Tag Archives: Tibet

Lhasa, at last


The conclusion to my 3-part story of traveling from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet via high-speed rail:

The instant-comfort-with-other-foreigners phenomenon happens again in the dining car, where my husband and I meet another American woman. She is 73 years old and traveling alone. She’s no less energetic or excited about the world as the young Harvard graduate we’d met earlier. After she explores Tibet, she’s headed to the highest point in India. She definitely does not buy an oxygen tube, feeling perfectly fine at 15,000 feet. Instead, she chats with us about her love of travel. We discover that we have both reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

As we get closer to Lhasa, a few of the cars’ bathroom floors are completely covered in sewage. Time. To. Get. Off.

Claustrophobia and intense restlessness set in. My husband spends hours on end in the dining car. Normally gregarious with strangers, he has reached his social limit and doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. We sit across the table from one another and stare out the window at the Tibetan Plateau.

Like us, the Chinese wait-staff appear as if they do not want to talk to another soul. Visibly weary at journey’s end, they stand and stare at one another behind the beer cooler. The looks on their faces say don’t ask us for another single thing.

For everyone, it’s a relief to pull into Lhasa.

The doors open and cold, thin, squeaky-clean air breezes in. We breathe a clean breath for what seems like the first time in weeks. Lhasa, at last.

The Lhasa train station stretches the size of football field in one big platform covered by a high ceiling — way too large for this one single train arrival per day. There are no schedule boards, and no one waits inside at the station for anyone.  Is this against the Chinese government rules, perhaps? People-less, the giant station nearly swallows us whole.

Just outside, the Himalayas loom in all directions; the sun sets behind those to the West. Out here, families greet one another in the Great Outdoors.

Lhasa is still an outpost city. There are no high-rises here. Yak herders, walking for hundreds of miles, have pitched their tents just beyond the train station parking lot. They will sell a few yaks and then go home.  We make our way into town under pink and purple skies enveloping the Himalaya.

LHASA, A CITY DIVIDED

To get to the Tibetan sector of Lhasa from the train station, you have to drive through the Chinese section first. It is a saccharine place, with neat rows of new shops with floor -to-ceiling glass fronts and Chinese shop girls wearing tight jeans milling around the mannequins that also wear the same tight jeans. The Chinese government has offered incentives for Chinese settling here, and it shows in how many storefronts use only Chinese lettering. Even in Tibetan sector of Lhasa, where we are staying, grocery stores are Chinese-owned chains.

My husband and I venture out for a walk the first morning, and cross from the TIbetan sector into the Chinese.

Sidewalks at nine in the morning on the Chinese Side are full of waving arms. Human arms waving in big circles, and human hips, bending from side to side. These mostly-female employees wear identical store-uniform skirts and aprons in pastel green or pink. They face their storefront, their backs to the cacophony of the streetscape unfolding behind them: the passing of Tibetan donkey carts packed full of vegetables with their clanking chimes, or motorcycles zipping by, or the women in traditional dress walking past silently, with equally quiet babies strapped to their backs. Patriotic music blares out into the street. When the mandated exercise session is over, the music stops and the employees go inside, like nothing ever happened.

The Tibetans walk and drive and pedal past all of this as if invisible in a territory no longer their own.

On the Tibetan Side, though, Lhasa’s sounds and smells would overwhelm me. Hearing the scraping of hand-mitts on stone of prostrating pilgrims inside and around the Johkang Temple gave me a new appreciation for Buddhist devotion. Inside the temple, the chanting was low and intoxicating, and yak-butter candles lighting every dark corner made the experience nearly surreal.

But then, intrusion. At the Potala Palace (the former home of the Dali Lama, now exiled in India), video cameras and recording equipment and Chinese soldiers in every quadrant of the eerily empty palace angered me. Our Tibetan guide warned us not to talk of the occupation or Chinese politics in public. There were recording devices placed all over. We could talk about it inside the car, though, once we were out of Lhasa and heading out into the villages.

Despite Chinese occupation and the physical absence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan way of life is enduring and being passed on to the young. A trip to the hillside Sera Monastery, about six miles outside Lhasa, where laughing young monks debate every afternoon, gave me hope. These monks reveled little fear as they practiced their beliefs. And, after visiting Sera Monastery, as we hiked down the hillside to catch our bus back to Lhasa, a young man, maybe 20 years old, happily ran toward us. He saw us looking at our guidebook, and asked in English if there were any pictures inside of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans desperately want to see their exiled leader, but the Chinese ban any images of him. We flip and flip through our guidebook but there is no picture to rip out and give the young man. He looks over our shoulder, hoping to see his holy leader, and to take him home. His faith is steadfast, not impeded in the slightest by the Chinese occupation.

