Aleksey Goncharov (photo by author)
- I know that you are a journalist, and the presence of foreign journalists in Tibet without a special permission is prohibited, that’s why we registered you as a director.
- A director of what?
- It is not important, you are just a director.
Such a dialogue I had in Beijing with a Chinese guide, who supervised the first Kazakhstani group that wasn’t just leaving for Tibet, it was leaving for the sacred mountain Kailash to conduct the ritual circumvention of the mountain.
Arriving in Tibet I understood why the Chinese don’t allow the representatives of foreign mass media to go there. There are many things that don’t agree with the status of the country of victorious socialism. But all in due time.
Many great travellers strived to reach the city, however, until recent times, it was very difficult to travel to the capital of Tibet. Mikhail (Николай Михайлович – Nikolai Mikhaylovich) Przhevalsky coudn’t get there in the 19th century, and in the 20th century Nikolai Rerikh also couldn’t do it. Now everything is easy. Take the flight from Beijing to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) and then from Chengdu to Lhasa.
Now we are about to land. There is a large river beneath us, which has three names (Yarlung, Tsangpo and Brahmaputra), and green mountains. In addition to civil Boeings there are old Mig fighters on the runway.
There would have been nothing interesting in the routine procedure of luggage claim if we didn’t start feeling hammers banging in our heads after five minutes of being in Tibet, followed by stupidity mixed with euphoria spreading in our minds. There it was, the mountain sickness. The altitude was 3600 meters above sea level, and we didn’t undertake any acclimatisation. The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere there was only 57% of the normal amount. Purbo, our Tibetan guide, looked sympathetically at his new travellers.
Lhasa is about 100 kilometres from the airport, which opened here only 10 years ago. The wonderful concrete road is sometimes squeezed between the river and mountains. Sometimes it cuts through green fields of barley, the only crop that easily survives in the region. Peasants harvest the crop in the traditional fashion, with sickles. The only mechanized equipment that they possess are mini-tractors and motor-blocks, which are very popular and used not only as farming equipment, but also as cars.
Here we are in Lhasa. The population is around 170,000, with the Chinese making up about half of the population and the other half consisting of Tibetans. Typical Tibetan houses are in the outskirts of the city. The houses are stocky with flat roofs decorated with ritual flags and painted window frames, which are necessarily decorated with ritual curtains from the outside. Like in our villages, there are pyramids of pressed dung next to many of the houses. Closer to the centre of the city there are large modern houses of glass and concrete. Cars are mixed with cycle/rickshaw drivers, and people in modern clothes with Tibetans in national dress.
The city is dominated by Potala – the palace of Dalai Lamas built in the 17th century and included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Although I would like to say to myself, “Here it is the mysterious Lhasa!”, I don’t see anything mysterious. Modern civilisation effectively dispels Buddhist mysticism. In addition, many military buildings, with customary sentries near the gates, add a prosaic feature to the environment. It is well known that many Tibetans consider their country to be occupied without rights by China. It is akin to the recent attitude of the population of the Baltic countries towards the USSR
Because of the lack of oxygen, the ascent to the second floor doesn’t come easy. Any quick movement is followed by a strong breathlessness. An oxygen dispenser is a necessary device in every hotel apartment. If you buy a special card for 50 yuans (8 yuans = 1 dollar) you can enjoy it for five hours. Because for some reason there was no mask on the machine, I had to breathe in the oxygen through a straw like a cocktail…
The main points of interest of Tibet are, of course, the monasteries and Potala palace. That’s where our familiarity with the magic of this large country started.
By the way, Tibet is as large as Kazakhstan and the population is about the same size, but the country is on average elevated to 4000 meters above the sea level. Wood is a very rare resource here; that’s why one can only be astonished by the fact that the Tibetans could build Potala with its thousand rooms in only 14 years, more than 400 years ago.
