On the 10th anniversary of one of the most wonderful journeys in my life; with four great friends, two land-cruisers, a truck, three drivers, a cook and ...a goat!
Tibet is a unique country. OK: every country is unique, but Tibet is ...unique-unique! Ten years ago, while there, I was already complaining for the changes that China was bringing to those places. Lhasa was becoming a chinese city, and so were the biggest towns, with horrible bright shining tiles covering houses, public buildings, hotels; with cement, asphalt, steel. What the Chinese have done to Beijing, where you cannot see not even one of the original typical Hutongs, they were and are doing in Tibet. “Better living conditions”; “No more feudalism”; “Development”: in the name of these slogans China advances and Tibet disappears. One can, must, build sewage systems, schools or hospitals: but can one ask the soul of a people in change?
Only little villages were still keeping their traditional aspect and the more I was driving west the more I could enjoy the real non-chinese Tibet. I don't know now. I don't want to know. I always say that this is the only journey that I would like to repeat, but I'm afraid that what I would find would depress me too much.
In 2003, with four friends, we flew from Italy to Nepal; after a few days in Kathmandu and its surroundings we flew to Lhasa already well acclimatized for its 3500 meters elevation, suffering only from some headaches and a little insommnia; but no need of the oxyigen bottles that were near the bedside tables...
The Potala, the huge, impressive residence of the Dalai Lamas since 1650, was the first thing to see. Unlike other 6,000 (six thousand !) monasteries that were destroyed during the chinese invasion of 1959 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966, it had survived, keeping its 13 stories buildings, its 1,000 rooms, its 200,000 statues and ...losing, thank to the red guards, some 100,000 volumes of historical scriptures and documents. But at its feet, very few old houses were surviving: a vast square, in the chinese-communist style, was displaying its emptiness and its huge monument to the ... “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”, unveiled only a few months before; according to the Tibetan Government in Exile, just a daily reminder of the humiliation of the Tibetan people.
Barkhor Square too was recently rebuilt, in 1985, but there at least the incessant procession of a multitude of pilgrims circumambulating (kora) the Jokhang Temple distracts your attention from the modern pavement.
Then the market; full of chinese sellers of chinese stuff; and the shops of the chinese; and the massage rooms with chinese prostitutes...
Off we go, with two Toyota Land Cruisers, one huge and old truck with camping and kitchen stuff, three chinese drivers and a cook, all provided by a chinese agency.
Five wonderful days heading west, on bad-wonderful roads in a wonderful scenario of plains, pastures, snow, sand dunes, blue lakes, rocks, mountains, monasteries, villages, chanceing upon local celebrations or feasts with horsemen riding their small tibetan horses for their own pleasure and not for tourists; and everywhere smiling people. All that, and more, under incredible skies made clear and deep-blue by the thin air of the 4,000-5,000m altitude.
Before leaving Lhasa we had agreed with the agency that we were ready to have lunch in the same places where the local truck-drivers used to stop; sometimes these “restaurants” were huts and sometimes tents; happiness when we were served “momos”, the tibetan dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables; mere acceptance when there was something else; delusion and sadness when there was only “tsampa”(roasted barley flour). Beer was always welcome, while I was the only one of the five who made the best of “po-cha”, the tibetan butter-tea: very caloric, very good to prevent chapped lips but sometimes ...very rancid.
While having lunch on a 4,000m plateau under a ...beach-umbrella which shot its red against the green of the pasture land, our cook bought a goat, had it butchered and when we left it was hanging under the roofing of the truck: and piece after piece, dinner after dinner ...
A white peak, very far away at the horizon. As soon we see it, after a bend and a rise of the road, entering an infinite brown and yellowish plateau, we also see cars that had come on another road from south. What happens? They have pulled up and their passengers are out, kneeling or bowing down in prayer towards that barely visible peak white with snow. We stop too; they're Indians. And they're praying towards the Kailash, their craved goal.
Kailash, or Gang Rimpoche, is the name of a 6,638m mountain on top of which no man ever climbed but around which thousands and thousands of pilgrims long for walking in a kora, whether they are Buddhists, Bon, Jainists or Hindus. Hindus believe that the Lord Shiva lives over there with his wife Parvati.
