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High Plains Drifters

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/02/19; February 19, 2005.]

February 18, 2005
The Age

Hamish McDonald went looking for a goat in Tibet, and found nomads clinging to a traditional way of life in a stunning landscape.

It seemed like a good excuse for a nose-around. About a year ago, in the often turgid columns of the state-run China Daily newspaper, was an intriguing story about the project of some animal scientists at a place called Rutog in Tibet. They were trying to breed a goat with superfine hair that would compete with the illegal source of fibre for the fabled shahtoosh shawl, the one fine and elastic enough to pull through a finger ring and costing up to $50,000 in the blackmarket trade between Kashmir and Europe.

Breeding and shearing goats would be a lot easier and cheaper than stalking the current source, the elusive Tibetan antelope, capable of lightning-fast speed, inhabiting a frigid 4500-metre-high plateau and yielding only a few tufts of its finest chest hair (it takes 22 antelopes to make one shawl) but endangered nonetheless by the to-die-for appeal of owning a shahtoosh. China is known for driving down prices, but getting a shahtoosh down to $49.99 would be the ultimate price deflator and a nice story.

A travel request was faxed to the waiban (foreign affairs office) of the Tibet Autonomous Region in Lhasa, which screens visits by foreign reporters to the closely monitored area and normally likes to host them in easily supervised groups. Amazingly, there were no objections as long as we travelled with a waiban escort - but did we realise what travel it would involve?

We searched our big wall map for Rutog. There it was, just above the Ladakh Mountains in Indian Kashmir. No little aeroplane symbol indicating an airport nearby - nothing closer, in fact, than the Tibetan capital, about 1800 kilometres to the east. And no easy motoring, either. Four days there and four days back.

But such is the thirst for adventure at this newspaper that some months later we were standing at dawn in the courtyard of Lhasa's fabled backpacker way station, the Yak Hotel, wearing T-shirts stencilled "Sydney Morning Herald Western Tibet Expedition 2004", ready to climb into a big Toyota LandCruiser 3500 riding on fat off-road tyres.

At the wheel was our driver, Dunzhu, a 24-year-old Tibetan with the looks of a young Dirk Bogarde. Riding shotgun in the front seat was our official minder, Chu Maoming, a bespectacled, sharp-minded young Chinese Foreign Ministry official just finishing a three-year assignment with the Tibet waiban. Behind us, along with our luggage, were crates of drinking water and Red Bull, the Thai stimulant drink. Suddenly it seemed a very long way.

And it was. When we got to Rutog four-and-a-half days later in a vehicle now encrusted in mud and dust, we found an entrancing place: a high grassy plain surrounded by harsh brown mountains, with the snows of the Himalayas visible to the south. Shepherdesses in long skirts and satin sun bonnets chased herds of snowy pashmina goats. Inside a dry-stone pen, we were welcomed by the chief of the fine-wool project, Mr Ishidorje.

It soon emerged that the China Daily reporter had stretched the story more than a tad. The local pashmina produced the finest cashmere in China, Mr Ishidorje said, but it was still a significant number of microns coarser than the antelope's chest hair and might not be as elastic. It would take a lot more breeding, and testing equipment that his team did not possess. "But it might be possible," he added, sensing we had come a long way for this story.

Oh, well. In journalism, too, it is often better to travel than to arrive, as fond as we became of Rutog, its officials and Mr Ishidorje's team as they hosted us for a long lunch in the township's best restaurant.

And what a journey, through a stupendously vast and austere landscape, dotted with near-traditional nomad camps and small Tibetan villages, garrisoned by ragged outposts of the Chinese state.

Even with the many billions of renminbi Beijing is pouring in to speed up development of Tibet, it will be a long while before tourism becomes a mass proposition beyond Lhasa, its new airport (now receiving large tour groups in four-engined A340 aircraft from Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai) and a few outlying regions such as Zetang.

The three routes between Lhasa and the second focus of tourism, the city of Shigaze (or Shigatse) to the south-west - with the vast Tashilhunpo monastery that is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking figure in the Buddhist clergy of Tibet - are traversable by bus, but it's quite scary along the two most scenic ones.

