Tibet: China’s Captive Seductress

Litang, Ganze, Tagong, Danba, Chengdu – 2 weeks, 900km

Tibet. From the couch on which we’re sitting inside an apartment in Chengdu’s southern suburbs, the Forbidden Land feels far away and remote. But less than a week has passed since we crossed over our final pass of the Himalayas, snow-covered and freezing, and descended down 13,000ft through alpine valleys and along rain swollen rivers into the gray, smoggy crush of urban China. In many ways, that descent was a tragic loss of the high-altitude harmony of Tibetan culture that we discovered and relished in for the past 4 weeks. But it also brings with it a promise of change and forward momentum, for we have left the solitude of the rough, demanding highlands for good, and now will face a different kind of challenge: unyielding human density, mega-cities, and a whole new level of traffic insanity. South Asia looms large in the horizon of our imaginations.

When we left Litang, I had more or less recovered from my battle with altitude sickness, but had emerged weakened and very humbled. No longer would I be pushing myself to the breaking point on the long climbs; I would tackle them slowly and gently. This new attitude towards biking left me a little deflated, I had enjoyed pitting myself against the mountains and the feeling that I was steadily gaining strength and endurance. But now I was tired and slower, and the past four and a half months of daily biking had seemingly vanished from my muscle memory.

The road climbed steadily out of Litang, in horrible condition and full of trucks, construction and choking dust. This was our first taste of the Sichuan-Tibet highway that other bike tourers had warned us about. After 30km we gratefully turned north onto an empty stretch of road that wound its way through rolling hills and river valleys full of grazing yak and dotted with nomad encampments. This was a bike-touring dream come true; empty road – freshly paved, a brisk tail wind, and beautiful scenery lit by the low sun.

The following day, we crested a 4400m (14500ft) pass and followed a stream down 3400ft past picturesque Tibetan villages, yak, sheep, and horse herds, and through woodlands blooming with fall colors, our tires humming from the speed and our spirits humming from the joy of descent. We spent the next 4 days in this valley, climbing steadily against the flow of the river, and it was here that we were truly immersed into the depths of Tibetan culture.

There are some places in the world whose harshness imparts a sense of kinship and camaraderie amongst those who travel in them, and the Tibetan Plateau is one such place. Friendly cries of “Tashy Dalek” (trans. Good luck – essentially hello) poured from every car window, village, nomad camp, or motorbike we passed, accompanied by waves, huge smiles, and usually followed by an offer for tea or tsampa.

One of the main reasons that bike touring is such a great method of travel for this mission is that we have the flexibility to stop whenever we please, and so we often took the Tibetans up on their offers of hospitality. One evening, as the temperature followed the path of the falling sun, we asked a farmer if we could camp in his field. He said no, and ushered us and our bikes into the bottom floor of his 3 storey Tibetan adobe castle instead. Would we spend the night with his family, in his house? Of course, yes, we had been yearning to see the inside of one of these intriguing fortresses for a week now.

Tibetan architecture is wonderfully diverse, excellently crafted, beautiful and immense. But the most amazing thing about it is that each village seems to have their own unique style. We would pass a village of blue roofs and dark stones only to bike another 2km down the road where they used light stones and had red roofs. Cornicework, window detailing, joint work, paint colors, and even building materials varied from village to village.

The houses are so massive, so solidly built, and so involved, that for the first few days we marveled at how a family could afford to build such a structure, let alone construct it in anything less than 5 years. The second question was answered two days down the road when we passed a village in the midst of a construction boom. Several castles were going up, and each of them swarmed with a team of villagers, two dozen strong; men, women and children. The rest of the village was empty. Being designers, our interest was piqued, and the Tibetans, sensing this, invited us up onto the scaffolding to check out the work. This scenario repeated itself many times, and we found ourselves exploring many construction sites, and walking around inside homes in various stages of completion. We told them with gestures that we thought their work was amazing, and their responses seemed to say, “yeah, we know it’s beautiful, but glad you appreciate it.

At our first homestay, we rolled the bikes inside past 3 yaks bedded down for the night, and leaned our bikes against stacks of hay piled to the ceiling. Zedo’hn led us upstairs into the main part of the house, a mammoth wood-floored room held up by immense logs and warmed by a wood stove, around which his wife and her mother sat chatting. For us, this was a pretty big deal, a glimpse into another world, a real treat. But they greeted us like we were already part of the family, and sat us down on thick rugs to drink yak butter tea and eat pickled turnips.

