Tuesday, June 22, 2010

7 Days in Tibet

As I recall, I left my gentle readers poised precariously on the cliff-hanger ending of whether or not I would make it all the way back through China to Hong Kong so I could collect my pack and then find some way of getting back through China and into Nepal in time for my 27th birthday party meet-up. In order to relieve the otherwise unbearable tension during this blog I will now reveal that yes, I did make it.

The journey back from 'Shangri-La' east was much faster than coming the other way. Paivi and I took a bus to Jiangxi and then, after an afternoon heeding Chinglish warnings against 'irrational shopping', appropriated part of a sleeper bus back to Kunming. The beds on this bus were just about long enough for the decapitated body of a white male of average height and contained no more carry-on luggage capacity than might be secreted in swallowed condoms. However, I slept far better than the only other sleeper bus ride I've taken - India, 2001, in which I'd spent the whole night throwing up over the Western Ghats while avoiding having my height adjusted by oncoming trucks.

Arriving back in Kunming I immediately booked the next train (departing that afternoon) for Guangzhou near Hong Kong. Paivi was also desperate to get out of the city as she was in serious danger of missing her flight back to Finland from Beijing. Like most Chinese cities Kunming guilted me into feeling like I should get a life, find a job and be productive for the Progress of The Nation, thus the day went by like a picnic held during an air raid - you want to join in the frenzy but you've just uncorked a bottle of wine.

The train ride to Guangzhou was one of my best yet - 28 hours in a largely empty train, reading 'Shantaram', a huge foundation stone of a novel written by a Melbournian ex-crim, who's sort of like an evil Kim Stanley Robinson, and engorged as a right-of-passage by almost every backpacker I meet.

On the train I met a friendly young Guangzhou local named Kyo in possession of excellent English skills and a charitable desire to establish me in a hotel. This ended in a quest far more involved than for which I was prepared as we traipsed across the entire city in the dead of night employing the extensive metro system, multiple taxi rides and kilometres of foot-work, bypassing acceptable cheap digs is search of a hotel that satisfied both Kyo's requirement for a place worthy of my imagined social status and my requirement for absolutely anything costing me less than $50. This was not helped by a massive conference on African development that weekend filling the city's hotels with stylish black businessmen.

But the next day I was out of the city and on my way to Shenzhen, taking one of the 200 km per hour bullet trains in which China is now being enmeshed - the fastest I've ever traveled on land (with respect to that land - I'm not getting into a discussion on galactic divergence).

Eager to know if my pack had left Postal Space and now existed in the familiar dimensions of our own universe, and also because the bullet train dropped me off right on the border, I delayed the tour of Shenzhen until my way back out and once again went through the interminable procedures of leaving one country and entering another - an experience somewhat more irritating than usual because Hong Kong is now a part of China and so I wasn't technically crossing any national borders at all. Since this terminated my Chinese visa I had to stay in Hong Kong long enough to get a new one - three days since it was a Friday afternoon. Impeccable timing as usual. Nicely, Hong Kong's metro joins right into Shenzhen's, a system designed specifically for failed cycle tourists lugging heavy inward-leaning panniers.

I'd been hearing all sorts of things about Hong Kong on my trip, some positive and most negative. Somebody told me it's like Blade Runner - all the rich people living in high-rises trying to escape from the poor people at street level. Whatever the truth of it it's a cool image and certainly had some resonance with my experience living in the Chungking Mansions - a vast cubic firetrap crammed with tiny cell-like rooms with windows overlooking ventilation ducts like Bespin's Cloud City from Star Wars, every conceivable ethnicity in roughly equal proportions inhabiting the rooms, queuing for lifts and haggling over samosas. I got a real buzz out of this crazy place despite paying $15 for a room that could charitably be described as a coffin a few sizes too big for me.

