Friday, December 22, 2006


To say that in Horchu the scenario would repeat itself would be an optimistic reading. In fact, things got worse. Each day in that autumn Tibet was colder than the one before. In the frozen mornings the ditches filled with water by the roadside would seem broken mirrors. Route 219 continued silent and humiliating as always: our roadside was a balcony to eternity. Between that afternoon and the following morning we would wait 14 hours in Horchu. At last, we had reached the point of seeking refuge from cold underground, in a sort of natural trench, keeping an eye on the road in turns, and running desperately each time a truck would roar in the horizon.

But all tragedy has a hero, and ours was the Tibetan driver of the truck that eventually felt sorry for our persistence and ordered to board the back of his truck, where among a potpurri of construction tools we found place to enjoy the almost forgotten sensation of being on the move. 160 km later we arrived to the checkpoint in Mayum La, a pass at 5200m. One kilometer before the checkpoint the driver stopped his truck. He wouldn’t risk to hide us in the cargo as some of his collegues do, for fear of loosing his license due to the forbidden act of transporting foreigners. The checkpoint was a sad place, as all places where its inhabitants are there against their free will, as militars deployed there by their goverments or as prostitutes deployed to assist the soldiers. Finaly, a bar painted with red and white stripes appeared behind our eyes. The golden buttons in the uniform of the soldier barring entry did little to mask his teen age, and only visibly bothered he stopped playing games in his mobile phone to have a quick look at our passports. He never asked for the permits. We are soon walking again in the snow covered road, asking the first stars what shall we do. We were considering the possibility of staying overnight in a tea house when we heared the sweet puffing of our beloved truck. They had delayed to change a tyre, and now past the checkpoint, the source of their fears, they were ordering us to jump in the back again. Warmed with all our clothes simultaneously, we got ready for the coldest night ever, in the back of that truck., peeping ocassionaly trough the sleeping bag to look at the starred nightsky.

Having crossed the Mayum La had innitially given us the false impression of having reached some kind of plus ultra. The epicenter of our hope was obviously the reactivation of traffic on the 219. When we reach the toen of Drongpa, our expectations seem to confirm as we see the asphalt reemerge. But the extasis lasts little: the ghostlike asphalt just gives comfortable access to a newly built petrol station and evaporates after 200m. We would wait in Drongpa for 3 days, along with two 20 year old French guys who had come overland from Istanbul and were going towards Vladivostock. Pablo, to whom I was starting to admire for his readiness to provide nicknames for everyone, needed little urge to produce a new one for them: the “Little Princes”. And it was quite accurate, considering the coats of the Chinses Army they wore ad their blonde hair. The three days in Drongpa constituted the critical mass in our Tibetan adventure. Not only it didn’t stop snowing in three days, but also there was nothing to do in town, except for drinking unhuman ammounts of tea in our pale hotel room. Something strange happened when we discovered that the TV in the room actually worked. The monotony of the plateau had casted such a spell that when the screen got filled with moving coloured figures we remained astonished as kids and started fighting for the remote control. Every channel was a source of wonder, and even a ping pong match between China and Uzbekistan seemed to us extremely entertaining. Somehow, it helped us to cope with the three days waiting. .

We finally managed to get tickets for a passing bus towards Saga. The task was not easy, since the driver initially refused to take foreigners, afraid himself of possible punishments. There was more than a reason to be happy. First, the fact of getting closer to warmer areas. The second, since Ali we hadn’t seen an ATM machine and now we had 20 dollards among the two. We assumed there would be an ATM machine in Saga, a town linked by road to Nepal. We would later discover that Saga had grown really into abig town in our expectations, a small metropolis with all the services we needed. But reality only granted a larger town with internet and quite a few supermarkets, but no ATM. We crossed the checkpoint at Saga on foot. This time we were indeed asked for our permits, that had already expired.. After Saga, the last listed town in the permits, we were at the mercy of the local authorities decisions. We walked along Bramaputra river. It was still another 700 km to Lhasa. 60 km from there, nevertheless, there was something that could change our fate: the meeting with the Northern Road, carrying most of the trafic between Lhasa an Ali back to the capital. The first day we covered half of that distance in a “Mad Max” as we had nicked those strange Tibetan tractors which are driven with motorcycle handles and really seemed to have been asssambled with the remains of a lost civilization.

