On the road (or there and back again)

Or even, how I learned to stop worrying and love Thamel.

My boomerang trip is nearly complete, and once again I’m sitting in the heart of Kathmandu’s tourist district, which seems to have gained a bit of colour in its cheeks since we last met. Perhaps because it’s a Saturday night? It reminds me of the Khaosan Road in Bangkok, all western and eastern music splicing and overlapping, hip young things and lots of lights. As I type, a band in a nearby club is not doing too badly with a cover of Steppenwolf.

Of course, my new-found generosity towards this place could also be a result of having spent a week in Tibet – precisely the kind of harsh, unforgiving and untamed (once you get out of the major cities) hinterland I was expecting it to be. I knew it was going to be a physical challenge, but I didn’t realise on how many levels. The altitude is the main thing – above 4000m and I found myself slipping in and out of sapping, nauseous daze, which seemed to pass with eating (except that my appetite was suffering too) but soon swept back with a vengeance. The dryness of the air as you ascend increases, which gradually sucks the moisture out of your skin, especially the lips, and also your lungs, meaning you need to drink at least 3 (but preferably 4+) litres of water a day. So you’re gasping for water the entire time, as your mouth and lips and throat are eternally parched, but in the back of your mind is the fact that you’ll quickly need to make a trip to a toilet which is either a) a fetid squat job with flies buzzing around and an open box of used toilet paper next to you (that’s if you’re lucky) or b) a ‘long-drop’, which is basically just a hole in the ground in a shack, the ‘drop’ part of which is evidently rarely cleared out. Were you eating while reading that? If so, I apologise.

But the rewards are great, if you have the energy to seek them out. Our next stop after Shigatse was Sakia, a much smaller town on the way to Everest, and far more in keeping with my romantic vision of Tibet. There is barely any Chinese influence, and watching over the town is a tremendous mountain, peppered with ruins, houses and monasteries. A handful of us made the climb, and while altitude sickness set in before I reached the top (I suddenly found myself unable to swallow – my body’s very own early-warning panic signal), the part I’d managed was one of the highlights of the trip. Wondering out loud what the ruins would have been like before they became so, we felt for the first time as if we were properly exploring on our own, and not just being tourists in a flock. From there (4300m) it was another massive ascent the following day to 5000m, at which point I admitted defeat and took some Diamox (altitude sickness medicine). I couldn’t face another night and day of nausea, and was determined to make the 4km walk to Everest base camp. The drugs worked, and I made it across the wind-blasted tundra and to the top of ‘marvel hill’ to gawp at the tallest mountain in the world as the sun set. I got pushed backwards by the wind a couple of times, and experienced a new meaning to the word ‘cold’ – but once again, it was worth it. Everest emitted a peculiar gravitational pull as I walked towards it, and I kept having to stop and stare. I understand why people get the overwhelming desire to conquer it, in spite of the risks – it is, in a word, awesome.

Unfortunately, my efforts were not rewarded with a warm and comfortable bed for the night – staying in a monastery guesthouse at 5000m with no heating is one of the more unpleasant nocturnal experiences of my life. In spite of that I managed to fall asleep, although I question now whether it was simply a defence mechanism which kicked in to stop me feeling the cold, and in fact I simply passed out – when morning came, it felt like I’d pulled an all-nighter.

The day after base camp did, however, bring a totally unexpected delight, which soothed much of the physical (and mental) stress of the past few days. We descended ear-poppingly quickly towards the Tibetan/Nepalese border, and seemingly from one minute to the next, at about 3000m, entered a gorge of mystical proportions. The road spiralled through a spectral forest, rendered so by layers of cloud. Grey shadows – a suggestion of a tree or cliff – emerged from the mist, only to slip back in again. We made a stop for people to get out and stretch their legs, and the difference in the air was incredible, and sublime. After the barren land higher up, the smell of greenery and humidity was something to be savoured. We all just sat around, breathing it in. It was a magical scene, reminding me of something from a Studio Ghibli film. I could imagine spirits and forest-gods sauntering about unseen behind the trees and waterfalls. The cloud all around us also added to the impression that we were descending from the sky – as someone on my group put it, that ‘there’s a land up there, and a land down there, and they’re connected by this crazy road’ – a sort of limbo land where anything can happen. Revitalised, we hopped back onto the bus, which took us through more of this amazing landscape – which lasted well into Nepal.

