>>Asia Journal -- Nepal & Tibet Part2 (7/5/01 - 7/17/01)
-- Arrival in Lhasa
-- The Friendship Highway
-- Arrival in Lhasa
The next morning i woke up early to fried eggs and an early meeting with my Peregrine guide. as i was the only one peregrine had signed up for their Tibet trip, they matched me with two other travellers from another agency. and together with several others, we were all placed on a group travel visa into Tibet.
the flight from kathmandu over the mountains was pretty spectacular, even if flying so high made the mighty himalayas seem relatively moderate in size and almost tangible out the aircraft windows. between the clouds, and from high above, there was such a contrast between the snow covered peaks shrouded in mist, the broad rivuleted yet desiccated terrain, and the green valleys in between. those were the landscapes we would be driving over for the next week. it was going to be a long dusty ride.
arriving at the airport outside Lhasa was like something out of george lucas' star wars. the airport could have been a cousin to luke skywalker's Mos Eisley spaceport -- the barren valley that surrounded the runway, the geometrically curved forms of the airport terminal, the sandworn block look built under the shadow of a rocky ridge -- except that it seemed practically deserted. as we taxied toward the terminal, a series of uniformed guards waited in a small line to greet the plane. just a small portent of the order imposed onto a harsh environment in true chinese style, despite the fact that many of the soldiers and guards were just kids (boys, and girls, scarcely over 17 or 18 years old) under the sharp looking peaks of their green military caps.
driving from the airport into Lhasa there were more signs everywhere of a distinctly chinese influence -- the new paved road that connected the airport to the outer city limits, the standard blue chinese highway signs, and several small dams, canals, and other infrastructure projects. in between were a few traditional walled tibetan household compounds and a sense of the vastness of the tibetan landscape.
entering the city limits, the chinese influence was unmistakable. chinese soldiers stood on raised blocks in the middle of the street directing traffic, and tall modern chinese-styled buildings seemed to rise up from nowhere with that distinctly chinese architecture -- geometric concrete block construction, blue tinted glass, and tiled fascades adorned with bright colored flags, or the chinese government symbol (guo2hui4), or both. in front, accordian-styled steel front gates were often manned by official looking uniformed soldiers, shielded from the sun by colorful umbrellas straight from the beach. the unshielded glare of the sun was strong here, even stronger than in kathmandu.
on arriving, i was surprised that i didn't feel any effects of the altitude. or so i thought. stepping off the plane, the morning air was dry and cool. but i didn't seem to be missing that much oxygen. so after i settled into my hotel on one side of the Johkong (a religious structure more revered than the impressive Potala Palace), i went out for an extended exploratory walk. ten hours of walking around later it was too late -- i had a dull but steady headache and a feeling of light headedness.
previously, my conception of altitude had been a trip to Pike's Peak outside Colorado Springs. that was 4301m and i hardly felt any adverse effects there, so i didn't think Lhasa at 3600m would be very different. what i forgot to realize was that the drive up and down pike's peak, and the little walking around that we did, probably lasted no more than two or three hours. here, i only began to feel a headache come on after my first ten hours of activity. and i was going to be in much higher altitudes for a week.
what i should have done instead was to slowly acclimate and not over exert myself for the next three days. also, i should have taken some of that altitude medicine that some of the others were taking. it probably would have saved me a lot of discomfort over the next week, where just as i acclimated to the then current altitude, we would go higher, and the headaches would return. although i must say, the somewhat mild effects of the altitude, lightheadedness and a dull to moderately painful headache, although unpleasant, definitely gave me an appreciation and respect for where i was, which i probably wouldn't have had if i had felt totally normal.
