From Chengdu to the Tibetan border and a ride I will never forget.
The chill morning air was cut only by the busy whir of the Beijing jeep’s engine as we made our way through the still quiet and sleepy streets of the city. In the backseat with me sat our tibetan translator, chatting away to our policeman driver, while Gesar in the front stared silently into the gloomy early morning. The full extent of what we had arranged, and the sheer illegality of it were lost in a smile shared by me and Gesar through the rearview mirror. I commenced on what was to be one of many journeys around my buddhist mala over the next fifteen days. I prayed for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, and that I wouldn’t go completely mad from the extreme unrelenting stress of being on this journey. We were truly on our way.
First Checkpoint.- The morning air, aided by the strengthening rays of the sun, steadily dispersed what was left of the morning mist as we headed for one of the main exits of the big city, and the first of what were to be many police checkpoints on our journey into Tibet. The ritual upon approach was the same: cars would line up, one by one approaching the gate across the road, where policemen interviewed the drivers and took passenger lists, inspecting the contents of a car, bus or truck if they felt it was necessary. We watched many others questioned like hawks, with some turned around or told to pull off to the side for a thorough inspection. Or so it was for everyone else. Our driver, with seemingly incredible bravado, just beeped his horn, pulled out onto the vacant side of the road and headed straight for the gate in the green police jeep. I and Gesar were praying fervently, the mantras whirling from my mouth in barely whispered high speed eddies. I shrank down in the back seat and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible to the now approaching checkpoint. The chairman Mao hat was pulled down firmly upon my head as I attempted to sink deeply into the shadowy corner of the back seat. My heart was literally pounding now like a drum as our driver rolled down his widow and started jokingly berating the guards at the gate. They laughed back at him and asked a few quick questions, barely glancing inside except to look at the imposing form of Gesar sitting in the front seat. The gate went up- and we were waved through.
The stunned elation that I felt at that moment lasted for about an hour and until we approached the next checkpoint where I suddenly realised that we would have to run this same gauntlet many times over the next three or four days. There was literally a post about every 30 to 40 kilometers for the entire length of our journey, some more closely manned than others. The major ones where our driver had to get out of the car and report were few and far between, and he obviously attempted to steer clear of them as often as possible by choosing alternate routes over tracks often in appalling condition. The city behind us rapidly became the suburbs, and thence the countryside. It was happening, but at a nail biting pace.
Bounce baby- The road, as it was, steadily deteriorated as we headed west and gradually out of proper Chinese territory. We were often following the riverbank of the Yangtze river, and its epically beautiful scenery springs to mind whenever I see a classical chinese painting of mountains, forest and mist. It was glorious countryside, shrouded in fog and absolutely lush green. The road had been literally carved out of the mountainside, and earth moving equipment and dynamite excavation work still under progress, sometimes stopping us while they blew their charges to cacophonous reply all the way down the valley. Most of the traffic consisted of police vehicles, army jeeps and trucks, countless logging trucks heavily laden with wood, that bounced along the road, leaving huge ruts and clouds of dust in their wake. What was at one point a normal tarmac road gradually shifted as the journey went on and became mostly mud and dirt, scoured into hard packed waves that caused the jeep to gently undulate up and down. From gentle it gradually became more persistent, till the last two days of the journey inwards were spent by us as much airborn as forward moving. An idea of the extent of how much we were jolted was shown by the combined bulk and size of Gesar breaking the front passenger seat completely off its welding as we were climbing the last passes into Tibet ( more on that a little later), and on our return journey the rear seat welding snapping as well. As Rimpoche would so poignantly say,’ you have no idea.’
Unrelenting strain- I could go on into a blow by blow account of everything that transpired, but for the sake of brevity I will condense it into a summary. Our first three days journey passed with much the same routine- meals were snuck at a restaurant always on the edge or outside of a town, chosen due to few customers and areas where one could secret away a party, the meals eaten quickly and with us back on the road and driving again within minutes. There was no looking around of any sort- we were to avoid any kind of awkward questioning or obvious presence in the area. For me, it was just constant, unrelenting stress, an excitement and nervousness that just didn’t let up. My stomach became a knot of tension, meaning that often I found it hard to eat even if I wanted to, let alone relax for a brief instant.
Even getting rest at night was an ordeal. We had to check in to the rest stops/hotels after the local policemen had perused the guest books of the local hotel’s guests for the night, at around about midnight, catch a few quick hours sleep and be back on the road at 430am before the early morning check again, usually done at 5:30am to catch the unsuspecting. Our policeman knew his stuff: He steered us patiently each night to this place and that, as our sense of awareness gradually disintegrated due to tiredness and nerves. Our fate was indeed entirely left up to him and the buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The countryside swept by our now dusty windows, and what had once been verdant green mountain valley gradually opened up into wide plains. Before it did so, the verdant green and heavily forested valley surrounding the river had gradually deteriorated to heavily forested or clear cut yellow lumps, the now steadily eroding falling dirt from the mountain side turning the waters of the river below into a sea of yellow mud. The existing forests had been stripped bare.
