Escape to Tibet, Part 3. Xian to Chengdu and beyond

Back in Xian two days later and once again smack dab in the center of the country (doh!), Gesar and I arranged another train ride; this time in a south-westerly direction, with another 1000 km plus journey and a seventeen hour train ride to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, the home of all that really spicy Chinese food you eat at your local Chinese restaurant.
This reminds me of a quick aside, the whole time Gesar and I were in China, we were struck by the poor quality and taste of the food, regardless of how expensive the restaurant was. I remember eating Bao in Xian, a kind of bread dumpling usually filled with meat or a vegetable, and the look on Gesar’s face after he bit into it, and immediately spat out half. A quick look at the contents showed us the bun was stuffed with green tea leaves. Ugh! My stomach still twinges from the memory. Why such poor food you ask? Well, you have to thank the late great Helmsman* for that. One of his most brilliant strategic long-term decisions during the Cultural Revolution was in getting rid of any kind of family lineage of skilled workers or tradespeople/ craftsmen due to their inherent bourgeois status, so that meant doctors, teachers, successful businessmen and your average skilled Chinese cook. Obviously they were still in short supply in 1991….
Anyway, back to the story. A different hotel, another travel agent, and tickets were purchased for the train. We had already lost about ten days with our aborted entry from the north, and didn’t want to sit around some dank proletarian hotel any longer than we needed to.

Plan Two: Ah, got to love Rinpoche..the man must have realized that Gesar and I would attract difficulties like flies to a carcass, and was probably sitting safely back in India laughing at all the potential strife we would get into….
Plan two was to meet an old Tibetan Lama called P&’%$ Tulku, a survivor of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and of incarceration in a Chinese prison, who would somehow help us achieve what felt like was becoming an impossible dream- to get Gesar safely into Tibet and enthroned in his monastery.

Let’s go! This time, there were limited train seats, so we were going the lowest class available. A brief description is necessary. Trains in India may have a bad reputation, but this train in China certainly could challenge that theory. The seating was arranged in benches to fit three, facing each other. To say ‘seating’ is a complement and mere flattery; these seats  were more like church pews similar to the ones I experienced as a boy during my (obviously) failed Catholic Christian upbringing. No padding, bare wood, seventeen hours, you get the picture.
The train was packed to the gills. Stuff was everywhere, people getting on and off, similar to any train journey in India. Most of our neighbors had the prerequisite glass jars full of tea, with hot water readily available on the platform.

Public brawling, Chinese style-Now before I tell this next event, I want you to understand that in the People’s Republic at that time, trains attempted to leave on time, without fail, barring major catastrophe like the world ending or something similar. As we were sitting there waiting for takeoff, a couple of rowdy types in front of us started to argue. Again, any kind of argument in China at that time was considered entertainment, so everyone in the carriage craned their heads to watch. The volume of exchange between the two became increasingly agitated. Suddenly, right before our very eyes, one guy grabs this big empty glass tea jar (about a liter capacity) and rams it into the face of the other, and fists, blood, glass fragments, people and belongings started flying everywhere. G and I looked on in disbelief with mouths agape. The fellow on the receiving end of the glass jar was up in no time and staggering down the aisle screaming, trying to get off the train, blood spurting profusely like a fountain, all over the other passengers as the other fellow chased him, ultimately restrained by some other men.

Now, as all this is going on, the train is pulling out of the station, and already off the platform. The injured man and his accompanying party screamed for a train guard, pulling frantically on the emergency stop handle, which produced no result whatsoever. The guard came eventually after a few minutes, and they pleaded with him to stop the train and let the man off. The victim was obviously in need of urgent medical attention, now seated at the end of the carriage in an open standing area, and blood was still flowing from him copiously, the flow now dampened by some strategically placed towels on his face rapidly turning pink. There pleading was in vain: the guardsman just stood there and repeated, ‘mao, mao’ or ‘no, no.’ The train just kept going until the first stop 45 minutes later. Trains in China just don’t stop. The next forty-five minutes until the first scheduled stop saw all passengers on our carriage lost in their own quiet thoughts,humbled by the sudden outburst,  the only sound to break the silence the occasional whimpering of the fellow at the end of the carriage.