We apologize that there’s no picture in our guidebook and mean it more than we can say.

He thanks us for looking, smiles and walks away. On our way out of Lhasa the next day in our Land Rover, the train-bridge over the Lhasa River reminds me of our long journey from Beijing. If my presence here changes anything, I won’t fully know it unless I return. For now, all I can know for sure is that the only change I wish for Tibet is a peaceful end to the Chinese occupation. I’ll support the worldwide effort as best I can by bringing awareness to the issues. It’s all I can do — at least now — in the hope of preserving such a rich and wonderful culture. For now, though, I’ll take in — and lock into my memory — the wide openness of the Tibetan Plateau unfolding before me in every direction.

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Of Trains and Toilets and Tibet


The continuation of last week’s story about my travels into Tibet on the Beijing-to-Lhasa train:

Given the still-sensitive nature of the Chinese occupation, my husband and I knew before we left the U.S. that we would have to adhere to strict Chinese rules to move about Tibet once we got there. Rather than get stuck in travel-permit hell, we decided to join a Canadian travel outfit for a small-group adventure tour, who would arrange the permits and drivers for us. We’d be with the group for about two weeks.

After the train ride, government-mandated Tibetan drivers would take us deeper into Tibet, then overland to Kathmandu.  First, though, once off the train, our itinerary called for acclimation time to the high altitude (and high level of yak-based meals) in Lhasa before the Land Rover portion of our trip.  The eight days of the trip would be slow going, with bumpy, dusty roads and overnight stops in the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya — before a cold sleep at the Rombuk Monastery Guest House at the foot of Mt. Everest. Rombuk is the highest-altitude monastery in the world.

Without thinking too hard about it, I grab the toothpaste tube in the toilet, wash off the tube and my hands. I do this as thoroughly as I can, seriously considering how I might use boiling water to sterilize the tube some more.

Back in our sleeping compartment, my husband is appalled when I tell him how I rescued the toothpaste. So are the others in our group. I’m not sure if he’s more surprised about my thrifty desire to save a $2 tube of toothpaste, or my willingness to retrieve anything at all out of a Chinese squat-toilet. In many ways, I’m looking in the mirror at my “travel-self” for the first time, and it feels like everyone else is looking too, pointing out the flaws. Just like outsiders seem to be doing with China and its flawed politics and flawed dog food and flawed kids’ toys.

But on this train at least, it seems the Chinese want nothing more than to protect us. There are no outdoor viewing decks on the train, and no windows that open. Instead, double-sealed and glazed doors and windows protect us from the cold, wind and from strong ultraviolet rays at the high altitude.  We’re also protected from sinking into the permafrost. Strange stone square grids made with hand-placed rocks line the train tracks, part of an intricate system of raised rock beds underneath. The Chinese have used these, along with clever uses of pipes and near-frozen concrete pylons, to create a cool bed of air underneath the rails. It’s a fairly simple way to ensure that the permafrost never has a chance to get warm enough to thaw.

You wouldn’t know a rugged geological uprising is happening right under us, as the Indian and Eurasian plates crash together to create the heave of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quiet here, and save for a few small towns, the most common sign of human life is the nomadic herders and their tents. And the yaks, scattered in groups of ten, fifty, a hundred, look small here. The few Tibetan antelope we see spy the train and flee. For hours, we see nothing but distant Himalayan peaks.

My husband stares out the window, running the compact video camera, his eyes moist behind its lens. I’m intrigued by what lies outside too, but touched to a greater degree by his emotional reaction to seeing the Himalaya for the first time.

YEARNING FOR THE OUTDOORS, EXPLORING WHAT LIES WITHIN

Like him, I wish I were outside in the emptiness. My semi-solution to get away from people is to take frequent long walks through the other train cars (where there are yet more people), then back again. On a train it’s the closest thing to going for a stroll. I like to keep moving, up and down the length of train, through the seating classes, glimpsing the shades of economic and cultural difference that they represent.

It’s much like a city: the rich live in the periphery (the first and last cars), the poor in the middle. It reminds me of wealthy suburbs surrounding the struggling inner cities of so many world metropolises. But the poor on the train are not so poor by local standards. Buying a ticket on this train isn’t possible for most of the Tibetan population – the ones we see herding yaks, or in the yurt camps, and so many others we never see. The poorest are on the outside looking in. Do they know where the train stops and starts? Did anyone tell them it was going to slice through the openness of their land?