Lacking a common language, we all did our best to communicate, with lots of wild gesticulating and laughter. We showed them postcards of SF, and footage of our trip on the camera, they showed us photos of their children. After a tasty dinner of noodle soup, they brought out the bottle of Bai jou. This is a potent liquor distilled from rice. Tastes like hell, burns even worse, and gets you piss drunk in no time.

Before long we were wasted, and couldn’t manage the difficult communication any longer. Time for bed, but first we had to piss. Zedo’hn led us back down the stairs and indicated that we should pee on the yak’s bedding. It was already full of their own excrement, but still, there was something wrong about urinating next to a defenseless animal and the looks they gave us told us they agreed. They laid out heavy and warm yak wool blankets for the cold, and we slept like rocks. We were still drunk when the Tibetans started moving around at the ungodly hour of 5am. We agreed telepathically not to move until it was light outside. After a breakfast of tsampa, (barley flour mixed with yak butter and yak butter tea) we set off back down the road.

Around sunset the following evening, we spied a perfect dark-gray sand beach at a bend in the river. Camping on a beach in the Himalayas? Yes please. While we were scrounging for firewood, a large herd of yaks crashed through the bushes toward our camp, accompanied by intermittent whoops and high-pitched yai-yais. The four Tibetans herding them paused momentarily in surprise at finding us on the riverbank. Five seconds later, with huge grins replying to our greetings of “Tashy delek!”, they were in our campsite; the three women lifting the lid to see what we were cooking for dinner, the man crouching on all fours to check out our stove, exploring the strange technology of our on-the-road existence. One nomad to another.

They marched over to our tent, shoved our rainfly aside, and were quite disappointed at finding nothing inside. Worried that we would freeze to death, they invited us to stay in their camp a few hundred meters downriver. They posed for photos, laughing heartily, deeply and unselfconsciously in one of the most genuinely attractive laughs I’ve heard in a long time. The women were feisty, and a contagious fire burned behind their eyes as they jostled and cajoled one another. After a while, their own camp duties called and they drove their herd away downstream. The following morning we returned the favor and paid their camp a visit.

On our fourth day, while passing through a small village, a question rang out of one of the upstairs windows, “Where are you from?” Shocked by the English, we stopped and turned to see a head poke out the window, “wait for me, I’m coming.” A friendly young man emerged, clad in a traditional Tibetan hat. Smiling, he introduced himself and invited us inside the big, beautiful house behind him. Eager to get a glimpse inside, we agreed. As he poured tea for us, his convoluted history flowed out. He had learned English while studying in India for four years, and had just returned to his village a few days ago.

Upon his return from India, the police put him in jail, shaved his head and held him for 15 days until his brother came to pay his way out. He is now under house arrest and cannot leave his village for 3-6 months. Apparently, the Chinese government doesn’t like Tibetans going to India because they connect with exiled Tibetans and learn about their people’s history of struggle against the Chinese. During his time in India, he had learned much about this oppression, and the anger, frustration and pain was clearly evident in his face as he talked. He told us at length about the restrictions the police place on their freedom and movement. Even they are not allowed to go to Lhasa, and undercover cops, disguised as monks, sometimes capture those that try.

The Chinese are encroaching on traditional Tibetan lands as well. Government surveyors recently came to his village and said that they had discovered gold and silver nearby and that everyone would have to leave. “What happens if you refuse?” “They will kill us. They will destroy the valley, leaving nothing.” He doubted that they had found gold, suggesting that they simply wanted to clear the forests and populate the flatlands with migrant Han Chinese. Earlier in the day, we had seen a caravan of government cars full of people wearing hard hats and surveying an adjacent village. And we had passed several recently demolished villages full of large earth-moving equipment. Was this the beginning of a full-scale Chinese developmental invasion into one of the most well-preserved tracts of Tibetan culture we had seen?

A few hours later, we emerged out of the beautiful claustrophobia of the narrow river valley onto a vast flood plain surrounded on all sides by dramatic snow-capped mountains. A gnarly ridgeline marched west into the sunset, as far as the eye could see, its jagged peaks crowned with glaciers and imposing black rock. Chola mountain – the edge of Tibet. We longed to follow that ridgeline west, to Lhasa, the insane beauty of those peaks momentarily dwarfing the risks of getting caught by Chinese authorities enforcing their idiotic restrictions.

