Friday, June 29, 2018

Tracking the Changes on Kyoto’s Bukkoji-dōri

The next installment of the Kyoto Streets series, at Deep Kyoto.

On the turntable:  Jimmy Cliff, "Beautiful World, Beautiful People" 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ruined Capitals


...the incredible number of Americans in Athens, their itinerary initiated by the name-recognition of place...

...mornings in Athens defined by birdsong.  The source of these oracles sought by oversized cats,  descended perhaps from the lions of Hercules...

...Greece once had oral tradition, now it has graffiti... 


...good acoustic sax sweeping the Godfather theme up narrow stone streets... 

...Italian toilet seats covered with cardboard, as a measure against porcelain thieves...  

...Rome ambulance sirens drone like Scottish bagpipes...

...priests in Rome walk with a certain swagger, beneath marble rising from shadow...

On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Dick's Picks, Vol. 30" 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Papers: Chris Marker

On the turntable:Billy Cobham, "Conundrum"

Monday, June 11, 2018

Winding through the Silk Road

My latest travel piece for the Singapore Straits Times, on my train journey through Central Asia.

On the turntable:  The Jam, "In the City"

Friday, June 08, 2018

Tibet Journals V: The Road Back

There is a guest house near the shores of Lake Mansarovar, long and low.  It reminds me of Baghdad Cafe, or the forlorn motels I'd seen during an earlier trip around the Salton Sea.  The romantic in me wanted to spend the night here, just reading and napping and watching the water fowl come to a confused landing on the ice that still defined the surface of the lake.  But the pragmatic in me (sadly getting the upper hand more and more these days) recognized that we'd gained a day in our itinerary, and points further on showed more promise.   

A line of women performed full-length prostrations along the shoreline.  The lake is also sacred to Hindus (nearby Kailash thought to be the abode of Shiva), and some of Gandhi's ashes were spread here.  We climbed up to Chiu Monaster, prayer flags draped across the rocky face of the hill.  Just below is perhaps the world's finest 'loo with a view,'  a mere hole atop a stone platform, with an incredible 360 degree vista of the lake and the sacred mountains.  (Of course everyone within that 360 degrees would get a pretty good look at you too.) We banged on a door to rouse the caretaker, to show us around the temple, and its inner caves.  The main hall looked pretty new, with a bright and incredible statue of Guru Rimpoche, who spent the final days of his life here.  Asking permission of the caretaker, he imposed a quota of a single photograph.

 We stopped for one last look at the lake, from a hillock topped by mani stones and yak skulls.  Then we turned our vehicle around and retraced the 600km back to Saga.  I passed most the ride in a book, but the dramatic landscape frequently pulled me out.  The eyes inevitably would go to some bizarre shape of a mountain, and sure enough, there by the roadside would be the tell-tale prayer flags.  I am most used to this in the ropes and zig-zag papers of Shintō, but of course most cultures identify the sacred in nature.  During one pee break I lingered awhile outside the vehicle relishing the emptiness both geographic and sonic. It was the purest silence I ever 'heard.'  Inspired perhaps by my time spent at the abode of Shiva, I felt the need to destroy it, and let out a long trilling bellow.     

We stooped again at the tasty Muslin restaurant.  A couple of smart and casually dressed Chinese men ate at an adjoining table.  They belonged to the pair of Land Cruisers out front, mounted with Beijing license plates.  As my food cooked, I sat in the sun out front.  Two other Chinese men, not nearly as well off, were making a circuitous approach, gathering the courage to talk to me.  I used up my few words in Mandarin to answer a few questions, then needed to call LYL to translate. These men were part of a crew building a new road, and one of them had a crushing altitude-induced headache.  I gave him most of my remaining Paracetamol. This has happened to me numerous times during my travels, where a western face is assumed to be accompanied by some pretty strong meds.     

We pulled out of Saga in a low lying mist.  It had snowed the night before, traces still coating the sides of the road.  There was a long delay at the top of the pass, as the road works there blocked traffic for awhile.  I got out and walked around, looking down at the row of trucks heaping earth upon itself.  Then we were through and cutting through the desert, the snow thicker here, reflected with light that created mirages of the lakes out in the distance.  Again, it had a beauty that can only be described as quiet. We left the road for awhile as we had a few days before, only this time with the snow we couldn't find our way back.  A diagonal sort of triangulation brought the wheels back to tarmac.

