Up on the roof

The pace of my blogging has been slowed by a couple of physical maladies. The first is the cold I finally succumbed to in Nepal (the one that appeared to start with Ugyen and Howie back in Bhutan.) Steve got it from them but seems to have recovered almost completely. I’m still a mess, but in my defense, the Roof of the World is not the optimal locale for getting over respiratory ailments. Even though we slept a couple of nights at 9000 feet in Bhutan, we immediately felt Lhasa’s 12,000-foot elevation upon our arrival Monday afternoon; walking seemed more of an effort than normal and climbing a couple flights of steps made my head spin. Mercifully, neither of us developed the killer headaches and disordered thinking that came with the altitude sickness we experienced in the Andes. But the lack of oxygen did trash my ability to sleep both the first and second nights here; if I got more than 2-3 hours, it sure didn’t feel like it. So exhausted that it felt almost physically painful, I crawled into bed both nights and felt like I was suffocating (the blocked sinuses didn’t help). That made me feel panicky and gave me insight into what congestive heart failure must feel like — icky. By Wednesday, climbing steps no longer felt impossible. But my nasal and sinus passages are still rioting.

Whatever made us think it would be such a great idea to travel to Tibet? The biggest inspiration came from Steve, who has always longed to see the foothills of this region where the whole earth has heaved up so much that the bases of the Himalayas are higher than the tallest mountains in Europe or America’s lower 48. Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet make a logical circuit for taking that in. But I have to say I didn’t begin to get really excited about visiting Tibet until Steve and I read Heinrich Harrar’s classic memoir, Seven Years in Tibet (upon which the much more recent Brad Pitt movie was based).

Actually, we listened to the book while on a road trip this summer. Heinrich’s writing is only workmanlike, and parts of the book have the pace of a heavily laden yak. But overall it’s a wonderful (true) account of Harrar’s escape in the early 1940s from a British POW camp in India (where the apolitical Austrian mountaineer happened to be when Britain went to war against the Germanic axis.) The escapee made his way to the Tibetan border, slipped across, and with another German mountaineer managed to walk (over the course of a full year) to Lhasa. Over and over they were politely received but ordered in no uncertain terms to leave the country — then completely closed to foreigners. Heinrich and his buddy bamboozled and charmed and bullshat their way eastward. In the fabled capital, they were ordered out but again managed to worm their way into the Tibetans’ affections, and no wonder! They were wonderfully talented fellows and not only figured out how to speak cultured Tibetan but also offered their services on public projects ranging from garden design to engineering. Eventually HH met, befriended, and became the tutor of the teenage Dalai Lama (the world-famous 14th incarnation, who now lives in exile in India) and he came to love Tibet so much he would have lived out his life here. Everything collapsed when the Chinese invaded in 1950, and HH fled to write up all his varied adventures.

His book is a detailed portrait of life in a theocratic medieval society dating back well over a thousand years. I found it fascinating to think that he was taking it all in while my dad was going to high school in Chicago and my mom was settling into her first clerical jobs in San Diego. Upon our arrival here Monday, I had the fleeting thought it would be cool to see some of the places Heinrich describes in the book. When I asked our guide about it, though, he ruefully said he’s never been able to read it. The Chinese rulers ban it, as I should have known. We’d been warned that they sometimes confiscate copies of Lonely Planet Tibet when they find them in visitors’ luggage.

Last month the authorities staged huge celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. (That was 15 years after they marched in and took over.) We saw giant red banners proclaiming, “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful socialist new Tibet” and other obvious evidence of what they’ve done with the billions of dollars of investment they’ve poured into it. All the roads we’ve seen so far are broad and well-maintained. They’ve built a causeway and a tunnel that have cut in half the time it takes to get from the airport into town, and they’ve built the high-tech rail line that we’re scheduled to leave on next Tuesday. They’ve opened public lavatories all over the Old Town, and they employ a large corps of street sweepers that keep it remarkably clean. They’ve also set up security checkpoints around the biggest landmarks, in an attempt to prevent more monks from burning themselves alive (as more than 100 have done in recent times). Chinese soldiers march around with assault weapons at the ready, and they sit at stations with riot shields set up for action.

Steve and I find all this interesting, along with the more homey features of life here. We think it’s the first time we’ve traveled in a truly polyandrous society. Our guide this afternoon told us about his one aunt who has four husbands (all brothers) and 9 children from them. (They call the oldest one “Father” and all the rest “Uncle”). And oh, by the way, all the sights we’ve seen so far have been world class.

But I’m too tired to write about those now. I need to go to try to sleep (at least) before our final full day of touring in Lhasa before heading east to Everest Base Camp. (Also, I can’t post any photos tonight because of technical difficulties. You find a lot of that with the Internet in China.) I’ll try to add then whenever I can.

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