A wonderful winter camping adventure pulling sleds as if we were en route to the North Pole. Luckily we had great weather.
Jasper Skyline Trail is listed by Gadd the best hike in the Canadian Rockies. But, to me, it seemed a disaster loomed. These jots were first posted in a friendship newsletter called the red-eye.
Truth is, I’m a city boy. I like a VCR, recliner rocker, comforter, “munching high up the food chain”.
I used to ridicule my Saskatoon friends when they dragged back into town, hypothermic & mosquito-welted from their latest canoeing fiasco.
In those days I didn’t like to walk any farther than from my car to the 7-11.
This summer, back from the under-indulgences of Asia, I’ve been overindulging bagels, ice-cream, & hot tubs. Forget my philosophy of “Voluntary Simplicity”. Deprivation tanks!
I tried a compromise once, joining my Calgary hiking buddies on a Waterton Park trip — while carrying a Sony “Watchman”. As we “trekked”, I gleefully called out the golf leader board to my grumbling companions. Greg Norman was winning the British Open!
Yet during the summer of ‘99 I spent as much time in the wild as I could, returning from overseas specifically to hike.
Actually, there’s more adventure to be had in Canada than Asia.
I had been enthusiastically anticipating the JASPER SKYLINE TRAIL; “the best hike in the Canadian Rockies”, asserts Ben Gadd, our premiere mountain naturalist.
The Skyline is high, over half above the tree line, with some long ridge walks. Panoramic vistas!
We could see Mt. Robson, the “biggest” mountain in the Rockies (from base to peak) though not highest in elevation.
However, recall our miserable “late” Spring. When we phoned from Calgary to see if the hiking trails were clear of snow we were advised that “ski conditions were poor”. (This was mid-July!)
The Skyline problem looming was “The Notch”, a high, steep, windy mountain pass. If snowed-in, it would probably be impassable due to avalanche risk.
I was the most vocal nay-sayer; beefing all the way up during the drive from Banff, complaining in the toilet at the trailhead where we fussed with our packs out of the drizzling rain.
(I only agreed to participate because I couldn’t resist the chance to hike with a manly ice ax. Picture the “blue haze of testosterone”.
We rented those axes. We didn’t actually know how to use them.
One of the guys had lifesaving instructions scribbled on a napkin. But those of us who had seen IMAX “Everest” preferred to innovate in the manner demonstrated by the Jr. Tenzing Norguay. It was great fun “glissading”, boot skiing, steep slopes then falling into an ice ax brake-stop just before the jagged rocks at the bottom.
The rain turned to snow. We slogged through slush. Waded creeks.
My spirits improved when we pulled-out the Tequila & lemon-lime Crystal Lite, clearly superior to the 100 proof Vodka & powdered Gatorade.
The Skyline is a marvelous hike. Wild and beautiful, the mountains somehow more rugged this far north.
We saw mountain sheep, a statuesque mountain goat, and even glimpsed a moose dash across the path ahead.
By the time we reached “The Notch” the weather had cleared, the morning sunshine brilliant.
This was more bad news. The sun softens the snow. We’d been strongly advised to ascend by noon latest.
No matter. It was obvious the snowy pass “would not go”. Winnibago-sized chunks of ice poised ready to come crashing down from the overhanging cornice.
No one had ascended yet this year. The only 2 other hikers (Gita & Lars from Denmark) were dissuaded to “Notch” by an unwelcoming resident wrangler. Instead they proposed to bushwhack AROUND the mountain. This stratagem was seriously crazy, as we told them.
We loitered, indecisively debating our options, watching marmots duke it out (“The Rumble in the Rubble”).
Suddenly John Long charged up the slope. He had had enough gab. I couldn’t catch him — “he was that damn fast”.
I have to commend John (a bachelor) for route-finding, kicking steps into the snow up the entire uncertain and potentially dangerous climb. We had consensus that one of the married men should lead. A single guy still has too much to live for.
We made it!
At the pass we were euphoric, scrambling to the top of the dry adjacent peak, posing for “outrider” cliff-edge photos.
Then — the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen in the mountains. Two tiny specks appeared on top of the even more monstrous icy cornice on the opposite side of the pass.
It was Lars & Gita, the couple who had disdained to follow us. They had short-cut to the very worst possible spot on the mountain!
Somehow, by continued improbable dumb-ass luck, they were able to descend to the pass.
We back-slapped, had a big lunch boil-up in the sunshine.
The big, bad “Notch” was conquered. But, like many other victors, we suffered more hurt at the post-hike celebration than in battle.