Other than that, the horror stories I'd heard about the prices in Hong Kong seemed to be a phurphy. Things are the same price here as the same things in China, there's just more overt availability of very expensive things. On the first night I went to a classy Vietnamese restaurant perched near the top of a glass ovoid-shaped building and paid just $7 for a full meal. On the other hand I was forced to clench my face in an attempt to lock out emotional displays, my left eyelid flickering with the strain, as the bill came in for the round of beers I had shouted the Hanoi Backpacker's Hostel's barman's friend and his girlfriend for allowing me to send my pack to them (and for it's reunification with me) - they'd recommended an expensive rooftop bar above the main pier so we could watch the sun set through the haze, it's path punctuated by the crowded skyline.

Considering the amount of time available I managed to do a pretty thorough job on Hong Kong. I wandered through the city streets on both sides of the channel, familiarised myself with all forms of public transport (including dirt-cheap ferries, metro, buses and even trams), spent long hours watching the afternoon fade into evening with the accompanying laser show erupting from the tops of dozens of buildings while sitting on the end of a Prohibited Entry pier (AND not getting arrested!), had nights on the town with both British descent and Chinese descent locals - acquaintances of different backpacking buddies, and visited the major peaks of Hong Kong's two biggest islands. The first one being 'The Peak' on 'Hong Kong Island' - a wealthy green utopia in the clouds, like the way books from the 70's depict the perfectly landscaped habitable surfaces of orbital ring colonies - and the second being Lantau Island with its giant Buddha statue near the summit. When the gondola cost and queue proved too much for me to withstand I got up there the old fashioned way - every hour I asked someone how far a walk it was to go and each time they gave me an answer twice as long as the previous person, like an inverse Xeno's Paradox. The girl I met just twenty minutes before reaching the top reckoned I'd never make it.

On Monday morning, visa in hand, I took the metro and left the country, touring Shenzhen (a poor cousin to Hong Kong I must say - China likes to spread its cities out a lot, buildings edging away from each other in mistrust) meeting Kyo in Guangzhou again for a night of beer and pool, and then embarking on a long and spectacular train ride to Chengdu - launching pad for Tibet. An Annoying Incident boarding this train occurred as I was listening to an Atheist podcast on my ipod (I'd been really getting into podcasts). I had to put my panniers and newly acquired pack down on the metal detection conveyor belt but accidentally got my headphones hooked in my pack straps. I tried to free myself but my major luggage item, already in the grip of the conveyor belt, began to pull me into the jaws of the metal detector - no doubt to a terrible fate of radiation poisoning, acquisition of super powers and an eventual stand-off with an evil mastermind planning the enslavement of humanity. Since my hands were occupied holding my panniers I had to clumsily roll myself off the conveyor belt - snapping my headphones cable in the process and cutting off the podcast mid-sentence, trapping it inside my ipod. Clearly it was a message from the Atheist God telling me He does not exist (but due to my lack of faith I refused to believe Him).

This is where the real work began: I was pretty set on checking out that new train line to Lhasa, had been interested in Tibet since my Tintin days and wanted to keep up my aversion to flying (it being a fairly cop-out way to travel the world) - but for some reason the Chinese government doesn't trust us nice tourists to be in Tibet on our own, as though we'll tell the world what nasty bastards they are up there (or worse: tell the Tibetans). So I needed to be on a package tour - something I'd managed to avoid so far. Unfortunately, a package tour to get from the train station at Lhasa down to the Nepali border costs about $1500, so I needed at least one person with whom to share the exorbitant cost. Chengdu's Mix Hostel was exactly the place to find such a person so I spent a week there, slowly running out of time, finding possible companions and being abandoned by them, finishing 'Shantaram' and visiting a panda zoo. My lamentations of failure were eventually overheard by a British dude called Helio who was a) keen on seeing Tibet, b) didn't mind handing over the vast wad of cash required for a visit to said autonomous zone and, crucially, c) was happy to go with my somewhat condensed absolutely-must-be-in-Kathmandu-on-the-21st time-frame.