The farmers dropped us in a village where the locals were slaughtering a yak. The difference of temperature with the outside caused the dead animal to realise smoke as if it were burning. Seated by the roadside we waited for local hospitality, since we were keeping our last 10 dollars only for food. A local family indeed saved us from pitching our tent that freezing night. The following day would we the most dramatic all together. Accompanied y a dog we had unvoluntarily adopted in town when handing her biscuit, we covered practically on foot the remaining 30 km to the Northern Road. All oour provisions had been reduced to a falsk with milk and two breads. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” –reminded to me Pablo, as we walked. More than once, we knocked the door of some farm to ask for tsampa, a flour made from barley that mixed with water turns into a tasteless but feeding paste. At the sight of our little dog, the farmers would add an extra ration. As we walked, the only hapiness came from seeing the red numbers in the white milestones change, slowly, from 1880 to desired 1902, where the crossing was. Every 2 or 3 km we would stop to rest, leaning our backs and packs against these stones, as if we were players gambling in a strange game: two backpacks to 1897… As hunger strikes in us, I discover there is nothing more painful than walking with a hungry cook.. Pablo (such his occupation) had started to compose a menu characterized by unnecessary extravagancies. One of the dishes was, if I remember well, pumpkins filled with cremy rise and baked crab meat…

In a bus we would take from the crossroad we reached Lhasa. After a month in the Plateau, we couldn’t less than feel joyful when the trees returned to the landscape. I remember to have looked at the first ones from the bus, as if thy had been leopards of giraffes. In Lhasa, the hapiness of reaching a city had its counterpart by the spectacle offered by the Potala and the now small Tibetan old town sorrounded by modern Chinese concrete boxes. The new train connecting Lhasa with the Mothrland has also accelerated the process of materialization of Beijing policies, and given China an irrevokable presence in the area. It has also granted easy access to a previously difficult to get land. As John Ruskin would say: “the train, an artifact to make the world smaller”. Letting this thoughts aside, the city has cheerful tone, with bunches of monks walking the streets, spinning their manikhors, chanting and postrating behind the Jokhang, the holiest of the temples in town, which is day and night sorrounded by pilgrims doing their kora. The Potala is like an abbandoned ship and works now as a museum. Pablo has turned to Spain, and in special ocassion he prepeares the menu the came to his mind while starving in Tibet. Who is writing, after 20 months of hitch hiking across the mountains, deserts, and plateaus of Asia has decided to take a rest from the big endeavours, the challenges and the conflict areas, as well as from the pen that describes them. South East Asia encloses, I assume, the calm and the frivolity I need to give perspective to the past, and let the covered distances settle, so as to gather again, some day, the peace required to unleash a new storm. Meanwhile I continue traveling, I have joined a bike transported circus, a group of 9 travelers who carry their musical instruments in doouble deck bikes and perform their circus and music show from town to town. Mi rol in the circus is not clear yet, but it offers a good opportunity to continue life in movement, and continue the exploration of the same wind. Just with different sails.


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Our passage through the monasteries of Tirthapuri and Gurgam had been, to be candid, sacrilegious. The holy hot springs of the first had supplied us with a badly needed bath, while our infiltration in the second during a ceremony had left the resident lama clueless in front of all his community. It was clear that if we continued that way we would reincarnate in a bat. That’s why Mount Kailash, center of the Buddhist universe provided us a perfect chance to mend our karma. Pablo and I walked along desolate Route 219. It was a windy day, which explained why we were finding hats every kilometer or so. Hat number 3 was particularly cute, narrow winged, not without a certain Tango look. Maybe that was why Pablo adopted it immediately. So far only four vehicles had used the road that morning, all chartered jeeps that would never stop for us, but as soon as “number 3” touched Pablo’s head, a Lexus 4WD came out of nowhere and gave us a lift. Since then, number 3 was our lucky hat.

The driver was some kind of dandy, smoking blue filtered cigarettes and listening to classical music. All the Land Cruisers that had passed us, compared to our unicorn, were mere cargo beasts. To comfort we could add visual magnificence: in the horizon, towards the South, the snowed giants of the Himalayas raised perpendicularly from the ground, miniaturized by the distance but unperturbed by the continuity of the plains. Soon, Kailash showed up in the North. After having heard so much about it, its greatness didn’t reach me as obviously as expected, in the comparison with the spectacle still displayed by the other Himalayan giants in the south. The believes –and facts- around this “small” 6650m mountain dwarf all the other of its kind, with the exception maybe of K2 and Everest.

Four religions in the world –Buddhism, Hinduism, Jains and Bonpos- revere the mountain as the center of the universe. An axis mundi. Its four faces, well shaped as that of a pyramid, justify those who see on it the source of the cardinal points. Hindus spot in the top of Mount Kailash the abode of Shiva, while Bonpos refer to it as the place where their master reached enlightenment. Faithful ones of these four religions have caravanned to Kailash for at least two thousand years, but the West believed, until the 19th century, that the existence of a sacred mountain from which snows the four great rivers of the Subcontinent –the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej- melted could only be a fable.

