Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Tibet, Chapter Eleven

Here is Chapter Eleven of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We're publishing each chapter here on the blog (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book at Amazon.com, at BN.com, or direct from EarthPhotos Publishing. Here's the Kindle version (just $6.99). Click these photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the China Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

11 TIBET

Ashray Raj Gautam waited in the dark before dawn. Men worked under the hood of his Toyota Corolla while we stuffed our things in its trunk. We pushed the car down the hill to get it started, and little Gautam took us to a town called Banepa, north of Kathmandu. Mirja bought junk food, I bought cheap Indian whiskey, and Gautam disappeared.

We waited for a long time, and when he came back, Gautam had a confession. He did a sheepish, dusty little shuffle.

“We came here with no fan belt.”

He was sure we could get one in Banepa but he couldn’t find one.

“Excuse me sir, we have to wait for new car from Kathmandu one hour.” He went to find a phone.

So we were off, sort of, driving from Kathmandu to Lhasa. Our Tibet travel permits would be waiting at the border. The fellow who booked us said don’t bring pictures of the Dalai Lama (I had five), and don’t be surprised if the police follow you – they’re not too used to private visitors.

Banepa, Nepal, was a lane and a half of bad tarmac twenty kilometers outside Kathmandu, with twenty meters of dust on either side of the road, and businesses the length of town with their garage-door-fronts rolled down closed.

Buses bumped into the dust and blasted their horns. They shared the verge with chickens, goats, kids, bags of grain, metal rods and tubes, the general refuse, and us.

Two old folks worked the length of town with rough straw brooms, whipping up a dust tornado, moving trash from here to there to no use. Boys held up bread into the windows of the buses. They spit and coughed all the time.

It’s no surprise life expectancy is 55 in Nepal. In Banepa the air was opaque. You couldn’t even see the neighborhood hills. Forget the Himalayas, you couldn’t see out of town.

  Banepa

Banepa, Nepal.



Gautam borrowed 500 rupees for gas for the replacement Corolla. We needed oil, but we couldn’t find any and drove on.  A road sign declared: “Khodari – 85 km.” The border.

For a long time we drove up one side or the other of the Botaghosi. Bo means Tibet,  Bota means from Tibet and Ghosi means river. It ran green and chalky and it ran wild.

Cable for cablecars stretched across the river, shut down for years. People cut and stacked rocks. They dried homemade paper in the sun. Chalky dust covered everything.

Thirty kilometers from the border the tarmac dissolved into rocks. Clouds drew closer (rather we to them). Signs, “rock falling area.” Now it was a meter by meter trudge. I was sure we’d break down but we bumped all the way into Khodari, sometimes along the river, sometimes on a track cut out of the hill.

We surrendered our passports. I had to pee. A cop motioned me around the side to pee on the Nepal checkpoint building.

Six hours, 88 kilometers. Flyin’.

Businessmen and thieves congregated on both sides of the border, and there were porters to pay to carry our bags over the bridge. We graduated from the Corolla to a LandCruiser, and headed into the border town on the Tibetan side called Zhangmu.

Our new staff: a driver, a “helper,” our Chinese minder, a businessman in a suit to handle it all, and a bully in a tank top, earrings, ponytail and Nike cap – expediter.

Customs, Health declaration, Entry paper, Please come with me to restaurant, very clean. I get Tibet travel permit.

There were more flies in very clean Restaurant Gyan Glen than on our horse farm, but in the end it was two hours forty minutes of bureaucracy with no hassles. Good, courteous, smilin’ folks.

•••••

Just above town, a roadblock. Show your papers, move on through. If the guard is Tibetan, who cares about your papers? Only the Chinese.

Watch for work crews. There would be a green-uniformed cadre sitting somewhere in the shade, supervising. They had to start their careers in a half-horse outpost like this, driving around miserable in an old red LandCruiser with a tiny red light on top. Made me smile.