And here I am – the journey back from Tibet has been tough, fun, awe-inspiring, and at times a little scary (especially this morning, when due to the torrential rainfall last night, our bus had to negotiate a series of landslides along a road which has a sheer drop into a ravine and no crash barrier. We had to get out and walk at one point because the bus was leaning over the edge of a cliff).

What a trip – Tolkein would have been proud if he’d cooked this one up.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

I’m writing from Shigatse’s internet cafe/game centre – apart from having to swat flies away and find a space for my water bottle among the cigarette ash, it’s pretty comfortable. The seats are clearly designed with 12-hour computer sessions in mind…

So Lhasa has been left behind. Our first stop was Gyantse, Tibet’s third-largest town. The drive there was indescribably stunning – undulating green valleys turned into snow-peaked mountains that stared down at us from an impossible height. The highest stop we made was on a pass at 5050m, surrounded by glaciers and snow. The air and light had an unnerving clarity to them. I wandered away from my group, and with my back turned to them, for a minute everything was perfectly still and silent, save for the low hum made by the wind through the peaks. It felt briefly like I was the only person in the world – just me, the mountains, the snow and the sky. From there we came across two lakes set in valleys, both a fantastical colour, particularly the second one – an eerie shade of bright turquoise (http://www.indovacations.net/English/tibet-places-yamdrok-tso-Lake.htm – here are some pictures). Called the Yamdrok Tso, this is one of the holiest lakes in Tibet – and also the site of a recent hydroelectric dam project instigated by our People’s Republic. Just fancy that!

After 7 hours of superlative scenery and tortuous roads, we finally hit Gyantse. I found it quite charming – the buildings are mainly in the traditional Tibetan style (grey brick, squat, lots of windows with coloured frames and short curtains at the top on the outside, which constantly ripple in the breeze). The people were curious, but friendly. As I was writing in my diary in the hotel lobby last night an old Tibetan lady, carrying a yak butter flask, tapped on the window of the hotel to get my attention and pointed at me, smiling. After a second I realised she was pointing at the prayer beads wrapped round my wrist (purchased from the nunnery in Lhasa). I smiled and nodded, and she tapped again, pointed once more, and then seemed to clap, looking delighted. It’s been the third wordless (or nearly) but meaningful exchange I’ve had on this trip – I wonder when the next one will occur…

Our short stay in Gyantse ended with a trip to the Baiju monastery, which has been my favourite place so far. Built in the 15th century, it’s a monastery of the Gelug-pa (or Yellow Hat -http://www.traveladventures.org/continents/asia/images/sera-monastery10.jpg – an example of the headwear) sect, and somehow felt different from all the other monasteries we’ve visited. Everywhere I went, I could hear monks praying. In the chanting hall, they were performing throat-singing, and donned their hats midway through. It’s a sight I’ve been wanting to see for such a long time, and to come across it by chance felt like a blessing. It was also less busy than many of the other sites we’ve visited, lending it a more spiritual air. After the monastery we strolled through the old Tibetan part of the town, where we could have been in the 1950s. Cows lined the street, hay slid around underfoot and women sat outside their houses with their children, grinning and waving at us as we walked past. None of which prepared us for the challenge of climbing to the top of Gyantse’s fort – 130m up from the height we were already at (3950m). Only 7 of us were brave (stupid?) enough to have a crack, and sure enough, by the time I got to the top it felt like my lungs had turned into glass, which I risked shattering with every breath. Completely worth it though – the view was easily as breathtaking as the climb.

And now we’re in Shigatse, Tibet’s second-largest town, back down at 3900m. I’m not quite so enamoured with this place – it has an odd atmosphere, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The bazaar was interesting but felt rather hollow and soulless, and the Chinese side of town just looks like another Asia-anywhereville. But it’s my last point of contact with the outside world (through the internet, at least) until I get back to Kathmandu. Coming up – a night in a monastery, Everest base camp and what are, I have on good word, the most diabolical toilets known to man. Luckily, inspired by my history lessons on the Black Death, I’ve had the brainwave of buying surgical facemasks and spraying them with perfume before venturing into the outhouse. See, history isn’t just 10,000 years of human error.

