(Still on the toilet? Good.)
TIBET - PART TWO
Thursday, August 26th
“FIRSTS” for the author…experienced in Tibet
1. FIRST time to experience Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, which initially is annoying, but gradually feels like you’re on shrooms….not that I would know, because I have never done drugs. never………… ever. Hmm.
2. FIRST time I have eaten Yak. Had Yak curry. Not too bad. Tasted like beef. And I really wished it had been bad just so I could say, “Yak? Yuk.” or with a gay flare, “Yaaaaakkk?!? Yuuuuuuhhhhkkkk!!!!!!!”, because we gays can be dramatic.
3. FIRST time I have urinated into the same toilet/hole at the same time with a complete stranger. Imagine one small closet of a toilet, and one hole in the ground, and two guys who have never met peeing openly into it….together. My willy. His willy. Hi Willy! Is this Tibet’s way of saving water? oh wait…they don’t really flush. (you can imagine what toilets look like there)
Our time in Kathmandu had come to an end, and we all were headed out on a long journey across Tibet that would eventually take us to the border of Nepal. After snagging a couple of provisions form the local supermarket (some apples, some rolls, imitation Oreos, and a bag of Shrimp-flavored chips…I know weird but very Asian), I piled into our 19th century minivan with the team and headed out of the Holy City.
(Side note: Now there are moments of silent understanding when traveling with a group of strangers that I want to bring up. Six people about to hop into a small van…who sits where? Lots of things come into play…aggressiveness, physical size, generosity, apathy, timing, but what I believe it mainly comes down to a person’s character. We all are there…we know what seats are good and what seats to avoid, but how do you deal with choosing? Jordi and Olga, the young couple, choose the front row of seats….roomy, less bounce, and the golden seats of our jalopy. They I would consider to be the AGRESSORS. Sophy and “French dude” choose the back row, which actually had room for three and though felt all the bumps of the road was quite roomy as well. They I would call the ADVANTAGE TEAM PLAYERS. What was left was the row in-between, small seating space, cramped leg-room, and clearly the shitty option of the three available. That’s where we were, and silently everyone else had agreed that since Leah and I were the most “compact” of the group, we would be fine there. Hah. I would consider us the IDIOTS.)
So……we went on our merry journey….la di da…..to our first destination, a supposedly gorgeous lake called Nam-tso, about a seven-hour drive north of Lhasa. The views of the city quickly faded and we found ourselves out in huge open fields with sweeping hills and mountains as our backdrop. There were creeks flooded from the season’s monsoon rains, winding seamlessly aimless across the valleys. The landscape was vaste and open, with speckles of rural Tibetan homes scattered in clusters throughout. Yaks grazed in the open grass, and often times we found ourselves stalled from a flock of sheep in the middle of the road.
The drive led us through a huge area where nomads were settled, and I found seeing their tents and livestock to be so far away from everything I knew during my lifetime in The states. These Tibetan people today were living the lives of the first settlers of America that I had always read about in history class. Except we were in the present, and this was their reality. Their only breach with the modern world was the addition of motorcycles into their nomadic wanderings. At least that is all I could see. Maybe they have satellite discs in their tents and iPhones in their pockets?
After a long drive, we made it Nam-tso Lake, considered one of three holy lakes in Tibet and is also the world’s highest salt water lake, located at just over 15,500 feet above sea level! No boats are allowed on the waters, and there is absolutely no fishing. There’s a story that a family had caught some fish on the lake, took them home for a delicious dinner, and died shortly after. Now I am not that superstitious, but you can pretty much assume that I won’t be testing my luck.
The lake was enormous and stretched beyond my viewpoint. All along the shoreline were touts selling yak rides and pictures with yaks, doing there best to earn a buck. I was on guard with snapping photos of Tibetan cultural icons. Just an hour earlier I had gotten accosted on two occasions for innocently taking pictures of some dogs and then a skull. “10 YUAN! 10 YUAN!” the guys would yell in my face. Ridiculous!
It seemed like anyone could set up a stand in front of any beautiful thing in Tibet and charge you 10 yuan for it. The Chinese government already figured that out and had a monopoly on the entire country, and they were charging much more than that. The Tibetan people were not really reaping the benefits of it unfortunately. I had developed a sense of trust with our guide Jibu, who was Tibetan, and he informed me about how the Chinese government was stripping Tibet of all of it’s natural resources, exporting them to foreign nations and using them across mainland China. His opinion was that by doing this, China was throwing off the balance of the natural world in Tibet, which is considered sacred and the center of Tibetan spiritual beliefs. He believed that this was the reason for all earthquakes, mudslides, storms, and other ominous catastrophes.