One route climbs to the lower edge of a glacier, where even after days of acclimatisation your fingers and toes start to tingle from lack of oxygen, and then edges along a narrow shelf several hundred metres above the deep, copper-blue waters of Yamdrok-tso Lake.

The other route, the only one open on the first day of our expedition, is a series of zig-zags over mountain passes that were above the snowline even in June. When we reached the highest pass, a broken-down tanker blocked the road for half an hour until it was manhandled to the verge and the banked-up truck convoys could squeeze past.

Beyond the flashy new hotels of Shigaze and Tashilhunpo's glittering gold stupas, modern development falls away. You travel gravel roads across vast, stony plains, covered at best with a green haze of summer grass. The sky is a clear, deep blue, the ultraviolet fierce on the skin.

Every few hours the plains are separated by ranges of rocky hills, the tortured strata left by their primeval creation still bare. The road weaves up the valleys and climbs over ridges where grateful Tibetans have built pyramids of stones and pebbles and strung multicoloured prayer flags.

In the few meadows we met nomads such as Tsering Oju, camped with his family in a black yak-hair tent while his yaks grazed nearby. His son, Nima Jomu, 10, was thrilled with a gift of a ballpoint pen, turning it over in his hands, but it was clear he had not spent much time in a classroom. Oju asked us if we had any medicine that might help his older daughter, who had gone deaf after an illness two years earlier.

Another day we came across a camp of three tents and a strange, writhing caterpillar-like object that turned out to be a double line of ewes and nanny goats, tethered by the horns to a rope while nomad women wearing heavy jewellery of turquoise, coral and silver milked them from behind into wooden pails. "It's women's work," said Tsering Dorje, a man wearing the Tibetan yak-felt hat that looks remarkably like the Australian slouch. "It's bad luck for a man to get involved."

After the stooping women had finished the milking, Dorje and the other males rose from the ground to rope up another line of animals for milking. "Our job is to guard the flocks," Dorje said, stroking a large, shaggy Tibetan mastiff. "There are wolves around here."

Indeed, in Rutog the local wildlife protection police displayed the skin of an enormous wolf, seized from a smuggler.

The wildlife we saw was more benign: some elegant cranes in a marsh; a large eagle, which we interrupted eating its prey by the roadside and which hopped off up a mountainside, turning to glare every few metres. As we moved west, and then came back east along the northern trans-Tibet road, we saw increasing numbers of antelope and tan-coloured wild donkeys only 100 metres from the road.

On one eye-stretching plain with a view south to the tips of Annapurna and other great mountains in Nepal, we encountered a community engaged in making mud-bricks for a new house. Two girls shovelled mud from a stream onto a canvas and carried it to a man, who scooped and packed it into a wooden form, leaving rows of drying bricks on the hard earth. "They will be dry in a day," he told us. "We will make our new house in about 30 days."

Towns along Tibet's roads tend to be set at intervals of 300 to 400 kilometres, the extent of a day's hard driving. A typical town is a single street with a mixture of Tibetan mud-brick square houses and Chinese two-storey shopfronts faced in white ceramic tiles.

The default cuisine in local restaurants is invariably Sichuan. Chillied yak tripe starts to pall after a few days.

The biggest buildings are the barracks for the People's Armed Police (paramilitary) garrison, and the relay station for Chinese television. Somewhere close to the garrison and the truck stops are a row of shopfront karaoke bars and beauty parlours lit up by pink lights at night and often with a clutch of young girls in tight jeans and heavy make-up waiting outside, eyeing the young off-duty troops.

Foreigners usually attract a retinue of young children, excitedly shouting out a few phrases of classroom English.

In most towns there is no choice of accommodation other than a traditional Tibetan inn, either a long, single-storey mud-brick dwelling or a bare ferro-concrete structure. Rooms are large, with anything from four to 10 beds, which cost about 60 yuan (just over $1) a night. You get a hard mattress, a thick quilt, an extra blanket and a towel. A girl brings a battered metal vacuum flask of hot water and an enamel basin. Heating is provided by a metal stove in each room: a basket of dried yak dung for fuel is part of the service.