So, time to click my heels together three times and disappear from this internet cafe – the more I look around the more it seems like I’m sitting in a giant ashtray. Plus in the corner of my eye I keep seeing small objects shooting across the floor, and I’m not sure if they’re insects or cigarette butts. Now I know we’re not in Kansas…

A tale of two cities

Last night in Lhasa, and then an 8 – 10 hour drive to Gyantse (which apparently resembles what Lhasa looked like before it was colonised).

The thing that’s left the biggest impression on me is how tightly religion is stitched into the fabric of everyday life here. Walking down the street, you will pass countless people either spinning a personal prayer wheel or counting their prayer beads as they walk along – not because they’re on a pilgrimage, but because that’s just what they do when they’re out and about. Even when sitting talking to each other, they’re performing some kind of religious act. Their Buddhist faith is so deeply embedded into their thoughts and actions – no question, no confusion, no doubt. It’s a mentality which is completely alien in the UK – anyone behaving in that manner, being so public and unswerving in their expression of their faith, would be derided at best as a complete eccentric, at worst as a dangerous fanatic. And when religious expression does appear from a man in the street in the UK, it takes the form of aggressive proselytisation (how many times have you walked through central London and rolled your eyes at the lunatic yelling that we’re all going to burn in hell unless we repent?). Here in Tibet, religion is deeply personal – everyone has their own relationship with their own protector, god, mentor; but the unanimity of their faith means that people are free to pay homage in public in whichever way they choose. It is a totally religious society, but one that is free from internal religious repression. How often have we managed that in the West?

Yet this way of life is increasingly, ineluctably under threat. The image of Lhasa that may well stay with me above all others is of an old woman, prayer wheel spinning, crossing a road during a rare break in the traffic. She seemed like such a tiny, isolated figure, framed against the modern buildings and paved roads of the new Lhasa. It was a picture that spoke a thousand words – the old way of life slowly being overtaken and drowned out by the new. I wonder what those who remember the old Lhasa make of what’s happened to their home.

It’s been a packed few days, so I’ll try and present a pruned account. Potala Palace was, as to be expected, a jaw-dropping experience. Lung-bursting as well; climbing 240 steps at 3700m beats the treadmill any day. It was the tallest building in the world before the ‘age of the skyscraper’ (thanks to Lonely Planet for that one), and its deep red and white form dominates the city. The inside (of the red part; the white part is the former political centre of the Dalai Lama and is now closed) is an endless collection of chapels and chanting halls, which is still frequented by a small number of monks. As with the other monasteries, the faint murmur of praying is ever-present, as is the smell of yak butter, and the slightly sweet, slightly stale smell invariably lingers in the back of the throat. Drepung and Sera monasteries were also memorable visits, particularly Sera for its debating monks – I’ve never found conversations which I couldn’t understand a word of so fascinating. I visited Lhasa’s Muslim quarter as well, populated by Uighurs who have migrated east from Xinjiang for one reason or another. The atmosphere is completely different from the rest of the city, and for some reason there is far more (visible) disability amongst its inhabitants. Paraplegics and blind people were clustered around the entrance to the mosque, begging – I’m forced to wonder if they receive fewer benefits than the rest of Lhasa’s populace.

On the outskirts of the Muslim quarter is a nunnery, which I have been to twice now. The atmosphere is completely different from that in the monasteries; calmer, somehow, and gentler. On my second visit, this evening, I was able to watch while a group of three nuns chanted their prayers. It was haunting and beautiful, and a great privilege. Afterwards, one of the nuns invited me to sit down and joined me, and despite me not speaking a word of Tibetan and her knowing only two or three words in English, we managed to exchange a reasonable amount of information. She’s 39, and has been at the nunnery for 25 years. She chanted a short prayer for me, and invited me to spend the night at the nunnery. Unfortunately I had to turn down the offer, but I was touched beyond words, and emerged back into Lhasa’s bustle lost in thought.

