Lhasa, Tibet 11-25 August 1986

11 August: A lot alone..
Late morning / early afternoon at Jokhang Temple, one of the sacredest Buddhist sites in Lhasa. A three-story complex of religious chambers, dimly-lit musty and narrow walkways, icons and alters, and monks’ living quarters. Deeply impressed by the profound piety of the Tibetans. The temple is continuously strung from end-to-end with one long procession of devotees. Murmuring prayers and strenuously prostrating before symbols and relics, offering Yak butter to burning candles, perpetually turning, turning, turning the karma-countering prayer wheels in passing. A bit eerie, a bit subservient, a bit sacrificial, a bit monotonous, a bit divine. Finished the day strolling through local markets, searching out cheap restaurants, lounging, and thinking, thinking,thinking…

I have been feeling some genuine discomfort at being back in China. Exerting much effort toward focusing on the Tibetans, since they are for me an unknown and enchanting quantity. For several days now travel fatigue, altitude adjustment, and a pronounced cluelessness about the next step in my life have left me face down in a nearly constant state of borderline depression. Trying not to give too much serious consideration to the “Paris decision” that looms in less than a week, although it is certainly an option. Even a mild musing over the prospects of 4-6 more days on Chinese buses and trains, followed by two weeks in Beijing in order to hock my plane ticket to SFO for a one-way to France, to try to make some last minute panic money, to find my way to the French embassy for a visa, and then to arrive in Paris with only Dominique to lean on, optimistically jangling about $300 USD in pocket change with which to start afresh; and I soak wetly in forlorn. At present my self-confidence and life exuberance are on a clear downhill slope. Yet, conversely, returning home straight away to the comforts and securities of families and friends in California, although obviously the easiest and most doable choice, does little to inspire or sooth. In the moment, I am conflicted and suspended. A little frightened, a little lost, a little disoriented, a lot alone.

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the gang of four visit the roof of the world: overland to kathmandu-barabise-kodari (nepal) –khasa- nyalam- shigatse- lhasa (tibet) 13-16 August ’86

Left Kathmandu for the last time late-morning of the 13th on a public bus for Barabise. Expecting rough, crowded travel conditions, I paid 30NRs for a double seat in an attempt not to emerge at the end of the line a breathing pretzel. Unable to get a bus directly to Kodari , the last town before the Nepal-China border. Spent much of the five-hours to Barabise defending my double seat against “standing ticket only” carpetbaggers who, for whatever reason, were unable or unwilling to pay for their own seat and somehow came to believe that I was eager to give up my neo colonial surplus seating arrangement. At Barabise I latched onto a van (20NRs) going to Kodari. An hour’s journey and we stopped for the night at a small town, population maybe 200 and only a half hour walk to the Chinese border. Several VERY simple and small hotels available, flanked by steep mountains on one side and a mountain stream running down a steep embankment on the other. My hotel had a (very soothing) centrally shared shower sourced by an underground hot springs. While in town, I met up with a British teacher and his wife just finishing a two-year contract in Singapore, and a young couple from England and Ireland.

We continued toward the border together early the next day, encountered road difficulties, and were delayed. I decided to forge ahead on foot only to be picked up a kilometer or so later by a large bus heading for China, empty except for my four new acquaintances. We passed through Kodari (Nepal side) immigration with surprising ease (no questions, no baggage check, no delay) and walked across to Khasa, Tibet (aka Zhangmu, China) as if out for an afternoon promenade. After several hours of chatting, eating, strolling, and re-meeting the usefulness of my hard-earned Mandarin, I and the “gang of four” boarded a bus heading from Khasa to Lhasa (74 yuan, 42 with my foreign teacher card).

Departed Khasa 5pm, 14 August, for a three-day, two night Himalayan Chinese bus ride to Lhasa, with overnights in Nyalam and Shigatse.