This too was unreliable as the snow colonized the bitumen as we wound through hairpins to our final pass.  It was slick at the top, the drops big.  Large trucks moved slowly and cautiously, but D sped past.  He had an odd habit of braking or swerving suddenly, caused either by inattention or bad eyesight.  Over this uncertain surface I didn't find it so endearing.  The view from the pass was of a white world gradually giving way to brown.  The Himalaya was a wall directly to the front of us.  Then we wound down and down, much farther than on the climb up. A large group of foreign bicyclists was struggling on their own tough ascent, but it would be nothing compared with what they'd face up top. 

Down below, all was tropical.  We followed a river at the valley's bottom, on a road paved but barely. The drive reminded me of one I'd done through the Rockies of south Colorado, one right out of a photograph of old model-T's creaking along in front of some stunning landscape.  Milarepa's birthplace was up a side canyon, but the road in was near impassible and filled with large rocks. A monastery presented the goal of an hour-long walk up a long twisty set of steps.  Now and again we'd dodge a car coming from the opposite direction.  Indians, G told us.  The fatality rate of Indian drivers was quite high, as they tend to drive much more aggressively than the Tibetans, who do indeed potter along.         

Huge snow-capped monsters rose up, and we found ourselves in the alpine setting of Kyirong.  According to Heinrich Harrer, “the name Kyirong means 'the village of happiness,' and it really deserves the name. I shall never cease thinking of this place with yearning, and if I can choose where to pass the evening of my life, it will be in Kyirong."  It was this quote that made me forego the night at Lake Mansarovar, and at first glance, I knew I'd made the right choice.  But perhaps if i were to return a year from now, I'd feel disappointed.  The classic route to Nepal used be the Friendship Highway through Zhongmu, but the earthquake had sealed it indefinitely.  This road had previously only be opened to traders, but had begun to first see tourists six months before.  The flurry of building here was a study in optimism.  

We passed a couple of quiet days here, mainly reading and dozing in our corner room, snug beneath the massive peaks just beyond the glass. We did take a stroll before lunch one day, covering every inch of the town's modest grid of streets in less than an hour.  The town temple could have been in Crestone, a haven beneath the pines.  The shopkeepers were pretty relaxed, happy to smile and joke as we poked around the general stores.  Travel in China often requires an occasional time-out, and these settings of natural beautiful and mellow locals never fail work their magic. 

G had been called away on some sort of tourist emergency, so it was left to D to take us the final hour to the border.  The first checkpoint wasn't open at the early hour, so we sat awhile in the cool of morning, waiting for the cops and the dogs to awake.  Thus through, the road dropped and dropped, down a deep cut gorge to an unbelievable 100 meters above sea-level. Damage from the earthquake across the border took the form of massive boulders at the edge of the road, and even one truck had been partially crushed by a landslide.  The queue of trucks began a kilometer or so before the immigration gate, but we slipped past and arrived not long before it opened.  A light rain began, and the clouds overhead added a lid to this narrow valley, bringing an oddly claustrophobic counterpoint to our entry 12 days before, sailing in through a wide and open pairing of desert and sky.  

On the turntable: Jeff Beck, "Wired"           
On the nighttable:  Paul Theroux,  "The Pillars of Hercules"

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Tibet Journals IV: Once 'Round Kailash

It was our fifth day spent above 4000m, and LYL was suffering some.  She ultimately decided not to join me for the kora around Mt. Kailash.  I didn't feel right to leave her, but she insisted.  She was happy to have a couple of days off the road, and the hotel room had heat and internet and power (though we weren't told the latter was for only four hours a day).  Plus as she spoke Mandarin, she could make her way around the little town of Darchen without much trouble.   Thus reassured, I set off at dawn the next morning.

I'd brought my trekking pack, one not new but as yet unused. I'd packed light, but was still a little concerned how I'd function at altitude.  Wanting too to help give work to one of the locals I'd hired a porter, Sonam, a name which I somehow predicted. An 18-year old just out of school, he'd refused his pay up front, since he didn't want to be tempted to waste it on food or drink on the journey, preferring instead to turn it over to his grandmother. (I'd really wanted a yak too, but it was too early in the season, and their hooves wouldn't be able to handle the lingering ice of the passes.) Despite this, I decided to carry my pack myself for the first hour or so, until we crossed the first pass.  G and D were along of course, the latter not required to, but wanting to make the trip.  G was particularly excited, as this would be his 100th circumambulation around one of the most sacred mountains in the world.

Cows roamed unattended in the dull light.  A group of women rested against a building, before resuming their full-length prostrations.  (I'd seen a number of people making their pilgrimage this way, nearly all being women.)  There were more further on, the mark of their fingertips in the dust, as they inched their way up this slope that would top out at 4730m.  A few people were resting there, including one family that had two young children with them.  I finally handed my pack over to Sonam, who looked a bit relieved.  G told me that he'd felt uncomfortable at my wearing it.  After performing a trio prostrations, we set down the opposite side.