There are no taps, except in the yard, and toilets in Tibet are rank. In most cases the convenience is a hut set over a reeking cesspit, with three or four holes in the floor. Lights are not installed, and given the abundant evidence of missed shots it is best to bring a torch or do your business in daylight. Individual stalls have not yet arrived, although the male and female cesuo are at least separate. In Zhongpo we did find a public bathhouse with hot showers.

The heart of the inn is the family quarter, every square centimetre of floor, wall, ceiling and sitting space decorated with brightly coloured cloths, carpets and hangings. The younger women, dressed in blouses, long dresses and striped aprons stoke up the yak-dung stove and heat water for cups of strong, black tea diluted with butter churned in a wooden cylinder with a plunger. Dunzhu, our dashing young driver, received particular attention and would disappear later most evenings.

At the scruffy town of Saga, several hours west of Shigaze, a boom gate was manned by young paramilitary policemen. Foreigners need to register with an officially approved "tour group" to enter Tibet anyway (even if the group is an ad-hoc one formed by your travel agent just to get in). Here you are entering a further Chinese sanctum, a border zone stretching all the way across the top of Nepal and India where special permits are needed.

On these outer frontier roads, the effort needed by the Chinese military to sustain its large forces along the border with India is all too apparent. We passed convoys of 50 trucks or more on several occasions, bringing oil and coal up to front-line garrisons before the winter set in. Coming back to the large county town of Shiquanhe (also called Gar) from Rutog, we overtook truck after truck of a convoy that seemed to be coming from Xinjiang. On the outskirts of Shiquanhe, senior officers waited with colourful flags and upbeat propaganda on red banners, ready to give the transport battalion a hero's welcome.

In Shiquanhe - where, miraculously, there was a hotel with a bath - we ate early in the Chinese fashion, then went online in an internet cafe on elderly PCs. I found myself wedged between two young Chinese soldiers logged on to a dating website, searching for love. In the next stall down a young Chinese girl in a low-cut top leant towards the little webcam atop her monitor, flashing her cleavage to a distant boyfriend whose image talked jerkily from a panel in her screen.

There is fun to be had late at night. Ask if there is a langma open. This is Tibet's modern adaptation of an ancient form of wine-house favoured by the old nobility and land-owning classes. In the otherwise dreary town of Gertse, we found the Tienchu (Pearl of the Sky), a hall decorated something like a 1960s disco with revolving mirror-ball and coloured spotlights, which began filling up at 11pm with groups of Tibetans who drank, with increasing speed, tiny glasses of Budweiser beer (the favourite in Tibet, brewed in Sichuan). Young singers in lavishly embroidered traditional costumes sang ballads with soaring echo effects and karaoke backing.

After draining many glasses of Budweiser in toasts with new friends, we watched a stage act by an Uzbek transvestite in a glittering gown and wig, and staggered back to our quilts in the local inn. Dunzhu, who stayed on until closing time, needed many shots of Red Bull during the next day's drive.

Politics is a topic to raise cautiously, but can intervene at any time. Around lunchtime one day, we came across a clutch of tent-cafes pitched near a rushing stream. Inside one tent we found four young Dutch travellers who had driven in from Nepal in a rented four-wheel-drive. We sat on carpet-covered benches watching a woman boil cabbage soup in an old pressure-cooker on the yak-dung stove, sipping butter tea and refusing strips of meat carved from a sun-dried leg of mutton by a girl with a large hunting knife.

"Is this your first visit to China?" our foreign ministry guide struck up with one of the Dutch group, a young bearded man.

"It's my first to Tibet," replied the traveller.

"But this is China."

"It's Tibet to me."

"I must defend my Government's position. What is the name of your tour group? I can have your visit cut short, you know."

Fortunately, the soup intervened before things went further. We finished our lunch stop in a simmering silence.