I took some time to wander the hills that ran along side of Nam-sot Lake, exploring all the cave dwellings and crevices hung with countless numbers of prayer flags. After a while though I could feel the high altitude creeping on my head again, and so I retreated to our guesthouse, a very basic set up of flat walls and some electricity. My head was feeling compressed by an invisible source, and it was affecting my temperament. All I could do was fill my head with positive thoughts, of Jonny… and of how despite my quiet annoyances I was exactly where I was suppose to be in the world.
Friday, August 27th
At six in the morning, the world is dark in Tibet. There is only one time zone for the entire region of China, and therefore Tibet. So when we headed out of Nam-sto Lake, all of us were delirious as we headed into the pouring rain and stormy weather that greeted us. The day was going to be a long one, having to make up some time due to the group’s desire to change the trip itinerary. Most of the first few hours in the van was a blur of flashes of lightening, bumpy roads, and grasslands. I was just happy to leave the high elevations and gain some relief from the AMS, so it didn’t matter that I was wearing the same clothes and hadn’t showered in two days. If you know me at all, this is usually completely unacceptable…I take at least three showers a day, so I was really behind. Oh the things you learn to adapt to when you are traveling….
The road climbed higher and higher through some of the most extraordinary landscapes I had ever seen….deep canyons of lush fields and mountains overlapping each other in the distance, their snow-covered summits blurring in with the white clouds above. The sky, a crisp sapphire blue, watched over us as we skirted the edges of cliffs, and my head wondered repeatedly what it would be like to fly off the road and perish in a fiery blaze of glory. Alas, my prayers had been heard and we made it to safer lands, stopping at spectacular turquoise lakes and gigantic ice glaciers.
While overlooking Long Ma Lake, which sat at the very bottom of a deep canyon from where we were, Leah and I got a stack of small prayer notes and threw them across the skies in hopes of good luck in the future. In my head I think, “Yes…send us some good luck in the future….and sorry about littering all over your canyon.”
By the time we reached the town of Gyantse, most of the troops were too exhausted to see yet another monastery, but Leah and I decided to fork up the few yuan bills to get into the Pelkor Chode Monastery. We were of course getting accustomed to the entrepreneur-ship of the Chinese government and refused to pay for taking a picture, but where we could, we did. At exactly 6:30pm, the monks of the monastery flooded out of the main assembly hall, a moment we were lucky enough to catch as it was happening.
Men draped in red robes and of various ages, mostly in their teens and twenties, scattered across the courtyard, off to who knows what but clearly leaving at an eager pace. It was as if class was over and some of them really had to go pee. Or catch “Ugly Betty”.
Another few more hours and we arrived at our destination, Syigatse, in the late-night hours. halleluyah….there’s a hot shower. We grabbed our own beds quickly in our shared room and I wondered if I would ever fly my kite again.
Saturday, August 28th
THE BIG DAY.
Back before Leah and I left the states, I was searching for the best tour to take through Tibet and came upon the word EVEREST. What?!? REALLY?!? How was this possible? Never had I imagined ever visiting the tallest mountain on this planet. Only the truly brave and physically adept could ever grace the mountain’s dangerous cliffs, a place that has a history record of taking many many lives. And here it was scheduled on this itinerary….. “Everest Base Camp”, the place all climbers on the Tibet-side begin their journey up to 8848-meter summit. We were on our way.
But before we left Shigatse, we visited one last monastery named Tashilhunpo (good luck with that one)…the largest functioning monastic institution in Tibet.
This was where the Panchen Lamas would rein, and many of them are entomb here in absolutely the largest burial tombs I have ever seen. From what I gathered, the Dalai Lamas were the great spiritual heads and the Panchen Lamas dealt with the scholarly and theoretical aspects of life in Tibet. Since it was a Dalai Lama who acknowledged the existence of the first Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama has the rein over the table and gets the biggest slice of cake. Unfortunately for him, with great power comes great responsibility. When Chinese Communism came in to “liberate” Tibet, the current Dalai Lama managed to escape to India where he still lives now. When the last Panchen Lama died in the mid-90s, the Dalai Lama acknowledged a new Panchen Llama to replace him. Well, that “lucky” boy and his entire family were taken away by the Chinese government and haven’t been seen since, only to be replaced by a government-sponsored Panchen Lama whom the Tibetan people have refused to accept but under pressure must. Those are the facts. I will leave you to make your own opinions.
