Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Road To Tibet

Tibet – a name that means so many different things to so many different people. It conjures images of prayer flags, remote monasteries, and of course the Potala. I wondered about it myself for many years, always wanting to go visit, but never having the universe align enough for me to get there. I had been within 50kilometers as the crow flies in Ladakh and Spiti, but there were always 6000meter mountains and sketchy international borders obstructing a safe passage.

Tibet is far away from everywhere, it’s cold, it’s high, and it’s clouded in secrecy and rumor. Tibet is a place known as the spiritual center of the world by many and yet its culture and religion are aggressively suppressed by China. The struggle between China and Tibet is ongoing– with Tibet fighting to keep its identity under enormous cultural pressure and oppression from China. Everyday, China is literally paving and bulldozing over any remnant of Tibetan culture and wilderness.

Tibet has long been a strong and independent kingdom, existing on the edge of nowhere, a high altitude plateau of electric blue sky, harsh winds, and endless mountains. In this stronghold, Buddhism found a foothold, and along with it, stories of Shangri-la, with pathways through the mountains to heaven, and esoteric orders of monk who levitate and feel no cold. Through some combination of these forces of deep spiritual mystery and longstanding oppression and independence, Tibet becomes a confusing place. Attracted by the spirituality, the ritual, and the clarity of vision that occurs at 5000meters on people-less plateaus, I wanted to join the Tibetan experience. Yet, travelers told tales of abuses, Chinese bureaucracy, fines and permits. They told me I would be supporting the oppression by spending my Yuan as a tourist – that Tibet is no longer Tibet.

Of course, I had to go see this mystery for myself. A place like Tibet, mythological already, is too tremendous to resist, and I had been to Dharamsala and realized that the energy of the place could not fully cross the mountains with the exiles.

Karghilik is a sort of little Chinese outpost along the Silk Road - dusty, full of grapes, donkey carts, and hidden Uygur adobe houses. The mosques lay behind a maze of alleyways and storefronts selling everything from honey to gold. The people are Uygur and Han, and I don’t really know what goes on there behind the scenes. There are plenty of trucks into Tibet and China, and the town is a main bus stop along the southern Silk Road route. The entire town has been face lifted with modern Chinese avenues, glass, and metal – and of course the ridiculously large central square, that is empty but for a few children’s rides. This would turn out to be an ominous foreshadowing of what lay ahead in Tibet – a systematic destruction of culture and place recognition by simply rebuilding modern China over modern and not so modern Tibet.

Yet still, beyond all of this, lies the mystery. At the edge of the desert, just over the mountains, lies the way into western Tibet. The edges of Karghilik stop abruptly, and the dry dusty ascent into Tibet beckons. I was a little skittish hanging around town waiting for my ride into Tibet. There were true stories of people being “sent back” to Kashgar by the Chinese PSB. There were rumors of roadblocks and bus cancellations, but all of this just added to the proper sense of adventure and intrigue on going to a place with such a reputation. And, who could doubt that the power and spirit of such a place would ever bow to a piece of paper, or a regulation set by man. Tibet’s spirit lies beyond the reach of such mundane inventions, and it continues to inspire and shine through any darkness. Of course, no papers were necessary, its just a border after all, another imaginary line on a map, and this one isn’t even on most maps.

In a cold October wind blowing dust into the sunset, I set off on the Tibetan Antelope, like an illegal immigrant, paying 700 Yuan for a bus ride into Shangri-la.

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