Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Naughty boy

The first hour inside the alien entry and exit department of the police station was spent going over precise locations of where I had been since arriving in Tibet. I could not help noticing the sign on the wall where it said `EXIT`, yes please! I thought.
They asked me again how I got here and where I had travelled from. OK I thought to myself best just keep it sketchy as possible. I explained that I had been travelling from Thailand, Laos into China, hitchhiking and hoping to get to Nepal, which was all true.
An official and stern voice replied ''do you know your visa is out of date by 1 day, and that you have travelled through 5 restricted areas closed to foreigners'' whoops! “really” I said. I was genuinely surprised that my Chinese visa was out of date. I remember applying for a two month one in Thailand but did not check it. I looked and it was indeed out of date, so I had made a mistake and told him I would have applied for an extension if I had realized. I tried to look humble and appealed to his compassionate Buddhist nature, realizing my fate was in there hands, I apologized and asked what could be done. Could I apply for an extension and a travel permit so that I could continue on to Nepal? He did not answer but then began to sort of dictate to me as though he was reading from a list of crimes about to condemn my soul to eternal suffering. He started with a break down of all the rules and regulations that I had broken and then repeated that I had travelled through 5 restricted areas, he then went on to say that I was to write down on a piece of paper exactly what he had just told me then to say in my own words that I recognized these terrible crimes, and that I was very, very, very sorry, was not allowed to apply for an extension, that I was to be grateful to all the officers present for their leniency towards me, because they decided and were willing to offer me a 7 day travel permit so that I could continue to Nepal. Upon after paying a 50 Euro fine, providing I did not stop, do not pass go and go directly to Nepal. Whatever, this was a pretty good deal in the end.
I wrote in my humblest of handwriting everything they wished, maybe he wanted to frame it as some sort of trophy. Anyhow I felt it was some sort of test, like a show of face. I had to lose face, so with my defeat the mood seemed to be lightened, obviously pleased with the victory and his trophy, he seemed cheerful now.
With that over with I was sure I would be on my way again shortly, now that I was armed with all the relevant paper work and could buy bus tickets, travel legally and relax a little, but a mountain of paper work followed, 12 documents, statements, detailed descriptions, of where, when, why, who, signed, triplicated, thumb printed, photographed and then was led to the police canteen for a short interlude. I had not eaten properly for a few days and was very pleased when a tray full of food turned up, all eyes were upon me from the other officers but they were cool and just curious. I waved at them all, joked a little and they smiled.
The Chinese and Tibetans have incredibly noisy eating habits, they don not seem to talk much when food is around and just get on with devouring bowls full of mostly, unrecognizable lumps of things that the noodles were trying to do their best to swim away from, making the chop stick chase even more of a challenge, stabbing at them for a while which I was quite happy to do until someone came and offered me a spoon. I joined the orchestra of slurping and spiting out bones on to the floor or passing dogs, small children and found it comfortable in the end not to be self conscious, it was good to slurp and chew and spit out anything you did not want on to the floor or anywhere else you felt inspired to spit at, it was normal, but what is normal anyway?
We finished our food but as I was still not a free man yet officially, my Tibetan captor asked me if I wanted to come with him on his duty whilst they continued to process the paper work, to extend my visa and grant me a travel permit. He was definitely more chilled out now, seemed more human now that all the formalities were over with. He asked me if I was a Christian, which was a common question that I am asked, yet they don not realize or find it strange how many of us in the west do not have any faith, or grow rice, or have seven wives and fifty children! for them this is very strange, everyone believes in something don’t they? Well I explained that many people do not and for me I do not need to know what I am but I like look at it all with interest and an open mind. The conversation turned towards Buddhism, as he was a devout follower of this philosophy and something which I find very peaceful and truthful of observations with, nature, balance and harmony, through meditation and understanding which ultimately leads to enlightenment, peace and release from human suffering, the weaknesses and traps of the flesh, desire, greed being key elements that trap us and is the cause of our unhappiness. I couldn’t agree more. Less is more for sure, travelling like this with just a bag, my tent something to cook, I never miss anything in fact I feel I have more somehow.
Love, light and peace, spirituality, yeah we are all connected in some intricate web of cause and effect, so I therefore I shook hands with my capture, that was my Karma I suppose. I thought about all that and reflected upon it for a moment, everything happens for a reason and the karma of it all. Well maybe I was lucky they caught me here and not much later at the border to Nepal? maybe by then I would have been a week out of date with my visa and a much bigger trouble to follow and fine, yes count these days as lucky. I still get to see Lhasa without all the hassle of dodging uniforms and it had been an interesting encounter with the police here, they were OK in the end.
I have never been good with dealing with bits of paper, unless it meant drawing pictures on them, the ones with all these rules, regulations and demands. I have always hated those, not for want of being a rebel as I never mean anyone any harm, its just something that I have always felt to the core of my soul is wrong and I recoil away from it all in disgust, leaving me wanting to run away and hide. I don’t know why it has never felt normal for me. In my world there are no rules there is no need for them, rules were only made because of other people who have darkness in their hearts and have broken basic morality.
Back at the station, it took 4 people all day to complete the paper work. I thought the French were bad for formalities but these guys seemed to invent it. Finally I left at with my passport and just had to return tomorrow for the travel permit to be issued. I booked into a room and tried to get my thoughts back on track again, but somehow I felt violated like the purity and the freedom of travel had been compromised from all this bullshit, all this man power, paper work, expense, waste of time for what? All I want to do is travel from here to there across this planet that should not really have to belong to anyone, why we have to be so possessive, greedy, and suspicious? there should be certain rights for people who are nomadic or wish to be nomadic free to travel to traverse this beautiful planet, that I am sure if God exists this would be in his original design too! Just greed and fear in the hearts of others, that spoil it for those who wish no impact upon their surroundings.
December 31st 2008 I switch on the TV and start to take notice of the news, I quickly fall off my romantic travelling cloud, as I watch and take in the financial problems from around the globe, on the TV they are graphically compared side by side, so many problems, so much despair. I do not feel sorry at all, just sad at the short sightedness and inevitability of it, so much out of balance, so much wealth, so much power, so many resources, knowledge, materials, objects, yet millions of people still starving in the world, its madness. I talked with the officer today he asked me what I thought about the state of the world, that there are so many problems did I think there would ever be a 'one world' he said this with much sincerity and sort of sadness, like he hoped I would tell him something positive from my part of the world, what he wanted to hear, hoped to hear, I believe its possible but politically impossible, there is too much greed in the world for spirituality to enter the hearts of these people, we do not work as one, we build our little empires and high fences and walls and shut the doors on those who fall. Keep everything to ourselves do not want to share, more of the more, bigger better than you.

''mans happiness and gladness lies in his struggle and the most valuable kind is to struggle for his ideals''

I don’t know who said this but it was a sticker I noticed that was on the side of the kettle in the police station, it seemed to strike a chord and the kettle made a particularly great cup of tea that day.

Monday, 29 December 2008


Tuesday, New Years Eve, a police station, somewhere in Tibet.

