Lhasa At Last

LHASA Everest is behind us, Lhasa 600 kilometres ahead, on the smooth pavement of the Friendship Highway.

LHASA

Everest is behind us, Lhasa 600 kilometres ahead, on the smooth pavement of the Friendship Highway.

There is still almost a pass a day to get over.

After the Langpa La there is a drop of 1,100 metres and a 26-kilometre coast to re-enter the valley of the Brahmaputra River (Tsang Po in Tibet), the first time we have been below 4,000 metres in seven weeks.

No one singing on the Tra La and yes, the Simi La is just like other passes.

Restaurants serving Yak steak and fries followed by banana-chocolate pancakes, and staying legally in hotels are benefits of the tourist economy on this stretch of road between Nepal and Lhasa.

There are more villages, in wider valleys. Farmers, and all their family members, are busy with the mono-crop agriculture of barley.

In some places they are scything the ripe stalks of grain and sheaving them to dry. In other places, struggling to control the plough and the Yak pulling it, they are already ploughing the stubble under.

Then 400 kilometres from Lhasa, we spot our first prostrating pilgrim. He will get there, eventually, by sliding his body length along the highway, arms stretched ahead, then rising, walk three paces to the point his fingers reached and repeating the cycle.

His only protection is a ragged leather apron and wood blocks strapped to his hands.

Shigatse is Tibet’s second city and home to the large and well-maintained Tashilumpo Monastery, founded by the first Dalai Lama in 1447.

Beyond the wide entrance, courtyard, alleys lead around monks’ quarters to many chapels.

Filling the largest chapel a 26-metre-tall gilded Buddha statue, decorated with silk scarves, shines in the light of hundreds of butter lamps.

The monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s No. 2 position and its prosperity and restoration is due to the Chinese government installing its own Panchen Lama after kidnapping the Tibetans’ choice.

The Museum of the Anti-British awaited us in the next town, Gyantse, where we come face to face with more Chinese governmental tinkering with history.

The theme of the museum is of hero Tibetans fighting against hopeless odds to save the Chinese motherland when Britain, in 1904, sent an expeditionary force led by Francis Younghusband to Tibet.

It was not one of Britain’s greatest deeds, but neither was it as bad as the blatant lies in the displays.

Charles Allen’s book Duel In The Snows is worth reading for a more objective version of what happened.

Of course there is no mention of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s far worse depredations across Tibet in the 1960s.

The impregnable-looking hilltop Dzong (castle) where all that action took place hangs impressively over the town.

Nearby, Gyantse’s other big attraction is the Pelcho Monastery where pilgrims stuff money into every possible crevice. The chapel floors are littered with it.

A Tibetan family, gawking at everything, like country cousins, have their photo taken on the steps of the main chapel. The respect we feel for their devotion is broken when we meet them again in the next chapel shouting into a cellphone.

Approaching the Karo La we camp in a gravel pit at 4,470 metres, our highest camp site so far.

Next day, the last pass before Lhasa, the Kampa La, is a circus.

Incredibly, on this wild and barren pass there is a pay parking area full of buses. They have brought daytrippers from Lhasa to admire the view down to the beautiful Yamdrok So, an intensely blue lake backed by snowcapped mountains.

Tibetans hustle the tourists, urging photos on Yaks, while the tourists are more concerned with staying away from the yak’s wide, swaying horns.

Our plan was to ride triumphantly into Lhasa and get our own photos taken in front of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s residence, though he hasn’t been home in almost 50 years.

The reality was arriving after dark, exhausted after our longest day of 124 kilometres.

Each country we’ve cycled through has had worse drivers than the one before and this holds true for Tibet. Entering Lhasa there are 10 kilometres of urban development with serious traffic.

Downtown it is hectic. Cars and pedal rickshaws ignore stop signs and traffic lights, bicycles and motorbikes ignore every traffic rule, pedestrians with immeasurable faith in their invulnerability, cross the street as if it were deserted.

It has taken us seven weeks to get 2,150 kilometres across Tibet to Lhasa and we deserve a break to celebrate and to enjoy the sights.

The Potala Palace is stunning, painted orange and blinding white, towering square and solid over the Tibetan part of the city with an all-day procession of pilgrims walking the Kora around it’s walls.

The biggest attraction for pilgrims is the Jokhang temple. We join the crowds walking the kora around it, along alleys lined with stalls selling prayer beads, prayer wheels, silk scarves and every type of religious souvenir a pilgrim could possibly need.

As we near the front of the temple, breathing in the smell of burning juniper branches, a mysterious slithering, slippy sound gets louder and louder, almost making us feel apprehensive.

Rounding the last corner we see it is the noise of dozens of pilgrims prostrating in front of the temple. Hard up against the temple walls a long line of Tibetans, tightly pressed, waits patiently for the chance to enter their Holy of Holies.

We can only wonder at the level of devotion Tibetans give to their religion.

Despite that devotion there is something of a disconnect between my experience in Tibet and the pro-Tibetan propaganda we are subject to here in Canada.

In my view most Tibetans are accepting, not happy, but accepting of their lot. The Chinese marched in almost 60 years ago so most Tibetans alive today have not known anything else.

Neither do they remember the religious dictatorship that held them practically in slavery.

Recent riots in Lhasa were started by monks with a vested interest in a return to the old system. The Chinese government has invested heavily in Tibet and Tibetans are better off because of this.

New roads, railway and airports bring goods and services they never had, as well as tourists.

Schools and medical facilities have been built. The victims of the riots, besides the monks beaten by the police, have been poor Chinese immigrants. They have been beaten, their shops set on fire while they were still inside, by rioters.

Their crime was trying to make a better life for themselves, just as many of your parents and grandparents tried here, in Canada.

None of this is paid much heed in the masterful marketing of the Free Tibet campaign.

I am not an apologist for the Chinese government. It is a brutal, murderous regime.

But brutal and murderous pretty fairly — they treat all their citizens like this.

My first planned trip to Tibet was thwarted by the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

In the last few months I’ve received several e-mails whose authenticity is impossible to confirm, claiming to be from Tibetan monks and nuns.

The e-mails, perfectly written, are wonders of psychological strategy. I never met a nun who could speak English, let alone write.

There are other groups in the world suffering as much, or more, than Tibetans and just as deserving of your interest in their plight, but when did you see a pro-Palestinian or pro Zimbabwean protest in Whitehorse?

My point is, there is more to this than meets the eye.

A few minutes searching on Google will turn up plenty of information on CIA involvement with the Dalai Lama, or who funds Radio Free Asia’s constant agitation.

Or read the book Jan Wong’s China. She has unimpeachable qualifications being a Chinese Canadian who worked for years in China as the Globe and Mail’s correspondent.

The book begins with a moving account of the Tiananmen Square massacre and has a chapter entitled the Dalai Lama’s revenge that is enlightening.

Next week, I will be off my hobbyhorse and back on the bike.

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.

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