I remember fondly the first time I visited Nepal. I arrived by air.
This was my introduction to the commission problem — for example, Hotels pay touts a percentage for delivering a customer. At the airport, touts hold up signs advertising their favourite Hotel.
The next bit is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to friends on that first visit to Nepal:
I love the anticipation you feel when arriving at a new place. It’s a little like Christmas eve when you were a kid. Over here there are the delicious uncertainties of entry visas, currency exchange, and where to stay on arrival. Mass confusion. And I haven’t even got to India yet.
Today I reached Kathmandu. I really, really wanted to. Another mad scramble.
We psyched up and then plunged into the manswarm of touts, louts, and taxi hacks. Like the stock market floor but with a greater sense of urgency.
I pointed to a little guy in the back and called out TIBET GUEST HOUSE. Surprisingly, I actually made it to a taxi with him despite the tugging and shouting of his competitors who insisted he was insane, a murderer, and that his hotel had burned down. The tout would pay the cab.
As we escaped the airport the authorities decided to shut down the highway for (speculating wildly) road repair. We U-turned to take a crumbling backroad shortcut. When we were far enough away the taxi pulled over and insisted on doubling the agreed fare. A charged argument ensued in Nepalese.
I Buddha smiled, content as a sacred cow in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Canadian author Tim Ward tells of the time he came upon a destroyed Buddhist temple converted to village latrine. The central statue had a big decaying turd in the middle of it’s lap. Ward admired the Lord Buddha’s composure in the midst of decomposure.
I aspire to the inner calm of the Buddhist.
But, entering Nepal this time, it was not to be.
I spent my last night in Tibet, not surprisingly, sleeping slumped over the steering wheel of a parked truck in which I had hitched to the border. (The drivers were afraid that they might be caught by the police if I walked into the border town of Zhangmu at night.)
At first light I strolled down, elated to be leaving Tibet. Someone called my name from above. It was Matt, a mellow, musical American whom we had rescued (in our horse cart) descending from Everest. Matt had ruined his legs trying to hike out — he could no longer walk. Matt and I were soon scarfing a fabulous Nepali breakfast at a funky cliffside restaurant looking way down into Nepal. The air was full of music, curry, and portent.
En route to Kathmandu (standing in an open truck!) we lost 4500 metres and gained 2 hours and 15 minutes. (You won’t be surprised to hear that all of China runs on Beijing time.) We Tibetan refugees were a giggle of schoolgirls, our senses open, excitedly pointing out banana palms, pigeons, and butterflies. Sensory overload after the deprivations of China and Tibet.
Kathmandu is polluted, loud, and crowded. We didn’t care.
They got hot rain falling from the ceiling. They got MACHINES wash your clothes!
We marveled at flush toilets, tall buildings, women decidedly not in Tibetan robes. We overdid it in the best bookstores in Asia.
Nepal is a feast! We gorged on calzone, apple strudel, lasagna, and bagels. I could live on bread alone — dark European brot which gets sweeter as you chew. Restaurants offer patio gardens, rooftop lookouts, hammocks, and Blues music. The birds are table tame.
For my birthday I treated myself to a barber shave and head massage; one of the best travel bargains on all 7 continents.
Nepal is an amalgam of 3 religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tourism. There are about 120 National holidays. Some sort of festival happens every day.
I just missed Kalatri (Killing Night) when Hindus make sacrifice in Durga (The Destroyer) temples. All manner of beasts are cut, the blood dappled on cars, buses, rickshaws. Even Royal Nepal Airlines sacrifices goats in the name of aviation safety. The blood ensures that Durga will not use these vehicles as instruments of destruction over the coming year. (Durga seems to be the most severe of the many powerful, easily-miffed Gods.)
This is a country of temples and half-built hotels. (Tax break for making improvements to your business. Therefore, leave rebar sticking up from the roof.) I stayed at The Earth Hotel in Kathmandu. In Pokhara the Holy Lodge and Nirvana were full, but I found Heaven’s Gate strangely vacant.
