11 November 2007

The high, the holy, and the hideous

The worst toilets in the world are above 12,000 feet.

But, then, everything about the two weeks that have passed since our last post from Xi'an has been in the superlative. The highest. The holiest. And the most hideous.

Xi'an to Lhasa
Officially, it's the Qinghai-Lhasa railway (unofficially, it's the Lhasa Express), and it first opened thirteen months ago. The highest railway in the world, it spends its last twelve hours above 3,000 meters. The Canadian-designed carriages (first, you design the coolest cars in the world, then your dollar beats ours. What's next? World domination?) fortify the ambient air to 24% oxygen and each passenger's bunk has a supplementary oxygen outlet. Unfortunately, you have to ask for the nasal prongs, and we forgot to do so.

This railway is, like many things we've seen, a complete marvel of Chinese engineering (why is it that the Chinese can build roads and railways and information infrastructure to rival any place else in the world, but they can't build a toilet to save their lives?), but its construction was controversial from the get-go. Further evidence of the Han attempt at repression of places they're not welcome, or a well-designed way of getting resources into what has been one of the poorest provinces in China? (I'm avoiding talking about whether Tibet should be its own country or not. This has been re-hashed by thousands of people more informed about the issues than I.)

Regardless of its effect on the economy and culture of Tibet, though, the railway is spectacular. It hurtles up from 405 meters above sea level, to its highest point at just around 5000 meters. The track would have disrupted the native migration patterns of several species; instead, tunnels were cut underneath it, along these studied migration paths. And in those places where the train crosses permafrost, the rails are cooled to keep the frost as permanent as possible.

Plus the food was great.

What can be said about Tibet that hasn't already been said? It is haunting. Magical. A completely mystical experience, without even trying to be. Despite assertions (read: propaganda) throughout the city about Tibet's "inalienable part of the motherland," it was ruled by its clergy as an independent country from the 17th century until 1950, during which time China invaded (er, "liberated") the plateau. An uprising in 1959 was crushed, leading to the exile of the current Dalai Lama in India, and the status quo. With the influx of Chinese interest and money, the overall standard of living in Tibet (Xi Zhang, or "Western Treasure House," in Chinese) has significantly risen, but so has sentiment against these "liberators" and their destruction of native Tibetan culture.

Lhasa itself is divided into a poorer, more cultured, eastern Tibetan section, and a richer, grandiose, western Chinese section. The difference is palpable. The Chinese habit of building big plazas in front of the most important structures in a town results in a tree-lined, concrete, completely un-frequented area directly in front of the Potala palace and its masses of prostrating pilgrims. What you end up feeling is the stark juxtaposition of the financially rich, spiritually poor post-Cultural Revolution culture against the financially desolate, spiritually rich culture of Tibet.

Lhasa houses the Jokhang monastery, Tibet's holiest monastery and the claustrophobic center of worship and pilgrimage. Being surrounded by masses of pilgrims, arranged in a slow-moving line, pushing you past gold-laden images of Tibetan Buddhist deities, juniper incense, and yak-butter candles is a throat-tightening experience. And then, there's the Potala, the old seat of power of the Dalai Lamas. This palace-cum-monastery rivals any religious or political structure I think we've ever seen (including the Vatican, quite honestly). Why is it not one of the world's seven wonders?

Religious tourism
Permit an aside. To date, we have seen Muslim and Buddhist holy sites, and we're about to head to Varanasi, India's holiest city. And we've been struck by how public, how communal, how open the worship is. We in the west, we Christians who are so firm, so philosophic about what we believe—we're also closeted. Sure, we can talk your ear off about propitiation, about transsubstantiation (or consubstantation, if you will), about the vagaries of Pauline theology, about eschatology a la DTS, but God forbid we actually prostrate ourselves before the symbols of our faith. God forbid we even admit we go to church, for that matter, let alone kneel publicly.

But here, in the holy sites of Islam, of Buddhism, people make no excuse for their prayer. Head to any of the mosques or medressas of Central Asia, and you're bound to walk into a five-minute reading of the Koran followed by public prayers. Walk into any temple in Tibet and you will see hundreds of pilgrims, their foreheads touching dirty concrete, before the frightening, fanged statues of their gods. You will see kids touching their money to their heads and offering it to the glowering statues. Where have we gone wrong? Have our modern and post-modern philosophers robbed us? Have we suppressed something so important, so integral, in the pursuit of something more fleeting? To quote the words of one such philosopher, responsible for so much of the way we in the west now think:

Not their love of humanity, but the impotence of their love, prevents the Christians of today from burning us.

Lhasa to Shigatse
Let me just say that Lhasa, at 3650 meters above sea level, is ridiculously high. It is the world's highest capital (OK, it was until the Chinese liberation; the distinction now belongs to La Paz, Bolivia). And its air contains only 60% of the oxygen that you're used to. Climbing a flight of stairs winds you. Saying more than a few sentences at a time is impossible, but that's alright, because the leaden curtain hangs over your brain prevents you from holding that much information in your head at one time anyway. Lhasa, though, is the lowest point on the Tibetan plateau, and after four days of acclimatization, we headed south, along the 920-km Friendship Highway, to cross the Himalayas into Nepal.