We took a Chinese bus from Khasa with roughly 20 foreigners (British, Irish, French, Italian, Japanese, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Swiss) and a half-dozen mainland Chinese passengers. Spent our first night in Nyalam, little more than a small village, cradled by barren mountains, underpinned by dry soil, wrapped in chilled air, and delivered with austerity and colorlessness. The hotel (actually a military- style dorm) was substandard, with army surplus cots and bare light bulbs. The service atmosphere and attitude was far from welcoming, and the Chinese staff were saturated in the usual Mainland indifference and offended sensbilities of being inconvenienced by even the most routine guest requests. Departed very early the next morning. (I was the last passenger to make it to the bus and boarded to a massive wave of traveler indignation; my bad.) The next 12 hours to Shigatse (interrupted only by several brief meal and toilet stops) were nothing short of rugged, yet truly a visual feast!

Sheer cliffs, snow-capped peaks, lush vegetation, and roads which nearly touched heaven! Saw our first glimpses of native animals (yaks, water buffalo, wild boar) and local people. Rosy-cheeked Tibetans in traditional bright colors occasioned the roadside. Smilling, waving, staring in wide-eyed curiosity, and, on one occasion, baptizing our bus in a stream of dirt rocks!! For the most part, though, the road was deserted and dusty, the engine roared, the gears screeched, and the air in the bus was foul with unwashed bodies, spoiling food, and exhaust fumes from leaks in the diesel frame. Any expectations of “normal comfort” remained delusional so long as the bus moved, and, due to well- worn springs on the undercarriage meeting constant ruts in the Himalayan mountain passes, much of the energy of the journey was focused on simply trying to remain seated. We couldn’t sleep or read, conversations were a mystery, small snacks our only shelter.

Our bus reached Shigatse after dark, about 8 pm. Lodging was a bit more civilian than Nyalam, and our hotel was bustling with young adventurers either heading toward Nepal or sharing our compass toward Lhasa. I wolfed a hot meal, took a sponge bath, and did a bit of aimless wandering around the hotel. I climbed in for a sorely-needed yet surprisingly fitful night of rest shortly before 10. Prior to drifting off I spent some time getting to know, albeit awkwardly and with some inexplicable reluctance, the Irish half of the traveling pair I had met on the border. (The British teaching couple had opted for an extended rest-up in Nyalam.) Indeed, I, Brian, and Margarette were to spend the rest of the journey and our first days in Lhasa together.

Departed Shigatse 7:30 am sharp facing ditto road conditions. Encountered a minor vehicular accident 6 hours en route and spent an hour beside a large mountain lake waiting for the road to clear. Leg-stretching, lake swimming, deep breathing. Renewal. Six more hours around the curves and through the crevices of Mother Himalaya and road conditions became increasingly smooth yet decreasingly scenic.

Arrived Lhasa around 8pm on 16 August, a mountain pass, sheer cliff, blind curve, smiling Tibetan rock-throwin’ Himalayan trek of the first order, totaling nearly 64 hours and chalking in as my longest bus trip on foreign soil to date.

By Lhasa I seemed to have developed an unspoken (the most common type) “travel commitment” with the Irish-British couple . In the 16 bed dorm at the Lhasa Kirbey Hotel we christened a new Gang of Four, our “fourth column” a rather tacturn male in his twenties hailing from Japan. In Lhasa I was also visibly weakened by the altitude, by the cummulative effects of the two-day roller coaster bus ride, and by more than a month of very rough-and-tumble Asian travel. Wasn’t up for much more than rest and light shopping my first day on the “roof of the world”.

