Blessed to be a witness

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Saturday, March 26th

Back to civilisation

I liked Shigatse. Quiet, with lots of amenities, and a nice atmosphere, with apparent freedom for the Tibetans to carry on as normal, although one never really knows what the Chinese government are up to. In fact I was even thinking, if I had to live in Tibet, I think I'd choose Shigatse over Lhasa. Until the journey back, that is. If I had to endure that every time I wanted to fly somewhere or visit someone, I just wouldn't bother.

The Northern Friendship Highway between Shigatse and Lhasa is a mere 250 kilometres, on proper paved road. About a four-hour drive is all it should take. And we set off in pretty high spirits to our destination. We stopped for a few noodles for breakfast about an hour into the journey. And then immediately afterwards encountered another roadblock. A fat smug official in PLA uniform and a string across the road, with a bunch of irate drivers parked at it. Occasionally a Land Cruiser with blacked-out windows, presumably bearing some kind of bigwig, was allowed to pass, but nobody else. It seemed that now the major artery for the entire country was shut.

Another ten minutes of farting around, and Gyatso came back to the vehicle in a bit of a mood and indicated that we'd have to take the long way around. And what a long way it was. We started ascending another brutal dirt track up a valley, with a kilometre marker that indicated 176 km to our next destination. Again our speed rarely exceeded 30 kmh. Up and up and up we went. Way, way higher than we'd been before, and way, way above the snowline.

Eventually, after about two hours, we breached the highest pass so far: 5,300 metres at a reckoning, with the mountain tracks totally iced up with compressed snow. Our wheels spun on the ice, and the Cruiser slid sideways on occasion, and sometimes backwards. Insanely driving buses overtook us, racing each other between the herds of wild yak. At one point the Cruiser wouldn't proceed, so the Canadian guy finally persuaded Gyatso to engage 4WD. As we stopped at the pass a bus charged past madly, slipping and sliding, and showering us with prayer papers.

We proceeded down the pass to another very high plateau, and about an hour later, up another, even higher one - 5,400 metres. At this height we were looking at the level of the trans-Himalayan peaks, and looking down on some of them. The journey down was tedious and terrifying in equal measure, with nobody saying a word as Gyatso gingerly negotiated the cliffsides, the fuel gauge reading 'Empty' for about an hour. Finally below the snowline and on a flat, albeit potholed unpaved road, we were nearing the main northern road that comes in from Golmud in Qinghai province in China (a journey that takes between thirty and fifty hours. No thanks). Gyatso suddenly slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the Cruiser. He'd just spotted a bag of about thirty frozen chickens that had literally fallen off the back of a lorry, and he stashed them in the back under our rucksacks.

Finally back on the paved road, it was a boring but mercifully smooth two hours back to Lhasa, with Gyatso coasting down all the hills in neutral to save fuel, before slowing to a ridiculous level and wasting fuel speeding back up again. We were following the line of the new high-speed train line that the Chinese government is building from Golmud, that will forever change Lhasa and possibly Tibet. The line will consist of 710 kilometres of tunnels alone, and they're already apparent, as well as the huge concrete piles sunk into the valleys below the hills. They don't mess around, the Chinese government. When they say they're going to do something, they usually do, even if the end result is often shonky.

I have rarely been so happy to be back in a place as I was in Lhasa. A smooth four-hour journey turned into an unplanned, stomach-churning 9-hour slog over the worst terrain we had yet encountered. The euphoria took a very long time to wear off, as we ate at our favourite restaurant and had a couple of beers, big grins on our faces. We had done about 1,200 kilometres in around 45 hours' solid driving on the worst 'roads' I've ever seen. The sad thing is that this was a short journey in Tibet. To get to Mount Kailash in the west of the province/country takes 18 or 19 days, breakdowns notwithstanding. To get further takes months. Tibet truly is one of the last wildernesses on earth.

I liked Tibet. I didn't love Tibet. Maybe that's a negative reflection on me, failing to discover what many people have done before me. Perhaps it's because I read "Tibet Tibet", or I'm just too cynical, but I don't see the culture as something magical, or the religion as anything too special. The environment is breathtakingly, mindblowingly, beautiful in parts, but it's an atrociously harsh environment, and many of its people are clinging to survival. Yet, for tradition, they make unbelievable journeys and sacrifices to perform acts worship. Some may see this as laudable spirituality, but it's clear that many of them don't know why they're worshipping - they just do it as a function of their life - just a superstition. The religion is rebuilding itself after its suppression, but it is no paragon, infiltrated by the government and prone to corruption and opulence while its adherents scrape by at subsistence level.

As for the Chinese, what the hell do they want with the place? It's a gigantic spiky desert up in the air. I guess they can exploit mineral resources (and no doubt the future holds the prospect of Himalayas bearing the scars of quarrying, as do many of the hills in China), as well as the "minority" culture of Lhasa, especially when the new train arrives. It's also a geopolitical buffer between China and Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, part of the Great Game. The history of the intertwined nations has been distorted horrendously by the Chinese, but also by Tibet-in-exile - which also counter-claims huge chunks of ethnically Tibetan China - and propagandised westerners like Richard Gere.

The Chinese had no right to invade, the disastrous collectivisation of the nomads and farmers, and the mass killings and societal devastation of the Cultural Revolution, were unforgiveable crimes, but again consider that the government may be taking the long view: Tibet once conquered China as far as Xi'an; the Mongol emperors worked with Tibet and its religion to suppress the whole of China. This still doesn't excuse the Chinese government's recent behaviour, and the bullshit propaganda that they promote (Tibetans fighting British invaders in the early 20th century were "defending the motherland"), but don't forget that many of those complicit in what has happened are as Tibetan as the Dalai Lama. There's always going to be dissent - nobody on earth wants to be governed by an invader - but the Chinese government is never going to leave. One may only hope that somehow the dissent gets filtered into self-governance within the Chinese imperial sphere.

And how well is the Chinese government doing? They've managed to outnumber Tibetans with Han Chinese in major conurbations, and these people aren't going to go anywhere soon. Though crudely and apparently dismissive of the culture in which they found themselves, they're good businessmen and clearly stimulate the local economy. The government supposedly provides education for all, though it doesn't seem to have had a huge effect - if seeing Tibetans use calculators to add 10 to 5 (and re-check the result), or subtract 50 from 100, or the woeful lack of initiative also evident in China, is anything to go by. The roads, while appalling, at least exist now, and the plan appears to be to improve them. Electric power exists in many places, and irrigation. Is this a good thing? I maintain that it is, subject to the avoidance of irreversible environmental destruction. Yes, it will change lifestyles, and probably the culture, irreparably, but don't these people, scratching their way on the surface of the earth, deserve better? We spoke to orphanage workers who said that many of the "orphans" they care for are actually disabled children, abandoned by their nomad parents as there are no resources, nor cultural imperative, to keep them alive. Don't they deserve better?

As for tourists - the Tibetans are undeniably friendly, moreso than the Chinese. But it seems to me that they neither need us nor want us. The tourist dollar won't trickle down for a very long time in most places, if at all. We're merely a hopefully benign distraction while people get on with other things.

Tibet strikes me as a nation that just wants to be left alone to get on with things, but the history of internal Tibetan politics shows that reform was much needed before the Chinese turned up. However, one final thought is: how the hell do they get all those cars up there? The copious Buicks, Toyotas, and all the dozens of Chinese marques. Do they drive them all the thousands of boneshaking kilometres from Golmud or Chengdu? Do they fly them in - all of them?

Now the only worry we have is the flight back to Chengdu... which should be a piece of cake compared to what we've just experienced.

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.