Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Even Dogs Understand English

Are we in a different country? The children seem to think so, but don't ask the Chinese military and police which is well armed and guards every roof and every corner. We arrived in Tibet after more than 72 hours of not seeing any European or anybody who understands one word of English. I thought for a while of how deep the language difference is, even common sounds for pain or excitement have no similar meaning. The written language even less. But we found it funny, not frustrating, and we survived the days in Xining and the long train ride. What might have been one of the highlights of our trip around the world, was just a sorry excuse, the advertised shiny high speed train that makes the pride of China, was just a dirty, slow, loud, smelly, barely functioning concoction.
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The trip was made even harder by the lack of privacy and the suffering of two sick children. Ileana Ruxandra was just barely recovering and I was just starting to feel the beginning of my turn. The landscape was magnificent, but as Maria said "I watched the best of it for half an hour", theoretically there should be English announcements along the way describing the passing landmarks. There was none. The train stopped for one minute (instead of six) in a scheduled station, then for half an hour in the dessert just waiting for something. We made faces with three Tibetan children and admired the efforts of the Chinese conductor to keep the bathrooms working.
Arrived in Lhasa we were welcomed by our guide and Ileana had one first brush with the Chinese army, (they would't let her take pictures) hopefully the last one as we also learned pretty quick to ignore them. We all love our guide, it's a mandatory expense, there is no choice, but being a young, smart and funny Tibetan girl she would give us much more information and much more help then we would ever dream of. The fee for her services is $40 per day and it would be the same if she would spend every minute with us or none at all. We had a plan, suggested many months ago by an agency in Chengdu, everybody said that it is a good plan. Our 11 days here were to be spent half in Lhasa and half on the road to Nepal. After getting out for two minutes and watching five little elderly women holding hands crossing the street, I knew I wanted more. There are six worthy attractions in Lhasa, they can easily be done in three days. We cut one and did the other five one a day, took two days for recovery, and adding the arrival day, we ended up with eight days in Lhasa. We mutually agreed to speed up the trip to the border to make it in only four days. After the kids got through their sickness, I also took a day off to recover from mine. Lastly, Maria, who never gets sick (!), had a day under the weather and stayed home.

Lhasa and Tibet are sensitive and difficult subjects for travellers. We all know more or less about the issue, Americans might have heard of somebody called Dalai Lama and their president bowing and making nice to the Chinese, pretending to be strong and independent, but scheduling the visit of the Dalai Lama so it doesn't bother the Chinese "friends." Besides the pretence of independence of America, the events of 2008 when we all praised the Beijing Olympics while the Chinese army shot people in the street - what else do we know or should we know about Tibet?
Starting with the utopic story of Shangri-La, the Tibet holds a special attraction, being unique in its natural and cultural attractions. For a while there was even talk about the traveling community boycotting the Tibet, to protest the Chinese occupation, but I have no idea how much is this a present issue, and it was not a preoccupation for us as we think with our own minds.
I read a bit on different versions of history, arguments for an independent Tibet but also the Chinese version of their "liberation." I came here open minded and curious to discover what I can with my own eyes. I leave Lhasa with a clear personal conclusion that this is a different country, under occupation and probably in danger of disappearance.
People at Jokhang
On the second level of Jokhang Temple

Mandala at Sera Monastery
We chose to stay at Yak Hotel, on Beijing Boulevard, in the heart of the old Lhasa. Crossing the street, it only takes a minute to get to the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor plaza. Spending a few minutes in the street is overwhelming, it is a combination of overstimulation and altitude adjustment, so repeatedly over the first few days I got down, walked a bit and then returned to the peace and quietness of the hotel room. On Ioan's birthday we visited the Jokhang Temple, spent a lot of time there. It is phenomenal, the 1300 year old temple, with the empty chair of its ruler, "His Holiness", whose name or picture doesn't exist by China. The next day, I cancelled the program after returning tired and sick from the Nepalese Consulate. Then, one per day, we went to Sera Monastery, Potala Palace, Ganden Monastery and last, Drepung Monastery. They are all pillars of the Tibetan religion and repeatedly we could observe Tibetans exercising their beliefs, sometimes ignoring, almost walking over us, sometimes smiling and watching us curiously. At Sera Monastery, in the afternoon, we watched the monks debating. Potala Palace, now a museum of the Chinese cultural values and a World Heritage Site is another one of the most important monuments of humanity and supposedly one of the highlights of our trip around the world. As the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, it is an impressive construction, the children loved it but we were somewhat disappointed. We were lucky to have time, they fine people who stay more than an hour in the summer, but there are no tourists this time of the year. Even so, it was crowded with small, dark rooms. I did not understand why a seven year old kid who dies, being even a Dalai Lama, might need a coffin, called stupa, made of tons of gold and precious stones, especially while your people are clearly very poor, dying of hunger, constantly under threat of being occupied by the big neighbor. It made me feel a little more understanding toward Bonaparte, that French buffoon with a ridiculous sarcophage at Les Invalides. The next day, the Ganden Monastery was probably the best of all sites, mostly because we did a special kora circling the mountain. Drepung Monastery, without Maria, we saw the highlights of what used to be a 10,000 monk monastery before the "liberation." With the help of our guide, we learned about the different Buddhas, the 14 different Dalai Lamas, the different kings and Pancha Lamas, and we learned an amazing number of things about Tibetan beliefs.
Monks during debates at Sera Monastery
An evening visit in front of the Potala Palace
Approaching Ganden Monastery
During the kora of the Ganden Monastery, on the other side of the mountain
Approaching the end of the kora and getting into the Ganden Monastery
Next to Drepung Monastery