Our path took us past Yamdrok-Tso lake and the town of Gyantse, with Tibet's biggest stupa, (enclosing 70 rooms and 10,000 images) before settling our first night at Shigatse (3850 m).

Shigatse is home to the Tashilhumpo monastery, Tibet's biggest, and the seat of the Panchen Lama—of the two highest Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, this one has Big Brother's tacit approval. The Dalai Lama's very images are not permissible in China. But Qoigyijabu, China's pick for the Panchen Lama, is everywhere (the exile Tibetan government claims another lama as the true eleventh Panchen Lama, but he was unfortunately taken captive by the Chinese when he was six years old, becoming the world's youngest political prisoner). And, of all the thousands of monasteries we saw in our eight days in Tibet, the Tashilhumpo was the most impressive.

Shigatse to Shegar
Shegar is the entrance to the underworld. You didn't know that, because it's in none of our textbooks. But believe me. It is.

It's a one-street town built only for the purposes of travellers stopping along the Friendship Highway, and it has nothing to recommend it. The sheets were last washed when Nixon declared Beijing's wall great. The toilets are, frankly, a hole in a concrete slab, two stories above ground (there's a delay...). The bedbugs' attempts at feasting on your flesh are thwarted only by the fact that you're wearing every single piece of clothing you own. And the dogs join the drunken revellers in merriment until about 3am. That, and it's over 4,500 meters above sea level, making life just that much more comfortable.

It was on our way there that we reached our highest point of the trip, a pass at 5248 meters above sea level (that's 17,218 feet, and higher than we've ever been).

Everest Base Camp
The next morning, we left at 5am for the pinnacle of our trip. Along the way, we watched our driver break a chain-link lock to get us through an un-manned checkpoint.

How do you describe Everest? You can't miss it. It's the one that touches the sky. It's so high, it disrupts the Gulf Stream and has its own weather. And, the first time you lay eyes on it, you are humbled. It's beautiful. It's not hard to imagine people worshipping that mountain. Or having an irrepressible desire to climb it. The road to Everest base camp (5200 meters) passes the world's highest post office (leave it to China...), the world's highest national flag (ditto...), the world's highest monastery (Rongphu, a Tibetan monastery we weren't allowed to stop at), and the world's highest toilet.

We spent three hours just watching the mountain, as the sun rose over it and the snow plume at its peak gradually increased from a small wisp to frank cumulus clouds, as the light on its face changed from faint orange to resplendent white, and as the temperature climbed from –23 degrees Celsius to something less Canadian. We watched truckloads of Chinese tourists drive up, take a picture, and drive away. And we hiked a prohibited hour past base camp, to its face (we didn't know it was prohibited till later).

Despite the hell of crossing the Himalayas in November, seeing this mountain's beauty made everything worth it.

We left Everest Base Camp and started out across the Tibetan plateau over non-existent roads (our driver was literally picking out paths in the rocks and rivers), past vistas of the Himalayas and incongruously-located villages, and overnighted in Tingri, which is just like Shegar, but with better views. It's, maybe, the gateway to Purgatory.

Tingri to Zhang Mu to Kathmandu
The road from Lhasa to Tingri (if you do it straight) is paved. The road from Tingri to the border is, well, just a shadow. The first three hours of it are OK—dirt and gravel, but downright gorgeous. You climb to your last pass (5190 m), with the early-morning sun catching the dust thrown up by passing trucks in triangular sheets of light; you get your last glimpse of this side of the Himalayas, a panoramic view from the crest of the pass, well worth the 50% oxygen level, the tachycardia, and the wheezing; and then you hit Nyalam.

After Nyalam, the road is closed. Until 6pm. The only way to bypass this is to convince the local doctor that you've got severe mountain sickness. Nobody succeeds.


We crossed the gate at noon, and began the precipitous descent, into rain and sleet, past child laborers (I'm not making this up) building this last stretch of highway, and went down, down, and down, off the edge of the world.

Trees appeared. And waterfalls. And colour. The clouds were no longer below us. And the leaden curtain over our brains began to lift. We revelled in the sea of oxygen.

The road is a 30-km-long, muddy, rock-laden, less-than-one-car-wide, serpiginous path hugging the edge of the world's highest mountains. In its usual post-6pm-traffic, this last short stretch takes four hours to complete. We were at the border at 1:30.

Here, we said goodbye to our driver, hoisted our packs, and crossed the Friendship Bridge on foot. And with that, we descended into the color, chaos, and confusion, the madness, mud, and masses that will describe our next four weeks on the subcontinent.

(More pictures coming soon...)

1 comment:

proonner paraphrases said...

i'm speechless. i need pictures. more pictures to go along with the narrative! except i must say, you are toilet OBSESSED. but seriously, though it's not to JC, the image of prostrate worshippers is beautiful. and i believe you may be right, we may well have robbed ourselves of that expression..