Wrapping up Tibet with a little more Nepal
Trip Start Apr 17, 2007
23Trip End Sep 17, 2007
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Now, to issues of content.
Many readers appear to have seen through the smoke and mirrors that was the previous blog entry. However, the many who think it was all just a cunning wheeze for not spending much time in an Internet Cafe when in Lhasa, are a little wide of the mark. The reason that such extreme and implausible steps were taken (heaven forbid that the Chinese authorities should ever really indulge in any form of censorship), was more to do with finding it all rather difficult to think of what to write. I've spent some time since trying to work out why this should be the case. Although it could be just common-or-garden writer's block, I'm now thinking that there's more to it than that.
When travelling involved the rather superficial acts of lounging around on gorgeous beaches, or hacking up mountains, writing about it was easy. But in Tibet, everything's fundamentally so much more spiritual that even the apparently superficial things which happen seem to acquire a more personal and private dimension. I know in earlier entries I talked with some skepticism about expecting the Tibet and northern India and stages of the trip to be more serious - 'harder work', in fact - but they do appear to be turning out that way.
So, I'm now going to try to write about the past few weeks in a way which conveys the wonder of the places I've seen, but without revealing too much of the soul-searching which has accompanied it!
Lhasa - regional capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, and former capital of the Tibetan nation - is a remarkable place. Firstly, there's the high, barren, mountainous, almost lunar terrain within which it nestles. The 50km bus ride from the airport reminded me in some ways of travelling in Iceland. And from the restaurant on the top floor of the first hotel in which I stayed, the sea of rooftops in every direction always ended in a shoreline of high looming dark peaks.
The sense of other-worldliness continues as you begin to realise how little oxygen is available. Usually easy walks, and the climbing of short flights of stairs, result in an alarming breathlessness and pounding heart, confirming that conventions which can be taken for granted just about everywhere else on the planet, don't apply here.
Lhasa has grown rapidly over the past few decades, as the Chinese attempt to assimilate Tibet into China's uniformity. The rail link to the rest of China was completed last year (a year early), and Chinese settlers have been pouring in attracted by the investment that the government has been making in the region. The result is that most of Lhasa now has very much the feel of a modern Chinese city about it. (Having never been to any other modern Chinese city I'm going out on a limb somewhat by saying this, but I'll say it none-the-less.) And though the Tibetans clearly resent the way the Chinese are trying to oppress their culture and way of life, one can't help thinking of the 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene from Life of Brian. Maybe the case can be made that it isn't worth the price being paid by the Tibetan people, but the general standard of living in Lhasa looked to me to be as high as anywhere I've seen on my trip. (So high, in fact, that for the very first time on the trip I saw a real live S-series Nissan coupe! A rather tatty white S13, no less!) Maybe Delhi has many more pockets of extreme wealth, but a disregard for the notion of sharing it around means that poor areas are very poor, and infrastructure often fails to live up to expectation. In Lhasa, infrastructure seems to be taken much more seriously.
Although it may justifiably feel under threat, Tibetan culture is still very prominent in Lhasa. The Tibetan quarter, now in the east of the city as the Chinese push out to the west, has a timeless atmosphere about it that makes one think it's more than capable of withstanding anything the Chinese can throw at it. Narrow streets lined with white-washed Tibetan houses and crowded with prayer-wheel toting pilgrims and monks occasionally prostrating themselves in the middle of the road; endless rows of market stalls selling everything relevant to the Tibetan way of life; the all-pervasive smells of incense and yak-butter; ornate religious buildings of unimaginable significance to the Buddhist faithful.
And then, of course, there's the Potala. Built in the middle of the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama, this awesome building which looms over Lhasa was the heart of Tibetan government and home to successive Dalai Lamas until the current (fourteenth) Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 to escape the Chinese. Inside it now lies dormant, as though waiting for a reversal of circumstance that almost certainly isn't going to happen, but its impact from the outside is immense. I must confess to having spent an inordinate amount of time in the large square below the front of the Potala, doing little more than revelling in its overwhelming tranquility.
