Sunday, 27 July 2014

N 28.08.26 E 86.51.05 altitude 5156 meters Thoughts on Tibet

When I guest edited the Odyssey blog for our time in Tibet, I needed to always stay positive and leave opinions out. My draft was then edited for brevity (confession, I do go on and on) as well as political correctness. A lot of the photos I would have put in didn't make the cut, either. Watch for them to show up at a later date.

Getting permission to enter Tibet is always an iffy science. Our Chinese guide, Daniel, had a copy of our permits which should have been sufficient to get us past the checkpoint outside Golmud. We would then go to the actual border with Tibet where we would pick up our Tibetan guide as well as the actual permit. Instead, the police checkpoint was manned by a very scary fellow with his gun at the ready and finger on trigger. No going through without the original permit. No arguing. In all our travels in China, this was the only time we encountered this. Every other checkpoint, what needed to be checked was but there were friendly smiles and the occasional question in English..

So, a day wasted and our Tibetan guide, Tsewang, made a hurried 16 hour train trip to meet us the next morning. The funny side of this was that we were then further delayed by construction and had no choice but to do a late night bush camp. Lovely spot, but that was when we began to realize how much of a city boy Daniel was. Thankfully, Tsewang knew how to pitch tent and obtain blankets from the nearby village.

The next day, at the official border crossing there was a "discrepancy" in one of the passports which resulted in a five hour delay while someone with more authority could be found to make a decision. Everybody was friendly and curious, we just couldn't proceed. We've gotten really good at waiting and not fretting. But this did mean setting up camp just as it was getting dark at a lot higher altitude that what had been hoped for. Second night of feeling lousy with altitude sickness and we broke down and started taking Diamox.

What I will remember most is the conversations we had with Daniel and Tsewang either together or separately. It's given me a picture of how truly complex the situation is. China says that Tibet has always been part of their sphere of influence (Tibetans would disagree strongly). There are huge economic advantages to Tibet in terms of infrastructure, education and employment (Tibetans would say their resources of water and minerals are being exploited and the Chinese get all the good jobs). China would say what's the big deal about Buddhism. Tibetans would say "everything".

What I will remember about Tibet. Spectacular mountain vistas and the animals that inhabit them. The running joke about Gregories (our name for the gerbil sized rodents). The rural people going about their job of making a living pretty much the way they did a hundred years ago. Lhasa being so much what I did not expect it to be (so much more). Tsewang's way of mixing religion, history and politics into a sense of what it is like to be Tibetan.

And how could I forget Everest base camp? For me, there certainly was a mystique to the idea of walking the last two or three km to the base camp. The reality is that that walk was almost easy. We had been preparing for weeks to acclimatize to the altitude. The paperwork had all been done. The hard work was navigating the road to get there (while imagining the first explorers who had to figure out the path). Interesting detail, the surveyor on the Mallory expedition was a Canadian! Honestly, we only had a few brief glimpses of Mt. Qomolangma but there were days before and after when other mountains came out to play and when Mother Nature gave us some pretty spectacular skies (including a lightening storm at almost 5000 meters). That said, I carried prayer flags, attached them to the others and sent a wish for safe journeys to all. Prayer flags which are particular to Tibetan Buddhism and were hand printed in Lhasa.

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