The entrance into the palace is limited to 1000 tourists per year. Purbo mixes our group with the Chinese one. After a couple of minutes of ascending on a bus we are one hundred meters above Lhasa. There is a small patio and then an endless sequence of rooms, semi-darkness, the smell of incense and statues of Buddha everywhere in its multiple forms, big and small they look at you from all around. Gems, some of them are very large, are shining dimly. The gleam of gold, of which most of the statues are made, disappears in dark corners. Next to statues of Buddha there are Bodhisattvas, Buddhist saints and demons guarding against evil forces, although the guards have such faces that would keep away even good forces.
- Here are the “Muldashev’s” eyes, said Mihail, a merited teacher in Kazakhstan and a member of our small group.
Here we have to note that our interest in Tibet was roused by the books of Ernest Muldashev, a well-known Russian doctor, who tried to prove that humanity originated in Tibet.
“Muldashev’s” were called the statues’ eyes with a prolonged upper eyelid. According to Muldashev, they once belonged to Lemurians, a disappeared race, and Buddha was one of them. We’ve seen many of such eyes in Tibet: on statues, souvenir T-shirts and pictures in the cars of local drivers. Nobody could explain the unusual shape to us.
Back to Potala. Some of Buddha’s statues hold unusual things in their hands, and one had … the star of David. And there were books, books and more books. Most of these old Tibetan folios still haven’t been read by scientists.
Although Potala is now a national museum, there are Lamas, who bless believers and sanctify various things. But, for all that, they do not take money in their hands, instead requesting that presents be placed at the foot of the statues.
There are a lot of different currencies from different countries of the world. Rubbles and hryvneas were among the exotic currencies there. And the banknote of 200 tenge, which I put into the glass case of one of statues, became the first “representative” of Kazakhstan.
After the semi-darkness of the palace the bright sun dazzled us… Tibetan pilgrims were moving towards us. They are allowed into the palace after lunch time and they move towards the tourists. Prayer mills are humming, the dull sound of mantras penetrates our ears…
And who are these men and women with stones behind their backs, carrying such a heavy cargo up the way; it’s disturbing to look at them. Two exhausted men sat on stone stairs. A girl came up to them and merrily started to sing something to them. They smiled and stood up… That’s where the song helps to build and live. The mystery of the carriers resolved quickly – those are the workers of restoration. They do not spare money for restoration as well as for building new houses, not only in Lhasa, but everywhere in Tibet.
Tibet was a theocratic country for centuries. Dalai Lamas, which were the heads of Tibetan religion, also governed the country, and monasteries were cultural as well as administrative centres. In any Tibetan family it was considered an honour if at least one of sons became a Lama.
There are many monasteries in Tibet even now, but they only number one tenth of what they did in the past. The number of Lamas has also decreased accordingly. In the past, there could have been as much as 7,000 Lamas in a monastery; now in the largest Tibetan monastery, Drepung, there are 700 Lamas.
The first monastery that we visited was Sera on the northern outskirts of Lhasa. It looks more like a small medieval city, with its narrow streets and the patios of the houses where Lamas live. There they wash their clothes and make the invariable tea. That is always done using solar energy; two large steel sheets focus sun rays to the bottom of the kettle. The tea is ready in 10 minutes.
In Sera you can see a unique sight – disputing monks. Actually, those are apprentices that learn to dispute and prove their correctness. There is a rumble in a courtyard, where young learners sit on the ground. There is a monk in front of each group, he says something and then makes a sharp thrust ahead towards the learners. A simultaneous clapping and kick into the ground follow the thrust. The sitting people reply, and then everything repeats.
There are tourists walking around the disputing monks, but they do not pay attention to this. The Monastery needs to earn money.
Soon the atmosphere captivates you and you forget about the time…
However, the old Lama, who observed the disputes, walks among the disputing people, makes some remarks, checks some notebooks; then everybody leaves. What was the point of the debates?
One of the monks says, “This is a tree”. Others tell him: “No, this is a stone”. And then he proves why this is a tree. In such a vague way, Purbo explained us the point of the debate.
Lamas disperse to their houses and tourists spread over the monastery. And then the time comes for street tradesmen. There are a lot of them in Tibet. Sometimes it’s hard to see whether there are more tradesmen or begging women and children. And both of the categories are very pestering.
