OK, OK, OK, I know that I said in my last e-mail that we had left China and entered Tibet , at least culturally, but I’d like to retract that statement and say that NOW we have entered Tibet . Sat at 4000m in a tiny town called Litang, surrounded by dagger carrying, poncho and ten gallon hat wearing Khampas (Tibetan cowboys), with the other half of the town made up of Buddhist monks, this is what I imagined Tibet to be like. The only thing missing is a skyline dominated by the sheer faces and snow capped summits of real mountains. Litang has to make do with rolling hills punctuated by the occasional stupa topped spike pointing skywards. Imagine a version of the Lake District filled with wild haired cowboys and serene monks (who should be wearing headgear, as Litang’s monastery is a members of the yellow hat sect of Buddhism), but where attempts to walk up any hill leave you exhausted, and you won’t be that close to a picture of Litang, but should have a general idea.
The journey to get here was hard, along a road frequently blocked by landslides, lorries stuck in mud, yaks, men with dynamite, men spraying tar, diggers and an assortment of other weird situations. Unusually for China we only saw one overturned lorry, which was rather bizarrely at the edge of the straightest, flattest, most fully surfaced section of road that we drove along.
The journey from Zhongdian to Litang was actually split into two ten -hour parts. The first, Zhongdian to Xiangcheng saw me alone on a bus full of Chinese people. It was a trip by turns exciting, dangerous, exciting and dangerous. The road we travelled is fairly well known as one of China ‘s worse, but the views more than make up for this. Travelling from densely wooded mountain valleys, through small towns, albeit it only two in ten hours, alongside crystal clear mountain rivers and over passes so high that simply sitting in my seat left me out of breath, the journey was never dull. Punctuating the views of soaring cliffs and larger-than-I-liked drops, came a little human interest.
Good karma was assured by our attempts to release the monk’s jeep that had grounded (I’m sure there must be an adjective that describes something owned by a monk, but every time I try and think of it I get ‘monkey’). Then there were the attempts to clear a landslide that a big lorry had rather unwisely tried to cross, leaving it teetering on the edge of a cliff. And we had to stop at the bottom of one of many big hills to refill the brake cooling water, which is kind of a bit engineering, but never mind. The good karma came in handy along a few of the more treacherous stretches of road as the wheels scrabbled for grip on the edge of 1000ft cliffs.
The houses we passed were amazing, and a new style to those seen previously. The whitewashed mud brick walls lean inwards, while the roof has a kind of patio enclosed on two sides. Tiny windows keep out the harsh mountain sun during summer, and keep in valuable warmth during winter. They also unfortunately make the house appear fortress like, leading to a collection of them on any scale looking like a dangerous outpost. Mos Eisley from Star Wars is the best comparison I can think of, an image enhanced by the landspeeder like stretched garden tractors that are the usual form of transport (and can carry about 10 people). These houses fitted in well with the arid plains they were ticked into, the dust on the road waiting for winter snow before it will stay still under the wheels of passing vehicles. The dust actually raises an interesting dilemma for bus passengers. Is it better to choke on mud or the cigarette smoke of 15 Chinese men (and you know that at 15p a pack these are not quality cigarettes).
Eventually, with numb bottoms, we arrived in Xiangcheng. I wouldn’t like to be too unkind to the place, but it does seem to be the arse end of China , and possibly the world. Although prosperous due to the large number of sought after caterpillar fungus that grow round here, it has nothing to see or do. To be fair people who spent the day there were glad they did, but I didn’t and am glad of that. With the towns hot nightspot situated directly under the only hotel allowed to take westerners, it’s attempts to attract more than two customers based around playing it’s karaoke so loudly that nobody in the town can sleep. Possibly it works but it’s not great when all you want to do is sleep. Furthermore there was no running water before nine o’clock , which made having a shower rather complicated.
Evidently Xiangcheng is not keen for tourists to leave, as the bus station is only open for a small time in the morning, an opportunity they take to refuse to allow purchase of tickets to any westerners desired destination, instead making you pay for a ticket to a town five hours beyond where you want to go. I left on a ticket bought from another backpacker who, reasonably, didn’t fancy a ten-hour bus journey with diarrhoea. I wasn’t best pleased that he lied to me about how much he had paid for it, but then again maybe something ensures that people who behave in this way are the ones who get diarrhoea while in possession of hard to obtain bus tickets.
The second day’s journey went much faster than the firsts, thanks to the company of an American/Canadian couple called Molly and Ian. Half the trip was spent in the kind of discussion where both sides agree, while the other half was spent recounting travel stories. Some of theirs were fantastic, although I’ll stick to the main China related one for now.
