Thursday, December 9, 2010


Tibet isn’t the easiest place to visit at any time, what with the Chinese government changing the entry regulations on a whim. I remember two years ago hoping to take a train from Beijing to Lhasa and being informed that I couldn’t enter Tibet unless, as an Irishman, I entered with a group of fellow Irish. Perplexed, I replied “So you expect me to go on to the streets of Beijing looking for random Irish people who might want to go to Lhasa?” “Yes,” came the humourless reply. Welcome to China.
Two years on and the same typically restrictive Chinese border controls now mean that you can only enter Tibet as part of a group. Naturally the restrictive nature of entry leads to a plethora of nixers, back-handers and who knows what else in order to get from A to B once inside Tibet. A little part of me dies whenever I encounter a group travelling, so having to join one was an excruciating prospect. Your first problem entering Tibet is the border crossing, a simple process made impressively difficult by the border guards. Any images of the Dalai Lama are expressly forbidden in Tibet - this, to me, in simple terms is the Chinese equivalent of a child closing its eyes and putting its fingers in its ears shouting ’Na na na na na’ and pretending that someone does not exist - and so all baggage, small and large are checked for anything which might show an image of the DL. I watched as one of group had a book which contained a tiny picture of the DL, and instead of ripping it out, the book was confiscated. Indoctrinated humourless wankers.
They’re also touchy about Taiwan. Any maps or guide books showing Taiwan as a separate state distinct from China are also confiscated, another example of the ‘I still believe that the world is flat’ bullshit mentality depressingly prevalent in this part of the world. Another example of the Chinese propensity for sticking their heads in the sand when thinking things out might actually work better is the fact that there is only one time zone in the entire country - there used to be 5 but now when Beijing gets out of bed, so does the rest of the country. If it’s good for Beijing then fuck everyone else.
Tibet is a wild and beautiful region. On our drives from town to town the landscape remains a constant of mountains far and near, and vast open spaces flecked with hidden villages built far from the admittedly impressive road which helps us cut a dash on our way to Lhasa. It’s entitled the Friendship Highway which shows that the Chinese might be intolerant but they can be ironic.
And so the Tibetans must live in a region entitled the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), a name as grandiose as it is ridiculous, and hemmed in by the Himalayan wall to the south and an autocratic Beijing regime far to the north. Under such circumstances and, given the fact that it’s winter here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Tibetans would be a browbeaten people but they’re anything but. Much put upon - to put it mildly - by Beijing for one, they seemingly go about their daily business in constant chatter and hawkish curiosity. Visiting Tibet in winter reinforces the idea that the Tibetan people live in a struggle with the land, taking from it what they can. Nothing is wasted here - the fires which burn in each Tibetan restaurant are fuelled by cow and yak dung which produces much smoke but little heat.
There are 26 of us in total in the group and, in spite of my misgivings, everyone manages to survive the 8 days together. As with any group there is the Loud Annoying One - an American as it happens - whose repertoire of jokes are about as welcome as flatulence in a lift. His penchant for wearing shoes without socks disturbed me more than his sense of humour though, a crime up there with wearing sandals and socks. There’s also the Loud Arrogant One - a Norwegian - who just falls short of donning a Viking hat in tribute to his ancestors who he’s fond of alluding to and pillaging the local villages.
Peak season for tourists in Tibet are the months of June, July and August so to be here in December with no other tourists in town gives the entire country even more of that Shangri La feeling. For instance we overnighted in the town of Gyantse and we had an entire hotel to ourselves. Things are so quiet that they don’t bother manning reception so if your toilet doesn’t flush - a very, very common occurrence here - well then it’s, quite literally, tough shit.
For the duration of the trip I room with Jaume, a fanatical Barcelona fan and our trip happens to coincide with the first El Classico of the season (that’s Barcelona vs Real Madrid for all the non-footie fans out there) and our third evening sees Jaume embark on an epic and ultimately successful crusade to watch the game at all costs - he manages to convince the owner of a nearby restaurant to throw open her doors to the two of us at 3am so that we can watch the match. In fucking Tibet! But ultimately it transpires that we manage to find the channel in our hotel room and we both wake at 4am to drink beer and watch Barcelona dismantle Real 5-0, always a pleasing sight and so avoid rousing a family of Tibetans from their sleep. During the course of the 90 minutes Jaume transforms from a pleasantly chatty and amiable Spaniard into a foaming, frothing and incandescent Catalan. It’s funny as hell to watch and something I can relate all too easily to, not that I've had anything to cheer about this year.
Our schedule is reasonably hectic and by Day 4 I’m already templed and monasteried out. Our guide, Lawa, is well versed in the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism but imparts this knowledge in the manner of a man reading out obituaries. Before long I’ve taken all I can of references to and statues of the Past, Present and Future Buddha (yes Lawa, the one with a fucking stupa on his head), the Buddha of Compassion, the Buddha with a thousand hands and eyes and, probably, the Buddha of Monday Night Football. It is wonderful to have it all explained but by Day 2 all I’m hearing is ‘Blah blah Buddah blah’.
Each day we get to experience the curiosity and shy but penetrating stares of the Tibetan people and have that all to ourselves given the fact that we‘re about the only westerners in town. But it’s a two-way street of course as the Tibetans fascinate us every bit as much as we fascinate them - their pronounced cheekbones, the men‘s remarkably pleated hair and the incredibly beautiful clothes they wear. The wonderful thing is that in spite of (or because of?) the presence of an oppressive regime, the Tibetans have clung on to their cultural identity and it makes our time outside the guided sections of the tour equally enlightening. Quite what they make of us is anyone’s guess but their constant smiles, chatter (“Welcome to Tibet”) and good humour charms everyone.
Communication is an issue as very few speak English - they do manage to not speak English in a much more friendly way than, say, the Russians though. Our visits to various Tibetan restaurants usually require one of us to enter the kitchen and point out which food we’d like to eat. A must try on arrival in Tibet is the famed yak butter tea. It’s made by adding tea leaves to hot water, then yak butter and salt are added to give it its, er, unique taste. I’m informed that it’s an acquired taste but having tried one cup, I’m certain that it’s a taste that I’ll never be acquiring.

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