A man brought in a little girl. He said she was four years old. She looked about two. I knew she was dying. Her father asked if we had any medicine. I said we didn’t; he’d have to take her to the hospital. He looked at me as if I’d suggested he take her to the moon.
– Monica Connell
This story of old rural Nepal is one I heard many times. Unlike Tibet, every kind of pestilence can flourish in this climate; rats, leeches, bedbugs, roaches. Dysentery was a big killer. TB a plague.
Things have improved immensely since Tenzing and Edmund climbed Everest. Communication, transportation, schooling, health care; all much better due largely to the advent of foreign attention and Trek tourism.
I’d like to report that Nepali cultures, the environment, and tourism exist in a harmonious symbiosis. But I don’t think it’s quite true — yet.
Sustainable tourism? Why not? Nepal is as good an example as anywhere in the developing world.
Trekking here is not a “wilderness” activity. You can’t get away from people, 75% of whom still live in small villages of between 15 – 80 families. The subsistence economy is non-monetary. Villages can grow and trade for almost everything they need.
That balance is disturbed in those areas frequented by “rich, lavish, and foolish” Westerners who think it’s fun to walk up and down mountains. (No Sherpa would walk one step further than he must.) And nowhere in the Himalayas is more disturbed than Annapurana, by far the most popular hiking destination. The best hiking in the world, in my opinion.
The Annapurna Circuit is 3 weeks walking up and over the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau, crossing a monster pass, & back down again to jungle. I did the last half of the Circuit, the Jomson Trek, acclaimed for views of 2 of the highest peaks in the world (Dhaulagiri and Annapurna) and even more famous for the best trekking teahouses anywhere. On Jomson you stroll from one terrific lodge to the next, struggling only whether to order the apple crumble or the baked “Snickers” (reportedly a Scottish invention).
In Tibet we had scornfully poopooed Teahouse Trekking; we pictured 3 week warriors, highwayslittered with unburned toilet paper.
Annapurna is not real hiking. But it is fun.
I started as high, dry, and Tibetan as I could in Kagbeni village; closely packed mud houses, dark tunnels and alleys. Protection from the constant wind.
Kagbeni is Tibet. The same arid luminosity. This is the northernmost point I was allowed to travel; the gateway to Lo Mustang, the last of the Forbidden Kingdoms of the Himalayas, still forbidden. The Tibetan trading caravans pass by Kagbeni as they always have, horses festooned with mirrors and dyed plumed headgear.
Nepal claims 9 of the worlds 14 highest mountains (over 8000 metres) none of which had been climbed in 1950 when Herzog’s expedition arrived here. He had permission to climb either Dhaulagiri or Annapurna. His team, the elite of French climbers, were badly hampered by the best maps of the day — all completely wrong.
Inspired by Herzog’s journal, I set out first to climb up to the Dhaulagiri Icefall, reportedly a 9 hour sidetrip — if you find the correct route. I wasn’t worried as I carried a tent, food, and all the gear. There was no trail but I ascended as far as humanly possible up to a spectacular waterfall. I couldn’t see Dhaulagiri but had wonderful views of the Annapurna massif 30 km. across the valley.
Up there were only the huge condor-like Lammergeyers, and me, though I’m sure I heard voices and whistling coming from the waterfall at night. (Perhaps I’m becoming an Anamist?)
When I poked my head out of the tent in the morning, a big old Yak was peering back at me. The herd had climbed all the way up just to drink at the waterfall. They love to get high, these beasts.
Dhaulagiri. Would it go?
I stashed my pack in the rocks and went to search the impassable cliffs and ravines. I finally found a dry waterfall which formed a perfect ladder/staircase. It ended in an overhang. I resolved reluctantly to turn back. (Perhaps I’d learned some common sense after getting lost in the Andes overnight last trip.)
Descending I spied another possible traverse which couldn’t be seen from below. Precipitous grass slopes, thorny shrubs, several more dry watercourses, a long ridge, several false summits. Finally, eyeball to eyeball with a glacial icefall spilling out massively from beside the Dhaulagiri summit. Beautiful and terrible. This was the glacier which killed 7 U.S. climbers in ’69 (avalanche). In ’73 another U.S. team summited having had supplies air-dropped. (including 2 bottles of wine and a live chicken. Of course the sherpas would not allow the chicken to be killed on the mountain. It was carried down snowblind and frost-bitten.)
Herzog’s team climbed up here, returning to report that the glacier was too dangerous. I concurred with their recommendation, “Let’s have a go at the other fellow.”
However, it took Herzog a month just to find Annapurna 1. That massif has perhaps 50 peaks! This put their expedition very late in the season. Monsoon was coming. Climbing would then be impossible.