''No I don`t know how I got here or which road I took, you probably wouldn`t believe me even if I did know'' I try to explain whilst his Chinese eyes scanned and peered into my soul.
He was a big man and addressed me sternly with a cold official approach. I tried to relax and lighten the mood a little by saying ''so am I in trouble then?'' no emotion at all, just a reply ''you will be fined'' he was more like a Cyborg...''you will be assimilated, you will comply''....well I had my traveling money but I did not budget for hefty fines, or any fines for that matter so already in my mind I denied all charges and was prepared to tell them I had no way of paying, that I was just hitch hiking and got a little lost on my way to Nepal, which was all true.
So here I was sat in the police headquarters of the alien processing department waiting for my passport to be returned so that I could go to the bank and change a little currency for my release. The officer in charge of the passport return department was on his lunch break and currently deeply immersed within his computer screen, I could hear the clunk click, lock and load, then a barrage of heavy gauge artillery fire, arms, legs, heads, blood and guts spilling all over the monitor, he was loving it, ripping it up, eyes fully dilated and beads of sweat forming on his brow. I cleared my throat and try to gain his attention, several times in fact, until finally I managed to pause his lunch time genocide to ask if I could have my passport back. He starred at me for a nano second, which was long enough for him to assess and target all the available, fatal hit zones. I sensed an intrusion of my more vunerable parts and tactically slid sideways towards a sturdy looking roof pillar, I then peered my head around to ask again, errrrrrrr please err, you think I could have my passport back pleeeeeeeeease? Maybe he was a little disappointed that I interrupted him during a particularly high body count and abruptly pointed towards the door that was marked in big, red, stern looking characters, hmmmmmmm I take that as a no then? Baaam...... both barrels exploded and the massacre continued without my passport!
A few hours prior to these events, after passing three or four checkpoints my paranoia was starting to subside. I started to accept that the worst was over and I was going to make it to Lhasa after all. I beamed from ear to ear as I recollected the events leading up to the present moment. Flasbacks, images of cars, ice, mud, grinning, toothless crazy drunk Tibetans, tail lights in the night, high mountain passes. I felt rich inside and humble to be here, to be traveling with the Gods now smiling upon me now that they had got me here, in there own way, maybe to amuse themselves and or maybe to teach me something. I am not sure, except I felt good, here amongst all these locals, Tibetans all on their way to pay homage to their faith, to be in the belly button of the world and their Buddhist faith, Lhasa. Many of them wrapped in rags and clutching bundles of food for the road, maybe this was a once in a lifetime journey for some of them, and here I was just doing it for my own amusement? but it was more than that for me I respect these people and their faith, for me it was the journey all the highs and lows, the effort and the reward, the lessons it will teach me, maybe that was my faith. I was on my own spiritual journey but I had no way of giving it form or a name, it was more important for it to remain anonymous as I felt it needed to be. I had my own faith that things would turn out fine as long as I did my part of the deal, try to keep this karma intact.
Hours passed, I relaxed and started to feel a familiar warm, wrapped up in cotton wool feeling. A blanket of fatigue wrapped itself around me and saturated my being. I had no reason to fight it this time. I let myself slip into its coma like canopy, dreamily I dozed, in and out of conciousness I daydreamed and watched the darkness of the night blur past the window of the bus. Abstract images of hard, frozen shapes and rocky skyscrapers blurred past in a hypnotic dance of reality and memory, past, present and future all blurred into one video, streaming past my vision. Finally one by one my senses faded and switched off, lights, camera, action, Ptzzzzzzzzz, nothing, peace, oblivion.............
I wake what felt like seconds later with a woman prodding me, my mind is still far, far away it does not want to come back, Bleeeeeh? What`s happening? I think to myself. I look around and everyone else is settled and comfortable, so why am I being prodded? Leave me alone! She insists with me. I cannot understand anything, arrrrrgh I did not want to wake up like this, slowly bits of information and reality creep in and my logic compartment starts to process the bits of the puzzle...... its still night time, no one else is moving, the woman wants me to get up. She points to my bag and to outside. What! Are we here? I ask Lhasa? it looks just like any old town. I check the time, its 1.00 am, no its too early there should be at least another days ride yet, shit what`s happening? someone says Lhasa tomorrow, you sleep now, go Lhasa tomorrow, confused but with no other choice I have to comply, they obviously know what I need to do, two others now are also getting off, so at least I am not being singled out. I was starting to worry that they had got nervous and decided to eject me somewhere. I sort of learn from the other couple in broken English that we have to stay here for the night at a hotel, then tomorrow they go to Lhasa. I did not understand where the bus was going now or where and how we go tomorrow? My mind and soul still felt battered and bruised so I found it all too hard to think about, so I didn`t and just dreamily followed and walked into the lobby of a nearby hotel, slightly disappointed at being disturbed from a very deep, much needed sleep and now having a mountain of unanswered questions building up again, that no one was going to be able to answer, well only time will tell.
I could feel a restless night coming on, with too many questions flying around inside my mind, someone said they would ring me in the morning but could not explain why, and where we to go.
Finally I fight the questions and manage to sleep a little but I wake up early, before my alarm goes off, after having a stressful night wrestling with bed sheets and feeling strangely too comfortable, all this time I had been camping or staying in the cheapest rooms I could find, I sort of got used to those conditions and now this way over budget room with working TV, a heater, glazed windows, a whole panel of buttons that I amused myself with for a few minutes by switching everything on, sheets that smelled and looked clean, and silence, was almost deafening, suffocating, the comfort actually made me uncomfortable.
I moodily kicked the sheets off and eyes half open shuffled to the bathroom to freshen up. The shower felt good, I forget how long it had been, whilst traveling through China it had been too cold to even dare expose any part of my body, so I did not bother too much with hygiene. The brown stream of mud and filth verified this and history washed itself down the plug hole.
8.00am the phone rang and someone tried to tell me what was happening, but it was all in Chinese, eventually I hear ''Lhasa, you go now''....with that I thank them and hurry down to the lobby. I check out and wait to see if anything else happens, no, nothing, starting to get nervous now, no one else comes down, no one seems to know where I am to go or even what I am doing here, ah yes looks like its going to be another interesting day!
I was expecting the couple from the night before to come down and maybe we all travel together. I try to ask at the desk but they seem sure I was to go outside, so confused I walk outside and see that there is a bus station right next to the hotel, aha, the missing piece to the puzzle, a little disappointed as I presumed the ticket I paid for was actually going to get me to Lhasa.
My mind scrambled about looking for other pieces, turned them around, swapped them about a bit, tried to hammer the corners in place that I was sure should fit, but I was just eluding myself. Eventually I could only form one other alternative, maybe a bus was going to arrive here to pick up people from the hotel and continue, or the more obvious, but the one which I really did not want to believe was that this was the end of the ride and I had to get another ticket from here.
I stood around for a while waiting for another alternative to manifest itself, my mind was on strike and protesting about the conditions it had to work under, so I could not come up with anything better.
I entered the bus station and tried to ignore all the faces that immediately turned and were now starring at me as though I had got a big sign on my head. I tried to imagine I was just an ordinary Tibetan on my way to Lhasa and tried to blend in, well my clothes were the same colour as theirs but I still stood out like a sore thumb, gingerly I went up to the ticket counter and asked, errrrr could I have a ticket pleeeeeeeees to Llash
she cut me off mid sentence. I could see it in her eyes as she recoiled and ran away to the opposite side of her office trying to pretend what I asked for did not happen, several times I tried and I waited, waved money around and tried to buy a ticket, no one, they would not acknowledge me, so confused I walked away. I was stranded in a bus station. I look around trying to catch the attention of anyone, they all seem aware of exactly what is going on but no one wants to intervene, eventually a young guy gestures me to wait. I use a little sign language with him and try to get him to buy a ticket for me, but he seems to be saying and pointing to the ticket office, they phone police, what! OK that`s it, I am out of here.
I will hitch, I suddenly decided, then he tells me to wait and pulls out a mobile phone and he makes a call, gestures me to wait. I am nervous and I toy with the idea of just legging it now and walking, my instincts say go but something tells me I can trust this guy.
Ten minutes later I see a policeman walk in, shit I don`t believe it I think he has turned me in, I get ready to leg it before I am noticed, but he takes my arm and tells me its ok, my friend, eh! He comes up and suddenly I see they know each other, they greet, then my friend turns to the ticket office and gives them the bird, wow, cool. I have the law on my side then, my mood picks itself up off the floor and I shake his hand shei shei, thank you. The officer does not smile, just asks for my papers. I see the expression of his friend now also looking a little confused, he takes my passport and examines it, then with no words he just points to the door and I have to follow, but I already know the inevitable, never trust a cop......!