I wonder how the herders and their families must feel looking at us behind our windows, zooming by on the rails. Can they see our table stacked with chips and apples and tea and warm Chinese beer? Can they see our $1,200 high-definition video recorders, our $1,000 digital SLR cameras?

Perhaps this new train somehow intensifies their knowledge of their “poorness.” Or was that already done decades ago after the Chinese invasion? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The nomadic yak-herding families remain, at least for now. It’s their home, train or no train running through it.

Some of my fellow foreigners (which include urban Chinese) never seem to emerge from first class, hiding inside four-berth sleeper cabins with sliding doors that close them off from everyone. The next class down, which we have booked, is made up of foreigners and wealthier Chinese. These six-berth sleeper cabins have no doors.

In second class, the train’s “inner-city,” passengers creatively attempt to sleep on the floor underneath or between seats, or on the cold hard metal floor between cars.  The price to be able to lie down on a bed – even stacked three high in an 8 foot by 5 foot space — is high enough (about $100 for the entire route) that most locals cannot afford it.

On this journey, there is only one foreigner who sits here, a young woman who keeps to herself and looks utterly miserable. After the first day, I don’t see her anymore.

PEACEFUL, IN LOOKS ONLY?

On this train, the Tibetan and Chinese passengers sit mashed together in uncomfortable-looking seats placed way too close together. Like the uncomfortable relationship between China and Tibet, it looks peaceful on the surface. People tolerate one another despite invasions of space. Legs and arms stick out in the center aisle. Sometimes spilled and mashed food blocks the way and makes the passageways between cars slippery. After a while it starts to look and smell like vomit.

I walk quickly through and slide on slippery goo. I catch myself by flailing my arms and bolting back upright. The worst part of my train walks, though, is the leering men, whose eyes lock on my chest anytime I pass through.

The train stops during one of my long walks. I’m on my way “home,” just three cars away from our cramped sleeper berth, and the familiar faces inside. By now I’ve thrown the toothpaste tube away under severe peer pressure from my husband and our temporary roommates.  Their teasing is good-natured, and I’m discovering that I’m fond enough of them to know that 10-hour days bumping along in Land Rovers with these people will turn out all right. Plus, someone will loan me their toothpaste.

But as the train stops, so does my long walk home. All the doors seal shut, locking everyone where they are. This is the Chinese solution to keeping people in their places during embarkation and disembarkation: seal everyone off from one another, so one sneaks on the train without a ticket, or sits in the wrong class.

The stop is only a minute or two, but the lockdown lasts nearly 20 minutes. There is no spare seat for me in this compartment, so I’m stuck standing on the metal floor in front of the toilet door.

At first, it feels like the whole car is staring at me, the lone foreigner. A tall man stands four inches away, waiting to use the bathroom. Before long he begins to leer. I try to keep my head pointed away from him. His eyes slowly survey my neck and chest, but there is no where for me to go. Soon he has his cell phone out, and oh my, he’s is taking a picture of me with it.

Is he sending my picture to his entire address book? I will never know, because I do not speak Chinese and I choose not to make a scene. No one in the car says anything. With nowhere to sit, nothing to read, and no window for scenery, the minutes drag. After about twenty minutes, a stern-looking train employee walks by. I motion to the locked door, and he opens it with a key.

With a loud ka-push, the seal breaks.

I’m the first one through the door. I walk fast. I’m relieved to get back to my compartment. I feel bad for feeling this way, but I can’t help it. Like it is in so many places, the privileged are semi-comfortable passing through, but we can’t stay. We can’t sit down and get comfortable. We look different. The rules for men and women are different. And cultural differences, while it’s easy to say they don’t matter, do.

Even the Chinese-Americans on the train can feel the strong cultural division, and it seems a few of them don’t feel they fit in all that well either. A few compartments away from ours, I meet a bright-eyed young woman, a recent Harvard graduate. She explains that she is traveling with her Chinese-born parents, who like to come back to China to visit family; this summer she decided to come along. She confides that she’s tired of speaking Chinese, and oh wow is it so great to have some English-speakers here. She’s got a job lined up at Google in San Francisco.

The scene feels a bit weird, as if the train and the instant camaraderie of talking with another American temporarily cancel out where we are in time and space: racing across the Tibetan Plateau, closing in on on its holiest of cities, Lhasa.

THIS STORY WILL CONCLUDE NEXT WEEK…

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To Tibet, riding the world’s highest rails


 

On China’s sleek new train from Beijing to Tibet, the you-know-what is always sloshing in the squats. Overflowing aluminum toilets and door-less sleeping compartments filled with restless travelers (a few gasping for oxygen with tubes in their noses) wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when my husband and I signed up to take China Rail’s much-lauded route across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — as part of our honeymoon.