My second night in Kathmandu I was invited to attend the wrap-up session of the biggest convention in town; The International Conference on Spiritual and Moral Values for a 21st Century. I had some doubts. The conference was sponsored by a group of Nepali upper-caste Brahmin. I’m not sure how they justified their cause with the intrinsic injustice of their too elevated social status.
I was seated with the uncastes in a foreigners section by well-meaning, white-robed volunteers. Only a tinge of cult. Like every conference, this one was mostly protocol and very little content. When the ethnic dancing started, I looked for the door — but then stayed when I saw a pretty woman (with whom I had chatted in a shop) dressed in white leading a dignitary on stage.
The highlight was an Ozzy delegate who told a lengthy tale of a young man, like himself, who dreamed of changing the world. By middle age he had resolved to just improve his neighbours, his family, and friends. Who, in old age, found that it was challenge enough to simply improve himself a little bit.
I could relate to that.
They spoke a great deal about healing. I could use some of that too.
Where better than Nepal? It’s like a spiritual new age Kingdom. Yoga, Astrology, Tibetan and holistic medicine, Reiki, Acupressure, Shamonry. Westerners take courses in Consciousness Transference, Insight to Compassion, and even Meditation while Trekking. My Dharma Bum friends from Tibet signed-up for a course in Dharma, hanging out at the Great Buddhist Stupa of Boudanath.
I had been there before. I rarely revisit — there are too many new destinations. But Boudanath is just too wonderful a place.
The chaos of the Monkey Temple at night was great fun again; dogs chasing monkeys chasing tourists.
And I went back to Bhaktapur, a village preserved as a living museum. The timeless rituals of pottery, dyeing wool, threshing grain by hand on wicker trays, women gathering around the communal water tap, and hundreds of children playing among ancient temples.
Many Westerners go all philosophical here. We voice our deepest thoughts on the evils of creeping cultural homogeneity … in our favourite Western restaurants (Helena’s) and our favourite German Bakeries (Brezel’s).
Many seek solace and spiritual transformation. The most rapt devotees at Boudanath, faces lit by butter candle lamp, aren’t the monks but Western women.
Never Ending Peace And Love is, I suppose, all well and good. But I’m not in the right frame of mind for meditative posturing. I will seek sanctuary in the Nepali Himalayas.
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
I find myself in Xi’an, the world’s largest and richest city — in the 8th century. Coming here I’ve broken at least 3 backpacker laws:
- I’m visiting a TOURIST ATTRACTION (Terracotta Warriors)
- I’m BACKTRACKING (2000 km!)
- I’m FLYING (to Tibet)
In my attempt to get to Tibet by bus I had gotten as far as Dunhuang in the Gobi desert and I was feeling invincible. It was tempting to fill my daypack with dry noodle soup, dehydrate, and climb on anunofficial bus. This is a buck-passing nation where special requests are invariably turned down, but where blatant trespassing is seldom challenged.
But the odds were stacked against me. Not manyillegals are making it through to Lhasa this year.
For another thing, I was sick. After urging other travellers to eat everything, and bragging that no one gets sick in China, I was sick for a week. Actually I was functionally healthy — I could travel and sightsee, but for days I was eating mainly yogurt, rice, eggs & coconut juice.
I had forgotten that China is a Galapagos Island for germs. One billion plus people and comparatively little travel in and out.
Actually traveller’s diarrhoea is not common here. This is a most sanitary and civilized country with boiled hot water endlessly available in huge thermos bottles.
The main worry is chronic bronchitis. Public spitting, coughing, chain-smoking, pollution, and overcrowded conditions all contribute to world record levels of respiratory infection. Public nose-playing and nasal evacuations don’t help. In the morning it sounds like an emphysema ward.
PREVENTION in China is to CLOSE the windows! Almost every traveller is stricken.
I travelled part of the Silk Road, the ancient highway along which camel caravans carried goods into and out of China.
In Dunhuang are the famed Magao Caves, featuring the most impressive & best-preserved Buddhist cave art in China & by far my favourite artworks on a yearlong tour. Dating from about 300 BC, these are works of itinerant monks travelling the Silk Road, spreading the message of Buddha out of India.