After listening to so many references to the purity and sanctity of the place, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we realized that Darchen, the town in the base of Kailash, was a dumping site. I will not give the details of the composition of that trash-deco, but I must mention that brigades of street dogs patrolled the streets monitoring their empire over this or that trash mountain. Who would have said that the center of the universe was made of garbage?

Anyhow, Kailash was going to become a turning point in our Tibetan adventure, my own emotions confirmed by their reflection in the dialogue with Rich, Nicolai, and the other cyclists that we hadn’t met since Ali. All the cyclists that in Kashgar talked with enthusiasm about the trip to Tibet, here in Kailash, 1500 km of several nights camping at –15 C, bear in their faces the signs of who has just awaken from a nightmare. It seems as if they had just been chased by a street gang. Those that in Kashgar exposed with calm security the thousand and one methods to enter Tibet, now exchange advise of how to get out of there as fast as possible. In the middle, a syndrome that nobody had calculated had affected them (us), so many measures taken to prevent the mountain sickness only to fall victims of the “void syndrome”.

The enormous –and void- distances between town ad town, and once there, the difficulty to communicate with an already shy culture, the boredom, and the mental fatigue more than the physical one, cause most of the cyclists to climb their bikes to the back of a truck in order to travel faster through the desolate country. Hence, while outside it snows copiously, the conversation topic inside then tea house that sheltered us were the beaches of Goa and Thailand. Rich, overwhelmingly afflicted by the monotony of Tibetan cuisine swears he would sell his soul for dinning out at Katmandu’s Everest Steakhouse. Had there been comic stripe balloons over our heads, only palm trees and beaches would have floated there. I apologize ourselves remembering that in any case we were no less psychotic that the artists who painted the murals at Guge…

But for some reason all of us had made the effort to reach Kailash. The possibility to share the atmosphere of one the most remote and isolated pilgrimage sites is enough to tame a traveler’s soul. The pilgrimage in itself consists of a 56 km long kora (circle) around the mountain. After completing a lap, one can claim he has done something to improve his karma. When 13 laps are completed, one is automatically set free of the samsara, or circle of reincarnations from which man is a prisoner. Some foreign visitors imitate the local pilgrims, with the difference that while the last cover the 56 km in a day, jumping and chanting as light as butterflies, the foreigners do so in 2 or 3 nights, with less joy than fatigue and a heavy camping equipment in their backs. At that point is was clear to us that in Tibet all the actions aiming to harmonize the individual with the cosmos have a dynamic that includes the concepts of circle, periphery and intangibility. Always, a circle is described around a holy, unreachable, center. The pilgrim that performs his kora around a monastery or mountain, or that who spins his manikhor is always referring to an immaterial center. As Tao states; the utility of the wheel resides in the void in its center. Who knows, maybe the Tibetans see in Rich and Nicolai’s bikes strange prayer vending machines. I told the, to increase communication with the locals they should write “om mani padme om” around the crowns of their bikes.
Personally, the sacred nature of the mountain didn’t seem to me reason enough to spend three days walking around it, specially after having spent 5 months traveling in, around and across the Himalayas. Pablo, who was fresher, did his kora together with four Frenchmen learned enough about the spiritual dimension of Kailash as to trace back to it all the European pagan beliefs. Next stop would be the equally sacred Lake Manasarovar, which the Hindus consider a mental creation of Shiva. The lake is situated at 4600 m, so when jumping out of the truck that took us there we found ourselves stepping over snow up to the ankles. There we took note that the winter that had been running behind us was now in fact ahead of us. Even inside the guesthouse at the Chiu Monastery, built with a certain Disney drama before a cliff, the glass of water I leave by the bed at night shows a thin ice film at the morning. The thermometer, in - 15 Celsius. With such cold, we barely bother to pay a quick visit to the shores of the lake where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were thrown, and continue our trip.

Personally, the sacred nature of the mountain didn’t seem to me reason enough to spend three days walking around it, specially after having spent 5 months traveling in, around and across the Himalayas. Pablo, who was fresher, did his kora together with four Frenchmen learned enough about the spiritual dimension of Kailash as to trace back to it all the European pagan beliefs. Next stop would be the equally sacred Lake Manasarovar, which the Hindus consider a mental creation of Shiva. The lake is situated at 4600 m, so when jumping out of the truck that took us there we found ourselves stepping over snow up to the ankles. There we took note that the winter that had been running behind us was now in fact ahead of us. Even inside the guesthouse at the Chiu Monastery, built with a certain Disney drama before a cliff, the glass of water I leave by the bed at night shows a thin ice film at the morning. The thermometer, in - 15 Celsius. With such cold, we barely bother to pay a quick visit to the shores of the lake where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were thrown, and continue our trip.

