The trip from Sichuan province to the roof of the world took 44 hours. Two whole days of reading, writing and relaxing in a private bunk in a soft sleeper carriage in a train with some of the world’s most amazing scenery rolling slowly by outside my window. Brad Pitt had seven years in Tibet. Unfortunately, I only had 10 days and I was determined to make the most of my time in this unique part of the world.
Whilst the railway line I was travelling on was relatively new, the train itself was a standard Chinese train and almost everything on board was broken. This included the only toilet for the soft sleeper carriage, which was completely blocked about 10 minutes after departure. None of the fifty or so staff members on the train seemed to be in charge of the sanitary facilities needed to keep the train’s passengers in a reasonably hygienic state of being. So, for the time being, the facilities remained unusable. Later, someone thoughtfully placed a small plastic bucket next to the lavatory until that, too, was unusable.
Another feature of the train staff had deemed unnecessary for passengers was electricity, and so for whatever reason they had turned off all the power sockets on the train. Each bunk came with its own flat-screen television, which did have power, but was there anything to watch? There was not. And so I spent a lot of time chatting to my fellow travellers and wrote stuff on paper instead of into my laptop, which only had a couple of hours of juice left in the battery. This dire state of affairs would usually have me in a complete fluster of panic, much like when I don’t have access to super fast wifi 24/7 or when I run out of tea, but today it didn’t seem to bother me much that my toys wouldn’t be of much use to me. I stared out the window and tried not to think about the current toilet situation.
Once out of the industrial construction-sight lowlands of mainland China, the scenery changed utterly. Smog, freshly-poured concrete and endless clumps of high-rise apartments gave way to fantastic mountain landscapes, clear blue skies and herds of yaks.
I had prearranged a week-long tour in Tibet, a necessary process prescribed by the strict set of Chinese regulations which require any visitor wishing to travel outside the capital city to be accompanied by a guide and driver at all times. If you want to see the sights, it will definitely be a group experience.
Arriving in Lhasa a couple of days before the start of the tour had been a good idea. This had given me the time I needed to acclimatise to the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau and find where the best food was. Fairly quickly I’d begun to favour the fast hotpot-style Chinese dishes to the soggy Yak Momos and salty tea. Pretty soon, I was a regular at a crowded eatery where you selected your own ingredients upon arrival and had them cooked by the platoon of busy restaurateurs manning the bubbling fry baskets of spicy broth.
The cooked food, served in large stainless steel bowls, and drenched in fiery red chilli oil, never took long to appear at the table. There weren’t any Tibetans in this particular restaurant. In fact, there weren’t any Tibetans in any of the restaurants. The Tibetans I saw on the streets seemed to be quite poor and I guessed they wouldn’t be able to afford any of the food, even a full meal of hot-potted bits and pieces costing only a couple of bucks. Going by the dozens of pairs of eyes swivelling in my direction as I started slurping my food, neither were there many Laowei around either. I could hear the occasional click of a mobile phone as giggling Chinese locals took photos of a scruffy-looking traveller turning bright red with hot sauce dribbling down his bearded chin. Yes, I was Mr. Hotpot 2013 and, apparently, a spectacle to behold and record for posterity.
The food was spicy. Really spicy. So spicy I was sweating within seconds of just looking at the food, my eyes were seared with chilli fumes and my throat was on fire. Oh, bugger, did it hurt. But hurt so good. Luckily, I had brought a few beers with me to put out the flames. I liked this way of eating. A choose your own adventure of intense tastes and fresh ingredients, with the added adrenaline kick of teetering on the edge of mortality. Having half the other diners stare at you to see if you’ll survive the experience was a bonus, of course. I was getting used to these kinds of experiences in China. In fact, getting a little out of my comfort zone and finding new and creative ways of dealing with life’s many and varied challenges in a completely alien environment was one of the reasons why I was in this part of the world.
Well, sort of. While I was eating the last remnants of my dinner, I had to remind myself I wasn’t here to experience only China. I had come to experience Tibet, and I really hoped it would be something completely different.
