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Signs of Tibet

The hardest part of a long uphill on a bike is not knowing how much more remains. The great thing about cycling in a Tibetan area is that prayer flags always wave in the wind marking the top of passes. I climbed my first real pass, 10,500 feet [3200 meters], an entire day of cycling uphill. When I saw the small colored flags that release prayers as they blow in the wind, I knew I had returned to Tibet! The Tibetan prayer flags or wind-horses came from the pre-Buddhist practices of Bonpo, the folk religion of Tibet. Each of the flags is imprinted with images and prayers meant to purify the wind and please the gods. This pass signaled what would be the first of countless days of climbing. By the end of the trip I had succeeded in climbing 160,000 vertical feet [48,700 meters] of uphill, almost six times the height of Mt. Everest. This marked the beginning of the climb into what makes up the eastern edge of the Himalaya. Some of the great rivers of Asia flowed through the valleys of this area. The Mekong finds it way south to Vietnam, the Yangtze east to Shanghai, and the Brahmaputra cuts southwest into India.

Zhongdian sits on the southwestern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The town consists of a mix of ugly Communist Chinese concrete buildings and old adobe Tibetan houses. Since it is the county seat, there are a large number of Chinese government buildings and Chinese workers in the town. I have often wondered who could design such hideous concrete cube-shaped buildings, which seem to set the architectural standard for the PRC. Up until just six months earlier this area had never officially been open to foreigners.

After my arrival in town, I learned that the one and only backpacker hangout was a little place called the Lhasa Cafe, which was run by a young Naxi and Tibetan woman named Lama. A wonderfully energetic and intelligent woman. By herself, she created and managed this hip cafe. Lama and I quickly became friends. She wanted to learn more English and I wanted to learn more Chinese. We both had roughly the same level of language skills, respectively. During one of our many conversations, I mentioned the English word capitalist, which she did not understand. I looked up the word in my Chinese/English dictionary and showed the characters to Lama. When she spotted the Chinese definition she reacted rather adversely to the word and the concept. I instantly realized that this was the result of years of Chinese propaganda. When I asked Lama if she thought she was a capitalist, she flatly refused that she had anything to do with being a capitalist. I asked her a bit about how she actually ran her business. She told me that she rented the building from the government bus depot, for about 300 yuan (US$60) a month. She also paid both her mother and another woman to help with the cooking. I asked her what would happen if she could not pay the monthly building rent, and she replied, I would be kicked out. This all sounded to me to be a purely capitalistic enterprise, but Lama did not want to be identified as being a capitalist. After a lengthy discussion, Lama started to understand the true meaning of capitalism. Since Dung Xiaopings economic reforms of the 1980s, China has been in a rather strange state. Officially it is a Marxist Communist country, but in certain areas limited capitalist enterprises are allowed to operate.

Another result of the changes in China was the disco operating next to the Lhasa Cafe. I had seen large numbers of discos in the bigger towns and cities all over China. I had never actually ventured inside of one of these discos before, but I had heard plenty of stories from other foreigners who had lived in China. Lama told me that she went over to the disco every couple nights when they played the BananaRama music video. I think I disappointed her a little when I informed her that I had never heard of BananaRama. So, when her friend came running over to announce that the BananaRama video was about to go on, she invited me to dance with her. One of the few things that I knew about Chinese discos is that most of the time women dance with women and men dance with men.

The entire room glowed red and blue dimly from the overhead lights. Booths with tables where couples were seated in secluded darkness surrounded a central dance area with the requisite mirrored ball and flashing lights. Up at the front of the room sat a small stage with a keyboard, drum kit and microphone stand. Dancing and singing excited Lama. BananaRama appeared to be an Australian pop music group mostly composed of dancers. The synthetic drum machine beat started up and a few people shuffled out on to the dance floor. I stayed on the side for a bit, to just watch. My body perspired with nervousness. I was not sure of what to expect or what Lama expected of me. After the first song, I started to relax and Lama walked over to fetch me. Once I got out on the floor and moved around, I grew more comfortable. As I danced in a Chinese disco on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, I contemplated the strangeness of this entire event. The bizarre mix of East and West reminded me of stories from Pico Iyers Video Nights in Kathmandu.

Being early in the season, the high passes just started to clear enough to allow jeeps through. I had spent the night at the last town before climbing the pass that separated me from the Mekong River valley. I watched for jeeps and trucks coming from the other direction since the day before, but I saw nothing to indicate that the road had completely opened. Many people around town warned me that the pass remained closed, and it would not be possible to cross it on a bike. When I inquired more, they informed me that snow 3-5 feet [1-2 meters] deep extended for 15 miles and blocked the road. I found this difficult to believe. Some folks told me that I would freeze to death. They insisted that I should just wait another week or two until the snow melted more. I did not want to wait. Soon after returning from my first trip to Tibet I purchased the best sleeping bag I could find. I had spent too many winter nights freezing in an old-worn sleeping bag on my first trip to Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet. Each night I would wear everything I had. I wrapped my towel around my neck, put the bottom of my sleeping bag into my backpack and still I would only be able to sleep until 2 or 3 A.M., after that it would be too cold to continue sleeping. With the temperature dropping down to -5F in the worst part of the night, my old sleeping bag was incapable of keeping me warm without a tent or a proper sleeping mat. I would just lay there, turn my face away from the icy wind and wait until sunrise. One morning I had gone to fetch water from the river, to cook up something warm to drink. By the time I returned to my camp and got the stove lit, my pot of water had already frozen over. This time I carried a toasty sleeping bag and a tiny one-person tent. At least I would stay warm even when the temperature dropped below 0F.

