China and South East Asia 2001-2002 travel blog

Family Outing

Palace Back Door

Potala Palace

Tibetan Hats

Yak Butter Candles

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1300 Words

A h, T i b e t: C h i n e s e V a s s a l

The posters pasted around our Chengdu hotel and in the windows of a dozen surrounding travel agencies had gotten us to thinking: "Go to Tibet. Only $320." Superb photos, vistas, mountains, snow. Wow, we thought. This could be a deal.

After sixty too-crowded days in China, a country with a gazillion cities over a million people, we acutely craved a handsome vacation away from spitty masses and cities so clogged with coal smoke we'd begun to suspect the sun had migrated to another solar system. Where better to vacation than the newest Chinese Province, the roof of the world where the sun always shines, the fabled land of snows, Tibet? The pictures on the posters looked great, touting a two-hour flight from Chengdu, a paltry ten million people in its metropolitan area, the capitol of Sichuan Province where the sun never ever shines, and the residents proudly paraded ghastly ghostly complexions.

We bopped into the closest travel agency and extorted particulars. "Does that include airfare?"

"Certainly, sir," the twenty-something cutie-pie replied, hair braided like Medusa, hardly contained under a colorful cap. At my skeptically raised eyebrow she added, "One way. And your hotel, transfers from the airport."

"So who'd want to go to Tibet one way?" It sounded so final.

"Most people," she said. "They do the overland route from Lhasa to Nepal."

It took half an hour but particulars emerged. No visa was required because Tibet was China. The only requirement was money, mostly for a travel permit with a secret price. A traveler could obtain a permit only as part of a $320 "tour" with five or more people who would do no touring beyond flying on the same plane to the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa. Unless we wanted to try sneaking over the Tibetan border, there was no way to get to Tibet except by plane, though the Chinese government had announced plans to build the highest railway in the world, to Tibet, 597 of its 695 miles from Golmud to Lhasa over 13,000 feet. If completed in 2007 (think permafrost, avalanches, and frostbite) the government might let foreigners ride the train. We couldn't wait so we booked the tour, plunking down $640 for two people.

A plane ticket by itself would have cost $150. With elementary extrapolation the travel permit cost $170 each, though it was never separately priced. Someone at the Chengdu airport was supposed to glance at it, and I missed the glance. With five foreign tourists the shared permit cost $850. In short, travel to Tibet was a Chinese government scam for fund raising, to fleece the tourists but not so much that we stayed away. It was worth every single last cent.

When the airport bus rolled into Lhasa, an hour's run from the airport, I thought I was hallucinating or suffering high altitude sickness; the lowest altitude in Tibet was over 12,000 feet. But it was neither hallucination nor coca leaf time. I had spotted the Potala Palace, oohing and ahing along with everyone else on the bus. It would be hard not to spot the Potala sitting on the horizon, a sprawling megalith stacked like haphazard piles of white and ochre condos topped with golden cones. It'd take a hundred condos of ten rooms each, piled thirteen stories high, to match the Potala Palace.

Katie, the British/Chinese girl from Hong Kong, said, "The Dalai Lama needed thousands of serfs to maintain the Potala."

"Doesn't look like it's been painted in a while," I said.

"Well, the Chinese freed the serfs."

I should have thought of that. No serfs and so the Potala wasn't in perfect shape, but it was still mega-impressive, dominating the skyline. In 2003 the Chinese government announced the Potala's extensive renovation would proceed with alacrity, but alas, we'd already seen the shabby version.

We fast checked into the Snowlands Hotel, a Swiss-looking building plastered with colorful murals inside and out, and then we staggered breathlessly out. We were instantly surrounded by the most photogenic people in the world, faces weathered by incessant sunburn, windburn, and frostbite, glowing rosy cheeks. The females were decked out in red coral and turquoise jewelry set in silver, or colorful scarves braided into jet-black tresses. The guys wore a variety of headgear, mostly with flaps, bright green and garish golden stuff, and they uniformly employed a touchy feely mode of saying howdy. Pat, pat, frisk, frisk. But they apparently had the best of intentions because no pockets were picked and smiles blossomed all around, including on my own rosy red face.

We watched a seeming majority of Tibetans parading around every temple in Tibet, which is a heck of a lot of temples. "What are those things?" I asked because we'd run into our expert, Katie. They looked like Halloween clickers, maybe a little bit bigger but clickless.

"Prayer wheels," she rolled her eyes. "They're stuffed with slips of paper. Printed prayers that waft heavenward on every revolution."

Everyone was doing it, except the tourists. The supplicants included little old ladies in green tennis shoes, red robed monks and the jauntily chapeaued men accompanying Christmassy adorned young women. Real believers flung themselves onto the ground at ten-yard intervals, partially protected by chest and hand plates of flimsy wood. In a word, they suffered splinters. Others swiveled bulky, twenty-gallon prayer wheels, thousands of drums filling the mile-long labyrinth around the Potala Palace. Perhaps so many Tibetans pursued fulltime prayer wheeling because the Chinese had officially relieved them of their serfdom, but the result was mesmerizing and spectacular as the large, spinning drums threw off golden reflections against a brilliantly setting sun.

In contrast, none of the many red-robed monks prayer-wheeled. To a man, they instead begged for alms or pursued fulltime kung fu debate. Thus occupied, along with the vast majority of prayer-wheeling Tibetans, only a small percentage of the populace was left to provide for Tibet's primary source of income-the formerly flush tourist.

Katie caught my look at the monks doing what looked like kung fu. "You've got to go see them at the Sera Monastery," she said.

"Lead on," we said, so Katie grabbed us a bus to the outskirts of Lhasa where kung fu debate proceeded for hours on end at the Sera Monastery, tourists thronging the monk-packed courtyard to watch. One monk would stand combatively, lustily slapping hands together and sliding one up his elbow to make each theological point while a sitting monk would lament the constantly near amputation of his nose. Slap, clap, slide, deride was the sequence repeated for hours on end. Much seemed to depend on this ritual, but I couldn't tell who was keeping score, who was winning, or who might get promoted to the monk in charge of the big golden Buddha in the middle of the temple flanked by slender Tibetan maidens tending yak butter candles. But perhaps it wouldn't have been a promotion because the rancid yak butter burned in smoky waves of soot, electrifying the nostrils of uninitiated tourists.

Other than yak butter pollution, the only thing I disliked about Tibet was the prohibition against taking pictures inside the temples, all of which sported fabulously colorful and scowling Buddhas with blue faces blandishing razor sharp swords or benevolent Buddhas with a thousand arms each. That is, I couldn't take pictures inside the temples unless I ponied up between four and six bucks a picture. My shots all ended up with sky in them.

Besides the sparkling clean air, blue skies, and fabulously photogenic populace, the food was delicious. My favorite was the bobi, ultra-thin flour tortillas smeared with spicy cream cheese and stuffed with veggies or whatever else I capriciously desired.

Katie always said, "Wipe your chin." Still, I must someday go back to that slice of nirvana where people love me without capitalist reservations, the Chinese government thinks it's fleecing me to smithereens, and I can slurp down another bobi. Ah, Tibet, Chinese vassal.

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