Saturday, April 25, 2009

Zhangmu is built up a hill on both sides that is so steep that the houses seems stacked. In my hotel, what's first floor in front is fourth floor in the back. I had to leave early because the border station is only open in the morning. After the first checkpoint, we walked down a road with many switchbacks (one of which is closed so we had to climb down the side of the mountain for a while) to reach the immigration building, where my guide checked me through the formalities. Then I said goodbye and crossed the Friendship Bridge high over the small river that marks the border. I step over the red line in the middle guarded by motionless soldiers, and I am in Nepal.

The small Nepalese village on the other end of the bridge is small and primitive, but the officers are friendly and relaxed, immigration only takes a few minutes. I set my watch back 2 hours and 15 minutes. They run pickup trucks to Kathmandu from here, so I share one with three Chinese visitors for 600 Nepalese Rupees (Rs); 1 Rs is a little less than 1 euro cent. It takes five very scenic hours through the mountains to reach Kathmandu because the road here is no better shape than the Chinese version. Can't be done without a 4WD.

In past blog entries I have complained about China's faceless and sterile cities. Kathmandu isn't like that at all. It's a noisy chaotic maelstrom and we pass through suburbs that look a little like a third-world slum, complete with smoking garbage dump fields with scavenging animals. Downtown is ok, but still very crowded and cars are squeezing through impossibly tight alleys, honking at everything that moves. Kathmandu is so alive with chaos that Beijing feels like a mausoleum in comparison. It's also very warm, and 4000 meters lower than yesterday so I hardly have to breathe at all. Same odd feeling I had when reaching Lhasa, only in reverse. Now I understand why bicycle athletes train in Peru.

I am staying at the Tibet Peace Guesthouse at the edge of the Thamel downtown region. It offers what seems impossible here - it's quiet, it has a fairly spacious garden with flowers and little tables to relax (and which my room overlooks), and I hear birds sing. I did walk around Thamel for a while. Once some guy came up to me and whispered, "hasheesh?" Ah, Kathmandu...
A travel day. Tola pass at 4200 meters, Gatso pass at 5200 meters, and later another at 5100 meters. Passes are marked with spiderwebs of prayer flags strung over the street, from poles, or even power masts. The sun is hot but the wind is very cold. None of the blue-black skies again. The mountains are all bare of vegetation, but shine in red, brown, black, and yellow hues. People plough fields with horses, but I don't see any plants. My guide and I have lunch in a Tibetan restaurant as usual, but my driver is Chinese and eats only Chinese food, and only at Chinese restaurants, even though he has been living in Tibet for five years. So he eats alone every time. In the Tibetan restaurant, a sheep's dried leg sits on the counter with tufts of hair at the hoof still on it, but most of the meat is gone. Beef jerkey Tibet style. They also rent rooms but the bathroom smells like the sheep died there, so we continue.

We were supposed to overnight in Tingri, but at 17:00 my guide's agency in Lhasa notices a mistake in my travel permits - the departure date is wrong, I have to leave the country tomorrow! And they are *very* strict about that. So we pack up and leave for the border town of Zhangmu. Tingri is no loss, there is nothing to see there, and I couldn't get the Mt. Everest permit anyway, but we'll spend a lot of time in the car.

At Old Tingri, the smooth blacktop road ends and we must use a dirt road for the next 132 km. Occasionally the road is closed and we must go off-road; I have no idea how the driver finds his way. One day, the road will be open and paved all the way, they are working on that, I have seen several people with shovels! The driver loves to go over bumps at speed, and once we hit a big rock. He decided that we can continue after an inspection. The views of the ice-capped Himalaya range in the evening sun is fantastic, I keep asking to stop the car. There are several police checkpoints.

Soon it's totally dark and the ride gets interesting. Once we were faced with three huge yaks in the middle of the road after turning a corner, but stopped in time. There are also unlit dogs, horses, and sheep from time to time. Asphalt returns for a short time, but there are rocks that have fallen from the mountain everywhere, so we must go slowly. One boulder more than a meter across had smashed through the retaining wall, scattering debris all over the road and coming to rest in the middle of our lane. Just before Zhangmu, we reach a narrow, dangerous, unpaved, and very rutted section of the road. There is lots of traffic going the other way because the road is open only from 20:00 to 1:00, mostly trucks. People with torches run around, we need to inch our way backwards and forwards into tiny turnouts without falling off the mountain to let the trucks pass. My guide says this usually takes 2-3 hours at this point but we managed to pass after less than an hour. My driver really knows his job and doesn't mind a smoking clutch. We arrive in Zhangmu at 23:30.