Friday, 26 December 2008

The forbidden road

I sit here still numb from the events over the last 24 hours, covered in dust, mud, grime and snot, freezing to the core of my being, dazed, amazed, shocked, but alive....!
I recall the day before and re wind in my minds eye the events, the marathon road trip that lay unaware just a few seconds ahead of my unknowing as I set off down an uncertain road with the only certainty that the heading I wanted to follow on my compass showed NNW, and hoped a ride would come along soon.
The morning had felt good, positive, there was love in my heart. I felt as clear as the blue sky above, unhindered by doubt, the distance did not matter something would happen I will get through here, with that I gazed upon the horizon of holy mountains, untouched by human feet they looked back at me with pride, majesty and purity no compromise. They looked so beautiful so close the crisp air was so clear I felt as though I could reach out and touch them I stopped to admire them to give them my time as there was no time of any importance to compare with these moments. I could have stayed in this place in this frame of mind, it was timeless no need for anything, no desire no fight a feeling of great deep love, respect, honor and of letting go, of faith........I let it all go I turned away to follow a road I did not care where, when or how I just knew this was the way I was to go and everything was going to be fine.
Very few cars passed I thought it was strangely quiet, just the occasional truck with its cloud of dust chasing after it, taxi cabs, two domestic cars who just waved something back at my hopeful gestures at getting a ride, they sounded their horns and sped on by...! but what was I expecting the prospect of someone just stopping so early on in the morning and taking me all the way to Lhasa and somehow getting through all the check points, something that I refused to try to think about......questions, a sudden snow shower of doubt swept over me and I felt cold and alone as I looked back at the long, dusty, desolate road behind me, still no cars in sight, I sighed and shook the cobwebs of doubt from my mind, put some sunshine back into my stride and started to just enjoy the morning again the here and now of it all. I slowed my pace down and told myself just a matter of time everything happens when it is ready to, so many infinite possibilities, so must we be open to receive them, so able, so free, how beautiful this feeling I had everything I needed, tent, food cooker, what else do you need?
Suddenly a big black 4by4 materialized from out of the future, maybe this was the devil come to trade my soul for a bus ride to my hearts desires? I had not been listening to the road behind me and it caught me by surprise I turned quick and stuck out my hand, it reacted and stopped immediately, my spirits raised with the first successful ride and so early on in the morning, a friendly face appeared, ''Nee chee Markham'' I asked...I go Markham, this was the first place marked on my map and where I hoped I could try to buy a bus ticket from within Tibet. He seemed not to understand where I wanted to go so then I pointed up the road and said Lhasa, he shook his head but pointed up the road and gestured for me to get in, great I was grateful for the ride regardless how far it was going as long as it was in the right direction not that was much choice in these parts apart from up or down, everywhere else was pretty much un-navigable the terrain was rugged, elevated and the road full of craters and rock falls, luckily the big 4by4 took it all in its stride, and sped along eating up the kilometers. A few times he tried to engage conversations but this involved a barrage of aggressive sounding characters that sounded he was very concerned, and frustrated about something, all I could do was smile and say a few random words that I had picked up which seemed to break the ice but not really reveal anything for either of us.
I clocked the trip meter and at the last count got to 75km, shortly after that he stopped and seemed to be saying that he needed to eat, ''how cha'' very good I say I am also hungry then he waved me goodbye and went inside a building to eat, ok that was the end of that then I guess he was not satisfied with the conversation.
I set off walking again down a dusty, dry road, more hot now as the sun beats down in this valley the road ahead twisting, climbing, descending a crazy labyrinth of road, rock, river all struggling with each other to decide who should prevail like a game of scissors, paper, stone......this time the road was winning as it carved itself through rock and span the gaps of rivers to disappear in a shimmering haze of heat and dust.
70 km closer to Lhasa! and it is still morning. I walked for maybe another 2 hours passing by some small villages, curious faces following my progress amused by my presence, I wave, smile and say ''tash de lai'' a Tibetan greeting that means something like, 'I hope you are blessed in every way and good fortune go with you for the rest of your day', or that’s what I would like to think it meant as they seem very pleased when you address them this way.
Still walking but no cars, where are they all? I was starting to feel a little isolated and daunted by the terrain and the 1500 km ahead...!
I hear engines in the distance behind me, I turn to look and see a big cloud of dust and maybe 5 cars, as they get closer I practically step out in front of them and try to wave them down not wanting to miss any opportunity and really wanting to get some ground covered....... 1, 2, 3 cars all speed past engulfing me in their road dust, I see the last but I think he is already about to drive past, I put my hand out in a vain attempt to catch a ride, I think he is going past but suddenly he brakes hard, sliding to a halt next to me, it took me by surprise but I excitedly run up this time I ask for the next place on my map and not mention Lhasa. ''Markham'' I say hopefully, he nodded, great I get into a good 4by4 with Frank Zappa from Tibet and my mood now elevated to be transported to my primary goal, a little at a time and slowly but surely we will get there not be too greedy.
I settle down to enjoy the ride and think back to a few hours ago early this morning walking into uncertainty and thinking about the travel Gods who often come to help those who dare to face uncertainty for the love of travel, the adventure, the variety, the highs and lows that give us moments of clarity where the waters become calm and crystal clear, the sights, sounds and sensations that stimulate the soul and somehow answer ancient questions that elude us from daily routines of life, or maybe previous incarnations, slowly silently they get answered as we travel, communicate and union with the elements of this planet both human and that which is not. The pieces of the puzzle click into place one by one as we advance to somewhere, feeling more whole, more complete leaving ripples in the fabric of time behind us.
The Gods answer as they always do, but only when we are humble and ask for the right things nothing more or less than what we need is all I ask. There is normally always a catch something I did not think about that I was not specific enough, I wanted a ride, I wanted to get to Lhasa, I did not say how I did not care......!
The last thing I remember thinking after asking the Gods for assistance was ''I wonder where I will be tonight''
I reflected on this thought some time later as I pushed his head away from the gear lever where he had passed out, so that I could engage a gear and get this vehicle out of here before it either falls apart or it and we freeze to death on the spot in this freezing forsaken place....he moaned as I forced him back into his seat and the smell of cheap lager filled my nostrils, he had been drinking steadily for a few hours partly to amuse himself, partly to break up the monotony of the journey and maybe mostly just to scare me to death I think, whilst driving me to......I don’t know, maybe to the end of my days, maybe to Lhasa, maybe to his Grandmas house, maybe to never never land, who cares lets get out of here its bloody freezing...!
Finally the cheap low alcohol Asian lager must have frozen, distilled itself then doubled in volume as we doubled in altitude and at approximately 5600 meters his brain waved goodnight to the world and gracefully collapsed at the wheel.
I laughed out aloud to myself as a statement returned to my mind, be carefull what you wish for and yes I had no idea in my wildest imagination that I would be doing this, ''yes we know'' I heard one of the more mischievous travel Gods answer, I turned quickly out the corner of my mind to try to get a look at him, but he was too quick for me this time Well when you are in a situation where you wished you were somewhere else, then normally this means you are having an adventure, this I reassured myself.
It was 2am I was driving a beat up old saloon car of various makes and models because the driver had passed out too drunk to continue, I looked around the interior which was that of a pimp daddy afro cosmic sixties flashback ride into oblivion, bouncing over a road that I was sure was built as some sort of mechanical endurance test, rather than a convenient highway through Tibet....! Where the hell were we? and my altimeter kept climbing, 5000 meters and still bouncing, sliding, struggling to maintain momentum and traction up through a winding dirt road, patches of sheet ice and holes in the road as though it had been blanket bombed. I struggled with the controls wrenching the wheel from side to side to avoid the really deep ruts and holes in fear of getting stuck....(again) many times we lost the road or got into a patch of ice or deep ruts and lost traction, everyone having to stop to get out and push and pull to get free.
It all started off quite normal I thought, as I started recalling the early hours of today, wow was it still today had I not been asleep and woke up in the same movie again? Well anyway it started out quite normal, apart from the guy who picked me up, who looked like some Tibetan Frank Zappa look-alike, which gave me much internal amusement. I tried to communicate as best I could he seemed quite anxious at first bombarding me with a barrage of aggressive sounding questions that all I could do was smile and say hey just take me as far as you can hoping he could read in between the lines somewhere, eventually he relaxed and we settled down into the journey ahead
I tried to calculate where we were and when we will get to Markham but gave up being so specific, lets just go with the flow the direction is good.
We seemed to be driving for hours, very rough ground many kilometers of road that was still being worked on and excavated through the foreboding geology, so much dust, very dry fine which found its way through any filtering system the car possessed. I could smell it, layers of it built up inside my nostrils and finally settled in my lungs causing sporadic fits of coughing.
We stopped to eat at a large town, but not Markham. I half expected to be on the road again at any one of these places waiting for one of them to give me a sign that we have arrived, but no signs and was starting to really lose track of where we were and how far we had travelled. The other cars pull up now and I soon get introduced to his colleagues, it looks like they all work together, they have sign writing on the cars all in Tibetan and seem very close to each other and friendly, loyal and committed. Funny how you look for signs your instincts become heightened some sort of survival mode, look for something to recognize, food, shelter, directions, friends or foe? its interesting and good I think to be in situations like this, otherwise dormant unexercised compartments of our minds to be stimulated again, our lives are normally so cushioned, comfortable our instincts become lazy and off guard.