Over the next three days, exploring the streets and alleys of Lhasa, the most striking aspect to me was that although i had seen pictures of the Potala Palace before (against a backdrop of mountains), i didn't realize that the relatively modern city of Lhasa was built right around and so close to the structure. on the main street that led to the palace were a series of commercial stores, including the Lhasa Department Store, selling everything from suits to washer dryers to TVs and DVD players. and just in front was a chinese styled plaza with eateries and even a disco. the disco seemed to be closed when we were there. however, there were internet cafes close by that were open and which seemed to stay open all night filled with young kids playing video games. and even behind the palace there was alot of activity, including a series of "beauty parlors" which also seemed to stay open all night as well.
compared to the area around the Johkang, it was a little sad that the area around the Potala seemed so commercial. the palace itself was more a museum than a functioning monastery, and was basically deserted except for groups of tourists making their way through the many dimly lit halls and rooms. in contrast, the area around the Johkang was full of life and everyday authenticity. there were two markets facing adjacent sides of the Johkang -- one admittedly oriented to the tourists and the other for the locals. pilgrims filled the streets leading up to and around it. and in front, arriving pilgrims prostrated repeatedly in the square.
when i was there (July2001), i saw relatively little military presence around the religious areas of the Johkang, the Potala Palace, or the rest of the city. sometimes, i think, the chinese equivalents of what we would consider policemen wore chinese military type uniforms that often made them look more fierce than they were. especially as most of the police/military presence seemed so young. at the airport, the co-ed military guards, no more than 17 or 18 years old, were teasing and playing footsie with each other as we were clearing immigration. and elsewhere, where we did see soldiers, they often looked more like they were on their way to summer camp, rather than on any official military business. since 9/11 however, or episodically perhaps, maybe that has changed, as a fellow BNA writer seemed to see much more of a military presence when she was there this past summer (July2002).
the second night before we left, there were fireworks in front of the Potala. maybe they were practicing for the official celebration of the 50th anniversary of the chinese "peaceful liberation" of tibet. i had noticed alot of preparation about -- there was a reviewing stand in front of the central plaza, and work was being completed on a new road that ran through it -- but at the time i hadn't realized why. a week later, Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao would arrive for the official celebration.
in any case, the fireworks were so beautiful, and the face of the palace was lit up with a soft golden glow, making the potala seem even more magical in the darkness. and in that moment, i just felt so lucky to be there, looking out from my hotel window on the fireworks, the palace, and the mountains beyond.
-- Friendship Highway
After three days in Lhasa acclimating to the altitude, we set off to cross the Himalayas on our way back to Kathmandu. leaving Lhasa, the architecture, bikes, cars, traffic police, and highway signs gradually thinned out, replaced by peasant workers in green cultivated fields, tractors loaded with families, empty streams and river beds, and long stretches of dusty roads under deep blue skies. gradually, the presence of imposed chinese styled order ceded to the vastness of the tibetan landscape.
vast fields of green dotted with yellow flowers, arrays of rugged mountains, dirt roads snaking up and down the sides of rocky ridges, damaged roads on manmade berms beside steep drop-offs (where parts of the road had fallen away leaving empty holes below), and sporadic road crews reenforcing those erosion and rockslide damaged areas. most of the time, at least there was a road. but sometimes there were no real roads, just relatively negotiable and apropos paths with a minimum of scattered rocks.
unlike other groups we saw, we were lucky that we only had one breakdown on our long trip, and an early one at that -- a leak in one of the coolant hoses. so our first day, we sat around awhile until the engine cooled down and an impromptu fix had been made. it gave our behinds a nice break from the bumpy ride. although most of the roads were relatively flat, all the little rocks and holes made my muscles sore from being generally battered about, and tired from bracing from all the bumps. then there were the rockslides, the roads washed out by streams and waterfalls, and heavy chinese government blue trucks barrelling toward us around tight and curvy mountain passes. and this was summer. i could just imagine how things would be like during the winter, or in the spring thereafter.