They call this the Friendship Highway. Can't be much of a friendship.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's a short drive to Shigatse, famous for its large monastery founded by the first Dalai Lama, and seat of the Panchen Lama. The complex is huge - much of it is old whitewashed quarters for the 600 monks. Three large white stupas are a memorial to the people killed during Mao's cultural revolution; people circle it clockwise (always clockwise...), turn the prayer drums, and keep count with little piles of pebbles.

In the main hall is a 26 meter gold Buddha, dimly lit by many butter lamps tended by monks. On the side several old monks sit and chant scripture. Tibet at its best, the effect is hypnotizing. In the next hall they get down to business: there are long benches where a dozen monks sit cross-legged, large scripture books open in front of them. You can make a donation, and the head monk will read your name, donation, and preferred scripture section aloud, and the monks begin to chant that section. They have many very young monks, but they do all the work around the temple while the old monks just sit there and chant. Reminds me of work at home. Another hall houses a huge shrine with a drum on top containing the bodies of past Panchen Lamas. The monastery is beautiful, serene, and a place of active worship. It has impressed me a lot more than the Potala in Lhasa, which is far more imposing but really just a big, dark, and dead museum.

Can't post pictures with this computer, will follow later.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking in the old town at the foot of a steep hill with the governor's palace on top, and circled the monastery on a path just outside its walls, with thousands of prayer drums spun by old women walking with me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tibet, roof of the world - I always thought that was hyperbole. But after our car left Lhasa and climbed out of the Tibetan Plateau to over 5000 meters, passing through valleys with the Himalayan mountains on all sides, I can see how apt the expression is. The horizon is incredibly clear and the sky there is a perfect blue. Looking up and away from the sun, the blue color of the sky turns so dark that it's almost closer to black. There are a few small but brilliantly white clouds, and they seem very close. I half expected the space station to swoosh by.

There are lots of beautiful vistas along the way, and little lopsided shrines with prayer flags strung on long lines, and people with yaks trying to get some money from tourists. There is not a lot of snow where we drive but glaciers shine brightly at a distance.

Gyantse is a small town at a mere 4000 meters. It has a mild case of Chinese architecture pest - the roads are too wide and the buildings are mostly new and, yes, sometimes covered with those nasty white bathroom tiles, but few buildings have more than two floors and it all looks like a sleepy village. The main attraction is the Baiju monastery, built up a hil crested by a wall. Many halls and shrine rooms filled with Buddhas and statues; not unlike the Potala but on a much less grand scale. And photography is allowed, after paying a fee (one per room!), so I catch up a bit.

There is also a conical building that looks like a large stupa, and I swear this thing is far bigger inside than outside. It's supposed to contain 100,000 Buddha images and that number can't be far off. Six floors, maybe a hundred rooms with Buddha statues from 1.5 to 6 meters tall, and no wal space wasted. There is also a beautiful view to the steep hill crowned by the governor's palace, but it's being renovated so I skip it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Potala Palace is certainly the most famous building in Tibet. Ten of the fourteen Dalai Lamas ruled over religion and the country from here. It's supposed to have 999 rooms but it felt more like 999 stairs in the thin air. Many rooms are quite small, including the personal apartment of the Dalai Lama; there are also large throne rooms, and several long and high galleries with Buddhas, other statues, and the tombs of several Dalai Lamas. The 5th Dalai Lama has the largest; he unified politics and religion under his rule by calling in his pal, the Mongol emperor, to do the dirty work.

All walls, columns, and the roof are brightly painted or hung with brightly colored silks, in the five colors that symbolize the elements - red for fire, green for water, blue for the sky, white for clouds, and yellow for the earth. There are many small tapestries hung from the ceiling that look like necktie shop displays. Despite the bright colors, the rooms look solemn and a little gloomy; all light comes from a few lightbulbs, and the ubiquitous Yak butter lamps. Professional lighting would work wonders on the Potala, but professional lighting is unknown in China. Only the top throne room in the Red Palace on top gets bright light from windows. In front of the throne is a huge pile of donated money; I estimate about half a cubic meter. We only get to see a small number of rooms; many others are empty or are used for storage. Nobody rules from the Potala anymore.