All eyes dance around the room I see everyone in turn and smile waiting for someone to say something but no need, everyone was comfortable and more interested to be feeding. one of them produces a plastic bag and puts it on the table, handfuls of semi-cured Yak meat was passed around, I was hungry and ready for adventure so I sunk my teeth into one that got passed my way, it had a musty, fatty taste that was almost but not quite enjoyable. I let my senses and imagination go over it thoroughly. I conjured up images of origin, removal, preparation and storage, the latter which I did not want to think about for too long, but I think maybe it had been wrapped in an old pair of walking socks removed from the dead body of their last hitch hiker and then stored in the back of the pick up to be tenderized and matured in the dusty heat of the midday Tibetan sun. Yes I was sure of it.
All in all I felt very humble to be with them, they would not let me pay for lunch and continued their hospitality through out the journey with food and drink, nice guys a sense of togetherness, no one better than the other feeling.
On the road again and many hours passed I lost track of trying to calculate where, who, why and when just watching the crazy geology unfold itself under the wheels of this car. I noticed Frank looking agitated, tired maybe he had been driving a long while and who knows how much before I was picked up. Some time later after a long silence he gestured at the wheel, I tried to steady it thinking he wanted to look for something in the car, no he pointed to me and then the wheel again, ahhh you want me to drive, he was tired, yeah OK why not no harm. We stopped and swapped places then I gently pulled away and he smiled after some time patted me and gave me the thumbs up obviously pleased with my driving and felt he could relax, it was good feeling of trust. It was also a strange feeling to be driving myself through China towards Tibet, that echo in my mind again, yes I did not think I would be doing this today, with that thought I amused myself with the situation and took a mental photograph, one of many that comes flooding back as I write and recollect it all now still as rich and as vivid as if was still happening, the memory of these moments and the power of our imagination is a beautiful thing and should be allowed full freedom with no limits. Turn off those TVs and chat shows there is much more going on outside without having to re invent any of it from within a brick prison, broadcasted, biased, clever media, propaganda, that we sit our children in front of God knows what is being broadcasted deep into their sub consciousness....! Video games that teach to kill and to enjoy it whilst suppressing the ability to communicate without pushing a button, conversation becomes to boring too difficult, meal times get forgotten until the next save point, families become individuals in their own alternative reality, lack of communication, lack of communion, we argue, we shout, we lose respect for each other we have no class, no culture, no honor, the chat shows, the dramas, the isms and schisms, designer labels, better, bigger, more, must have better than you....! We are a lost culture an empire that crushed, killed and raped to get what it wants, we exploit their lands and homes creating slaves to feed our greed we have much to be ashamed about. These simple people, the ones in the jungles, the ones on the streets with no clothes on their back they are the ones that gave me what they had, as a human to another human does it take such suffering to become humble?
I felt humble, and here I was taking my turn to drive my cargo of strange encounters, I watch the day become into night and then the road going on into the night, no idea where I am, are we in China still? We have been driving for so long maybe 9 hours now, still no sign of Markam, it looked so close on my large scale map just the next town from Dequin, this is going to be one hell of a long road. More hours passed, we stopped at a few places once in a large town where I thought they were looking for something, maybe they forgot where they lived...! I could not communicate at all and my brain was fading fast with the night and the distance and this bloody long, dusty road. I later realized in retrospect that one of these places must have been Markham but at the time I was so tired and disorientated it could have been on the moon for all I know and certainly would have accounted for all the dust and bloody long way....yes had driven to the moon, I was sure that was it, this was a secret Tibetan space station that somehow we had manage to get lost and drove up a very large mountain pass to appear on the dark side of the moon, yeah this was not Tibetan anymore this was lunar, they were all speaking some strange lunar language and maybe the beer had special bubbles in it to account for the thin atmosphere......yeah OK it was late and my mind was a little disorientated.
More long, dusty, bouncy roads, climbing up 4000 meters and then twisting down again, cannot see anything, dark outside and having to squint through the windshield of yellow/brown mud caked glass into the dimly lit road ahead, my temples had been gradually thumping for the last hour or two so I was relieved when we came to a stop outside what looked like a roadside cafe. I had no interest to eat I just wanted to lie down for a while and close my eyes, give my mind a rest, but there were too many questions flying around in there now that had developed a healthy rhythm and resonated deep inside my temporal lobe, dam this headache, the long distance and high altitude was starting to get to me and I felt all the color fading out of me, I felt cold and translucent white I was becoming invisible, fading into oblivion.
The time was now 10.30pm we had been driving for 11 hours. How far had we come? Were we in Tibet yet? where were all the check points?, it seemed as though we had been bouncing down a dirt track for thousands of kilometers and certainly my head felt that way. I motion to Frank that I am feeling very tired and need to rest, he points to one of the other cars and shows me I can move the seat and lay back, aaaaahh fantastic I get to travel business class, relax put my feet up, maybe watch a movie, look at the cute air hostess's.......I get in and introduce myself to the driver who was a youthful Tibetan guy, grinning from ear to ear looking very pleased with himself, no not pleased, just pissed….aw shit Ptshhhhhhh, he opened up another bottle of Dali beer threw the empty in the rear with the rest and then bombarded me with broken dialect of basically telling me what my name was about thirty seven times and laughing in between, dribbling, messing with every control in the car and somehow managing to drive without looking at the road, mind you it did not make much difference you could not see out of the windscreen anyway. Ptshhhhhhhh and another, by the time he got to the third his mood was really excitable, singing, bouncing up and down in his seat fumbling with a DVD player that was now playing some sort of soft porn, pimp daddy we got a ride tonight, going on. He pointed at the wheel, looks like I got to drive again, well I feel safer with this and it gives my mind something to focus on and try to forget that its actually trying to escape out of my skull.
We swap places and I paddle the gear lever around like a big pudding spoon to try to find a usable gear,, that was a lucky first guess and we wheel spun out of there up and up still climbing more of these bloody long, dusty, icy dirt roads. My friend is in his own world now still singing track number 2 whilst we are on track 5, it was the worst scenario possible for a headache and felt that it was soon about to develop into a super nova, my mind cannot cope with much more, it will die and collapse in on itself to form a dark pool of throbbing turbulence stabbing at my soul for all infinity, I would have laughed a little more if it did not hurt so much.
I look around the interior of the car it is pimped up like a full gangster Tibetan rap fanny magnet, fur, dangly things, plastic bags of clothes, biscuits, crisps......DVD player blasting out Asian, acid hip hop rap, I think this guy lived in here, it was like your first room that you rented as a student.....Yes I did not think this was going to happen again, but this time I was getting bored about it all, my mind was about to form a new solar system after first collapsing in on itself, please when will this road end? Where is my bed? Will I ever sleep again?
I stop several times as more bottles of Dali beer are exchanged with one of the other drivers, then several more times for them to empty themselves of it.....weak beer, but once inside an Asian the transformation is rapid, the biology of their genetics somehow turns it into a hallucinogenic, class A, triple distilled lager, brain, giggling, dribbling, substance capable of transforming the ugliest girl into the most beautiful porn star ever imagined, and they will keep telling you that they love you until they throw up and pass out....!
One of them did pass out, luckily he did not throw up......we had stopped again and then tried to go but the car ahead just stayed there until someone eventually got out to see what was wrong, he simply passed out, the weak alcohol mixed with high altitude and weak Asian genetics got the better of him, one down three to go. I push his head away from the gear lever so I could engage it.....clunk....and wheel spun off into the freezing night once more, it felt like my mind was in a constant loop and a constant thump from my inside temples, there seemed to be no way out like the record was stuck until we ran out of conscious drivers....!
I checked the altimeter, 4700m and still this road to hell was climbing, my head was spinning, the veins inside my temples were pumping with each Tibetian drum beat within them, still climbing, bouncing, sliding, wheel spinning. 5000 meters 2.00am, inside the car had become noticeably arctic, the heater was blowing freezing air around but nothing else......hell had frozen over in here. I could see patches of sheet ice all over the road glinting in the dim headlamps beneath a clear sky I could see a few bright stars far away in deep freezing space, it felt just as isolated and freezing up here.
My friend is still out cold so at least I get some peace to myself. I gaze through the windscreen and try to keep up and follow the tail lights ahead, but the conditions are getting worse the deep ruts in the ice become hard to avoid and I give it some more gas to keep the momentum up, the car is thumping, crashing, engine screaming trying to make it through, we are in some sort of off road endurance challenge. My eyes want to close, pain in my temples, altitude, throbbing nausea. I lose concentration and suddenly the tail lights are on top of me I brake hard to not hit the back of him and slide into a deep rut, shit I am stuck. I cannot get out. I get out and open the door a blast of arctic air takes my breath away, it must be -20 at least. We push and shove and swear and curse this thing out of there, then all set off again, but it was to be a regular routine from now on the road was well above 5000 meters and became impossible not to get stuck, the cars had been taking such a hammering I could not imagine why anyone would want to come this way, something was sure to happen here this is just totally crazy, either 1. We get stuck here and freeze to death, or 2.enough parts are going to fall off these cars until they all destroy themselves and we all freeze to death, or 3. We all fall asleep and drive over the side to our doom.....