But, since time was already short, plus with the Tibet permits taking three days to acquire, as well as the train taking a week for the booking, this was no guarantee of success - the hostel informed us that there were no tickets left that would suit us but that they'd check later if someone canceled. I despaired at our chances and took a sad walk through the streets of Chengdu, but upon my return I was informed that yes! Miraculously, two people had in fact canceled! We were going to Tibet! I had had no idea before then exactly how much I was emotionally dependent on that outcome: instantly my spirits elevated right into the stratosphere and I had a mega-enjoyable afternoon (but by the next day my body had used up all its available endorphin reserves and I came crashing back down again until it could manufacture some more).

The next few days we spent waiting for our permits and train, seeing the town and the construction of its new metro system, wrestling with banks to get enough money out for the tour and in the evenings hitting the town. The most noteworthy night was when thirteen of us (we'd conglomerated with Mix's backpacker community by then) stormed a nightclub with a suspiciously high girl/guy ratio. It was after the tenth Lady Ga Ga song came on that the guy component of the backpacker group began to nod knowingly at itself - this was not a normal bar. Of course, it took until the girl component was the victim of successive waves of female instigated arse-grab attacks for it to realise that this was, in fact, a local lesbian bar and so stormed out, disappointment from all parties left trailing in its wake.

I could devote a whole blog to Chengdu and its crazy night life but we had a train to catch so I must move on.

The first day of this 48-hour train ride was quite uneventful, except for admiring the profusion of altitude warning signs and oxygen supply nozzles coating the walls. Helio and I were assigned not only different beds (cramped top beds too) but different carriages, so our interactions mainly revolved around endless rounds of the ubiquitous card game Shithead, all while listening to three tracks inescapably played over the sound system on repeat: Beethoven's 'Fur Elise', Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' (Geez - Titanic came out in, like, 1997!) and a Propaganda speech describing the Happiness of the Tibetan People. I was foresightful enough to bring along two bottles of red wine and a corkscrew for the journey, but Helio over-ruled me with his sensible consideration of altitude sickness (grrr...).

And altitude was a real worry - that night we left the deserted landscape of north-western China and the Silk Road (we had traveled as far north as the latitude of Beijing) and started climbing solidly up to 5027m above sea level - the highest I'd ever been on land and so it would be again until the trek in Nepal. I slept very soundly despite two annoyances: firstly the Chinese guy next to me snored so loudly and spasmodically I almost launched into giving him an emergency tracheotomy with my unused corkscrew, and secondly someone seemed to have decided to open one of the windows for a smoke during the night, evacuating roughly half of the atmosphere in the previously pressurised train.

But when we awoke - What. A. View. I don't know how those Chinese did it but they put a train line across the vast frozen plateau of Tibet, five kilometres above sea level. I hear they have to pump cooling fluids through the piers of the 167 kms of bridges so they don't sink into the gradually warming permafrost - yet another reason why I had to take this journey now. The only way I can really describe this landscape is to compare it with the cliche of the frozen northern latitudes of Mars. Little grew out here, blasted by constant snow storms even during summer, and the only objects to punctuate our views of the half-frozen lakes, vast desert plains and snow covered peaks were the occasional shelter, community or wandering horseman.

The line terminated in Lhasa where our tour guide failed to meet us at the station as planned (not a comfortable place to be left alone - shotgun toting Chinese military personnel in full riot gear grace every street corner in the capital). This set the tone for our relationship in the following days as he later failed to book us tickets for Lhasa's star attraction of the Potala Palace, in our itinerary for the next day, forcing us to stand outside the ticket office for an hour begging them to let us in, and finally, despite us paying his company over $400 per day, excusing his total ignorance of our tour's surrounding geography with the fact that this was his first time beyond Greater Lhasa. As I never tire of hearing, 'you get what you pay for'... (no, I'm being sarcastic - apart from the straight-forward rip-off, there are too many variables valued too differently by different people for prices to be a real universal measure of subjective worth).

