FINALLY, TIBET!! by Leslie R. Adams

An early morning, a long wait on the runway, again rain, rain, smog, clouds and finally I see sun when we are above the clouds… then we land… and there are my wonderful, adorable driver and guide waiting for me with a scarf, water and smiles! I burst into tears!!! the sun, the mountains, the perfect temperature, the fluffy white clouds, the green river, the buddhas, the flags, the peace and quiet…. I am still pinching myself! Granted there is a tremendous amount of growth going on here: row after row of chinese stalls, but still…. I can’t believe I am here.

My little hostel is smack in the middle of the Tibetan town, near everything. On my roof I can see 360 degrees of mountains and sky and touch the clouds and there, right there is the Potala Palace!!! wow. wow. wow. So far I am handling the altitude (over 11,000 feet), a little giddy and am taking this Chinese herb to help with this… but the belches are horrendous. The beer is helping so far, we shall see if it ends up just knocking me out. My guide says we have no problem meeting and distributing gifts to those contacts I have… tonight I hope… and the hostel is beautiful! brand new Tibetan style with incense and decor right up my alley.. It really happened! I did not get here gracefully I’m afraid, but here I am, puffy eyed and grateful.

Man-o-man-o-man, this place is incredible, mystical, magical! It is also swarming with military: decked out in riot gear and guns with bayonets, marching around everywhere, even in the kora’s (pilgrim paths) around monasteries; a bizarre juxtaposition with the little old ladies twirling their prayer wheels. I have seen sooooo many monasteries, but really they are fantastic. Dark, old, covered with ancient paintings and statues of every friggin’ kinda buddha and teacher and whatever else they are, and people doing a gazillion prostrations everywhere and always the smoke and smell of yak butter and incense burning, and I mean by the ton! I am blessed that my lovely hotel is smack in the center of the old Tibetan town, and I can walk everywhere and still come back for a decent toilet break. I, of course, went to the Potala, and ,yes ,it is historically heavy.

I just got interrupted by another family member recipient of the presents I have delivered, and they all want to feed me! I am about to explode on yak “mom’s”! (little dumplings). I had met all the families of my Tibetan friends in the United States, and tonight we go to see “typical” Tibetan dance. Today I saw a big group of monks arguing about the scriptures, famous here. The place is packed with tourists, so I have a nice mix of touristy stuff and typical local stuff. My sweet guide is a young Tibetan girl, Tselhamo, 20 years old, and we bum around like sisters doing whatever we want (well, almost, given the heavy military presence). Today I got to ride a bus with her, and the police stopped it to check everyone. It was a little creepy.
It seems I have reached the age where singing sounds like screaming, and I have to put toilet paper in my ears! There was a lot less dancing than I had hoped for. It was a large, strange place, but I was the only “fer-ner” . During the singing the audience gets on stage and puts a white scarf around the performer’s neck, has their picture taken,and all the while the screaming, I mean singing, goes on. There was some dancing, which was ok I guess. Today I go to the Tibetan hospital and see about the herbal treatments. Tomorrow off to Nam Tso lake, hot springs, caves, a nunnery. Should be nice and the altitude goes up to 15,000 or so feet. We are taking oxygen, just in case. I also just heard that they have shut off giving permits to come here, so I guess the trouble was worth it. I made it, just barely. I like to try pizza wherever I go, just out of curiosity, so I had a “Hawaiian” pizza yesterday. There was no ham, it was Yak meat! and not so tasty. I also tried their Barley beer, which was really good, kinda tart. I have enjoyed it here and now it’s time to go. You know how you start to notice the little things, like these toilet paper rolls are small, the toilet doesn’t flush well, the bed is really hard, and didn’t they serve this same food yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that? And, my, the people are a bit overly ingratiating, etc, etc…

I was on my way to Nam Tso lake, which is north about a 4-hour drive. On the way we stopped at Yambaje, a huge hot spring! you can see the billows of steam from far away. Of course they had changed the natural way of it into about 5 huge pools, but it was fabulous. You could move from tub to tub to get different herb additions like rose petals and saffron. There were only a couple of Chinese guys there, and, of course, one wanted to compete with me in an underwater swim. I opted out and just applauded his amazing skill. They also served hard boiled eggs cooked over the steam. Then onto the lake, which is supposedly the largest high altitude salt water lake in the world. It reminds you a bit of Lake Tahoe with the turquoise blue water surrounded by snowcapped mountains. But it is not so built up as Tahoe. Instead there are these quonset hut type buildings lined up, and this is where you sleep and eat. There are generators at night so you get a wee bit of electricity until 10pm. No running water, and the one and only group toilet is , yes, the hole in the ground, pwewy. The food is cooked over a fire at the home of the family we stayed with, and guess what it is …. ahhh, you got it! Yak meat which we bought from the back of a truck hacked off the dead body. The family had a new baby. She was so cute and quiet and wore pajamas with the butt split open… guess it is better to have it fly around then to add to the garbage with diapers.
Now the lake, of course, is spectacular, and we walked all the way around the peninsula jutting into it, called Tashi Do. There is a monastery and billions and billions of bright flags flapping in the wind off of every peak, rock and tree. We met one monk who has been living in a cave here for 15 years! There are also many of the prayer wheels you walk by and spin saying your “om mani padme hum” … and of course the many pilgrims walking with their hand-held prayer wheels or beads. Honestly, there is so much praying going on I can see how this culture has gotten very little else done. On the other hand, if one is so busy praying, it leaves little time for bombing, robbing, raping the land, etc.

