We spent the morning doing our final shopping and waiting for our land cruisers to arrive. I went out to find a cybercafe to e-mail the article I was writing for the Town Crier newspaper. I wasn't sure when we would next be in a town with e-mail access. As it turns out, the article never got published because while I was in Tibet the newspaper underwent a change of editorship. The new editor was not as interested in the article is the old one was.
It took a bit of hunting to find a cybercafe but when I finally did the proprietor was incredibly friendly and generous. He set me up at the computer and returned a few minutes later with a Coke saying: "I pay, I pay." I gladly accepted it, only to have him return a few minutes later with a similar offer of a couple of free cigarettes (which I declined.) The hour of Internet use combined with a Coke and the potential cigarette offer all ended up costing me a whopping 2 Yuan (somewhere around $.30 Canadian.)
When I returned to the hotel, everyone was waiting and ready to go. We all chose our cars and headed out on the road. The other three group members who ended up in my car were Michele Kuhlmann, Diane Frederick and Charlene Reader. The three of us spent pretty much every day of the next three weeks in that car, and we turned out to make quite a fine team of travelers. Our driver did not speak much English but informed us that his name was Mr. Wong and we all started him on the process of learning our names. He seemed quite affable and the trip got off to a good start.
It didn't take long before we were out of the smoggy city and into the countryside. Rolling hills were graced by corn that was already full grown. Terraced farms were in abundance, making use of every possible square inch of land. Tall thin trees with long trunks and oddly shaped fluffy tufts of leaves at the top dotted the landscape. Some stood straight up and others leaned wildly in all directions. They reminded me of the "Truffula Trees" from a Dr. Seuss story long ago. They turned out to be bamboo.
Within an hour the hills had become steep cliffs, sometimes covered in thick green ferns and sometimes stripped of all vegetation to reveal sheer diagonally etched rock. The valleys between the cliffs began to narrow severely with sides that plummeted precipitously at sharp angles to rushing rivers below. Goats were clinging to the cliffs with such surefootedness that they looked like they had been glued on. This was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" territory and it was stunning.
A little geography lesson is probably in order at this point. If you look at a historical map of Tibet
you will see that the Drichu (Yangtze) River runs north and south through the Eastern province of Kham. After the invasion, the Chinese annexed everything to the west of the Drichu as part of Sichuan and Qinghai
provinces . Everything to the east of the Drichu is now politically considered to be China and everything to the west is what is known as the "Tibetan Autonomous Region." As a result, one can travel through the vast majority of Kham without needing any special permits other than a regular Chinese visa. It also means that the blend of Chinese and Tibetan cultures is quite pervasive. Our trip from Chengdu to Dartsedo
(the red star on the map) took us out of the sub-tropical Shichuanese landscape into the higher and more open valleys typical of Tibet.
We stopped at a little roadside restaurant for lunch. This was the first of many humble establishments with bare floors, rough hewn tables and peeling paint on the walls which were still somehow able to provide amazingly delicious food and embarrassingly low prices. Our group was only going to be eating vegetarian for the first week or so until we adjusted to the local food, altitude and climate. Our drivers, however, were quite used this territory so they ordered fish.
While we were waiting for our food I went off to find the washroom (known everywhere across China as the W.C.) To access it I had to walk through the kitchen. There I found the cook with a big meat cleaver in her hand chasing a shiny gray catfish as it flopped wildly across the floor. I new that it's head was soon to be parted from its body, so I said a quick Phowa prayer for the release of its spirit into a better future life and raced out of the kitchen. I had no desire to witness the imminent slaughter.
As we got back on the road after lunch and began the ascent to our first mountain pass at 2700 meters the scenerybecame even more dramatic. Mr. Wong put on a CD revealing a rather surprising taste in music. He seemed to be a fan of American Muzak. It was all stuff you might expect to hear in any North American elevator and the kind of thing that you don't pay much attention to. But I was diverted from my conversation when the song "Aline," began to play. (Click on the second "Aline" link on the page if you want to hear it, the one by Richard Clayderman
. I think this is the very Muzak version that was playing in the car, in fact.)