Chengdu and P Tulku
Well, what do I remember of the journey on the train after that? Not much I can tell you! Oh, cans of the same soft drink taste differently depending on which part of China you are in; I distinctly remember extra fizz in the can when we pulled into one station near yet another nuclear power plant…….
Early the next day we arrived, covered in a thin layer of soot,  in the famous city of Chengdu and set about finding our contact there- P Tulku. After a little searching around this Chinese and soon obviously Tibetan populated neighborhood, we were led by a man that was clearly an ex-monk to a nondescript street of apartment buildings. As we approached, a kindly old man dressed as a lama, hair pulled up on top of his head like a yogi, wearing worn, disheveled and dirty yogi robes came limping towards us with a huge smile and pools of tears in his eyes.
The feeling I had right then was like a child watching an old Lassie movie- my heart wanted to explode at the sight of his instant and utter devotion to a boy he had never met before.
Gesar’s previous incarnation had been P Tulku’s teacher, and the look in this old man’s eyes was enough to fuel at least 100,000 prostrations of the most stubborn western buddhist. He was so happy; he giggled and laughed at us and fired away in rapid Tibetan. Gesar blessed him, not wanting to, but forced to by the old man placing Gesar’s hands on his head. Here we were, standing in the middle of the street, people starting to watch from windows and unfinished laundry now flapping like prayer flags above us as this partially crippled old man tried to do prostrations on the road in front of him, displaying his unswerving belief that Gesar was without a doubt his teacher, reborn.
Drinking copious amounts of sweet milk tea and eating Tibetan pastries moments later  in his little apartment several floors up, Gesar recounted the story of our adventure in Xining, occasionally acting out the part of various characters in the police station. Pewa tulku just giggled, laughed and smiled and smiled and smiled. Remember no-one spoke English, so we had to make do in broken Tibetan. P tulku recommended a hotel for us to stay in while he sorted out how we were going to get into Tibet, and set off with us to the hotel. Walking to a taxi, it was clear to me from the derogatory looks that the nearby Chinese people gave us that Pewa tulku was often derided by his Chinese neighbors. We couldn’t have been more proud to be with him that day. For the first time in many days, we felt safe.

Around Chengdu and the story of the born-again Chinese travel guide.
P Tulku took us to a hotel in the middle of town found on the bank of a rather large river, the Jinjiang, I think a tributary of the Yangste River. I just remembered the name- Traffic Hotel! ( for the morbidly curious: http://www.traffichotelchengdu.cn/)I can remember quite vividly the amount of garbage that I saw floating past in the river out front of our hoetl during our brief sojourn there, including the carcass of a rather bloated, recently deceased pig that eased effortlessly with the slowly moving current. How romantic. The hotel was nice enough, and the views (aside from the parade of trash floating by)  quite spectacular. We were also next to a primary school, which announced its presence several times a day by loudspeaker fanfare and the noise of children marching around the playground listening to patriotic music and words of patriotic encouragement from their teacher. In fact, to us they seemed to do about as much marching about as they did study!
Directly in front of the hotel was a Chinese-only night club, big sign on the door, and a small pleasant little outdoor café, right next to the river bank and some weeping willows. Across the river was a public park, filled in the early morning with tai chi practitioners whirling swords and doing other group oriented exercises.
That little cafe was the scene in Chengdu if you were a westerner and tourist.You could always find some other westerners about, lolling around the café, eating the food ( which was quite good) and sharing their experiences. Some were teachers living in the town, some tourists/backpackers, and obviously the cafe was everyone’s  quiet respite from the toils of their work, where pancakes, coffee and locally made snacks could be had pretty much all day and well into the evening.
P Tulku has settled us in, and hobbled off back to his house as we stood there, gratefully watching him go. It was plain to us that he had a great deal of difficulty in getting around, with one ankle turned painfully on its side as he walked, but he took off undaunted. I remember hearing something about him being severely beaten by the Chinese when imprisoned at some point. Most, if not all of the lamas we met on our trip had spent long years in jail, and P Tulku was no exception. With a smile, he told us he would send for us in a few days, and soon disappeared into the thick foot traffic that coated the busy street.

I remember people in Chengdu- people, lots of them, everywhere. The streets were packed with little stalls doing business, and men and women wearing their nondescript blues and greys, in typical Chairman Mao fashion. The café was located right next to both the river and a busy little lane, and since we suddenly had no schedule to commit to, we decided to sit there, eat, and watch the world go by.

Finding an empty table we nodded a brief greeting to another westerner and Englishman, instant friends by exchanged glances and a smile. We had barely sat down when the owner of the café approached us, not to take our order but to introduce himself with a booming english voice and start pitching his various business interests. His name was Mister Chin, and not only did he run the café he also has a small tourism company on the side. What I had first thought to be a menu tucked under his arm was in fact a menu of all the different tours he had to offer, after all, business first right? Within a minute and one seemingly long sentence, he had introduced himself as a proud and official born-again communist catholic christian, and proceeded to confirm the fact that he had indeed gone to church that very morning and was feeling really, and I mean really, really good. Gesar and I sat there politely while he went through his business menu and the englishman at the next table just grimaced; a trip to the Chinese opera, the Buddhist statues nearby, and various places of interest.

Due to our own superlative business skills, recently honed in India with many a taxi driver, we let him ramble on for a minute or two, then rebuffed his overtures and settled with some pancakes and coffee. Yet, I could tell by his face that he was the type that didn’t give up easily, and would be back later for round two, either to clinch some kind of tour deal with us, or convert us both to Christianity by his shining example.