My guide is great - he explains the things that really matter, while the English signs and the Chinese tour guides are rattling off facts like how many square meters a room has, how many ounces of gold were used on a Buddha, and how much the things are worth. The Chinese guides even mix up statues and even temples. This annoys my guide greatly, he is Tibetan and prays at several shrines.

Ended the day at the Summer Palace, a much smaller palace in walking distance with airy bright rooms, set in a nice park. It's for the Dalai Lama only, there are only a few buildings. The decoration is similar to the Potala, but simpler and less overwhelming.
Lhasa has a forgettable Chinese new town, and a Tibetan old town called Barkhor that is centered on the Jokhang monastery. The first thing you see is people prostrating themselves at the entrance, flat on the ground. The main room inside is dark and gloomy, with a biog golden Buddha in the center. People move clockwise around it and visit the many little shrine rooms adjoining the hall. Large stone bowls are filled with liquid Yak butter used as candles; pilgrims constantly refill the bowls from their brightly colored plastic thermos cans.

Had lunch at an old Tibetan restaurant: Yak butter tea, Yak meat dumplings, potatos filled with minced Yak meat, and sliced Yak meat. Yak Yak Yak. Great, except it turns out I don't like Yak butter, let them burn it.

There is an inner alley ring around Jokhang that is for tourists, mostly Chinese and pilgrims. The #1 article is prayer wheels, lots of people here who keep spinning them. I exhausted the souvenir circuit, checking every stall and every shop in an unsuccessful search for a specific article. I got hundreds of "hello lookee" calls for my trouble. I am fairly certain I missed nothing because tourists don't stray and don't explore. Just five meters away from the circuit the prayer wheels and other souvenir junk disappear instantly and sensible things like shoes and flashlights are sold. (Just had a power outage.)

At every entry to the old town, at all major intersections inside, and in all large squares are posts with five or more policemen, an euphemism for Chinese army. I was warned that they must under no circumstances be photographed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the train to Lhasa, I had to sign a plateau travel health declaration. Among other things, I had to certify that I am not a "highly dangerous pregnant woman" and that I don't get "the heats are above 100 times per minute". I can see how that would be very exhausting. The Chinglish is getting better all the time.

I kind of expected dramatic high mountain scenery of the kind I visited in Kashmir, but the scenery is mostly flat plateaus with mountains not so very much higher on the sides. Snow starts to appear at an altitude of 3000 meters. The train is modern and smooth, and I sleep well. I got the equivalent of a first-class compartment (they call that soft sleeper), expensive but worth it. Each bunk has its own TV; I watched Harry Potter in Chinese. Each bunk also has an oxygen socket, they hand out "nasal oxygen cannulas". The next morning I woke up at an altitude of 4700 meters, and when it reaches the highest pass at 5072 meters there is an announcement. It's the highest train pass in the world. The train is not pressurized; the train toilets have open windows (which is a blessing on a 45-hour train ride).

I had never been much above 3000 meters. I don't get altitude sickness, but I got out of breath quickly, and had to breathe deeper and faster than normal. But not the way one does on a hard bicycle ride, where your lungs hurt - it's just like normal breathing, only more of it. Strange. I am too macho to use the nasal oxygen cannula (but there really isn't any need).

The train restaurant's idea of twice-cooked pork is a big quivering mass of pork belly fat without any discernible meat. The vegetables were good though. Close to the Tibetan border, my cookies exploded. (Go ahead, read that sentence again, it may be a while before you come across one like that again.) They are shrinkwrapped and the air trapped inside expanded at the high altitude until the plastic ruptured. I have a pre-explosion picture where the formerly tightly packaged cookie roll looks like a blimp. Ok, it was more a pop than an explosion.

I was picked up at the Lhasa train station by my guide for the next week. He is Tibetan, quite young, and very friendly. I'll have to be careful to avoid mentioning touchy political issues to him... I am staying at the Kailash hotel, an uninspired modern but comfortable affair whose main distinction is its bizarre English brochure that ends with the words "Wish that you prick the West Germany bridle".