We searched around us: a sheep’s skull was immediately set aside. From across the road Pablo hurled a pair of rain boots. When we found a red kid’s sweater we realized we had the elements we needed for the artifact. We took distance to evaluate the visual impact, and we couldn’t help laughing at the sight of…. A dwarf with sheep head and rain boots hitch hiking by the roadside! Six hours after a driver brings his Jeep Cherokee to a halt and stares at the dwarf. Fish takes the hook. Five seconds later, as pirates knife in mouth jumping to the enemies sails, we “approach” him and pray in all known languages. What we couldn’t imagine was that the Cherokee was going only 22 km away, to another forgettable town called Horchu.

Friday, December 01, 2006


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On the way to the monasteries of Gurgam and Tirthapuri we were surprised by a heavy snowfall and draw back to a teahouse in nearby Namru. There we had an instructive afternoon looking how the two enormous Tibetan women that ran the teahouse constantly fighting with the local bunch of drunks who even tried to play snooker under the snow. Well, I understand there is not much to do in a place where the absence of agriculture turns laziness into a natural state of the soul. While we drink our yak butter tea, the daughter of the cook enters the room shyly, looking at the ground, clearly intimidated by our presence, and wearing a kid’s size Chinese Army camouflaged jacket. Every day, images as such let us thinking in the strange way in which the past has coagulated for Tibetan people.

The next day, after spending three long hours throwing stones to empty cans of “Red Bull” (the problems of urbanization have arrived to Tibet way before urbanization itself) we boarded a little truck towards the town of Montcer, crossing a heavily snowed pass. We were almost ready to start our trek to Tirthapuri when Pablo realized he had forgotten his sleeping back in the truck. The pink bed dress he bought as a substitute in a local, poorly provided shop, made him worthy of a list of unprintable adjectives which entertained us during the 2 hours long walk towards the monastery.

Action in Tibet, we understood, happens more outside than inside the monasteries. The pilgrims execute the circumference of a holy place, known as kora, performing a repertory of meaningful rituals. They follow a predetermined path along the monastery which is once and again celebrated by colorful tarchoks or Tibetan prayer flags, maybe the most famous element of the Tibetan religious paraphernalia. Tarchoks are colored pieces of fabric stretched in ropes tended over roads, mountains passes or even houses in order to purify the air. Buddhist sutras have been printed in each flag, and some of them bear the “Lung Ta” the winged horse whose job is to spread the teachings of Buddhism. Another of the religious devices the pilgrims meet in their kora are the manikhors, golden cylinders that enclose kilometric rolls of prayers, and which the faithful spin clockwise, promoting around the cosmos the Buddhist teachings and adding points to improve their karma. Many monasteries accommodate corridors with dozens of manikhors in their perimeters. Definitely not a place for Jim Morrison, who had said: “I cancel my subscription to the eternal life”.

We waited until the next morning’s prayers to attend the action within the yellow walls of Tirthapuri. Three monks of different ages, including a boy and an old man, sing and punctuate the melody with drums of different sizes. Seated ahead of an archive with Buddhist ancient texts, and highlighted in spite of the enclosure by the beam of light of a carefully placed skylight, the monks accomplish in loneliness the task of praying for al the beings of the universe. The polyphony created by a premeditated asynchrony gives the chant a depth that reminds of a chorus. Suddenly, the celestial character of the image is interrupted by a mighty snooze of the old man. Against the bets, the four of them look each other with complicity and laugh, without stopping singing, revealing in my opinion that they articulate with our mundane reality in a more honest way than our Christian priests. Under the holy purple garment of the boy is with some effort visible an NBA T-shirt…

After saying goodbye to Akatsuki, who hastened his steps towards Nepal where he planned to make a marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Pablo and I walked down the Sutlej valley towards the outlying Gurgam monastery. Hair-to-ground yaks graze calmly by the narrow fertile green strip at both sides of the river. When our presence sends them trotting away we notice that they move their tails in a very doggy way that hardly matches their prehistoric dimensions. Never such a sturdy looking animal was so harmless. The yak is sacred in Tibet, and their horns ornate the doors of each house of the hamlets we let behind. Undoubtedly, this is due to the syncretism between Bon, the animist local faith, and Buddhism. Some say that every Tibetan is a Bonpo at heart, what would explain the large number of superstitions and icons that have survived from a theoretically displaced religion. Something like the worship of Pachamama in the South American Andes, which has somehow be incorporated into the Christian calendar.

Half way to the monastery we eventually got a lift in a truck carrying pilgrims, just when the 3 PM snowfall was beginning. The men, with their wide curved wing hats, seem nothing but cowboys. The women try to protect their cutis from the elements by wrapping their face with colorful scarves that could be the flags of inexistent psycodelic republics. As if the colors were not enough, each married woman wears a pandem, or striped pattern cloth stitched to their skirts. Many pass the beans of their rosaries, and all of them laugh at the two unexpected pilgrims.