I too had to traverse over mountains to reach Annapurna. I was lulled into a false ease on Jomson where you can hike with your hands in your pockets. Now I was into more typical Nepali hiking; high ridge top down to river valley, across amazing permanent (and temporary!) bridges, and back up to ridge top. Exhausting. I had a number of really tough days.
But I was inspired. The Annapurna Sanctuary is one of the most incredible glacier basins in the world, completely surrounded by huge peaks; Hiunchuli, Modi, Fang, Annapurna 1, Glacier Dome, Gangapurna, Annapurna 3.
These mountains are indescribably impressive. I won’t try.
The gate is guarded by everyone’s favourite peak, Machhapuchare (Fishtail). Jimmy Roberts climbed, in 1957, to within 50 metres of the summit but turned back due to the steepness of the final ascent. On his return to Kathmandu he suggested to the Nepalese government that they keep at least this one peak unclimbed, a symbol of the inviolate. No permit has been issued to this day.
Access to the Sanctuary is via an intensely scenic gorge; a narrow, winding trail through dense bamboo and huge trees. You scramble over river boulders; gnarled, polished hardwood roots; traverse the most recent avalanche tracks; climb bamboo ladders.
There are no permanent settlements here. This is the only major trekking route in Nepal subject to serious avalanche risk. Occasionally backpackers are trapped at basecamp when tons of snow collapse into the gorge from the unseen. On November 11, 1995 a freak early winter storm resulted in the death of 63 people in Nepal. This caused a bit of unease when it started raining, hailing, and snowing while I ascended to the notch of the Sanctuary gate.
The basecamp itself is bleak. An eerie calm. No wind, though clouds swirl in every direction up on the mountain tops. The scene is dominated by huge, white, vertical Annapurna — one of the most difficult faces ever climbed. On Christmas day 1997 an avalanche here killed Anatoli Boukreev, the Tiger Woods of high altitude, and subject of the best seller, The Climb.
In high season there are more backpackers than beds. Many sleep on tables or the floor. Of course I was snow snug in my tent. In the morning I pulled open the flap to watch first light on Fishtail.
A Canadian woman in our lodge said that it had a bit of a Christmas dinner atmosphere. True. It was snowing yet we were toasty around a big table draped with heavy carpets. A kerosene burner blasted underneath, keeping our feet warm. A boisterous night. Rum and hot chocolate. Canadians were in the majority at the table. (Jomson was visited by only 400 Canadians in 1997 but this year it felt like I met 400 on the trail. We are easy to identify. MEC gear and a Maple Leaf — except the Quebecois, of course.)
Herzog survived Annapurna and so did I. Actually, Herzog is the only one left alive of the team, still a National hero, though a hero without any toes or fingers.
Annapurna Sanctuary as seen from my tent
I’d recommend Annapurna to anyone. A high level of fitness is not required. If you can walk 4-5 hours with a day pack, you can do the 300 km. Circuit. Actually less than a quarter of walkers carry their own pack — most hire porters. French groups mount unnecessary expeditions (like Herzog), a massive entourage carrying tents, kitchens, toilets, and food. We met one elderly Brit who had somehow signed on to one of these monstrosities. He sheepishly admitted that for 16 tourists they started with a support team of 47! (I wondered how many of the French walkers, if any, were embarrassed to see their coolies humping dining tables over the 5400 metre Thorong La.)
I’d like to do the whole circuit with a trained, certified cultural guide who could explain the village ways, point out the flora and fauna along the way through the various climatic zones. Pack horses would be better than porters. A group would all enjoy the Circuit. The faster, more adventurous could sidetrip, meeting-up at specified lodges at the end of the day.
I’d consider trying a Trekking Peak. These are hills(only peaks with permanent snow cover are called mountains here) that require a guide but no particular mountaineering expertise. I talked to many who had Peak permits, but not one who actually made it to any summit. All of the designatedhills are higher than any mountain in Canada.
But is this Trek tourism sustainable? Can tourists actually help more than they hurt?
I think so. The best of the Trek villages are wonderful — clean, happy, friendly. You might be walking in the Swiss Alps. People don’t ruin natural beauty, motor vehicles and electrical wires do. Stone fences and irrigation canals, terraced fields, villages clinging improbably to ridge tops — all very pretty.
And local artisans are flourishing. And I’ve seen that tourism can promote cultural reclaimation.