•••••

Fifty kilometers to Nylam, riding up high in the LandCruiser, steady climbing. Where Nepal had huge pine forests, Tibet showed spruce and fir trees, with tiny new spring growth. I swore dogwoods and azaleas bloomed across the way.

Up the Botaghosi (must be named something else now), our first herd of Zoh – a mix of yak and bull – led to yaks, big humps behind their shoulders and long hair, and then the trees were just completely gone – not there. Rocky, barren. Snow appeared high up on the hilltops. On the far side of the Himalayas the sky turned cobalt blue.

•••••

A row of tin-roofed sheds on either side of the Lhasa road, Nylam was nothing more. Up a ladder across the street, a no-name restaurant served dinner of pork fat, green chillies and fries. We took diarrhea pills as prophylactics.

Two horse blankets sewn together hung over the front door of the Nylam Snow Land Hotel. Mirja sized up the situation quickly and immediately decided to go to sleep, the sooner to rise and leave.

The Snow Land was full. Our room was normally the proprietors’, with a sandal under my bed. The girl who normally slept there slept on the bench behind the reception desk.

Late at night, someone convened an improbable meeting of evangelical Christians. You could hear them through the wall. They read from the Bible and I understood a woman with a Japanese accent giving testimony as I drifted off with a feeling I hadn’t felt for thirty years – the warmth and safety of the sound of my parents in the next room talking softly after I had gone to bed.

I feared for lice and Mirja for vermin. Mirja saw the toilet once and never ventured there again. At first light we lined up beside the other guests to brush our teeth outside the front door and spit our bottled water into the street.

Mirja stood by the LandCruiser and said something as I carried bags into the street.

“What?” I asked.

“Don’t step in the puke, I said,” she said, too late.

The other foreigners, who stayed in proper rooms up on the Snow Land’s upper floors, masked their unease with brusqueness. It was that kind of place.

Snowland

The Snow Land Hotel.

They strapped our gear down and promised two hundred forty or fifty kilometers, nine hours and two passes over 5000 meters, and we set out alternately blazin’ downhill then crawlin’ too slow up hills, through wide valleys with thin streams of winding water. Just occasional scrubby brush, waist high tops. Way, way down to the bottom.

A truck sat mired in the middle of the track. We edged around it in rocks on the shoulder, just on the edge of God-knows-how-far down.

Giant rock fields. First came a village called Pamas, right on the river.  What was the name of the river?

“No special name.”

Our “helper” sort of – maybe – made us understand that this river and others come from the Nylam pass up ahead, so collectively they are all known as Nylam rivers.

We’d drive alongside walled, multi-family settlements built of stone with courtyards for livestock, which had their own way in and out. We’d pass a lone horseman, or three or four on a horse cart. I thought the sun might not make it into the valley until noon.

We didn’t quite understand why we’d drive so slowly up the inclines. Mirja first suggested that maybe not gunning it was a way to not trigger landslides. Then, across rocky plains, she suggested more weakly, school zones?  Turned out our driver didn’t know “downshift.”

Ponies led a cart filled with grain. One yak. A whitewashed stupa. Stone markers every kilometer. The first one I saw read 5380. To where?

First answer: Lhasa. Second try: the Tibet border. Truth: Beijing.

•••••

Hurtling (sometimes) across the Tibetan plateau. The Pakistani band Junoon on the juke, then some rasta tunes. “Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight,” our crew sang out loud and un-ironically.

•••••

We’d spy patches of snow. Way up high, over 14,000 feet, we felt light of breath. Mirja took her steroids and although her ears popped, she felt okay. I thought things started to move a little bit in slow motion. Everything was just very vivid, like in the seconds before a car crash.

Here was a landscape of stretched horizons. River beds with only a trickle of water wound through gorges half a mile wide or more. After a time we’d climbed so high that there were ice fields in whole mountains down below.

