Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Tibet Journals II: The Road Out




...We leave Lhasa in the falling snow.  The bright blue curtain above is gone, replaced with a ceiling so low I'm afraid to bump my head.  It is a day best described as listless.  Lhasa is equally so this early in the morning.   Luckily the clouds lift eventually, through the rain lingers.  We stop for fuel in a little town of tree-lined streets.  It is pretty in a way, but it could be the weather, like how Japan looks best in shadow.  LYL and I buy more road snacks, giggling at some of the weirder items, like dried chicken feet.  The further we get to Lhasa the more the sky clears.  This leaves us the views as we wend up toward the 4700m Kamba-la Pass.  Hugged by the hairpins, ruined monasteries stand sentinel in the valleys below.  Here and there are turn-outs, where industrious men have turned their animal husbandry toward the free market.  For a few yuan you can take a photo with a horse, a yak, a mastiff.  The latter are simply immense and furry like lions.  I've read of these dogs, and how they can be vicious when protecting the homestead. They prove far bigger than I'd expected but appear to be passive when off duty.  From the pass we look down on the Yamdrok-tso, Tibet's most scared lake.  It's waters are reputed to be turquoise, but not under darkening skies like above. It takes a week to walk around, and the drive feels nearly as long, since there are no bridges that feed it.  We zig and zag along the inlets, as if tracing the shape of an amoeba.  People take advantage of the water source, their horses pulling plows between the irrigation channels. Cow pats decorated the walls of their farm compounds.  With the finger marks remaining, they are little round catcher's mitts.  


The skies darken again, and the snow comes and goes, comes and goes. We move beneath a jawline of jagged hills, the second row onward are snow-capped.  On the other side of those is Bhutan.  There are goats at the next pass, and a snarl of flags. I road appears to be going in across the valley, leading perhaps to the dam further on, one controversial as it bleeds water from holy Yamdrok-tso. Another pass, higher this time, beneath the Karola Glacier.  It is an idyllic spot, with a few farm houses clustered beneath, obviously taking advantage of the ever-present fresh water.  We can feel the 5045m altitude though the locals appear unfazed.  A group of women sit and gossip nearby the stupa marking the landscape as auspicious.  A pair of them approach Lai Yong speaking Singlish, which scores them points for accuracy...



...We lunch in Gyantse, at an Indian place that is tasty, despite the vomit on the stairs leading in.  The old dzong hovers above, which appears repeatedly in the books I've brought on Younghusband, and the 1904 British Invasion.  In hindsight, I'd wished I'd climbed it, to brush my fingers with history.  Instead we go immediately to Pelkor Chöde Monastery.  The street leading in is a mess of construction, the old town now sacrificed for Han tourism. (The following morning, I'd see a similar sacrifice had been made in Shigatse, its once charming old market quarter having already fallen victim.) The walled kora route is visible above but few of the original buildings that it once fed remain.  The central temple is a massive red monolith, no doubt difficult to destroy.  It is an atmospheric place, dusty and open and mythic due to the walls above.  There are also no other visitors here.  The adjacent Gyantse Kumbum is next, the name reminding me of the Scorsese film. This stupa is a simple pyramidal structure pocked with chambers that contain a different diety, 108 of them over four floors.  Inside one I find Vajrapani, the Tibetan equivalent to Fudō-myō, solving a personal mystery I'd discovered in my reading earlier in the van. I am tempted to climb up the top of the stupa, but I can see G is anxious about getting to Shigatse before Tashilumpo closes to visitors. So we go...

 
...Our first stop in Shigatse is a huge military checkpoint.  I follow G inside, as they need visual confirmation.  I always feel tense in places like this.  I sit and wait as a few guides and drivers joke in Chinese with the Chinese staff.  Most seem friendly, but then tense up with the arrival of a trio of obviously higher rank, who are stern and appear to be in a heated discussion. And my heart sank because I knew that all attention to shift to them (it did) and we wouldn't get to the monastery on time.  At that point and odd character walked in, a heavy-set Australian clad in flip-flops, sweatpants cut-off at the knee, and a baggy shirt open to the chest and bangled with jewelry.  The moment flesh touched the seat is lurched into a series of questions about myself and my travels.   It was an odd, disjunct exchange, where each subsequent sentence barely connected the one before.  He was traveling with his wife and teenage daughter and obviously starved for alternative companionship, clutching at conversational topics as desperately as a shipwrecked man lunges for floating debris. Yet he kept missing, and when he tired of asking questions, he'd simply make a statement about travel, leaping from decade to decade, continent to continent. I tried to hold up my end of the volley to these lobs, and he told me that I was the first foreigner who actually returned conversation.  I had nothing to say at this...


...We make it to Tashilumpo Monastery after all.  It was laid out like a medieval village, all narrow twisting alleys with high walls broken on occasion by tall doors.  We ducked in and out of these, tying to dodge a Chinese tour group who would spread out to fill any space they penetrated.  A young monk hurried to get to the large assembly hall for the late-afternoon chanting.  The rest were all seated in rows, their robes filthy and terribly tattered. Visitors aren't allowed to photograph inside the halls, but through the open doorway seemed fair game. As I raised my camera to shoot, two men attempted to step past into my shot, so assuming they were with the pushy tourist group, I extended my arm to block them.  When I later saw them wrapping a large Buddha statue as a donation, I felt petty and small.  The other group now gone we continued to wander, And this sacred space began to operate upon me, as I sank into the quiet, and the chanting, and the peaceful vibe.  Our hotel at the center of the new town was garish and pretty ching-chong.  There were a few other foreigners here, including one Dutch couple who were having a hard time getting through to the apathetic staff, their  volume rising in tandem with their desperate need for mayonnaise.  Armed with Mandarin, LYL stepping into the fray...


