Businessmen and thieves congregated on both sides of the border, and there were porters to pay to carry bags over the bridge. We graduated from the Corolla to a LandCruiser, and headed into the border town on the Tibetan side called Zhangmu.
Our new staff: a driver, a “helper,” a businessman in a suit to handle it all, and a bully in a tank top, earrings, ponytail and Nike cap - expediter.
Customs, Health declaration, Entry paper, Please come with me to restaurant, very clean. I get Tibet travel permit.
Very clean Restaurant Gyan Glen must have also been a safe house for flies. Two hours forty minutes of bureaucracy and that’s it - no hassles, really. In fact, good, courteous, smilin’ folks.
Just above town, a roadblock, show your papers, move on through. If the guard is Tibetan, who cares about your papers?
Only the Chinese.
Watch for work crews. There would be a green-uniformed cadre sitting somewhere in the shade, supervising. They had to start their careers in a half-horse outpost like this, driving around miserable in an old red LandCruiser with a tiny red light on top. Made me smile.
Fifty kilometers to Nylam, riding up high in the LandCruiser, steady climbing. Where Nepal had huge pine forests, Tibet showed spruce and fir trees, with tiny new spring growth. I swore dogwoods and azaleas bloomed across the way.
Up the Botagosi (must be named something else now), our first herd of Zoh - a mix of yak and bull - led to yaks, big humps behind their shoulders and long hair, and then the trees were just completely gone - not there. Rocky, barren. Snow appeared high up on the hilltops on the far side of the Himalayas, and the sky turned cobalt blue.
A row of tin-roofed sheds on either side of the Lhasa road, Nylam was nothing more. Up a ladder across the street, a no-name restaurant served dinner of pork fat, green chillies and fries. We took diarrhea pills as prophylactics.
Two horse blankets sewn together hung over an open space as the front door of the Nylam Snow Land Hotel. Mirja sized up the situation quickly and immediately decided to go to sleep, the sooner to rise and be able to leave.
The Snow Land was full. Our room was normally the proprietors’, with a sandal under my bed. The girl who normally sleeps there slept on the bench behind the reception desk.
Late at night, someone convened an improbable meeting of evangelical Christians. You could hear them through the wall. They read from the bible and I understood a woman with a Japanese accent giving testimony as I drifted off with a feeling I hadn’t felt for thirty years - the warmth and safety of the sound of my parents in the next room talking after I had gone to bed.
I feared for lice and Mirja for vermin. Mirja saw the toilet once and never went up there again. At first light we lined up beside the other guests to brush our teeth outside the front door and spit our bottled water into the street.
Mirja stood by the LandCruiser and said something as I carried bags into the street.
“What?” I asked.
“Don’t step in the puke, I said,” she said, too late.
The other foreigners, who stayed up on the Snow Land’s upper floors, masked their unease with brusqueness. It was that kind of place.
They strapped our gear down and promised two hundred forty or fifty kilometers, nine hours and two passes over 5000 meters, and we set out alternately blazin’ downhill then crawlin’ too slow in third gear up hills, through wide valleys with thin streams of winding water. Just occasional scrubby brush, waist high tops. Way, way down to the bottom.
A truck sat mired in the middle of the track. We edged around it in rocks on the shoulder, near the edge to God-knows-how-far down.
Giant rock fields. First came a village called Pamas, right on the river. What was the name of the river?
“No special name.”
Our “helper” sort of made us understand that this river and others come from the Nylam pass up ahead, so collectively they are all known as Nylam rivers.
We’d drive alongside walled, multi-family settlements, built of stone, with exterior courtyards for livestock, which had their own way in and out. We’d pass a lone horseman, or three or four on a horsecart. I thought the sun might not make it into the valley until noon.
We didn’t quite understand why we’d drive so slowly up the inclines. Mirja first suggested that maybe not gunning it was a way to not trigger landslides. Then, across rocky plains, she suggested, weakly, school zones? Turned out our driver couldn’t conceive “downshift.”
Ponies led a cart filled with grain. One yak. A whitewashed stupa. Stone markers every kilometer. The first one I saw read 5380. To where?
First answer: Lhasa. Second try: the Tibet border. Truth: Beijing.
Hurtling (sometimes) across the Tibetan plateau. The Pakistani band Junoon on the juke, then some rasta tunes. “Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight,” sung out loud, unironically by our crew.
We’d spy patches of snow. Way up high, over 14,000 feet, we felt a little light of breath. Mirja took her steroids and although her ears popped, she said she felt okay. I thought things started to move a little bit in slow motion by midmorning everything was just very vivid, like in the seconds before a car crash.
It was a landscape of stretched horizons. Wide river beds with only a trickle of water wound through gorges half a mile wide or more. After a time we’d climbed so high that there were ice fields in mountains far below.