  Mountainpass

Prayer flags at the Lalung Leh Pass, 16570 feet.

 We stood a little tight in the chest, temples pounding, at the prayer flags at the Lalung Leh pass at 5050 meters (16570 feet), and gazed on the peaks of Xixibangma, at 8012 meters, to the west, and Cho Oyu (8153) off to the east in the Qomolangma Nature Preserve. Qomolangma is the local name for Sagarmatha, or Everest, and Cho Oyu is the highest peak in the range west of Sagarmatha. Everest grew closer.

We had a little engine trouble, still in sight of the prayer flags. The LandCruiser was idling a little low and they had to climb up under the hood to prime the carburetor. While they did, Mirja and I clambered back out for more of the view, the cold, dry wind chapping our faces, and once the engine fired we moved on. Thrilled at the prospect of Everest ahead, we had no idea how much time would be spent under that hood.

By midday we were blazing across Tibet. The boys passed between them strings of yak cheese.

•••••

No more bushes – just patches of grass. You might have been watching everything through a wide angle lens.

A sheep herd, pushed by nomads, blocked the road. We jumped out of the LandCruiser into real, don’t live anywhere nomads, maybe forty people in all, most under thirty, about a dozen of them children.

Everyone wore a sturdy, zippered coat and a head cover, an array of bright red patterned scarves and kerchiefs – on their heads, around their necks or under their hats. Two men carried crossbows and handmade fiddles on their backs.

Part of the swarm begged “money money money” but not belligerently, except when I tried to give two five yuan notes – a dollar twelve – to the man I imagined to be the headman. He snatched them from my hand before the little boys could.

  Nomads

 The head nomads.

Every kid and his clothes were unwashed and nasty. Tiny girls carried even tinier infants on their backs. A small boy scowled from his perch tied to the back of a donkey.

•••••

High plateau Tibetan villages follow the same plan – the traditional whitewashed stone, with orange and blue vertical stripes painted from the roofs, and prayer flags rising from the four corners of the roofs. Though we’d dropped from the heights of the pass, we remained on the higher Tibetan plateau and patches of snow filled the folds of the hills.

Ruins of dzongs sat far up the hillsides. Dry, barren, rocky river beds stretched for miles. Just the barest grass grew and far off a cluster of shepherds grazed baby sheep, yaks and mules.

At a place called Gutso, green-uniformed sweepers tidied up the grounds of a hospital. A stark, tall white stupa stood at a bend. Om Mani Padme Hum in Tibetan script was carved into a barren hillside to salve the soul of the transitory Tibetan.

  Tinggri

 Mt. Everest from Tinggri Village.

Beginning the traverse of a wide valley, we came face to face with Mt. Everest. Snow blew in waves off its peak. It was such a singular sight, Mirja and I piled out and sort of sat stupidly and stared for long moments, in silence and in awe.

Our boys finally urged us on. They reassured us that we could see Everest again at the village of Tinggri.

Turned out they sought Tinggri because that was where lunch was, at Amdo Guest House, ten rooms opening onto a courtyard. They were right, though, Everest was in full view from either end of the hundred-meter-long settlement. While they disappeared inside to eat, Mirja and I walked the town.

We traded caps with the kids, took pictures of pony riders and inspected sacks of tsampa, Tibet’s staple food made of roasted barley flour, and the traditional houses, where old men or young kids drew water into canisters from courtyard wells.

All the housing had courtyards, surrounded by three or four foot high stone walls. This was where the domestic animals stayed, ponies, mules, cattle, and all the walls had holes for the animals to wander in and out. The large, extended families lived behind doors in individual quarters within the compound.

A cadre worked under his truck, then jumped in and drove off. We went back to wait for our boys. There was no cold beer in Tinggri because there was no electricity in Tinggri.

We sat in the LandCruiser until mouth-breathers, miscreants and beggars surrounded us and stared in the windows. I went in to round up our team, who sat on long wooden benches in the darkened room. They said ok, ok, one minute. A cooking fire flared in a room behind a curtain, and lit up a half dozen men in the shadows, smoking.