Our English friend told us that Mr. Chin was that heavy-handed with everybody, and advised us to blow him off more quickly next time. We got the update from him on the town, and proceeded to spend a lazy afternoon in idle chit-chat with the ever wandering in and out customers. Hey, we also had hot running water in the hotel, so showers were taken all ‘round, and we returned in turn to sit and watch the slowly meandering river and constant flow of people cluttering the nearby bridge to the other side.

The afternoon was punctured by two incidents, the first, the arrival of a meter and a half long rainbow snake that shot at high-speed under the outdoor café tables, eagerly chased by a rapidly gathering crowd and a cook from the local snake restaurant, just down the lane, hatchet in hand. The second was the fruition of the  constant interruptions by Mr. Chin, who regaled us at any given moment with his christian exploits and the obvious pride in being a member of the ‘Official Communist Party Christian Catholic Church’. Our English friend, who had gone off and returned later in the day interjected one of his spiels to ask him a question.
‘Mr. Chin, I notice that out front of your glorious church there is a rather large cross.’
‘Yes, we are very proud of that cross. It represents Jesus,’ says our resident Mr. Knowledgeable.
Leaning in to deliver the killer blow, our Englishman fired point-blank at Mr Chin.
‘Well then my good friend, perhaps you can explain to us, what’s that bloody great big red star doing smack in the middle of it?’
At this point, G and I couldn’t keep a straight face, and burst out laughing. We sat there, basically falling off our chairs with hysterics, while Mr Chin, having surrendered to a facial shade of communist pink, wandered away, muttering to himself.

That got rid of Mr. Chin for a couple of hours, and the rest of that day and evening was spent meeting various other western wanderers and tourists, sharing their adventures, and of those who had attempted, of their ill-fated attempts to get into Eastern Tibet from Chengdu. These stories were varied and fantastic.

  • one had attempted to bike (!?%) around Tibet- attempt failed, bike confiscated and had been escorted by Chinese police back to central China
  • one had wanted to boat down rapids out of Tibet and back into China- attempt failed upon capture
  • one had hitched a ride in the back of a chinese army truck all the way into Lhasa- success

Chinese black-market, and Tibetan invasion plan #2.
Early in the morning of the third day, a Tibetan man came knocking on our hotel door to take us to see P tulku. We were led to one of the houses of his students, a lovely Chinese family that gave us an enormous feeding and made us feel incredibly welcome in their private, walled in compound. After the meal was over, Pewa tulku told us our marching orders.

He had arranged, by his connections with the local Chinese black-market, these things

  1. A Chinese police jeep to drive us into Tibet
  2. A Chinese police officer to drive us
  3. A young Tibetan monk, since neither G or I spoke a word of Chinese (who spoke no English) who spoke 5 dialects of Tibetan and was going to escort us and act as translator between us and the driver.

We were ecstatic at the simplicity and audacity of what he told us, but then I asked curiously how much funds this was going to require.

P Tulku said it was going to cost a cool $5000 US, payable that very day. Well, needless to say that we didn’t have that kind of cash on us, especially if I was to have emergency funds in case something went wrong (as I had feeling it would). A look of concern crossed P tulku’s face briefly, then he said that never mind, we could pay him them what we could, and for the remainder he would find the money and we could pay him back later. His earnest look said it all: we must get to Tibet.!

We were smart enough to realize that P tulku would have to put himself us as guarantor with his Chinese black-market reps, and we also knew what would happen were we to default.

Gesar and I weren’t sure if we wanted to get there that badly, considering the effort we had gone through to raise money from the American sangha for Gesar to come and study with Rinpoche in the first place. But the suddenly wrathful look on the tulku’s face convinced  us that we better just agree with what he said. We nodded our assent. Suddenly the smiles were back again all round.

We would worry about paying him back the extra  money when we were back in India. After all, Rinpoche had said that all things could be taken care of if necessary.  So off we went to a local market to prepare necessary items for trip- Gesar and I both acquired Chubas  and other necessities for the very cold and hard journey ahead of us. Chubas are the traditional Tibetan dress, long and generally thick, rough material to keep you warm in the high altitude, worn off one shoulder during the heat of the day, and a welcome extra layer at night. We had our requisite Chairman Mao hats to cover our heads if need be, and a few extra socks and sweaters.
We were told to be ready early the next morning as we had nothing to lose. The journey would take about three/ four days of hard-driving and we were instructed to sleep well that night.
Of course, we hardly slept- it was going to happen! It was a combined feeling of intense anticipation and absolute fear that wracked my discursive thoughts that night.

On our way.
The next morning we were ready at five o’clock as we had been instructed. We left a lot of belongings at the hotel; only take what is absolutely necessary. Our Tibetan friend drove us over to the Chinese people’s house, where sure enough sat a waiting Beijing Chinese police jeep, a Chinese policeman and a little Tibetan monk. Introductions were done, a wave good-bye to our new chinese friends and the aspiration of good luck from P tulku and we were on our way. I sat in the back, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible in the early morning traffic as we navigated our way out of the still sleepy, misty town, as the driver pointed the jeep west, towards Tibet and our destiny.


* The late great Chairman Mao

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