Friday, December 22, 2006

ESCAPE FROM TIBET: ROADSIDE TOTEMS, HUNGRY COOKS AND NEW SAILS.




To say that in Horchu the scenario would repeat itself would be an optimistic reading. In fact, things got worse. Each day in that autumn Tibet was colder than the one before. In the frozen mornings the ditches filled with water by the roadside would seem broken mirrors. Route 219 continued silent and humiliating as always: our roadside was a balcony to eternity. Between that afternoon and the following morning we would wait 14 hours in Horchu. At last, we had reached the point of seeking refuge from cold underground, in a sort of natural trench, keeping an eye on the road in turns, and running desperately each time a truck would roar in the horizon.




But all tragedy has a hero, and ours was the Tibetan driver of the truck that eventually felt sorry for our persistence and ordered to board the back of his truck, where among a potpurri of construction tools we found place to enjoy the almost forgotten sensation of being on the move. 160 km later we arrived to the checkpoint in Mayum La, a pass at 5200m. One kilometer before the checkpoint the driver stopped his truck. He wouldn’t risk to hide us in the cargo as some of his collegues do, for fear of loosing his license due to the forbidden act of transporting foreigners. The checkpoint was a sad place, as all places where its inhabitants are there against their free will, as militars deployed there by their goverments or as prostitutes deployed to assist the soldiers. Finaly, a bar painted with red and white stripes appeared behind our eyes. The golden buttons in the uniform of the soldier barring entry did little to mask his teen age, and only visibly bothered he stopped playing games in his mobile phone to have a quick look at our passports. He never asked for the permits. We are soon walking again in the snow covered road, asking the first stars what shall we do. We were considering the possibility of staying overnight in a tea house when we heared the sweet puffing of our beloved truck. They had delayed to change a tyre, and now past the checkpoint, the source of their fears, they were ordering us to jump in the back again. Warmed with all our clothes simultaneously, we got ready for the coldest night ever, in the back of that truck., peeping ocassionaly trough the sleeping bag to look at the starred nightsky.



Having crossed the Mayum La had innitially given us the false impression of having reached some kind of plus ultra. The epicenter of our hope was obviously the reactivation of traffic on the 219. When we reach the toen of Drongpa, our expectations seem to confirm as we see the asphalt reemerge. But the extasis lasts little: the ghostlike asphalt just gives comfortable access to a newly built petrol station and evaporates after 200m. We would wait in Drongpa for 3 days, along with two 20 year old French guys who had come overland from Istanbul and were going towards Vladivostock. Pablo, to whom I was starting to admire for his readiness to provide nicknames for everyone, needed little urge to produce a new one for them: the “Little Princes”. And it was quite accurate, considering the coats of the Chinses Army they wore ad their blonde hair. The three days in Drongpa constituted the critical mass in our Tibetan adventure. Not only it didn’t stop snowing in three days, but also there was nothing to do in town, except for drinking unhuman ammounts of tea in our pale hotel room. Something strange happened when we discovered that the TV in the room actually worked. The monotony of the plateau had casted such a spell that when the screen got filled with moving coloured figures we remained astonished as kids and started fighting for the remote control. Every channel was a source of wonder, and even a ping pong match between China and Uzbekistan seemed to us extremely entertaining. Somehow, it helped us to cope with the three days waiting. .



We finally managed to get tickets for a passing bus towards Saga. The task was not easy, since the driver initially refused to take foreigners, afraid himself of possible punishments. There was more than a reason to be happy. First, the fact of getting closer to warmer areas. The second, since Ali we hadn’t seen an ATM machine and now we had 20 dollards among the two. We assumed there would be an ATM machine in Saga, a town linked by road to Nepal. We would later discover that Saga had grown really into abig town in our expectations, a small metropolis with all the services we needed. But reality only granted a larger town with internet and quite a few supermarkets, but no ATM. We crossed the checkpoint at Saga on foot. This time we were indeed asked for our permits, that had already expired.. After Saga, the last listed town in the permits, we were at the mercy of the local authorities decisions. We walked along Bramaputra river. It was still another 700 km to Lhasa. 60 km from there, nevertheless, there was something that could change our fate: the meeting with the Northern Road, carrying most of the trafic between Lhasa an Ali back to the capital. The first day we covered half of that distance in a “Mad Max” as we had nicked those strange Tibetan tractors which are driven with motorcycle handles and really seemed to have been asssambled with the remains of a lost civilization.


The farmers dropped us in a village where the locals were slaughtering a yak. The difference of temperature with the outside caused the dead animal to realise smoke as if it were burning. Seated by the roadside we waited for local hospitality, since we were keeping our last 10 dollars only for food. A local family indeed saved us from pitching our tent that freezing night. The following day would we the most dramatic all together. Accompanied y a dog we had unvoluntarily adopted in town when handing her biscuit, we covered practically on foot the remaining 30 km to the Northern Road. All oour provisions had been reduced to a falsk with milk and two breads. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” –reminded to me Pablo, as we walked. More than once, we knocked the door of some farm to ask for tsampa, a flour made from barley that mixed with water turns into a tasteless but feeding paste. At the sight of our little dog, the farmers would add an extra ration. As we walked, the only hapiness came from seeing the red numbers in the white milestones change, slowly, from 1880 to desired 1902, where the crossing was. Every 2 or 3 km we would stop to rest, leaning our backs and packs against these stones, as if we were players gambling in a strange game: two backpacks to 1897… As hunger strikes in us, I discover there is nothing more painful than walking with a hungry cook.. Pablo (such his occupation) had started to compose a menu characterized by unnecessary extravagancies. One of the dishes was, if I remember well, pumpkins filled with cremy rise and baked crab meat…



In a bus we would take from the crossroad we reached Lhasa. After a month in the Plateau, we couldn’t less than feel joyful when the trees returned to the landscape. I remember to have looked at the first ones from the bus, as if thy had been leopards of giraffes. In Lhasa, the hapiness of reaching a city had its counterpart by the spectacle offered by the Potala and the now small Tibetan old town sorrounded by modern Chinese concrete boxes. The new train connecting Lhasa with the Mothrland has also accelerated the process of materialization of Beijing policies, and given China an irrevokable presence in the area. It has also granted easy access to a previously difficult to get land. As John Ruskin would say: “the train, an artifact to make the world smaller”. Letting this thoughts aside, the city has cheerful tone, with bunches of monks walking the streets, spinning their manikhors, chanting and postrating behind the Jokhang, the holiest of the temples in town, which is day and night sorrounded by pilgrims doing their kora. The Potala is like an abbandoned ship and works now as a museum. Pablo has turned to Spain, and in special ocassion he prepeares the menu the came to his mind while starving in Tibet. Who is writing, after 20 months of hitch hiking across the mountains, deserts, and plateaus of Asia has decided to take a rest from the big endeavours, the challenges and the conflict areas, as well as from the pen that describes them. South East Asia encloses, I assume, the calm and the frivolity I need to give perspective to the past, and let the covered distances settle, so as to gather again, some day, the peace required to unleash a new storm. Meanwhile I continue traveling, I have joined a bike transported circus, a group of 9 travelers who carry their musical instruments in doouble deck bikes and perform their circus and music show from town to town. Mi rol in the circus is not clear yet, but it offers a good opportunity to continue life in movement, and continue the exploration of the same wind. Just with different sails.

5 comments:

Jake said...

Is this the same bike circus that you met in Cappadocia?

Acrobat of the Road said...

Yes, indeed.... I knew they were in China...but I didn't know they were in Kunming..... Coincidence or fate...whatever... but looks like I will sopend some months with the traveling circus. More news soon...

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