Friday, June 8, 2007

Seven Days in Tibet

Finally after much reading, speculation and anticipation, we have arrived in Tibet. Tibet is intensely different from Nepal, or anywhere else - a unique land made fascinating by impenetrable Buddhism, Chinese occupation and the collision of the two.

Our entry into Tibet was not without incident. Mary and I hooked up with Ros and Paul in the Khumbu and after two days relaxing in Kathmandu, we crossed the border overland into the Tibet Autonomous Region, as it is called by the Chinese. The day of our departure from Nepal was marked by a Bund - a general strike called by Maoist insurgents. The Maoists have been waging a bloody campaign against the Nepali government and monarchy for many years, which has left over 10,000 Nepalis dead. Although they have been promised fresh elections this year the Maoists like to remind everyone who is really in charge by declaring a Bund and bringing everything in the country to a halt. The Maoists have never targeted tourists, since the main source of income in many of their rural strongholds is trekking. However, they are brutal to government forces and their favorite treatment of a captured Nepali policeman or soldier is skinning alive.

To avoid the makeshift Bund roadblocks we left at 3am but our driver still had to weave around a barricade of burning tyres and negotiate with local activists - often just kids. Once across the border our second day on the road started at 2am in order to traverse Chinese roadworks which are slowly turning the rocky, precipitous tracks though the mountainous border into paved highway. Our Land Cruiser had from only 2am until 4am to negotiate the tracks before work closed the road again.

Namhla was our Tibetan guide, a serene but earnest chap whose own story is a microcosm of Tibet itself. At the age of two Namhla was identified as the reincarnation of a high Lama in his home village and his parents risked everything to smuggle him across to the border to study with other exiles in Dharamsala, India (see our Dharamsala post). As an adult Namhla decided not to take his monastic vows and instead return to Tibet. He was immediately arrested by the Chinese and spent 12 months in solitary confinement in a Lhasa prison.

Tibet is a vast, high-altitude desert and scratching a living is a tough job. The desolate terrain reminds me of the American West and the land is just as dusty, lifeless and unforgiving. It's amazing that anyone can live here, much less build the fabulous monasteries and their great variety of beautiful religious artifacts. Everything - from buildings to religious icons - is literally made from dust and mud.

Difficult to describe, I'll leave it to our hotel in Shigatse to leave you with a lasting impression of Tibet:

"You come, letting you leave the fine recollection in snow the area plateau of the beauty".

'nuff said.

A Tibetan pilgrim with prayer wheel outside Sakya Monastery. Older Tibetans are never without their prayer wheels which they constantly rotate, sending heavenwards the printed prayers that are contained inside.

On Paul's advice we stopped at the *other* Everest Base Camp, on the northern side of the mountain in Tibet. The mountain looks very different and much more massive from here. Rongbuk monastery is in the foreground.

Welcome to downtown Tingri, our first overnight stop in Tibet. Towns got bigger as we neared the capital, Lhasa.

Although traditional Tibetan houses are rough-and-ready affairs, constructed of dried mud bricks, they are decorated beautifully.

Unlike Indians and Nepalis, Tibetans are very shy about having their photograph taken. Chinese border guards are even more reticent.

A gratuitous picture of Mary with a puppy! We stayed in a lovely house in the hills outside Kathmandu, owned by a friend of Paul where seven boisterous puppies occupied Mary and Ros' attention.

1 comment:

Anna Roberts said...

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.

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