The trail across the valley was through a desert landscape, the side of the trail barren and littered with small stones.  Thick bands of riverbeds cut the dry earth, unladen with water as the winter snows had yet to melt.  On a ridge above and to the right was a place for sky burials, and directly ahead loomed the mountain, fuller in body than when seen from the south.  We rang the bell hanging from the belly of a hollow chorten, then pushed on, beneath the gaze of Chuku Monastery.

The valley began to narrow.  There was a semi-permanent yurt tea house here,  offering simple food to pilgrims. The two caretakers were red-robed, their long hair tied in the back.  I coudn't quite make out if they were nomads or monks.  I decided to wait to eat until the next tea house a couple of hours on, but enjoyed a rest while the others ate.  A Russian party of about a dozen ate quietly at an adjacent table.  They were carrying a fair amount of gear and looked pretty tired already.  G told me that the kora was popular with Russians for some reason, and previous explorers from that country had a theory that the mountain actually a massive man-made pyramid.  (I found out later that LYL was reading about the mountain at the same time that I was walking around it, and came across some pretty interesting and bizarre information.)              

We pressed on, passing the Russians who seemed to be dropping like flies.  Later I'd see the main body of the group  moving toward an immense cut in the mountains' western flank.  G mentioned that there was a tougher alternative route through that valley, and that they were foolish to try is so early in the year.  The prostrators didn't seem to have it much easier, move like inchworms.  Many wore thick mitts, and what looked like butcher's smocks, the leather protecting against the friction on the ground. What had less protection was their faces, chapped red from the sun and wind.  Most of them seemed to be undertaking their three-week journey in groups, and had a support vehicle that would go forward to set up camp, which served as their finish line for the day.  Now and again a vehicle would drive slowly past, its cargo bed piled high, reminding me of the chasers that work in tandem with balloonists.  Passing a group resting, one of the women asked D to carry a pair of thermoses for her, to be deposited a kilometer or so further on.

And we moved along.  The walking was okay, but I found myself feeling somewhat euphoric, as if had had a couple of beers.  Reality had a certain elasticity as I moved across this moonscape.  My fingertips would tingle now and again, and fatigue came and went.  When sitting to take a rest, there was a dream-like quality to it, as I wasn't quite here. All of my movements were slowed down, and accompanied by much fumbling, and a general lack of digital coordination.  This was accompanied too by a paranoia that the others would notice, and I giggled to myself that it was more like being high on pot.  Which might explain too why I'd suddenly start to walk off, leaving things behind.  Strangest of all were the moods that I shifted through:  elation, fatigue, mild disorientation. But it was always to euphoria that I would return.       

My overall mood changed after the second tea house, which was closed for some reason. I kicked myself now for not receiving the noodles offered at the previous stop.   I had some trail snacks with me, namely nuts and chocolate and chilied yak jerky. G offered me some Tibetan fry bread, which went well with the latter.  But the high altitude demanded more. What I was really missing now, with the wind coming up, was a warming cup of tea.  

With the weather coming on, we didn't linger long. After an hour or so, I began to feel sluggish and heavy, my blood sugar seeking lower elevations.  The sky too was taking on a darkening shade, with snow flurrying here and there. The wind blew into mini-cyclones the dust around us. Under this weather, marmots popped their heads up in a parody of Groundhog Day.  And the mountain maintained a solid, anchoring presence above and to my right.

As we closed in on camp, I rested more often, pacing myself.  Sonam was somewhere up ahead, and we hadn't seen D in a while, he having wandered along solo off-trail, his continuous chanting pretty impressive considering the work that the lungs were forced to do.  During one break, a young Chinese man offered me some chocolate.  Due to his height and features I'd thought he was Japanese at first, but I somehow figured out  that he was from Ningxia.  His partner was having a far rougher time than I, and later on the trail, I saw them walking hand in hand. I too moved along as the road began to climb.  The squared corner of the guesthouse beckoned from just beyond the rise, so I put my head down and powered on. 

We'd arrived at the camp in good time.  The sun was high again and the day growing warm.  There was better heat inside the yurt, and as I ate a plate of simple rice, more and more people dragged themselves in.  Like always in Asia, there were loads of people just hanging around, and I inevitably tried to figure out how they were all related. But being weary, I soon gave up.  One very young girl stood waiting for lunch in her pigtails and native dress, and when the noodles arrived she launched an attack on them.  I assumed a family ran this place, but in fact it was looked after solely by a pair of women.  Most of the other people were workers, slowly assembling the concrete shell of a new hotel.  The banging and thudding took a great deal away from the peace of this high mountain idyll.  After awhile I'd pretend that the pneumatic drills were Tibetan horns, coming from the temple across the valley.      