The problem, essentially, was at first glance Lhasa appeared to be a Chinese city like any other. There were the same shops selling very small food items in very elaborate plastic packaging, the same KTV karaoke pits which would become active hives of seedy entertainment at nightfall and there were thousands of Chinese people smoking non-stop, spitting on the pavement and shouting a lot.
I quickly worked out the only part of the true Tibetan culture still accessible to me was in the old town. Like ever other tourist attraction throughout the world, there were hordes of camera-wielding, expensive trekking gear-wearing and unique-experience-no-one-else-ever-has-around-here searching tourists.
I was one of them, of course, and I was wielding my camera like everyone else, trying to capture the magic of the Tibetan pilgrims slowly ambling in a clockwise direction around the centre of the old town. The focus of the pilgrim walk, called the Kora, is the Jokhang temple, Tibet’s holiest sight. It’s Tibet’s very heart and that’s all I needed to know, because the moment I saw the Tibetans walking through the old town, I was automatically carried along in the stream of quiet, moving humanity. Some of the pilgrims were quite elderly, spinning their hand-held prayer wheels as they walked. Others were younger and just seemed to be enjoying the day out, as was I. A monk was barking into his mobile phone as he walked along the pilgrim path, and for some reason there was also an elaborately decorated sheep.
An occasional klack-klack noise drew my attention to something I had never seen before. The most dedicated believers doing the Kora were doing the exact opposite of walking leisurely around the circuit. They prostrated themselves fully on the ground, always facing the Jokhang temple. Hands were clasped in prayer above the head, a motion which was followed by a low bow and then full prostration on the ground. Once another prayer was uttered, the pilgrim rose, took a step to the side in the direction of the Kora and took it from the top. The klacking noise came from wooden planks each pilgrim wore on his hands to make his devotions a little easier, along with a thick apron, knee pads and various other pieces of protective clothing. Here was a religion allowing its followers to get kitted out for the really hard stuff, the equivalent of a priest turning up on Sunday morning wearing grid iron pads and helmet.
I’m not a religious man, but I was impressed by the sheer dedication of these pilgrims to their dedication. I also liked that they brought wooden hand clogs with them, a clever bit of foresight. The slow kowtowing sequence of the pilgrim was a form of motion which, to me, looked frankly alarming, much like an unfit office worker doing complicated aerobics they really shouldn’t be doing. The pilgrims were compelled to traverse the Kora at the pace of a Deutsche Post queue just before Christmas, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t wear a little protective clothing as well. Their equipment certainly made the task of holy devotion a bit easier, and these pilgrims would be here for days, possibly even weeks. The locals gave them a bit of money for their pious natures, stuffing notes into the pockets or backpacks as they made their way slowly forwards.
I gave myself a mental slap on the hand for thinking such a blasphemous things in such a holy place and continued walking.
There were also a lot of beggars on the side of the alley as I passed and they muttered incomprehensible whispers at me and held out their hand. I gave them a few Kwai and they muttered their thanks.
The next day, I visited the Potala Palace and for the privilege of seeing some of its rooms and relics for an hour, I was required to carry a permit, make an appointment and bring a local guide. I also had the privilege of giving a lot of money directly to the Chinese government to visit a museum which used to be the private residence of the Dalai Lama. The 14th reincarnation of the Tibetan god king is no longer welcome in his home town, and if, one day, he did return, he would find a city which is only partially Tibetan and is progressively morphing into just another part of mainland China.
Yes, the Barkhor still had some of the original atmosphere of old Lhasa, a glimpse into the Forbidden City of yore, and yes, the Potala Palace is truly one of the wonders of the world. It is one of the most staggeringly beautiful buildings ever built, set against steely mountains under a cobalt blue sky. However, pick any direction going a block or two out of town and you are instantly back in a Chinese world of crookedly-tiled, phlegm-covered walkways, teeming masses of people and smelly public toilets.
I put these thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on the stunning structure I was currently looking at, its precipitous white walls looming ahead of me.