Dunhuang is a desert oasis; cultivated fields with mountainous rolling sand dunes forming the backdrop. This was my first chance to scramble up really HUGE dunes. I went at sunset. Climbing dunes is unbelievably hard work. Bouts of 10 or 20 deceptively backsliding steps. The ridge seemed unreachable. Suddenly I stepped over the top — almost falling down the other side.
Under the star-studded desert sky I assumed that I would have the dunes to myself. But an owl kept doing fly-bys, checking out the intruder. I think he was looking for nocturnal lizards. Bats, as well, flitted by, awaiting insects blown up the side of the dune.
Next day I stood on the head of the dragon, the western terminus of the Great Wall of China which snakes 5000 km from the tail at the east coast. Used more as an elevated highway for moving men and equipment across mountainous terrain, I can understand why the Chinese didn’t want claim to the wastelands beyond.
The Jiayuguan Fort (& the Great Wall here) have been rebuilt for tourists & both are impressive.
We shot crossbows from the Fort wall into dummy horse & riders.
When I failed to find illegal transport to Tibet, I backtracked to Lanzhao. There I walked the appropriately named Yellow River, also aptly calledChina’s Sorrow for the millions it has drowned. Chiang Kaishek breached the banks deliberately in 1938 to slow Japanese invaders for a week or two. Over 1 million perished in that flood.
We had been forewarned that Lanzhao was an unattraction; a massive urban construction site best skirted. But we loved this young, booming, liberal, alive city on the edge of nowhere. It is the first place in China that I might call hip.
In a country suffering from a stupefying lack of diversity, Lanzhao looks to be different. There are weird, cool boutiques and a night street life that is FUN. Nowhere else have I felt the revolution of rising expectations as strongly. It is great that there are no foreigners here. No tourism. They are doing it on their own.
Modernization is moving from East (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong) to West.
I speculate that INNOVATION may come out of the West. For example, the pioneering agricultural reforms started in the WILD West in Sichuan. Called the Responsibility System, the government doled out parcels of land to individual farmers on condition that a percentage of the crops be sold back to the State. This innovation swept through China and was later applied to industry.
It seems that China is on the right track despite the stop-go reforms of the doddering collective leadership. Deng (To get rich is Glorious) Xiaoping was the first Communist leader to realize that the government need merely get out of the way for China to move forward.
I write from Xi’an, where the 6000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses are still arrayed in battle formation. Magnificent. These were funerary objects, as in Egypt, to help the first Emperor of a united China defeat his enemies in the afterlife.
Big Chinese cities like Xi’an are certainly at their best in the early morning. Older folks are out practicing Tai Chi, some with real swords. Others join ballroom dance groups, charming to watch. Some shuffle-jog in bad shoes.
Sweepers are busy. These cities are like movie theatres — you throw everything on the ground — next morning all has been swept clean.
All men in China now aspire to a Chinese Dream; an obedient wife, a son, a respectable paunch, a pager, a whack of keys hooked on to the belt, and a dangling American cigarette.
I bought beers for an English teacher who told me that he had 2 children, a daughter and then a son. He explained that when his son was born he went to the authorities to make a written confession, apologize, and to request to atone for his mistake by paying a fine. In his case it was about US$1000. If his second child had been a girl he might have given her up for adoption, or not registered her and later sent her to be married in a rural area. (There are too few wives for husbands in rural China due to female infanticide.)
The teacher understands that men and women are equal in the West. But the reality in China is that the parents must have a son to take care of them in old age. A daughter won’t do this as she is a possession of her husband’s family. This is the old age security system in China.
There’s the rub. As the rich get richer, the poor will definitely get poorer. There is no socialist safety net in China; nothing to compare with a true workers paradise like the Socialist Republic of Saskatchewan.
In China both school and health care operate on a cash basis.
I spoke with an intelligent, articulate student entering his 4th and last year of English study in Beijing. He was the first from his village to go to University. His family and his village borrowed his tuition money. The student was working hard towards being able to pay back the huge debt.