After lunch, I sat awhile in the sun and read, the mountain just in front.  Over the next hour or so, the Russians began to straggle up, usually to ask me if I'd seen the rest of their party.  G asked at some point I wanted to visit the monastery across the valley. It was tricky going over the frozen river below.  A pair of small guest houses stood abandoned on either bank.  There didn't appear to be too many monks here, but one young man led us around, and going up the steep steps I noticed his ankles, black and caked with dirt.  In time I realized that he had some kind of mental handicap, and seemed to appreciate physical contact with G, often throwing his arm around him, or suddenly giving him hugs.  G had proven himself to be a very kind and sweet man, and he return the contact happily. 

We moved through the rooms, looking at statues and thanka old and new.  There were plenty of other things here, drums and brass horns, and parts of animals, and it all resembled some odd kind of folk museum.  Best of all of course were the views, of Kailash rising eminently across the valley.  I imagine that a life spent here would be the utmost challenge.  But that view might make it seem worth it. 

I returned to the guest house to find that some of the Russians had commandeered my room. They simply dumped  my things onto a table outside, and it took me awhile to find my pack. I began to tell them off, the thoughtless and selfish bastards, but unable to find a common language to make it stick I tossed a few swear words their way and walked off. G found me another room, and assured me that I wouldn't have to share.  (I was grateful, then felt guilty the next day when I found that he and D and Sonam had slept in the main dining room, in order to allow this to happen.)  It was still light but night was coming on, so I decided to settle in, wanting a little isolation.  G later thoughtfully brought me a plate of fried potatoes, but they were cold and sodden with oil, so I abandoned them in the far corner of the room.

Even with my warmest sleeping bag it was pretty cold, so I threw a few old blankets over the top. Even so, sleep refused to find me.  I was nearly there, until someone began to pound on the window, eventually with enough force to break through the lock.  But rather than enter, they settled into the room next door.  I assumed that I'd been given the room of some of the workmen, now drunk after dark.  They kept up and incredible racket late into the night, talking on their mobiles and playing obnoxious music.  It was a painfully long night.         

Sometime before dawn, I crept out of my bag into the dark and cold.  I'd brought a change of clothes but decided not to suffer the cold when pulling them on.  I packed up, had some chocolate and coffee for breakfast.  The workmen next door were finally quiet and still.  Before leaving, I was incredibly tempted to fasten a lock to their door.  They of course would kick their way through, but I felt myself wanting a small modicum of revenge. But after another thought or two I figured I shouldn't be so petty, being on pilgrimage after all.
It was still a couple of hours before daybreak, but the mountains were silhouetted as white crags against the dark.  Well above 5000 meters now, both breath and footfalls grew heavy.  There is a certain meditation in moments like this, as reality is condensed to images so distilled it is as if they were shot with a pinhole camera.  And after that level of concentration relinquishes its grip, the details recede and memory becomes unreliable. I do recall sitting to have a snack break, and only upon standing again did I realize that that I'd been sitting in a site for sky burials.  

The east was growing light, bringing more definition to Kailash and her adjacent peaks.  My fingers were incredibly cold and quickly growing numb, a side effect of the frostnip they'd received while lost in a mountain blizzard five years before.   I couldn't wait for the warmth that would come once I got over to the east side of the pass.  Despite my layers of heavy hiking gear I never did feel warm, so was further in awe of the Tibetans who literally strolled past in their simple clothing, chanting despite the thin air, fingering their rosaries with bare hands.  

 Then I was finally atop 5630 meter Drolma-la.  I strung up my prayer flags, then tossed a handful of paper lungpa into the air.  D and G were busy stringing a much longer strand of flags a little ways up the hill.  I watched the stream of Tibetans walk past as if casually heading to the shops. I saw the young boy from yesterday, along with a couple of other kids.  One girl of about four was in tears, looking particularly cold.  I offered her one of my heat packs, but could do nothing about the two days journey ahead for her little legs.  I could only focus on my own.

We moved cautiously down the pass, slick and hazardous with ice. There was a shelf of a plateau at the bottom of the ridge, basked in the glorious rays of the sun.   This was the run off of a lake, frozen thick now, and we mock skated across, giggling as we went.  A rock field defined the far edge, so we sat here awhile, watching the light filling the valley before us.  This was the most glorious part for me, that peace, a relaxation both physical and mental after the most difficult part was done.  But we couldn't relax completely,  The next section was an impressively long, unsteady descent over terrain ever turning under foot.  The cold girl from early was nearly skipping down.          

