Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tibetan Redux

I wanted so badly to go to Tibet, but China stopped me.

As an American, it's exceptionally hard to get passage to Tibet. There's a lot of conflicting opinions, each one leading to rolls and goddang rolls of red tape, in traditional Chinese style. So I did the next best thing. Hitchhiked with a Mongolian guy to the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in western Sichuan province. My goal was to hit the highest town in the world- Litang. But due to time restrictions and almost inevitable altitude sickness, I readjusted my expectations.

So my Mongolian buddy Li Rur and I roll into a town that appears to be a block long. We're both hungry, so we roll into a noodle shop and get some beef noodles. The workers and patrons are all Chinese, and I can understand a bit of what they're saying. Rur asks them how far away Xinduqiao is from the restaurant. "This is Xinduqiao." He repeats it back to me, a little slower, so that I can understand it. We laugh. I had him ask about a hotel. "This is a hotel." Alright. I'm in Xinduqiao. Weird. Rur and I say our goodbyes, and he continues driving to Lhasa. I take a walk with the owners to the nearby temple, and check out the stupas and prayer wheel there. Get back to my cozy hotel room and crash for a few hours.

I wake up and start walking. It's beautiful out, but that doesn't mean that it's interesting. I get all of 20 yards when a young guy starts talking to me. His name is Doijee, and he's a local Tibetan. He studied Buddhism in India for four years, and his English is great. He offers to show me around the town, and I gladly accept. I quickly find out that Xinduqiao has a larger downtown area that can't be easily seen from the road, and it happens that the day I come into town is Buddha's birthday. It's bustling with activity. Doijee knows everyone in town, and immediately begins answering questions about me. He and I get along well, despite not having a whole lot to say to each other. He invites me to stay with him and his family. It was what I had been secretly hoping for, and I eagerly accept.

The next day Doijee has to work. He and his father are helping to build a small hotel, built in the traditional Tibetan style. With them are a dozen Chinese migrant workers. The whole lot of them shares a worker dorm situation in a nearby building. I decide to head up to the Tagong Grasslands, an area of beautiful high altitude plains about 40km away. I hitchhike there, and catch a ride with two younger Chinese guys in a pickup. They ask me a lot of questions that I don't understand, and the only thing I can really make out is when one of them says "Your Chinese is bad." Screw you, mang. I got this far on my Chinese. Once we roll into the town of Tagong, I thank them and jet. It was uncomfortable.

The grasslands are beautiful. Granted, I get winded with the tiniest amount of effort, and I'm already turning crimson red from my lack of sunblock. For all my experience, I will say this: I am not a smart traveler. I'm impulsive and stupid, but it tends to work out. It just brings a lot of stress with it. I walked along the highway for a bit, before finally deciding to just climb one of the many rolling hills nearby. I passed a sky burial on the way- a traditional Tibetan way of dealing with the dead. They're just left to the elements and the birds. There's something so cool about that. It's so ceremonial and traditional but at the same time seems to me to be a much more casual, light way of dealing with death. Screw it, throw them out on the plains. See what the birds do.

I spent a long time on the hills, just watching the clouds pass by and looking down at the town below me. With Doijee still working and lots of time till dinner, I made another stupid decision. I decided I'd try and walk the 35km back to Xinduqiao. Now, being an American, I have to get by with only rough mental conversions between kilometers and miles. But it seemed doable.

It wasn't.

The first four hours were spectacular. I passed by rivers and mountains, temples and stupas. I saw a monk painting prayers on the river rocks, so that every time the water flowed by, that prayer would be repeated. I helped some old men load logs onto their tractor. I waved to and talked to all the locals I encountered. I got horribly sunburnt. Eventually, my huge backpack started to weigh me down. My feet started to hurt. My skin was bright red. But still I persevered. In 8 hours of walking, I was offered a ride four times. Unprompted. The Tibetan people are that friendly. They see me walking, they offer me a ride. My little regret is that at one point, I began to hear this little puttering noise. I turned and saw the old men before, riding on their tractor back to town. They beckoned for me to get on, but I turned them down. I should've taken that ride.

I got back to town after catching two rides. Doijee and I hit a local restaurant for some beers, to "celebrate being friends." I dug that. While there, his coworkers showed up. What went from having one beer each went to having six big beers, in rapid succession, with a bunch of Tibetans. One of the most vocal ones knew one phrase in English: "Welcome to Lhasa!," which he repeated every time we skulled a glass. We weren't in Lhasa. Instead of having a traditional Tibetan dinner, I ended up getting drunk with a bunch of Tibetan guys and stumbling back to the dorm. I thought I'd be sleeping in the grimy area that most of the Chinese workers slept in, but instead I was treated to a huge, open room, filled with beds. It was carved and painted beautifully, and was definitely the coolest bedroom I've ever seen. In the morning, Doijee, his father and I had a traditional breakfast: butter tea. Black tea, mixed with salt and yak butter. Then you add dried yak cheese. And then more yak butter. You basically drink melted butter until you feel sick. And right when you think you've finished, Doijee makes you add two huge scoops of sanba, an oaty powder. You mix it into your remaining tea using your hands, and add a bit of sugar. Now you have a huge dough ball. That's breakfast.

I caught a ride with some of his coworkers back to Kangding. I was sad to go but happy to be on the move.

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