Thursday, November 23, 2006


Sticky notice! Fellow travellers: the book about my hitch-hiking expedition to Middle East has just been published under the title “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Visit my online bookshop. Order a copy and keep me on the road!

Ever since I was old enough to read an atlas or judge history, one country had surprised me, precisely, for its capacity to stay aside both maps and chronics through most of its history. Always embedded in mystery, qualified with titles which only assert its slippery nature: the Roof of the World, the Forbidden City, the Land of the Dalai Lamas… Naturally, I am speaking about Tibet, or Xizang, if one stumbles upon a Chinese made map.

Tibetan culture makes me think of the Kurds from Middle East: in spite of having their own cultural identity they have seen the land over which this identity stands split among the territories of modern states that more often than not limit the expression of such values. Likewise, the Tibetan Cultural Region expands beyond the Tibetan Autonomous Region sanctioned by China, onto the Trans Himalayan Northern areas of Nepal, Bhutan and India. Tibet vegetated in medieval isolation until the early 20th century, when British bayonets in search of –no wonder- favorable commercial agreements slaughtered their way to Lhasa. When the troops of Colonel Francis Younghusband gazed in wonder to the sight of the formerly Forbidden City, few Westerners had had such privilege.

Symmetrically, Tibet had by then scarcely noted the outside world, let alone the West. Little had changed in Tibet in the previous thousand years, and the Tibetan lived under the theocratic regime of the Dalai Lamas, secular and religious authorities replaceable only by their own reincarnations. The absolute absence of infrastructure was far from worrying in a country that, undisturbed in the lethargy of worship, even found its isolation comfortable. Let us remember that when the British presented the 13th Dalai Lama with an automobile, back in the 1930s, the later arranged to have horses engaged in the front, and celebrated his new chariot.

But even if Tibetan reality was hard, the transition towards modernity was going to be traumatic. In the 1950s troops of recently proclaimed People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet and annexed it to the Motherland, claiming to be “peacefully liberating” Tibetans from serfdom under a theocratic regime. Since then, the 14th Dalai Lama has resided in exile in Dharamsala, India. His efforts to find a pacific solution for the Tibetan problem have deserved him a Peace Nobel Prize in 1990. Partially –and cautiously- opened to tourism since the mid 80s, the Tibet I visit today undergoes the surgery of Beijing central policies: modernization, homogenization, support of Han Chinese immigration and brutal suppression of any separatist activity.

I left Kashgar with the heaviest backpack ever, due to the 30 energy bars, the six tuna cans, a flask for coffee, an extra jacket, and so many other extras appointed to make the trip through winter-edge Tibet at least bearable. The plan: to enter Tibet illegally from the West, traveling the road connecting Kashgar with Ali. Despite the road is officially closed to foreigners a little research had shown that once in Ali it was possible to pay a fine for the committed ‘crime’ and get in exchange a travel permit. No doubt bureaucracy and corruption are herbs growing not too far from each other. While Chinese bureaucracy conveyed the necessary amount of tension and uncertainty every trip to Tibet should have, I had started to fear cold and altitude.
The Xinjiang-Tibet Highway is found among the most isolated, highest, and most dangerous roads in the planet, and has claimed the life of more than one independent traveler. It’s exactly 1370 kms between Kashgar and Ali, the capital of Western Tibet. As it’s the rule in Tibet, the unpaved surfaces unfolds at an average altitude of 4500 meters, and since we talk about a plateau there’s no chance of a rapid descent in case of developing a potentially fatal mountain sickness. Said this, the Kashgar-Ali chunk of road had been an unconditioned element of my itinerary since I started to plan this round the world trip in a Michelin map nailed to my room’s wall.

I covered the 270 km to Yecheng, in the beginning of the Western Tibetan Highway in the Toyota Camry of three Chinese that smoked as if they would next be executed. Some 8 km ahead, in a town called Aba, I should find the first of the two checkpoints that, between Kashgar and Ali, try to put foreigners off the idea of entering Tibet. Aba turned out to be a collection of garages personalized by the peculiar decoration provided by poker cards scattered along the streets and burning trash containers, but without checkpoint at sight. All I found in the matter of restrictions were two signs. One, tiny and green, branched out from a telephone pole, and suggested in white capitals: “This is unopened way to Aliens”. And there is no need to shed tears for ET, for ‘alien’ is the tender word with which Chinese bureaucracy designates the foreign traveler.

The second sign was an enormous poster in the advertising fashion, and seemed to explain the first sign: “Foreigners shall not be allowed to travel from here to Ali without permission” Next to the sentence there was a picture of two immaculately dressed policemen in the process of obeying it by shifting their hands to their foreheads. Amazingly close to the sign, a bus prepares for departure. In blatant ignorance of the sign –and the law- the driver offers to smuggle me in for a surcharge equivalent to the prize of the ticket: 30 Euros, part of which will pay for the selective blindness of the checkpoint staff at Kudie, some 160 km away. Having spent a week sick in Kashgar and with the second week of October giving a hint of the cold Tibetan autumn, I decided to save time, take the bus, and hitch hike only from Ali onwards. After all, there was nothing interesting on the way except for the isolation of the place.
The trip lasted exactly 32 hours. After 60 km, past the forgettable town of Dahongliutan, we were officially in Tibet, but the region is so featureless that nothing indicated it but the level of the ground. Later we enter Aksai Chin, a borderland claimed by India but under Chinese administration. We also travel the edge of the Chang Tan Plateau, which occupies the uninhabited center of Tibet, and may be the most deserted region in the world outside of the polar areas. With towns every 100 km at most, the landscape makes one think in the discarded choice for a world that didn’t happen. Repeatedly, we cross 5000 meters high passes. Jieshan Pass (5240m), decorated with tar-choks (square pieces of colored fabric with printed prayers) is the turning point of the landscape. From now on every town will have its chortens (Buddhist altars) by the roadside.