We met her and her family at the tea house at the bottom.  Hot drinks never taste as good as they do after extreme cold.  You can almost feel the fluid coursing through the body, reactivating the dormant systems.  Thus warmed, we moved along the floor of the valley, mercifully flat but for the odd stump of a rise.  We'd criss-cross the frozen rivers now and again, colorful prayer flags overlapping with the white.  But  in our happiness we'd basically vault across, hopping the rocks to the opposite bank. 

The walk, while much easier now, began to grow long.  I hadn't eaten much, and coupled with next to no sleep, these two factors conspired against forward progress.  I'd take more frequent breaks, but appreciated the time to enjoy the landscape.   

Then finally came Zutul-puk Monastery.  Most pilgrims would spend their second night here, but it was only lunchtime.  I'd expected cup noodles, but was pleased that they prepared some real ones from scratch.  As we ate, G complimented me on my pace, joking that I wasn't a foreigner, that I walked like a Tibetan.  He said that next time I should do the kora in a single day, like the locals.  I joked back that his first mistake was assuming that there would be a next time.  

I was physically spent but we needed to do 32 km on the day, this after the 20 km of the previous day, not to mention the hard work earlier on the pass.   I told the guys to keep eating and went to take a 30 minute nap in the sun.  I dozed awhile, but then was awakened by fear of a mastiff coming over to protect the tents behind me.  Returning inside, I asked G to take me up to the monastery on the hill above, and I got a further rest waiting for the guy with the key to the Milarepa cave to finish his lunch. It turned out to be the same pony-tailed guy from the tea house yesterday.  So he was a monk after all.

The rest of the day was a slog, through that long flat valley.  D was out in front this time, and we overtook him at one point sitting in conversation with two attractive young pilgrims.  A number of other women were doing full length prostrations. I couldn't imagine them doing this over the pass, pointing their bodies downward over the slick ice.  Most amazingly, three of them were extending their bodies across the frozen river.  Even G and D took photos of them.  

The final stretch was through a valley that could have been New Mexico, red treeless hills set against a flawless sky.  I took breaks more frequently now, trying to pace myself and extend my energy.  At each stop I'd nibble a little chocolate, bartering my rations for blood sugar.  I can't remember ever feeling quite so worn out, and I had never before pushed myself to such limits while hiking.  In consolation, I reminded myself that this vehicle which has been propelling me through life has over five decades of mileage on it.

As if a test, the final section was an ascent, then along a knife-edge trail running high above fast-moving water.  But the section to come was the hardest.  We curl out of the mountains to the high plain, Darchen and our goal visible on the horizon.  And no matter how much we pushed on, that goddamn town seemed to come no closer.  This had a certain negative effect on the spirit, and I took breaks every 20 minutes or so.  Then finally, mercifully, we were there.   

I took a lot of pride that I'd done this three day walk in two.  The main reason was that I didn't want my wife to have to spend another night alone. She seemed happy when I saw her, having had a nice couple of days resting and enjoying the company of the young woman who ran the restaurant beside our hotel.  Not to mention their heat.   

And I in turn appreciated a hot shower, and a 12 hour sleep and the feeling that I'd done something really really big.  

On the turntable: "Fatal Flower Garden Variations (Various)"
On the nighttable:  Hal Roth, "We Followed Odysseus"

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Tibet Journals III: EBC

We detoured off the Friendship Highway through a large gate marked as the access route to Everest Base Camp. While stopped beside it in order to get our papers checked, I got out to stretch my legs below an array of jagged mountains that while they were also-rans in comparison to the peaks to come, they impressed in the way they imposed their odd contortions upon the flat brown plateau. All was quiet but for the wind, which seemed not to bother a woman standing alone out here.  Nothing else moved. (That would change when we passed through the gate again the following day. Below the sign were a half dozen Land Rovers parked side by side, and a photographer attached to this obviously Chinese expedition lying in the road before them in order to get it all in frame.)

Almost immediately, the road began to go through a number of contortions of its own, as it twisted itself through dozens of hairpin turns, climbing steadily toward the pass above.  From its highest reaches the Himalaya revealed themselves, filling the horizon with snowy triangles.  Everest was somewhere among them, though concealed by cloud. The road then led us down toward them, slipping through curves coiled even more densely.  Along the wall, a pair of Tibetan antelope raced across the road, while a third, far less daring, waited beside a hillock above.  