 ... Onward to the west.  Towns falling away now, but until this point they'd acted little more than caravanserai anyway, places built around the fortress monasteries for travelers to sleep and eat.  Little has changed today.  Nomad camps are now the biggest feature on the landscape, just a tent or two, beside which is parked a small truck and the ubiquitous motorcycle.  Sheep herding is done with a higher RPM these days. The few permanent structures are adobe type, protected by dappled walls and deities or scorpions painted on the houses themselves.  There are a few figures on the landscape:  a boy playing with a toy shovel;  a row of women hoeing in rhythm; a lone walker talking on a smart phone in the middle of nowhere.  Yaks are more prevalent, some with hair shaved to look like hats, other affixed with prayer flags. More numerous still are the sheep, one herd bizarrely the same color as the earth itself.  A tribute I suppose to the landscape itself, which is stupendous and monumental.  The peaks and hills almost look liquid, as if they are flowing, in tribute perhaps to the volumes of water than once covered them.  As attractive as it all is, the landscape is inhospitable, dehumanizing. As such the nomads enthral me, living a lifestyle as fluid as the land itself.  I imagine that the job of shepard must attract the same type of character as nightwatchman...


 ... Another reason for the rush of the previous day is that I wanted to do a detour to Sakya.  The road is under construction, and the snows of yesterday have made it thick with mud. farmers here are collective in their work, undergoing major projects before the earth softens enough for planting whatever it is that can survive out here.  Tourist vehicles are shunted through a checkpoint, unmanned as it turns out, but the road is cut by the construction and literally goes nowhere.  G and I get out to look around, but he ultimately decides to backtrack and take the other road, which gets us to town.  Sakya Monastery is a simple temple surrounded by row house dormitories.  A high wall surrounds all, which we walk after visiting the temple proper.  From here we can see the ruined temple buildings on the hills across the river as well as the town below.  A long-time feature of this area is its striped walls of greay and red, but the more recent constructions of the Chinese town ignore this.  Below us, young monks throw snowballs at each other, and from above, more continues to fall...     



...We stop for lunch in Tingri, once the major staging area for the earliest attempts at Chomolungma, or Everest as those men chose to call it, after a former Surveyor General of India who not only objected, but pronounced his name with a long E.  This late in the day, the onlyother customers are a group of foreigners at an adjacent table.  From this scrum comes an American accent saying, "There are peanuts in this."  I dismiss her as a difficult tourist until I'm later told that they are a team making an attempt at the mountain.  then I'm intrigued. 

On the drive out of town I notice a new Chinese temple built within the ruins of an old monastery.  (Numerous were the ruins I'd see during the three day drive, looking forgotten and forlorn in places deemed too inhospitable to warrant reconstruction.) We leave the Friendship  Highway which we've followed since Lhasa, though we prove to be latecomers as it had already travelled 4670 km by then since its origin in Shanghai. The road west toward Saga is in even worse condition than the one into Sakya, so we bump and grind along, leaving it entirely to run parallel awhile through the desert.  The two passes we cross are luckily open, and we drop down to detour enormously over the sole river crossing...


...Saga doesn't quite live up to its name, but it is an ordeal.  A military outpost, the town itself is hideous, and our room overlooks a sprawling bruise of industry which throbs into the night.  There is no heat, hot water is temperamental, and electricity shuts off from 2:00 to 7:00 am.  The staff shuts off for far longer, spending far more time on their smartphones or chatting loudly threw doorways marked, "Staff Only."  (If only they acted like staff.)  This is symptomatic of most hotels in China and India, where the number of 'workers' exceeds the amount of work and leads inevitably to boredom. It reminds me of the manager of a restaurant I used to work at, and his "Got time to lean, got time to clean..." 


... Today we have 600km to cover, so leave just after the power comes back on.  One annoyance in Tibet is that it is on Beijing time, so this time of year doesn't get fully light until almost 8 am.  Coupled with the lack of power, showering and packing up were done by torchlight.  No hotel breakfast either, so we eat at a local place the guides like, run by a Tibetan babushka type with broad face and rolypoly body girded in sheepskin robes. It is a simple by satisfying meal, of thin but gingery rice porridge, and what the New Mexican in me would call Navajo fry bread for dipping. We leave Saga in the same caravan with which we bumped into town yesterday.  In the dawn light, the drive is stunning, beneath low mountains reflected in ice.  As ever, the landscape betrays a previously undersea geography, of long, sloping hills rising toward jagged ridgetops, many pockmarked by sheep.   Now and again a town would appear, the usual unattractive Chinese type of functional two-story concrete blocks flanking the road between.  We stop at one for lunch in a Muslim restaurant.  Needing to pee, I'm directed to the yard outside, piled high with wrecked vehicles and a veritable minefield of human and animal feces.  Still, the cook serves the best food I had in Tibet.  We'll later stop to fill up with petrol, the shop inside selling nothing but Red Bull and beer.  Later we'll come to a new town, obvious by now to my eyes as there is nothing authentically Tibetan about it.  Many are heavy with military, and checkpoints coming more frequently now.  Just outside one of these towns is an army burial ground.  And those mountains to the south now rise in India. Atop one pass is a billboard with a photograph of Xi Jinping, telling us all that "Heaven will not provide bread and biscuits.  Anything worthwhile comes from your own efforts."  


 And effort it takes to do roadside prostrations at the last high pass along our westward route.  Lake Mansarovar is to our left, and before us, the reason I've joined G and D in touching my forehead to cold bitumen, is the looming peak of Mount Kailash, the immovable object that brought about ten days of forward movement...


On the turntable: Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, "1991-02-02 The Warfield, San Francisco"

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