Monday, May 30, 2005

“Mice, Lice, and Asbestos”
East Tibet, Sichuan Region, China

Alas, our time in China is drawing to a close....we're going to miss the cheap prices, charismatic people, and side-stepping of spit globules on the sidewalks!

Perhaps I was a bit hasty when I spoke of how CLEAN China is. And perhaps I spoke a little too soon about how much I love the food here. After a month I have a more honest perspective of this country. Not overly romanticized, not overly jaded either. We've come to accept the condition of the toilets (from satisfactory to pretty dang nasty), the polluted air in the cities, the creative use of dog and fish eyes in the local cuisine, and the humidity in the lowlands in May. But it's been entirely worth it.....

We've returned from ten days driving and trekking in East Tibet, home of the Kham Tibetan warriors who are renowned for their horsemanship and use of bows and arrows. They're the cowboys of western Sichuan with their long black hair, strong builds, flowing furs, and silver daggers worn on their sashes.

We set out from Zhongdian, the border town between modern China and ancient Tibet. Where cowboys mix with yaks and motorcycles, where monks use cell phones, and where we shared a beautiful moment sharing a bag of BBQ potato chips with eight Tibetan grandmothers on a log under strings of prayer flags and a giant yawning blue sky. Zhongdian is the famed Shangri-La alluded to in James Hilton's novel, "Lost In Paradise." If you ask me, I don't think it's where Shangri-La was. James Hilton was either lost or really meant one of the villages and valleys further to the North.

Together with an Austrian woman, a British woman named Bridget, and a Dutchie named Michel, we hired Kevin, a Han Chinese guest house owner and driver with an SUV and bought several bags of noodles, tea, crackers, and chocolate. The next day, we set off for the North into and ascended the Tibetan Plateau with road heights averaging anywhere from 9,000 feet to 15,000 feet above sea level.

As we journeyed deeper into Tibet, the landscape shifted from steep pine forests and granite faces to large open expanses of landscapes of stone, snow, and grasslands that stretched deep into the horizon. The houses began as large two-story wooden homes with ornately designed windows--almost Moroccan in detail--and slanted roofs. We drove through high altitude villages (13,000 feet) where the local architecture shifted towards homes made of stone, prayer flags hoisted on each corner of the roof like castle turrets. Occasional mountainsides boasted giant stone graffiti in Tibetan letters spelling out the Buddhist Mantra, "Hail to the jewel of the lotus."

We traveled for four days to reach a special World Heritage Site called Yading where we rented horses for our bags and trekked along a sacred river to stay in the mountains near a monastery. Our little shack cost about $1 a night and was probably over-priced. We were surrounded by chickens, yaks, and horses and the beds were grungy at best but the view in the morning was phenomenal.

We awoke to a sun rising our the mountains and lighting up a giant meadow where long-haired yaks grazed alongside horses whose tails were braided with bright ribbons. Tibetan men and women--dressed in pink head dresses and wearing turquoise and coral jewelry--washed their faces in the river and walked through the forests in search of the famed "caterpillar fungus" which fetches a steep price in Asian medicine markets and has brought so much money into the area.

To our South was one of the three sacred mountains of the area which Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate with their prayer wheels and Buddhist beads. The weather in the mountains is mercurial and harsh. It would be hot and sweaty one minute and snowing ten minutes later. We visited a turqoise lake just below one of the glaciers...the only sound was an avalanche, wind, and a few birds.

The last night we stayed in the "chicken shack" I kept awakening to the sounds of mice and rats in the boards above my head. Once I finally fell asleep I was awoken again. This time to a reality and not a nightmare.

I could feel tiny little feet crawling across my eyes where my fleece hat was pulled over. By the time I was conscious enough to yelp, the mouse has made it across my face. I spent the rest of the night slapping at my blankets and cinching my sleeping bag around my neck.

"It can crawl across my face but I'll be damned if it makes it in my bag to spend the night!" I swore to myself.

In the morning, our British girlfriend Bridget started laughing when she saw me bump my head on the shack's roof and dust fell on my face.

"Have you guys noticed what our roof is made of?" she asked.

Mom and I looked up blankly-

"It's asbestos. If the bloody mice don't get you, then the asbestos will!" she laughed.

We were more than excited for showers and mice-free beds two days later.

Towards the end of our journey, we serendipitously landed in a town which was memorializing the death of a living Buddha. Yes, a dead living Buddha. Try translating that into English.

Thousands of different Tibetan groups were arriving by horse, tractor, and truck to pay their last respects to the man who had been the head llama of one of the region's most respected monasteries. We followed a river past grasslands where yaks were grazing and watched groups of men and women dressed in their finest attire cross the plateau on horseback. The women's hair braided with red ribbons, wearing long flowing robes and chunky turquoise earrings. The Tibetan men proudly wearing cowboy hats and long hand-crafted daggers. The horses were decorated with vivid carpets draped on their backs and bells and ribbons in their manes. Snow-capped mountains were the perfect visual backdrop to this exquisite scene of true nomads making a pilgrimage across the Tibetan grasslands.

