Nepal & Tibet

29th December 2009

It is Christmas day.

I am in Kathmandu, taking a few days to relax after a very enjoyable but hectic tour of Tibet. This is the perfect place to do it. Sadly, the local beer is absolute cat piss, so I have spent the afternoon drinking Irish coffees with a couple of Americans. I am up to about a dozen. The alcohol and caffeine are coursing through my veins like the Bhotekosi rapids, hence I feel I must run outside and roar at the sky.

As many have pointed out, I haven’t written anything in a while. I believe the accepted procedure is to apologize. I'm not going to. That would imply that I’m breaking an obligation. I have no such obligation and the moment I start thinking I do is the moment the blog stops being fun. In any case, the reason is that I’m going back to India for a while and want to write up my impressions in a single entry.

I love it here in Nepal but every silver lining has a cloud. I have a nasty cold and no-one in the world is feeling worse than me. My bedside table is littered with sick person detritus and soggy hankies. I also checked my email for the first time in a cat's age yesterday. It promised much and delivered little – mostly spam and an update from the UK tax man. At least it allowed me to reach my target heart rate for the day. Also, since watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall last week, I have developed an unhealthy obsession with Mila Kunis. Oh don't start.

Some Numbers
33 - days in Nepal
8 - days in Tibet
50 - number of times I said I was going to do a bungy-jump
0 – number of bungy-jumps completed
420,000 – number of Indians who have committed suicide since Indian Idol first went on the air. Coincidence? Hardly.

Nepal is a diminutive gem nestled between the vulgar behemoths of India and China. For a small country, it has an uncommonly diverse landscape, ranging from the humid jungles of the Terai in the south to the Himalayas in the north.

I arrived in Western Nepal at Mahendranagar on a bright hazy evening. A soft golden glow suffused the spread of green and yellow fields dotted with wooden farmhouses. Virtually no tourists visit this part of the country and it has a charming rustic atmosphere.

No time to linger though. I crossed the country in 2 days to get to Pokhara to meet Sonny, a friend from England who had come out to join me for a couple of weeks. This was a welcome development - the first time I had seen a familiar face in almost a year.

Although Pokhara is overrun with tourists because of its proximity to the Annapurna region, the city is very relaxed and low-key. It sits on Phewa Tal, a lovely lake surrounded by forested hills. Machupucchre and Annapurna 1 are reflected beautifully on the surface of the water.

Kathmandu is crowded and frenetic but retains an old-world feel, with cycle rickshaws trundling around and lines of Tibetan prayer flags hanging in the streets. Thamel is the tourist centre, full of dusty winding alleys packed with restaurants, bars, mountaineering shops andt internet cafes. To judge from Thamel, you would think that tourism was Kathmandu's only industry and you wouldn't be far wrong. South of Thamel towards Durbar Square is a huge maze of markets, alleys, shrines and temples.

The Kathmandu valley has the greatest concentration of Unesco Heritage sites in the world, including the giant stupa at Bodhnath, the monkey temple of Swayambunath and the finest example of Newari architecture in the world - Durbar Square in Patan. There is also Nepal’s most sacred Hindu shrine, Pashupatinath, where bodies are burned daily in accordance with Hindu beliefs.

Nepalese Politics
It has been an exceptionally eventful 20 years in Nepal. For most of its history, Nepal was under the rule of an absolute hereditary monarchy of high-caste Hindus. After years of popular protests, the king introduced a multi-party parliamentary system in 1991. Unfortunately, this did little to address the country’s main problems: the rate of illiteracy and unemployment are around 60% and Nepal recently slid from 13th to 2nd on the list of the poorest countries in the world.

In 1996, the Communist Party of Nepal launched people’s revolutionary war, which killed about 1500 people over 5 years. The final result was the royal coup in 2005, when King Gyanendra dismissed the government, assumed full executive powers and declared a state of emergency. He continued to tighten the noose around his own neck until April 2006, when strikes and street protests in Kathmandu forced him to reinstate parliament. A coalition then abolished the monarchy altogether in 2008. Phew.

The Nepalese
Nepal is a nation of benevolent hobbits, scurrying around and beaming at you out of their sunburnt faces. Although it is hard to pick up on at first, there is a lot of variety of facial types in Nepal. In the west they are distinctly Indian-looking while in the North-east they are more oriental. Over 80% of the population is Hindu, which is higher than the percentage of Indian Hindus.