I rode back to town on the top of a bus with a second generation Tibetan woman (she had been born in a refugee camp). She was articulate, educated, self-confident and very proud of her heritage. She was well groomed and very well dressed. She shouted encouragement and waved at the dusty Tibetans bringing their horse caravans in to Pokhara to trade. “Can you believe it?”, she exclaimed. “They NEVER bathe!”
Herzog’s book Annapurna is the classic of traditional mountaineering exceeded only, perhaps, by Bowman’s Ascent of Rum Doodle.
I saw the Tibetan phenomenon of a blue and gold striped sky many times in Nepal. As the sun sets behind high mountains, the entire sky is filled with a golden glow, except for bluer shadows from the highest peaks, some of which are out of sig
Huge pinnacles of ice, soaring as high as 15 metres above the glacier; icebergs which will never calf; described in our guidebook as resembling dozens of Sydney Opera Houses. To me the most elegant are white-blue sailboats. I had to be restrained from climbing in and on top of the frozen waves.
Damian said, “We are damn lucky to see this.”
But how did I get here?
On the Ganden – Samye trek we got inspired to next try the Highest Trek in the World; a trip to Everest’s North Face advanced Base Camp III (6340 metres). Nowhere else on Earth can you walk to such an elevation with no need for crampons, ice axe, or any mountaineering skills.
To have enough time I would need to extend my visa. This demanded 4 trips to the Police in two cities. On my last attempt I promised, if successful, to do a kora (ritual counter-clockwise circumambulation) at the Shigatse monastery, home of the Panchen Lama.
To gain merit. Soup-up my karma.
Unexpectedly I got 7 days. Time enough to try Everest!
I set out at dusk for the 1 hour fast walk. I knew from our morning kora that there were perhaps 1000 dogs asleep (only 1 was dead for sure) around the monastery walls. When I started the walk a number lay with eyes open, watching. As I moved up the mountain some were sitting. More trotted down from the hills. I accompanied women who gave out water, left-overs, bits of rice. Snarls. Growls. The curious fallen puppy we had returned to the litter in the morning was again whimpering on the path below the den. But this time the sick, crazed mother was watching. I didn’t dare touch the pup.
I hurried to safety as the city erupted; a canine chorus.
Damian, a great travelling companion, and I were travelling the Friendship Highway (Lhasa to Kathmandu via Everest). Damian is Swiss, a ski guide and mountaineer who attempted the Weisshorn in September (unsuccessful due to weather). More importantly he speaks German, French, English, and reads, writes, and is fluent in Chinese. He loves to barter in the Chinese manner, organizing huge meals for groups of 8 to 10 backpackers.
Of course we travelled illegally, refusing to join any government approved tour group. This means we had to hitch the trip, variously on tractors, horse carts, Tibetan people movers (dump trucks jammed with sacks and singing locals). We learned that open trucks are the best ride; taking in the air & scenery, standing to absorb the bumps.
I don’t like hitching. It teaches patience too well. Picture me sitting roadside watched by sharp-eyed, oily Tibetan crows. Mean opportunists, these demon birds sharpen their cruel beaks remembering the last tourist who died hitching at this spot.
Once we sat all day, finally hiring a mini-bus to take us over a high pass. The driver, fearing the police, spent several hours negotiating the charter (bribe). The Chinese compromise was that the bus could drive us up to the police checkpoint, we would then walk across (somehow less illegal), and then the bus could pick us up again on the other side.
The Friendship Highway is infamous. On one high pass we squeezed by a huge semi almost capsized in the mud. Several other trucks were stranded. A bus seemed to have slid down the mountain.
It was a struggle to reach the trailhead.
Tingri to Everest Base Camp Trek:
The most popular big hike in Tibet, this is a long, harsh slog. We managed the 70 km in 3 days, hiring a packhorse for a half day and riding up a jeep track for the last hour with a Canadian family. We slept in
- my tent
- a smoke-blackened Tibetan home (pots big enough to cook a goat)
- the Rongphu monastery guesthouse
We ate gourmet imported camp food we had purchased from a Nepali tour guide. We sampledtsampa with butter tea (inedible) and thugpa stew (which tastes as good as it sounds). Damian tried the raw, dried meat but had to spit it out.
This food is what the Tibetans eat every day, all day.
Rongphu monastery, the world’s highest, has stunning views of Everest — far superior to the Nepal side. Everyone sits out to watch the play of light at sunset, the North Face golden. In October the weather is stable, day after day of sunny skies. At times even the peak was clear; no blowing snow off the top.
North Face Everest (or Chomolunga)
It is quite warm except when it is windy. It is always windy. We heard hypothermic horror stories from those who tented at the base camp.
