The pavement ended, as it did after towns. Dry as it was here, still there was a light mist hugging the earth. While we woke with no electricity in the hotel, it still felt closer to civilization than the day amid the nomads.
One of those ubiquitous blue Chinese trucks threw up dust ahead so we couldn’t see for several kilometers, as we climbed slowly out of a dry, gray gravel gulch. Peaceful, empty landscape scrolled by for an hour and more, cooking fires rising from settlements and streams glinting in the slant of the early morning sun.
Another unintelligible mantra, carved in giant characters, stretched across a hillside. Gradually, a few at a time, trees popped up around settlements - but nowhere else - until eventually a thick stand of trees lined the riverbanks at an unnamed village. Ten army transport trucks convoyed by. More yaks. A dust devil out in a field.
A series of long valleys stretched to the horizon, then again, and again. Snow patches dotted the stark brown hills and clouds would form, little cumulus puffs, out of mere air. You could just sit and watch them, and with a long horizon and plenty of time, that’s just what we did. A sing-along broke out to the cassettes for a happy couple of hours.
Xigatse is Tibet’s second city, former home of the Panchen Lama with his residence, Tashilumpo Monastery - one of the few monasteries allowed by the Chinese to stand (because of a deal with the devil by the previous Panchen Lama - the incarnation of the Panchen Lama who succeeded him - who is just a boy now - was summarily arrested and smuggled to house arrest in Beijing).
The Tashilumpo Monastery and the best hotel in Tibet outside Lhasa both gave Xigatse a certain allure. So when we pulled up to Friendship Hotel #2 instead of our promised and paid for Xigatse hotel - the one with the toilets - the whole tenuous peace broke down.
I insisted we had to go the Xigatse Hotel. Sir, our “helper,” turned around full to talk to us for the first time on the entire trip, and Noodleboy mouth breathed while Sir exploded.
For the first time, in his anger, he made himself understood. I had done a bad thing when I had come in and dragged them away from their friends at lunch. All Chinese eat lunch! He was just doing his job.
He showed me a list of the amounts of money he’d been given back at the border for our lodging. It included 120 yuan, or $15 for today. The Xigatse Hotel was 480, or $60, and he couldn’t pay for that.
He didn’t know how we did it in our country but in Tibet they did it the Chinese way. He angrily decided: He’d give us the 120, we could stay wherever we liked. No monastery tour for us today and tomorrow we leave for Lhasa at 8:00 sharp!
That was what we wanted, too, so once everybody cooled off they drove us over to the only hotel west of Lhasa with toilet paper. For the first time ever he insisted on unloading my bag instead of me, did so theatrically, admonished “8:00 tomorrow” and they all stormed away.
After a Xigatse walking tour I felt there was nothing clean in Tibet. It’s one thing among nomads, or in towns with no electricity (much less plumbing), but here in the second city every sidewalk smelled of piss - every single one - and so did the famous Tashilumpo monastery. One monk-boy there begged for money - kind of in contravention of monkhood, I thought - and at the free market outside the monastery adult women had this irritating way of insistently laying on your arm begging - the entire length of the market. The monastery was superlative though, majestic on a hill, a warren of cobbled alleyways and cooled out dogs in the sun. It made your heart pound to climb the steps. I climbed up some maintainence stairs inside the main gate to get a picture of the whole complex and for my trouble a furious monk hurried over to accost me as we walked out. Mirja noted, “Now you’ve pissed off two Tibetans in one day - a monk and a ‘helper.’” It was a glorious, beautiful spring day, the new, vivid green of young leaves, bright sun that burned your skin in just an hour, maybe the nicest single day I have ever been in - except that the next day was just as nice. ***** I wasn’t giving them any excuse. I watched the sun’s first rays strike the prayer flags on the hill behind Tashilumpo monastery from the cool of the front of the Xigatse hotel at 8:00 sharp. By 8:20 I was pretty discouraged and by 8:40 I found a tour bus driver who made me understand he was leaving for Lhasa at 10:00 - but I didn’t know how to ask him if he had room for