Others mix tsampa; a dry barley-based porridge. It looks like a bowl of flower; salty yak butter tea is added, and mixed with dirty blackened fingers until the desired texture is attained. Others eat noodles; the packets are opened at one end, yak tea is poured in, and after a little shake the still crunchy contents are consumed. Others smoke, spit on the floor, spin prayer wheels and mumble mantras over and over.
I’m mesmerised, though they hardly notice my mundane presence. Tibetans are some of the weirdest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Their religious fundamentalism has no equal - to me this is the occult. Despite the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing Chinese occupation of Tibet, I ask myself, how much this scene I am witnessing could really have changed.
The rising sun’s reflection off the north face of Mount Kaillash basks the room in an orange glow. This is the reason everyone’s here; Mt. Kaillash is the holiest mountain in Asia; ‘The navel of the world’ ‘The centre of the universe’ ‘The home of the gods’. Its four faces correspond exactly with the cardinal points on the compass, with
so why did I leave my England shirt here?
A)It's totally irrational the importance I place on the success of the English football team
B)Now we're virtually guaranteed to win the World Cup in 2006!
four of Asia’s greatest rivers originating from each of these points. Hindus believe this is the abode of Shiva. ‘One of the most isolated and legendary travel destinations in the world’. To be honest a place I never thought I would ever visit. But I suppose that very belief made it inevitable I would.
We’d stayed only one night in Ali where I’d had my first inkling all was not well in Tibet, after seeing a couple of Tibetans leering at a Chinese man with an intense hatred I’d only previously witnessed in Jerusalem’s Old City. We’d hitched on two jeeps along roads as bad as any on this planet. After just two nights in Tibet we began our ‘Kora’ (Buddhists believe that a ‘kora’ - a clockwise circuit of this mountain, cures the sins of lifetime). This 55km kora is to be completed in one day, whereas Hindu pilgrims usually take three days after bathing in a few sacred lakes during their trip. We’d become caught up in the momentum of travelling western Tibet in world record time. But it’d only been four nights since we’d left Xingjian at just 1500m, and now at 5250m my head felt
The Potala, Lhasa
Chinese icons in front of the Dalai Lamas former palace
like it was in a vice.
After completing the first 20km, Yoshi and I stayed on an extra day, in an attempt to acclimatise, whilst Mark and Makoto (A Japanese porn director) left with the Tibetans after breakfast. During the day our condition further deteriorates - maybe we should have left after all? I delay taking painkillers until the evening to help me sleep, only to discover some bugger has nicked my first aid kit! This minor theft coupled with my deteriorating physical condition brings me very close to enlightenment, and I seriously consider walking down the mountain without completing the kora that promises to erase the myriad sins of a lifetime. I don’t believe this shite anyway, I tell myself - but alas I can’t fight it, I’m just a sheep like everybody else. baa!
The following morning I feel a lot better. Pushing open the door, the darkness and thick acrid smoke combine to create an eerie mystical atmosphere. I pick my way through the narrow room past men wearing red tassels in their hair… Shit! These people are the same as yesterday!
They’re doing the bloody thing again! In fact, this is their fourth circuit
out of the THIRTEEN they plan to complete (650km in total). Apparently, if you do it 108 times you’re guaranteed instant nirvana. We even saw people prostrating around (which involves stretching full length with your face on the ground). I think I’ll continue on my own path to blissful oblivion thank you very much!
We set off with the pilgrims. One of whom I know possesses my first aid kit - I begin to understand how the thief believes this ‘little sin’ won’t even register after another 10 sin cleansing koras.
After two hours struggling to tail the motley crew of Tibetans we reach a collection of stone cairns dotted with clothing. Leaving a piece of clothing here allows the pilgrim to undergo a symbolic death by leaving their old life behind. I leave my England shirt. The fact that I’m reborn gives me the placebo I need to get over the 5630m pass. From the pass its approx. 25km back to Darchen and downhill we make considerable haste, even though the frozen river makes it impossible to obtain water, and the strength of the high altitude sun reflecting off the snow wreaks havoc with the parts of my
face that traditionally reside in the shadows. In the last few kilometres I manage to catch and overtake an old women with the help of the parasitic mantra that’s invaded my mind:
‘Karma-karma-karma-karma-karma Chameleon…’ (Lack of oxygen?)
Its quite liberating to know the sins of a lifetime has been erased. If I’d known I was coming here earlier I’d have fit a few more in. Anyway, I’ve decided to give you guy’s first refusal on my kora underpants before I stick them on eBay. Some of my good Karma has rubbed off on them - and I’m certain to get a good price since this’ll be my last ever skids - now the sun officially shines out of my ass!