Of course, besides the religious sites, there is also the old commercial Lhasa with all the traditional commerce, and life here seems to be much like in any bazaar. The Chinese razed a big part of the old town, made a large, nice looking commercial street. Apparently, one reason was for the army to be able to intervene more efficiently, just in case. Ileana stood there and took some pictures, nobody bothered her, but she could see how the police or the army was picking on Tibetans to keep moving.

New modern commercial street
Walking just a few blocks, you get in the Chinese Lhasa, large clean boulevards, luxury stores, their people, looking and acting like the middle class Chinese of all the other cities. I have no idea who can shop in all these luxury stores, in my mind there is a planned discrimination, probably just trying to push out the old Tibetan commerce and bring in the rich Chinese.
I ended my time in Lhasa visiting alone the Tibet Museum, a couple of rooms in a huge building, a Chinese thing, obviously propaganda. I walked back to the hotel through the Chinese Lhasa, huge government buildings with soldiers guarding them, Chinese people in their own element and occasional Tibetans, lost in an unnatural decorum. I arrived in front of Potala Palace - there is a huge plaza, at the opposite end being the liberation monument. I barely took a look at it and I noted the irony, the pilgrims use the clean slates of rock for their prostrations, face to the palace, bottom toward the liberation monument. Some hip young Chinese use the monument as background for sexy pictures.

Police station being built near the Potala Palace
All over the place, Chinese military patrols. This year the main form of Tibetan protest has been self immolation, "successful" in at least eight cases, so now one of the guys in each patrol has a red hydrant, while the others have sticks or machine guns. In just a few days, I saw police stations popping up at several street corners. They were putting the walls one day, then caulking the windows, then next day they are functional with several policemen inside, next to the cage that holds 5-6 very young Chinese soldiers. I asked the guide why now, she thinks that something might be going on in East Lhasa and they are getting "ready." My first thought was that they just want the police inside for the winter, but again why now?
At Ganden, the road was in pretty good shape, but it was divided at the end, a horrible road toward the monks, littered with donkeys and stray dogs, and a perfectly good road leading to the police station, recently built above the monastery, after the events of 2008. Why do they need a police station in the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain, with nobody around just some three hundred pitiful monks who chant all day, clean up yak butter and light candles? Why do they forbid the once a year 24 hour kora around the mountain of the Drepung Monastery? As always for the wrongdoer - the fear. And that obviously eats the victors as their victims keep going undisturbed and serene, mumbling their unending prayers. They don't care much about this life, they wait for their reincarnation and work toward their enlightenment.

How did I see the "natives"? They are certainly different then the Chinese, they look so, they dress differently, they act differently. Their religion and music, their language and writing, all come from India, nothing brings them close to China. Some are clearly on a mission, they are in Lhasa for the religious sites, doing their pilgrimage. Even the youth seems much less preoccupied by the typical youth themes. Even outside of the religious locations, people of all ages seem very religious, in a parallel world, until you catch their eyes and they start to smile. They are not really beautiful, maybe just a few of the children, they are small, short stature, slim, sometimes very, very dirty. Some are obviously very poor, but most of them seem to be just poor. Their best food might be just bad, but some dishes are plain horrible. They might be smart, but make no effort to show it. They might hold the universal truth, but at least in my impression, what they do with their lives doesn't really make sense. It is hard to understand their religion and it's manifestations. Why would people choose to prostrate all the way to Lhasa, sometimes for hundreds of miles? I would never be able to understand, but I could never imagine a harder thing for one human to do. But above everything, I felt that we were welcomed, their guests in their occupied land, they made us feel great and I think we are so lucky that we could meet a few of them. We are so thankful that we could be here. We were sick and tired, hungry and cold, but we were happy in Lhasa.

My random thoughts about Lhasa end here. Maybe we'll learn more about Tibet in the next four days, traveling to the Nepal border. So far, the same old story of the big power, conquering the little one, making up a story to justify their presence, rewriting history and then touching it up with arms, tons of propaganda and a rail line. Even if their version of history might be right, the Chinese don't belong in Tibet and they should go. But they will never go, just like the white people never left America, they put the Indians in reservations and now they let them run casinos, it seems that might be the future of the Tibetans, to provide entertainment and cultural diversity to the all mighty unstoppable Han Chinese. Is there anything left for the rest of us to do about this? A handful of visiting Russians, a family of Romanians, maybe a couple of Australians, unfortunately that is no hope. But at least in Lhasa, people watch Indian movies and try to speak English, even a dog understood and followed my directions when I asked her to join Ileana in a photo. 
With the dog that understands English

And in the last moments in our last room of the last monastery I had the impression that I might finally find the good side in the horrible smell of burned incense and yak butter. There is always hope.

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