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generous servings and wound clocks: depart kathmandu 13 august ’86

Parting impressions of Kathmandu: Generous servings of Buddhist and Hindu “conspicuous devotion”, cornucopia of religious articles, thankas, temples, tokens, everywhere. The Tibetans of Kathmandu (a major exile community from China) display a gentle easiness that is consoling, especially when set aside from the rampant consumerism that seems to be enveloping the city. The Kathmandu Nepalese present themselves as carefree, open, warm, unhurried. I am afraid, though, that the cash crop tourist economy has brought with it adverse and corrosive influences. Everyone seems to have something to sell the inerloping Westerner, from religious relics and indigenous crafts to marijuana, hashish, opiates, and mushrooms. It seems the foreign deluge has wound the Nepalese clock a little too tight. Legions of street corner tourist markets give off airs of urgency, even desperation; rather ill-fitting in light of what I have come to view as the mild, accomodating “Nepalese disposition and world view”, (if one can deal fairly in such terms). This is not to say that indigenous cultures are universally free from the seductions of service sector gains. But it is to openly wonder if Western commercial influences haven’t seasoned local trading proclivities with strong doses of aggressive sales , profiteering , interpersonal manipulation, and go-to-just-about-any-length-to-score-a-gain edicts. Still, slightly below the surface of all this remains a genuine kindness and warmth, hopefully unalterable and perhaps still the final arbiter in most matters.

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freedom and commitment: kathmandu – bhaktaphur – kathmandu 8 -14 august ’86

Double room at Sita House (64 NRs) with Dominique. Getting close, sharing humor, running errands, wondering about each other, and putting to rest most of the immediate uncertainties. Me, struggling to communicate in French (and surprising myself). Her, displaying the patience of a nun with my language inadequacies, yet revealing increasingly severe symptoms of “mal disposition Parisienne”. One night and day in Kathmandu and off on a public bus (1 hour) for Bhakaphur. Three days and nights at Bhakaphur Guest House (got a double for a discounted 75NRs courtesy of a Sherpa friend). Even though we had been eating almost the same sorts of food, Dominique contracted food poisoning the first day. Managed to locate a motorcycle taxi for an emergency trip to the hospital. Lots of pain, paranoia, confusion. Two full days in bed, with me filling my time tending to her needs and wandering about town. Excessive sleep. As she improves, walls begin to recede. Intimacy with visionary implications. Exploring, sharing, learning…interspersed with petty quarrels over the most trifling matters conceivable.

I returned to Kathmandu 12 August ahead of Dominique. Left her with the option to meet me. Picked up my things from Sita, checked into Gaurishankar Hotel. Very pleasant and clean double for 55 NRs. Used Tashi’s influence, an amenable Sherpa I met over a beer in a local pub. Dominique arrived later in the evening, ready to tell me all about her “division between freedom and commitment”. Spent much of the next two days plagued with miscommunication, unsettled airs, and vascillating affections. Yet, my attachment to her increased. There is something very giving, warm, accepting, protective, and unconditionally loving beneath Dominque’s sharp and frequently austere façade. Begin to realize that I may be walking blindly into a full-blown love-hate relationship. Comparisons between Dominique and a previous near death love experience become more present. Little more than a week after meeting, we manage to part company on reasonable terms , which basically means we smile, hug, and say goodbye with little pretense attached to open longing and vulnerability. I think we both realize there is a connection present which defies explanation and deserves respect. I manage to extract a reluctant, yet seemingly sincere, promise from Dominique to “try” to help me find a room should I leave for Paris after returning to Beijing to pack my stuff in a few days. Best to just leave it there.

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the no small feat train station and something “special”: nepal-india-nepal 4-7 august ’86

Paid 340 NRs for a combination bus and train fare from Nepal to New Delhi. Left Kathmandu 8 pm on Aug 4th; 12 hour bus trip to Sonauli on the Nepal-India border. Walked across to catch a 4 hour bus to Gorakphur, where I was told I had a connecting ticket for New Delhi. In Gorkaphur I waited several hours for a train to Delhi. Found a shower and a rest at a hotel adjacent to RR station (15RRs).