Back in Darchen, the shitty-little-town at the base of Kaillash, our main objective was to find a ride out of town and avoid the PSB. This town, like others in Western Tibet is littered with human excrement and big stray dogs. The shocking truth behind the presence of these dogs is the Sky Burial. When a Tibetan dies they are taken to a place out of town, and chopped up into small pieces at which point the dogs
and vultures fight over the pieces. Yoshi saw 14 Sky Burials on his last visit - I’ll be attending zero. The presence of the human excrement is due to Tibetan toiletry habits. Which can be pretty unnerving for your average westerner e.g. whilst reweaving yourself round the side of someones house, it’s not uncommon for a little old woman to come over and squat down next to you (using a ‘real toilet’, that has never been flushed, is yet more disturbing).
The hotel owner informs us the PSB called round the previous day in search of tourists. We meet eight Japanese backpackers stranded in Darchen and after half a days search we find an overpriced truck leaving the following day to Saga - the Japanese’s desperation to escape makes it impossible to bargain, but there aren’t any alternatives.
Mark returns after two days travelling in the wilderness - having hitched on the only road in Tibet that didn’t lead to Lhasa. We arrange to meet the Japanese that evening in a restaurant to iron-out our negotiations with the truck driver. Seated around the table everybody suddenly falls silent, I turn to see two large Chinese men in black
jackets. “Ali PSB…Passports and permits!”
Busted! I pull my hood over my head (Everybody has permits except me and Yoshi). One of the Japanese stands up claiming his passport is in the hotel - this is our chance. I turn, mumble, and head for the door with Yoshi in tail. I spot Mark approaching the restaurant across the courtyard, I shout his name and point toward our intended escape route. He takes the cue, and we dash like madmen through the streets to the hotel, where we hide in our room waiting for the imminent capture that fortunately never comes.
At 6am the next morning we board the truck… Mark (a fellow passenger) wrote this commentary on the events that proceeded 😉…
“…so we all turned up to find the back of this truck (it looked like an army truck with metal ridges across the back and a tarpaulin stretched across it) already full of Tibetans and all their kit ... so by the time we all piled in with our bags there were 25 people and all the kit wedged in this truck where there were no seats and everyone just found/made a space for themselves. It was choc-a-bloc in there in and when the tarpaulin was pulled over the top it was really claustrophobic in the pitch black with peoples legs/ arms/ bodies in your face ... and straight away the agro started as one of the Tibetans near me was pushing himself backwards into me to create more space for himself despite the fact he was virtually lying down ... obviously I wasn't having any of it and he received a swift dig in the back which seemed to calm him down ... for the moment. The only thing to do was try to fall asleep as the driver got us thru the first couple of PSB checkpoints before they were open.
We continued on until about 10am when we stopped at a town to repair the truck and also someone was sent back along the road as some bags had fallen off the truck in the darkness and melee, luckily not mine. The Tibetans decided they were going to get legless on cheap 45%!b(MISSING)ooze while they waited, so by the time we got back in the truck about 3 hours later they were all shedded and singing (if you've heard Tibetan singing you really don't want to be next to it!!) along to their tape deck ... every song sounded the same. As they pissed, they had some Tibetan courage and started getting more rowdy with myself and Jason so there was more pushing and kicking going on to combat them being arseholes... At one stopping point I had stayed on the truck with Jason and a couple of the Tibetans, when one of them who had been Mr Annoying all day got back on, he saw a rucksack and just booted it across the truck twice!? He didn't know it was Jason's bag and we had to discuss the issue with him in further detail, at which point he agreed he was out of order and calmed himself down!
At 6.30 (after 12.5 hours) we arrived at our destination, but after getting half the bags off, the driver decided he wanted to continue to the next town about 3 hours away!! We were all sick but had no choice (Yoshi received a shove from the driver for objecting). The sun had gone down, the stars came out and the temperature dropped another few degrees to well below zero as we sat in the back going over 5500m passes on bumpy roads freezing ourselves to death. Thankfully, at about 10.30pm we stopped at Zhongba where we ate quickly, refused to the driver that we would be back on at 7am the next day then crashed for probably the best nights sleep in weeks ... but at 8am next morning on the coldest morning I'd experienced yet, with freezing fog in all directions we were back in the truck. The ice and frost was forming on everyone's clothing as it was so cold and the tarpaulin had been removed when we stopped at 10am the previous day ... this was not a fun way to travel and everyone was numb with the cold.
At a 10am stop the sun was starting to warm us up as we stood around and hoped for the end of this journey. I was already in the truck when a Tibetan climbed in and basically kicked me twice in the legs with his boots on as hard as he could ... this was too much for me and although no punches were thrown, he got the idea that he wasn't going to push any of us around anymore ... not really the type of experience you want or expect. I have met friendly people in Tibet but those on the truck were idiots and the only way to get thru to them seemed to be via basic primitive (physical) methods. It was as if they had been let out of the asylum for the journey and seemed intent on acting like morons by ruthlessly bullying the Japanese and others on there.
The best summary of the journey was '7 Years In Tibet' meets 'Fight Club'…”
(The thing that probably shocked me most was that since Mark, me and Santos (a Japanese Canadian) generally retaliated. The Japanese took the brunt of the abuse - their pacifist personalities made them the favoured playthings of the Tibetans.. The Tibetans treated their Buddhist cousins with complete contempt).