Although they are exceptionally likeable, I have heard a number of times from locals that they have a violent temper when upset. Just like in the Philippines, the tiny average wage in the country means that many Nepalis choose to become migrant workers, making furniture in Malaysia or working on building sites in Dubai.

I had done tons of trekking in Pakistan, and Sonny only had 2 weeks, so we stuck to the 4 day Poon Hill trek, which has beautiful mountain views and a nice mix of different landscapes. Nepal is a relaxing place to trek. Porters are available everywhere and teahouses line all of the main trails.

Personally, I am not a fan of slogging round a hikers' motorway like the Annapurna circuit, congested with over-equipped and under-fun French and German tourists talking about what brand of sleeping bag they use. There is absolutely nothing exciting or adventurous about it.

I had been concerned about Sonny wanting to meet me so late in the year but it turned out to be an inspired decision - we had excellent clear weather. In December you can trek and hear nothing but the sound of tweeting birds, and if you're lucky, the shriek of a falling tourist. During the trek, pretty much all the Nepalis thought that Sonny was my porter, which was hilarious. “Why your porter so fat?” etc.

Like in Pakistan, the local people find the whole concept of trekking incomprehensible. There's a popular Nepalese song about tourists that goes "I am a donkey, you are a monkey". The porter is the donkey, under all the weight, and the trekker is the monkey, clambering over rocks like an idiot for no good reason.

General Impressions of Tibet
Travel in the TAR is strictly controlled. Since last year's protests, there is no way to visit except with a tour group and most of the country is off limits. Overall, it was very nice. If you're into chanting monks and Buddhas, they’ve got those; and if you’re looking for yaks, they’ve got plenty of those too. They seem to have thought of everything. Well done all round.

You get a strong sense of wilderness in Tibet. The plateau is a sea of arid golden hills, only interrupted by small towns dotted along the highway, the odd frozen lake or the shadow of a passing cloud. The clarity of the sky is incredible. The autumn light has a crisp edge up on the plateau, which was a welcome change from the polluted haze of the Kathmandu valley.

Mountain passes and the roofs of houses have streamers of frayed and brightly-coloured prayer flags strung up to purify the atmosphere and pacify the gods. When the flags flutter, the prayers are believed to be released into the air.

The whole plateau is as cold as a welldigger's arse, which I foolishly did not prepare for. It was beyond a joke. I have never in my life been this cold for this length of time. Virtually none of the hotels had any kind of heating. I think the three Swedes were even sharing a bed at one point.

When I got back to Nepal I watched Seven Years in Tibet and have been turning it over in my mind ever since. The art direction is superb and the country all but breathes out of the screen, but it is another example of the idealised view of Tibet that predominates in the West - a land of simplicity and ancient wisdom, where enlightened and non-violent Tibetans live in a preindustrial paradise. Much of this thinking is superficial rubbish based on an idea of what Tibet ought to be rather than what it is. This is what Spencer Chapman called “the real Tibet of my imagination”.

The Tour
We crossed the border at the famous Friendship Bridge at Kodari then drove up to the Nyalam Tongla Pass, which marks the start of the Tibetan Plateau at 5,200 metres. Many in the group struggled with headaches and nausea from the altitude. After visiting Yamdrok Tso, a turquoise lake which apparently contains a species of unique scale-less fish, we stopped for the night at a grotty little town in the middle of nowhere. If I could remember the name of the place I'd tell you.

The next significant stop was Shigatse, the second biggest city in Tibet with a population of around 70,000. The main draw here is the Tashilunpho monastery, which means “heap of glory” and is the headquarters of the Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It contains the 80 foot high Maitreya, the largest copper Buddha in the world, cast using 6,700 ounces of gold and 115,000 kilos of copper.

Lhasa: Lhasa sits in a shallow bowl of mountains with a tributary of the Yarlung river draped around its shoulders. Not long ago it was a medieval town with a population of 25,000. The first wave of modernization and development came in the 90s when tourists began to arrive. The second was driven by the stratospheric growth of the Chinese economy. Attracted by government incentive programs, large numbers of Han Chinese began pouring in. New roads were built and housing blocks went up like jungle creepers. About a million people live there now, roughly half Chinese and half Tibetans.

On the surface, there is little sign of the violent protests of last year, although people are guarded when you talk to them and there is a significant Chinese military presence in the streets. All is well, to the disinterested eye, if there were such an eye in existence.

