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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Chilly nights in Tibet

January 8, 2009

Bedding down at a Lhasa monastery means outdoor privies and yak butter tea
Jack Drury
National Post
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
 
Monastery Guest House had a pious yet homey sound to it, conveying a sense of comfort, warmth and welcome.
 
"A true monk would never live like this," I said too loudly.
 
"Take it easy," Ellen replied calmly. "We only have two more nights."
 
It was the third day of our five-day journey through southern Tibet to the Nepali border. We were sitting in the common room of the Monastery Guest House, just eight kilometres from Mount Everest Base Camp. We'd been there for only an hour. In the common room, local men dressed in parkas stared at us over cups of yak butter tea, their ashtrays overflowing. The door was wide open, to let the cigarette smoke escape. I'd already inspected the facilities. Steamy, overflowing outdoor toilets sat less than five metres from the kitchen. Neither the common room nor our $10-a-night dormitory room was heated.
 
I picked up Leon Uris's Redemption, hoping to bring out the true, strong Irish in me, but stopped reading after just a few sentences. My fingers were stiff from the cold. The open door wasn't doing anything to cut the smoke. Looking out the frosted window, I made a decision. For the next 20 hours, I wouldn't eat or use the toilet. The best way to accomplish this would be by lying completely still - never mind that I was just eight kilometres from the world's most famous mountain.
 
"I'm going to bed. Wake me up when it's time to leave," I said to Ellen. It was just after 4 p.m.
 
It seemed like forever since we'd climbed aboard the high-speed train in Beijing for the 48-hour trip to Lhasa, Tibet's capital. I should have clued in when I realized that the sleeper compartments were smaller than usual, and that there were an extra two beds crammed into them. Even squat toilets on the new but shaky high-speed train hadn't fazed me. Our original plan had been to visit Lhasa for a few days, then head back down through southern China and into Vietnam. But our German friend Max talked us into travelling overland to Nepal instead, with a stopover at Everest. A local travel agent provided us with a Land Cruiser and driver and arranged accommodation along the way. It sounded like fun, at the time.
 
Once in Lhasa, we'd made our way to Drepung Monastery, just outside the capital. It was established in 1416 and was once the world's largest monastery. In the 1950s, more than 10,000 monks had resided there. In 1959, when the Chinese invaded, only 300 escaped. Today, under a Chinese-enforced capping rule, about 700 monks live in this almost tourist-free monastery. For a while, I wandered alone through the monastery, weathered but still in remarkable condition, half-expecting, half-wanting, to meet the ghosts of Drepung.
 
The following day, we'd driven beneath the endless snowy Himalayan peaks on the southern horizon east of Mount Everest. The barren landscape is like being on the moon, and the local people live like the Flintstones, without the amenities.
 
Once we stopped on a small switch-back to stretch our legs. We hadn't seen anyone in more than an hour. As soon as our Land Cruiser came to a halt, two children, maybe four years old, appeared, looking as if they had crawled up out of the earth itself. We often saw women walking the plateau with wicker baskets strapped to their backs. They collect yak dung to burn in their stoves or sell as building materials. When their baskets are full, they bag it and leave it by the side of the road for men who come by in horse carts to haul it off. A yak patty, which resembles a good-sized hamburger patty, creates about as much heat as the front section of a weekday newspaper. It's a mystery where the yaks get the food to make the dung on the barren, lunar-like plateau.
 
And now I was dreaming frozen dreams at Monastery Guest House. I was awoken at 2 a.m. by Ellen rustling in the dorm bed that I'd pulled right up alongside mine. She sounded panicky.
 
"I can't breathe," she said.
 
"Stay calm, breathe in deep and slow, then out the same way," I told her. "You'll be OK."
 
I knew how she felt. It had happened to me when I was putting the beds together. At 5,200 metres above sea level, simple tasks leave you feeling lungless.
 
I fell back to sleep.
 
The next thing I heard was Ellen scraping frost off our dorm window.
 
"I slept in. The sun'll be up in half an hour," she said as she frantically laced her boots.
 
It was a different panic now, that of missing the sunrise over the top of the world. She was going to trek to Everest base camp and that was that.
 
I pulled the covers over my head and fell back into a deep sleep, dreaming of solid food and distant toilets.
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