The rooftop has a few loose shingles

Trip Start Sep 15, 2007
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Trip End Dec 15, 2007


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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, October 21, 2007

the line on the map going from chengdu to lhasa is completely unrepresentative of the actual train journey that tam and i have so recently completed. if you were to imagine pinching the red line between chengdu and lhasa at about the mid-point and dragging it upward to create an inverted 'V' with the tip level with beijing you would get a much more accurate representation of our route. the reason that i've entered the map points the way they are is because i have this map related rule of only entering places where i've stayed the night...day trips and passing through don't count. the map would get too messy if i created an entry for every single place i've physically moved through on my trip. my initial reading of the tibet permit situation was correct, as tam and i strolled right through the lhasa train station. it also seems that most of the places we plan on visiting outside of lhasa may be accessible without permits as well...the only tricky part may be getting to the nepali border. it's easy to do if you're willing to shell out several hundred dollars to take a jeep the whole way (and that amount goes up if the jeep isn't full) but neither tam nor i want to spend that much money, and i have a feeling that we'll find a way there in a manner more suited to our budgets. lhasa is at 3700m and even though the train broke 5000m there was oxygen being pumped into the train cars so the full effect of the altitude was limited. it wasn't anything like an airplane cabin being pressurized and i did feel it a little bit when trying to go to sleep on the trip (the second night) but to go from nothing (chengdu is at 127m) to over 5000m in less than two days would have floored us without the extra oxygen. we had to fill out a health disclaimer when we boarded the second, high-altitude train...i imagine that in the year or so that it's been operating there have probably been some serious medical situations on the train. tam and i definitely felt the 3700m as we shouldered our packs on the lhasa train platform. in the 24 hours since then i've felt pretty good...but we've been taking it very easy. it's harder for me to catch my breath and i get short, slight headaches if i climb stairs too quickly (or similar exertions) but overall i've been pleased with my body's reaction to the rather sudden change in altitude (i can't imagine stepping off a plane into this atmosphere). this is the highest i've ever been without mechanical aid (last time in nepal i went up to 3300m) and i think how i feel right now bodes well for going higher. we plan to stay in lhasa for about four days, taking in the sights in a leisurely manner. tam is having a harder time than i am...he was ok this morning but has developed a bad headache over the course of the day. we'll see how he feels tomorrow and act accordingly.

we spent the morning exploring the jokhang, probably the most important monastery and temple in tibet. it's hard to describe the somewhat insane mixture of tibetan pilgrims circumambulating (always clockwise) the structure and prostrating all along the way, the tourists snapping away with their cameras, and the plethora of merchants lining the entire circuit. the smell of incense and yak butter candles (better smelling than i expected) hangs over everything. the actual building is quite small...it was pretty pricey to get in (70 yuan) but the inner sanctum had a definite spiritual aura even with all the tours groups congregating throughout. it was great to be able to go up on the roof as well and get amazing views of the surrounding chaos, lhasa, and the mountain vista that encircles it all. i think that tibetans are definitely in the running for most beautiful people on the planet...the monks in their red robes, pilgrims with their beautifully decorated hair and large vests with many folds that their arms frequently disappear into. all the clothing is so colourful and exquisite. we came across a group of men, not monks, wearing long robes and the bellowing vests, but also wearing dark sunglasses and hats that were reminiscent of fedoras...tam called them the tibetan mafia. the other main attraction in lhasa is the potala palace, the traditional home of the dalai lama...obviously unoccupied presently. the building is a wonderful mix of red and white with sharp boxy angles, quite unlike any other architecture i've ever seen. it sits atop a rock outcropping that juts up in the middle of lhasa creating a commanding presence that can be seen from all over the city. there are only so many tickets sold to tourists every day (tam and i walked by at around 10 am and they were already sold out for the day) but you can buy tickets in advance. the tickets are very expensive at 100 yuan...thankfully tibetans only have to pay 5. as the potala sits high up on a hill there are lots of stairs to climb. tam and i agreed that we would maybe buy tickets tomorrow for the next day, hoping that by then we will be able to handle the stairs without too much difficulty.

as for the political situation here, it's very, very messy. the more i learn about the history of tibet the more i realize how complicated it all is. i think that both the chinese government and the 'free tibet' activists are being disingenuous. the chinese are without a doubt occupying and the hysteria of the cultural revolution resulted in inexcusable damage to tibetan cultural property. but pretending that tibet was somehow an idyllic paradise before chinese intervention is a dangerous fantasy and there seems to be a tendency to ignore history when arguing for tibetan independence. to be clear, i believe in the right to self-determination of any group that has a shared ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity, and which lives in a relatively contiguous physical location. tibetans clearly should have their own state in some form, the relationship with the chinese taking on any number of possibilities. but tibetan culture has been far from progressive historically, feudal theocracy hardly being an 'enlightened' form of social order. i'm entering into territory where i have limited knowledge so maybe i'll cut this a bit short and let the lonely planet's introduction to tibet speak for me for now: 'there simply seems no middle ground on the dilemma of china and tibet - one must either believe that the opportunistic han are 'ruining' shangri-la, or that they wrested literally millions of slaves from feudal serfdom. the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.' what has become increasingly apparent to me are the failings of the lamaist reincarnation scheme. since its inception in the 11th century the search for reincarnated leadership has always been manipulated politically. it's no surprise that the chinese have vigorously taken to the same interference. i find the whole concept problematic and spiritually bankrupt, much as i view the election of the pope. it's all politics. the search for the major reincarnated lamas (dalai lama, panchen lama) has always been sexist as girls are not even considered...this when buddhism provides ample reason to view gender as superficial and trivial. the current dalai lama has said that if he dies in exile (and he's getting up there) the next dalai lama will be reincarnated outside of tibet. how can this be anything but political maneuvering? the chinese government, for its part, will immediately name its own patsy the 'true' dalai lama and the ensuing battle for legitimacy will be of no help to anyone. the particular way in which the tibetans choose their spiritual (and therefore, in the tibetan context, political) leaders seems bound to cause this kind of chaos, and has previously. it seems so unlike the rest of what i know of buddhism to me that i can't help but find the whole process distasteful. but i think that a lot of what i find strange in tibetan buddhism has much to do with the degree to which the older bon religion that was displaced has been incorporated into tibetan buddhist practice.

when tam and i were boarding our train to lhasa in chengdu we both agreed that we felt like we were leaving china. that feeling has subsided somewhat in the face of the degree to which chinese culture has reshaped lhasa...but still, i have a sense that the first, chinese, part of my trip is over. it's caused me to reflect on my experience of the chinese people, the confusing mix of casual disregard and endearing friendliness and compassion. i can think of so many moments of intense frustration at the seemingly endless selfishness of the people around me...but just as many of gratefulness and warmth when i was helped and sheltered when i least expected it. the contrast was sharp and often disconcerting in hindsight. the only way i've come to understand it is as a question of responsibility. to go from being a faceless stranger, an obstacle in the way, to a friend and near family member only takes a shift in perception, to be seen as having become a responsibility of the chinese person in question. whether it be finding the right bus connection or hostel, or making sure that i'm not being taken advantage of in some way, as soon as my well being is sensed as being directly linked to the actions and considerations of the person in question, i am welcomed. this is especially true in the context of being a guest in china, as my opinion of my experience and chinese hospitality matters greatly to most people. china desperately wants to be seen as a member of the international community in good standing, and in some small way this has filtered through my time here.
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Comments

philw212
philw212 on

interest insight
as a native chinese, i really enjoyed reading your thoughtful and balanced view on tibet and china. thank you for sharing it with us and the rest of the world.

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