In contrast, the many monasteries nestling in hillsides and dotted around Tibet, are still very much awake, and centres of intense activity. Although many were destroyed (or at least, extensively damaged) in the early days of Chinese involvement in Tibet, since the mid 70s the Chinese have been more tolerant of them, and much rebuilding has been going on. The monasteries that I visited were bustling centres of Buddhist activity; chapels, colleges and debating courtyards which for many young Buddhist males are where they spend many of their formative years. It's a way of life that westerners find very difficult to understand. I'm still trying.
In a complete contrast to Lhasa's week of spiritual exploration, the following week was occupied with the more practical issue of getting back to Nepal. Throwing caution to the wind, I joined up with a couple of guys advertising on Lhasa hotel notice boards for people to join a five-day Land Cruiser trip from Lhasa to the Nepali boarder along the Friendship Highway via Tibet's Everest Base Camp. I think I now understand where the idea of the road-movie comes from.
The trip was extremely enjoyable overall. It was remarkable how well we all got on, despite significant differences of opinion on a number of important issues. It does seem that people who travel tend to be pretty mature and pragmatic when it comes to resolving differences.
The journey took us over the Tibetan plane, past the sapphire-blue Yamdrok-tso lake, over-nighting at the towns of Gyantse, Shigatse, Tingri, Everest Base Camp (5200m!), and the border town of Zhangmu. Most of the scenery was more-of-the-same extraordinary mountainous lunar landscape, but some bits deserve a special mention, for various reasons.
The Everest Base Camp bit was extraordinary. Although the view of Everest itself was pretty poor due to cloud cover, the landscape was exceptionally lunar. A surreal collection of tents and jeeps housed and transported the steady stream of tourists who wished to be able to pronounce to their friends, or blather on about in their travelblogs, that they'd been up Everest. A small fleet of horse-drawn carts provided transportation to the actual, somewhat disappointing, base camp itself, a kilometre or two away. (Clear weather would probably have resulted in the view of Everest more than compensating for the fact that there's actually not much to the base camp.) It was really rather cold up there, and even though the supplied in-tent bedding was exceptionally cosy, it was very hard to sleep at that altitude. Also, it must be noted that the toilets at the camp were the worst and 'most abused' of any that I've encountered on the trip so far.
The end of the trip involves falling off the Tibetan plateau. The town of Nyalam sits on the very edge, and the fact that Nyalam means 'gateway to hell' in Tibetan is no coincidence. From there the road clings to the side of unimaginably deep and steep gorges, ducking behind plummeting waterfalls, and struggling over rockfall debris, as it drops 1500m to the border town of Zhangmu. All the while, a many-hundred-metre drop is just a few feet from the vehicle, and the dense undergrowth wouldn't do much to save you if you were to take the direct route down. The journey from Nyalam to Zhangmu is undoubtedly the most impressive 30kms I've ever travelled.
The following day saw immigration bureaucracy, and bus trips winding through the Himalayan foot-hills bringing us back to old familiar Kathmandu. When checking into the same hotel that I'd been staying in before, I noticed a headline in a local paper lying on the desk. "Whole New Ball Game For Ex-Sex Workers". You wouldn't have seen that in Tibet. It's on a completely different spiritual level.
I've now been back in a very rainy Kathmandu for a couple of days. My travelling companions have all now moved on to their respective next destinations. Despite many months of being alone for most of the trip, the sudden departure of those with whom I've shared so much over the past week carries with it a definite pang of loneliness. I know that many of you reading won't believe this, but this travelling lark can actually be pretty tough. It isn't a holiday, and it can be emotionally very demanding.
The good news is that I too have finally sorted out the next stage of my trip. Tomorrow I take the bus to the Nepal/India border, where I'll spend a day at Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha. I'll then cross back into India, and take the train back to Delhi, from where I'll sort out transportation to northern India.
I feel really sad to be leaving Kathmandu for the final time, despite its noise and pollution, given that it's been my base for almost two months. It's just as well that I'll be coming back next autumn with some of you to trek the Annapurna circuit!