"Aline" is a 50's era French tear jerker that has been a feature of every sing-along at every family gathering that I have attended since my birth. The lilting rhythm, the typical I-VI-IV-V-I chorus chord structure (hum the base line of "Blue Moon" here and you've got it) and the melodramatic chorus (Et j'ai crié, crié, Aline, pour qu'elle revienne,
Et j'ai pleuré, pleuré, oh! j'avais trop de peine) have made it a natural for lusty interpretations sung with varying degrees of seriousness and mockery for well over 40 years.
Happily, it seems that no matter where I go I can't escape my French Canadian heritage. Last year in Nepal it was Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche playing the spoons as I sang "Ah, Si Mon Moine Voulait Danser" at Phakchok Rinpoche's birthday party, this year it came in the form of an unwitting serenade from Mr. Wong's stereo.
Next up wasThe Carpenters' "Yesterday Once More." I could not resist the temptation to join in on: "Every Sha-la-la-la, Every Wo-wo-wo, Still shines/ Every shing-a-ling-a-ling, That they're starting to sing's, So fine." When we got to the part where he's breaking her heart, all four of us were joyfully singing at the top of our lungs to Mr. Wong's great joy. Not to be outdone, he flipped the switch on a little LCD screen that was mounted on the dashboard. Soon we were driving in a mobile karaoke bar. "Careless Whispers" and "I Will Always Love You" were just two of the videos complete with scrolling text that we could sing along to. The combination of this music and the stunning scenery that was rolling past our windows was one of the most delightful experiences of East-meets-West I have ever lived through.
Sometime later in the concert we arrived at the first mountain pass of our trip. The pass at Er Lang
is actually a recently built tunnel that cuts through the mountain at the 2700 meter mark. Just before entering the tunnel there is a polished stone marker with a song inscribed on it. The lyrics were in Chinese characters so I don't know what it was about. The music was written in western notation though, so I hummed the mysterious ode before passing through. If any readers of this blog can read Chinese and have good eyes, please let me know what its about.
As soon as we started our descent I became incredibly sleepy and no matter how hard I tried I could not keep my eyes open. This was probably a combination of the altitude and the Diamox which I had begun taking. It was the first of many times when I would feel guilty for dozing off because the stunning scenery was simply not to be missed. At the highest point of the pass we were looking down into the valley as small white clouds stretched out below us like puffy steppingstones to infinity.
The drive turned out to be longer than expected and we didn't arrive at our hotel in Dartsedo
(Kangding) until 8 PM. Since this was rainy season the downpour had begun somewhere around 4 p.m. and had not let up. Several sections of road were completely flooded and even the relatively high clearance of our Land Cruisers was not always enough to get us smoothly through. At one point we drove headlong into a submerged rock and the car lurched to a dead stop. We all pitched forward and the luggage came rushing up to meet us from the back, striking us in the head and scattering in the backseat.
Unloading luggage at the hotel was quite an ordeal since earlier in the day it had been thrown randomly into the various vehicles and no one knew exactly where their stuff was. The cold rain came pouring down as we scrambled to find the things we needed and leave what was unnecessary for an overnight stay. The next morning we packed much more strategically to ensure that each person's luggage was in their own car and the smaller overnight bags were easily accessible.
Once we got in the hotel we went through the first of many bargaining sessions to negotiate fair prices for our rooms. As we later found out, our drivers would always rush into to the hotel first, ask the clerk to hike the room rates and give them a cut of the profit. Then our wonderful friend Vivian (a Chinese student and patron of Rinpoche's who lives in Bangkok) would begin the haggling to try to bring the price back down.
Finally all these rituals were complete and we headed to comfortable rooms where we passed our first night in Tibet.