The Rainbow from Heaven

SYNOPSIS:  About “my guys”, traffic rules, and about being denied access to a tourist site.  About the dramatic changes in scenery, and about a rainbow.

This was the second Holy Lake (after my disastrous tour to Lake Namtso), which would not let me near it.  Karma, would have been Sergej’s answer.  Damn those vodka drinking Russians! would be my reply. 

Today, my Eastern Tibet Tour started.  Now I am all alone with “the guys”.  That is hard-working Pootse in his late 30’s, the ever singing and mantra-mumbling, high-spirited driver, never short of advice to distribute to anyone who will listen — that includes anyone at our lunch restaurants, or any hitchhiker we pick up, or even Tenzin.  I gave Pootse carte blanche to load up the car with locals, who often hitch a ride, and I observed Pootse starting his lectures within about two minutes.  He once managed to talk for over 20 minutes without a break, reducing the young student who had joined our team to the single word “ore”, or as much as “you are right”.   Pootse’s favorite past time (in the car at least), is to curse the many traffic cameras, installed to make him slow down.  One day on our tour going west, he got a ticket of nearly $100!  Both Sergej and I chipped in to ease that pain.  But ever since that, he has been extra careful.  Mind you, that does not mean that he is slowing down on these ever-serpentining ways.  I fly from right to left and up and down in the back seat of the car for hours every day testing every limit since the Kailash Kora!  It means however, that he has timed to the minute how long it should have taken him in between one and the next camera break.  And so he decides when there has to be a “picture take” break and if there really is nothing to photograph, then we just have to sit out the 3, 7, or 12 minutes until he can go again.  I begged him to just slow down.  It would make my life so much easier there in the back row of the van.  But he claims that he would fall asleep if he had to go 20, 30 , or 40 miles per hour all the time.  And who can argue that?

And there is Tenzin, the more introverted of the two, the local guide, who resorts to smoking a cigarette, when the lectures start coming his way.  He is a kind young man in his late 20’s with quite a history.  When he was only 8 years old, he and his younger sister, with a distant relative escaped to India, brought over there by two Nepalese smugglers.  He spent 13 years in Darussalam, the place of the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama.  He received his schooling and Buddhist training there and has seen the Dalai Lama in person on numerous occasions.  When he was 21, he decided to go back to Tibet — a decision which seemed rational to him at the time — after all, he had not seen his parents in all of those years.  His sister returned with him.  They snuck back into the country and months later applied for an ID card, at which point who knows how (one of those many spies, eyes or ears the Chinese government has installed everywhere) turned him in and revealed that he had been “over there”.  Both siblings spent several months in prison…  He will not talk politics, but I think he has a unique and much more informed perspective on life, politics, and the world, that sharply differs from the naive and uninformed outlook of the “fill-in guide” Sonam, from yesterday.

What was most stunning to observe was the change in scenery.  Lhasa is a valley with dry mountains, but there is greenery and trees can be found in the valleys.  Farmers here have wood to burn and hay to feed the animals; and during the monsoon season all of this will likely sprout and green even more.  When we turned west, the land became more and more barren, an already sparsely populated land, thinned out to even fewer people.  We often would only see one or two small villages in several hours along with a few nomad families dotting the land in between.  This country is vast!

Going east, the population density increased.  There were more rivers, and the trees began, first sparsely, then fully, to take over entire mountains in lush greens ranging from the light spring greens to the dark forest greens.  Were these virgin forests?  The cedar trees reached far up into the sky.  The yaks here actually had something to eat and there was a notable presence of pigs, which are completely absent in the west.  Just like their goat-, sheep- and yak-counterparts, they feared none of the traffic, and often sprawled out with all of their kin right in the middle of the road.  Pootse had his work cut out for him!

After all this sparseness in the west, this was a feast for the eyes.  Enjoy it!

The only site on our schedule before reaching Nyingtri, was Batsomtso Lake.  It was a sacred lake, but it had completely been taken over and turned into a Disneyland Chinese circus, as far as I could tell.  Tour buses arrived by the minute.  A big welcome center with multiple ticket counters and a hefty entrance fee, go carts and souvenir stalls were fit for an amusement park, more than a sacred lake.  Tenzin, who wanted to purchase our tickets, was sent away “to obtain a permit”.  Something was wrong with this picture; we had all the permits we needed.

15 minutes later, he returned; defeated.  No permit, no entry.  He had tried everything, even offered his and the driver’s license as collateral if I was let in.  All he could find out:  Last week a (vodka-drinking) Russian had misbehaved.  A governor had lost his job over the incident, and from then on and for the unforeseeable future, no foreigners would be allowed in.

I had hung out at the visitor center long enough to have spotted a “complaint counter”.  At least, I would leave my mark there.  I pulled the “I am a professor, came a long way, and spend a lot of money” card, and left a lengthy complaint entry.  No, I don’t expect an answer.  I don’t even expect anyone to feel bad for “profiling” and for making everyone innocent, from an entire, arbitrarily defined group, pay for the mistakes of one single person.  Why not just ban all Russians?  Or all Men?  Or all vodka drinking people?  Why ban anyone?  It’s a discussion we have world-wide and it is not an easy one with easy answers.  But I felt deeply wronged.

If Sergej would be right, and I just did not have enough good karma to get near this lake, how then would he explain that absolutely gorgeous full-swooping rainbow, that rolled out over our road shortly after we departed?  I think it was a sign from heaven, saying: 

Don’t mind those stupid bureaucrats!