Trek to: Hilsa & cross the Nepalese border into Tibet
Internal Transfer: Landcruiser to Purang (aka Taklakot)
Visa required: Yes if British plus an Aliens' Travel Permit
Currency:Chinese Renminbi (RMB)
Time Zone:+8hrs GMT
Day 1, 21/06/10 - Mt Kailash, Tibet
After navigating the ancient salt route, crossing high passes, deep valleys, glacial rivers and meeting numerous tribes we had now arrived at Hilsa, where Nepal meets Tibet. Thus marking the end of one journey & the beginning of our adventure(s) into Tibet's Ngari region, the last frontier.
From crossing the Nepalese/Tibetan border on foot (via Hilsa) we were scenically met by a land of striking contrast. Gone were the deep gorges, the rich lush terraces, the breath taking valleys which lay cradled beneath mighty peaks; here we entered a desolate, barren land, a land where even the gentlest of breezes felt wickedly harsh against the skin.
On crossing the border our bags were taken to one side, a tarpaulin sheet was laid on the floor and all our belongings were sorted through item by item. Our cameras were confiscated, each image meticulously scrolled through. One of the Chinese Officers asked repeatedly for £1 sterling, I had a quick rummage & discovered I was in fact carrying some British shrapnel...damn if only I'd have known I was carrying that extra weight!
They passed the coin around and the Officer, with a controlled & dismissive shake of the head requested (in Chinese) that a £1 sterling 'note' was handed over instead.
After the message had been relaid I had a momentary 'oh sh*t' and then quickly explained that £1 sterling only exists in coin form. Although this interaction was only brief I was more than aware of how nervous & apprehensive I was. After I'd finished speaking my words seemed to be followed by a long, uncomfortable moment of silence, my head filled with the million & one thoughts that now raced into action. At any moment I expected the Mother of all tumble-weeds to blow past, my only hope being that it would drag me away with it. To say I felt out of my depth here would be a complete understatement, the time for treading water had long been and gone, I was now well & truly into the process of drowning.
I'm not sure how or when it happened but quite suddenly one of the Officers broke into a smile. He spoke and was soon surrounded by his peers, it felt like the energy had shifted and I was now experiencing a sense of excitement from them. As the coin was passed amongst them, from one to the other the Tibetan guide said, 'do you have another?' Phew...you're damn right I have another! Turns out they had never encountered anyone from England, let alone any English currency and here they collect a sample of money as a souvenir. They exchanged my pound coin with a 20 Renminbi note, a souvenir of my time at the border (hmm I don't think me being here or this feeling is something I'm going to forget anytime soon).
As we boarded our Landcruiser a Chinese Officer jumped in the front seat to 'accompany' us to Purang. The officer wore his uniform immaculately, his skin texture resembled that of a baby, soft and delicate; his aura however emitted something quite different. His presence alone, without words, hostility or any direct contact radiated a sense of authority, power, discipline.
Never before had I physically felt such a deep seated sense of oppression, a sense of unease that whilst here ran throughout my entire body. If this really was the last frontier of Tibet then my senses were more than aware of it. In this moment, sat in the Landcruiser my voice had somehow been lost to an invisible force, a force I couldn't describe or pinpoint.
In the smallest of time lapses, by the act of simply stepping over a line marked on the ground I found myself thrust into another, altogether different culture. At this moment I was certain that any experience(s) encountered here would be different to that which I've encountered anywhere else on my travels.
It was surreal to be driven from the border in a Landcruiser along what can only be described as a tarmac main road. We were surrounded on all flanks by barren lands similar to those of the Mongolian steppe, in the distance snow capped peaks rose up from the plateau, yet here we were on a main road?! Something within me felt disturbed by that very notion, what I saw and what I felt were in absolute conflict; something about me being here just didn't feel at all comfortable.
It was made clear to us that no photos were to be taken whilst on route to Purang or in the town itself. Now it would seem that when they built Purang all colour charts & creativity went out of the window, instead the whole place exists only on the grey scale. The buildings are dull concrete blocks, the streets linear & on arrival we were ferried into an Embassy compound where all our bags were sprayed, checked and scanned. Repeatedly we kept being questioned as to whether we were carrying any reading material, the scanner seemed to be primarily searching for books & anything else written. My journal was removed and checked, if I'm to be completely honest my scribbles don't actually translate into any recognisable language & this proved to be their consensus also.
I had been told en route how our hotel for tonight had been modernised during recent years and that each room now featured its own toilet. Hmm I'm assuming that the time of that modernisation also coincided with the time of the toilet last being cleaned. The bedding was covered in rather long hairs and when the toilet's energy-efficient lightbulb eventually buzzed into action...well let's just say I wish it hadn't have bothered. Ignorance in some instances is more than bliss, its a saving grace! Oh how I miss my tent...
Purang is considered the main trading town of the salt route & is split accordingly into its different trading districts. As an outsider to roam freely here was prohibited so we headed along the back streets towards the Nepalese sector, here tiny terraced shacks lined the alleyways. Through a cloth covered doorway we entered one of the shacks, inside it was dark & dingy the air filled with a dense smoke. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust and when they did I found that the tiny room was filled with Nepalese men, smoking, drinking chang and playing cards.
As we entered a deathly silence filled the room...oh sh*t cue our 2nd tumble weed of the day! With that thought a man came through from the back and openly & warmly embraced Chhewang; turns out this was another one of his relatives. What a fantastic experience and one that as a tourist I would never have got to experience, I feel so privileged to be here eating dahl bhat with such lovely people.
After a feast fit for royalty we headed to the local bank to change some money, their lunch break ran from 1:30 - 4:30 & thankfully we didn't have to wait too long. It would seem the concept of a queue is quite alien out here. Whilst we were being served other people just squeezed in, not only were they looking & listening to our transaction but they were also commenting & making suggestions. It was really quite a bizarre thing to experience, even more bizarre however is our Tibetan guide's ringtone - a Chinese version of Celine Dion's "it's all coming back to me now".