The first day I managed to climb 4,600 feet [1400 meters], through patchy snow, nothing too difficult. I knew I was high enough to finish the climb the next day but not so high that I suffer from the cold during the night. At about 3 A.M. the low-rumble of a convoy of trucks slowly working their way down from the top of the pass woke me up. This was a good sign, it must have become passable enough for the trucks to get through. The next morning I started climbing again, little by little more snow appeared on the sides of the road. When I got near the top of the pass, I could see out onto an immense snow-covered plateau. The pure white snow blanketed my entire surroundings. The combination of sun and snow blinded me, I had to keep my sunglasses on to shield me eyes. I quickly realized why everyone had told me that the snow would extend for 15 miles, the road crossed a double pass. I had reached the top of the first pass but it would be another 15 miles onto the even higher second pass. I rode through 15 miles of mud and snow, not that bad, just messy. As I climbed the last bit before the 14,000 foot [4268 meter] pass, I spotted a group of Chinese Army soldiers walking on the side of the road. Their truck had broken down earlier. They decided to try and walk until they could find another ride. Near the top, the mud covered trucks and jeeps lined up in the slushy snow. They had dug ruts two feet [0.75 meter] deep in the snow, nobody could move, someone on the uphill side had become stuck. After a quick rest break, I hauled my bike through the snow and around the immobile mass of trucks. The only thing better than cycling under the sun in the mountains is blasting downhill in the mountains. I slid through the mud and ice, around the turns, with dirt spitting up into my eyes from the front tire. I reveled in a few hours of unending downhill that tired me almost as much as the uphill.

Chinese officials in Zhongdian reported to me that the town of Deqing was now officially open to foreigners. The more places that are officially open the better I can eat and the easier my trip becomes. I quickly found a room in the Deqing government hotel. This place functioned mostly as a truck stop for the drivers that hauled tons of timber out of Eastern Tibet and northwestern Yunnan province. Chinese government hotels always look the same, large concrete buildings a couple stories high, with one or two attendants who live in a bored stupor and do not give a crap if you stay in the hotel or not. Most would actually rather have you not spend the night, so they would not be bothered with straightening the bed covers out in the morning. Changing the sheets was out of the question.

I hauled my bike up the steps, locked it to the metal frame of the bed and headed out to find any other Westerners in town. A quick search turned up a group of four young German backpack travelers. They had stayed in town for a few days and had no problems with the police. I delighted in hearing this report. My immediate task became eating and stocking up on supplies. I shared a hotel room with a young Japanese traveler. We had met on the road a couple days earlier. He looked Chinese and dressed in Chinese Army clothes, so he did not have any worries about the police catching him. A few days of resting sounded enticing to me, but it got cut a little short. My Japanese friend, Toshiba, went to the local Public Security Bureau to inquire about getting his visa extended. The head policeman curtly told him that he could not get his Chinese visa extended and by the way this town was closed to foreigners. Toshiba relayed this story to me back in our hotel room. I decided to head out for a bite to eat before I packed up to leave in the morning.

The Germans always ate at a small little family shop just across the street from the expensive hotel where they stayed. I dropped in to reiterate the story of the PSB policeman, when a large Chinese man holding a red German passport turned around and said in English, I'm sorry, this type of visa not valid in town of Deqing. One of the Germans replied with, But we were told in Beijing, that Deqing was now open At this point I realized that I still possessed my passport. I stood up and carefully walked out of the cafe. A couple minutes later I returned to the hotel. I started to frantically look for the hotel attendant with little success. In Chinese hotels only the hotel attendants possess the room keys. A key is never given to the guest. I found a cleaning woman who informed me the attendant had gone out for lunch. I needed to get out of town NOW, not in a couple hours after the police rounded everyone up. After a bit of searching, I spotted a window that we had left open on the other side of the room. It was too high and small to climb in through. I managed to drop my belt down through the upper window to pull the latch open on the lower window. I quickly climbed in through the larger lower window. I jammed everything back into my packs and pushed my bike down the stairs. The town of Deqing covers the side of a mountain. From Deqing only one road continues on to the Tibetan border. To get there I would have to ride back past the cafe where the Germans ate their lunch with the police, a place that I could not afford to return to. I spotted a steep goat trail that zigzagged its way up the hillside to the upper road. With great effort I carried my bike up the goat trail three feet [1 meter] at a time. As soon as I reached the road I sped down the hill, through the main intersection, and out of town. Two hundred yards passed town, Toshiba stood at the edge of the road with his pack on his back. Lhasa was the destination that both of us had in mind. We both knew that the time to move on had come.

Since the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, they have created what is called the Tibet Autonomous Region. They have also taken large parts of the border areas of Tibet and have moved them into the surrounding Chinese provinces, effectively reducing the size of Tibet proper. So far, I had ridden in the Deqing Tibet Autonomous Region in Yunnan province, not officially in Tibet. As I got closer to the borders of Xizang, as the Chinese call Tibet, I knew that I would have to become more skillful about dealing with the police. I approached the town of Yanjing. I knew that a turnpike blocked the road some place in town but I did not know if the police would be on the lookout for foreigners. I spotted Yanjing up ahead, a small town in the valley between two massive 18,000-foot [5487 meter] ice covered peaks. The afternoon sun shone high overhead. I thought it would be wise to wait until dark in order to facilitate passing through town. Waiting, waiting, waiting, I spent a lot of time on this trip waiting. The worst times always came while waiting for the sun to go down, or waiting for the sun to come up, so I could sneak pass a police checkpoint. The waiting without knowing if my trip was going to be over or if I would be turned back created one of the hardest parts of the trip.

Returning to China | A Different Kind of Freedom | Tibet