As I was preparing to board the train for Delhi, I discovered that my train ticket was not from Gorakphur at all, but was from a station 40 kilometres further along the tracks. Adding to my discouragement, my ticket was only good for an unreserved “hard seat”, not a “sleeper” as I had requested. Boarded the illicit train awash in a sea of Indian travelers jostling and pushing for a comfort advantage that everyone knew would be in short supply. I was shoved along to an absurdly overcrowded standing-room-only rail car. Unbearably hot, stuffy, wedged in and overflowing with sweating male passengers, all of us barely able to stand upright, never mind sit, bend, or squat. Mine was the only Western face within sight and, despite my best attempts to feign street-edged glares and macho posturing, my traveling companions showed little reluctance to copiously stare, even openly jeer and mock the novelty of my foreign presence.

Given the auspiciously difficult travel cues now shouting my name, I began to re-evaluate my intentions and designs for ever wishing to sojourn to India in the first place. Considering the monetary constraints of my shoestring travel budget, the now clear uncertainties and discomforts of my Nepal-India “economy overland travel package”, the doubt of whether I could upgrade to a reserved sleeper at the next station, and my encroaching confusion, fatique, and quickening impatience; I decided to disembark at the next stop, do an about face, and find my way back to comforts and familiarity of Nepal, whatever that might involve.

Thirty-to-forty minutes en route the train pulled into some-or-other station and I ripcorded out, taking one last moment to turn and glare back into the SRO train car with all the street edge and machismo I could muster. My body and the world heaved a freeing exhale as I stepped onto the platform. Yet within miniutes I was disheartened to find that I had gotten off at a small, bleak, provincial, hotel-less, and out-of-the-way train stop. I wandered around the poorly lit station for a good half hour and couldn’t even find an identifying sign in English. To this day I don’t know the name or location of that station, nor could I find it on a map if my life depended on it. I do know, though, I spent a solid two hours in a constant round of inquiries to numerous indifferent India Rail mandarins trying to purchase a train ticket to the nearest point along the India-Nepal border. I speculated silently that two hours to get a ticket at this station was probably no small feat…. The next train for the border was due to arrive at 1 am on August 6.

I spent what seemed an eternity that night walking about the No Small Feat Train Station (NSFTS), sometimes sitting or lying on the bare concrete of the boarding platform. This was my first extended exposure to commoners in India, and it was replete with my bearing witness to an intense flurry of insults between groups of platform squatters and a brief yet sincere fist-to-cuffs between a couple of incensed adolescents. A mysterious, enigmatic, poverty-stricken, and, at times, ostensibly menacing (at least from my culture-shocked and travel-weary perspective) community of fellow travelers, indeed. Many seemed resigned to spend hours, perhaps days, sitting and lying on the hard pavement, some with the scantest clothing and not even a blanket or towel to serve as ground cover. The waiting area of the station, crowded and overflowing with castaways like myself, had all the earmarks of a developing world refugee camp. Together we resembled a small colony of impoverished transients, half-starved, confused, and exhausted, not sure where we were going or from where exactly we had come. Or so I mused.

The “platform people”, as I came to call us, were from a number of religious and ethnic backgrounds, huddled together in small homogeneous groups with a few meager possessions. There were also lone individuals lying in solitude on the margins, idle and without possessions, seemingly adrift and forgotten by the world. Hushed tones within groups or between couples were punctuated by the sudden and loud intergroup report and retort of verbal challenges. Offenses were slung across the open terrace, bouncing distorted and incomprehensible off the platform walls.

The refugee motif was cross-cut by a a sprinkling of Indian “seekers” and “sadhus”, spiritual figures with flowing robes, shoulder length hair, unkept beards, and nearly emaciated physiques. It was further undercut by young families with infants and small children, and by the occasional Indian businessmen or public servant.

All-in-all my attempt to jetison out of a disconcerting train car crunch was only replaced by my being marooned for the night in a gloom-and- doom atmosphere fitting of a Steven-King-does-the-Indian-rails horror story. The sting of the barren and the bleak was compounded by the fact that I, a painfully obvious and awkward outsider, was continually eyed with hostility and suspicion by weary, edgy, sleep-deprived, and need- deficient travelers and indigent rail station residents, a waiting platform full of midnight’s children with little for comfort and less to keep resentment and disappointment at bay. As the night wore on, so too did my own fear, uncertainty, and confusion, at points reaching a pitched, even crisis level, crescendo.