A romantic trip? Romantic wasn’t quite the word for this, but this journey along the “Roof of the World” from Beijing to Lhasa certainly held an exotic allure. Chinese propaganda reinforced it, as did the news pieces published shortly after the high-speed line opened. And with the hubbub, booking the journey was hard to resist: perhaps it was simply the idea that we could watch the dawn creep over the Himalayan Range from the comfort of a warm train compartment.

Opened in the summer of 2006, this is officially the world’s highest train journey, carrying half a million people in and out of Tibet each year. The shiny new cars glide effortlessly over five high passes, some more than 16,000 feet above sea level.  Over the 60-hour journey, the train stops just eight times, and only for a few quick minutes.

Some would say the Qinghai-Tibet railway line is a work of engineering genius. Several sections cross some of the world’s most active geological fracture zones. It took 227,000 workers five years to complete the line, and the high-altitude working conditions required 2,000 medics (working in on-site hospitals with oxygen chambers!). Not one person died building it.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if some of us passengers near the toilets might very well expire from fumes.  It’s June — peak travel season — which is part of the reason the plumbing is protesting. It seems as if this train — for all the feats of Chinese engineering required to get it up and running, and all the fanfare (and controversy) over its opening — would contain working toilets.

Still, I see no one passing out – yet — at least from the lack of oxygen on a train that cruises at an average altitude of 13,000 feet.  We can thank a special oxygen-generator under the train and piping in the walls that directs the extra oxygen into the ventilation system for that.

A PLACE UNCOVERED

Tibet was once a place that had a kind of natural shield – the unforgiving terrain — to protect it from the masses. Now with the train, we can shield ourselves from it, at least until we get to Lhasa. And now, the masses are starting to come to Tibet. Critics say this train, as the years go on, will bring way too many Chinese into Tibet who will stamp out the Tibetan culture. It’s a dramatic conclusion, and most of the time I bristle at dramatic prophecies. But I can’t see another end for Tibet unless it gains independence. The Tibetans are way outnumbered by the Chinese, and the longstanding Chinese-government occupation makes it easy for ethnic Chinese to move in.

Tibet is empty. Yet Tibet is full – of a spiritual confidence, of a culture steeped in history, of values still largely unaffected by consumer culture. Tibet is also a study in flatness and height, dirt and cleanliness. Tibet is new and old all at once: fresh geologically (the Himalayas are the youngest mountain range in the world) but old spiritually and historically. Tibet’s people are resilient yet acquiescent. Outwardly calm yet brimming with spiritual energy.

Perhaps naively, I want to get to know Tibet a little before it changes too much. I want to know what I can do – if anything – to help it. I’m hoping our two-week visit, staying in local guesthouses with a small tour group, will help me find out how.

From the train window, I gaze out over this vast plateau flanked by the Himalaya on two sides. Perhaps I’m hoping that some of the Buddhist spirituality to rub off on me. My wants conflict me, because so many other people want Tibet too, and this train is far and away the cheapest way of getting here. I also feel conflicted as I am helping to globalize (and in the process homogenize) Tibet, one of the last lonely places left.

A NEW TIBET?

China Rail installed oxygen outlets in the walls so passengers can buy individual connection tubes for about $2 and “plug in.” It’s funny to watch people stick the tubes in their noses in their compartment (there are outlets over each bed), near their seat, or at a table in the dining car. I wonder, might this train be a metaphor for the New Tibet? Could this high-tech thing, capable of dampening the blow of high altitude travel for potentially millions of people over the coming years, be making Tibet into a softer, more pampered version of itself?

What about those that feel dizzy but cannot afford the $2 tubes?

Foreign tourists like me, of whom the train carries only a handful on this particular summer run, are part of the problem. For the time being, we are a small percentage of those flooding into Tibet, but we represent big change to Tibetan way of life. Why aren’t the train’s nay-sayers mad at us? Aren’t we part of the controversy too? Chinese or not, we are all part of this history-in-motion.

Right now, though, most of us Westerners in our tour group are trying to blend in, an impossible task. Even so, we do our best to mimic the locals, cooking our giant store-bought tubs of spicy ramen noodles using the hot boiling water from spigots in the walls next to the toilets.

One evening, not wanting to set my toothpaste on the filthy bathroom sinks, I hold the tube in my teeth as I use the restroom. One turn of my foot on the slippery floor, though, and it flies from of my mouth and lands directly in the toilet.

I stare down at it. Is this really happening?

I look again. It’s still there.

My conscience won’t let me leave it where it is to clog the toilet, so, holding my breath, I go in.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

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