A long, long time ago, the great public intellectual Bob Seger once issued a powerful manifesto. He was fed up, he said, with “paying dues,” and also tired of “the TV news.” And it just so happened that those societal ills rhymed with Mr. Seger’s rousing call to action: “K-K-K-K-KATMANDU! That’s really, really where I’m going to.” The resulting hit single helped Detroit’s greatest visionary achieve his first of ten platinum albums.
Now, thirty years later, it appears those of Mr. Seger’s generation are now following his advice, and in droves. Judging by the decidedly senior appearance of most of the Western tourists stepping (slowly) out of the souvenir shops here, anyway. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked across the little road bridge from Tibet into Nepal. But I never would have imagined that eight hours later (more on that to come), I’d be standing in line at an ATM with an almost-retired couple from upstate New York who’d just taken two weeks to walk the Annapurna Circuit. Continue reading
Back in Shigatse, while killing some time in the hotel room before bed, I’d picked up the courtesy travel magazine that came in the room. The power was out, the temperature was making its evening plummet, and I was putting off a decision on whether to take a quick cold shower while I at least had water available. Tilting my head slightly to shine my headlamp on the glossy pages, I saw that the feature article was on Zhangmu, the Chinese border town adjacent to Nepal. Interested, I read the first couple paragraphs. The lengthy intro basically highlighted two things: the existence of sherpas (夏尔巴), and the town’s (of course) booming economy. Cool, I thought. Sherpas.
Two days later (I never did take that shower), I remembered what I’d read and asked Norbu. Is Zhangmu (Zham in Tibetan) a Sherpa town? We were on the Friendship Highway, winding our way down towards the crack in the Himalayas that links Tibet and Nepal. Depending on how long things would take at the next checkpoint (where the Everest question was sure to be asked, one last time, just in case it was our lucky day), we’d be in Zhangmu by early afternoon. Norbu replied that there were no Sherpas in Zhangmu. None? None. Not even one.
I guessed all I had to look forward to was that booming economy. At least there’d be a shower.
As the three previous posts, all blank postcards, only partially portray, central Tibet has some beautiful, other-worldly scenery. High-altitude and semi-arid, the land mostly depends on snowmelt from ever-dwindling glaciers for sustaining life. In winter, the hills and valleys turn the same color as the dusty rocks lining the road, leaving three colors: brown land, white peaks, blue sky. Across the miles on highway G318, the only variation is the sky. At dawn it glows in the fierce cold wind, then pales and recedes under the dazzling, not-quite-so-distant sun passing overhead. Late afternoon it returns, like the tide, a deeper blue and darker until the fading sun drops out and it swallows everything up into cold darkness and wind. The Milky Way hangs overhead like a million glimmering icicles.
But as we made our tour-guided, 4WD-way from one checkpoint to the next on our drive from Lhasa, the mind of many a group member turned towards even more impressive landscape. Following the Friendship Highway to Nepal (so-called, in typical propaganda fashion, because it allows China to directly threaten India with an all-weather invasion route), we would be passing within spitting distance of that holy grail of awesome landforms (one, anyway): Qomolangma. Zhufeng. Mount Everest. Continue reading
Lhasa — just hearing the name of this fabled far-off place brings shivering sensations of cold wind and low oxygen, conjuring up images of a mystical, faraway Himalayan land, where imposing monasteries guard over snowy mountain passes and where, in the frigid dawn, the silence is broken by the guttural chants of thousands of monks rising with smoky billows of incense. At least, that’s what supposed to happen, I think, when westerners hear the name. I’m more clear on how Chinese imagine the place, informed as I am by the continuously-cycled radio tracks about the place, which all out-do songs on the American South in terms of nostalgic longing: Wide blue sky, expansive green grasslands, clear rushing rivers, high snowy mountains, and a clean simple life. Never mind that most people who listen to these songs have never been on the Tibetan Plateau. That’s probably the point. For Han Chinese living in the packed, high-growth and high-stress cities of their own ancestral lands, images of the wide-open frontier (and, perhaps, a Manifest Destiny sort of pride in their great nation’s domination of it) apparently make for very catchy pop lyrics. Continue reading
Nick here. I’m on the road — the Qingai-Tibet Iron Road — riding the train to Lhasa. Yup, two days ago I got up from my desk, clicked “save” on my unfinished thesis, and set off for Tibet.
(I’m without my usual sidekicks, including my lovely editor, so for those readers just hoping for cute Owen pictures, or any decent writing, then my 7 days in Tibet will not interest you in the slightest.)