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