Tashi Delek

7 Sep

Arranging my entry to TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) was tricky even in June 2007. This was 9 months before the March 2008 Tibetan uprisings spread through TAR and the PRC snuffed things out. While in Kathmandu, I met with a tour agency that was approved by the PRC in order to procure my Chinese visa and “Tibetan travelers permit.”  I provided the tour agency with a passport-sized photo and the necessary rupees and was told it would take at least 3 days to process my paperwork. That was no bother to me since I had things to see in Kathmandu.  Everything was to work out so that by the time I had to meet the rest of the tour group and hop on the bus to the Nepal-Tibet border, I would receive my visa and permit.  When I arrived at the bus depot at 6:30am on the designated day, I immediately met a friendly Norwegian couple who were also traveling to Tibet. While we chatted and compared trip notes, our tour guide came up to us and casually explained that our paperwork had not yet been sent back to the tour group by the Chinese consulate in Kathmandu. “No problem,” our guide said. He would just have a messenger drive up later in the morning and catch up with our bus at the midpoint of the drive to the Nepal-Tibet border. The bus trip was a ravine-hugging unpaved road that rose out of the Kathmandu valley into the Himalayan foothills. When we stopped at the midpoint, I looked into the horizon and marveled at the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the clouds. Then, as my mind began to focus on what I was observing, I realized that what I thought were clouds were actually the glaciered peaks of the Himalayas. I would be on top of that horizon in 2 days’ time!

First Glimpse of the Himalayas

I heard some chatter between the bus driver and our tour guide and I walked over to them. My guide explained that the messenger who was to meet us with our documents was running late. “No problem”, the guide again said. We would just continue on to the border and have lunch there and wait until the messenger caught up with us.  So, on we went — stopping off a few times — once to walk across an incredible bridge that spanned a narrow gorge over the Bhote Koshi river.  It took us 6 hours to get to the border town of Kodari, and we settled onto the wooden porch of the restaurant to eat and wait for the messenger.  And we waited… It took nearly 3 hours of sitting, standing, stretching, and reading until finally our boozy “courier” showed. I had no idea how this guy had driven through the winding terrain to reach us in his inebriated condition. But, he did have our paperwork in hand and was all smiles about it too.  The tour group and I had little time to thank the courier because we were told to run across the Friendship Bridge before the Chinese guards shut down the border for the night.  Although the Chinese customs border town of Zhangmu on the other side of the Friendship Bridge was over 2600 miles from Beijing, the PRC had that town and the entire TAR on Beijing Standard Time (BST).  This meant that once we crossed the bridge from the Kodari, Nepal side, the clock jumped ahead by 3 hours and 15 minutes. So, the Chinese closed the bridge at 4:30pm  BST and it was close to 1pm Nepal time when we finally got the paperwork. We made a mad dash, and luckily because our tour guide had given the Chinese guards a heads-up (or bribe) about our late arriving paperwork, the guards kept the border gate open a bit longer for us.

Friendship Bridge, Kodari, Nepal

Crossing into Tibet via the Friendship Bridge from Kodari, Nepal (2007)

Rain began to come down in hard sheets as soon as we had crossed the bridge.  As we passed through the border gate, we saw 4 Toyota Landcruisers waiting for us and we spilled into the cars.  Our drivers were Tibetan and did not speak a lick of English. Smiles were exchanged and they quickly drove us up the hill to Zhangmu where we had to get out and go through a more formal Chinese customs process. As the tour group waited for the customs agent to let us in, two young, curious Tibetan girls walked over to us. They laughed to themselves as they took in the strange features of the foreigners in front of them. One guy in the tour group who was from Russia made the mistake of greeting the girls with the words, “ni hao,” and was quickly scolded by the girls who snarled at him in English: “We are Tibetan not Chinese!”  Everything snapped into focus with those words. The fun at the rooftop bar in Kathmandu some nights earlier disappeared in a flash. This would be different. This would be a journey into occupied land. I had seen the Dalai Lama speak in L.A. several years earlier, and I remember he implored us to visit Tibet and to witness the resilient spirit of the Tibetan people.  I was here now. I felt a heaviness – a responsibility.  I quickly learned the Tibetan words for “hello” — Tashi Delek. But, these words had not always conveyed the succinct English meaning they had only recently been assigned. These words had a deeper, more complex meaning that could not accurately be translated into English. The Tibetan language had evolved in such a way that it did not contain a simple, terse way of greeting. Instead, the existence of the Tibetan people must have been such that it had spawned a mult-layered expression for greeting one another.  A deeper message was communicated.  That stuck with me. I would be in Tibet for the next 7 days and would be traveling overland from Neyalam, Tingri, Lhatse, Xigatse, Gyantse, and finally to Lhasa. The literally uplifting and transformative power of leaving the chaos of the crowded neighborhoods of Kathmandu, crossing over the Himalayas, and arriving onto the wide open, above-the-trees plateau of Tibet would jettison me into the lucid and purpose-driven life of the Tibetan people. I became the most sober in mind and body that I had ever been at any time in my life.  There were no distractions and no boundaries — at least that’s how the first few days began.

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