Coming from such a minimalist scenario, the arrival to Ali, equals a mirage, since the city, despite its reduced size, ticks al the boxes of Chinese modernism: glass and tile buildings and plastic palm trees. But not only is the architecture Chinese, but also most of the passers by belong to the Han race, confirming the officially non existent policy of immigration, aiming to dilute the Tibetan ethnic majority. Some rather lost looking Tibetans also walk the streets as foreigners in their own land, effect enhanced by the fact heir colorful and somewhat untidy outfit stays in plain offside to Chinese gray urban order. When I realize that the pattern of the street tiling is identical to that in Kashgar I ask myself if, given the chance, the central authorities would like to reduce the contrast between the bands of the rainbow.

Ali, even if lacking any interest in itself, would be the magical point of my itinerary where, thanks to the graceful incoherence of Chinese laws, my sojourn in Tibet would become delightfully legal. The trick consists in giving yourself up to the PSB (Public Security Bureau) officers nominally in charge of catching you. In exchange of a 25 euro fine and a humble declaration of guiltiness one obtains a clubber “Alien’s Travel Permit”. Even if the permit itself, bearing a myriad of seals and red stars, is something I will someday frame to impress my grandsons, the dialogue that followed was the real highlight:

- Mr. Alien, how did you get here?
- By bus from Ali.
- Do you have a permit?
- Oops…err…no!
- That means traveling illegally in China, you should pay a fine!
- Oh thanks a lot!!!
Such obvious was that everything was fake that as the interview develops neither the PSB officers nor the Aliens loose their smile. When the theatre finished, the fine, its receipts, and the permits were handed to us. Rather than a punishment it seemed we were receiving a prize, and somehow, it was. I speak in plural, because by then I had befriended Anno and Chris, from Germany, and Akatsuki, a Japanese writer who instead of taking pictures held in his memory the verses each place inspired him. Thinking in the Tibetan he had penned down: “While I am yawning, someone is enraged somewhere. That brings me tears”.

That night all the foreigners that were heading down deeper into Tibet dinned out at a Uighur restaurant to share information. A real meeting of Aliens. Backpackers, conventional tourists, cyclists, we all faced the same obstacles…namely Route 219, with al probabilities the less traveled in the world at some stages. 1500 km of pure plateau to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, with a few towns and the occasional monastery in the middles, and no showers… Three jewels awaited us however in that ocean of emptiness: the ruins of the Guge Kingdom near Toling; Mt Kailash, center of the Buddhist universe, and sacred Lake Manasarovar.

In the beginning Route 219 treated us with mercy. Akatsuki had decided to hitch with me to Toling, the closest town to the Guge ruins, and an hour later we were in the backseat of a VW Santana driven by a Chinese couple towards Namru, 60 km South of Ali, at the end of the paved road. Those guys not only spoke some English but also let us play Pink Floyd in their stereo, before parking us next to the tiny unpaved lane that whirled away into the mountains to the West. For its look, we expected to wait there for days.

But again, it was a merciful beginning, and an hour and 15 minutes later we were boarding an old Land Cruiser of 4 Tibetans. It was our first road meeting with the Tibetan, so the first minutes of the trip occurred among the tension of the language barrier and the fear of being asked a huge amount of money once in destination, distant 130 km. After al, it was 4 hours of rally in a demanding road. So there was enough time to chat, but words were missing, at least until somebody mentioned that word common to all mankind: football! A little disappointingly, people who have never been out of their province know the goalkeepers, strikers and coaches of all the leagues in the world. Like our driver, who proudly showed us a poster of Ronaldinho he was carrying home after shopping in Ali.

The valley climbed to a new plateau demarked in the South, in all the arch of the horizon, by the Indian Himalayas, clearly visible from Nanga Devi to the Ladakh Range, their summits completely covered in eternal snows. The Land Cruiser galloped across the plain as a gazelle dated by the horizon. It was hard to believe somebody had passed there before us, and even harder to believe that in fact those remote coordinates had been the cradle of a kingdom. Four hours later we arrived in Toling: a main street with snooker tables outside each shop, neglected buildings, and as many pedestrians as street dogs.
We were then surprised by what soon would become rule: the total absence of a sewage system, which in all Tibet leads the average man on the street to behave like the average dog on the street… Looking for a cheap pension we confirmed that English grammar reached Tibet with the same intensity the light from Andromeda reaches Earth with, and we immediately surrender to the charm of the suggesting sign: “The Elephant River of Hotel”. Inside on of the rooms laid, as patients rather than as guests, four travelers. I know the one with the baseball cap: it’s Jazz, a North American with good humor sense that has set foot in unusual destinations such as the separatist Republic of Trans Niestr and Afghanistan. I also know the one snoring near the window: it’s Vladislao, a Russian with sharp resemblance to an anthropologist who dragged his wheeled case and kept his Nescafe for special occasions, something that innerved Jazz. The frame was completed by a Canadian and, oh surprise! an Argentinean from Rosario called Pablo, his argentinity rubricated by a No.3 Newell's football top from late 70s, a genuine relic, and also by the unworried way he described the Guge Ruins to me: “Well, you have the ruins of the citadel and in front of it there are a dozen caves, where I guess plenty of monks used to hang around…” The first day of Tibetan road traveling drew to an end, leaving us the misleading impression of a kind road. For a while we regarded all those tales of hardship as myths. Clearly enough, we still hadn’t had the need to build a roadside totem with sheep bones in order to attract the attention of a driver. The worst, but also the funniest, were still to come. (It will continue)

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