September 25, 2018
Far Flung
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Tibet
Endless Ride

Touring the Chinese way

By Thomas Nunlist

Three hours south of Lhasa, our tan van bumped along the road hugging the Yarlung River. At last, we’d entered the real Tibet: the Tibet of yaks and rugged, brown mountains.

Three of my five companions, already suffering from mild altitude sickness, clung tightly to their oxygen bottles, hats pulled over their eyes. Our driver, a gangly Han Chinese man of about 35, maneuvered our beat up vehicle along the winding road, dodging the occasional stray donkey without expression.

Our guide, Cheng Dak, munched a rice cracker and carefully examined our itinerary. He let us sleep through the beautiful and abandoned terrain, letting us conserve our energy until we arrived at the next destination, the Tradruk Temple, a 7th century monastery in the Yarlung Valley.

Dak, an excitable man in his 40s, had been sitting quietly since our pre-dawn steamed dumpling breakfast. During his six seasons as a tour guide, he had developed an intimate knowledge of the landscape, and a knack for making Westerners laugh. Seven years earlier, he had failed his final exam to become a Buddhist monk. Exhaling smoke as he’d talked at the foot of the Dalai Lama’s palace a day earlier, he promised us he would one day return to fulfill his calling. Until then, he seemed content to drink Red Bull on the road.

Tess, Kristen, Nora, Jimmy, Courtney and I were on vacation from the school we were attending in Nanjing, China. We six had decided to spend our vacation here, as an exotic counterbalance to China’s crowded, westernized coast.

A few hours from the capital, the last physical signs of modernity had faded. Unlike in the United States, where in even the most rural places you find the occasional farmhouse, here we saw only gray-brown wilderness, and the road cutting through it. As we shook off our sleepiness, Nora snapped a few pictures of the nearby cloud-wreathed peaks that reached up like teeth into the sky.

Dak, spotting a small building up ahead, asked us if we needed to use the bathroom. It was the first building we had seen in over 50 miles. But as we pulled onto the shoulder, three small children scrambled up to our van, as if expecting our arrival.

Even before we’d stopped, a small boy with rosy cheeks opened the door. He climbed over Courtney in the front seat, squeezed his way past our bags and looked at me.

“Hello!” he bellowed into my face.

I offered him a high-five.

A girl, in black sweater and bright red track pants, stood on the rail, head ducked, trying her English with us. Her older companion stood beside her, smiling. The driver tried unsuccessfully to shoo them away, but ended up laughing.

Then, at a word from the girl in red, the kids exchanged glances, and belted out:

“Weeee will, weeee will, ROCK YOU!”

Cheering after the refrain.

Later the girls performed a duet that lasted long enough for Nora to snap more pictures.
An older woman, evidently their mother, stood silently off to the side, as if she had grown from the rocky soil. She didn’t approach us, and only smiled starkly when I said hello.

I walked to the edge of the road, where the ground dropped steeply into the riverbed. My friends followed, and we took pictures together in the mid-morning light, posing separately and together.
As we pulled away, the kids waved to us, but the mother looked in the direction from which we had come. A year later, Tess told me that Dak had given them a little money.

These children performers were only the first of many we saw while driving through the countryside, and this was far from the most remote place.

* * *

As we neared Mount Everest, we encountered many groups of people on prominent hilltops overlooking lakes and scenic villages. We always stopped, and I always participated in the festivities.

I sat on a cloth-covered yak, and held a giant dog, and got my picture taken with more than one stranger. On the mountain where we found the yak and the dog, a few teenage girls were peddling small plastic bracelets made to imitate wood. Jewelry held out, they insisted we examine it. But once we had the trinket in our hands they would back away and demand money.

The roadside people are only a sideshow to the strange cultural carnival that happens in Tibet. Natives try to play up to images they have of themselves, or that they perceive others to have. And so a metaculture is born — the fusion of both the tourist and toured, the real way of life deliberately half-hidden behind song and dance, easily-recognized platitudes borrowed from both cultures. Trying to get a roadside person in Tibet to be honest with you is like trying to get a mime to speak to you. It won’t, happen because that would violate the rules of showmanship.

The Chinese government has a long history of destroying the past, from smashing temples to burning ancient documents. But when the Dalai Lama fled China, in 1959, the Chinese decided not raze his famous Putala Palace, converting it into a museum instead. It was a genius move: the site’s holiness was destroyed by its very preservation, by making it into a show.

A few snow flurries had begun to fall when Dak told us it was time to leave the overlook where we were posing with the yak.

Tess was trying to give the bracelets back to the girl, and finally laid them on the side of the road. The girl picked them up again and followed her to the car, hands stretched out, but we were already closing the door. She waved at us in dismissal as we pulled away.

* * *

We’d dropped below the tree line. Barren valleys gradually grew greener. Rocks were replaced by bushes and grass, until trees abruptly began. These hospitable “low-lands” are the truly beautiful parts of Tibet. We traveled along the raging Yarlung River. Our altitude headaches began disappearing, and large travel buses of Han Chinese began clogging the narrow valley roadways.

Our final stop was at a monastery on a tiny island in a holy lake. The lowest point of elevation on our trip, the island was ringed with bushy pine trees, but granite spires still peeked over the surrounding hills. Han Chinese tourists swarmed about. They crowded every corner of the shore; they choked the inside of the monastery. More than five full-size tour buses lined the small road leading up to it.