us. By 8:45 I was in a back office trying to raise Lhasa over the phone when Mirja called down the hall that they were here. Off we went, including, incidentally, our new permanent friend the hackin’ chick, who was on a free ride all the way to Lhasa. As a second city, much as I’d like to, I can’t say Xigatse impressed very much. Outside the Panchen Lama’s headquarters there was only the barren, blue-collar feel of a hardscrabble frontier town. ***** The closer to Lhasa, the more prayer flags. I had begun to think the whole of Buddhist spirituality was a western canard when we were out on the plateau, but now spirituality became visibly manifest. There was a good road for a long while out of Xigatse and the day was as beautiful as you’ll ever see. We’d heard all the tapes by now and started in on them again. That was what Sir, our “helper,” helped with most - tape changing. Mesas and mini-plateaus, eroded flat, stood alongside the tarmac road. No snow on the hills, no grazing animals. From a high vantage point, range after high range lined up ever more distant. Some land was tilled, though not growing, and like the day before, trees lined the creeks. Now villages were surrounded by planted trees. Mule carts still plied the roads, and people walked along with shovels and farm implements. The Yalong River stretched wide, reflecting the blue sky. For the first time, high tension wires. Signs at a construction sight were in Chinese only, with no Tibetan. A fence inexplicably walled off an empty quarter on the right. ***** I had to give credit to the hackin’ chick: We rode with her for three days and on each of them, while she wore the same outfit (in fact she carried no bags), she was always fresh. While the boys wore cheap western-style clothes made in China, she wore the native dress, a blue print blouse and cotton vest with a long skirt covered by an apron. Her hair, tightly bound, was held by a matching blue headband. She constantly plied us with Chinese caramels. ***** Sheep and snow again. A fascinating winch-ferry system hauled people and animals across the Yalong river at four places. So we spent the morning following the river valley, often above it, watching the cumulus float high above. At eleven o’clock that morning, I couldn’t have been happier, feeling the breeze, watching the green river turn white over rocks as we maneuvered through towering mountains. We stopped in a village high on a hill surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains. Yaks were being put out while women filled silver urns with water at the spring, and prayer flags flapped over the river. Then (after they got the Toyota restarted) we hurtled headlong into a valley. Long haired goats. More prayer flags the closer we got to Lhasa. Even as we broke down a half dozen more times it really was so beautiful (and we were close enough to Lhasa) that we’d already put our boys in past tense and just looked forward to a couple of days off the road. ***** How many Tibetans does it take to fill a gas tank? Seven, and fifteen minutes, if you can judge from our experience at Changkong/Beijing station sixty kilometers from Lhasa. That didn’t include fascinated onlookers - or the fifteen extra minutes and two more Tibetans to restart your LandCruiser. Albania to Zimbabwe, Noodle Boy was the worst driver we’d ever had. He really would shift from third to fourth while meaning to accelerate to pass. I fear he may just have been a major, base dullard - nothing more. It’s mean but it may also be true. Meantime, his partner, our “helper,” never got the concept of the client-provider relationship. Most places people understand that if you pay something, you expect something in return. Except this guy. Still, we all tried to get on and he wanted us to go with him to his travel agency boss, a Dutchman, who he thought would make it all right. I said we’d call him once we checked into our hotel, though I knew we wouldn't, and once Lhasa rolled into view, we found our hotel, piled out, I gave ‘em a hundred Yuan each, they wished us a good stay in Tibet, and all of us, I think, wished we’d acted better. ***** You can buy photos from the EarthPhotos.com China gallery. These stories are from the eventual book, Common Sense and Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far from Home, by Bill Murray. So far in the series: Chillin' in Greenland Crossing Lake Baikal Blazing through Tibet with Noodle Boy Everlasting: Malawi
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