The Bon monastery of Gurgam was almost identical to the Buddhist ones, which is understandable, since the Bonpo teachings were reorganized to resist the challenged posed by Buddhism almost to the point of coincidence. The little differences with the Buddhist system seem primarily the offspring of pride: the swastikas decorating the Bon monasteries rotate in the opposite sense, and bonpos do their koras and rotate the manikhors anticlockwise.

At one point, the pilgrims we had met in the truck invite us to follow them. Logically, we don’t know where to. All the group climbs to a chapel built in a cave on the mountain slope; they take out their shoes, and enter the cave one by one. What’s inside? –we ask each other. Pablo bids: Elvis Presley? It would have been nice, but no: an old Lama lays seated cross legged in the center of a constellation of candles and images. He must have spent there a life time already, that man who didn’t wait for us. Without much a clue of what to do, we knelt down and bow our heads in universal sign of reverence. Spying under our eyelashes we realize the old Lama doesn’t know how to handle us neither. He looks around as asking to the metal Buddha at his side what to do next. He finally sips slowly his tea and starts a chant with such pusillanimity that it sounds like he sings along to a song whose words he has forgotten. Even if we secretly expected from him the wisdom to transcend the cultural differences and communicate without words, the emotions of the old Lama were only obvious when he discovered the note we had left as donation was a 5 Yuan one. Exiting the cave, all the pilgrims exploded in a thousand laughs…

Sunday, November 26, 2006


From top to bottom: Gurgam, the only bon monastery in Western Tibet. Detail of the swastika in Gurgam, that spins anticlockwise, unlike the ones decorating Buddhist monasteries. In the bottom, Tirthapuri monastery. Note the sun and moon symbol in the brown curtains.


A Tibetan girl wears a tiny Chinese Army uniform at a teahouse in Namru.


A Tibetan speciality, playing snooker under a snowfall…


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The road to the ruins of the old Tibetan kingdom of Guge was a 20 km long valley of eroded rock formations which the sunset inked with a caramel tone. Akatsuki, the Japanese writer who was traveling with me, and I were temporarily joined by a German called Anno, whose ability to trek always half a mile ahead of us earned him the nick “Messerschmitt”. Arriving in different waves, the three of us met at the caves. We overnighted there, thinking in al those eremite monks who may have inhabited or even reached enlightenment there. After a chilly night we were ready to explore one of Asia’s least accessible ruins. It became hard to distinguish what was part of the eroded landscape and what man made at first glance, so organically seemed to grow the ruins from its environs.

Flourishing in the 10th century, the Kingdom of Guge was responsible for the reintroduction of Buddhism in Tibet after a long ban, as its kings sponsored monk Rinchen Zanpo to travel to India to study the original Buddhist scriptures. The “Great Translator”, as he came to be known, returned 17 years later, rewriting the Buddhist sutras in the Tibetan alphabet and founding, by the way, 108 monasteries. To this event correlates the “Kashmir style” observable in the murals of the four temples still standing. Elephants, palm trees, and forests, namely everything that can’t be found in Tibet, is present there, even men clad in loose white robes who would have died from hypothermia had they ever been to Tibet. An extrapolation of aesthetics comparable to that of Christmas in South America, where Christmas trees continue to be dressed in snow even if December 25th is mid summer. The Kingdom of Guge fell in 1650, partly due to the West, as high Lamas plotted against the monarchy in response to the excessive tolerance shown to Portuguese missionaries who had came all the way from Goa to build a church.

There is no shortage of amazing tantric murals, who seemed to have suffered lees from the vandalism that hit Guge in 1966, when it was already in ruins. In that occasion the Chinese army executed the shameful process named “Cultural Revolution”, breaking into most of the Tibetan monasteries and destroying everything that seemed too traditional to be compatible with Communism. Logically the Chinese perceived monasteries not only as religious sites but, mainly, as a symbol of the Theocratic elite that had for so long ruled Tibet. Very few of the giant Buddha clay figures of the main temple have escaped the mayhem. Some are gone forever. I experienced the same sadness I had felt in front of the Buddha at Bamian, Afghanistan, blown away by the Taliban. In a strange twist of fate, a woman leaves a one Yuan note with the image of Mao as donation to a head of Buddha, all that remains of an 8 meters statue destroyed precisely by orders of…Mao! I remembered the Tibetan construction workers I had seen in Ali and I couldn’t help remaining thoughtful. Can dreams be imposed, regardless their goodness or badness? It then came to my mind a phrase pronounced by Miguel de Unamuno, as Franco’s police forced him out of Salamanca University where he was dean: “You will win, but you will not convince”.

