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Chilly nights in Tibet

March 20, 2009

Bedding down at a Lhasa monastery means outdoor privies and yak butter tea
By Jack Drury
The National Post (Canada)
March 19, 2009

Tibetan lamas chant sutras during a prayer
session at the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse
of Tibet Autonomous Region, China. The
Tashilhunpo Monastery, built in 1447 by Gyalwa
Gendun Drup, is one of the four great monasteries
of the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism and the
seat of Panchen Lama. The monastery once housed
over 4,000 monks and now has about 600.

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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