The Potala Palace is not a symmetrical building. I’m usually a big enthusiast of equally-proportioned buildings, so when I look at one I can concentrate on one half and save the other 50 percent of my brain capacity for something else later on and still get the general gist of the thing. I couldn’t do that here as my eyes were drawn by the inexplicable, asymmetrical details of the Tibetan palace architecture. A long staircase here, a group of windows there. White walls to the left and right, maroon in the middle to signify the presence of the Buddhist statues within its numerous halls.
I was well and truly in Tibet now. I had been acclimating to the high altitude for two days now and quickly discovered this was obviously not enough time for my lungs to be brought up to speed. I wheezed and spluttered for breath at the top of the first staircase as if I’d just completed a marathon with a full sized Buddha strapped to my back. OK, I was only carrying my daypack and I had only walked up 20 steps, but do they have to be so stingy with the oxygen up here?
I took it slower for the next part and was soon amongst tombs of the former Dalai Lamas, Buddha statues, holy scriptures and rooms and rooms full of more stuff which my guide described to me in loving detail, and all of which I forgot the moment he told me. There was no photography allowed, so I spent considerable effort covertly snapping whenever I could. I’m just like that. If I see a sign proclaiming “Photography Permitted and highly Encouraged” anywhere, I just lose interest.
The tour continued through the dark, non-photogenic corridors which connected the rooms filled with Buddhas and Dalai Lama effigies, until we emerged at the back of the palace and slowly made our way to the carpark. I felt depressed, not because I wasn’t allowed to take thousands of photos, but because this place which had obviously once been a very powerful and spiritual place was now a mere shell of its former self, an amusement maze full of tourists too dense to remember the names of all the Buddha statues. While it was true Tibetan pilgrims were allowed to visit the holy sight, they too, were shuttled through the corridors by officials with brash discouragement to linger anywhere for too long.
A few metres out of the grounds of the Potala Palace and I was back in the noisy Chinese street life, a rude reminder of where I was. I walked around the back alleys for a while, filled with locals, mainly track-suited Chinese youngsters kicking a football around on their way home from school.
“Hello, money!” this from one of the kids who had no problems with using his vast language repertoire to ask me for some spare change. I said hello back, pretending to have only heard the first word.
“Hello, money!” chorused the others and they giggled as they crowded around me holding out their hands too. I backed away as I didn’t have anything left to give them, nor did I want to. It depressed me, these constant efforts to get money out of visiting tourists. I was just another walking ATM to these kids. I’d been to enough countries by now to know this wasn’t a Chinese thing, nor was it a Tibetan thing. It didn’t matter if I could understand what the people were saying to me as they held out needy hands. It was just a tourist thing, and since I was a tourist and always would be, I might as well get used to it. I was there to be fleeced for as much cash as possible, and that was that.
The day was coming to an end, and after a long session of sightseeing, I was getting sick of being a tourist. As the sun began to disappear behind the breath-taking mountains surrounding the magical city of Lhasa, I decided to blend in a little and join the slowly-moving Kora. It had become very cold and I was wearing a thick winter jacket, gloves, a scarf wrapped around my face and an old woollen hat. When the sun was gone, a supernatural moonlight slowly began to dominate the horizon. Colour was replaced by shadows, people became forms and we all shuffled slowly in the direction of the Kora. The night was almost silent except for the occasional whisper of conversation, the sound of wooden clogs of the kowtowing pilgrims and a few squeaky prayer wheels. I wasn’t anyone now. All I had to do is walk with the pilgrims and all would be well.
I had been walking as if in a trance for about an hour when I finally walked back down the alley I had started at, back into the bright light of Chinese noodle shacks and the neon glare of video billboards.
“Hello, money!” The kids I had seen before me giggled as they ran past me again. I rolled my eyes and gave up trying to have a unique experience. I wasn’t ever going to be able to blend in anywhere, but at least there were moments. Tiny moments, but important ones. I wanted to think about these moments and did so at the nearest bar. This cheered me up immensely.