Onwards to Everest (Tibet)

We stayed the night in Shigatze and spent the next morning applying for travel permits to Mt. Everest.  Tibet is a land of permits, a world of restrictions.  We needed three permits for our trip: one for Lhasa, one for outside Lhasa, and one for Mt. Everest.  Military Checkpoints every hour.  No getting out of the car, just hand over passports and permits.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the Tashilhunpo Monastery, home of the Panchen Lama.  The Panchen Lama is the religious leader of Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama is their political leader.  The Panchen Lama stayed in Tibet while the Dalai Lama fled to India.  The story of the Panchen Lama story is as disconcerting as it is interesting.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and therefore believe that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas are reincarnations of their predecessors.  Traditionally each Lama is partially responsible for finding the reincarnation of the other Lama, and both Lamas must recognize each others’ authority.  But the Chinese claim that the authority of the Lamas stems from the recognition of the Chinese emperor, and therefore from the current government of China.  This has certainly been the case since 1792, and almost all recent Dalai Lamas have been recognized by the Chinese.

But, like with many issues in China, the last 50 years have been complicated.  When the communists took over Tibet, the Dalai Lama did not support the Chinese, but the Panchen Lama did.  The Dalai Lama left for India, the Panchen Lama, only a teenager at the time, stayed in Lhasa, publicly praised Chinese rule, and was subsequently rewarded with some political authority in Tibet.  But then in the early 1960s he wrote a memorandum criticizing Chinese oppression of the Tibetans and traveled to Beijing to read it in front of the Politburo.

The Chinese responded by humiliating him, calling him an enemy of the Tibetan people, and imprisoning him from the time he was 24 until his release in 1982.  After sufficient ‘political education’ he was released, he married a Chinese woman (marriage is controversial for a Lama) and finally returned to Tibet in 1989.  He died in January that same year, five days after giving a speech in which he stated that, “Since liberation, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.”  Supposedly the 51-year old died of a sudden heart attack, but Ferguson and many other Tibetans think he was poisoned.

His death spawned a succession crisis.  Remember what I said about the Dalai Lama choosing the Panchen Lama’s successor and vice-versa?  Well, that is the traditional Tibetan method.  The Chinese prefer to draw names from a Golden Urn instead of relying on the Dalai Lama to make the selection.

The Dalai Lama appointed a young Tibetan boy, but the Chinese captured the boy and put him under ‘protective custody’ for unexplained reasons.  In the meantime, the Chinese appointed their own Panchen Lama and posted his picture all over Tibet.  He is Chinese-born and the son of two Communist Party members.  He was raised in Beijing, and apparently he gets uncontrollable altitude sickness when he visits his throne in Tibet.  According to the AP, he is secretly living in Beijing and pretending to live in Tibet.  If his reign is legitimized, then it will indirectly legitimize the use of the “Golden Urn” and effectively eliminate any control the Dalai Lama has over his successors.

That means that when the Dalai Lama dies, the Golden Urn will be stuffed with names of Chinese-born, Pro-Communist Party children, and they will pick an uncontroversial Chinese Dalai Lama, one that won’t tell Tibetans to rise up against Beijing.  They believe that will finish the Tibetan struggle for independence.

When I discovered this I was shocked by the ruthlessness of this scheme that is unraveling as we speak.  Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has stated that his successor must come from Dharamsala, India, not China.  The situation is becoming tragically politicized.  The farther I traveled into Tibet, more difficult it was for me to see any legitimacy in the Chinese rule of Tibet.

I walked out of the monastery on the verge of total disillusionment.  Can Good ever triumph over Evil?  In the Tibetan Saga, we are at Episode V, the Empire Strikes Back.  Wow, did I just make a Star Wars reference?  I apologize.  But as I was saying, the Chinese Empire is Striking Back and it looks like we need a miracle to overcome the domination of Tibet.

I brought my mind back down to sightseeing, back to the chit chat of my travel companions, so I didn’t spend the rest of my time brooding out the window.  I chitted, I chatted, I jabbered.  I focused on the scenery and pushed politics from my mind.