I tried to find a decent vantage point for taking photos, but other than Chinese government buildings, the whole city is less than two stories high. When I asked a soldier to let me climb the fire escape to the roof of a bank, I was told politely but firmly to "reave".

The main highlights of Lhasa:

  • Potala: The Potala Palace is a massive 1000-room fortress on the slopes of Mount Moburi that casts an imposing shadow over the rest of the city. Until the late 50s it was the home of the Dalai Lama. The Potala is one of the most impressive and well-proportioned buildings I have ever seen. It somehow blends harmoniously with the landscape.

  • Jokhang: The Jokhang Monastery in the heart of old Lhasa is the holiest place in Tibet. Every day thousands of pilgrims from all over the country arrive, some of whom have spent years travelling on foot to reach it. From the roof you get a panoramic view of the endless merry-go-round of pilgrims circumambulating the temple. Many prostrate themselves full-length on the ground at one-step intervals, repeating thousands of these prostrations every day. So many pilgrims have circled the temple like this that the paving stones on the street have a polished finish.

  • Drepung: This was once the largest monastery in the world. Built in the 15th century and nicknamed the "rice mound", it housed 12,000 monks. During the Cultural Revolution the monastery was all but abandoned but around 600 monks have since returned. It’s an impressive place, consisting of a multitude of whitewashed buildings built into a high cliff. I spent some time chanting with the students, so I guess I'm a trifle more in touch with the infinite.

    After almost a year on the road, I am finally back on the tourist trail, which is a bit of a curate's egg. You come across all sorts, old, young and middle aged - some very interesting and some so boring it's like listening to a sheet of paper talk. "Really? A marketing manager for an insurance company? Sweet Jesus, yes. Tell me everything. Spare no detail!"

    My roommate for the tour was Yevgeny Levchenko, the Ukrainian football international and Holland's best dressed footballer of 2009. This was a comedy change from the selection of climbing fanatics and boggle-eyed stoners I had been hanging out with in Nepal. Having the perfect ringer, I kept looking for locals having a kick-about but no luck.

    Next month: paragliding with Jay-Z.

    I spent most of my time with Lev and an American couple who live next to Yellowstone National Park. It just so happens that I have read two books on the subject of shield volcanoes with a wide caldera like Yellowstone, so I was able to regale them with factoids. Suffice to say that when the planet decides to take a leaf out of Mother Nature’s recipe book and Yellowstone goes up, they won't be the only ones in trouble - the human population of the earth will be culled by between 40 and 80 percent. What’s more, this is not a distant prospect in terms of geological time. Ho hum.

    They kept asking me for stock tips, which I never give. Like most civilians, they imagine that professional investors have a list of guaranteed winners, which is sadly not the case. Consequently, if the stock tip does badly, they take it as a personal betrayal. If it does well, they want another tip.

    Since I’ve been back in Kathmandu, I have been hanging out with a physicist who specialises in climate change. Well, I hear you ask: 'how screwed are we really?'. The answer may surprise you, but only if you thought the answer was 'not screwed'.

    Tibetans have the rosy-cheeked full moon faces of central Asia and always seem to be smiling. Most are extraordinarily friendly but hardly any of them speak English. Tibetan is a pleasant, melodious language unlike Chinese, speakers of which always sound to me like they're having an argument.

    Many of them live in what westerners would consider abject poverty. You know this from the photos you've seen of them in travel magazines, the black & white emphasising their desperate struggle to survive. I sometimes feel that many of the ‘poor and needy’ of the world are fine until we come and tell them they should be unhappy because they don't have a mobile phone and central heating.

    A remarkable number of people still wear traditional dress, consisting of fur-lined boots, a sheepskin jacket and a hat like an origami boat. All of them, even the trendy youngsters, are devout and observant Buddhists.

    Best/Worst Food
    Nepal is a nation of exceptionally gifted cooks. Although Nepali food is itself not enormously exciting, they make excellent western and subcontinental food. You can even find good Japanese. This was a tonic for my jaded palate. I no longer feel a compunction to eat nothing but local food. I have ingested more than my lifetime quota of half-cooked goat meat in the past year.

    Tibet: Tibetan cuisine is a reflection of the arid plateau that produced it - yak meat dumplings called momo, deep-fried flour balls and a variety of watery soups. I was also offered a kind of pickled meat which looked like boiled roadkill, but would have as soon eaten my own arm. Even the Tibetans can hardly bear to force down their miserable provender - the population seems to get most of its calories from the local tea, a foul concoction made with yak butter and salt. I went vegetarian for a week in Tibet, not out of a love for animals but out of an abiding hatred of vegetables and the fact that the meat was inedible.

    The “Tibet Question”
    The Chinese occupation of Tibet has become a cause celebre. Nations issue stern warnings to China after mounting frustration spurred by China's failure to acquiesce to several thousand previous rounds of warnings. Political leaders wag a disapproving finger at visiting Chinese dignitaries, at least in front of the cameras, and Hollywood actors trot out simplistic and trite sentiments at gala dinners.

    Chinese-style economic development is seen as a form of cultural genocide. As Beijing pours money into infrastructure, tourism and an administrative network, Tibetans are portrayed as prisoners of change being forcibly welcomed into the gulag of development.

    In most people’s minds the Tibet question is settled: Tibetans are a martyred people, victims of half a century of Chinese occupation and should be given their independence. The real story, as ever, is complicated and ambiguous. Some random points:

  • The old system: The Chinese emphasize the shortcomings of old feudal theocracy - life expectancy was 36 and 95% of Tibetans were illiterate serfs owned by the monastic rulers. They paint a picture of web-footed peasants bowing down and knuckling their foreheads to the lordly monks. It’s clear that Tibet was badly in need of reform. The question is - why should the Chinese be the ones to do it?

  • Modernisation: People give the Chinese no credit for the significant improvements in the Tibetan standard of living. Many feel that the Tibetans need to be protected from the malign influence of cars and TV. But to poor rural Tibetans, for whom modernization has come late, cars and TV seem like a pretty good thing. Also, if God didn't want the Chinese turning Tibet into a giant iPhone factory, then why did he give them those clever little hands?

  • Local news coverage: The Chinese don't help their cause by printing stagy and melodramatic stories about Tibetan peasants making it big in the New China and thanking the communist party for their liberation. The central question is never addressed: why are the children of liberated slaves rising up against their liberators?

  • Independence: Tibet has rarely been free of Chinese control, although it was mostly seen as a buffer state and the monasteries were left to run internal affairs. It stumbled onto the international stage as an "independent" country in 1912, only to trip over the footlights back into the Chinese orchestra pit. It only happened at all because the British also saw it as an effective buffer, this time against the threat of the expanding Russian sphere of influence.

  • The protests: Like most anti-migrant riots, last year’s protests had more to do with the frustrations of the urban dispossessed than any separatist ideology. Many of the rural Tibetans who migrated to Lhasa have few of the skills needed for urban employment and resent the gap in living standards between them and the Han Chinese.

  • The Relative Picture: The Chinese are estimated to have killed 140 in the uprising. This received more attention than the far more serious violence in the DRC or in Somalia, where US-backed Ethiopian forces have killed thousands over the past year. In Turkey, the Kurds have faced more violence and a far more aggressive cultural clampdown than the Tibetans. Let's discuss those issues first.

  • Pot/Kettle issues: Protesting human rights abuses is noble and necessary but the Americans would do well to examine some of their own, especially as they are the ones who ushered in our era of rules-are-for-losers foreign policy. Sadly any nation in their position would probably do the same. The basic reasoning, shared by the Chinese and Americans, is that a nation that is not the hammer will end up being the anvil. They’re all cut from the same cloth.

    The Dalai Lama is an amazingly charismatic and profoundly moral individual but it is worth remembering that the oppressed have no superior virtue. The reason to support them is simply because they are oppressed and not because Richard Gere says they're all saints.

    The minotaur at the centre of this political labyrinth is the fact that the Chinese are a prime target for projected Western hate and suspicion because they are communists, non-white, frighteningly numerous, and growing more and more powerful.

    The reality is not a cozy picture of good vs evil but rather a mix of individual mistakes, fluid and shifting international agendas, perceptions, luck and above all what Harold Mcmillan described as "events, dear boy, events". Of course, it’s entirely possible that I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

    Buddhism in Tibet
    Religion dominates daily life in Tibet to a degree I have not seen in any other country. Until the communists arrived, almost every village had a monastery and 1 in 3 men in the country were monks. Traditionally, at least one son in every family would become a monk, which seems to have been a way of controlling the population. Even in modern Tibet, the entire economy is fuelled, as far as I can see, by everyone selling prayer flags and religious paintings to each other.

    Tibetan Buddhism is highly complex, incorporating ancient animistic traditions and a complicated array of gods and leering demons, many borrowed from the Hindu pantheon. I was too lazy to make my brain pedal as hard as it needed to to remember the ins and outs of it.

    Every chapel has large bowls of Yak butter filled with burning wicks. I will always associate Tibet with the stench of rancid yak butter, just as I associate India with the swishing sound of those little reed brooms.

    Sky burial is a funerary practice in which the human body is chopped up into small pieces and left for the birds on a mountainside. Since they believe in reincarnation, there is no veneration of the corpse, which is considered to be an empty vessel. The practice may well have its origins in the fact that the ground in Tibet is too rocky to allow grave-digging. With firewood being a scarce and valuable resource, sky burial was the most practical solution for the disposal of the dead.

    Best Moments
  • Chitwan. This national park is one of Nepal's biggest draws and for good reason. We took a canoe trip, jungle walk, elephant ride and jeep tour. Aside from the stunning scenery, we saw several rhino, wild boar, deer, crocodiles, wild peacocks, black-faced monkeys and a number of beautiful kingfishers.

    How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail, and pour the waters of the nile on every golden scale. How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws. And welcome little fishes in, with gently smiling jaws.

  • Staying at the stunning lake at Rupa Tal.

  • Pashupatinath, Durbar Square and the Potala Palace.

  • Flying over the Everest region from Lhasa to Kathmandu.

  • A pub crawl with the locals in Patan.

  • The Poon hill trek.

    Worst Moments

  • Leaving China: I thought I’d got out of Tibet without my traditional visa-related nightmare. Not so:

    I arrive at the passport desk and exchange perfunctory courtesies with the visa guy, a vicious old boot who looks as though he believes in capital punishment for littering. I am the very picture of rapt and respectful attention as I give him my passport.

    I hand it over.
    “Erm, you have it right there, don’t you?”
    Turns out my guide had given me the photocopy of the visa, not the original. Oh God.
    “But it has the same information, right? In any case I’m only trying to leave the country, not enter.”
    “Look, if I have to go back to the hotel, I’ll miss the flight and the next one isn’t for another week.”

    Waves of total indifference radiate from his spock-like face. Before I can collapse to the floor, weeping with puny rage, a pretty young official takes pity on me. She talks to the supervising officer and manages to get a special exemption. But for her, I would be there yet.

  • Catching Giardia. Nasty couple of days with sulphurous burps and bum trouble.

  • Brothel fiasco. Again (!?). I went off in a cab search of a fake electronics with Lev. Somehow the driver misunderstood and took us to a knocking shop.

  • Car Issues: Going in for an oil change, I somehow managed to get stuck against a railing without noticing. I then intelligently carried on revving the engine as aggressively as possible until I finally set fire to the clutch.

  • Strikes: There have been two bandhs (strikes against the government) since I have been in Kathmandu. Everything shuts down – restaurants, bars, buses and shops. Most tourists don’t get the heads up and have to starve for 36 hours, prompting: “This is an outrage. What kind of crap country is this?! Do you know who I am? I demand a cappuccino and blueberry muffin!” etc.

    2009 has been a triumph. As the great white explorer, I have been making vast strides to improve the lot of humanity. No need to thank me. In January I will set my blazing eyes and lantern jaw to the wind again. The forces of the unrighteous will break against me like a hurricane but I shall remain, colossal and magnificent.

    I can't say I'm sorry not to be in London, where I usually spend Christmas Eve punching old ladies in Marks & Spencers to get the last packet of brussel sprouts. I do miss you guys though. Other than that I am looking forward to another year on the road, including sailing across the south pacific. I am a lucky bastard who probably deserves worse.

    God knows how they count these things but there have apparently been more than 65,000 visitors to the site, which is gratifying. My mother probably accounts for no more than half that number. I have also received an amazing number of emails. Thank you all, including the vast number of people accusing me of gross cultural insensitivity. You are probably right and anyway, our critics are really our greatest friends, the sages tell us.

    This past year has been one of the most fun of my life and one of the most interesting; I have seen and done more than I could have hoped. Jesus Christ, when I look back at some of the stupid stuff I've done I'm amazed I'm still in one piece. Seriously, the litany of near misses is bloody biblical.

    Best love to you all. I wish you the kind of 2010 you hope for, want and deserve.