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Travelling through Tibet
The Star Online, Malaysia[Saturday, November 22, 2003 11:30]
Donkeys are a common form of transport here.
Donkeys are a common form of transport here.
Story & pictures by LIZ PRICE

It was a September afternoon and I was freezing in the bus as it laboriously chugged up the mountain pass. The bus was old and rickety, the windows wouldn’t close and holes in the floor allowed me to see the road.

The wind howled relentlessly as it swept past the bus. Despite the pale sun, I could see gray snow clouds lurking on the horizon. Knowing that it would get colder, I dug into my rucksack and got out a couple of T-shirts, which I put on under my jumper and jacket. This didn’t help a great deal, so the last resort was to get my sleeping bag out, and sit in it. I got some strange looks from the other passengers, but who cared – at least I was comfortable.

After another hour or so, the bus wheezed its way to the summit of the pass. When we arrived at the top, I’m sure the bus breathed a sigh of relief as the driver killed the engine and we came to a stop. The views were incredible. Just a few metres away was a large cairn with the inevitable prayer flags. The other passengers got out and made their way to the flags to pay their respects. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and take some photos.

I hobbled out of the bus and made my way to the cairn, then stopped short, gasping for breath as the thin air hit me. The lack of oxygen hurt my lungs as they cried out for more air. My head ached with such force, and I realised that, for the third time in my life, I was suffering from altitude sickness.

I felt like an old lady as I slowly shuffled towards the cairn, literally having to force my legs to take each step. It seemed to take forever to get there, and reminded me of a nightmare where one is trying to run through treacle – except in this one, I was wide awake.

We were 5,220m (above sea level) at the summit of Lak Pa La pass in Tibet. I realised this was the highest I’d ever been. But the view of the Himalayas was staggering. I was travelling across Tibet, from Kathmandu, in Nepal, to Lhasa. Rather than taking a tour, I was backpacking with a friend, and little did I know of the hardships we were to suffer along this journey.

We started in the touristy city of Kathmandu, where we obtained our visas from the Chinese Embassy. Kathmandu has been packed with tourists since the 1960s when it was a popular destination for hippies. Since then it has never lost its appeal. I knew the food would be basic in Tibet, so whilst I was still in Nepal I made the most of what was on offer, and enjoyed some good buffalo steak, vegetables, cake and bread.

From Kathmandu, we took a bus towards Kodari, on the Chinese-Tibetan border. This in itself was an exciting start to the trip, as we were allowed to sit on the roof of the bus amongst the luggage and produce, which gave excellent views of the passing scenery. The only drawback was the overhead power cables. These were quite low in the suburbs of Kathmandu, and we had to make sure we ducked in time to avoid becoming decapitated or electrocuted.

The road via Lamosangu followed a major river most of the way, the Bhote Kosi. Kathmandu is at an altitude of 1,331m, and Kodari is at 1,665m, so we didn’t climb much that day. We cleared Nepalese immigration, then took a 2km walk to the Friendship Bridge.

I was feeling particularly lazy as my rucksack was heavy, so I negotiated with a pint-sized porter to carry our bags for about RM3. He slung our two large backpacks over his forehead and marched off. I had trouble keeping up with him, carrying only my small daypack.

We crossed the Friendship Bridge which is a 65m long arch span bridge. I was feeling sorry for our porter, but soon realised he was very lightly laden as we saw other porters carrying refrigerators up the steep hill.

There is a large cross-border trade between Nepal and Tibet. Tibetans sell fleece, animal hide, butter and meat to the Nepalese, whilst the Nepalese trudge up the hill to Zhangmu with massive loads of banana and cloth (and refrigerators) and return with Chinese bedcovers and thermos flasks.

Zhangmu is the border town on the Chinese side, aligned along a series of switchbacks, nine kilometres from the bridge. We were able to get a ride in a truck. Zhangmu was a hive of activity: Chinese troops are stationed here, and scores of Nepalese travel to and fro, with some operating shops here. We found a cheap hotel and bedded down for the night.

The following morning, we set off to find out about buses for Lhasa. We wandered around aimlessly then came across a truck stop. We’d heard that it was possible to hitch rides so thought we’d give it a go. And it worked. A friendly driver agreed to take us, despite not being able to speak English. We threw our packs in the back, jumped into the cab and were off.

From Zhangmu, we climbed up through a sub-tropical monsoon forest towards Nyalam, which is 4,000m up in an alpine forest. To get there, the switchback road cuts past waterfalls, rocks, evergreen forest, shrubs and canyons. There was every shade of green imaginable as we climbed steeply to the Tibetan plateau.

The Tibetan plateau is a rocky, arid desert stretching 1,300km from west to east at an average altitude of 4,000m and comprises nearly half of the country.

Tibet is actually an administrative division of China, often called the Roof of the World. The bleak, nearly treeless landscape is one of the most isolated regions in the world, surrounded on three sides by vast mountain systems. Tibet is as large as Western Europe and borders India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Nyalam was our next stop. West of the town are spectacular views of the cloud-busting Himalayan peaks, including Gauri Shankar and Menlugtse. Nyalam is a sizeable town set in a nice hillside. It has a large army garrison and is the gateway to one of the routes to the Everest base camp.