When the train destined to take me away from NSFTS and closer to the assurances of Nepal finally arrived, I was enveloped and uplifted in an immense wave of relief. Again shuttled into a scale model train compartment that challenged body and breath, I found the atmosphere and conditions this time far less jarring. At several junctures, while passengers were boarding and leaving, I even managed to briefly sit on the floor, or to stand loosely and unencumbered with my back to a wall. Mostly rattled, yes, but more so happy that I was drawing closer to where I wanted to be. The train reached Gorkaphur at approximately 5am. I could not find a hotel room and fortunately happened upon a bus leaving immediately for the Nepalese border (16RRs). Another 2-4 hour bus ride, this time keeping company with a group of chatty young Nepalese soldiers who were returning from training exercises in India. Not surprising, I had developed a case of severe stomach cramps and was dog-tired. Despite the pain, rough road, continuous bouncing, and social graces of my companions, I managed to sleep most of the way. We arrived at the India-Nepal border between 8 and 10 am on 6 August; barely 48 hours had passed since I had set off from Kahmandu for New Delhi. It felt like a couple of lifetimes. Following suspicious inquiries on the Indian exit side by border officials who seemed genuinely slighted and wanted to know why I was leaving their country on such short notice, I crossed over into the pleasantries of the Nepalese side without incident.

The bus for Kathmandu departed at 8pm, so I was faced with yet another arduously long stop over, if on refreshingly unevenful terms with scenic views. I spent my day rustling up whatever indulgences I could find, eager to proceed with a full 12-hour bout of self-nursing. I rented a large hotel room, watched the two-channel tv, slept and ate well, strolled around town, chatted with the local money changers, and lavished in the peace and tranquility that emerges as one begins the trek into Himalayan Nepal. By sundown I had begun to reclaim my spiritual equilibrium.

The bus ride to Kathmandu was a dream. Before leaving, I registered an ornery complaint with the two Nepalese kids who had sold me the screwy combo bus-train bucket tickets to Delhi. They were sincerely apologetic and assured me my overnight trip back to Kathmandu would be something “special”. I was assigned a shared seat with a bright, alluring, unpretensious, and engaging French woman in her early 30s. I suspect the ticket-touting teens suspected that after several hours of customary travel niceties and non verbal nuances, she and I would “discover” each other. And so we did.

God banished me from India but handed me over to Dominique.

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in the parlor, comfortably: kathmandu, nepal 30 july – 5 august 86

…I sit taking notes, scantly noticed. An occasional side-glance or momentary stare at my journal in passing are the only indications that I am perhaps an intruder here, whose observations should not be allowed to pierce too deeply in the weight and darkness of these people. Guests should remain comfortably in the parlour and not seize the temptation to rummage the drawers and closets of backroom chambers. Had a dream the night before that I am in a travel agency and notice a picture of Kathmandu with the Eiffel Tower jutting from the center…..

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dream on the water’s surface: china-hong kong-thailand-nepal ’85-’86

Beijing, Sept 1985: Journal Note: Are the Chinese willing to forfeit socialist principles for increased consumption?

Note from a student, 16 Oct 1985, Beijing:

Yesterday was John (our writing teacher) birthday. We went to celebrate it with our foreign teachers. After I came back, I felt a little sad because our teacher didn’t seem to be glad. I can understand him. A person far away from his motherland, especially on such a day, is more homesick than before. How can we (his students), share his happiness and sadness? Maybe a song, maybe to study harder or listen to him carefully? I wonder how we can give him some help?

Dear teacher,
Chinese people are friendly, especially your students to you. Although your families are not together with you. Try your best to make your life happier. Whether you are happy or not is very important to your life and work. Of course, everyone meets different things every day. They make you happy, angry, sad and you must try to change your life atmosphere. It you are always happy and sleep well and have good meals, you can be in good health. Heartily hope that our teacher live happily in China.