Instead, we pedaled into Ganze, a strongly Tibetan town surrounded by soaring peaks. Half starved from our pathetic provisions the past 4 days, we dumped our baggage into the nearest hotel and set off for food. After stuffing ourselves with Chinese food, we were still hungry, and so I ordered corn on the cob from a street vendor while Alex searched for sweets. As we settled in for sleep, my stomach was starting to bother me, so I asked Alex if his stomach hurt. “No, why?” Uh-oh. Two hours later, my stomach exploded in episodic bouts of vomiting and diarrhea – often at the same time – that left me moaning in pain and shaking from the exertion. When morning finally broke, I was a wreck; dehydrated, nauseous, wasted, feverish, and empty. Even the water I drank wouldn’t stay down. We both knew it must be food poisoning, but it felt like something was seriously wrong.

Ganze – Tibetan culture and scenery

Alex, perhaps thinking back to my earlier episode with altitude sickness, mothered me well. When finally I couldn’t take it any longer, he went out in search of a clinic, and found us a ride. When we arrived I was so weak I could barely stand, and had to scuffle my feet along the concrete floor. It took me 3 minutes to climb the set of stairs to see the doctor. She spoke no English, and although I was trying my best to communicate with sign language, a pictorial health card and the phrasebook, she seemed to understand nothing, responding only with frustration and rapid bursts of Chinese. I thought she would call someone who spoke English to translate for us, but no.

I found it ironic that when the police sought to question us in tiny random towns, an English speaker would show up almost immediately, but here in a much larger town, when I was clearly sick, distraught, and in need, there were no English speakers available. Her diagnosis – even though I had told her in Chinese I had a fever – was to put her hand on my forehead. She then wrote out some prescriptions for medication I couldn’t identify, and when Alex picked them up at the pharmacy, he was met only with frustration when trying to ask how many I was supposed to take of which med at what intervals. Perhaps that’s why the visit and the medications cost 7 yuan total ($1.15).

The sickness was bad enough that I had seriously considered throwing in the towel, busing it to civilization. But by the third day I was able to hold simple foods down, and we set off east towards Chengdu, conscious of our limited time and eager to see more of this enchanting region. We climbed another pass through a brief snowstorm, fixed our second flat of the trip (thank you Schwalbe) and descended into a road construction hell-hole. Dust, as thick as falling snow and kicked up by the wind and trucks, covered everything. We camped on the side of the road that night, a blizzard of dust in our headlamps, and woke up to a thick layer of dust on the tent. For two more days, we fought against the terrible road and battled construction site delays, until we were saved by a ride in the bucket of a front-end loader.

what happens when you get too close to the edge

We took a day in Tagong, to walk through the rolling grasslands there, golden in the low sun of winter. Once again, a break from the bikes with our feet on the ground proved immensely restorative, and we brushed through knee high grasses alongside grazing yak and horse herds, scrambled up hilltops, and sketched the distant snow covered mountains.

The next two days were like a drawn out yo-yo swing as we dropped 7000ft down to Danba through a sandstone canyon bursting with fall color, then climbed back up towards our last mountain pass, a staggering 9000ft above.

We hit snow 3000ft from the top. It was November, close to sunset and a strong wind blew away whatever warmth was in the air. We were freezing. We couldn’t make it over the pass before dark, and we were concerned about the warmth of Alex’s sleeping bag. We biked down a few hundred feet to a nearby road worker’s compound, to ask if we could seek shelter in the garage. The first person we approached ignored us, and the second took us to his boss who dismissed our plea with a curt wave of his hand and unmistakable spite in his voice. Clearly, we weren’t in Tibet anymore.

Cursing the inhospitality of the Chinese workers, we took shelter in a gravel pit, where the frozen ground forced us to hammer in our tent stakes with rocks. All of our water froze that night, and we had to use the stove to melt drinking water the next morning. Still cold, we set off for the top, 1800ft above us, and distracted our struggle with the astounding scenery.