Back in Toling we found the other four travelers still kicking back at the “Elephant River of Hotel”, regretting the impossibility of finding onward transportation to Kailash. They had been waiting for three days, certainly because their attempt was limited to try to charter passing jeeps in the town main street. When I announced that we would live within the hour, they had good reasons to consider us naïve. Nevertheless, it didn’t take more than an hour to hit the road and find a truck heading back to the main road for one third of the price of a jeep. It was he first time in my life I was paying for transportation, but we still felt lucky. Despite all the theoretical difficulties listed in guidebooks, we had proven that the easiest way to get you out of any place is to get physically out even a few hundred meters and let the road do the job.

Hence, the back of the truck accommodated Akatsuki, the Japanese writer; Pablo, the Argentinean guy who had decided to join us, and me, together with an elder Tibetan couple in pilgrimage to Kailash. The empty 200 liters oil drums the truck was hauling transformed each hump of the road in a drum jam, which doesn’t seem to disturb the old man that next to us was prying by passing the beans of his rosary. Half an hour later he abandons the task and with a grind of satisfaction starts distributing cans of “Lhasa” beer among the presents. “From the roof of the world” reads the label. “This is life and not Paris” –says Pablo with a tango like cadence. The sky was broad and blue, the air thin, and we were starting to explore, not only Tibet, but the Tibetan soul.

The “Dong Feng” truck dropped us at the crossroad with the main road. Looking anxiously at the map in our guidebook we discover it clearly said: “Nothing at the Junction” So that’s how we baptized the hamlet of yak herders that, in fact, was there replacing the announced nothingness. Evidently, our guidebook had been written by someone with a neat urgency for a sauna or a hotel. The people of “Nothing at the Junction” were kind enough to open an unused room for us and let us stay there for the night... We lighted a candle, prepared dinner in our camping kitchen and tried to bring ourselves to forget the cold and sleep.

Having visited the Guge Ruins, one of the Buddhist art treasures in the guise of a museum, it was time now to march towards the monasteries at Tirthapuri and Gurgam, functioning, remote, and little visited. The first of these was a Buddhist monastery attached to holy hot springs where the more strict pilgrims bath after the pilgrimage to Kailash. The second is the only monastery in Western Tibet belonging to the native faith Bon. Despite an enthusiastic morning we were all delayed by a snowstorm 3 km after the hamlet. Luckily we were not far from a town called Namru, where we found refuge in a tea house.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Our backacks by the roadside, near Namru.


The outstanding exterior feature of a classic Tibetan house is the doors and Windows with vertical inclined framing, normally in black. Mud brick walls form a perimeter around the house and a patio within them. Over the wall locals pile up scarce wood for the long winter. Before communications meant they could way wood from neighbouring regions, locals in Western Tibet depended on yak shit… The grid windows, (in the back) are also quite normal in Tibet.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Sticky notice! Fellow travellers: the book about my hitch-hiking expedition to Middle East has just been published under the title “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Visit my online bookshop. Order a copy and keep me on the road!

Ever since I was old enough to read an atlas or judge history, one country had surprised me, precisely, for its capacity to stay aside both maps and chronics through most of its history. Always embedded in mystery, qualified with titles which only assert its slippery nature: the Roof of the World, the Forbidden City, the Land of the Dalai Lamas… Naturally, I am speaking about Tibet, or Xizang, if one stumbles upon a Chinese made map.

Tibetan culture makes me think of the Kurds from Middle East: in spite of having their own cultural identity they have seen the land over which this identity stands split among the territories of modern states that more often than not limit the expression of such values. Likewise, the Tibetan Cultural Region expands beyond the Tibetan Autonomous Region sanctioned by China, onto the Trans Himalayan Northern areas of Nepal, Bhutan and India. Tibet vegetated in medieval isolation until the early 20th century, when British bayonets in search of –no wonder- favorable commercial agreements slaughtered their way to Lhasa. When the troops of Colonel Francis Younghusband gazed in wonder to the sight of the formerly Forbidden City, few Westerners had had such privilege.

Symmetrically, Tibet had by then scarcely noted the outside world, let alone the West. Little had changed in Tibet in the previous thousand years, and the Tibetan lived under the theocratic regime of the Dalai Lamas, secular and religious authorities replaceable only by their own reincarnations. The absolute absence of infrastructure was far from worrying in a country that, undisturbed in the lethargy of worship, even found its isolation comfortable. Let us remember that when the British presented the 13th Dalai Lama with an automobile, back in the 1930s, the later arranged to have horses engaged in the front, and celebrated his new chariot.