When I asked him what he aspired to do with his degree he replied proudly, I want to be a waiter in an expensive foreigner’s Hotel!
my favourite place in China
Sweeping grasslands. Yaks and sheep in the tens of thousands. The most amazing thing I’ve seen in China! It made me long to have been there with the Buffalo in North America.
Wild-eyed, spiky-haired Mongol nomad cowboys ride into town, filthy, big knifes dangling. They are unabashed gawkers, some having rarely seen a Westerner before … except on TV.
Backpackers love to go where there are no suitcase tourists, to locales not yet ruined by too many visitors. A sad, true paradox.
Especially in China, the famous tourists stops here you would find crowded, littered, expensive, and tacky.
So I went to Langmusi, the most Tibetan place outside of Tibet. This is a simple and remote little town visited only by Buddhist pilgrims and a few backpackers. The locals are excited that next year, when the hospital opens, the town will have running water.
Life is simple. We live on wood stove baked apple pie with Yak yogurt. We drink eight-flavour tea (different fruits and berries) sweetened with slow disolving rock sugar.
At this, our favourite tiny Muslim restaurant, little daughter does her math homework (diligently, but incorrectly), son slurps his second bowl of noodles, and big-nose tourist reads Dostoyevsky.
Later the kids help me with my Mandarin. About 70% of Chinese speak Mandarin, and about 95% of backpackers. After a month in China I am the worst except for Julio from Spain, who doesn’t know a word. We often sit dumb and dumb.
The other major dialect is Cantonese, spoken in the South. The two can’t understand each other but they share the same written language. You need to know between 2000 – 3000 characters to read a newspaper. In 1954, in the interest of universal literacy, about 2000 characters were simplified. However, more and more Chinese want a return to the elegant full-form pictograms.
In 1958 the central government adopted Pinyin, a system of writing using our Roman alphabet. This was (somewhat) helpful for foreign devils but to most Chinese Pinyin looks like gobbledegook. They can’t read it.
Why do I mention all this? The bottom line is that the traveller in China must be able to speak conversational Mandarin or they are doomed.
I am doomed.
The thing to do here is to praise the colourful ethnic minorities and criticize the Han oppressors. But that hasn’t been my experience. The Chinese I have met are kind and tolerant of minorities, even weird backpackers. It is a pleasure to travel in a land with so few rowdy young males. The men are almost gentle.
The Muslim people in China are often strikingly handsome, photogenically pretty. They are hard-working and well educated, but keep a low profile. The call to prayer is not amplified. It’s been this way since the 1870s when the Chinese put down the last Muslim rebellion, killing millions and laying waste to entire cities.
The thing to do especially (to spite the ruthless Chinese police state, despite Brad Pitt) is to promote Tibet, Tibetans, and Tibetan Buddhism. The Tantric Buddhism here, as you know, is bizarre and mystical, heavily influenced by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. It is characterized by mantras (sacred chanting), yantras (sacred art), and secret initiation rites. It is terrifically compelling.
And the colours, the colours! Red robed monks. Washed, stained yellows, brick reds, browns, and bright blues. What spectacle!
Westerners decry the Chinese liberators of Tibet. We hate that the spiritual leader and 100,000 Tibetans were driven to exile. We mourn the 1.2 million Tibetan deaths and destruction of much of the Tibetan cultural heritage.
Wrong rumours still flourish that Tibetan women are made sterile in Chinese hospitals after their first child.
And backpackers particularly hate the extortionary cost of travel into Tibet. Like me, they are constantly seeking ways to enter Tibet illegally, to get one up on the Chinese authorities.
First I travelled to Little Tibet, Xiahe, in Gansu Province. It can be otherworldly. Outside of Lhasa, this is the leading monastery town. Once part of Tibet, at its peak it housed 4000 monks studying the hard sciences like Astrology and Esoteric Buddhism.
Several times the monk population has been decimated. But in 1999, I count 2000 monks here — and the number is increasing.