If you give a yuan to a beggar, instead of thanking you he holds you asking for more, and from all around you other poor people hurry towards you shouting “Hele, money!” Sometimes in such a situation only rudeness can help.
Tradesmen in Tibet are fine psychologists, they instantly catch your interested sight and will not let you go until you buy a souvenir. However, you can bargain as much as you want. When you are asked 100 yuans for something, if you are persistent, you’ll get it for 15. There it is important to catch the right time to leave… When the distance between me and the trader is about 15 meters, I always state here “OK, OK.”
The stands of the tradesmen impress with their lavishness. There are various furnishings from turquoise and other stones, and goods made from copper on those stands, where, for some reason, statues of Buddha are mixed with Christian crosses. We couldn’t find out which were Tibetan.
Besides Sera, we also visited the Drepung and Chokan monasteries. Dalai Lamas lived in the former before Potala was built. There also were huge Buddhas, semi-darkness and the smell of candles and grease of yaks. In the last monastery the Buddhism penetrated me so much that the mantra “Om Mane padme hum” spontaneously sounded in my mind.
Unfortunately, the spirit of commerce reached even as far as these places; along with people faithful to Buddhism one can see pseudo-pilgrims in monasteries, who prostrate themselves for pictures. However, the rate is not high, five yuans are enough for a photo.
The road to Kailash
In the last day of our stay in Lhasa, Purbo suddenly said that we cannot get to the sacred Kailash: “Too little time. You only have nine days, but to reach the mountain and conduct the ritual circumvention, you need a minimum of twelve.”
In reply, our dear guide heard that we came to Tibet primarily because of Kailash, we’ve read a lot about the mountain and we wouldn’t leave anywhere until we make the ritual. The argument lasted for about two hours and sometimes we were reaching a dead end. The dispute was settled when our guide was promised generous tips.
- We’ll travel continuously through the bright time of the days, with no stops for sightseeing, we were austerely warned by Purbo.
According to the map that we bought in Lhasa, the southern part of Tibet is a highly populated region and there is a road of international importance, so it seemed that we wouldn’t have any major problems. In reality, the wonderful highway finished in 100 kilometres. And then our jeeps were jumping over a wide earth road along with a stream of trucks and busses.
Tibet consists of large flat valleys, surrounded by deserted mountains. In the valleys, bogs oddly mixed with huge sand-dunes. Unlike our clean mountain rivers, muddy streams run down from the mountains.
Periodically you can see small villages where children, sitting along the road, are searching for lice on each other’s heads. Sometimes the ruins of old fortresses and towers gleam along the way.
In each of the villages, there is a tavern where we were offered a muddy soup with yak meat. However, it is much better than Chinese food. Purbo was quite surprised that we had Tibetan food in completely unsanitary conditions without any disgust, and even with some degree of pleasure.
Here is the first mountain pass, it is 5100 metres above see level.
- Oh sololo, sololo, whisper our guides.
That’s the way they make a peculiar prayer as a gratitude for overcoming the mountain pass. Poles with colourful flags are an indispensable attribute of the pass and the border between two valleys, which were neighbouring kingdoms, often hostile to each other.
Tourists take pictures next to the poles. Lhasa, according to Tibetan criteria, is nearby, about 200 kilometres away; that’s why there are many tourists. For most of them, this mountain pass is the main mountain sight in the trip.
Before and behind us there is an endless road with cars crawling like insects. The hammers started to bang in our minds again, on such an altitude a new acclimatisation is needed. The ground is shaking and doesn’t offer good support. Descend as soon as possible…
Below was the city, Shigatse, the second largest in Tibet, with ideally flat asphalted streets and the residence of Panchen-Lama, one the highest hierarchs of the Lamaist religion. Because we are in a hurry, we observe the residence from the distance. The golden roofs glare in the sun light. Everything is like in a cartoon… The sign along the road states that we are leaving Shingatse, and the flat asphalt turns to an earth road. This happened in all the cities we passed through.
In the first day of the trip our heroic drivers (there probably aren’t any other types of driver in Tibet) passed 350 kilometres. The overnight stop in a small town, Lhatse, at an altitude of 4,200 metres was painful, our heads were swimming and we had some stains in our eyes.