One Khampa warrior raced his horse against a young guy on a motorcycle until he was overtaken by the dust and incomparable speed.

To me, it was the perfect vision of the clash in China between the ancient and the modern. The rush towards modernization. Instead of horses, many Tibetans are riding motorcycles now, the new steed of modern China.

From a hillside, we watched monks chanting beneath giant tents and lines of families waiting to prostrate and pray to the deceased living Buddha.

It's all so beautiful in images and words but it wouldn't be honest not to admit that the reality of life in Tibet is also harsh. The children have snot running down their noses like giant green caterpillars and people rarely bathe. Good dentistry is obsolete (though that's not disimilar from England). The streets are dusty and toilets are best avoided. The weather is mercurial. It's rainy and snowy and unforgiving. High altitude sickness and dehydration are daily challenges. Travel is rough and roads take you across several steep passes on a daily basis (from 9,000 to 15,000 feet).

It is not comfortable travel but, to us, it is entirely worth it.

After returning to the big city of Chengdu we traveled for the weekend to Xian, the ancient capital of China and home of the famed Terra Cotta Warriors--or the Eighth Wonder Of The World. We gorged on various and anonymous meats (one was chicken--I at least know that) on a stick, bowls of fresh watermelon, noodles, potstickers, and ice cream. We wandered through the Muslim Quarter shopping for tea and candied dried kiwi and nectarines. We watched a man hack apart a long spinal cord of some obscure animal and another guy weigh an armful of stomach linings.

Walking along a side street in China is not for the faint at heart.

Xian has a heartbeat of its own. It's lively and hip and balmy on summer nights. We walked across the main square beyond King Kong size billboards and watched dozens of people flying banners of kites. The strings were composed of miniature kites that stretched deep into the night sky where they disappeared into the darkness magically, as if suspended by some other invisible force on the other end.

On one of our last nights with our beloved Euro friends and our driver Kevin, we feasted at a Hot Pot Restaurant. Basically, a vegetarian's nightmare. But heaven to anyone who loves strange looking meat, hot food, and a social atmosphere.

Basically, the rules to eating Hot Pot are easy. One, you stack your plate with loads of food (frog legs, fish heads with eyeballs, bloody eels, chicken feet, and a few vegetables like potatoes, seaweed, and jicama) and you dump it into this boiling cauldron of oil and chili pepper that everyone sits around.

Secondly, you take a big drink of red wine or beer cause it supposedly makes you better with using chopsticks. Actually, this isn't true. At least for me. I dropped half of my food into mom's tea. All the frog legs, fish eyeballs, and vegetables churn around, soak up the juices of the hot pot and go swirling around the ring of boiling goo like an oceanic tempest. You eat whatever you can catch with your chopsticks. Then you lick your lips and go, "Hmmmm!" or you throw it on someone else's plate and say, "You really should try this, it has such an interesting crunch!"

Now, what I discovered is that if you drink a lot of Chinese wine and eat a lot of rice and make a couple of trips down to the local market for more bottles of cheap red wine, then most people, even the Chinese host, won't notice that you haven't eaten anything that was actually "cooked" in the hot pot. Which was the whole point of the dinner.

By the time, our meal was over, Bridget and I cared less about Hot Pot etiquette than we did before we started dinner. We started?quot;moonwalking" Jackson-style across the greasy floor of the restaurant and became embroiled in a brutal wedgie-war (she won, damnit! and I'm still sore) before the staff decided it was time to kindly throw us out and close the restaurant to anymore foreigners for the rest of the night.

Wisely, Mom and Kevin took a taxi back to the hotel while the four of us ambled into town in search of a discoteque. We managed to find one of the only English-speaking girls in the city who also wanted to go dancing. She whisked us down the street and into some funky little Chinese discoteque.

Before we knew it, we were drinking strange tea-flavored drinks, eating watermelon, and dancing barefoot on the stage with our new friends. By midnight, the music had switched from techno to Traditional Tibetan music and we were doing Tibetan line dancing with every Chinese guy and gal in the place. Behind us were video images of Tibetans dressed in traditional furs doing the danced in front of the Himalayan Mountains. We danced beneath hot strobe lights which made every one of our movements seem twice as complicated.

It was a surreal night. Very much like our entire experience here in China. Delightful and completely surprising.

I feel that we've only scratched the surface of this giant and incredibly diverse country. We're both anxious to return to this country. But for now, we have lived a lifetime in the past four weeks and we feel blessed for every moment of it!

We've also met such incredible friends on this journey. So many stories to share. Tonight we're off to eat Tex Mex food with our Dutchie friend Michel and pay tribute to our last night in China-

As Goethe once said or wrote or supposedly thought, "Whatever you dream of, do it. For boldness has magic and genius to it."

Something like that!

Goodbye and farewell crazy China!

Cheers, Rachel and her beloved Mamacita


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