A few more general impressions regarding our trip to Tibet, before going into a day-by-day recollection …
“I’ll Be Watching You”
Honestly, I didn’t notice the heavy police presence at first. I mean, I noticed police. After all, we were stopped twice on the way from the airport to Lhasa, to have papers checked. Ok – that was a bit different. But, it didn’t seem a big deal. I just didn’t feel their overwhelming presence for the first few days.
However, the Presence seemed to grow each day we were there. In the areas around temples, there was a (manned) police station on every corner. I began noticing that there were cameras on every street. And in every corner of the temple yards … and in the temples themselves. Police were at every entrance – and walking around inside. It was like being in London – only more so.
We’d stop in the line of cars. The guide would jump out of the van with his/the driver’s papers and go up to the checkpoint window. Papers would be reviewed (to make sure we had permission to enter that area), then he’d get a slip of paper.
At least once every three stops, he’d need to come back to the van to get our passports/papers. Then we’d drive on.
*About speed controls. As explained to us, there have been many Chinese tourist bus accidents on the winding roads around Lhasa. So, the government instituted these checkpoints as a safety measure to control speed on the highway. When you go through a checkpoint, they note the time – and the time you should reach the next checkpoint. You can’t get to the next checkpoint before the time stamped on your paper or you get fined for going too fast.
As one might expect, this “safety measure” is utterly ineffective, although it’s a boon for entrepreneurs in the area. What everyone -- including our driver – does is just speed on through the area (using the horn far more often than the brake, unless an animal is at risk) … then pull over about five minutes before the next checkpoint. Then just sit to burn off the extra time. Sometimes we took a bathroom break in the bushes below the highway. Sometimes we just hung out. Sometimes we took pictures, although the “stop” areas were rarely scenic for whatever reason. In the area between Shigatse and Lhasa, entrepreneurs have set up little shops/rest areas just before the checkpoints and their parking lots were filled with busses burning off time while their occupants shop at the stores.
The Ubiquitousness of Cell Phones
Cell phones are as ubiquitous in Tibet as in any other area of China. It was quite common to ...
…walk into a temple and see the monk sitting there looking at his cell phone rather than the text of Tibetan scripture open to him. (In one temple, two monks were huddled over a cell phone watching a video when we walked in, but quickly put it away …)
… see a man driving his kiangs cart down the street while talking on his cell phone.
… be in a temple (outside of Lhasa) and hear a devotee's cell phone go off loudly (inside the temple). There’d be chatting for a bit, then the person would return to his or her chanting. Every once in a while, the person would step out of the temple....
Solar Energy Rocks in Tibet
Tibet is, apparently, at the forefront of solar energy development projects in China. We saw that on a small scale. Solar street lamps and solar tea kettle heaters were in every city, town, and village (and monastery and nunnery) that we visited, however big or small. Villages might still have dirt roads ~ but they always had solar street lamps...
The tea kettle heaters were awesome. The first time I saw one from a distance, I thought itw as an old-school TV satellite. However, soon as we got close, it was obvious that they were solar “stoves” – and we could hear the water boiling in the kettles sitting on them.
The Transportation Evolution in a Single Frame
In China Road (a great book by the way), author Rob Gifford describes China’s traffic as follows:
“The road itself is a crazy mélange of mobile humanity. Every type of human land transportation is here, heading in both directions, as though a conference on the history of road transport is being held somewhere and representatives of every era are hastening to attend. It’s like one of those evolutionary diagrams of man, emerging from the transportational ooze. People walking with their knuckles scraping the ground (not really), a scavenger pulling a three-wheeled cart, ringing a bell and shouting out to no one in particular. Men and women on simple, rickety bicycles, going barely faster than the pedestrians. Men and women, helmetless, zipping past on little scooters. Men and women with helmets on, clearly further up the evolutionary chain, buzzing in and out of the traffic on bigger scooters. Cars, pickups, cement mixers, local buses, long-distance buses, superdeluxe long-distance buses are all here too. Then, pulling up at a traffic light is the Homo erectus of this Darwinian scene. A shiny white 7 series BMW.” (Kindle Locations 592-600).
We hadn’t really experienced that in the cities we’ve visited to date, but it’s certainly true in Tibet. One can expect to see at any given time and on any given road (whether city street or country highway), people walking (often with huge bags on their backs), people on horseback or in carts being pulled by horses or kiangs, yak drivers, sheep drivers, people on tractors, bicycles, and motor scooters, and of course, people in cars, vans, buses, and trucks.
The Car Horn Noise Pollution
Oh, the terribly annoying car horn. There is a lot of car horn noise pollution in Shanghai to be sure, so I've gotten a little more acclimatized to it (though I'm so grateful that our driver rarely uses his ~ and that our car has good sound insulation!).
However, Tibetans – or at least our driver – take it to a whole other level. At first I thought it was also quite random but as the days progressed, there appeared to be a purpose behind each honk. So, not really random (I don’t think) – however constant.
See a person walking on the side of the road? Honk. (I guess so they can hear you coming?).
See a group of people sitting down having lunch on the side of the road? Honk. (So they don’t suddenly get up?)
See a group of people in a field working? Honk. (Hey! How ya doing?)
See a dog or cat running on the side of the road. Honk repeatedly! (In vain hopes that he won’t startle and run out onto the road, at which time you must slam on the brakes.)
See a low flying bird anywhere near the road? Honk!! (Maybe it won’t fly over the road.)
See a herd of sheep in the field nearby? Honk! (It does not stop the shepherd from herding the sheep across the road, but maybe that was the intent…)
Going around a blind curve? No real need to slow down – just honk the whole way around!! (Hey other driver, I’m on your side of the road as I whip around this corner!!!) This made for very noisy trips several days when we were climbing up switchbacks to get over mountain passes.
Come up behind a car (or tractor, or horse-drawn carriage), honk!! (Hey, I’m going around you…or, even if I can’t, I’m gonna let you know that you’re slowing me down!)
Coming into a village (many of which have a “no horn” sign?) Honk!!!! (I can’t see you but I know that since this is a village, someone is going to be along this street!)
I swear we did not drive a half mile without at least one honk.
Dogs and Cats and Cows
The number of free-roaming dogs in Tibet was astounding. They can’t be called wild dogs because they are socialized and friendly. But they have no collars and are apparently not owned by anyone. They’re everywhere.
They're usually in small packs. And they look sufficiently fed. Not necessarily cared for –mangy coats and only partially healed injuries were not uncommon – we didn’t see any that appeared to be starving.
And they were fearless in that they’d happily lie down on the warm blacktop in the middle of the road. I guess they know that any Tibetan will not run over them. During lunch one time, I watched a black dog nap in the middle of an intersection, while cars repeatedly slammed on brakes, honked horns – then went around him.
Sometimes dogs followed us on walks. They were always friendly and allowed us to pet them.
There were not nearly as many cats around … and they were almost always in worse shape than the dogs. Most of the cats we saw had terribly infected eyes and looked … bad. They looked fed – but in bad shape.
One poor cat came in and slept on the bench next to us during lunch. He was a mess. He’d clearly been in some fight – and lost. He had a nasty open wound on his leg and just looked exhausted. Broke my heart.
In small villages, many houses had a cow or a dzo tied outside the door, apparently to
provide milk and butter for the family. They always had a rope tied to their horns. The rope was just long enough that they could stand up and turn around. They couldn’t take more than one step away, but they could kind of turn around and sit back down. That was kind of tough to see too. Especially when we'd walk by and they'd get up and try to come over -- but ... couldn't.