But Helio and I couldn't complain too much, our guide was an alright bloke and could translate the driver's extensive familiarity with our surroundings. Plus he told us such interesting facts as that Tibet is suffering under the effects of a fifteen year drought because "Scientists say the Universe is getting hotter", and that another scourge wreaking havoc on Tibet is that the farmers have all seen the movie '2012' and hence have stopped tending to their fields because they fear, of all things, that they are in immanent tsunami danger. I had just been thinking that it would have been a convenient time for a four kilometre high tsunami to sweep the globe and was on alert for a sudden inner-ear pressure change announcing the wave's approach.

Our guide did, however, have an excellent knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, taking us to many fascinating and beautiful temples and monasteries in Lhasa and southern Tibet. I must say though, I've always had a bit of a soft-spot for this peaceful and compassionate religion, but now I'm not so sure. The more I learned about it the more I was aware of its pre-enlightenment backwardness. Like, rather than concocting practical solutions to their drought problem they feel their best interests are served by either constant prayer or the invention of machines that can pray for them and so allow them time to install messy-looking prayer flags everywhere. Plus, when we visited the solid gold tombs of the previous Dalai Lhamas, each weighing hundreds of kilos, our guide blithely mentioned that all that gold had been extracted from the peasants. What??!! What WERE those methods of extraction!?

However, the Tibetan landscape was incredible. On our way out of Lhasa in a completely unnecessary Land Rover (all the roads were Prince's Highway standard, grrrr...) we encountered a large lake at 4400m or so with distant peaks poking above it - I know, I'm as surprised as you that Tibet has beaches (after a brief swim I can report that, yes, the water is frikkin' freezing). The towns are all mud brick, weathered and ancient - blending seamlessly into ruins that could be thousands of years old. Towering glaciers greeted us at roadsides, vast rivers negotiated ancient canyons, occasionally isolating decrepit forts clambering above the waterline, while just over half the atmosphere remained to shield us from the glaring sun. Our view would often open up to reveal infinite wind-blasted deserts punctuated by whistling mesas and, sometimes, fertile oases where yaks in immaculate headgear would till the land.

I only experienced mild altitude sickness, staying in the city of Shigatse (supposedly the highest city in the world at 3800m, but I have my doubts), where I got a day-long headache definitely NOT cured by the Chinese Medicine foisted on me by a local pharmacy (I didn't even get the placebo effect!). I was almost tempted to wuss out and buy one of the prolific oxygen canisters sold in every conceivable context (expensive restaurants and hotels, rather than advertising AC, would advertise O2) but settled for a random selection of drugs containing codeine from my first aid kit.

Apart from the obvious satisfaction in seeing Mount Everest on Day 2 of the drive (we didn't go to the base camp because the tour operator told us it was "crap"), the highlight was certainly Day 3, the final day, in which we reached the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Now you'd probably imagine that the edge of the plateau would be something like reaching the end of a tall sharp-edged table: the Himalayas poking up beyond it with views between the mountains into the vast haze of the Indian Subcontinent. And you would be correct - that's exactly what it was like. A brown flat bit of land 4.8 kilometres up suddenly giving way into nothingness and a straight line of eight kilometre high mountains receding into the distance like the perfect formation of an unreasonably large alien invasion force. It blew our minds. I have photos on Flickr, but, like most of this stuff, they don't do it justice.

After that it was only a matter of executing a steep descent between two mountains into Nepal, stopping at the mandatory fifty million military checkpoints per milimetre along the way, celebrating our final night in Tibet with our guide and driver over my last remaining bottle of wine in Zuegma, allowing our bags to be searched by the Chinese border to the extent of having each of the 900 pages of Neal Stephenson's excellent book 'Quicksilver' scrutinised by paranoid customs officials (undoubtedly looking for the secret plans for China's new Death Star, naturally I'd hidden them in my underpants), crossing the Friendship Bridge into Nepal, finding an old shack off the main road dispensing $100 three month visas for Nepal (if we hadn't seen it I would still be at large in this country), catching an awesomely scenic bus into Kathmandu and...

...Meeting up with all my friends and family who had made the trip out here for my birthday!

1 comment:

  1. Cool.

    (I don't want to write too much and risk competing with your own eloquence.)