We head off after a while on the long drive to the Base Camp. It was clear that due to our late start, we were not going to get there until dark. Of course on this long day was when one of our tires blew out and we were stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere for a bit. Luckily the rain had left us and the day was sunny and calm.
While Jibu and our driver worked on the wheel, the rest of us entertained ourselves in our respective ways….Jordi and Olga practiced salsa moves in a ditch by the road, Sophy and French dude smoked like it was their job, and Leah and I took jump shots in the middle of the road.
Before long we were on our way, stopping for a brief lunch where I discovered how AWESOME SNICKERS IS.
They really do satisfy you, especially after eating in Tibet for nearly a week. I don’t get it….but of course I come from a background where food is the core of the culture. Thai food is vibrant and full of intoxicating flavors…but in Tibet, there’s barley, some veggies, yak, and yak butter. An episode of “Top Chef Tibet ” would be as thrilling as watching grass grow in real time. So I suggest bringing your own sustenance if you are going to spend any time here. Sorry Tibet. Just how I feel.
The sun disappeared and any hopes of seeing Mount Everest were quickly being tossed in the toilet, especially because the monsoon season had filled the skies with dark clouds. Any glimpses of the mountain we got were unsatisfying, and though we all tried to be happy with what little we could capture on our cameras, I think we all hoped that the next day would bring about some miracle. In the distance it was there…. Everest, but we would have to wait.
And after driving down the worst dirt road I have ever driven down, taking FOUR HOURS to drive a distance of just over sixty miles…..60 MILES, we arrived in tent city an hour before midnight. Was it worth it?!? I was too exhausted to think about it, choosing to just settle into my thick blankets while the rest of my companions went about eating, chatting, and smoking under the flicker of the firelight that glowed in the stove.
I was dirty, exhausted, and only had the remnants of chocolate and nuts lodged in between my teeth to satiate my hunger. Thanks again Snickers. At nearly 17,000 feet above sea level we were, the temperature dropping, and here I was hoping that the next day would bring about something great besides my candy bar.
Sunday, August 29th
I could see my breath when I woke up at 7 in the morning. Everyone was still asleep, and already our 6:30am go-time had passed. There was no way anyone was getting up, despite grand ambitions to catch the sunrise at the Base Camp. I went outside to see what the conditions were, and all I could see were clouds and barely a hint of sunlight. Damn it. It seemed that we were all going to have to settle for what few mediocre shots we got the evening before.
After a while, everyone slowly got up and decided that we had to at least get up to the Base Camp. Jordi, Olga, Leah, our guide Jibu, and I chose to walk the last few kilometers up to the base camp, while Sophy and French dude took the bus. It was a nice hike through the canyons, and after only an hour, we had seen the postings for the Base Camp! It was rather anticlimactic actually…just an area marked off with a few signs and a tent where a Chinese authority checked your permit.
Everyone climbed to the top of a hill where the best view Everest would be, but the clouds were not shifting. We all kept watching the skies, hoping for some gusts of wind to swoop into the valley.
Jibu encouraged us to whistle and yell to the skies, saying that it might help. Like idiots we did as we were told, yelling and screaming and whistling as best we could. Call it what you will…coincidence or luck…but soon after, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and WALLA. The summit of Mount Everest. Oh yeah baby.
I couldn’t get enough of it! My index finger never left the click button of my camera! Right in front of me was the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Even Jibu, who had done this trek many times before, was impressed by the sight. He had spoken to another guide days before telling him to just skip this part of the trip and that the whole region was just too cloudy. Hah! Not for us! We were seeing Everest against a perfectly clear and sunny skyline. Everyone was ecstatic, and nothing was going to ruin this moment for us. It didn’t matter that we had hardly any sleep, hadn’t showered, had barely eaten… All of that went away with the sight of this beautiful mountain. I was energized by it and felt alive in its presence. Nothing would ever make me forget that moment.
The rest of the day consisted of hours of driving to the border of Nepal, but all of it was rather irrelevant. We were thoroughly in awe of our experience at Everest, and I spent my time in the van filling my head with memories of the past several days. Lhasa, Nam-tso Lake, monasteries, the Chinese military, and yak butter candles…prayer flags and incense…. Mount Everest….. What a thoroughly jaw-dropping, eye-opening experience Tibet revealed to be.
At times frustrating and sad, and at others, utterly exhilarating, the country still leaves me with so many questions that I imagine will never be answered. I can only appreciate that my previous perceptions have found some grounding and that my understanding of their situation is far more concrete than before. I may have not spent “Seven Years in Tibet”, but seven days were enough to ingrain an experience in my travel diaries for a lifetime.
Go now people… before it’s completely gone.
END OF PART TWO