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Brian’s Travel Diary

Monday, 12 Feb 2007

Location: Lhasa, Tibet

MapThirty-six hours is a long time on a train, but knowing I was leaving smog infested Chinese cities for the deep blue skies of Tibet made it bareable. I have a self-proclaimed ability to sleep at least 12-14 hours a day at a moments notice, so that did make the trip a lot easier. Watching the smog disappear and the stars come out was an almost religious experience after not seeing them for a month. If you ever go to Tibet you must at least take the train one of the ways from Lhasa. Watching the scenery change is spectacular. We passed by thousands of yaks, goats, deer, antelope and even saw a few snow foxes and nomads.

The train and rail itself is a modern marvel of engineering. The railway crests 5,100 meters on its way to Lhasa and is fully equipped with oxygen (your own personal oxy vent if you are in a soft sleeper - which I was). Plus you get enormous windows to gaze out of and stare at the wildlife or the night stars. It's a fun ride but bring your own food because they just serve the same thing over and over again.

Tibet is a pretty amazing place. It serves Asia 87% of its fresh water. That, and it sits at 3,600 meters and takes some time aclimating to simply get used to walking around. When I first got off the train loaded with my pack I was good for about 20 steps and then a break, no acute mountain sickness though. I think the lack of oxygen in smog filled Xi'an prepared me for the 60% oxygen levels of Lhasa. Tibet used to be the home of the Dali Lama himself (big hitter the Lama). But the Mao Tse Dong approved cultural revolution of the 50's killed most of his counterparts and exiled him to India. Lhasa is home of the Potalla - it's like the equivalent of the Vatican for Buddhism. Since the cultural revolution it's now basically a musuem, but once had over 10,000 monks living in it. Needless to say Tibet is very religious and very Buddhist with monasteries and monks everywhere. Thousands of monasteries were destroyed and even more monks killed during the revolution (read Chinese invasion). It's hard to imagine just how many more monasteries there could have been. Tibet is considered by many a nation occupied by the Chinese. Even planet ranger lets me select "Tibet" as its own country while I am travelling. But, 'officially' it is recognized as a province of China, even by the U.S.

My first impression of Lhasa, sadly, was that of the beggars, but also hundreds of smiling rosey cheeked Tibetans. There are some beggars that you literally have to push away because they cling to your legs or wrap their arms around you. It's commonly accepted for beggars to enter a restaurant and ask you for money or eat the leftovers right off of your plate. Many other Tibetans will give money to the beggars and the entire practice seems very common place. It is definitely hard to get used to and being a westerner seems to get the dollar $ign$ rolling in their eyes. The two english words I hear more than any other are "Hello! Money!" in that order. It's really hard children no older than 5, with matted hair, tattered clothes, and dirt permanently caked on the face and hands not to want to help. But, it's very disheartening when you realize those children were sent on this begging mission by their parents who eagerly wait in the wings to retrieve their child's bounty. Are you helping to create a society of beggars who see money everytime they see a westerner? Possibly. Or, do you help as many as you can knowing you can't help all of them? It's a helpless feeling. I find myself giving to the less assertive. The ones who clutch and grab and refuse to let go, I tend to ignore. The crippled, the old and the less able bodied seem to open my wallet. But I dont know what's fair. The good news is you can usually appease any beggar for 1 Jiao, which is about 1.3 cents.

Simply walking around the markets is interesting. There are dozens of 5 ton trucks carrying halved yaks to the market. Trucks full of entire goats too. Actually, the trucks are the market. They park and sell the meat right out of the back of the truck. It's definitely a sight to see a Tibetan taking an axe to a yak carcass. I have frequently stepped on the aftermath of the mobile butcher shop in the way of hooves, horns, and heads! It is so cold out that you really don't have to worry too much about the meat spoiling. In fact, its basically frozen. The same goes for the yak butter, which is the staple ingredient in yak butter tea. Lonely Planet describes it as 'brewed old socks and sump oil.' I dont know who LP sends on their fact finding missions but that is BS. Butter tea, or Bo Cha, is alright. In fact, I have taken a liking to it. My first day I had about a dozen cups of it. However, in the summer, when the town doesn't also sub as a freezer, I'm guessing the butter gets a bit sour and rancid sitting in the trucks.

Right along with China there is plenty of weird food like a carts full of boiling goat heads. There is also a pretty large Muslim contingent here who serve up some tasty "Mohammad Kebabs" of goat meat.

We have booked a 5 day land cruiser trip to Mt. Everest Base Camp (EBC). It's got lots of stops on the way and should be interesting. Beau and I have teamed up with two other people to cut the cost of the trip in half.