It was the coldest, the last, and the most beautiful pass of the trip. When we reached the top (15400ft), we looked across at a whole range of snowcapped mountains, and a road that wound down into a valley that we would follow for an epic 13000ft descent.

We coasted through snow, high-altitude scrub, and coniferous forest which gave way to a mixed deciduous forest in full fall splendor, and finally down into the misty, wet canyons of the former Wolong Panda Reserve, now being taken over by development and massive earth-destroying construction projects. The joy we had felt descending through untouched wilderness and pristine beauty was replaced with disgust. The river, once crystal-clear and blue, was now a dark, murky, listless trickle, and the endless series of dams, tunnels, and road-building threatened to eliminate even that. The air was now filled with the dust, horns, and screams of hundreds of trucks; the road was a tattered mess, and the towns were soulless concrete boxes. A rude welcome back to China.

Both of us came away smitten by the Tibetan people, their culture, architecture, food, and hospitality. And we left them with a vow to return to bike the actual Tibet, when (or if) the Chinese government decides to pull their heads out of their asses and allow foreigners (along with free dissemination of information and free thought) into the region. But there is a real danger in allowing foreigners into Tibet, for they will discover, as we did, a completely unique and wonderful people that are so different from the rest of China that they, undoubtedly, should have a country of their own.

Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a pipe dream, for the Chinese government will never give up their hold on the resources, water, and land that Tibet holds locked away behind frozen and forbidding peaks. China, right now, is experiencing something akin to the US’s westward expansion 200 years ago, and the government is encouraging Han Chinese to migrate west; to settle and repopulate the entire region.  To encourage the Chinese expansion, the government is building housing and contemporary infrastructure in cities that once were predominantly Tibetan. As a result, the cities are being ruined. What once were charming towns full of Tibetan architecture are nothing more than concrete canyons of ugly formulaic boxes. The rivers too, are much too wild and free for Chinese standards, so they’re being damned, channelized, harvested, and drained to provide water for the rest of the country.

When we emerged from the twisting canyons of the Himalaya’s foothills, there was a wide, smooth asphalt road waiting for us, full of bicycles and electric scooters. We followed it some 60km through increasingly dense cities, past countless billboards advertising the new development going up in the background. As we approached Chengdu, distinguishable only by an increase in density, the gray haze was broken more frequently by residential towers looming in the distance. Our disappointment at leaving the mountain sanctuary of Tibet was tempered, in part, by the large number of cyclists we saw on the road. In Chengdu, people bike. And the city has created the infrastructure to serve them. Whether or not it works: that’s a story for the next blog entry…

At this point, after 5 months on the bikes, we’re both beginning to feel a little road weary and ready for some constancy. We miss all the wonderful people we’ve left behind, and yearn for the food, comfort and sanity of home. But we’ve been in China now for 6 weeks, and a cultural shift to the energy, color and soul of south Asia may be the cure we need to bring our spirits back up. Looking back on the past 6 weeks, we can say with confidence that they were some of the hardest and most rewarding of the entire trip. China challenged us, pushed us to our limits, and humbled us. But it also taught us invaluable lessons about the dangers of unchecked development and economic growth, and opened our eyes to a world, that like it or not, is one possible future for the planet.

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12 thoughts on “Tibet: China’s Captive Seductress

  1. Just read your post aloud to a car-full of listeners driving down the 5 to LA for Thanksgiving. Thanks for writing, we enjoyed it. Happy Thanksgiving and good luck with the rest of the journey!

  2. It breaks my heart that you had to be warned about the Sichuan-Tibet Highway! In 2006 it was completely desolate, wild and beautiful with often only 5-10 vehicles the whole day.

    Nevertheless it looks like you guys got into some amazing stuff. Fantastic.

  3. Wow! Stevie introduced me to your blog over Thanksgiving by reading some of it to me. I’m hooked. I’m sure you have done some interesting things so far in your life, but this trip is definitely going to be your life changer.
    Be safe.
    Uncle Lou

    • Thanks Lou! You’re right on, this trip I think is going to set the tone for my future plans, Inshallah. Hope you guys had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  4. Hi Chris, thanks for reading and glad you are enjoying it! We did not actually go to Tibet proper, the province is essentially closed to tourists, but were in western Sichuan and NW Yunnan, which are Tibet in everything but name. You can see our route on the “Where We Are” page – and let us know if you want any more info. Cheers.

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