At the Rongphu monastery the ambiance is end-of-the-world euphoria. When an Israeli pulled a pistol out of his parka to punctuate some anecdote, no one even blinked. The Tibetan cook there thought I should pay for a meal I hadn’t ordered or eaten. When I tried to leave he shook me by the lapels, pushed me out the door, on to the ground, and fell on top of me. I was too surprised to be angry.
(One of the big disappointments for travellers is the realization that many Tibetans just are not friendly. In fact, it is hard to picture a more disreputable rogue than a Tibetan man. I tried to be tolerant, knowing that the Tibetans are not far removed from a peasant, rural existence. But three times I saw Tibetan men kick women. Each time I stopped to yell incomprehensibly at the offender. The third instance, to demonstrate how I should mind my own business, the man then slapped his wife backhand. I stood stupefied as two other men consoled and hurried her away. Tibetan children routinely stone foreign cyclists,
Damian & I set off determined to climb high. We reached advanced base camp I (5460 metres) and pitched the tent in a protective ring of stones. A surprisingly healthy monastery dog followed us all the way up the mountain. We pondered whether we (and the dog) were tenting higher than anyone else on Earth that night.
Next day we got an early start, carrying only a daypack. We calculated a 2:30 PM turn-around time. This was it. Climb high and then hustle back to the monastery. Perfect weather. It was a 10 hour walking day.
Along and atop the glacier was rock, ice, and dust. No snow. Creaking and continual rock slide. Caves, tunnels, and under-ice rivers. At one point there was a 700 metre drop-off. We drank glacial melt water to prevent dehydration.
We reached the littered advanced interim base camp II at 5760 metres and climbed higher, perhaps reaching 5900 metres. We lost the trail. Dead-ended several times. Game over.
We took photos. Scrambled around the seracs. And turned back.
This was a long, exhausting hike. I was tired of scree underfoot.
Yet this is an adventure I would recommend unreservedly. (As I do the Lost City trek out of Santa Marta, Colombia.) To do it right you need the first 3 weeks of October, flying into Lhasa and out of Kathmandu. YOU could walk to base camp III!
I am ready and eager to leave Tibet. I’m tired of the bureaucratic idiocy in this sad, subjugated colony. Tired of the misinformation and the mistreatment of valued foreign friends.
I will remember the stark landscape; the intense sunlight and black shadows; the detailed relief. You can see more clearly in Tibet. I’ll remember the skies, particularly one otherworldly evening — alternating streaks of blue and yellow, which had all travellers straining to explain the phenomenon.
I will remember the traditional Tibetan costumes; the great Tibetan teeth; the happy, healthy, filthy, scabby, snot-caked children. (I’m much more compassionate of Tibetan dirt after 9 days without a shower. My hands will not come clean no matter how much I wash them.)
I’ll remember the picturesque Tibetan towns marred by drab Chinese buildings, telecommunication tower, and loud-speakers still shouting distorted Communesque lies in 1998.
I’ll remember the pilgrim touching-up the colours on beautiful rock paintings.
And I’ll remember the monk who cleaned the monastery assembly hall sliding around in over-sized sheep-skin “skates”.
Opinion not fact.
As you’ve already surmised, I’m no careful reporter. This is Gonzo journalism; subjective, personal impressions. Take care.
After a few short weeks in Tibetan lands (on your map Tibet is only about 1/4 the size of ethnographic Tibet) I’ve grown less sympathetic of Tibetan independence.
To start with, I was suspicious of any cause that is so popular. It is trendy to Free Tibet, but boring to talk of the Kurds who are far worse off. (In the same way that AIDS is chic, but prostrate cancer should not be discussed in polite company.)
In all my backpacker pro-Tibet propaganda nowhere is it mentioned that pre-invasion Tibet was a backwards, impoverished Theocracy, an unsanitary slum.
One quote I did pick up somewhere — Past tragic, present painful, future bleak. It has never been easy to live on this plateau.
Theocracy is bad government. Religion is Monty Python’s Life of Brian. God often becomes an excuse for corruption and excess. One funeral pyre of a Dalai Lama is covered with 3700 kg. of gold, encrusted with pearls and jewels paid for by donations of poor pilgrims.
I believe in a separation of church and state.
(One of the great stories of Tibet is that of the 6th Dalai Lama. Born to be God-king, he never took his vows preferring women, late nights in chang houses, riding and archery with his friends. He was murdered at age 23.)
On the other hand, it would be interesting to see what the current Dalai Lama (like Nelson Mandela) could have done. Even Confucius called for leadership by the wisest sage. I found the film Kundun to be very believable. I respect the Dalai Lama’s philosophy of non-violent resistance. But I fear for the cause after his death. Finding his reincarnationwill be a disaster.