27 Sept 85 Beijing China
Journal Note: The murky waters of bureaucratic socialism are incapable of dampening the inner mystical glow of Chinese women. It pierces the brittle shroud of endless routine and mass materialism, betraying a grace, spark and transcendence which cannot be extinguished.

Even though you can’t stop work for me (A secret sign) Miao Minorities Love Ballad

When I stroll by the brook where you’re washing clothes
Even though you can’t stop work for me
Please raise your stick higher
And pound more vigorously
For this is a secret sign
That I shall understand
When I pass under your window
Please light your lamp
Though you can’t allow to stay the night
Please signal with the lamp
For this is a secret sign
No others can understand
When we meet in a crowd
Though you can hardly greet me
Please knit your brows
And cast me some tender glances
For quick witted as I am
I can receive your love without anyone knowing

Overnight train from Chengdu to Kuiming (24 hours) 7-8 Feb, 1986
Journal Note: Chinese must be among the most talkative people on the planet. Bustling with the activity of children, gregarious friends, reunited relatives, squawking babies, stoic soldiers, and maintenance keeping / food serving porters. Small talk fills the small train car. They seem very comfortable with themselves and each other. The passenger area has the emotional feel of a suburban living room. As always, children are everywhere, generally unattended, and the center of attention. Roaming, playing, demanding, sleeping. The attitude toward foreigners is generally accepting. A good deal of unflinching, unreadable stares mixed with mild annoyance, indifference, and warm curiosity.

Term in Chinese, fang xin, translated = to set one’s mind at rest, to be at east; literally = let go of one’s heart.

19 May 86, Beijing

Journal Note: China is no place for a young man with designs on the world.

7 July 86, Beijing

Dissent in China is probably more thoroughly extinguished than anywhere else in the world, (including the Soviet Union), because of the deadening weight of Chinese culture. Four thousand years of group-based values and rigidly hierarchical notions of “place” and “jurisdiction” bear heavily on Chinese spirits. Unquestioning cultural subservience, blended with the material and interpersonal leveling of Chinese statism, reduce embryonic surges of defiance and bitterness to little more than self-contained whimpers. I am disgusted by the wounds China has inflicted on the human spirit. China, you need to swim so deeply in the stream of your creaturehood that the water’s surface will seem like a dream.

Hong Kong 19-23 July 86

Stayed at Chung King Mansion on Nathan Road in Kowloon; price for dormitory bed in very crowded room on the 6th floor (8 beds per room) was 20 HD ($2USD) Chung King Mansion is a bizarre mixture of multinational intrigue and banality, i.e., smugglers, transients, wanderers on their way to the mainland, commonwealth expatriates, low-budget Hong Kongers, student vacationers, and seasoned international street people.

Compared to the mainland, which seems to run on 2C flashlight batteries, Hong Kong is “electrified”: uncontrolled urban energy combined with Asian reserve.

Bangkok, Thailand 23-30 July 86

Kathmandu, Nepal 30 July – 5 August 86

Durbar Square-Perhaps the closest thing in Nepal to an “Eastern bazaar”. Located in the south-west section of the city. A statement in perpetual movement: fruit stands, jewelry, rugs, snacks, crafts, beggars, merchants drying red peppers in the temporary sunny reprise of the monsoon rains. One gets the feeling that the small-scale merchant activity of this square is without beginning, and probably will never cease. Structurally Durbar Square consists of maze of earth brick paths, walkways and streets lined with three and four-story wooden and red tile buildings. A myriad of Hindu temples and shrines (Vishnu, Krishna) encased in white washed clay walls with lacings of often ornately carved wooden pillars, support beams, and terraces. Women scurry about shopping, selling, bargaining, and strolling splashed with Nepalese saris of yellow, gold, red, and purple. An occasional, obviously healthy, Westerner, guide book in hand, neck slung Japanese camera, peering soberly, yet largely unaffected by the borderline material deprivation and endless toil of these people.

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