But even if Tibetan reality was hard, the transition towards modernity was going to be traumatic. In the 1950s troops of recently proclaimed People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet and annexed it to the Motherland, claiming to be “peacefully liberating” Tibetans from serfdom under a theocratic regime. Since then, the 14th Dalai Lama has resided in exile in Dharamsala, India. His efforts to find a pacific solution for the Tibetan problem have deserved him a Peace Nobel Prize in 1990. Partially –and cautiously- opened to tourism since the mid 80s, the Tibet I visit today undergoes the surgery of Beijing central policies: modernization, homogenization, support of Han Chinese immigration and brutal suppression of any separatist activity.

I left Kashgar with the heaviest backpack ever, due to the 30 energy bars, the six tuna cans, a flask for coffee, an extra jacket, and so many other extras appointed to make the trip through winter-edge Tibet at least bearable. The plan: to enter Tibet illegally from the West, traveling the road connecting Kashgar with Ali. Despite the road is officially closed to foreigners a little research had shown that once in Ali it was possible to pay a fine for the committed ‘crime’ and get in exchange a travel permit. No doubt bureaucracy and corruption are herbs growing not too far from each other. While Chinese bureaucracy conveyed the necessary amount of tension and uncertainty every trip to Tibet should have, I had started to fear cold and altitude.
The Xinjiang-Tibet Highway is found among the most isolated, highest, and most dangerous roads in the planet, and has claimed the life of more than one independent traveler. It’s exactly 1370 kms between Kashgar and Ali, the capital of Western Tibet. As it’s the rule in Tibet, the unpaved surfaces unfolds at an average altitude of 4500 meters, and since we talk about a plateau there’s no chance of a rapid descent in case of developing a potentially fatal mountain sickness. Said this, the Kashgar-Ali chunk of road had been an unconditioned element of my itinerary since I started to plan this round the world trip in a Michelin map nailed to my room’s wall.

I covered the 270 km to Yecheng, in the beginning of the Western Tibetan Highway in the Toyota Camry of three Chinese that smoked as if they would next be executed. Some 8 km ahead, in a town called Aba, I should find the first of the two checkpoints that, between Kashgar and Ali, try to put foreigners off the idea of entering Tibet. Aba turned out to be a collection of garages personalized by the peculiar decoration provided by poker cards scattered along the streets and burning trash containers, but without checkpoint at sight. All I found in the matter of restrictions were two signs. One, tiny and green, branched out from a telephone pole, and suggested in white capitals: “This is unopened way to Aliens”. And there is no need to shed tears for ET, for ‘alien’ is the tender word with which Chinese bureaucracy designates the foreign traveler.

The second sign was an enormous poster in the advertising fashion, and seemed to explain the first sign: “Foreigners shall not be allowed to travel from here to Ali without permission” Next to the sentence there was a picture of two immaculately dressed policemen in the process of obeying it by shifting their hands to their foreheads. Amazingly close to the sign, a bus prepares for departure. In blatant ignorance of the sign –and the law- the driver offers to smuggle me in for a surcharge equivalent to the prize of the ticket: 30 Euros, part of which will pay for the selective blindness of the checkpoint staff at Kudie, some 160 km away. Having spent a week sick in Kashgar and with the second week of October giving a hint of the cold Tibetan autumn, I decided to save time, take the bus, and hitch hike only from Ali onwards. After all, there was nothing interesting on the way except for the isolation of the place.
The trip lasted exactly 32 hours. After 60 km, past the forgettable town of Dahongliutan, we were officially in Tibet, but the region is so featureless that nothing indicated it but the level of the ground. Later we enter Aksai Chin, a borderland claimed by India but under Chinese administration. We also travel the edge of the Chang Tan Plateau, which occupies the uninhabited center of Tibet, and may be the most deserted region in the world outside of the polar areas. With towns every 100 km at most, the landscape makes one think in the discarded choice for a world that didn’t happen. Repeatedly, we cross 5000 meters high passes. Jieshan Pass (5240m), decorated with tar-choks (square pieces of colored fabric with printed prayers) is the turning point of the landscape. From now on every town will have its chortens (Buddhist altars) by the roadside.

Coming from such a minimalist scenario, the arrival to Ali, equals a mirage, since the city, despite its reduced size, ticks al the boxes of Chinese modernism: glass and tile buildings and plastic palm trees. But not only is the architecture Chinese, but also most of the passers by belong to the Han race, confirming the officially non existent policy of immigration, aiming to dilute the Tibetan ethnic majority. Some rather lost looking Tibetans also walk the streets as foreigners in their own land, effect enhanced by the fact heir colorful and somewhat untidy outfit stays in plain offside to Chinese gray urban order. When I realize that the pattern of the street tiling is identical to that in Kashgar I ask myself if, given the chance, the central authorities would like to reduce the contrast between the bands of the rainbow.