Number three decided to happen first..... I watch in disbelief as the tail lights in front make some strange maneuvers then veers to one side then the other, suddenly they speed off and take a dive to the left, keeps going left.....I cant believe it.... it goes over the side, in slow motion at first, then as gravity takes over it accelerates over the edge and disappears out of sight, is there a big drop? I don`t know it just goes over and disappears, I dread to think, my mind freezes.

My heart was beating fast with the shock and I felt a surge of adrenalin which made my eyes open wide like saucers as I starred into the void trying to see any signs of life. I get out, its bloody freezing outside I shiver and my teeth start to chatter immediately as I stumble over rock and ice to see over the side. I expected to see a black void and no sign of the car, but as I gingerly peer over the side, incredibly I see the tail lights just a few meters down the car teetering on an acute angle with its front imbedded into a large rock which broke its certain fairground ride to there a God? Anywhere else along this way it would have been sure death, but here was a rocky ledge just below the road, a very lucky escape. Maybe these Buddhists were right in their thinking and it was not there time to go this time.
The driver was fine although a little shaken up by the slap he got from his colleague, whose car it belonged to, and was now frantically waving his arms around and obviously saying how the bloody hell are we going to get my van out of here?
5400 meters up -20, silly o clock in the bloody freezing Tibetan morning, phone the AA I don’t care anymore I want my bed, where is that? Shit my head pounding again this is just unbelievable torture, I need to descend, I need to sleep, I need to get warm.
One thing about Asians once they get an idea into their head you cannot budge them, and believe me they were determined to somehow get this van back on the road, rebuilt, re-sprayed and driving again. I did not even consider it I gave it a quick look over and thought, no its fucked.
There was no way anyone would even try to attempt it, well all I could do was to observe, help in anyway I could and hope that one of them was some sort of Buddhist, enlightened being capable of lifting impossible things just with his mind.
What seemed like hours of head scratching, moving rocks, kicking things to no avail passed and no feats of spiritual phenonema occurred, finally just as nearly everything had gone numb, and I mean everything. A decision was reached, no......I watched as they continued to move stone and debate between themselves, then I gathered what they were trying to do, they decided to clear the way below and then make a slip way up to the road above, so out came shovels and a pick, these people were unbelievably motivated…my mind somersaulted in disbelief, but I helped the best I could as there was nothing else left for me to do except freeze. I started to lift rocks, to clear the way but after walking and lifting for just a few seconds I was so out of breath, yes of course we were very high, my temples pounded again as I waited to re gain breath, when is this night going to end?
Maybe two hours passed, we finished and it actually started to look like it could work, we had made a clear run to a flat area below from where the car was stuck, then just a steep run up to the road above, that I was not sure a 4by4 would handle let alone a front wheel drive van. A big cheer let out as we released the car from its rocky grip and we all pushed behind as it then tried to go up the slip way we had cleared, but no way, even for these Asians they had to finally lose face and give up, but I was impressed by their determination and it nearly worked.!
One vehicle down, two drivers down, two more left to go, and by the way they had been abused trying to get us over this mountain pass, I don`t think they were too far off.
I returned back to the saloon I was driving but noticed it sitting a bit low at the front end...shit its got a flat... my mood that had just been elevated at the thought of driving out of here suddenly committed suicide and leapt over the crevasse into the void leaving an empty, -20 desolate feeling in my mind apart from the sensation of a jack hammer that was now trying to break through my skull......
Putain du merd c`est que c`e encore du merd and other French obscenities, I cannot believe this endless night. My mind still suicidal but now committed to despair for the rest of its mortal existence, calmly it accepted defeat and its fate never to be at peace or at rest again....suddenly a few synapses fired up from within a small infrequently used compartment of my mind where logic was once created, I recognized its voice from when I used to take notice of it, it said...'' you know what you got to do so just get on with it '' great advice, merci beaucoup.....I threw the master switch back to off again.
I helped to change the tyre and thank God they had a spare. Suddenly I went through one of a hundred things that I expected to happen next, but the wheel nuts did come undone, did not snap in the freezing conditions, the spare was inflated and was the correct size, no one else passed out, we did not get attacked by rabid snow leopards or suffer multiple frost bite amputations of sensitive areas.
We were actually about to set off again driving out of here, aaahhh what a shame I was just starting to get comfortable and familiar with all this suffering, oh well all good things have to come to an end, lets go......I excitedly ram it into first and floor this tin, Tibetan Ragga muffin out of there.
Finally we are in convoy again and moving, hammering these vehicles over this ridiculous terrain I was a little relieved not to be able to see how high we were or the inevitable precipice that must be waiting for one of us to make another mistake, but also kind of curious to have been denied a clear view and to see our surroundings, instead it had felt like I had been playing a video game for the past 24 hours starring at a monitor and thrashing the steering wheel from side to side.
We start to descend now and after some time I feel the pressure release its vice like grip on my temples, the nausea in the pit of my stomach dissipates and I feel kind of blank, numb, my mind has flat lined and now all systems have been shut down then re started in safe mode, I function on just the basics, my hands turn the wheel according to some other automated response, my mind and body feels separate to one another and I sit and stare into the darkness from within my own shell as the barrage of motion and turbulence continue. Suddenly I am seeing things, red lights in front, lots of them, I brake and slide and come out of my driving trance to see many tail lights of cars, trucks and a coach, not moving, queuing up at now maybe 4.30 am, what now? It looked like we could be entering civilization and I see a few trees, telegraph poles, fences, maybe it was a check post? shit I had forgot all about that whilst my mind was preoccupied with surviving, a backlog of reality suddenly caught up and smacked me in the back of my head.....baaam, I was driving as an illegal alien with an unconscious passenger of unknown criminal record, stinking of alcohol and all of us covered in dust, mud and snot....well at least I looked like a Tibetan now, but it would still be pretty hard to explain all this in this late hour to unforgiving Chinese police. The best I hoped for now was a nice cold prison cell for the rest of the night, morning or whatever time it should not have been, I relished the thought of a prison cell, a hard cold bed to lie down on, no more driving. Aaaaah bliss.
We stop and wait but nothing moves maybe twenty minutes, everyone completely spent now hoping that something would just happen and start moving again, so as not to have to get out into the cold again, I had no warm blood left in me at all and nothing inside me to heat any of it up again, I really did not want to move. I see a truck start to maneuver, it reverses but I cant quite see what is the trouble is, then it bounces like crazy and slides so presume it must be ice, it tries a run up and a big cloud of diesel bellows out as it powers through, bounces like crazy again and starts to slide, keeps sliding, nearly sideways and then grinds to a halt, shit if this huge thing got stuck I cant see us having a chance. It makes a second attempt, takes a slightly different route, bounces like crazy again, almost stops then somehow finds grip and makes it through, we get out to see the road, yes its bad, a huge sheet of ice completely over the road with mud underneath, deep ruts where wheels had broken through creating big holes where they grind to a halt.
We wait and wait and finally they all make it through, one by one, but we are all drained now completely non functional, cold, tired and defeated no energy cannot face having to push and pull vehicles if they get stuck in the ice, we decide to rest a while and try to sleep a little until the daylight breaks through in a few hours.
I find as many things as I can to cover myself with from within the car, paper, boxes, hat, gloves and try to sleep, it is bloody freezing and soon my unconscious friend is making deep unpleasant noises from the back of his throat like someone is slitting it, I laugh a little then feel concerned he could actually be dying? With the alcohol and freezing conditions his system could drop down too low, maybe his throat is collapsing? I kick him and he responds and stops the gurgling, with that diagnosis I relax and try to sleep, maybe two hours in and out of consciousness getting more and more cold trying to wrap myself up in two inches of cloth I am clutching on to I decide to get up and everyone else seems to be doing the same, the first signs of light are showing now and is a little relief to see that this endless night is coming to an end, but to where...?
I get out stiff and aching to look at the road with the others, it looks even worse in the light, deep mud underneath and the whole road on a slight angle so if you lose traction you slide off towards an impossible ditch to recover from. The first car tries an attempt it looks like they decided the best tactics is to get a good run up and hit it as fast as you can, he nails it to the floor and hits the ice in second engine screaming, I laugh as it hits the ice and takes a dive through the surface, clouds of steam, the front of the car buries its nose down and I expect to see it come to an abrupt stop in a cloud of mud, ice and steam.....yes there was lots of mud, ice, steam then somehow its momentum kept going its front springs fully compacted, probably both now protruding through the bonnet, suddenly released its tension and the front end sprang skywards, it screamed , slid, spat, swore, coughed a big lump of road up in true Tibetian style, shook itself off and then casually emerged out the other side, there was a brief silence then all cheered and ran up to the driver like he had just won the Paris Dakar rally. With this technique the rest of the cars all made it through, it was like the final barrier and now we had broken through into the new frontier, the new world, the forbidden land, we were inside Tibet. Fucking hell…!
Now I sit caked in dust, mud and snot, still trying to recover some body heat and recollect the events over the last 24 hours. How? what? why? when? I was on a bus and on my way to Lhasa. It was incredible after the ordeal of the mountain death pass drive to oblivion, these guys dropped me off in some strange town found a bus station and after speaking with the bus driver I was allowed on and paid 2500 Yuan, I still couldn`t believe it. I wonder how far away I was, I tried to calculate how long we had been driving and maybe covered 350 km so maybe another good day on this bus and we will be there, hmmmmmm a wave of doubt swept over me, after everything that had just happened suddenly it all felt too easy, maybe its a trap? Do they really know where I want to go? Maybe its going back to China? I catch the attention of some children playing close by and ask them ''gong gong chee cher, chee Lhasa'' strange language but they did understand me 'buss go Lhasa?' they nod so I try to relax, well OK I look around at my surroundings again to confirm with my mind, yes this does look like a bus and it is confirmed that it is actually going to Lhasa, what can go wrong? maybe there will be check points here, my mind would not relax it was preparing itself for the next set back, but I reassure it and for now lets just enjoy the ride see where we get to next!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas with Chorma

