22 December 2007


I'm back! and finally beyond the confines of the Great Firewall of China.

But not without incident.

Leaving Lhasa some days ago, my mostly Japanese group and I traversed the Tibetan plateau first to the village of Gyantse (oh what picturesque poverty! cows in the streets! joy!) and then to Shigatse, Tibet's other "city" and home to the Panchen Lama--did you even know that the Dalai Lama had a rival? and that China uses him as a tool to create intra-Tibetan factional strife, like in some (bad? good?) professional wrestling angle? During this journey, one of our number--young Hiroshi--developed a fever, and didn't move much the entire day. So we brought him to the "people's hospital" in Shigatse, where not only the patients are allowed to smoke, but the doctors smoke, too. I stepped out for awhile to guard the car, and when I returned, two other group members also had confirmed fevers, one of them seriously high. Miraculously, when I checked myself, I actually turned out to be normal. An hour of IV fluiding later, and we were ensconced for the night in our heated (!) hotel. Given the ailments going around, we decided to extend our trip by an extra day, as afforded by our contract and, inevitably due to Murphy's Law, refused by our driver (*after* we had spent the day there, naturally). This guy turned out to be rather petulant, becoming angry and frustrated whenever we asked him to do anything or even tell us what the hell he was doing, even though I kept giving him oranges and cans of Chinese Red Bull as peace offerings. The best time was when he left us stranded at a gas station in the middle of nowhere without telling us he was going to fix a tire. So, for those Free Tibet loyalists out there, I hate to break it to you, but Tibetans, too, can be a--holes. At least we got to see the Tashilumpo (sp.) monastery (where my thangka was made!), almost overflowing with ecstatic, elbow-poking pilgrims. I walked the kora around the monastery, too, which went up into the hills, affording wonderful views of the old town and surrounding mountains. There were some beautiful Buddha images painted colorfully onto the rocks up there, too, and tons of mani carvings. A few people were even doing prostration around this steep, rocky, dusty dirt track. And I thought *I* was cool!

The greatest disappointment of the trip was when we arrived at the entrance to the Everest Base Camp area only to discover that our agency had *not* supplied our driver with the necessary permit to get in. Everest (in Tibetan, Chomolangma, "Mother Goddess of the Universe"--whoa) in all its 8850 meter glory loomed magnificently before us, but we couldn't travel the last five miles to the base camp itself (5520 meters). Undaunted, we begged the Tibetan guard (another a--hole) to let us through anyway. He kept saying "no" and then finally demanded 100 yuan (~$13) *per person* to lower his little ribbon. All smiles and kindness, I agreed, and went to round up the others. Then, the Chinese police came up, and the Tibetan was unable to proceed with his extortion. These guys were friendly enough and responded favorably to our near-tears pleading. Miyuko-san, the Japanese woman in the group, was particularly effective at begging for mercy (lots of bowing). But it took awhile... first they said no, we couldn't go, then yes and took down our passport details, then no, then yes, but not in our vehicle. It was all very frustrating. The head Chinese said he would go with us, but then he discovered that one of our tires was leaking, and didn't want to risk being stranded at the wolf-infested base camp (ok). This wouldn't normally be a problem, because the Land Cruisers all carry spare tires, but I guess they only use secondhand spares in China, because another tire, yet again, had already blown out and been replaced with the spare on the very bumpy, three hour trip to the checkpoint. I asked if we could go in the police car and even offered to pay for the "petrol" consumed on the way. But not even corruption can fix a leaking tire, and we had no choice but to return to Tingri, the SLT where we spent the night before heading to the border. Please, for a moment, imagine yourselves in our shoes: we had all traveled quite far and at great expense to see Mt. Everest, possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity given the hardships involved in getting there. And we were prevented from realizing our goal by bureaucratic bullshit and incompetence. I wanted to f--king kill these people, especially the by now totally obnoxious driver. I decided not to give him anymore oranges and told him so (he doesn't understand English).

The next day, we were off to Zhangmou, the Chinese border town, before lunch, all of us trying to forget the pains of the previous day, most of us (but still not me!) still suffering from fevers or varying degrees of altitude sickness (first symptom: denying that you have it). None of the tires popped this time. Instead, an entire wheel broke off as we were careening down a dirt road at 100 km/hr. Luckily, another Land Cruiser stopped to help with repairs (but I found one of the bolts!), or we might have been stranded in the parched cold of the high Tibetan plateau. Repairs finished, on we went toward Zhangmou, the road going from bad to worse to not too bad to Jesus Christ this is an international highway? I realized then how difficult it actually is to get into China. Third largest country in the world or whatever it is, it's main population centers are isolated by vast wastelands, towering mountains (mountains upon mountains), and impenetrable jungles. There aren't too many land access points, and few of them are easy or open. Zhangmou itself is fascinating: it clings to the side of a mountain, flowing along the zig-zagging Friendship Highway down to the border post. When you enter it, the climate becomes suddenly subcontinental. Everything is green, the air is warm, and the pink glow of innumerable "massage" parlors add a touch of romance to the night.

We had hoped to escape China that afternoon, but the mechanical failure held us up too long, so we slept in Zhangmou. The next morning, we plunged into Nepal, greeted right at the border by a traditional Nepali traffic jam. En route to Kathmandu, I think we were stopped a few times by Maoists, because the driver gave money to these ununiformed guys who held ropes across the road and dispensed receipts from Communist-sounding organizations like the "Nepal Students Union". Finally, we arrived in the third world urban chaos of Kathmandu. The driver dumped us off in Thamel, the backpacker heaven/hell of Asia (second only to Khao San Road in Bangkok), and, like flies on yak s--t, we were immediately preyed upon by my favorite type of people: touts. And me without a Nepal Lonely Planet! (quickly remedied--really hard to go without in such situations: mapless, clueless, easy targets). The group I was with were in no mood to pay more than about $1.25 for a hotel room, a price I also found attractive. But, like all things, you get what you pay for, and this morning I upgraded to a nicer $2.50 hotel with hot shower. You see, I hadn't showered for days (too cold or nonexistent in Tibet), and I have only had a handful of decent showers since, say, the beginning of August. I was sad to leave the cheap place, because it was run by a Tibetan lady who kept laughing at everything I said. "Can I hang my laundry here?" "Yes! Ha ha ha!" "Is there hot water for a shower?" "Of course not! Ha ha ha!". I thought this was a riot.

Since I seem to have developed a persistent couch, I have to wait for it to go away before I can start my epic trek. Which means, I'll be spending Christmas in Kathmandu. No problem: everything here is so cheap, I thought at first I was back in Bolivia. But it's even cheaper than Bolivia! I had an enormous breakfast this morning with a cappuccino, Nepali tea (mmmm), and extra dessert, and it only cost like $4. And in Kathmandu, unlike in China, you can get any kind of food you want: American, French, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Persian, Middle Eastern, etc. and it's all pretty good and dirt cheap. And, and...

EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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