To be fair, the Chinese are doing some good things here. They are masters of infrastructure; roads, bridges, telephones. The minorities enjoy a surprising number of privileges, as do our own First Nations. It could be that more Tibetans live in comparative comfort and security than ever before. The biggest problem is education. Literacy rates are very low; rural Tibetans can’t get to schools and many urban Tibetans can’t afford school fees.
Tibetan culture and religion are as safe as any in the world. Why? Touri$m! What is more compelling than Tibetan Buddhism?
After a few weeks of casual discussion, observation and beer drinking; despite intensive lobbying by two Tibetan advocates. (Lama in Xiahe and Tenzing in Lhasa); I’ve concluded that there will never be aFree Tibet. The Chinese will absorb these lands by immigration. The Clinton visit to China slammed the door. China now has legitimacy — in exchange for a few economic crumbs.
The best I hope to see is one final visit by the Dalai Lama to Tibet in his lifetime.
There will never be a Free Tibet. But the greater danger for Tibet and even China is world monoculture — Coca-colonization.
When I think of Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman”, I think of his stern, gigantic white statue in Chengdu … dwarfed in a sea of neon advertising for Cognac, Toyota trucks, and Swiss watches.
Damian & Everest
Flying into Tibet the mountains loomed like icebergs above the clouds. In the intense morning sunlight I couldn’t tell where the clouds ended and the snow began.
Yes I flew, ensuring that the PRC, the liberators of Tibet, got a good chunk of my cash. Blast!
I should have tried to make it overland.
Julio from Spain made it. Men delivering a new jeep to Lhasa knocked on his hotel door at midnight offering to bring him along. No problem. Only 20 hours. Another guy hired a taxi! Two others managed to find an illegal local bus — but they waited 1 1/2 days to depart. Local buses in China only leave when they are full.
As advised, I went immediately to bed on arrival in Lhasa. You need time to accommodate to the altitude gain. I awoke to the snapping of prayer flags and hotel laundry.
Dusk is my favourite time of day. I waited to see the Potala Palace in this light.
It is magnificent; rising sheer and vast, sloping walls, trapezoid windows and doors, solid, imposing, of massive proportions, white, ochre, and gold.
The Potala is an inspiring fortress — enduring, like Tibetan Buddhism. Certainly one of the greatest works of man.
At a rooftop full moon party later, drunk backpackers asserted the superiority of Lhasa over Kathmandu. It is natural to compare two of the world’s most mythic cities.
Lhasa is much less developed, less polluted, and does not yet suffer a plague tourist population like Nepal. This is the end of the high season in Tibet. Four jets arrive every day. Yet you don’t see many tourists. Most are German, French, American suitcasers who move in overweight tour buses from one quick photo-op to the next. They are whisked back out of sight to Hotels in the more expensive Chinese section of town.
The government loves fat tour groups paying US$100+ / day. Tours are all booked through the despised CITS (China International Travel Service).
Backpackers are nothing but trouble for the authorities here. They dwell only in Tibetan hotels, eat only at Tibetan restaurants. They stay longer, try to learn the language, and are vocal advocates for Tibetan independence. They do everything they can to thwart the system. (Bhutan, by the way, won’t even allow individual travellers into the country.)
Tourism in Tibet consists of travel from one impressive, damaged monastery to the next. It is a confusion of sights, smells, and sounds. Tibetan pilgrims in traditional colourful costume push purposefully through corridors, candle-lit galleries, halls and chapels. They drag prayer beads along closed rooms, press their heads against dragon-shaped door knockers. They make offerings of scarves, money, and chang (foul beer).
They mumble mantras, circumambulate, and prostrate. There are different strange and unique traditions at each shrine. The smell is rancid butter and fragrant burning juniper. They also burn small prayer papers, sending the prayer and smoke up into the wind. (It must work. I had one flutter by me while I was on top of a mountain far from any temple.)
Most impressive are the devout rural women who make religious pilgrimage for weeks or months during the winter. They are beautiful; walking with their prayer wheels, weather-beaten faces, butter-oiled hair plaited into colourful ornaments.
Tourists traipse along behind, befuddled, peering at the banners of faded silk, tankas, & mandelas. Trying to recall if the next statue is King Songtsen Gampo or Padmasambhana. To me this cluttered religion is much more Hindu than Buddhist.
Tourists love to watch the monks playing out their rituals. A highlight is the religious music, all drums, bells, and trumpets (some carved from human thigh bones).
Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery Trek
- Ganden — 4500 metres
- Shuga La — 5240 metres
- Chitu La — 5040 metres
- Samye — 3600 metres
We spent 6 nights on this hike crossing a number of high passes. Altitude is the critical factor. Fortunately we had perfect weather. This is the end of the best trekking season in Tibet — clear and sunny — you can see to the horizon in every direction. This is really BIG SKY country! But early winter storms can blow in any time now, closing the passes.
Like many of the great walks of the world, this second most popular trek in Tibet offers rich variety; high snowy peaks, lush alpine meadows, and desert-like environs.
monastery in Ganden
The sprawling ruins of Ganden remain a stunning sight. This is my favourite monastery so far, built high on a cliff in a natural amphitheatre. The location is remote, but not too remote for the Red Guard who bombed it to rubble in 1959. Later the idiotic Cultural Revolution, little more than vandalism and looting, finished the job.
Monks were turned out, or sent for re-education, or thrown in jail. We met an 83-year-old monk who had been imprisoned for 22 years for not renouncing the Dalai Lama. (He had been one of those responsible for bringing the young boy King his food.) The old monk implored us to take the message back to our countries, to pressure the Chinese government.
Ganden, after 2:30 PM when the tour buses depart, was wonderful. We 3 backpackers were all who remained, staying at the monastery guesthouse.
Fantastic views from the ridge, and a platform where sky burials are performed. The skull is crushed, the corpse chopped into pieces and then mixed with tsampa flour before being fed to the eagles. Scattered are bits of bone and skull, dragged off by the mangy dogs who fight and die around every monastery. Buddhists, of course, won’t destroy them. (Many believe dogs are reincarnations of fallen monks.)
Tibet is one of the few places I can recall which is getting better and not worse for tourists. The embarrassed Chinese government is making slow but steady restoration of the great monasteries. Indeed, in some the construction workers seem to out-number the monks, the work songs drown out the chanting.
For the 2 high passes we hired a Yak to carry our packs. The Tibetan guide appeared finally with a small horse instead. This proved to be a big mistake as the horse was unable to handle the tough terrain. We insisted on carrying our packs at the worst section, fearing for the life of our pony.
We managed the passes better than our horse, suffering only altitude headaches. (Early warning sign that your brain is not getting enough oxygen.)
This late in the Fall even the Yaks had abandoned the high grazing. We saw no Western faces for 5 days. A few tough lady Tibetan pilgrims headed for Samye passed by without tents, with bad shoes, subsisting only on tsampa and butter tea. Unbelievable. They asked us for directions as they have no maps.
At Chitu La we had a boil-up lunch at the headwaters of a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra river. The change in scenery as we descended was amazing. In summer it is out of the Garden of Eden (as described in our guide book), but we thought it even prettier in the Fall. The leaves were changing colour.
On a whim we trudged up to Yamalung Hermitage, a tiny meditation retreat on top of a mountain. It is manned by an old monk, a young nun, and the birds and picas they feed. This is a holy pilgrimage site — the revered Indian tantric sorcerer/magician Guru Rimpoche meditated here. He was invited in the 8th century to subdue demons plaguing the country.
I had a chance to emulate him, to meditate the night in a cave. But, fearing bats, I instead slept on the roof of the Hermitage, toasty, buried in blankets and a huge Tibetan coat, watching the sky wheel. At this altitude the nights are frigid, though the the sun is scorching mid-day.
In Samye my favourite memory was scrambling in the beautiful river flood plain sand dunes in the late afternoon. The light! I might have been in the shifting Sahara. The only human footprints were my own.
Camping, hiking is, I think, the best retreat. Life is elemental. Perhaps being this close to nature is being close to God.
We eluded the disinterested police (our Trek was completely illegal) and celebrated well on our return to Lhasa!
monastery in Samye
The most famous rice terraces in the world are in the Northern Philippines. But I heard that the Dragon’s Back rice terraces near Longsheng were even more magnificent. They are amazing, precipitously strung up 800 metre peaks.
But why build these agro-engineering wonders in such difficult terrain?
The Han Chinese make up more than 93% of China’s population. The clever Han have displaced most of the other ethnic minorities, driving most of them into inhospitable mountains or desert. For the ethnic Yao people, who live on these peaks, it was grow rice or starve.
We stayed up high, nestled in the rice paddies in tiny Sang An village. There are 10 beautiful, traditional wooden guest houses, but we were the only 4 guests on the night we stayed on the mountain.
We lived at Wilson’s Cafe. Wilson (short English names easy for tourists to remember) is a Han Chinese who opened here a month ago to take advantage of the expected tourist boom. Because Wilson is the only person in the village who speaks English, he will now get all the western tourists. For this he is hated, having only one friend.