at most of the mountain passes we crossed, we encountered groups of pilgrims in dusty worn clothing, their few belongings strapped onto shaggy thick furred yaks. it was strange to see many of the pilgrims wearing suit-styled jackets, dusty from the rugged landscape, and looking (to me at least) thoroughly impractical. they would sit in big circles taking a break from their journeys with hot tea in big chinese styled thermoses. in the background, streamers full of frayed and colorful prayer flags hung from makeshift posts, looking like the remains of some used car lot. mendicants and children would run to the windows of passing tourist buses, their weather worn, red sun-scarred faces turned upwards in plaintive supplication. our driver smartly opted to stop just before such routine spots to be spared the inundations which plagued the large tourist buses.
every now and then, in the middle of vast stretches of green fields, barren landscapes, and rocky ridges, a little village would appear seemingly out of nowhere, and we would stop for lunch. thankfully, the hotels along our route (the "friendship highway" acoss tibet) were surprisingly comfortable, even in the middle of nowhere. In Gyantse, the hotel we stayed in had a mini-spa with pedicures and foot massages for the weary traveller -- that was me. at least it was not too cold. in Zhongdian, when i had last been close to the tibetan border, the heat was not working in our hotel, and there was limited hot water.
occasionally along our journey we would stop to visit the local monastery. visiting monasteries outside Lhasa was much more interesting than visiting tired yet popular tibetan symbols like the potala palace. the monasteries we visited were often like small enclosed villages of monks. and although their numbers had precipitously declined over the last half century, they still had a vibrant and authentic feel -- the purposeful swarms of monks and initiates piling out of an assembly hall, studying and meditating alone in quiet corners, using the neon colored China Telecom pay phones, and sometimes playing and teasing each other. in Drepung, i even saw one young initiate lost in concentration playing with a chinese styled electronic gameboy. with the relatively modest current populations of the monasteries we visited, it was sometimes hard to imagine what some of these centers had been like at their peak -- even Drepung, a small monastery just outside Lhasa, had once been home to over 10,000 monks.
inside and outside the monasteries, pilgrims prostrated themselves in front of altars, lit yak butter candles, and quietly medidated. each time i saw another pilgrim hard at prayer, or in the process of repeated prostration, i wondered what was going through their minds at that moment, what paths their lives had taken, and what lay before them now. also, with all those pilgrims pouring yak butter into large ever burning candles, it didn't take too long to feel sick of the smell of yak butter. our shoes became coated with layers of the stuff. and it was sometimes very slippery and a little precarious moving about and climbing rickety wooden stairs with all that wax on our shoes.
also inside the monasteries, along darkened passageways or inside assembly halls, were often fascinating murals. one of the most interesting that i could see close up was a portrayal of the "wheel of life" in the Cave of Milarepa symbolizing the endlessly repeated cycles (samsara) of birth, misery, and death caused by karma, pictorially represented by six realms of rebirth (gods, demigods, humans, ghosts, hell, and animals) all held in the mouth of Yama, the Hindu God of Death. It strangely reminded me of Michaelangelo's "Last Judgement" from the Sistine Chapel at the vatican.
nearing the end of our journey, and just after the turnoff for everest base camp, the main group of himalayas came into view. the beauty of the landscape there was breathtaking -- vast green and yellow fields under purple snow capped mountains and the clearest deep blue skies. i wondered if the peasant farmers there were able to fully appreciate the beauty of their environs, while subjected and juxtaposed to the physical realities of their (no doubt) exhausting survival based existence.
my only regrets were that (1) i wish we could have gone to everest base camp (even though it would have taken a good 5 hours each way and there was not that much there anyway); and (2) i wish we could have had more time (perhaps a picnic?) in the shadows of the main himalayan range to really soak in the beauty.
As it was, after a good 30 minutes of taking pictures and walking back and forth on the road to try and get better frames, the rest of my small group became anxious to get on our way. so after a few more shots, and an aching pain in my chest from the beauty of the moment, i ran back down the road to our landrover. in the rear window as we drove away, i kept my eyes fixed on the snow capped peaks for a small eternity, until we passed the next ridge of mountains, and proceeded toward the Tibet/Nepal border.
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