Archive for the ‘tibet’ Category

living clockwise

November 30, 2009
When you’ve been raised in the tradition of the stiff British upper lip, public displays of devotion can make you a little uncomfortable. For starters, people in the West aren’t devoted to much these days – iPhones; Grey’s Anatomy; raw food – and any deeper devotion is usually very privately held. So being swept along by a throng of pilgrims on our first morning in Lhasa, many with callouses on their foreheads from hundreds of kilometres of prostration, was a humbling and spellbinding introduction to real and living devotion, Tibetan style.

In debating the question of whether to visit Tibet, one of our fears was that we would witness a culture being watered down by military intimidation, Han Chinese immigration and tourism. But, perhaps as a symbol of resistance, Tibetan culture and Buddhism are worn as a badge of honour. Having said that, Lhasa is a virtually segregated city and security in the Tibetan quarter makes you wonder if Obama might be visiting – night time road closures; boys with guns on every rooftop and somewhat farcical foot patrols. But Tibetans are a tough mob – it takes a special breed to eke out centuries of existence in a frozen and vertiginous equivalent of the Nullabor plain.

 

 

 

 

Monasteries and temples are the order of the day in Tibet and despite visiting dozens, we never tired of them. Not at all museum-like, wafts of juniper incense and yak butter and the chanting of pilgrims making their fluid kora were a feast for the senses. Our diminutive guide, Chongla, liked to keep us on our toes with pop quizzes on the various images. Given how often we muddled up our Sakyamuni Buddhas with our Tantric masters, we were glad she didn’t employ the methods of reprimand used by monks in their debates, which involves an enthusiastic “whack!” delivered an inch from the face when you blunder the answer to an esoteric question. We eventually concluded that the more we learnt about Tibetan Buddhism, the more it completely mystified us, although I suspect that trying to explain the mechanics of the Holy Trinity to a Tibetan might have a similar effect.

 

A foreboding, silent monolith in a sea of Mandarin neon, Potala Palace is unrivalled in its dominance of the Lhasa skyline. Our first glimpse of the Dalai Lama’s winter residence and the seat of Tibetan government came on the late night ride from the brand new, gigantic train station on the outskirts of town, which rises out of nowhere like the Death Star. All at once, we felt excited, privileged, saddened and weighed down by the living out of a long-held dream. When visiting a few days later, we expected the building to be empty but were surprised to see that much of the interior survived the iconoclastic rampage of Mao’s Red Guards. That said, only a handful of the 1,000-odd rooms are open to visitors. Most definitely off-limits are those which might be construed as having a political element, such as the stupa housing the remains of the 13th Dalai Lama, the current Dalai Lama’s predecessor and no friend of China.

Earlier the same day we visited Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s traditional summer residence and where the current Dalai Lama spent much of his youth. Less visited than the other sites of Lhasa, we had plenty of time to wander the grounds and ponder what was left. One of the more fascinating and odd exhibits was a room full of horse-drawn carts gifted to the Dalai Lama by various heads of state and royalty on his coronation in 1950, a reminder that there was no motorised transport in Tibet at the time. Also on display was a small tricycle, which a monk explained had been the Dalai Lama’s 7th birthday gift from his English tutor. The living quarters were constructed in 1956 and in contrast to Potala, which is truly fit for a living deity, they are very modest – although there is a western toilet and a bathtub, which is a luxury in Tibet even in 2009.

I don’t think any of us will forget the sight of the empty throne in the main reception hall, robes folded and patiently awaiting their owner’s return. Hidden in an inaccessible corner of the room is the only picture of His Holiness tolerated in Tibet – a mural depicting a very young man, yet to acquire his trademark spectacles. Chongla was understandably reluctant to discuss politics – Lhasa is reputedly crawling with informers – but as we sat in silence in the courtyard outside, she casually remarked that although the buildings are full of beautiful things, they feel empty.

 

 

 

 

After four days in Lhasa, we began our journey that would see us deposited at the Nepali border. As if all the spectacular cultural sites weren’t enough, the Tibetan countryside also threw up some of the most jaw-dropping scenery of our travels. Every day it seemed we would cross another 5000m pass, marvel at yet another technicolour lake or glimpse an “8000-er” in the distance. Our penultimate night in Tibet was to be spent at Everest Base Camp, the details of which we hadn’t given much thought to – that is until our hungover driver started inventing reasons not to go. No chance, Tenzing! So after arriving in the dark and being shown to our dismal and overpriced digs, we glanced up and there she was: Mt Everest, or Chomolongma (Saint Mother) as the Tibetans know her, faintly lit up by a crescent moon and towering right above us. This magnificent sight was some consolation for having to pee in the carpark during the night, as the toilets were a special type of wrongness to be avoided at all costs.

