Monday, September 12, 2011

Tibet and the camera

Donkey transport: rough going.

I am shortly off to Morocco, trekking, and am wondering if the bag I have packed will be suitable for transport by donkey. I think so. The duffle bag I used last time I went trekking, in Tajikistan, didn’t survive the donkey treatment, or perhaps it was the donkey-boy treatment. Or perhaps it was two weeks being dragged across the Tibetan plateau in a Landcruiser 4WD. Certainly, I blame Tibet for the seeming demise of my lovely Canon 5D, which has somehow never been the same again.

The boys and their Landcruiser
It’s a good story, and worth repeating. After a few days in Lhasa, I put myself in the hands of a couple of cheerful Tibetans, a guide named Tensing and a driver named Pashy. The three of us then set off to cruise the Roof of the World in their slightly battered, but thankfully reliable, 4WD. Tensing spoke what passes for good English in Tibet (though it wouldn’t anywhere else). He had that peaceful, cheerful, vaguely blissful aura that marks out many Buddhists. Pashy, on the other hand, knew only a few words of English, which he occasionally repeated loudly when the circumstances demanded it. They involved the Chinese, and I better not repeat them. I’ve changed his name, of course.

Our wild ride across the plateau, occasionally as high as 5,000 metres ASL, sometimes went off the beaten track. My large camera was always beside me on the back seat, ready for that fabulous shot, of which there were many. But quite often it was on the car floor, having been knocked off the seat by the bumping or swaying. I tried my best, but perhaps oxygen -deprivation prevented sufficient clear thinking to protect it properly.

Gosh, I don't know which one it is...
Tensing told me a number of colourful stories as the days went by, and I am still in two minds as to whether to believe him. If pressed, I choose to believe. The short story of his life was that when he was 18 (he was then in his late 20s) he walked across the border of Tibet and Nepal, and managed to join an uncle of his at Dharamsala in India, the Tibetan exile enclave, where his uncle was a ‘nature lama’. Tensing studied Bhuddism there for a few years, then came back home, presenting himself on foot at the Tibetan border and telling his story, whereupon he was let back in. Certainly, I can verify that he was very enthusiastic and knowledgable about the Bhuddist deities and religion. Having dabbled in a little Bhuddism myself, I showed an interest, and from then on Tensing would be sure to name them all as we toured the monasteries. This makes a tour of the massive Potala Palace very lengthy. 
“And you know this one?”, he’d ask as we came across yet another effigy. “Avalokiteshvara!” I would say. “No! It’s-a Manjushri!”, my teacher-guide would correct. It sure looked like Avalokiteshvara to me. 

Tensing’s best story of all concerned a trekking group he guided around Mt Kailish, the Holy Mountain in the west of Tibet. One night when everyone was snoozing in their tents, he heard a whimpering sound, which he thought was a baby animal. Upon investigation, it was - a baby human animal, a small girl baby, which had been deposited amongst the tents. Efforts to return her to her rightful owner proving fruitless, Tensing and the western trekkers in the group cared for her, feeding her milk and doing their best with other baby needs. The group headed back to Lhasa within a few days, and Tensing took the baby girl with him. He arrived at his home in Lhasa, and presented the child to his mother, for future care and raising. One can only imagine her thoughts. Tensing said the little girl was now about seven and was still cared for by his mother.

I’ll just leave that one with you for your consideration.

The Tibetan plateau, rich in beauty, if in little else.

But back to my camera. At the end of our ride over the spectacular Tibetan plateau, including a heart-stopping view of the North Face of Everest (granted me only because of Tensing’s winning ways with Chinese officialdom, but that’s another story), our hardy 4WD made the steep descent into the rainforests and waterfalls of the escarpment that leads down to the Nepalese border. Roads so far had been excellent, thanks to that same Chinese officaldom (one can only hope they soon turn their attention to the toilet facilities); but here on the escarpment there was a major problem, with the road cut due to landslides, or road works, or possibly road works to fix landslides. Whatever the reason, our 4WD came to a halt. Tensing and I walked the few kilometres into the wild-west border town of Zhangmu, and Pashy stayed with the car, within which was my bag. He managed to get through six or seven hours later, and I had my hairbrush and shampoo for the night (not that there was any hot water, but still). 

Pashy at the wheel. An expert driver.
The next day I waved the boys goodbye, and trundled my bag by foot through the border post, pausing only to allow the Chinese border patrol to once again search thoroughly for any...books. I had  bit of trouble getting them to allow through my copy of Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ (first published 1637), but they didn’t find my ‘Lonely Planet’, which was what they were looking for. Contraband photos of the Dalai Lama, you see. 

On the Nepal side I was met by another cheerful young man, Nepalese this time, and helped through the far more antiquated and less literary-inclined Nepalese border. Then he hauled my bag and I to the edge of town, where there was another 4WD waiting, with a driver at the wheel, ready to go. On the walk, my young guide explained that it had taken them seven hours to drive up from Kathmandu yesterday, a journey which usually took only two or three hours, because of landslides and flooding on the road. He asked if I would mind if we took three extra guys with us, in case we needed some brawn to help drag the vehicle through any impediments. He had rounded up three reasonably hefty looking fellows (Nepalese people are generally small, but strong and wiry), and in we all piled: the driver and guide in the front, me occupying the back seat in solitary state, and the three young extras in the back. Sitting on my bag, in which I had, by this stage, stowed my camera. 

We made it to Kathmandu. I made it home. The camera made it to the repair shop. But its delicate insides still appear to be affected by the Tibetan experience. I’m not taking it to Morocco. The little point-and-shoot will have to do. 

A few impediments on the road.

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