The next day we set off together and walked along beautiful trails following a deep gorge up into forest and beyond to mountain Tibetan villages, snow covered peaks and glaciers lining the horizon, I completely switched off from my objectives and just enjoyed the here and now of it all, the simple life, the Tibetan homes that we visited and ate in. Imagine doing this in the west just walking into someone’s property and asking if we can come in and eat, they would have us arrested or shoot us....!
The first place we came across was an old Tibetan house/farm very basic, mules, chickens, goats. A lively bubbly young Tibetan came to greet us, smiling and quickly showing us to a room which we could sleep in practically a part of the barn with a few beds and things that they stored in there, it felt very peaceful here, simple uncomplicated where you could just be yourself, no passing of time to be aware of.
The bubbly young woman was called Chorma, and the name to a beautiful Tibetan song that I heard last week after the Tibetian wedding, great memories already. I felt it reflected her inner beauty. She was not particularly beautifull, but radiant. A real beauty that lasts far longer than the tricks of the flesh I will never forget her something so pure, clean and happy. She had hardened features and skin that had been weather from the outdoor life and conditions here, but she shone from within there were no clutter in her mind or her heart, just completely happy with what, who why and when, at times like these the only frustration is not to be able to communicate as she spoke or understood no English, just Tibetan and Chinese. We stayed that night, danced to Tibetan music, I taught them how to play some card games the Chinese seemed to enjoy this competitiveness and Chorma quickly picked it up, she laughed all night long, not caring who won or lost but amused by the playing of it.
We decided to stay here for Christmas, wow was it Christmas eve already, I did not even think about it, I talked with my Chinese friends and we thought it would be a good thing if some of us went to the nearest market and bought some fresh supplies back to cook a good Christmas meal for everyone, as they were in short supply here. The nearest market was a 6 hour walk and a 2 hour taxi ride, we arranged for a taxi to meet us on the nearest accessible part of the road. It would be a nice surprise for Chorma and so I set off with one of the others.
It was a long walk back up the side of the steep valley from the lower altitude of the river where Chormas village was and a dusty ride into town from there. We got our supplies, kilos of fresh vegetables and set off to make the journey back, but we struggled to find a taxi driver who was prepared to take us down what was a pretty gnarly, rough dirt road to where we could walk back from. We eventually found one but by the way he had stopped a little later to wash his car, I thought then no way is he going to take us down that track we came up, he is too precious with his car, sure enough we turned off from the main road and started to descend down the narrow steep track, he hesitated, slowly advanced, stopped, muttered something, got out, removed a few rocks from ahead that were bothering him! painfully slow, this continued for 20 minutes, he eventually stopped and told us he was not going any further, I was a little agitated as was my friend this meant an extra 2 hours walk down a steep valley with kilos of shopping, he knew where we wanted to go at the beginning and had agreed now he wanted to ditch us and he wanted paying. It was getting late now with little time left to argue with the sun now very low in the sky and no light with us. My Chinese friend argued for a while both parties now trying not to lose face, eventually we agreed to pay him but he was to show us a short cut and made him lead the way. We followed him through someone’s house then out into the back to find a steep trail, we made him walk all the way down with us not sure if this short cut was indeed short, but fair enough we arrived at where we were picked up but lost a lot of time and light now fading so we marched as fast as we could, sweat dripping from my forehead, we both were silent as we both knew it would not be good stumbling about on the side of this ravine in the dark, as the trail was very narrow and at times we were hard up against the rock face edging along where parts of the trail had eroded and fallen, there was no room for error and nothing to hold on to, just a long way down to the raging river below, just a normal days walk for the locals here who we often saw herding their goats and yaks along this way. We hurried along as fast as possible, but darkness surely engulfed us, and were reduced to creeping along, now everything changed, the shadows of the night and tricks of the mind questioned where we were, how far was the bridge that we crossed over the river? no way to see ahead, quickly losing track of time and distance but the night was clear and again I stopped and stared up into the heavens at the trillions of stars and for a moment was lost amongst them, the feeling was so peaceful, not lost, not concerned. I had a feeling of being exactly where I wanted to be you can never be lost with all this around you.
My friend behind was struggling, nervous, I could hear him stumbling and muttering, not being able to see, I reassured him to take it easy it was dark now anyway so no point in rushing. I realized then I was carrying my camera which self illuminated for a few seconds if I pressed the shutter to focus, enough to catch a glimpse of the way ahead, with this we followed snippets of the trail like parts of a video tape that had been erased making up the bits in between with our imagination and slowly we descended. The trail flattened and opened out but then became difficult to find the way as nothing to orientate with and many trails branching out in all directions. I had a vague idea where I felt we should go but in this situation I was even starting to doubt my own optimism, just then we noticed a light shining opposite, someone waving a torch, we followed this bright star, which turned out to be Chorma who had been concerned with our late arrival, she had come out as a beacon to guide us through this dark hour and many hours it had been. I was wet all over with sweat maybe 14 hours we had been traveling today but soon happily to be re united and back at the nativity scene to celebrate the festivities together. Her light guided us in the right direction and we soon found the trail again which led us over the rope bridge to the village on the other side. The village of mud house and flat roofs, they did look like something from Bethlehem with a slight Chinese twist, so we did arrive at the stables as we did not wish to be in a noisy inn, but no new born baby here. We ate our modest meal of vegetables, chilli and Tibetian bread, danced, laughed and went to bed. I will miss being around these people. I was starting to forget or to let go of my desires to get to Lhasa, maybe let it go and just see where things take me, as it was here and now I was more than happy to wonder around these valleys, mountains and villages for the rest of my time…..but just one thing that keeps nagging at me all because of all those people that said I cannot go you will not make it, makes me want to do it more, I pull back and my thoughts returned to the forbidden road to Lhasa, well China will have to be another place to have to return to.
I started to take notice of the sky, I took it for granted because for weeks now it had been cloudless, but now each day I saw more and more big cumulus boiling up far in the distance towards the north, I had become slightly complacent and got used to walking under a clear blue sky, but winter storms must surely be well overdue, there was no news that snow had fallen yet I really must get going now whilst things are so favorable.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

take me to Shangrilla

I slept well that night, short but deep sleep. I find this that the more you push yourself the less you seem to need sleep, my body felt alive, tingling all over with the stimulation of exercise. I was ready to hit the road to Shangrilla. I set off towards the next village, Bashotai a 30 km hike. I had no choice but to follow the road and no money now even for the bus as I had missed the chance to change foreign currency and my last money I gave to the guide for his help. Did not matter, money had no bearing on the way I felt. I was still on a high from the achievement yesterday so settled down to a steady days hike, ready to face whatever came my way. I stopped just short of the next village, my legs were complaining they did not want to go any further, so I agreed they had done very well the last day or so and made camp on a hill amongst what looked like a grave yard, but there was running water and a great view of the valley to the east, the sun will be up early from this point and warm everything up in the morning. That night I made a fire, cooked and enjoyed my solitude amongst the dead and felt so alive.

I had a disturbed sleep not due to any discontented spirits but I still had the remains of the chest infection that I picked up whilst in Bangkok, big lumps of that place kept coming up, coughing and hacking most of the night. I guess I have been spoilt from the clean air of southern France.

Next day I followed the road, climbing 700 meters of tarmac, looking for any chance to cheat the twists and turns. I managed to find a few trails that cut through the switch backs. It dropped down again the other side then again another big climb maybe another 1000 meters, I was fading fast, this place was hard.
It was just midday and I wanted to stop, I was hungry, tired and felt the need to just lie down and sleep. Just at that point I saw a group of Chinese working off the side of the road cutting trees, our eyes met and they waved, signaling me to come over and eat. I hesitated just long enough to make a few calculations and decisions battling with what my body wanted to do and my objective, the stomach finally got the majority of the vote as always, but I was relieved to have the excuse and the opportunity to stop and re-cooperate. I gave my quick introductions enough to tell them I was tired, hungry and on my way walking to Shangri-La. They smiled, gave me tea, Tibetan tea, this time the butter and the richness of it was very welcome I could feel my body absorbing and processing all the fats and salt, ahhhhhhh the warmth of the fire also, hot liquid to drink then eating Tibetan bread and soup, broth made from vegetables and yak meat, pretty old by the texture and smell of it and mainly just fat and gristle, but even this was a rich needed meal compared to the rations I had been eating consisting of muesli or noodles. I looked around at them they had no more interest to know anything else just very content with my presence, nothing else to say but to enjoy the moment, sharing the food and the fire it left me feeling warm, cheeks glowing and the drone of their incoherent chattering started to become distant and echoey, my eyelids started to close, I did not fight it and laid down listening to the crackling of the fire. I felt as though I was completely wrapped in cotton wool. The voices got more distant and unimportant, a moment seemed to pass, then I spoke something which made me jump out of a deep crevasse that I had fallen into, a deep part of the subconscious and slipped away, just a few seconds but so, so far away, the jolt back to waking reality was a shock, I jumped my heart missed a beat, then as I regained stability to where, who, why, when I let go again .......just ten minutes or so but a deep place I had gone, I love this sort of fatigue, sleep that we used to do as a child in the back of the car driving home from a long summers day out our minds so free of clutter, so open, so free, so innocent we sleep well at these times.
I heard myself snoring and woke up to catch the end of the last gargling noise I was making, then I looked around at my friends who were smiling, I nodded and laughed. How comfortable I thought.

My energy restored I thanked them and got going again, feeling great again. 2.30 pm now and I was thinking I would not be able to make up the lost ground, with nearly 57km to go I was hoping to finish today to leave about 35 km for the next day, which meant now having to do 22 km in 3 hours before it got dark and cold. No matter I felt good I was re-energized and settled down to enjoy the walk. I managed to find some good short cuts which must have saved a lot of time because I finally came to rest, just after a big climb at 3900 meters, this left just 34km left for tomorrow, to arrive in Shangri-La. Perfect day.

It was a very cold night - 12 inside the tent everything was frozen, my boots, my socks were solid it was like trying to put your foot inside a brick. Water had frozen so there was no breakfast just a quick launch from out of my sleeping bag and quickly packed away to start walking and warm up.

It felt it hard again today I think because of too much walking on tarmac, with little in the way of variety, just long twisting roads with thick forest on both sides. I had also refused an invitation to eat, a little old man signaled me to come back to his Tibetan farm house and rest and eat, but my mind was too focused on reaching Shangri-La today and felt I did not want to get stuck there, looking back I wished I had, why do I feel I am such a rush I should cherish these incidental moments.
I plodded on and on an endless horizon of hot tarmac, time went slow but my legs felt like they were walking twice the distance until finally the last 4km they just stopped, I argued with them intensely and I think I heard them say ''I don’t care if its only 4 more centimeters we are not moving'' and so they didn’t.
Nothing to do, my legs had gone. I rested for half an hour and was really hard to get going again after that, but finally I arrived at 5.30pm to a heavy, dirty, grey, dusty uninspiring place, my body did not care, my mind was occupied by other thoughts but somewhere I was hoping there was more to this place than what I was seeing, this was the legendary Shangri La, it has to represent the name somewhere, surely?
I needed to find a bank, if I had any hope of a room to sleep tonight. I had been saving my last 20 Yuan which might get me a bad room if I haggled and looked desperate enough. I managed to find a bank but it had just closed, so it looks like I have to find that dingy room somewhere.
I was tired and hoped to come across something quick and easy as all I wanted to do now was to rest a little and take the weight off my shoulders. I stopped a friendly looking Chinese man, with a few hand signs I tried to ask where a cheap room would be, he grinned from ear to ear put his hand on my shoulder like he had found an old friend, '' Ahhh I am an Indian my friend''…… this confused me straight away as he was obviously Chinese '' also I am a Christian and take it on as my spiritual duty to find you a good cheap room'' ok I thought what am I getting myself into here I thought, so after explaining he used to live in India but his home land was China and then explaining to him where, why, when, who I was, that I was very tired and needed a cheap place to stay as I only had 20 Yuan left, he promptly marched me off around the corner into a building that looked like the dole office in West Bromwich next to the re habilitation center for under aged single parent heroin addicts, then practically demanded a room for me, the woman shook her head at first and looked at me with a blank look, OK I was a bit dirty, unshaven and certainly did not smell too good, but good enough for this place I was sure of it. My Christian saviour, with holy conviction on his side, raised the tempo a bit with her and a small arms of verbal conflict seemed to exchange, he won, the agitated woman then silently led me up the grey concrete steps to my room, the whole ambience was depressing, grey, cold, broken, draughty, someone coughed and it echoed the way echoes do in depressed high rise flats, reverberated and bounced around the corridors, old men smelling of strong tobacco and yesterdays alcohol, a baby cried, someone threw up and a chill ran through my spine. I was too tired to be bothered about it, but amused myself with the extremity of it all, my half glazed room overlooked a busy junction outside where big trucks screeched to a halt blazing their horns. I did have a TV and an electric blanket that only one strand worked, I was impressed! Maybe that was what the argument was about earlier and she was trying to charge extra!
Did I dare to use the toilets? Later I dared to investigate, it was not hard to decide which direction they were. I just knew it, I could feel thier presence just around the corner, first the acidic smell followed by the drip, dripping of faulty plumbing then I saw a row of cubicles their doors dropped to one side in a depressing broken un -maintained way, not shutting properly on purpose, proudly exposing its masterpiece of human waste, there was no snow mountain here I can tell you, but quite a few brown ones, in each cubicle there was a pyramid of human waste....a brown mountain and a trickle of residue that was overflowing over the bowl and making its way, creeping along the floor looking for something to infest......I ran away.

