Monday, August 8, 2011

Gyantse to Shigatse

"The ride is short today, but we're leaving early because we need to pick up your permit for Everest," explained my guide as he opened the car door to let me hop up into the 4x4.

There's a lot of opening and shutting doors for me here. And carrying my luggage. Not that I'm complaining, but I feel kind of silly when someone waits for me to get into a vehicle and then closes the door behind me.

Permits…what is all this about permits, I wondered. Tibet's Everest Base Camp is sensitive as it's in a border region and they're afraid I might try to go to Nepal illegally…by CLIMBING EVEREST? I don't think so. I appreciate what mountaineers do (especially Reinhold Messner when he tried to find the yeti), but I think they're crazy. More like the Chinese government wants to know who to fine if a banned Tibetan flag ends up unfurled and plastered over a Tibetan hill when I happen to be at base camp.

Which was unlikely to happen given that I carry a pretty stripped-down pack. Extra shoes are okay but not extra national flags, banned or otherwise.

And even if I were radicalized (and I'm not saying I'm not working up to it, given the last week's observations), I probably wouldn't have the energy today or tomorrow. I needed coffee. A Coke would do in a pinch, but the doughy Tibetan breakfast I'd had after my electric-kettle-and-rag shower hadn't cut it.

We drove through Gyantse and out of the other end of town, back onto the southern leg of the Friendship Highway. The ride to Shigatse was only 100 kilometers, barely worth waking up for.

But our plans for applying for a permit early were squished when we approached a field full of dancing men just outside Shigatse.

"Do you want to take photos?"


The men were practicing for some kind of pageant, though they would be in traditional dress tomorrow when they performed. Today they were in their street clothes.

A man by a generator fired up a tinny amp anchored to the back of a tractor, and a Tibetan song came out. On cue, the group all hit drums with what looked like a feather duster, then the group did a turn, then another.

They started to smile and enjoy themselves as they danced.

We left just late enough to where we couldn't get the permit until after lunch.

"I'll try later," said Rinchin. "Let's take you to the hotel and then you can have lunch while I get the permit."

We tried several hotels—but they were expensive or full or not allowed to take foreigners. Finally, we went to a decrepit old seventies-style hotel, which had one room left, "but no Internet."

This was according to Reception. So I was surprised when I got off the elevator and saw a sign for commercial wifi.

The signal was strong, but required membership and payment. So I walked two blocks to a coffee shop—YAY, coffee!—with wifi, signed on to my dormant Boingo roaming account, and activated the Asia-Pacific membership.

Voila. Hotel room with Internet in Shigatse, Tibet.

After lunch and confirmation of hotel Internet, my guide showed up with my permit. We then continued with our scheduled sightseeing excursion to Tashilhunpo Monastery.

I was feeling ungratefully monasteried-out. Altitude had me exhausted, the moral questions had numbed my brain, and I really wanted a day to sleep. But when you're paying by the day to be in a country, there's no time for rest. You see all you can and promise yourself you'll process it later.

So I took photos and tried to just commit the Tashilhunpo Monastery to memory. Whitewashed towering blocks topped with red-brown bands and gold trim. Burgundy-clad monks chanting in a room, their friend posted outside to halt curious tourists, all their boots piled together. (Monk books look uncomfortable.)

And when this was done, I walked alone through town, snapping photos, noting that a lot of blenders were for sale here, and finally eating momos at a popular restaurant because returning to use my Boingo membership.

Not many days were left on my Tibet trip now, and this was a good thing as I was too overwhelmed to appreciate what I was seeing.

Only one problem. Coming up tomorrow night was our toughest night. A night of roughing it between poor roads and terrible accommodation, before moving on to a sketchy border town.

Everest Base Camp, coming up.

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