The mountains were worth a jibber or a jabber or two.  They were naked convulsions of the Earth’s crust, protrusions of her inner layers that shot skyward when India rear-ended Asia.  Who the hell was on lookout duty in pre-historic Delhi when that happened?  I can understand the Titanic’s failure to see the tip of an iceberg, but how could the Indians have not seen all of Asia???  Apparently, India and Asia exchanged insurance information, but they are still arguing over who is responsible for Tibet… pun intended. ; )

The landscape was one of red rocks, much like those in the Western US.  The only signs of civilization were the radio towers and power lines that the Chinese built to provide Tibetans with their first electricity.  Most of these towers were covered in Tibetan prayer flags; the modern draped in the ancient.

We climbed higher and higher towards Everest and the altitude affected us all, but especially Mitori, the tiny Japanese girl sitting next to me.  For the whole trip she had been snapping photos like a paparazzo, swinging her two cameras around her neck and poking her lenses out of the window at the sight of every yak.  Then, on the fifth day, she rested.  To be more accurate, she collapsed with an agonizing groan.

We turned around and looked at the poor girl.  Mitori, are you feeling ok?  Her eyes were glazed and her face white as a sheet, but somehow she mustered a smile.  She muttered something like, “Ahhhh…mmmmmmm…I am…ahhhh…O.K!”  She gave us two thumbs up.

I was unconvinced.  She looked like death.  We tried to help her but the language barrier was too great.  She was a quiet girl and, when she did speak, her sentences were little more than a string of ahhhhs, mmmmmms, and ohhhhhhs, punctuated by the occasional English word.  My Japanese knowledge began and ended with Domo arigato Mr. Roboto, so communication was nearly impossible.

Mitori started popping pills like she was Robert Downey Jr.  Then she pulled out a small tank of oxygen and began breathing through an attached mask.  Remarkable people, the Japanese.  Nonetheless, Mitori was out for the count.

The remaining three of us feared we would be next.  The altitude crept up on us like a forgotten anniversary and gave us the slap in the face we deserved.  I remember very little of that afternoon.  Everything was blurred.  The Himalayas toyed with us.  Our faces turned green.  I have a fuzzy recollection of Ferguson turning to me and asking MMMiiiissttteerrr Maaaaaarrrkk, arrreee yoooouuu okkkkk?  I was certainly not.  The notes in my journal became increasingly short, wobbly, and indecipherable:

3:00 PM Mitori is dead, am I next?  3:20 Feeling strange.  3:40 I see Tibetan houses, but everyone has Chinese flags?  Ferg. says Chinese gov. mandates it.  “Beijing Olympics 2008, China Mobile…Four Bars=Full Service=Total Occupation.  Eliminate mobile phone service to free Tibet. On a pilgrim to Mt Ev to pay homage to lim. of hum aspir, and dreams…how high is Ev.?  Who cares… I will never climb that beast.  4:55 Kids want candy.  They pound on window like zombies in horror flick 6:15 this road looked easier on paper.  6:55 I need to puke… 7:00 where the hell is Fergus? 

Good question: where the hell was Fergus?!?!? I came back to my senses at 7 PM when we arrived at our final checkpoint outside of Everest, but Ferguson was gone.  The Chinese border guard refused to let us pass without our tour guide, even though we had permits.  While the driver argued with the guard I looked around and found good ol’ Fergus hiding in the back of the Land Cruiser under all of our baggage, with just his eyes and nose visible.

Ferguson was trying to duck the $30 admission ticket to Mt. Everest.  Where we not paying Fergus’s expenses in addition to his salary and tip?  I could only smile at this funny Tibetan man hiding beneath our dirty underwear.

The situation appeared to be at an impasse, and I almost yanked Ferguson out of the backseat and handed our stowaway to the guard.  Luckily, the guard let us pass without such a scene unfolding.  By the time we arrived at Everest Base Camp, it was raining, cloudy, and almost dark.  Everest was invisible.  For accommodation we had a surfeit of options, over forty, in fact…all yak skin tents.

We carted Mitori into the tent, covered her in a blanket,read her last rites, and then sat down to dinner and a game of poker.  We sat in a yak-skin tent, ate yak-meat-noodles and drank salty-yak butter tea until I almost yaked.  We played poker and used sheep turds as poker chips.  Only in Tibet, only at Everest base camp.  Exhausted by the altitude and excited for the next day, we went to bed early and prepared for the next day, the day we would finally face Mt. Everest!


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