I did not sleep well and don’t know if that was because of the incessant barking of dogs, generators, altitude, freezing cold, bed bugs, or the bad gas the dinner gave me. But the morning finally came and we left to drive to another monastery I read in Lonely Planet was worth the stop, called Reting. Over incredibly bad roads, all rocks and gravel and holes, not the worst I’ve been on, but pretty bad, we finally made it. Gross. That is all I can say. I don’t know what LP was thinking! This monastery, granted, is famous for having about 3 of the 14 Dalai Lamas chosen from this area and because it was nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but seriously disgusting! dirty, worn down… not Holy ground if you ask me! and when I just HAD to go to the toilet, again a simple wooden hole, three of the hundreds of wild dogs that infest this country jumped down in the hole to eat my fresh deposit! I thought I was going to peuk! Well that horrible stop caused us to add five more hours of nearly impassable roads to get to my next LP recommendation, Tildrum nunnery with the hot springs.
Over bumping, sliding, curvy, pot-holed, dirt paths we struggled, but the scenery was lovely, with mountains and the river and the yaks, goats, sheep, horses, the old stone houses with bright doors and stupas with flags and scarves, and even the nomadic brown tents (not like yurts at all!, way simpler)…. so on and on we go, and I am thinking how is it I always seem to end up on these routes with no other travelers? Out in the middle of nowhere? when, lo and behold, as we are trying to get through yet another rocky river where the “road” has washed away, we get stuck! Ah yes, again, this also seems to happen to me a lot. And of course it chooses to not just rain, but hail at this moment! Now, not only do I have my little 20 year-old translator/guide, but also two drivers so they can take turns, and here they are without their shoes trying to dig us out! Then they try to tie a prayer scarf to another truck so it can pull us out! A prayer scarf for God or Buddha’s sake!!!! I tell Tselamo (my guide) that this will never work, and we must find a real rope or chain, so we go off searching while the boys mess around with scarves… and we find one, and it worked, and we got out… brains over braun any day! And I told Tselamo “note to self, never go on a road trip without a rope and jumper cables, extra tire, water, flashlight.” The list went on and she smiles and nods…. these are a sweet people, always smiling.
Finally we get to Tildrum, exhausted. This nunnery is shoved between two mountains and again, covered in flags and scarves. We load up my stuff and start down and up the stairs to get to the accommodation and on the way I am getting more and more disgusted… I mean mounds of garbage, everywhere, and feces everywhere! And then the rooms are so filthy and stinky! And the supposed hot springs are full of trash and brave local people bathing… I was ready to scream and cry by now…. and I said “no way”… and explained that for me with my gut history, to stay here or get in that water was suicide. And again… this is no way to treat “holy ground”!!!! I have seen a lot of poverty in my time and stayed in some very basic places, but nothing, nowhere, has been like this…

So we left. And drove back to Lhasa. Even the drive was pushing it… windy roads, the drivers smoking non- stop, being stopped at police check stations every few miles for nothing… seriously. They say: “OK, you have to be at the next check point at such and such a time or you are speeding,” and so everybody speeds, then stops on the side of the road to smoke and pee and wait for their time, then drive through the next check point! Maybe a nice idea to control speeding, but obviously it does not work. And it hailed again, and the lightening, and the traffic… on and on it went testing the miniscule patience and tolerance I thought I used to have. And perhaps I just don’t have any anymore… perhaps I am done with this sort of travel… perhaps it is time for me to go on cruises and organized tours… so be it. I am ready… at least, I must say, in this moment
Most tourists don’t go the route I did. Most go to Mt. Everest base camp and then back or on to Kathmandu. I hear the road is good but takes three days, and of course is packed with tourists. I didn’t have time to do that route, and I usually like to avoid tourists… well I did… and really I thought it would be OK since the Lonely Planet said it would be! There goes that love/hate relationship I have with that book again… but I can say, as always, there is a story to tell… how dull would it be to say “gee, rode in a nice car, perfect road, clean hotel, lovely mountain, lots of folks in gortex taking photos”?