The Friendship Highway continues to Tingri, a Tibetan village sprawled over a hillside 4,300m high. It was once a trading centre. We stayed in a really basic truck stop. I hardly slept as my head was pounding so much from the altitude, I felt sick and was cold and hungry. When I got up the next morning, I found the water in the puddles had frozen. The sky was an incredible blue, and cloudless. I don’t remember ever having seen such an intense blue.

Apart from the altitude, the worst problems about Tibet are the dust and grit. The dust is everywhere and I resorted to wearing a scarf around my face to cover my nose and mouth. It was impossible to run a comb through my hair as it was absolutely thick with dust, so I gave up and didn’t bother about personal hygiene. I certainly wasn’t going to take a cold bath when there was ice outside, and my hair would have to remain tangled and knotted until I reached some sort of civilisation.

Highest of the world’s mountain ranges, the Himalayas are also the youngest, formed by a collision between the Indian and Asian continental plates some 50 million years ago. The Himalayas have the world’s highest snowline and more than 17,000 glaciers. It was certainly an incredible sight to see the world’s highest mountain, Everest (8,848m), at dawn under the blue sky.

From Tingri West, the bus took us through Xegar, and up the aforementioned Lak Pa La pass. On our right, to the east, was Klako Kangari, a 6,842m peak. We went on to Lhaze, then had to negotiate the 4,500m Po La pass before reaching Shigatse.

Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and is 150km from Lhaze. It is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, who comes after the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, formerly also the chief ruler of Tibet. Shigatse has corrugated tin roof markets; the Tibetan part of town is at one end, the rest is the Chinese area of drab concrete blocks.

The remainder of the journey to Lhasa, was uneventful. The capital of Tibet is situated in a fertile plain at 3,680m above sea level, surrounded by lofty, barren mountains. We had reached the real Roof of the World. It was time for a hot shower and to run a comb through my hair. W

Tibetan cuisine

Tibet is no place for gourmets, so be warned, do not go there for its culinary delights. Normally part of the enjoyment of visiting different countries is to taste the food on offer, but in Tibet, eating was a necessity rather than a pleasure.
The staple food of the Tibetans is tsampa – roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter tea (and made?) into doughy mouthfuls . . . which leads me to the subject of yak butter tea.

Imagine a bowl of tea with stale butter floating on the surface. The drink is definitely an acquired taste. Some Tibetan women advise not to drink it cold because the rancid globules of congealed fat will wreak havoc in your stomach. Too true. Normal tea was sweet and milky; sometimes I wasn’t sure which was the lesser of two evils.

A staple breakfast food is momo. These are dumplings filled with meat, similar to pau. The other option is tukpa, which is noodles with meat. Some Muslim restaurants serve lamian, which is noodles, meat and vegetables.

While travelling in the rural areas, meals would often consist of a bowl of rice with a cabbage leaf and lump of fat. I would just go into the kitchen, grab a plate and help myself. The locals didn’t mind and generally had big grins on their faces. There is Chinese cuisine in larger towns, the most common being hot and spicy Sichuan cooking.

Once we had reached the luxury of Lhasa, which had decent hotels and eating places, I was able to enjoy yak steak. The Tibetan long-haired ox is highly adapted to the harsh conditions here. Yak meat is a common sight in the markets. The whole animal is put on display, and nothing is wasted.

I enjoyed the fresh yak cheese, which is also readily available in the markets. When dry and hard, however, the experience is very different.

It can (last for three years?) be eaten up to three years old. It takes several hours of chewing before you can swallow it down! Often, it is given to kids as a sweet (snack?). On long journeys, it keeps hunger pangs at bay.

Tibetans get their alcohol buzz from consuming large quantities of chang (not to be confused with the Thai beer of the same name). Chang is a milky beer with a tangy taste. It is made from fermented barley, quite similar to the tuak of Sarawak.

One good memory of Tibet was standing on the roadside in the middle of nowhere trying to hitch a lift. As we waited, a group of peasants who were working in the fields called us over. They were all smiles, their faces a ruddy red.

Using sign language, they insisted we share in their feast, so we squatted on the bare earth and ate tiny boiled potatoes and washed them down with chang. It was a wonderful experience – these poor people were willing to share their food with us. When a truck appeared on the horizon, they flagged it down and arranged a lift for us.

The climate is harsh and the environment barren. Wood is scarce, so people cannot afford to heat water except for making tea, etc. People exist primarily on subsistence agriculture.

For years, Tibetans have followed their own form of Buddhism, which originated from India. Their burials are interesting. As wood is sparse and therefore expensive, it means people cannot be cremated. So sky burials are the most common form of burial.

The body is blessed, tied up in cloth in the sitting position, taken to a site out in the open mountainside and systematically cut up as food for the birds. The bones are pounded together with tsampa and this mixture is also left out for the birds. Whatever the vultures don’t eat is buried or burned. Burial in the earth is rare and only used if the birds will not eat a body – a very inauspicious sign.

I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but there probably isn’t a lot in this harsh environment. And I didn’t see the yeti, or abominable snowman. I wonder if he saw me!
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