Courtney and I bummed cigarettes from Dak, who had just cracked open a Red Bull, and looked for a more secluded spot. Near the back of the island, we found a chair-like rock. Tired of monasteries, we kicked back for a smoke.

We’d signed up for a Chinese-style travel tour without knowing what we were getting into. In this style of travel, the bus will typically go for five to seven hours through the countryside, stop at a location or landmark for less than 45 minutes, and then depart again for the next location, five to seven hours in a different direction.

That’s how Dak had been conducting our tour, and we were all getting tired of it. So now, when he came to fetch us, after the requisite half hour, we demanded to stay longer. He reluctantly acquiesced.
I suggested a dip. We rolled up our pant legs and started to wade out into the lake. The water was cold and crisp. A troop of Han Chinese sat on the shore, watching us and pointing. But just as the water reached our knees, Dak came running down the hillside faster than I thought he could manage.
He yelled for us to get out. Swimming in the holy lake was unthinkable.

Crestfallen, Courtney and I waded out and sat down again on the rocks amid the array of garbage thrown there by the Chinese: bags of chips, cans of Red Bull, and what appeared to be an ancient shoe rotted under the log I had my feet on. As I sat there, an older man put a cigarette butt out in the water, and a group of pontoon boats took off for the monastery on the other side, belching smoke into the air.
Dak took us to a small courtyard, where statues of a male and female figure faced each other. Both were nude from the waist down. I squatted next to the female statue, and struck a satisfied smile for Tess’ camera. Then, following my lead, Dak ushered all the girls around the penis statue and, laughing, took a picture of the group.

As he’d promised, on our last night in Tibet, Dak took us to a Lhasa nightclub. We took a table near the middle of the crowded second-floor bar. A group of young men in leather jackets sat to our right, and several older, slightly overweight women to our left. The wall behind the stage was a massive, somewhat blurry printout of the Putala Palace. Two waitresses approached us with Budweisers.

After a few minutes, the house lights dimmed and the stage lit up. Five male dancers entered wearing colorful shirts, furry hats and big furry boots. Tibetan-sounding techno music began, and in unison the dancers skipped forward, executed a turn, then joined hands in pairs and skipped in circles. A young woman similarly dressed joined them. She sang over the music as the men danced around her, waving their hands over the length of her body. The beat stopped, and the dancers froze, then bowed and skipped offstage.

The emcee praised the dancers, then beckoned the audience to approach the stage. I gave in to my drunk friends’ request that I take Dak up for a slow dance.

He went with it. Hand in hand, and hand on hip, we danced. Old women and young men twirled around us. My friends laughed and strained over the crowd to snap pictures of us. Looking into Dak’s face, with his slightly smoke-yellowed teeth and bed-head hair, I realized that he would probably never return to the monkhood.

The music changed to a local folk song. Most of the remaining bar-goers rushed the stage. The crowd divided into lines, and a complex dance began. We tipped forward on one foot, then back on the other, switched and danced in a circle in a Tibetan Cotton-Eyed Joe. I couldn’t keep up. At one point I failed to turn with the crowd, and a woman of about 40 laughed in a friendly way, and grabbed my shoulders, showing me what to do next.

We began staggering back home through a light rain. The street had entirely emptied of cars, and foot traffic and lights were intermittent. Every two or three blocks, we came upon Chinese military police stationed at corners. Their faces were hard to see in the shadows and rain, but their riot shields and machine guns gleamed uncomfortably in the dim night. They were like phantoms.

Unable to sleep, I made my way next door to a 24-hour Internet cafe. Almost all of the patrons were young Chinese playing Internet video games. I checked my mail and the weather back home, and then sat there, not knowing what to do, but not wanting to go to bed. Nobody came and talked to me, or tried to sing me songs or sell me bracelets. People merely sat at their computers doing what people in front of computers everywhere do: they surfed the Internet. Behind me someone listened to “Beat it” through headphones. I paid the few cents I owed and headed to sleep.

Dak saw us off at the train station the next morning. In 10 days, he was the only Tibetan I’d really met. We were now looking at a 48-hour train ride back to Nanjing. In the station, I bought as much beer as I could carry.

In my room in the sleeper car were two quiet, shy girls, and a clean-cut Han Chinese man returning from a business trip. He asked me if I thought Tibet should be its own nation. At first I said no, because they desperately need the money that flows in from the Chinese government (Beijing funds 90 percent of Tibet’s public spending).

He replied that Tibet had always been and will always be part of China.

Then I reconsidered. I realized I had no idea what any Tibetans thought about that. Not even Dak.

Later in the dining car, as we laughed together about some of the things we had seen and done, we saw a group of six raucous Tibetan twenty-somethings a few tables ahead of us. By 9 p.m., their table was already covered with more than 40 empty beer bottles. I waved hello, and they beckoned us over.

They handed us Budweisers, and toasted us. Then they toasted Tess’s beauty, which made her blush. They were also traveling to Nanjing, where they would attend a police academy. I asked them how they felt about home, and the Chinese government. After looking at each other for a few seconds, one jokingly said he was studying to become a policeman because he didn’t know how to dance. But really, he clarified, it paid well.

Then one of the men silenced us, and the group exchanged smiling glances. The tallest, who sat in the middle our booth with his arms around his friends, closed his eyes and began to sing:

“Ain’t nothing but a heartache…”

His friends joined in, and then so did we.

“Ain’t nothing but a mistake, I never wanna hear you say, I want it that way!”

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