The extent of the environmental damage was appalling, there seemed to be little logic in the method of cutting and very little in the way of replanting or any kind of ground maintenance. I remember looking at the boiling mud-filled waters below the road and watching all kinds of flotsam scrabbling along with the current. Trees, logs, boulders- there was major environmental damage occurring right before our eyes.It left me at a loss for words and made me ponder whether this was what the chinese government really didn’t want westerners to see and the main reason for making this area off limits…
The end of day three, the mountains gradually grew smaller over the journey until we seemed to be driving on some kind of flat, grassy plateau, with the driver telling us that at the beginning of the next day we would make our climb into Kham and over the main pass that discriminates the true geographical border. The countryside and the people had also changed- most were tribal types, sporting longer hair and red sashes sometimes wound around their heads, clothing a mix of tibetan and chinese army mixed together like some hippy cocktail. It was getting steadily colder too as we drove, the heater of the jeep just taking the chill off the cool air. We drove an incredible amount of hours each day, sometimes as much as twenty. The driver seemed undaunted as he tackled the various obstacles of the road; dangerous trucks, huge wallows, mud ruts like quicksand that bogged us a couple of times; roads that had completely washed away. Checkpoints came and went in regular interruption. Through it all Gesar and I sat mostly silently, watching the constant parade of nature. Praying.
Beware of thousand year old eggs… The last morning we were up at 430am as usual and heading down the road before any other morning traffic hit the roads. The landscape around us had changed, the houses that I saw were similar to what we would see in Tibet, looking more like military strong houses of some bygone era, painted white with small windows. There were fewer trees now too, the land often rolling by like a broad, Wyoming plain. It this what Tibet would be like? I wondered to myself.
We stopped at a restaurant at about 600 am, ravenously starving due to the freezing temperature of the wind outside the car. Shuffled quickly into a secluded corner in the back of the restaurant where we could not be seen, the driver as usual ordered food for me and G. This particular morning, it was a milky white sweet porridge of rice, milk and two or three obviously aged eggs, done traditional chinese way. We had seen these aged eggs eaten by the driver and our interpreter, often picked out of a age old barrel with some shoddy lid. Having refused them several times before, I intended to avoid the eggs and just eat the broth like liquid, but on finding that it was sweet, my hunger overcame my better judgement and I wolfed down the lot, barely glancing up to notice that Gesar was doing much the same. We were feeling more confident now, knowing that we would be on Tibetan soil somewhere around lunch time. Within short minutes we were back on the road again.
The rest of the journey that day consisted of following the gradually ascending road up and over a high pass into Tibet, the highest point at an altitude of somewhere around 4000 meters. The driver stopped once half way up and recalibrated the carburetor, forcing us to shiver violently in the uninsulated vehicle as we waited.
Oh, the pain of it all…..And then it began…a small gradual pain in my stomach that built in intensity over about thirty minutes, then gradually subsided over another thirty. Repeating over and over like some relentless punishment, I broke out into a heavy sweat, despite the chill air around me. At each cycle the pain gradually got more and more intense, and I found myself clutching the back of the front seat in order to control my movement and the pain that was by now becoming unbearable. It wasn’t like nausea- it was as if someone had their hands inside my intestines and were squeezing them and sticking knives into me. I felt totally out of control- a sudden snatched look of fear at Gesar and I realised he was in the same predicament. We both hung on for dear life to the back of the front seat as the jeep relentlessly drove upward, our bodies being constantly thrown into the air by the unending bumps and ruts that marked each forward movement. I couldn’t cry or scream, just found myself with eyes closed trying to go into the pain that seemed like it would never stop. It went on like this for most of the day- for a while I lost complete track of time and space.
My medical background learned while doing nursing to pay my way through university tells me in retrospect that we both probably had Salmonella poisoning, and considering the fact that some westerners have actually died after eating these thousand year old eggs we should consider ourselves lucky. Nevertheless, the memorable crossing of the highest peak and entering into the Tibetan basin was lost on both me and Gesar, as we endured this excruciating pain in varying degrees for the rest of the day and indeed most of the next week. Gesar gripped the seat in front of him so tightly to resist the pain, that he snapped the seat off from its welds. Gives you a pretty clear idea of the pain that we were under.
Tibet!-Late in the day and over the high pass into Tibet, the driver, obviously worried about our subdued condition, but having little in his power to remedy the situation, pulled over on the side of the desolate road next to a little Tibetan nomad family, their tent and a flock of a little goat like creatures I had never ever seen before. They looked like little goats or sheep, so tiny that you could fit perhaps over a hundred in a space no bigger than your kitchen, with a wispy silky fleece, cared for lovingly by a little tibetan shepherd who was obviously terrified at the site of Chinese police jeep.
Once it had finally hit us, Gesar and I were absolutely overjoyed to be in Tibet, despite the pain we felt. G scrambled out of the car and attempted to approach the man, speaking some tibetan Khampa words to him. The man continued to back away until we realised how incongruous we must really look, a dirty smelly unshaven long-haired western man wearing a black chuba, and a huge Chinese looking sumo wrestler type wearing something akin to army fatigues bursting out of a military vehicle and running up to him. ‘Show him your mala’, I suggested to G, which he did, pulling it out from under his jacket. Suddenly a smile appeared, and he shouted something to his family in the tent, who peered out cautiously, still afraid. We just stood there laughing and smiling and smiling.
He led us over and shared with us our first cup of real tibetan butter tea, for me barely potable, but hot and given to us with a smile. We squatted down next to his fire, and exchanged little more than smiles and eye glances. G and I were utterly exhausted from the journey, but we were truly in Tibet at last.
We were almost there.