 

On the suggestion of our recalcitrant driver, we were ready to go before dawn the next morning – only to wait around for him in the cold and the dark for 40 minutes until he graced us with his presence and drove us the short way to the viewpoint. Reliably informed by a fellow tourist that it was -10C, we stamped our feet as the first rays lit up the mountainside… and we felt very, very small. The prayer flags we carried up there and unfurled will hopefully fly in our Perth backyard one day.* When we could stand the cold no longer, we retreated to the car and about three hours later, began to feel our fingers and toes again.

The tale our journey through wonderful Tibet would not be complete without mention of Ryan & Jo, who foolishly agreed to be our travelling partners so many months ago. Wonderfully good-humoured and with a remarkable capacity for yak and potato consumption, we’re very glad they weren’t too put off by Linds’ incongruous references to Spinal Tap amidst the Plain of Jars.

*Uh, slight problem dudes – you have to acquire a house first?!

tropical beer notes #16 – 22: china & tibet omnibus edition

November 26, 2009

 

Yeah, yeah. I know we’re not in the tropics anymore, but we’ll be back there soon. Don’t fret.

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Snow Beer 3.3%   China

Ever heard of Guangzhou, Dongguan or Shenzhen? Put these cities together and you’ve got something like 30 million people.

Meet Snow Beer. I’d never heard of it but it’s the biggest selling beer in the world. Chinese peeps and the odd grubby Australian get though 61 million hectolitres a year. I’d never even heard of a hectolitre before now.

Actually, Snow is kind of like a modern Chinese city: soulless, banal, very modern. Although I’m not picking up any hints of Orwellian vision.  God, I talk some rubbish on this thing. Anyhow – note that Snow overtook Bud Lite about a year ago. Not really a great loss for humanity there.

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Dali Beer 3-point-something-%   China

I can’t remember what strength it is, but all Chinese beer is what Australians deem ‘mid-strength’ anyway.

Comes with about four different labels, but it all tastes like crap (haven’t you missed that Dodd eloquence?).

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Tsingtao Beer 3.1%   China

The most well known, thanks to being the least crap beer in China.

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Stout Lodge   4.5%   China

Where is Stout Lodge? I want to stay there.

Lots of chocolate in this one. It bills itself as German, but any beer lout worth his hops would know that Bavarians don’t even make stout. Not that this sort of detail is a barrier to the marketing execs of China. The inane but hilarious dribble on the label is probably the best thing about it:

“German stout uses only the best ingredients and the ingredients are subject to the strictest screening processes. German stout is brewed with teadi-tionnal methods which has established its elite status in stout. Its deep chocolate color, smooth foam and light chocolate flavor di-stincts from others nevertheless, the good old German heritage remains. Ger-man stout is the best enjoyment you can have ta anytime stout.”

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Guinness Foreign Extra   5%   China via Malaysia

GFE’s providence is so confusing. This one is made in Malaysia but is not for sale in that country; it’s produced solely for export to China. Essentially a not-quite-as-good version of the one I tried all those months ago on the Malay Peninsula.

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Kingway Beer can’t-remember-%   China

Ah, my old friend Kingway. It’s not much to recommend but it did send me on a trip down memory lane. In the late nineties, the now sadly defunct John Coppins bottle shop* sold cartons of this stuff for a crazy cheap $20. Around the corner, Tommy Bell and I were doing some horrific labouring for his uncle, Blinky Bell – shocking Dockers supporter and Len Buckridge wannabe. After a hard day of scrubbing pavers with acid, Tom and I would retire to Tom’s squalid abode, the infamous and thankfully long gone “Moon Unit“, in Cottesloe. There we would sate our first-year-uni-student thirst and workshop marketing slogans, full of the wit that only freshers can summon:

“Kingway – good for Chairman Mao! Good for you!”
(actually, I’ve taken to remembering that one as “Good for Chairman Mao! Had better be good for you!”)

“Kingway – brewed from the freshest Yangtze Dam waters!”

…and probably the most worthy of reminiscence:

“Kingway – choice of a repressed generation!” (Get it? Like Pepsi? OK maybe only Tom gets it, or got it when he was 18)

Of course, all must be chanted with a mock Chinese accent that many in the community would consider highly offensive.

 

*taken over by the do-ers of Satan’s bidding, Vintage Cellars

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Lhasa Beer 4.3%   Tibet

The “beer from the roof of the world.” Soapy and fizzy. It’s not that great, but drinking the stuff in Lhasa is. It became a near compulsory component of our meals.

Here I am with Ryan “Where’s the chopper?” Pace, one half of Ryan & Indiana Jo, our long-suffering Tibetan travelling partners. Ryan and I decided to celebrate reaching 5020m, the highest point of the journey to Tibet, with a refreshing drink. My Tibetan cabin mates gesticulated wildly at me as I prepared to crack it open – turns out they weren’t encouraging me to quench my thirst but warning that beer explodes on opening at this altitude. Not the best way to make friends and influence people.