I went back to my room. I could feel particles of the toilet area all over me in my nostrils, my skin, my mouth, arrrrrrrgh. I started to undress so as to feel a little cleaner, my clothes were a mess, I removed my boots and nearly threw up with the smell, my socks were highly toxic, sticky and aggressive with me with the hardships of the road, I threw them in the corner of the room next to the door for protection against the living or the dead, no one, nothing would be able to get past them. OK maybe I have neglected a little bit of personal hygiene with myself over the last week or so. I heard one of the cubicles make a remark to that thought, it coughed, spat and threw up a sticky brown lump resembling a statement which translated something like ''get this anagram.....the pot kettle black calling ‘‘OK I get it, well priority for tomorrow after the bank we find a better place to stay and get on top of the hygiene situation and away from this one.

I slept surprisingly well maybe due to all the toxicity in the air and remarkably did not have any bad rashes or purple traces signifying blood poisoning. With luck and health still on my side I got out of there very quickly. I had a whole new day to explore, all day, no rush.
I found the bank and feeling financially re plenished I headed out into the plethora of stalls, stands, shacks and shops, buzzing with early morning feeding activity, noodles, pots and pans of this and that, which I never really got to grips with it all, I like to try most things and did but still don’t know what they were, things being steamed, fried, rolled, grilled, things that you not supposed to eat just there for decoration or pointing at mainly. Its all very interesting, I love the variety the creativity such care and attention with taste and sensations to match, Asian food for me is the best.
I find a small local place and sit down, they bombard me with Chinese straight away. I say I am hungry and I point to all the Chinese characters painted in big red letters on the wall, maybe this was the license for the shop or a prayer, they not understand, I shrug then I see two others eating a big bowl of noodles full of vegetables and things...not sure but it looked good, I point to them and say I have that.

After walking a few km I soon realized that I had entered in from the wrong part of town, the grey broken part, now this was more like it suddenly I was in the old part which was beautiful old traditional buildings, temples and guest houses. I booked into one making sure they had hot water and went about cleaning everything.
It was another Liajang, but smaller, cute version, there were still very few tourists very quiet here this time of the year, I could imagine this place would be heaving normally , lots of places to stay and to eat and shop, maybe I saw ten westerners all day. One of those was French lad who was in the same dormitory as myself, I spoke interested with what part of France he was from and we exchanged our stories so far, he had been traveling from Laos, hitch hiking with a less is more kind of style but carrying around a big accordion, which transformed any room with lack of ambience right back to the resistance, viva la France, very amusing. We were both heading to Dequin which was 200 km away to the north and the last outpost before the forbidden land.....Tibet, I explained I wanted to try and get a bus ride from there to Lhasa and I was hoping he might have some advice, tricks and ideas for that but he had no advice for that other than playing a neat little jitty on that squeeze box doing a little gig and yeah, go for it! I liked his attitude so with that in mind we decided to hitch together tomorrow.
I have a good talk with my new friend about travelling and life in general, and with all these people I meet no matter who or where they come from they all say the same, it gets harder and harder to return to the west. I felt the same the last three years I have been traveling each time I return I see more and more that is wrong and not good for us, we have too much of everything and it does us no good, we get complacent, bored, distracted and lost. I meet eyes with many people here, poor, desperate, struggling, hungry, but they have life in their eyes, they have lived, they have love and still have time for you, still have time to smile. I see the eyes of the west they are cold, grey and discriminating, to busy, too much clutter, too much stress, technology was supposed to make things easier more efficient, it didn’t it just accelerated everything so that we buy twice as much, work twice as hard to pay for things that cost twice as much to pay for all the technology and resources it consumes.

They are playing catch up also here, they see us tourists, they see our gadgets and designer clothes, we are walking wallets to them, they want the things we have but they are dancing in the shadows of our mistakes, I wish there were a place where east meets west, to take the best out of both worlds we would find balance then, no where is perfect, I understand that is the nature of life, it all works on opposites, constantly trying to find the balance. In a fuel injected engine there exists an electronic flow meter, it measures air flow. It is a tube that sits in line of the air intake system and has a fine wire running through the middle, called a hot wire system, because an electric current is passed through the wire which creates a certain temperature just like an electric fire, so the more air that flows through the air intake as the car accelerates the cooler the wire becomes, more electricity is then needed to heat up the wire to get it back to its base temperature, the difference in current needed to achieve this can then be used to calculate the amount of air that is flowing down into the engine this in turn is used to maintain correct air fuel ratio, all this is controlled by the black box, the cars brain, computer, but the principle of balance is the same. The more you use the more you have to put back and visa versa, this basic principle of balance is our biggest mistake ecologically, politically, socially and financially. Like motor mechanics if the engine is out of balance it will not function well and eventually break.
So many problems are caused by desire, greed fuelled by egotistical desires to better our neighbours and colleagues there are many great words from Gandhi that I have recently become aware, a hero for me with a less is more, truly peacefull philosophy that achieved impossible things with so little except faith and belief in the truth, the truth that came from his heart. ''The only devils running around in this world are the ones in our own hearts, what you think you become, even as a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves''
We set off together down a dusty hot road, the sun starts to get strong at this time just after midday now and a little late for me to be starting off, but the relaxed attitude of the French, long petite dejuener, prompted a late start.
At first we had many vans stop but all taxi touts trying to get some business and another old couple stopped then sped off when we tried to get in, I never got to the bottom of that! eventually a big 4by4 stopped a fat, well to do Chinese man stopped we tried to explain where we wanted to go, there was a lot of confusion hand signals trying to make sure he was not trying to get money out of us and just take us as far as you can, confused he eventually signaled us to get in, great nice big comfy ride, he tried once more to ask things of us and was not very forthcoming with our directions to Dequin, he seemed to be saying its a long way, this we know, a few times he did the money thing with his fingers, I said, ''mee ho'' no have. He carried on but I could feel tension starting to build up here, he got a call on his cell and seemed a little more agitated afterwards and again he turned to us and tried to ask something. I was sure he was wanting money, ok he was getting agitated now. I said stop, we walk no problem, he promptly stopped and let us out. I did not like the vibrations and was glad to be out anyway I felt like walking for a while and to take time to take in the surroundings, which now were starting to become very dramatic a skyscraper of towering mountains and deep river cutting through rock, I tried to follow the road with my eyes, the craziest road I have ever seen just snaking through impossible landscape trying to make its way north through this maze of rugged obstacles.
I was just about to pick up my backpack when another car came to a halt where we were, it looked like he was stopping to give us a lift, this was incredible, did not even try. ''Nee how, chee chu Dequin''...hello I go Dequin, yes, he nodded and smiled a middle aged chiness man, friendly relaxed eyes, we got in and the way was good for the rest of the day, incredible 7 hours and took us all the way to Dequin. A hard road but very dramatic, over some high passes and remote areas that I could never have imagined.
We arrived in Dequin, dark, late all very hungry so found a place and ate together, then the accordion came out and along with a few cups of wine, I used this word very loosely to describe a red liquid that should be applied not drunk. The music transformed and bought everyone together I must admit this thing transforms any situation, we all laughed, danced and spent quality time together, total strangers from just a few days ago yet these moments are priceless.
The next morning I talked with the Frenchy about what his plans were, had he come all this way just to turn back again? I offered for him to join me on my quest to Lhasa, the uncertainty and sketchiness of it all certainly tempted him, he confessed so we discussed it a little further over a bowl of noodles then all was set. I had convinced him it would be a good idea to climb the mountain just up ahead that was blocking my vision to the north, from there I was sure there would be a good view and from up there and then I would know where to go. Then we could probably drop down on to a road that I hoped would be there on other side and start hitching from that point on. He agreed, wow I thought he really is crazy! Hungry for adventure we set off through a side road then a track then a trail that led towards the northern hemisphere, the huge lump of forest covered rock ahead loomed above us, the trail became steep and water that had been running down from above had formed large areas of glass like ice, and no way to go around, it soon became clear that my friend here was in no way prepared to follow where I was prepared or stupid enough to go, his Doc.Martins boots that were worn smooth had no traction at all, his jacket was too cold, his hands cold, no equipment at all except a very amusing accordion....! I could hear him sliding around down below, slipping and cursing, snapping of branches....”putain du merd”.....I heard him curse again, this time I reached down to pass him one of my walking poles to aid a little more traction but his gangly legs were busy skating and dancing all over like a frantic giraffe, OK I said I think we take this as a little exercise and the walk was good but there is no way we are going to get over this pass, you're going to break your accordion!. With this he agreed and decided it better to turn back.
We parted company later that day and wished him well on his travels, but I admired his optimism and ‘have a go attitude’
Later that day for my curiosity I went to the bus station just to see if I could get a bus ticket to Lhasa…… confidently I went up to the counter and said: ''nee chee Lhasa shee shee''….. “I go Lhasa...thank you”......grinning wildly and waving a handful of Yuan......''Mee ho''! bargaining there at all just a straight no. I asked for a few closer destinations just inside the border of Tibet, same reply, no, no and no. Hmmmmm OK walking it will be then. I figured if I could hitch to one of the next towns inside of Tibet maybe it would be easier from there to get a bus ride, well I have come too far not to try.