I went back after fifteen minutes. Everybody smoked and talked over butter tea. Our driver was just being served a bowl of noodles.

Pissed me off. I told them we had to go and stood there while he gobbled and slurped. My audacity, to haul them out of there after their hour and a half noodle break, sowed the seeds of destruction.

•••••

For half the day we drove through canyons, along an escarpment and through an absolutely gorgeous painted desert. Finally I just put away my camera, convinced I couldn’t even start to capture all the magnificence.

Dry, still, crisp and hot. An utterly clear sky. Almost nobody was in sight anywhere, except for our company from back in Tinggri. After lunch, out at the edge of town, our boys made some phrases about, “she is going to Xegar,” and in popped an elfin Tibetan woman of forty, who settled into the back of the LandCruiser on top of our bags. She coughed a lot.

So, okay, we were off with a hackin’ chick in the trunk and sullen staff in front. We got some slow Indian tunes on the juke. Between Tinggri and Xegar was ruggedly beautiful, in an unsettling, Tibetan way. Dusty. We rolled our windows down for the breeze except when trucks approached, kicking up dust.

Just before Xegar stood an imbecilic checkpoint where we waited on the side of the road in the LandCruiser while the local three we’d accrued scampered off into a little squat building that sat, I mean, in the middle of absolutely slap-me-blind nowhere.

Now, man may do worse things to man than to restrict movement in a place so utterly barren, vast and empty, but hardly anything more stupid. So many rules in a place so empty.

•••••

The wind howled as we climbed beyond Xegar, past settlements not on the map. The first power lines connected to the east, to Lhasa and the grid, were just wooden poles with two wires strung along them. We still had our hitchhiker, even past Xegar.

Where it had been hot in Tinggri, now it turned frigid again. For some hours we passed only a single, lone horseman.

Sometime past three, the engine just stopped and the boys climbed back under the hood. The police happened to motor up going the other way (a miracle!), but they just looked, backed up and went around. Didn’t offer any help.

You can get used to most anything, I guess, and we got accustomed to piling in and out of the LandCruiser for mechanical reasons. The first time we sat on rocks our hackin’ mama shared Lao Lao Tang bubble gum with Mirja and me. Then we set out across another rock field, did maybe twelve minutes and sputtered again.

The first time your car breaks down in the third world is de rigueur. The second time, if necessary, is included in the package. But we began to sense a routine.

Heavy patches of ice hung along either side of the road. At the next pass, even higher than before at 5200 meters, we felt much less altitude sickness. The only peak, and it was dominant, stood in snowy splendor. I asked its name.

Now, way back at the border, when we were happy to get a ride, we got both our “helper’s” and driver’s names. Since then, I’d lost so much faith in the Han helper bastard, and talked with him so little that I forgot his name, and our driver’s too, and I didn’t care.

I named our driver “Noodleboy” in honor of lunch at Tinggri and I just called our little monolingual “helper,” “Sir.” Sir asked Noodleboy what the name of the peak was, they talked, and Sir turned to me, “No special name.”

We sputtered to a stop twice more. Let me tell you, that one last time I was frustrated. The LandCruiser idled low but Noodleboy didn’t know to shift out of fourth when we’d brake to ease through streams. He wouldn’t apply gas, the engine would die, and we’d all hop out and into our routines.

When we stalled right in the middle of a creek and a bus pulled up, blocked by us, somebody asked, “How long you been here?”

I told them don’t worry, they’ll fix it in fifteen minutes, they’ve been doing it all day. The
people on the bus thought that was a lot funnier than I did.

•••••

Boys wearing Mao-caps drove past on those rototiller-like trucks. I sat and wondered at the geography – the really awesome upthrust rocks, almost to vertical, caused by the collision of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates. Plus, I wasn’t busy.