We reach Saga, still two days travel away from Lhasa, elated as this town had showers, Chinese restaurants and onward buses
- which meant above all, no more hitching on overcrowded frozen trucks with none too friendly Tibetans (Who I belatedly discovered had nicked my $200 glasses! ).
Early the next morning We get a bus which stops outside town at Saga PSB where everyone departs the bus for passport and permit checks. As obvious foreigners we’re quickly singled out for special attention, and it quickly materialises they would like to fine us $65 each for our presence - though 45 minutes of bullshit stories translated and embellished by a friendly Chinese co-passenger ,who just so happens to be from the officers home town, get us through. (We’d briefly met an American couple on our journey who’d been stuck for nine days after their jeep had broken down - they became our alibi; we’d been with them we said… don’t you remember?)
After 14hrs we reach Shiagatse. Our first big town for over a week - approaching the bright lights at night it felt like Babylon. Shiagatse is a ‘free’ city, which meant no permits were required - we’d made it. In just twelve days - a trip that had taken Yoshi two months the previous year.
The final stretch to Lhasa should have been easy, but psychologically this was the toughest. The last two hours of the ten felt like an eternity - we’d been travelling too hard and fast; Twelve days of freezing temperatures, high altitudes, monotonous barren landscapes and PSB checkpoints, punctuated by less than hospitable interactions with the locals had taken its toll on our battle hardened but ultimately pampered little travellers fortitudes.
Arriving in Lhasa we’re met by a scene from a North Face catalogue. Beautifully groomed tourists in matching jackets, zip-off trousers and hiking boots feasting on $3 lentil soup ‘specials’ and drinking Margaritas. I not only looked like Captain Scott, but I now know how he felt after walking to the South Poll only to find Armundsen’s Norwegian flag fluttering in the snow.
No doubt our patience were frayed by our experiences in the west. So Lhasa’s needling beggars became a particularly unneeded irritant. Begging or the ‘giving of alms’ is a religious tradition in Buddhism and Hinduism. But the concept is based on the ‘giving’ in order to acquire merit. This system seems to have been turned on its head; the receiving seems to have taken prominence
- and they certainly expect to receive. In Lhasa it seems, the dharma has become a tool to collect money from tourists.
Though we also soon succumbed to Lhasa’s temptations. Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Western - you name it, we ate it, drank it and smoked it. Lhasa in many ways was like Kashgar; a Chinese city with pockets of seemingly untouched indigenously populated areas. Visiting the Monasteries in Lhasa, I was surprised to see that in an age when its illegal to wear a crucifix in a French classroom, The Tibetans still retain such a strong tie to their religion in this supposedly communist state. The Chinese have broken the back of Tibetans Buddhism’s traditional caste based feudal power structure, there is no doubt who is in control now, though it seems they have realised just how much the religious opiate can be used to appease the masses.
We knew from experience it was possible to hitch to the Nepali border, but none of us had the will. We opted for the official route aka 'The Tour' which meant hiring a jeep and driver. We crammed six people into our jeep (after the truck anything else would
have left us feeling agoraphobic). Our tour was for 6 days - allowing a few hours at each sight, and many ‘cringe stops’ at tatty overpriced where we’d park alongside umpteen other jeeps and be hounded by Tibetans demanding money. The only thing that kept us sane throughout our trip was the realisation that we were edging closer to Nepal.
I was totally disillusioned with Tibet. Most people who’ve been to Lhasa comment on the friendliness of the people, so it’s likely we were just unlucky in our interactions with Tibetans. We got off to a bad start and this seemed to sour the rest of our trip. I wouldn’t usually be so irate, as experience tells me you can find bad eggs the world over. However, Tibetans are placed on such a pedestal of moral superiority by the west. It's a long way to fall from up there, and the contrast was stark.
“People throughout the world say that the Tibetan people are exceptionally gentle and benevolent. I do not see any other reason to explain this unique feature of our culture than by the fact that it has been based on the Buddhist teaching of non-violence
for so many centuries”
Dalai Lama ‘The Way to Freedom’
The Chinese government makes it virtually impossible to travel anywhere without a handful of permits which creates some very different views of Tibet. Outside the tourist trail between Lhasa and Kathmandu, you’re on your own and travelling becomes extremely challenging. Is the Tibet the averarge tourist sees representative, is it the Dali Lama's childhood memories, is it the xenophobic little towns in the middle of nowhere, or has anything from his memories long since disappeared? Travelling outside of Lhasa was a real eye opener in ways I could never have envisioned. Mt. Kaillash in itself is an unfathomably spiritual experience, it seems, for all concerned- wherein lies the paradox; if the Chinese government relaxed their travel restrictions to places like this, and through open the flood gates to tourism, would the 'magic' of these sacred places be eroded for the Tibetans themselves?
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