At a stop in Nyima, a town along the central road that took us back towards Lhasa, we were approached from a group of drinkers in an inner room of a restaurant by a burly Chinese man with a short haircut, a large gut bulging under a camouflage T-shirt and designer fatigues bearing the logo "Blossom Cool". He introduced himself as the town's chief of public security and flicked through our papers.

"Remember, this is a closed area," growled Blossom Cool. "You can stay the night but you can't stick around in the morning. We have to be careful. This is a closed town, but recently we've had some foreigners travelling through, handing out leaflets about independence."

For many travellers, the road trip as far as the fabled holy lake called Mansarovar by the Hindus and the nearby peak they call Kailash, abode of Lord Shiva, is fabulous enough. It takes three days from Lhasa and about the same from Kathmandu over the "Friendship Highway", which climbs a 5200-metre pass and on a clear day gives a close-up view of Mount Everest, or Chomolangma, as the Tibetans call it. Even Western travellers join the devoted Hindu pilgrims, some of whom trek across the Himalayas in June, in their baths in the lake and walks around the mountain - acts said to wash away the sins of a lifetime and help a favourable reincarnation. With the right planning, it would be possible to come via Lhasa and leave via Nepal, or vice versa.

Hardier souls might look for more days on the road, proceeding even further west past Rutog into the equally vast Xingjiang Autonomous Region, where the highway past the Kunlun Mountains leads to the fabled city of Kashgar, an ancient Islamic city. Kashgar is at a crossroads in the caravan routes: the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan, a bus route into Kyrgyzstan and buses and flights to other parts of Xinjiang.

The loop back to Lhasa along the northern road from Shiquanhe is dreary going for the first couple of days, but past Nyima there is wonderful scenery and more plentiful wildlife around the immense Namtso Lake, which, with Mansarovar and Yamdrok-tso, is one of the three sacred "divination lakes" in Tibet where lamas gaze into the water to catch visions that might help, say, in the search for a reincarnation of the Dalai or Panchen lamas.

This route joins the strategic road into Lhasa from Qinhai province in the north, and follows the route of the parallel railway the Chinese are building. An hour from Lhasa, you can stop at a geothermal power station where the run-off water is channelled into a vast, open-air swimming pool.

Baggy knit trunks in a fetching black-and-white horizontal stripe can be purchased for 24 yuan. Soaking in the hot water, you can gaze past the steam and kitsch surrounds to rugged mountains. From the sublime to the ridiculous. It's one way to come down.


LONG AND WINDING ROADS

Travelling in Tibet takes time, money and a fair amount of physical endurance. Your journey across the Tibetan plateau is between altitudes of 4000 and 5000 metres, so allow a couple of days at the start for acclimatisation, and get some altitude sickness pills from your doctor.

A good four-wheel-drive vehicle such as a Toyota LandCruiser will cost between three and five yuan (five to seven cents) a kilometre, and the distances are vast: from Lhasa to Mount Kailash is about 1100 kilometres one way and from Lhasa to Kashgar 2500 kilometres.

A driver and a local guide are mandatory for most tours. Two well-established agencies that can arrange trips are the Lhasa-based Shigatse Travels (www.shigatse travels.com) and Kathmandu-based Tibetan Expeditions (www.tibetan expeditions.com), which is linked to Nepal's Royal Mountain Trekking.

Tibetan Expeditions is offering three 27-day expeditions from May, starting in Lhasa and visiting the Kailash-Mansarovar attractions and the ancient Guge kingdom sites before returning past the Mount Everest base camp and terminating in Kathmandu. The tours includes six nights' camping. People booking early get the initial Kathmandu-Lhasa flight thrown in as part of the $US2590-a-head cost ($3500).

As well as a Chinese visa, you need a permit arranged by a travel agent to enter Tibet, and specific clearances are then needed for border regions and other "closed" areas.

Generally, it's not possible to get an English-speaking driver, so groups will have to weigh the advantage of taking along a tour guide to interpret against the loss of a seat for passengers. A surprising number of Tibetans try to learn English and occasionally you meet people who are fluent, sometimes from a stint in India.

The weather is clearer before mid-July, when monsoon clouds and rain appear, then fine from mid-September. But into October it starts getting seriously cold.


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