Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, March 22nd

I know why Tibetans don't wash

Our joy at the 80 kilometre Gyantse - Shigatse stretch of the Southern Friendship Highway being paved proved premature. After an hour and a half of driving, as we met the unified Friendship Highway at Shigatse, the second-largest town in Tibet, the paving disappeared utterly, and the road deteriorated even further. For the next few hours, we drove slowly and painfully through an interminable desert plateau, ringed with jagged brown hills, a landscape that could have been Nevada or Utah had the road been decent, and the exposed strata of the hills not been so tortuously twisted by the Himalayan tectonic pressures.

After excruciating hours of rattling around in the cruiser, we ascended another hillside. All along the Friendship Highway were road crews, living in tents and not appearing to do a whole lot of work. Either this is a one-off push to turn the Highway into a decent road, or it's ongoing ineffectual maintenance. Either way, they're cutting vast amounts of hard core from the hillsides, and what better place to store it than on the road itself (which, of course, makes journeying down them even more hazardous and difficult).

Halfway up the hill we came across another roadblock. A truck full of rocks had become stuck across the road as it tried to emerge from a little quarry. Twenty or so Tibetans were trying to bump-start it, laden with stones, in about two metres' distance between the quarry entrance and the cliff edge. Each time they strained and managed to get it to start, the bozo behind the wheel left it in gear, slammed on the brake to avoid going over the cliff, and stalled it. Eventually another guy tried and did the same thing, and another, and finally a middle-aged man intimated that he was the expert here, and indeed he was. The truck started, and moved off the road, and we could continue.

We drove higher and higher up another pass, and then on the way down we were stopped again. This time the obstruction was a flatbed truck with a Caterpillar excavator on the back that had become twisted on a hairpin bend. After half an hour of messing around with the Caterpillar, which involved swinging the boom and bucket around wildly, several times nearly sweeping me and several Tibetans off the cliff, the driver decided to drive the excavator off the back of the truck - which pivoted the entire cab and front wheels off the ground. But it was done, and we could proceed down again, eventually onto another plain.

The third roadblock was an official one: two bored-looking PSB men in a minvan stopped us and tried to check Gyatso's credentials, which he appeared to have forgotten. After ten minutes of exchanging certificates and making calls on the cops' mobile phone, we were on our way again, and after what seemed like an age, we arrived in the town of Lhatse. The town is little more than a road of shops and restaurants on a windswept plain. Dust storms were howling over us as we checked into the friendly Tibetan Farmers' Adventure Hotel, which was a small motel around a courtyard, with no heating, no showers, and typically grim Tibetan toilets.

Here I finally got it: it's too damn cold to wash, and there's almost no fuel to heat water. Why waste precious firewood having a shower when you need it to boil water to cook with? Some hardy hygienic souls like Gyatso washed their hair and faces outside in a basin of warm water, but we, like most Tibetans, didn't bother.

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