Then I’d wonder about us. I marveled at the time, money and effort we spent chasing the allure of the vacant, slack-jawed peasant, like, well, our very own Noodleboy.

And unkindly, I wondered how a driver could be so dense as to not grasp even the basics of his job, in this case like the concept of the downshift, or how to press the gas pedal to rev the engine.

I asked if I could drive and they just laughed.

One other thing about Noodleboy: Except to pass, he drove on the left, even when the left was a precipice, even in fourth gear approaching the crest of a hill. All the time. The whole trip. Every minute. In Tibet driving is on the right.

•••••

Once when we were broken down, a LandCruiser with three Europeans and a Real English-Speaking Guide stopped to help. I explained to the Real English-Speaking Guide how Noodleboy would let the engine die and he talked it over with Noodleboy and Sir, but nothing changed. That LandCruiser followed along with us for a while, as if to rescue us if our LandCruiser finally gave up.

This slowed them down considerably. Finally, at one repair stop, one Euro-guy slammed the door and theatrically started walking ahead into the desert (where was he going?) and I was secretly with Noodleboy when eventually we thundered by him and covered him with dust.

  Cartrouble

 Just part of the routine.

It was fifteen minutes to Lhaze, Sir declared. Forty-five minutes later when we asked how far now, he pondered and offered brightly, “about forty kilometers.”

There was one last checkpoint. Just beyond it we had a flat tire.

Which was the crystalline moment between exasperation and acceptance. What had been a bad day was becoming a tolerably good story. So right there on the rocks by the road Mirja and the hitchhiker and I broke out the Bagpiper India whiskey carefully imported from Banepa, Nepal and toasted our boys fixing the tire.

Our hitchhiker showed us pictures of her two daughters, and her Dalai Lama amulet, so I slid her one of my smuggled Dalai Lama postcards. In gratitude, when we finally rolled up to Lhaze, she carried one of our bags and asked for a dollar.

•••••

In Lhaze, I was the American son-of-a-bitch who wrote the book on being a jerk. That’s what our driving team thought, because I had made them hurry through their noodles back at lunch. I thought they were no-account bastards who couldn’t organize a drive across their own goddam country.

So we had a lot to build on for tomorrow.

I pointed to the flat spare and asked if it would get fixed. They said it would. We agreed to leave for Xigatse at 8:00 tomorrow morning and the boys vanished.

A young girl with a radiant smile led us up the stairs by flashlight, down the hall to our room. They had power, but not until eight o’clock.

Not much use being there unable to see, so we found a restaurant across the street, where there was power, and talked with some men from Guangdong on their way to China’s Everest base camp for holiday.

We asked for cold beer and one of the guys tried to translate. The waitress looked puzzled, was gone too long, then came back smiling triumphantly, buckling under a big metal tub of raw meat. Our translator thought we asked for “cold beef.”

A little boy did his best to burn the place down firing up a propane lantern to augment the bare bulb above us. Now that it was getting dark, the power worked intermittently. A table full of card playing boys from Szechuan province came in to wash their hands in a pot on the main floor.

One man saw a book I had opened to a page about the Tashilunpo Monastery in Xigatse and grabbed it from my hands. I slid him a Dalai Lama card and he grabbed it, too, and in an instant slipped it out of sight and into his inside coat pocket. They cooked up what smelled like breakfast sausage and it smelled great.

Back across the street we purified water and made Thai chicken and fried rice from backpacker’s kits and had a little party. The moon was near new, it was so dark and the stars couldn’t have been brighter. On the way to the toilet (which was outside), I smiled at Orion.

Noise continued late into the night, kind sounds, singing and laughing.

•••••

First thing in the morning the troubles started again.

Eight o’clock, agreed time, we’re on the gravel by the car. Our helper, Sir, showed up on time, loaded our stuff and said now, they were going to breakfast. I walked with him a ways, put my hands on both his shoulders and tried to explain.