The road finally unreeled itself, then was threaded through an arch blasted through rock.  Below was a small village built below the ruins of an old dzong.  This scene would be repeated a handful of times, as the road, arrow-straight now, point us toward the mountain, not yet visible.  I wanted to check our progress, but Google maps is blocked in China, and all I got was a blue dot flashing there amongst a featureless center of the world.  Very Buddhist indeed. 

In one village our passage was impeded by a stream of lambs crossing the road. Where the settlements gave way, the river roared through, feeding an intricate series of irrigation channels that were a mandala of criss-crossing streams, a few somehow passing over others. Then water gave way to earth and Everest presented itself. Not long afterward, we were at her feet.   

The intent had been to visit base camp in the morning, but the weather was too perfect.  We drove past the final checkpoint, out to a cluster of huts on the horizon.  The true base camp was another couple of kilometers further on, but the tourist explosion had called for an alternative site to be built, so as not to trouble those who intended to actually climb the thing.  And I felt cheated again by tourism, where the authenticity of a historic site was packaged and compromised to meet the needs of an out of control market.  And to what ends? This new "base camp" had the atmosphere of a rock festival, of hundred of yurts built around a massive car park.  I was glad not to be staying here, as it would be a smokey and noisy and not to mention bloody freezing night.

We walked toward the silhouettes on the horizon, little groups taking selfies out by the commemorative stone.  It was cold here at dusk, and the people we passed were bundled up in parkas provided by their tour companies.  One young guy was huffing off a canister of oxygen.  A team of yaks moved slowly past.  A guard was standing beyond the stone, marking a boundary of sorts.  We went a little past and stood looking up at Everest. A series of vans drove further in, probably the summit team we'd met at lunch earlier.  At some point the urge to take photos crept in, me posing in an ironic showing of my North Face hard shell  Eventually I walked over beside the ribbon of a fast-moving river, then dunked my hands in the mountain's snowmelt, for as long as they could stand it.  But my eyes kept returning to the mountain. It was a strange feeling, to be looking at the biggest thing in the world.   

We had been able to score a room in the guest house, our windows luckily facing south.  Dinner was a simple bowl of noodles, in a room covered floor to wall to ceiling with wool and felt, fortified to keep the cold at bay.  There was a group of French here, as well as a small party from Singapore, to judge from their accents. A half dozen members of the military held court at one end of the room, smoking, and drinking, and talking loudly. (Later I'd see one of them pitch a glass bottle from their vehicle into the guest house car park.)  I grew tired of their swagger and went to fend off the cold in sleep.

It was a futile gesture, the cold and the 4,980 elevation making it difficult to sleep. At dawn, I lifted the curtain to watch the mountain come into the light.  Yaks grazed between us, a photograph to be stored eternally in memory.  When LYL began to stir I dressed quickly, a foolish thing to do in the cold.  Picking up my mountaineering watch from the dresser, I saw that the temperature inside the room was minus 5 degrees C.    

After breakfast, we crossed the road to visit Rombuk Monastery.  There were only a handful of monks here, chanting on their cushions, bundled in their robes against the cold.  I know from reading about the Mallory expeditions that the priest here had been a very powerful and generous man.  I imagine his current successor too must be, for the temple had been abandoned until recently, and the needs of restoration are great. 

In my readings, I'd often seen the classic photo of Rombuk with the mountain in the background.  I climbed the hill behind the monastery to frame my own.  A trio of middle aged Han tourists were already up there with their elaborate cameras, as their van waited below.  The whole hillside was littered with the brick foundations of ruined buildings, and I noticed one of the men turn to piss into the doorway of a collapsed monastic cell.  It was the most apt metaphor of the entire trip.  

On the turntable:   Santana and Jeff Beck, "Lotus Gem"
On the nighttable:  Graham Robb, "Parisians"

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 I'll 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 from 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 overlooks, 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. The lake 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 remaining handprints, 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 snow-capped.  On the other side of these is Bhutan.  There are goats at the next pass, and a snarl of flags. A 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 Francis 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 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 deity, 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 an 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, bangled with jewelry.  The moment flesh touched the seat I'm 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, but he told me that I was the first foreigner in Tibet who actually returned his conversation, I found I had nothing to say...

...We made 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 completely 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. 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 stepped 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 onto 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, which is stupendous and monumental.  The peaks and hills almost look liquid, as if they are flowing, a tribute perhaps to the volumes of water than once covered them back when all this was seabed.  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 shepherd must attract the same type of character as nightwatchman...