It’s not all serious here though. Scratch the surface and there’s a peculiar comic side to Lhasa, even if it’s not always intentional. The constant spitting is something that has to be laughed at. A few nights ago I caught a taxi with someone in my group, and the driver spat out of the window several times en route to our hotel. Each jet was preceeded by the most amazing primordial noise, which I assume was coming from the back of his throat but sounded like it was coming from the bowels of the earth. Was he making a special effort because he had tourists in his car?

I’ve also had my first try of yak butter, which seems to permeate all areas of life in Tibet (Shangri-lard? Hmm). It’s an acquired taste, which admittedly took me about two seconds to acquire. I was served it in a traditional Tibetan restaurant, which put on a ‘culture’ show of music and dancing after the meal. The evening ended with me getting a Glasgow kiss from a pair of women in a yak costume – I’ll spare the details, but they really shouldn’t have made the yak’s nose out of such hard plastic.

So farewell Lhasa, city of monasteries and mirages, and an intriguing take on fancy dress…

Spirited away

I hate the fact that I’ve had to write ‘China’ as the country I’m posting this from. But more on that later…
So I’ve been in Lhasa for two days now. The altitude hasn’t been as much of a problem for me as I feared it might be, although I started a throbbing headache within an hour of arriving in Tibet (we flew from Kathmandu airport – the first time I’ve been asked to taste food in my hand luggage by a security guard) which lasted for the rest of the day, and I woke up during the night feeling really strange. Apart from a dull headache, I felt dried-out and sluggish. What was happening inside my head was really interesting, however – as I was lying awake, thoughts were sailing past in a bizarre way – if you can imagine a freshly finished painting, which then has its colours smeared so the image disappears and turns into something else – that’s sort of what it was like. Smudged thoughts. Intriguing, more than unpleasant. Several people in my group were sick during the night, so I think I got off pretty lightly.

I was honestly shocked when I arrived in Lhasa – I didn’t realise at the time that there is an old town, and it just wasn’t what I was expecting (we arrived in the ‘new’ town). It was like an outpost of Beijing, except with fewer people. All the advertisements are in Chinese, and shop and street signs are in Chinese with Tibetan squashed in at the top. It’s like they’re trying to squeeze the indigenous culture out, and at the same time make sure you never forget whom this place belongs to. The state’s tentacles have slithered across from Beijing and wrapped themselves around Lhasa – from my hotel room, I can hear Chinese propaganda music blaring out, and see Chinese flags flying in the wind. It makes you want to throw the window open and yell: “THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY!” But of course you can’t. You also can’t criticise the Chinese government, discuss the Dalai Lama or bring guidebooks about Tibet in, as several of the group found out when they were confiscated at Lhasa airport. The ethnic makeup of this city has gone from 92% Tibetan to 50/50 Tibetan and Han Chinese. Most Tibetan government positions go to Han Chinese. And yet they call this the Tibetan Autonomous Region? The irony would be amusing if it wasn’t so appalling.

Luckily today we visited two temples in old Lhasa, and that really was the city I’d hoped to see. It’s nearly completely pedestrianised, with cobblestone roads, and traditional street lamps lining the way. It winds in a circular route, with little lanes sprouting off every now and then. Watching people pass by was amazing – so many worshippers, spinning personal prayer wheels, counting prayer beads, getting down to lie prostrate on the ground, muttering chants under their breath. Tiny old women with faces that seem to have witnessed it all tottered by, hunched and wizened but steadfast. Smoke billowed out from small stone stove-like constructions every 50 metres or so, where people burned incense and flowers, as their belief is that the more fire and smoke they create, the happier the gods will be. Coupled with this was the fact that the sun, so strong at this altitude, was perched directly above the scene, so bright that it bleached every feature it touched. The effect was of walking through a world of shadows, with almost monochrome shapes drifting past. It was distinctly otherworldy, an impression no doubt magnified by the mental effect of being this high up, which casts its own spell on your perception and senses. It was an incredible, ethereal experience, and so apt for this part of the world.