Having arrived in a small town in Yunnan Province , near Tibet they met up with some other Westerners and were discussing Chinese politics loudly in a restaurant. They thought it was just coincidence that three tables of police came in halfway through the meal, although having moved to another restaurant only to be joined by the same police they realised they may be receiving a warning.
Back at their hotel there was a police jeep sat outside, which they ignored and started asking the receptionist about the possibility of getting a taxi to a nearby town, which they were told was not possible. Imagine their surprise when on walking downstairs there was a taxi waiting for them, even more remarkably driven by the policeman from the night before. Having done a little play haggling over price (I have a theory this is a good way to get around China cheaply, as they will take you whatever you offer), they set off on their way. Eventually encountering a landslide, they decide to walk the rest of the way to the next town, only to have somebody fall in step right behind them the minute they get there. They checked into the deserted top floor of an almost entirely deserted hotel, and headed out for dinner. On their return their were two smartly suited men in the reception watching them, while on return to their room they found a table full of police playing Mahjong right outside their door. Apparently the police seemed to quite like them, as from the start they had been playing it as a game, and by now they were able to join in with the drinking of the police. During this they let slip they were going on a hike the next day, and on walking downstairs the next day they saw the two smart suited men from the night before, but now with brand new trainers in place of their formal shoes. By now they were bored of being followed, and got on the next bus out of town instead of going for a hike. What I love about the story is the way that nobody cares. The police don’t try and follow subtly, the couple don’t mind being followed and nobody is really that concerned about the motives of the other. Utterly ridiculous.
A second story about the police was told to them by a traveller who had been here 5 years ago. travelling on a train somebody grabbed her bag, containing her passport etc. Obviously there aren’t many places to hide on a train, and he was soon caught. At the next stopping point the police turned up, the thief confessed and was executed with a bullet through the head, there and then in front of the woman and her partner. I don’t think the woman reported crime in China again.
I’m sad to report that I have now lost the three kids who have spent the last half hour watching me type, while the police who met us on our first day here haven’t been seen since. I feel I should be more subversive, and am a little offended that nobody thinks I am exciting enough to tail.
Back to the journey and we passed even more spectacular scenery, although more spectacularly bleak than anything else. We spent maybe two hours driving across a blank plain, dotted with boulders, but no sign of life other than harsh bristly grass and tiny but beautiful flowers. As we dropped off this plateau, which must have been well over 5000m metres high, the black, yak hair tents of the regions nomadic people started to appear. They must have an incredibly hard life, herding yak and occasionally visiting towns to trade their beasts flesh for rice and other essentials. I wouldn’t like to spend the winter here in a tent, with average temperatures below -20, and snow coating the plains. Other journey excitement came as workmen dynamited the cliffs ahead of us, waving the bus past as soon as the haze had cleared, and rather worryingly, before they had checked the impact of their work on the general stability of the surroundings. At another point leather masked men sprayed tar on the road in preparation for surfacing, their strange costumes making the look like classic film serial killers. Unfortunately lunch did not provide a stop, leaving us to marvel (and worry) at the ability of the bus driver to do a 20 hour drive without a break. We were glad to get off halfway through.
So into Litang. A quiet place filled with people with huge hands (apparently a Tibetan trait), but wide smiles. It’s a fun place, and although it looks likely I will leave tomorrow, I shall be sad to do so, but with so much more to explore between here and Chongqing I have no choice.
To finish, two peoples stories. The first an old monk who had fled to Dharamasala after seeing his own monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and returned recently to see it being rebuilt. He explained why the monks I saw in Zhongdian were not as pious as had been expected. The Chinese government now permits monasteries, but on their terms. Young monks may read the scriptures, but must not be taught their meanings, nor do they write Tibetan in order to make notes on what they read. Monks returning from exile are forbidden to teach, so in many ways traditional Tibetan Buddhism is dying.
The second person is a guy, a couple of years younger than me. His parents sent him to study under the Dalai Lama in Dharamasala at the age of 6, and he studied there until the age of 15, when his parents were told that if they did not call him back his father would lose his job. He returned, and then went to study Tibetan Medicine in Lhasa , where he spent four years. I can’t give too much detail as we’re not sure how much of our e-mail contact is monitored, but whenever he visits a monastery he will always seek out the old monks, presumably to share knowledge. Fascinating person.
As you can probably tell my opinion of the Chinese government has changed quite dramatically over the past couple of weeks, and with only ten days to go I think it is likely to be the impression I leave with
Should be a couple more reports before I return. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone again.