 ... Another reason for the rush of the previous day is to make time for a detour I wanted to do 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 all 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 finally 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 into the town below.  A long-time feature of this area is its striped walls of gray and red, but the more recent constructions within 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 only other 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 been following since Lhasa, though we prove to be latecomers as it had already travelled 4670 kilometers 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, then 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 much 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 come more frequently now.  Just outside one of these towns is an army burial ground.  And the mountains to the south all 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"

Monday, June 04, 2018

Tibet Journals : Onto Lhasa

...Flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa, you'll want to sit on the left side of the plane.  I don't believe I ever opened my book, as the Himalaya slid beneath me.  I played the 'Name that peak' game, more from assumed geography than any familiarity with shape.  Everest was unmistakable this time, and remained with us for a good half an hour, its apex streaming with blowing snow.   Once over the hump, the land fell away and turned brown, eventually to be cut deep with rivers.  The plane did a wide U-turn over one of these, them cruised in to land in the middle of nowhere. 

Immigration was quick, but baggage took ages to appear, as we huddled in a cold airport.  The bags were scanned, but somehow they didn't notice the guide books.  I'd been warned that they'd be confiscated if found, a loss I was willing to risk.  I had photographed the maps and pages I thought crucial.  But luckily it was a moot point. 

We were met in the car park by our guide G and driver D.  They presented scarves as expected, and we returned the favor.  The Tibetan scarves were longer then I'd seen, even draped over our necks they hung to mid-thigh.  The van we'd have for the trip was big and comfortable.  My eyes immediately found the surveillance cameras, one affixed to the dash, another hanging from the roof like a turret.  As if on cue, we were immediately warned not to discuss politics, a vow I kept, though it would prove difficult at times.  Despite this, the dashboard was covered with statues and draped with beads, which surprised...

...It was an hour to Lhasa, across a dry lunar landscape.  The mountains were like those of Arizona, spiny and rocky, the colors drab against the bright blue of sky.  There was little else here, but for the odd view of the rail line cutting northeast.  Lhasa began as a typical modern Chinese city, of tall apartment towers and hotels, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor.  Beyond this the Potala, marking the old town.  Kyichu Hotel was near the old town's center,  a collection of rooms horseshoed around a quiet garden.  We climbed to the roof to look over the old town, as cats dozed in the grass below...

...We start the day at Drepung Monastery, the drive up winding through forests where yaks graze.  It is a long trudge up the hilly steps to the temple, in the company of locals following suit, or undergoing the kora up along the hillside.  Kata scarves flow white like a waterfall from the base of Buddha statue above.  A few older priests flick their beads as they walk, clad in maroon which covers their thick bodies.  We all move in the same direction through hills and courtyards stacked atop one another up the hillside. The wind is ever blowing, the yellow drapes in the large windows in constant motion. Each room is tainted with that sour smell of butter lamps.  Monks of all ages within, though quiet this Sunday morning.  A few of the older monks stand watching the rooms, though most are distracted by their iPhones.  (One monk talks on his phone on the roof, probably the place with best reception.) I catch one chanting a sutra read off that exact device.  Bills of small denomination are everywhere, stacked and falling off small plates, or from glass cases.  (I'll later change money in the carpark, to be doled out as offerings for the rest of the trip.)  It takes a good hour or more to wander this ancient fortress, reduced by the 40 percent destroyed in the 1950s...

...We drive across town to Sera Monastery, looping around the back of the Potala.  One car we pass has Che Guevara painted on the doors.  I have my first yak steak and fries (which will become my go to meal when tired of the ever-present noodles), then we wander up through the halls. These are bisected by broad lanes and shaded by trees like a small suburban town, its gate welcoming as you step through to a large courtyard. Sera is known for its book-making, so we buy a couple of sutras wrapped in silk. After Drepung earlier, and a week already in the Himalayas, the statuary within begins to take on a certain familiarity, which allows the mind to stop grasping at facts, and the eye to focus then of the magnificence of aesthetics.   One Maitreya sits solidity upon a three story high thanka.  The courtyards here are more yellow than white, and far above, a hermitage glows almost a brilliant gold upon the rocky hillside.  Sera gets its name from the roses that bloom here, and besides these, the cherry trees were just filling in with pink.  Three hundred monks now study here, down from a pre-1959 figure of 5000...

...the Norbulingka Summer Palace is today a park, occupied by young Tibetan couples or families, as well as tourists obviously from mainland China.  It is a pleasant stroll beneath the varied fruit trees and around the ponds.  Temples exist here instead of pavilions, their courtyards decorated with fountains and flowers.  I am surprised to find many references to the 13th Dalai Lama, including one temple that serves as a transport museum of sorts, filled with turn of the century bicycles and buggies.  One clever palanquin is built with rails at a 30 degree angle, to use when climbing the long flights of steps up to the Potala.  Not far away is the palace to the 14th DL, though nowhere is that stated.  It looks like it probably did when he left, though I can't imagine that to be possible, especially after the rampages of the Red Guards.  But it fun to dream so, of the boy sitting beneath the large paintings, listening to 78s on the record player.  I remind myself that he fled from here in 1959, as hundreds of Tibetans were being gunned down in the streets beyond the walls... 

