Thursday, December 13, 2007

Journey to the West

Thus begins my entries on my trip to Tibet. Our first full day has ended, but first I ought to do a little recap on our epic journey here.

Step 1: Acquire Permit. Foreigners aren't allowed to visit Tibet without a special permit which can only be given out by a tour guide, since foreigners can only enter the region on a guided tour. There are loopholes, however. Our friend Marcos hooked us up with this woman who would get us the permit, but didn't expect us to call her once we got to Tibet for our tour. China is all about the guanxi. We were texted an account number to deposit money into and about a week after that sketchy episode an envelope arrived in my room with a flimsy piece of paper certifying us to go (postscript: no one looked at it).

Step 2: Epic train journey. The train from Beijing to Lhasa is high tech. They constantly pump oxygen through the cars. It's fairly new. It allows you to see a great deal of China. It's very cheap. It helps you to gradually adjust to the altitude. It's also 47.5 hours long.

The ride was actually no where near that painful, though. We chatted, read, played cards, played chess, made pengyous to play chess with, slept a lot, ate a ton of fruit and weird tofu. It was not the horrid experience of my imagination - although it probably helped that the train was half empty and we had a 6 person bunk to ourselves.

We did see a great deal of China. We took a big of a zigzagy route: BJ-Xi'an-Lanzhou and finally down through Chengdu. Once we hit the Tibet Plateau it really was a constant stream of postcards through our window. I can now say that I've been on the highest train in the world from which I saw the highest freshwater lake in the world (plus a couple thousand yaks and a mountain or two).

A cozy night on a heated bed later (oh how I adore kangs) we launched into our first Tibetan day. We're quite far west - so sunrise was at 8ish (silly communism). Our jetlagged (can I say that? trainlagged?) selves woke up at 7, but we just read until it was time for the city to wake up around 8:30 - 9.

We decided that today ought to be a day for wandering and becoming accustomed to the city layout. Our hotel was just a block or so north of the Barkhor, so that's where we headed. The Barkhor is a circumambulation route around the Johkang temple that is constantly packed with pilgrims. Even in the depth of winter the route was filled to the max; some walking, some chanting, some spinning prayer wheels and some prostrating. The whole experience (and all of Tibet, really) smells of incense and yak butter.

It's obvious that you must traverse the Barkhor clockwise, because to do otherwise is worse than canoeing upstream on a level 5. These people really are quite a force. We walked until we hit the large plaza in front of the Johkang where we decided to stop for a brunch of tsay momos, butter tsamba and masala. We ate bundled on a rooftop overlooking the plaza and contemplating the mix of devotion and commercialism that lines the Barkhor. If those who prostrate here all the way from their hometowns don't achieve some sort of enlightenment/heaven/whatever alternative, then there really is no God. Surely the one I believe in would respect this devotion.

After brunch we took to wandering some more. We passed in and out of shops and ought woolen insoles - necessary - eventually completing the Barkhor and moving towards the Linkhor (a bigger circumambulation that encompasses the Barkhor and all of Lhasa old town).

While looking for a post office we suddenly found ourselves stumbling upon the Potala palace. I had expected the Potala palace to be impressive, surely, but I hadn't expected the sheer magnitude of it's reality. I had thought that it would be something like the Forbidden City - impressive in it's own right, but jaded by the many spectacular photos I'd already seen. But reall, the Potala Palace has excceed all of my expectations and I just could not look away from it's awesome splendor.

We didn't go into the Potala today (tomorrow) but we did wander the grounds for a bit. We watched an incredibly, horrifically biased Chinese made movie on the history of the palace (that history - by the way - stopped in 1958). We also wandered the Zhou village at it's base which included an incredibly disturbing prison museum that held actual human skins.

Leaving the Potala we wandered the square across the way and befriended some pilgrims over spicy potatoes. We wound up at a yogurt shop where we sat and chatted with the fuquyuan over chang for a long while about Tibetan pronunciation.

Later in our wanderings along the Linkhor we walked through the park behind the Potala. It's a beautiful park, and the focal point is a man made lake (the earth dug out was used to build the Potala) with a temple in the middle (which, no worries, we circumambulated).

After this we returned to the hotel for a quick rest/internet break and got into quite the conversation with our proprietress. She's a very worldly woman. Originally from Taiwan, she came to Tibet 2 years ago because she wanted to be closer to her faith. Throughout her life she's travelled to tons of foreign countries. The woman was a wealth of knowledge and had two unexpected political viewpoints: a free Tibet and a reunited Taiwan/China.


No comments:

Post a Comment