A smoking Chinese boy in a cheap suit interrupted, “I need to talk to him.”

I said I was talking to him.

“Oh, you are special person!” His voice rose derisively.

This was going great.

We waited. About 8:30 the boys re-emerged with our hackin’ chick in tow. She’d be going with us – and they hadn’t fixed the spare, and they never did.

On the road, Mirja tried banter.

“It was loud last night. Was…there…party?”

Pause. Blank look.

“Karaoke maybe?” She tried again.

Recognition.

“Karaoke, yeah.”

“Do they do that every night?”

“Every night, yeah.”

•••••

There was no electricity in the hotel in the morning, but it still felt closer to civilization than the day before amid the nomads.

One of those ubiquitous blue Chinese trucks threw up dust ahead so we couldn’t see for several kilometers, as we climbed out of a dry, gray gravel gulch. Peaceful, empty landscape scrolled by for an hour and more. Cooking fires rose from settlements and streams glinted in the slant of the early morning sun.

A mantra carved in giant characters stretched across a hillside. Gradually, a few at a time, trees popped up around settlements – but only around the settlements. Then a thick stand of trees lined a riverbank. Ten army transport trucks convoyed by. More yaks. A dust devil out in a field.

A series of long valleys stretched to the horizon, then again, and again. Snow patches dotted the stark brown hills and clouds would form, little cumulus puffs, out of mere air. Riding along, you could just sit and watch them, and with a long horizon and plenty of time, that’s just what we did. A sing-along broke out to the cassettes. A happy few hours.

•••••

Xigatse is Tibet’s second city, former home of the Panchen Lama. His residence, the Tashilunpo Monastery, is one of the few monasteries the Chinese tolerate. The Tashilunpo Monastery and the best hotel in Tibet outside Lhasa both gave Xigatse a certain allure. So when we pulled up to Friendship Hotel #2 instead of our promised and paid for Xigatse hotel – the one with the toilets – the whole tenuous peace broke down.

I insisted we must go the Xigatse Hotel. Sir, our “helper,” turned around full to talk to us for the very first time, and Noodleboy mouth-breathed faster. Sir exploded.
For the first time, in his anger, he made himself understood. I had done a bad thing when I came in and dragged them away from their friends at lunch. All Chinese eat lunch! He was just doing his job.

He showed me a list of the amounts of money he’d been given back at the border for our lodging. It included 120 yuan, or $15 for today. The Xigatse Hotel was 480, or $60, and he couldn’t pay for that.

He didn’t know how we did it in our country but in Tibet they did it the Chinese way. He angrily decided: He’d give us the 120, we could stay wherever we liked. No monastery tour for us today and tomorrow we leave for Lhasa at 8:00 sharp!

That was what we wanted, too. So once everybody cooled off they drove us over there and Sir insisted on theatrically unloading my bag, admonished “8:00 tomorrow” and they all stormed away.

We were pretty happy with that.

•••••

After a Xigatse walking tour I felt there was nothing clean in Tibet. It’s one thing among nomads, or in towns with no electricity (forget plumbing), but here in the second city every sidewalk smelled of piss – every single one – and so did the famous Tashilunpo monastery.

One monk-boy there begged for money – kind of in contravention of monkhood, I thought – and at the free market outside the monastery adult women had this irritating way of insistently laying on your arm begging for the entire length of the market.

The monastery was superlative though, majestic on a hill, a warren of cobbled alleyways and cooled out dogs in the sun. It made your heart pound to climb the steps. I climbed up some maintenance stairs inside the main gate to get a picture of the whole complex and a furious monk hurried over to accost me.

  Tashilunpo

 Tashilunpo Monastery, Xigatse.

Mirja noted, “Now you’ve pissed off two Tibetans in one day – and one of them was a monk.”

It was a glorious, beautiful spring day. The leaves were young and green and the sun burned your skin in just an hour. Maybe it was the nicest single day I have ever been in – except that the next day was just as nice.