 ...the Winter Palace is better known as the Potala, familiar to anyone whose ever seen a photo of Tibet. It appears much smaller than it appears on film, (yet in finally climbing the steps, its size reasserts itself).  The Potala is an inspiring structure, even better than expected, in a way like I found with the Taj Mahal.   Rising majestically from the center of Lhasa, it can be seen from just about everywhere.  You'll find yourself looking for it as you walk the city, in a way that you look for Fuji when you hike the mountains of central Japan. We visit at an early hour, to beat the crowds.  There are already hundreds walking the kora around it.  One man chants as he does full-length prostrations.  He has two small girls with him, attached to ropes at his hips.  As he lays himself out, they run forward a few steps in order to keep from getting pulled off their feet.  The girls bring him a fair amount of attention, and it is they who receive the donations.  Flanking the main walkway is a pair of snow lions, nearly invisible beneath all the kata scarves.  We queue just in front of the massive doors, colorful tassels tied to their impressive knockers.  A few Chinese men smoke as they wait, which annoys as ever, though perhaps a bit more at this high altitude. I am intrigued by a trio of nomads in front of us, quite intricate in their dress and reminiscent of South American gauchos.  The doors open and we find ourselves at the head of the queue, leaving behind others to huff and puff up the steep steps.  Above, below, and around, all is a bright white.  To enter the covered passages that turn the steps back upon themselves is to temporarily blinded.  Finally we come to a large courtyard, and all becomes red.  The sky above bright and flawless, the mountaintops beneath busted with white flour.  An old woman is helped up a flight of steps so steep it is almost a ladder.  She, and many others like her, carries thermoses filled with butter, in a way like Americans clutch their take-away coffee cups as they move around public space. The butter will be used to fill the lamps.  (One poor fellow broke his at the entrance, the floor made slick and dangerous.) The stupa here is a work of art.  A boy monk plays with a cat just inside.  As we wend around, it is refreshing not to jostle with the crowds.  In the main hall, a senior monk meets with uniformed government officials. I recognize the room from the sets of "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun." I find myself most impressed by the 14th DL's anonymous chambers. The thanka and statuary are as incredible as you would expect. There is a a small cave within, housing many of these great works of art  Most are probably original, and we have Zhou Enlai to thank for this, as he personally intervened to protect it.  That said, countless treasures have been looted over the years...        

 ... A cyclo wheels us over to the last of Lhasa's three UNESCO sites, the Jokhang.  There had been a fire at this 1400 year old temple two months ago, but incredibly there was no apparent damage.  This temple serves as the heart of the Tibetan religion, a fact supported by incredible queues.  G waited while I went off to a nearby shop to buy a Tibetan cowboy hat. Once inside we as foreigners had to circumambulate around the outer ring while the locals ducked in and out of the tiny chambers housing relics. It has almost reverse effect of the Potala, this large temple somehow compact within. The neat rows of cushions are topped with a triangle of red robes, like a sailing fleet.  The central image, of Shakyamuni, was the scene of a recent fire, and again, miraculously all was intact.  (An interesting metaphor for the Tibetan spirit.)   We exited out onto the second-story courtyard, filled with pushy Chinese tourists jostling for selfies.  (Over two weeks, I never encountered a pushy Tibetan.  Who's civilizing whom here?)   The courtyard had dozens of people prostrating, while armed soldiers patrolled the wider spaces and rooftops above, as they have since the 2008 protests... 

 ... These wider spaces define the Barkhor that serves as the central market.  It is mainly composed of a ring around the Jokhang, with smaller lanes radiating outward.  After lunch, I returned alone to wander the shops, and the stalls in the market, selling beads, statues, clothing.  There are a few temples around the outskirts, some art schools, and a tiny Muslim quarter which has monopolized the butcher trade in this land of Buddhistic carnivores. (Great band name!)  Passing a barber reading a newspaper, I pop in to give him some business.  Later I stuff my backpack with snacks for the upcoming drives.  Mainly I return to the central Barkhor and people watch, as a carnival of exotic characters and tropes spin round and round and round...

On the turntable:  John Coltrane:  Miles Davis and John Coltrane, "The Complete Columbia Recordings"
On the nighttable:  F.M. Bailey, "Mission to Tashkent"