Ali, even if lacking any interest in itself, would be the magical point of my itinerary where, thanks to the graceful incoherence of Chinese laws, my sojourn in Tibet would become delightfully legal. The trick consists in giving yourself up to the PSB (Public Security Bureau) officers nominally in charge of catching you. In exchange of a 25 euro fine and a humble declaration of guiltiness one obtains a clubber “Alien’s Travel Permit”. Even if the permit itself, bearing a myriad of seals and red stars, is something I will someday frame to impress my grandsons, the dialogue that followed was the real highlight:

- Mr. Alien, how did you get here?
- By bus from Ali.
- Do you have a permit?
- Oops…err…no!
- That means traveling illegally in China, you should pay a fine!
- Oh thanks a lot!!!
Such obvious was that everything was fake that as the interview develops neither the PSB officers nor the Aliens loose their smile. When the theatre finished, the fine, its receipts, and the permits were handed to us. Rather than a punishment it seemed we were receiving a prize, and somehow, it was. I speak in plural, because by then I had befriended Anno and Chris, from Germany, and Akatsuki, a Japanese writer who instead of taking pictures held in his memory the verses each place inspired him. Thinking in the Tibetan he had penned down: “While I am yawning, someone is enraged somewhere. That brings me tears”.

That night all the foreigners that were heading down deeper into Tibet dinned out at a Uighur restaurant to share information. A real meeting of Aliens. Backpackers, conventional tourists, cyclists, we all faced the same obstacles…namely Route 219, with al probabilities the less traveled in the world at some stages. 1500 km of pure plateau to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, with a few towns and the occasional monastery in the middles, and no showers… Three jewels awaited us however in that ocean of emptiness: the ruins of the Guge Kingdom near Toling; Mt Kailash, center of the Buddhist universe, and sacred Lake Manasarovar.

In the beginning Route 219 treated us with mercy. Akatsuki had decided to hitch with me to Toling, the closest town to the Guge ruins, and an hour later we were in the backseat of a VW Santana driven by a Chinese couple towards Namru, 60 km South of Ali, at the end of the paved road. Those guys not only spoke some English but also let us play Pink Floyd in their stereo, before parking us next to the tiny unpaved lane that whirled away into the mountains to the West. For its look, we expected to wait there for days.

But again, it was a merciful beginning, and an hour and 15 minutes later we were boarding an old Land Cruiser of 4 Tibetans. It was our first road meeting with the Tibetan, so the first minutes of the trip occurred among the tension of the language barrier and the fear of being asked a huge amount of money once in destination, distant 130 km. After al, it was 4 hours of rally in a demanding road. So there was enough time to chat, but words were missing, at least until somebody mentioned that word common to all mankind: football! A little disappointingly, people who have never been out of their province know the goalkeepers, strikers and coaches of all the leagues in the world. Like our driver, who proudly showed us a poster of Ronaldinho he was carrying home after shopping in Ali.

The valley climbed to a new plateau demarked in the South, in all the arch of the horizon, by the Indian Himalayas, clearly visible from Nanga Devi to the Ladakh Range, their summits completely covered in eternal snows. The Land Cruiser galloped across the plain as a gazelle dated by the horizon. It was hard to believe somebody had passed there before us, and even harder to believe that in fact those remote coordinates had been the cradle of a kingdom. Four hours later we arrived in Toling: a main street with snooker tables outside each shop, neglected buildings, and as many pedestrians as street dogs.
We were then surprised by what soon would become rule: the total absence of a sewage system, which in all Tibet leads the average man on the street to behave like the average dog on the street… Looking for a cheap pension we confirmed that English grammar reached Tibet with the same intensity the light from Andromeda reaches Earth with, and we immediately surrender to the charm of the suggesting sign: “The Elephant River of Hotel”. Inside on of the rooms laid, as patients rather than as guests, four travelers. I know the one with the baseball cap: it’s Jazz, a North American with good humor sense that has set foot in unusual destinations such as the separatist Republic of Trans Niestr and Afghanistan. I also know the one snoring near the window: it’s Vladislao, a Russian with sharp resemblance to an anthropologist who dragged his wheeled case and kept his Nescafe for special occasions, something that innerved Jazz. The frame was completed by a Canadian and, oh surprise! an Argentinean from Rosario called Pablo, his argentinity rubricated by a No.3 Newell's football top from late 70s, a genuine relic, and also by the unworried way he described the Guge Ruins to me: “Well, you have the ruins of the citadel and in front of it there are a dozen caves, where I guess plenty of monks used to hang around…” The first day of Tibetan road traveling drew to an end, leaving us the misleading impression of a kind road. For a while we regarded all those tales of hardship as myths. Clearly enough, we still hadn’t had the need to build a roadside totem with sheep bones in order to attract the attention of a driver. The worst, but also the funniest, were still to come. (It will continue)