•••••

I wasn’t giving them any excuse. I watched the sun’s first rays strike the prayer flags on the hill behind Tashilunpo monastery from the cool of the front of the Xigatse hotel at 8:00 sharp. They weren’t there. By 8:20 I was pretty discouraged and by 8:40 I found a tour bus driver who made me understand he was leaving for Lhasa at 10:00 – but I didn’t know how to ask him if he had room for us.

By 8:45 I was in a back office trying to raise Lhasa over the phone when Mirja called down the hall that they were here. Off we went, including the hackin’ chick, who was on a free ride all the way to Lhasa.

As a second city, much as I’d like to, I can’t say Xigatse impressed very much. Outside the Panchen Lama’s headquarters  there was only the barren, blue-collar, grappling feel of a hardscrabble frontier town.

•••••

The closer to Lhasa, the more prayer flags. I had begun to think the whole of Tibetan spirituality was a western canard when we were out on the plateau, but now you could see it.

The road out of Xigatse was smooth for a long time and the day was as beautiful as you’ll ever see. We’d heard all the music the boys had by now and started it again. That was what Sir, our “helper,” helped with most – tape changing.

Mesas and mini-plateaus, eroded flat, stood alongside the tarmac road. No snow on the hills, no grazing animals. From a high vantage point, range after high range lined up ever more distant.

Like the day before, trees lined the creeks, and now settlements were surrounded by planted trees. Mule carts still plied the roads, and people walked along with shovels and farm tools. The Yalong River stretched wide, reflecting the big blue sky. Then came high tension wires. Signs at a construction sight were in Chinese only, no Tibetan. A fence inexplicably walled off an empty quarter on the right.

Credit to the hackin’ chick: We rode with her for three days and on each of them, while she wore the same outfit (in fact she carried no bags), she was always fresh. While the boys wore cheap western-style clothes made in China, she wore a native blue print blouse and cotton vest with her long skirt covered by an apron. She kept her hair bunned up with a blue headband. And she plied us with Chinese caramels.

 

 

Sheep and snow again. A fascinating winch-ferry system hauled people and animals across the Yalong River. At four separate places.

Following the Yalong valley, I spent the morning watching the cumulus and the countryside. At eleven that morning,  I couldn’t have been happier, feeling the breeze, watching the green river turn white over rocks as we maneuvered through towering mountains.

We stopped in a village high on a hill surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains. Yaks were being put out while women filled silver urns with water at the spring, and prayer flags flapped over the river.

Then (after they got the Toyota restarted) we hurtled headlong into a valley. Long haired goats. More prayer flags. Even as we broke down a few more times it really was so beautiful (and we were close enough to Lhasa) that we’d already put our boys in past tense and just looked forward to a couple of days off the road.

•••••

How many Tibetans does it take to fill a gas tank? Seven, and fifteen minutes, at Changkong/Beijing station sixty kilometers from Lhasa. That didn’t include fascinated onlookers – or the fifteen extra minutes and two more Tibetans to restart your LandCruiser.

•••••

Albania to Zimbabwe, Noodle Boy was the worst driver we’ve ever had. He really would shift from third to fourth while meaning to accelerate to pass. I fear he may just have been a major, base dullard – nothing more. It’s mean but it may also be true.

Sir never got the concept of the client-provider relationship. Most places people understand that if you pay something, you expect something in return. Except this guy. He was a young Han Chinese man working at the edge of the empire. Maybe he fashioned himself as contributor to a great enterprise, taming the heathen.

He wanted us to go with him to his travel agency boss, a Dutchman, who he thought would make it all right. I lied that we’d call his boss once we checked into our hotel in Lhasa, and once Lhasa rolled into view, we found our hotel, piled out, they wished us a good stay in Tibet, and all of us, I think, wished we’d acted better.

•••••

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