We envyingly observed three Germans over dinner in a hotel with the distinctive name “For adventure-lover”. They were returning from Kailash and it seemed that they felt at home in Tibet, they were drinking beer with a pleasure. In our condition we couldn’t allow ourselves any alcohol, because even in small amount it exacerbates the suffering from lack of oxygen.
Hotels in Tibetan towns and villages are just small rooms with beds and wash-basins, with the toilets being outside. They are a special issue in Tibet. In huge valleys there is no place to hide. So the Tibetans don’t try to do it too much. A man can walk away from his company for about two metres, a woman for a maximum of ten.
The next day it seemed as if nature had gone mad: the weather was sunny at first, then rain with hail, snow and sunny again. Small streams washed out the road in many places. If it wasn’t for the power and cross-country ability of “Land-cruisers” and skills of the drivers, we wouldn’t have moved much.
In one place the road pressed to rocks by the river, just joining the mountain stream and for about one hundred metres we drove without knowing where would we get. But we were lucky. Spirits protecting Shambhala rescued us from all troubles. We’ve seen many tightly stuck trucks and busses along the way.
Actually the thread of the only road connecting all settlements of southern Tibet can easily be washed away by any strong rain. That’s why there are road stations along it, looking like the forts of Wild West. Workers in orange jackets on motor-blocks drive off from those stations to places where the road become especially impassable, armed only with spades. However, they manage to resist nature in such harsh conditions.
You can also see military garrisons along the road. I’ll never forget the Chinese officer in a uniform with golden shoulder straps, who melancholically looked into the deserted valley, and probably damned the day when he decided to become a soldier. The nearest settlement where he can spend his leave is 60 kilometres away behind a five-kilometre mountain pass. It reminds me of his Soviet colleagues on their duty somewhere in the Siberian taiga.
By the evening we reached the town Saga, where, on entering, we had our documents thoroughly checked. After that, there were several check-points like that and they didn’t let us forget that Tibet was an occupied country after all.
In the town there are nine thousand people, no industry and construction works everywhere. As we were told, they built hotels. We stayed in one of them. It was a wonderful hotel of a European level, but… without water.
- Our girls will bring you as much water, of the required temperature, as you need, explained the embarrassed administrator.
The guides couldn’t explain to us how people earn a living in Saga, and where the money comes from for the vast construction in the town, where visitors can come only on jeeps.
For example, opposite our hotel the construction works were going on even at night under a downpour.
Then back to the trip from 7 in the morning until complete darkness. In one of the valleys along the road we suddenly saw many animals. Antelopes and wild donkeys weren’t afraid of the cars. The same applied to big marmots, two or three times bigger than ours. Silver cranes walked in pairs on the bogs. It was fabulous, like in African safari. We still can’t understand why other valleys didn’t have such an abundance of creatures.
Tibetans, being Buddhists, virtually do not hunt, but there are Chinese garrisons nearby. I can imagine how our officers, dying of boredom, would use the opportunity…
This time we sleep not even in a village, but in a so called hotel with one room for six people. The altitude is 4880 metres above sea level. That is very hard.
- On Kilimanjaro we spent a night at the altitude of 4800 metres and nobody could sleep, said Angela, daughter of our group’s leader Yuri Lukyanov.
When sleeping, the lack of oxygen is especially hard to bear. Somewhere deep inside, the brain is afraid of suffocating and doesn’t let you relax. Often you wake up feeling suffocated, your head aching.
Over dinner in a café we observed a Chinese gold prospector, who was celebrating his fortune with the local vodka, smelling like medicine, and stood to treat anyone who wished it. A charming girl, who looks 10 years old, is waiting the tables. It appeared that she was 13 years old. That means that in 2 more years she will become a married woman.
- Is she literate?, we asked Purbo.
- No, why? Her family has a good business. By the way that Chinese washed off 2,5 kilograms of gold. He is glad.
And then we realise that during the whole trip we didn’t come across any school or a hospital…
(To be continued in the next issue)