I started off heading out of town it was getting a bit late now to be hitching but I decided to give it a go. Many big trucks carrying rock and earth, kicking up plumes of dry dust from the unfinished road, sun in my eyes it all started to feel a bit oppressive. I tried to find a quiet place in my mind and settle down into a steady walk, maybe half an hour I walked when I managed to stop a white van, great my first lift, looking forward to get a little further away from these trucks. As it came to a halt I immediately noticed it was completely crammed full with Chinese..... girls, wow, no way.......... I open the door to much giggling and smiling, some of them could speak a little English so I told them I wanted to go to Lhasa they said they were only going as far as the temple, just 12km away, every bit helps I say. I could not really see how it was possible for me to get in anyway, it was just so full of girls…… maybe I was dreaming? I should refuse I thought, it’s a trap, just thank them and continue on my way, maybe if I am quick they will not drain my life force……. no what am I thinking, I want to see the end of this movie…… I shrug my shoulders, remove my back and squeeze myself into places where it was not possible and for the next few km we chatted and giggled and I sighed, waiting to wake up........within a few minutes of conversation I had been convinced to stay and had been invited to join them on a little trekking around the local mountain villages and sight seeing. Why not I was in no hurry now a few days here could be interesting besides I was getting into these random opportunities more than my goal.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Haba snow mountain

In the morning I set off from Haba village.
I found a trail that seemed to be going in the basic direction I needed to go. I weaved my way up slowly towards the patch of open ground high up on the mountain where the woman had described I should get to. Maybe two hours I walked past small settlements then into forest and a maze of local trails, doing my best to maintain my desired direction until I came across a major fork in the trail the left seemed to be going down to a big dry river bed the other straight up, normally I have some feelings of preference but this time I stopped could not feel which way I should be going, the feeling of getting lost came over me, doubt, hesitation I really did not want to lose time back tracking.
I looked around hoping to find a sign, some inspiration, then noticed an old man sitting on a rock perfectly in the fork of the road. I was sure he was not there before I would have noticed him! there was no house around and no reason for him to be there apart from waiting for me to arrive, I said, “nee how”....hello and pointed up to the mountain making a mountain shape with my hands and a walking motion with my fingers, he grinned wildly and replied ahhh good, good, yes, you go that way not this way no good, pointing to the left trail that went down to the river, right I guess this is where I should cross then. Again perfect timing I think I would have chosen the other way if forced to make a decision, which would have taken me well out of the way, lost a lot of time and energy. He had been waiting for my arrival and now happy to have served his purpose and therefore quaintly disappeared again.

I picked up a bigger trail on the other side of the river, well trodden, Yak hoof prints, chocolate wrappers, lazy chocolate eating tourists had marked the way for me, this must be it. I followed it up eventually reaching the area of cleared trees, lost the trail again then picked it up after a little scouting about, it continued steeply up now to the tree line and followed a ridge, I start to feel short of breath now, my altimeter reads 3800 meters, I slow down to pace myself I had been walking 4 hours now and feeling the weight of my rucksack, everything starting to feel heavier and harder. The fatigue got increasingly worse with the combination of altitude I was finding myself now having to stop every 12 paces gasping for air, my legs had power and wanted to go much quicker but I just could not regulate my breathing, my temples starting to pound now I forced myself to slow down even more placing one foot in front of the other methodically and slowly, strange feeling, dizzy, slightly drunk, off balance, now 4000 meters I had walked 1700 meters up, the tree line had thinned out now much ice was around in the shaded north faces, and the snowy peak majestically appeared as I came around the next corner, oh wow did it look so close, but still another 1400 meters away, straight up.....I stopped at a clearing to set up camp, just unpacking my sleeping bag felt such an effort to pull it out of its cover, I had to stop to catch my breath, this was going to be very hard and imagined what it would be like another 1400 meters higher?

My temples felt sore with a constant pressure inside of them not quite breaking out into a full blown headache but the potential was there. Already this was the highest I had ever been and the real climb had not begun yet. I scanned the peak I could see the top and I tried to pick out which way looked best, I was hoping to see some marks, some trails but it was all perfectly white from here. After setting up camp I followed the trail a little further up to see the way ahead for tomorrow and came upon a group of Chinese, they were heading up there early in the morning and had hired a guide, we got talking a little and told them I had hoped to find my own way up at which they offered for me to follow them up, perfect. I introduced myself to them all and the guides and spent the night around the warmth of their camp fire, we ate talked what we were able to and agreed a time to be ready.
I had very little sleep that night it was very cold and dropped down to -8 inside my tent but I was not cold just awake inside with the thought of the climb, the anticipation. I felt uncomfortable to breathe like I had to concentrate, sort of claustrophobic feeling.

In and out of sleep I finally sat up and switched off my alarm before it had gone off, 3.00am I was awake anyway and wanted to get going. I heard movement outside so quickly got dressed and outside, I was ready to go, come on guys where are you?.....I waited nearly 2 hours these guys had to have their full Chinese breakfast cooking noodles, chopping vegetables, then finally getting their gear together that they did not do the night before, OK I started to realize they have not done this before, confirmation of this as I look down at the skateboard knee pads they were! But they were happy enough.

We finally got going, still dark, still early enough and following a line of headlamps up into the crisp morning mountain air, under a bright moon and a canopy of unhindered light from the stars I could hear the crisp sounds of crampons, making almost a brittle, squeaking sound, eeek eeek eeek, unique, particular to cold spikes piercing super frozen brittle to my ears. It was a steep climb and never really gave out to anywhere flat, although now carrying no weight, it gradually got harder and harder, 4800 meters placing each foot in front of the other trying, concentrating hard not to exhert any unnecessary energy, 5000 meters the air was biting cold now I look down at my altimeter it read -20 and with the wind picking now was bringing the wind chill down further. My hands and feet were getting a bit numb but I was too focused on putting one foot ahead of the other, each stepwas that little bit closer.
The first signs of light appeared and I could see a well defined layer of cloud below us stretching out in a huge horizon of cloud this was going to look good from the top, yes just up there now another 400 meters. My temples had developed a steady beat now, my head spinning out every time as I got out of breath, with every 6 paces now I needed to stop to catch my breath, I tried to imagine how these early attempts on Everest must have been like, heavy, cold equipment, frostbite, storms, nearly another 4000 meters higher than this, just impossible to imagine. Already this felt like I had been walking constantly up for days all the previous day and now at least another 5 hours still going up.

The last 150 meters I could see clearly the way to the top, it looked very steep, here so near to the top, it was the last obstacle of ice, polished from the ripping wind, my calf muscles felt like they are going to pop, the incline is so steep I cannot get articulate my ankle anymore needing to dig in with my toes putting more strain on my calf muscles and very uncomfortable, I dig each foot into the ice and slowly ascend. Temples pounding, muscles bursting, I systematically place one foot in front of the other trying not to get in front of my limited breathing, then it flattens out as it reaches the last few paces and I stagger to the summit. I lose the rhythm with my breath with excitement, as the smallest emotional outburst caused me to gasp and pant for a few minutes, I see a 360 panorama of cloud sea, an illusion of tiny islands formed from huge lumps of mountain/rock penetrating through the layer below, stunning, exited, cold, tired I did not care how I felt, I was intoxicated with a sensory overload of relief, joy, amazement. The weather had been very kind and I was very lucky to have found these people to follow up and thankful to my own body for getting me to the top.

After descending back down to base camp I gathered my tent and equipment together, laid down and rested my temples a little, I was exhausted inside and out but my mind would not rest, it was over stimulated trying to recollect the events of the past day or two, I could not believe I stumbled upon this mountain and had climbed it, a big event for me so early on in my travels now I am already on bonus time.
I walked back down to the guest house, it was a long day, 9 hours this morning from the summit then another 5 hours to the village, a healthy 14 hour walk, my legs my body felt completely detached. I was completely done, finished, nothing left, what a great day.