I don’t want to witter on too much – but the temples we visited were breath-taking; Jokhang Temple for the intensity of its atmosphere – the endless throng of worshippers, the smell of yak butter (an offering to the gods) and candle wax and the murmur of people in prayer – and Ramoche Temple for the hall of Yellow Hat monks performing throat chants, another deeply spiritual event.

And as a complete counterbalance, while writing in my diary in the hotel’s restaurant this afternoon (on the top floor, in full view of the Himalayas), the opening chords of “Tell Me Lies” started playing, followed by the familiar tones of Stevie Nicks.

Listening to Fleetwood Mac on the roof of the world – I wonder what else Tibet has in its box of tricks…

Kathmansee, Kathmandu

I’m not quite sure what to say about Kathmandu. It’s like nowhere I’ve been before, yet reminds me of so many cities I’ve ‘met’ on my travels. It fascinated me immediately; the drive from the airport to the hotel was a particular eye-opener (especially given that I had to get out of the taxi and walk part of the way due to roads being blocked by Maoist protests). It’s as grimy as you’d expect and there are only a handful of tarmac roads; the rest of the streets are just mud and dirt. I have a permanent acrid taste in the back of my nose and throat from all the dust and vehicle exhaust. There’s an overwhelming volume of humanity; people everywhere, all the time, slipping past and around each other, merging and then separating back out again, broken up only by vehicles, buildings and animals. When you leave a car or building it feels like you’re just entering a slipstream – part of the mass and yet not – and then disengaging when you reach your destination. As with all Southeast Asian cities, the scenery draws from an incredible palette of colours, and the tourist area (Thamel, where I’m staying) is alive with rows and rows of bazaar-like shops, traditional music blasting out and the usual orchestra of car horns. The people are remarkably friendly, quick to smile and tell you about their country or religion. But somehow, if I think of it as looking into the eyes of Kathmandu, all I’m being met with is a glassy-eyed stare. There’s no feeling of community to this place, and everything feels like it’s there by accident, as if shops and homes and people just landed somewhere and got stuck. For all its spirited inhabitants, Kathmandu seems to be lumbering about in search of a soul, and not finding one.

Like I said, though, it’s an interesting place, and it’s certainly worth dropping by if you’re in the area. The climate is far less aggressive than that of other countries in this part of the world, which made arriving jet-lagged and sleep-deprived yesterday morning much less of a mindmash. There are some incredible sights, too, not least the thousands of prayer flags fluttering at the ‘monkey temple’ (Swayambhunath), atop a hill to the west of Kathmandu. As to be expected, there is a quite a simian community at the temple; after seeing only two or three monkeys over the course of half an hour, suddenly a whole crowd pitched up – with reinforcements arriving every 5 minutes. They entertained the tourists, and seemed completely unconcerned at people getting up close to take photos. Very cute, and very, very human. Just goes to prove the saying – put enough creationists in a room and they’ll write a complete load of crap. Meanwhile, the monkeys at the temple have just turned in their first draft of King Lear…

Anyway. To provide notes and answer queries from the first couple of days… My flight was fine, and from Doha to Kathmandu I sat next to a charming elderly Nepali couple who offered me sweets (by thrusting them at me – they didn’t speak a word of English). I smiled and shook my head, then made a ‘wait’ gesture with my hand, before reaching into my pocket and pulling out a fistful of sweets I’d acquired on the flight from London. They grinned in understanding – it really was a delightful exchange. My jet-lag has mostly worn off now, although I was starting to freak out by about 7pm yesterday. The food is very nice, and I’ve found a packet of Dorset Cereals and some flavoured milk in a local supermarket so I can start the day properly. Durbar Square is interesting, although full of professed ‘sadhus’ who want you to take their picture. Despite there having been a light drizzle for most of the day, I’ve caught the sun on my nose, yet amazingly have not yet received a single mosquito bite. So all in all, so far this trip has brought the change of pace that I hoped it would, and of course Tibet (I’m flying to Lhasa tomorrow) is where it’s going to get really interesting.

So to the city in the sky – Shangri-La’s heady delights await…