Jungle in Tibet?
For fifty miles I rode past spectacular ice-covered jaggy peaks that my map indicated rose over 19,000 feet [5792 meters] high. The maps also showed that the remote Assam tribal region of Northeast India lay just on the other side of these mountains. In Rawu I had resided in an alpine region. At one point during the day I watched the rapid change in the surrounding vegetation and found myself in a temperate region. By the end of the day I was happy and hungry. When I saw two Chinese army soldiers standing on the road in front of their camp, I asked them where I could buy some food. They directed me to their army camp. Everyone I asked reiterated that the camp possessed plenty of food but no one could pinpoint a time or place where I could find it. Finally, a soldier took me to the commanding officer. He was obviously unsure about my presence in his camp but my bicycle journey impressed him. He arranged for me to eat in the mess hall when all of the soldiers ate but he made it clear that I could not spend the night. I had an hour before dinner so I decided to just hang out in the center of the compound where all the men played Ping-Pong and basketball. Without much of a wait one of the soldiers asked me to join him in a game of Ping-Pong on the only table. Like most all Chinese soldiers in Tibet boredom filled these guys’ lives. Most of them were from Beijing or Shanghai, and had attended some of the better schools in China. They considered being stationed in Tibet something like being sent to Siberia. Most of them also thought that Tibetan people were not much smarter than dogs or monkeys. My ability to speak some Chinese pleased the soldiers. They wanted to know everything about America. They all had seen Michael Jordan perform his extraordinary basketball skills on TV. I disappointed them when I informed them that I could not play basketball. After a couple of games against my first Ping-Pong opponent, they realized that I could play a half decent game. Everyone wanted to play against me to try to beat the American at Ping-Pong. I enjoyed playing and joking with these guys. When the call for dinner came, one of the officers directed me to the back to the kitchen. The commander allowed me to eat in the back with the kitchen staff and the officer that was assigned to watch over me. They fed me well, rice, chicken, pork and vegetables. By the time I walked out of the kitchen my belly was totally stuffed with wonderful Chinese food.
At the lowest point on this section of the road lies Tangmai-a place covered with dense tropical jungle. This was not the Tibet that I knew. Monkeys filled the trees and smashed snakes dotted the road. I stopped in the only place to eat in Tangmai. When I sat down at the table to wait for my food, visions of India came back to me, the heat, the sweat, the hoards of flies everywhere. From Tangmai the river turned south into a tribal area that remained almost unexplored. It is only accessible by foot trails that follow the river down through deep gorges. Most Tibetans do not know how to live in this kind of environment. They do not know how to survive the heat or how to treat tropical diseases with Tibetan medicine. I made a mental note and left the gorges for another trip. I turned west and started up one of the last passes that separated me from Lhasa.
The town of Dongzhou captured my interest. It is positioned between the jungle of Tangmai and the predominately high altitude Tibetan Plateau. The people of this town wear a style of dress that I had never witnessed before in Tibet. It consisted of a heavy brown wool poncho and an elf-like hat made of brown wool with a band of gold brocade around the edge. By Tibetan standards a luxury hotel operated in town. Fortunately, I got a room with clean sheets to myself. Most Chinese and Tibetan hotel rooms have four to six beds crammed into a single room with cold carpetless concrete floors and maybe a single window. Tibetans and Chinese never travel alone. It is normally the luck of the draw as to who else you share a hotel room with. The notion that Americans have of privacy does not really exist in China or most other parts of Asia. Being a foreigner, I would get a room to myself a fair amount of the time. There is still a practice of segregation when it comes to foreigners in this land.
After a hearty dinner, I returned to my room to write and relax. I heard a knock at my door, I called and two young Tibetans in Western clothes came into my room. We talked for a bit. I learned that one of them worked at the TV station in Bayi, a big military town between Dongzhou and Lhasa. I did not realize it at first but the other one was the local police officer. He seemed like a decent guy so I started to ask him about the towns between Dongzhou and Lhasa. He told me that Bayi and Nyingchi would definitely be trouble spots for me. He warned me that the police there would certainly hassle me. When I asked him about Dongzhou he replied it was “closed to foreigners,” smiled, and then said that it was also “open a little.” When he asked to inspect my passport, I knew I could trust him. I showed it to him and explained all the different stamps from countries in South America, Central America and other parts of Asia.
Since Tangmai my days consisted of continual climbing. After a day and half of uphill, many more miles lay ahead. By sundown I found a spot on the edge of the road to set up camp. With few level places around other travelers had obviously camped at this location. I could see a few patches of snow just up ahead, I knew that this was one of the last places to stop before the top of the pass. I started into my normal evening routine. I found three big rocks on which to balance my large metal mug and lit a wood fire under it to get the water boiling. I started to cook one of my standard dinners of ramen noodles with dried fish. Like most every day, I was starved, my belly ached for food. I could not wait to eat. In my hurry to get the food ready, I hit one of the rocks and spilled most of my dinner into the fire. Using my bandanna to protect my hand I recovered a good part of the dinner from the hot coals of the fire, but it still left me hungry. Just as I started to fall asleep, two Tibetan men and three mules decided that my camp was also a suitable place to spend the night. All of their mules carried heavy loads of goods from Bayi. Without a doubt they had come from the other side of the pass. I was not in a good mood and I just wanted to get to sleep. I did not want these guys poking around all my stuff. I felt tired and hungry.
I think they sensed my state of mind to some degree and started doing their own thing. The father found a few smoldering coals left from my fire and quickly rekindled a flame. Starting a fire at 13,000 feet [3963 meters] is never an easy job. At such a high altitude the air has little oxygen to keep a flame going, you have to almost continually blow on the coals for it to burn well. Meanwhile, the son collected more firewood and unpacked the mules so that they could freely graze during the night. When Tibetans travel usually the only thing they actually cook on the fire is a large pot of tea. The tea is then drunk and also used to mix with tsampa, toasted barley flour, to make a dough-like mixture that is eaten. Tsampa makes up one of the main staples of the Tibetan diet along with yak meat. Once their pot of tea started to boil, they called and asked if I wanted anything to eat. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, grabbed my thermarest mat and sat down by the warm fire. They instantly started to fill my cup with tea and gave me a couple of handfuls of tsampa. We exchanged few words, they spoke almost no Chinese and I had difficulties understanding their Tibetan, but as I sat around the fire with these men I felt I became part of an ancient circle that has gone on for thousands of years. These guys did not know me or probably anyone even from my country, but they went out of their way to make sure that I had hot tea to drink and food to eat. As I sat at the edge of the glowing fire and looked into their eyes I knew why I struggled through so many hardships on this trip, I knew that all the trials were worth it.
Later that night a cold young Tibetan boy with soaking wet tennis shoes showed up with no pack and no food. He also had just crossed the pass, walking through icy streams and snow fields. He was trying to get down to the warmer valley as fast as he could. The young boy did not have any warm clothes to wear but when he spotted the fire, he knew that he could get warmed up. The other men gave the boy some tea and tsampa and then went to sleep under the stars. The boy kept the fire going the entire night, curling up as close as he could get to the warming flames and coals. I knew that his back side would be freezing as his front baked from the heat of the flames.