Wilson was a good host & will persevere. He wants to get rich, as do all the Chinese I’ve spoken with. For one thing, he is already 26 and not yet married.Women only want to marry a rich man, he told us.
Wilson is quite the entrepreneur. He learned English only by talking to tourists while working as a waiter in Yangshou. The staff is paid a pittance. There is no tipping in China. Wilson moved to the special economic zone to work (illegally?) in a big factory. But that work was too hard.
After 4 trips up to the Yao village, Wilson moved up permanently. He will quite likely be very successful. He likes living on the Dragon’s Backbone, exploring waterfalls, but it is boring for him when there are no excited, enchanted tourists to entertain.
I would love to have stayed on the rice terraces longer, perhaps walking 3 hours higher up the mountain to a more remote village, or setting-up my tent. (Wilson advised against the tent. Only 10 days earlier a very poisonous snake bit a village girl.)
I would love to have stayed for the Festival that was just starting. It was a family reunion. Each household must cook a duck and a fish. They were well into the beer by 9 AM. There were ducks everywhere!
I would love to have spent more time exploring the picturesque villages where small children carry the babies; where old men sit serene smoking long pipes; and where everyone else is busy doing leisurely rural chores.
But this is China. So I had an airline ticket that had to be purchased 3 days in advance and which could not be changed.
I flew to Chengdu, the frontier capital of Sichuan province & the last big city before the remote West and North. Most tourists like Chengdu. Somehow the smog is less offensive, the diesel exhaust less choking.
Chengdu is laid-out like Beijing with wide communist-style boulevards. I admired the big white Mao statue.
Unlike Beijing, Chengdu still has bicycle lanes so I got the chance to lose myself in the throng of bikes as I had seen so many times on TV.
This time it was me who was incompetent — at pedal navigation. I am too slow, too nervous; always over-compensating. Even old rickshaw men and little children move easily with the ebb and flow.
Chengdu is a big Chinese city but still has itinerant barbers, dentists, cobblers, cycle repair men. Unemployment is the big concern for the Chinese now. More and more will be driven to become street vendors.
The people’s park is a funny Socialist throwback. Fishing ia stocked pond is very popular. You pay for each fish caught, then take your catch home for lunch.
Last night we wandered the side streets, finally choosing a local roadside eatery at random. We were certainly the first and last western tourists this place will serve. Obviously, the Sichuan food was authentic — and toxic. I’ve never tasted that kind of poison before. (battery acid?) It was scary.
But the tourist Sichuan food is wonderful!
China is a great place for the gastronomical adventurer. And China is a great place for masochists. There is a wealth of travel horror talk. I can chip in to tell the tale of the 2 rats which kept me up, on guard, all night. (I changed rooms to another across the hall at 4:30 in the morning.)
But that’s nothing. Rue the tall German who fell into the roadside, bus stop toilet pit — neck deep. (I’ll be on that bus tomorrow.)
Getting anything done in China is difficult. Though the country is changing rapidly, there is a great leftover of deadbeats in do-nothing jobs. Heads on desks, they are useless.
Until they are swept away, in this country (as in Egypt) a tourist needs a fixer. This is a guy who speaks excellent English, who knows everything, knows everyone, who has connections, and who can deliver.
The tourist must find the best fixer and then pay his commission gladly.
In Chengdu, Sam was my fixer. Sam explained that Chinese mind their own business. They would never ask, Is it OK if I smoke?, or, Is the TV too loud?.
Chinese queue, walk and bike (and drive) to suit themselves. In a crowded country this is, perhaps, not a surprising cultural trait. It is actually good for us weird space-alien foreigners — even the Chinese children are taught to try to ignore us.
Sam arranged it so that early this morning we could see the famous, clumsy Panda bears. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, a rare class act in this country, just opened for tourists in 1995. We watched Longlong and Nono romp, push, and play. Log roll down the hill. Headstands and shoulder rolls. Climb up and slide down the slide. We were told the Pandas are on a comeback. No problem with illegal hunting … not since 1990 when two men found with 4 Panda skins were executed.
Sam has arranged my ticket north to Songpan, which is getting rave reviews. Guides take you on a Tibetan Pony trek through peaceful foothill valleys. Tibetan gear and tents, food, and everything else is provided. Of course an all-inclusive adventure like this is expensive. About C$9 / day plus Maotai and beer.
No e-mail up there, I hear. You can’t even cash a traveller’s cheque.
To see annotated photos jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive.