"China 2010" story # 20

Sherxu, Szechuan Province           August 30, 2010

Let's go back to Qinghai Province in Tibet.
     I really liked Qinghaian Tibet, where there were few tourists, and the plateau was home to yak-herders and small towns untouched by Chinese influence. In front of me lied the Tibet of Szechuan Province, where the wooden towns were howling for tourist dollars, and the entrance fees to see glaciers or lakes were 167 or 170 yuan ($25). And the dirt roads were badly broken, so cars stopped while trucks inched past tight spots, and bumpy rides lasted all day long. But, since I don't really like development, I was a bit happy the bad roads helped to make this area a bit more unaccessible. As bumped-around as I was, I wasn't completely happy, of course.
     The Tibetan culture was still radiant, and there were some fairy-tale spots. As I was passing through the first town of Sherxu, for example, on a dark and rainy day, I saw monks in maroon robes stepping past plateau mud puddles on their way to a maroon-and-white palace/monastery complex that rolled up the mountains of grass. I hadn't seen rain in a while. Yay! Why not stop?
     I ate a Tibetan breakfast, "zamba", which seemed to be a bowl full of sweet baking powders and oils that, instead of being cooked, was rolled up into an incredibly filling ball. Then, I explored the monks' home.
     In the monastery village, in mighty temples, classes of monks could be heard praying or reciting scripture together. In the muddy alleys, twos and threes of strong, bald monks or young, goofy monks appeared then disappeared among the maze of walls. Smoke levitated out of the crooked cubes the monks lived simply in. All the paths led uphill, all the monks' homes leaned sideways, all the walls were white, and maroon at the top, and dirty. Stray dogs lay everywhere, their thick hair miserably wet, until monks kicked at them to move.
     On some buildings, the roofs' undersides looked like wood blocks painted bright blue, orange, and yellow. I wandered into such a building which turned out to be a Buddhist hospital. Then, I wandered into the hospital's pharmacy; a normal-looking doctor and a monk served people from behind a broad counter, and behind them were a hundred clear jars, each containing different bright-colored powders. Then, I wandered into a jar.
     I would later be told that Sherxu lies at 4700 meters' altitude, and that it's the highest town in China.
     One day, I climbed a grassy mountain behind the monastery. I was too slow to reach the mountain-top while it was covered in clouds, and my upper body felt like it had been wrung dry of energy, and my head was dizzy. The Buddhists had erected a monument here, and they'd strung colorful prayer flags off it in every direction. Within this teepee of prayer flags, I meditated, watching a river play its way across the plateau below, listening to the wind whip the flags.
     By the way, this was probably the highest place I've ever been. I'd estimate it at 5048 m (16,643 ft.) above sea-level.
     Incidentally, do you know how they figure out the altitude of high places? They just get a guy who's a very clear-minded guesser, and he points at different towns and mountains and says, "3,013 feet; 3,982 meters; etc." At least, I think that's how they do it. How else would they do it?
     A similar, mysterious numerical process is used to determine the results of MODERN ODDYSEUS' TOP 5!!! It involves logarithms and imaginary numbers, and a hand full of fingers. So, here are the Tibetan character traits that made it through the "imaginary number elimination stage" and into the Top 5 Best Things about Tibet!

     An English girl said, "The people in Tibet are amazing! They can be the oldest women, or the oldest men, and they're beauuutiful! And you can tell they belong in the mountains."
     One example was the fifty-something-year-old mother of "V", whom I stayed with. She wore woolly checkered blouses and long skirts, and the wind seemed to have sculpted her face into a sleek look, and to have dried out her hair like leaves. Her big, sleek eyes were sad, from being a widow for the past twenty years. She spent her time collecting things, and arranging the artifacts in her big, old home. She wanted to serve me milk tea in the morning, but I hurried on my way, and I felt terrible about it.
     Other times, young women caught my eye in the street and froze their faces into my heart. Their long bodies wore high-heel boots beneath brown-and-red robes, fastened tightly with black belts, giving them the power of stallions. Their rosy cheeks were blinding. Bright beads decorated their wrists; red-and-yellow earrings were so elaborate that they hung from the top of the ears. These women would smile at me, indicating a sense of humor, and return to their work.
     The guys, too, were amazing. Wearing leather cowboy hats, their faces had been tanned and reddened and pinkened and browned. Their eyes calmly wanted nothing but to drink milk tea. And hair of every length hung wild with darkness.

     And the religious accessories seemed so impractical. People fondled their prayer beads, and poor pilgrims twirled UFO-like toys as they marched. Buddhists spun metal barrels (prayer wheels) near monasteries. They hung rainbows of flags in the mountains, and they listened to the Buddha and Dalai Lama telling them not to have desires.


     Guitars gently galloped, peaceful men hummed more than sang to the rhythm, and wind instruments occasionally chimed and sparkled in the sun. Tibetan women, too, exhaled sound more than spoke as they sang, to the horse-clopping music, but their voices were more emotionally wild.

GREAT HITCHHIKING (though you often have to pay for rides), MANY DON'T SPEAK CHINESE (especially in Qinghai), and BIG HAWKS comprise the HM portion of this list.
     This brings us to The Top 5 Worst Things about Tibet!, which aren't very bad, thankfully.

     By night, in Sherxu town, the big stray dogs had come to control the streets. Tibetan dogs hated people. I searched for a camping spot, in the wet darkness. Giant puddles threatened to swallow me. Monks' flashlights shot my eyes. The kings of the dogs wanted to attack me. And where, in Buddha's name, was I!? I gave in and stayed in a "binguan" (hotel - for $4) for the first time in years.


     Some people litter, honk their horns too much, drive crazily, and have a dumb love for money.


     The milk tea, "zamba", and twisty bread which people gave me was like a small bundle of concrete in my stomach. And it took my Western teeth fifty chews to wear out the medium-rare yak meat I was regularly offered, and even then I'd have to swallow huge chunks. By that time, I'd be holding three more big pieces, and the Tibetan eaters would wonder what was taking me so long.

There. See? It wan't a very bad list. Was it? And there are a few more fairy-tale places to tell you about.
     I traveled south of Sherxu. Bald, gray, thousand-foot-tall rocks stomped down on the land above us. Their tops were shaped like bats' teeth, or the teeth of letter-openers, and they were warmed by snow. Squirts of blue-emerald lakes lie below them. Since we were near to holy Xizang Province, I wondered if these were the Himalayas.
     We passed Dzogchen Gompa, a village of hap-hazard wooden homes, which seemed to squeeze its way into the foot of the mountains. The village was a white glow between the gray rock and brown earth, and it looked like the most magical place. But, I didn't stop.
     Later in Szechuan Tibet, I passed Tagong. This one-street town was made of dusty-red-and-yellow cubes that stood as homes for monks or temples for pilgrims; dusty-red-and-yellow prayer wheels; and wooden saloons serving as shops. Rumor had it an American woman had married a Tibetan man, and she sold yak cheese here; if it was anything like yak yogurt, then it was creamy and white and rich.
     Outside of town, a river was all rapids and rocks, and one could step across it to where a grassy hill rose up beneath the rocks, and in the evening dusk it seemed maybe no man had ever stood on that hill. But, I didn't stop in Tagong. Darn.
     I didn't see all that much in Szechuan, to be frank. But, girls kept appearing for me to hit on. The most memorable one was Gong Xue, a Han Chinese girl who teaches p.e. to elementary school students.
     She had thick, orange skin that made her face firmly round, and a Tibetan bead bracelet. In a random car, we spoke for three hours, about the fat boy who was her favorite student and about Buddhism, and she tied a yellow ribbon around my wrist.
     But, after three hours, my Chinese wasn't good enough to carry the conversation. Instead of laughing with Gong Xue, I was left to sit in silence, feeling the bumps of the slow Szechuan road.

Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Bushong; and Ni Honshi & Gao Ji for rides!
Much thanks to Sholinamjar, Eeshijaba, Cerenchunzon, Namtso, Beimalamu, & Ojaymunjup for a ride and place to stay!

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