Amazingingly, there are pictures of the Dalai Lama here! The authorities don’t like it but, so far, the photos haven’t been removed. Soldiers are visible in town, even in the monasteries.
But Beijing , in reality, doesn’t have much influence this far West.
The Tibetans are striking. Especially when the Dalai Lama himself sits down beside you in the bus. (Well, it looked like him.) Tibetans often greet you by sticking out their tongue. Demons cannot disguise their forked tongues, you see.
I had always assumed that Tibetan cheeks were ruddy from wind and sun — but it appears to be genetic! I’d always assumed that the smudged faces and grimy clothing were due to a lack of water in Tibet — but it appears to be cultural. There is plenty of water in Xiahe, but most of the Tibetans are dirty.
The population here is 10% Muslim, 45% Chinese, 45% Tibetan. Many of the Tibetans have lice but none, I’m certain, of the Chinese or Muslims do. (I can’t vouch for all of the backpackers.) Many Tibetans live and sleep in their huge heavy robes and coats. They just don’t wash much. And the toilets are the filthiest I’ve suffered.
It is hilarious to watch Buddhist monks playing ping-pong, shooting baskets, or watching TV. For young students this is an exalted boarding school.
It is harvest here too. A beautiful time of the year. Most of the grains have been cut. Everything is done by hand. Cabbage, corn, and sunflowers are still up.
Yesterday, about 7 vehicles ahead of my bus, a potato truck overturned, falling over a cliff. The driver must have fallen asleep, I was told. Only about 5 sacks of potatoes roadside survived.
Motor vehicle accidents are by far the greatest risk in these countries.
I’m en route to Golmud to check-out the worst bus ride on Earth to Lhasa. (That claim is hotly disputed.) It’s 38 – 75 hours with 2 scheduled stops and a series of unscheduled flat tires, breakdowns, landslides, avalanches.
If I don’t like what I see in Golmud, I’ll consider my options.
The Songpan fire resulted in 130 displaced families. I saw at least 2 people badly burned, & 1 soldier down from smoke inhalation. Locals told us that no one was killed. Others said that 1 child had died.
The numbing, spicy detergent taste in Sichuan food is “huajiao”, literally flower pepper. You can’t avoid it. Later I found I started to acquire a taste for it (in very small quantities).
Many locals offered us a chance to try the Sichuan Hot Pot, dipping skewers into hot spicy oil. Apparently I dodged a bullet. It is said that no non-Sichuanese can tolerate that dish.
It turns out that Maotai (white alcohol) is a brand given out only as a special gift, costing between 300 – 500 Yuan. The locals drink a version costing 38 Yuan. Only backpackers buy the 6 Yuan rotgut.
Paul Thereaux said of China, I rarely saw an example of man’s insignificance against the greater forces of nature.
Only in China would you find a huge gorgeous waterfall criss-crossed with rickety wooden walkways, some washed away, others about to go. These walkways do provide access for Buddhist monks practicing waterfall meditation, contemplating in caves or standing in freezing spray. And they do provide me a magic moment. Sitting warming in the morning sun directly above a waterfall is a strange, wonderful experience.
I seek out these magic moments, choosing exotic and unique places to visit. When travelling, the pursuit of magic is my full-time job.
Magic can happen at home in the real world, of course. I remember writing a respected friend about Craik, Saskatchewan on a cold, windy October night. I saw a field ablaze with giant bonfires.
I wandered between the dozens of fires. Beautiful. The fire burned so clean. Canary yellow! I never saw such a fire colour. The heat thrown was unbelievable.
The farmer was lighting misshapen haystacks from a truck with a portable acetylene torch.
Burning’ flax straw. Damned stuff won’t rot, he told me with rural verbal economy.
He was the performance artist; me the astounded city slicker. He was understated; me hyperbolic.
This morning, though, I am wondering if this backpacking thing is a self-indulgent conceit. It’s great, but am I being irresponsible, not focusing on more weighty life matters? Running away?