A woman of the indian group is sick. The drivers carry her back to the car; she needs to be carried somewhere lower than the 4500m of this plateau. But where? We've been told that in India there's also a lottery whose prize is a pilgrimage to Kailash; and China gives a permit to 1,000 Indians a year to come here: is she a winner?
Darchen is the starting point of our kora. 4650m; and the five of us suffer in different ways: from headaches to insomnia, from nausea to stomach-ache, from a sensation of fever to cough; and vomit. But we've already hired two yaks and two yakmen (they're tibetan at last, not chinese!); better going to bed and see how we feel tomorrow morning.
The following morning, after a bad night, well… let's say that we feel fine enough to start our kora. A 52km trekking, in three days, reaching a pass at 5630m. And where we pant, gasp and wheeze, the tibetan pilgrims, even elderly people, walk with speed and ease; "Namaste" ... "Namaste": we keep replying to their smiling halloes, even if breething is becoming more and more difficult. Every ten-twelve steps I stop for thirty seconds to take some deeper breaths. During one of these stops, an old woman comes near to me, rummages in her pocket and then, smiling, opens her hand to me: there's a white pill that she's offering to me; an aspirin, perhaps? I smile back to that poor woman and thank her joining my hands and ...put the pill into my pocket while she hurries away on her kora.
We get to a place called Shiva Tsal; all around the ground is full of dresses, jackets, scarfs, clothes, buttons: they're clothing items that the pilgrims leave there symbolizing the death of their old life. Some of them leave also a drop of blood, or a lock of hair. When they get to the Drolma la, then, like on every pass in Himalaya, they will leave their prayer-flags: on them there are written prayers that the winds will spread and rise up to the gods and everywhere. We will do the same.
The timing of our kora: at 5400m the first night sees our little red tents just below the west face of the Kailash (for sure Shiva and Parvati on its top slept much more easily than we were able to do...); the second day on top of Drolma la, the highest point of the trek at 5630m; the third day, back to Darchen. Tired? Yes: very tired. Exhausted. But this kora with its scenery and its simple, naive, kind people gives a great, unbelievable compensation. You don't need to be religious to get a reward from the kora of Mount Kailash, even if for so many people it's the source of religious creeds and feelings which flow away in many directions and as far as the Indian sub-continent.
Here, in fact, are the sources of four rivers: Brahmaputra, Indus, Karnali and Sutley.
Happy to find our two Land Cruisers waiting for us, we get on and soon after ...we get stuck trying to cross the sacred waters. From my car I watch the first one, right in the middle of the river; and I watch ...the river which is slowly filling the trunk with ...sacred water. Half an hour later, the old, huge, glorious truck will be the saviour.
On the shore of Lake Manasarovar we try to dry the wet clothes and stuff of the flooded trunk. We wait for the night walking along those sacred waters; the 7,700m of the Gurla Mandata dominate the landscape and the western range of Himalaya.
Who is Bo Tashi? An old man, in his seventies (but like all Tibetans he looks older) who in his home-tent serves us some butter tea. He's alone because his wife (same age) is not yet back from her kora; from ONE OF HER KORAS, because she wants to reach the number of 108, which guarantees the nirvana, wiping out all her sins! She's still able to do a kora in ONE DAY, says Bo Tashi. And I can believe him, remembering the speed of my ...aspirin-granny. And I still have in my eyes the woman who was doing her kora prostrating, followed by her little daughter; it takes three weeks, in that way...
Adorable encounter, the one with Bo Tashi in his tent; an appropriate epitome of the kora and of my whole journey.
Whether you are religious or not, a journey to Tibet becomes a pilgrimage, as soul and emotions are too much involved. This is what you think while gradually approaching again our world, first driving back to Nepal and then flying back home. And it takes time to acclimatize to the western hectic, hysterical, thick atmosphere. Back home, in your house, you look for some bottles of a special and unobtainable oxygen. And, religious or not, you find yourself in prayer, asking Buddha, or Shiva or God to slow down the cynical "chinesization", to preserve as much as possible and as long as possible the spirit of that unique-unique country.
(Digitalized scans of original photos).