Yet I thrive on the backpacking trail. I see others distressed, wearing down. But I never seem to tire. The road is bliss though, admittedly, ignorant bliss. All this breathing in. Living in the moment. After all, both Hinduism and Buddhism teach that real life is but an illusion, anyway.
Like everyone else, I loved Songpan. It’s a bustling little town in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. Yaks, farmers, and Tibetan cattle herders clop down the main street. Peddlers hawk exotic mushrooms and animal pelts, some with the blood still dripping. Officials parade self-important in cheap uniforms. They butcher animals right on the road in the dirt and the flies.
Some of the ethnic minorities still wear traditional costumes of fur and bright cloth. Tourists are charmed by modern clothing; local men are ruddy cheeked Tibetans dressed like Chicago gangsters; local women wear fancy pant suits. Informal wear is dress slacks and, inexplicably, a sweater vest. Older men stick to the conservative Mao jacket and cap.
After all the dull brick and concrete of post-Communist China, Songpan is real. Wood and stone. Everything ihand-made. The main street was being reconstructed with a beautiful carved wooden facade, anticipating a coming tourist boom.
It’s hard to believe that I’m in China. At first glance this could be Alberta, pristine valleys and forests.
Songpan has long been a jumping off point for Chinese tour groups but it is only in the last 8 years that it has become a must for backpackers. They come for the Tibetan horse trek.
We spent 4 days on stunted horses. This was a first for me — travel on horseback, spending time with horse people. Our Muslim guides were the highlight.
The guides speak a dialect of Mandarin, but with the horses they use a completely different language, perhaps a former tongue. They are firm but patient. It’s true that horses are just like children, always testing the limits of how far they can go. We loved that the horses were allowed to graze free during the night, though it usually took 2 hours or more to collect them in the morning. We were surprised that they don’t name horses here, referring to them only by their colour.
The guides are great wilderness cooks; baking, making noodles, adding greens and wild mushrooms from the forest.
They are happy, laughing, hooting & singing all day long. They can drink Maotai all night and suffer no hangover. Dennis (a young German who spent the trip trying to smoke the local ganja, used here only as pig fodder) agreed that these horse guides have a superior quality of life than our own back home.
We later had dinner with the family of our 20 year old guide who was a little embarrassed about being poor. Ten of us sat comfortably about the wood stove, source of heat and food for all. We gorged on steamed buns stuffed with spicy meat and vegetables or potatoes. The house was soot-blackened, impossibly tiny, and very homey. Everyone participated equally in the lively family conversation. Moma still spits on the earth floor but the rest of the family has been educated not to spit, at least not when foreigners are around.
The horse trek is a tourist gig but still 2 or our party of 6 fell off their horses, and one of the guides got hung-up in a tree. The guides laughed about that one for days. The trail is really rugged with passes over 3800 metres.
There is no pollution over the Tibetan plateau. The air is clean. There were birds in number, animals in the wild. In China!
foothills of Tibet near Songpan
We were moved when we saw a farm woman carrying a huge Yak yoke. Like Christ carrying his cross.
All this breathing in.
On our return to Songpan town, I noticed smoke over the main street. Walking closer I could see flames licking the roof tops. Fire! Panic. The street was jammed. Shopkeepers desperately tried to carry goods to safety. Passers-by like myself tried to help, but in the chaos there were too many people, too much clutter.
A motorcycle cop arrived with 2 hoses, but it took at least an hour before any river water was pumped. The Chinese-made hose couplings would not stay sealed.
Residents fled carrying valuables, chasing pot-bellied pigs out on to the street. Chinese good luck firecrackers sounded in huge bursts. Explosions like bombs. Fuel tanks?
Women and girls sobbed in desperation. Men shouted and acted in brave but irrational ways. There was no organization, no leadership. Not even when the fire truck arrived, or when the army arrived.
Would the whole town burn?
I ran back to the guesthouse but it had already been locked, everyone turned out. Back at the terrible blaze the best way I could help was to stay out of the way. Others threw roof tiles at the advancing fire, or splashed mud and ditch water on their homes.
The failing sun cast a surreal eerie light. Thick smoke. These tears.