21 April 2007

Seven Meals (a Day) in Tibet

Because Lhasa is a pretty small city, and since we're here for so long we've seen most of it, we decided to rent out a Land Cruiser to take us to Yamdrok-tso Lake for 600 Yuan. Renting a Land Cruiser is a pretty waiguo ren thing to do, but the travel agent's promise of time to hike around and see some of Tibet's nature fueled our interest to leave the city.

So Friday at 9 AM, the three of us, our driver, and two over-flowing bags of food set off for Yamdrok-tso Lake. Yamdrok-tso Lake's elevation is 4488 m. Lhasa is at 3700m. I don't know how people climb Everest.

This is at a little stopover we made on the way.

It's a two hour drive from Lhasa to the lake, but my is it gorgeous scenery.

The road up is new and paved, and, according to our driver, in far better condition than it was two years ago. Nonetheless, it's curvy and on the side of a mountain. It's best not to think of what could happen if the driver got a little distracted and sent us plummeting to our deaths on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, Tibet. All I know is there would be a lot of paperwork involved, though luckily not for me, as I would be dead.

We were all expecting a cool, isolated place where we could walk around, picnic, and see some nature. We were a little wrong. When we reached the top of the mountain, we encountered at least half a dozen other Land Cruisers and some tour buses parked at the peak of a mountain looking down at the lake. It was waiguo ren central.

At this lookout were Tibetans leading around yaks, deer, and dogs all dressed up. Before I opened the door, I was greeted by a man shouting, “Hello! You want ride yak! Ride yak!” Yeah, because that's not the waiguo ren thing to do.

There were women selling jewelry, too, and of course they don't listen when you tell them you don't want to buy their cheap jewelry. Instead, they follow you shouting “You look, you look! Hello! Hello!”

So instead of riding yaks or taking pictures of dressed up deer or paying to use the disgusting outhouses, we walked a little down a dirt road and met some yaks.

They are our new friends. We're very close. We'll probably end up eating them for dinner tomorrow.

Then we persuaded our driver to drive us down the mountain to the shore of the lake. None of the other Land Cruisers actually descended the mountain to get close to the lake, which I find ridiculous and rather appalling. What good does it do you to stare at a lake from thousands of feet above?

When we arrived at the shore, we decided to have a picnic. In true Annetta, Jason, and ellis fashion, there was way too much food, all of it junk. Fabulous.

We sat by piles of rocks, some of which had clothes on them. When we say, a woman and her goat came over and just stood by silently watching us.

We had no idea what she wanted; we gave her some of our food. Later back in the Land Cruiser, the driver told us that the piles of rocks with clothes on them were left behind by a group of people to symbolize that they had been there, and then informed us that it was a bad thing if we sat on them. It then occurred to us that maybe that's why the woman was staring at us. Since both our Chinese and English were utterly useless, there was no way for her to communicate to us what was wrong. Or maybe she just wanted food. We'll never know.

After lunch we walked by the lake a little, but just as we started to walk, it began to snow. Normally, I'm not a snow person, but since it's Tibet, I can deal.

Then it got windy, and sadly, though the view was absolutely spectacular, there wasn't much else to do. So we hopped back in the Land Cruiser and convinced the driver to stop at a small town.

This is the sort of situation that makes me uncomfortable, and it's very complicated to describe. We stopped at a small agricultural area and the driver got out and asked a woman to let us into her house to look.

As we got out of the Land Cruiser, we were greeted by a gaggle of little kids. They were totally cute and Annetta gave them our candy. One of them repeatedly said “Pencil” to us.

Then we went into this woman's house. We looked at her home as she and the kids looked at us. She probably gets a fair amount of tourists who stop and look at her house.

We took some pictures with the kids and then walked around a little. We didn't get far before another woman motioned us into her house.

She was weaving wool which she uses to make utterly incredible bright, beautiful rugs. Maybe she expected us to buy one. We sat in one of her rooms for about five uncomfortable minutes, saw where she made her rugs, and then left when the driver came to fetch us. We gave her our apples and pears.

It was really interesting to see these families' homes. Their lives are completely different from ours, and though their houses may be considered small and run down by some, I think they're gorgeous. They have courtyards and tons of color.

All the same, I feel guilty. I feel like we're looking in on their lives like they're on display at the zoo. Maybe I'm projecting too much of myself on to them. If I had people coming to my house, taking pictures of my home and then leaving two minutes later, I would feel a little exploited and violated. These are people, not specimens or case studies to be exoticized. I felt guilty coming in and looking and then jumping back into my Land Cruiser and stuffing myself full of candy. Who the hell am I to treat their lives like a National Geographic article?

One could argue that it's the hospitality of their culture. Maybe. Maybe it's a culture gap. But I also feel like I'm slowly contributing to the commercialization and exploitation of a culture. I guess by being a tourist I am; it's unavoidable. Sometimes it's hard to look at myself and see just another waiguo ren.

On the way to dinner, we stopped at a large indoor market. Fortunately, we were the only waiguo ren there. The market was so unlike anything in America. The produce section was lined with hulks of vegetables on folding tables, and on the floor were whole tomatoes, piled pieces of food, and various discarded scaps heaped and strewn around. The vendor stalls were packed tightly with bags of food and rolls of toilet paper and watches and toiletries. It's essentially the cheaper, local supermarket without the pretense and hight prices.

Walking through there, I got more stares and comments than I have in awhile. Lots of remarks about my looks and my eyes; one woman thought I was Indian. I'll never get over the awkwardness of being blatantly stared at wherever I go. I have people come up to me on the streets and say in broken English “Hello sexy lady” or “Beautiful.”

The other day as we were leaving the travel agent's office, a man ran out and stopped me and asked me to be a model for an advertisement for a new five-star hotel opening in Lhasa. The shooting dates were when we are leaving Lhasa, so luckily I didn't have to decide. That's all I need-- my face in a Tibetan advertisement.

Out on the street, we saw a vendor selling some special chili poweder spice that I like. We were trying to decide the difference between the two of them, and the vendor told me to just try some, so I tried one of each. This stuff is pretty damn hot, and the two women working at the shop found it rather amusing that some waiguo ren was eating their chili plain. So they decided to give me a whole chili pepper, informing me that that was hotter, and told me to eat it.

So I did. I ate it in one bite. It was spicy and made my eyes water, but nothing that made me uncomfortable. It felt good. These women thought it was hilarious and just laughed at me. I don't know whether I should have been flattered or embarrassed. But I bought the powder. I'll bring it home for my family to try.

For dinner, we went back to the Muslim restaurant. We ordered the tudou huiguo rou again, the fried potatoes fried with fatty meat then doused in oil and the chili powder I like.

We also had a chicken wrapped in lamb deep fried, and cooked in oil with chili peppers.

We had some unremarkable but still tasty vegetables.

And then, the piece de resistance, the dish which I lovingly refer to as “Xinzang bing omelettes.” Recall that “xinzang bing” means heart disease.

These puppies are chicken wrapped in egg, deep fried, cooked in oil, and served with a little bit of the chili pepper on top. Fantastic. I can feel my arteries clogging and my waistline expanding. Really though, every single thing in that restaurant is heart disease on a plate. It's just terrible for you, but so, so good. I think Tibet's health situation will not be good in 20 years. Here, meat is fried, double fried, and served with bread and oil.

I'm glad I'm with friends who are willing to forget their health for 9 days and just eat like Sunday is the Apocalypse. I still feel pretty guilty about the obscene amounts I'm consuming, but it's so much fun that I just don't want to care. I feel like if I came to Tibet and didn't enjoy the cuisine available, I'd regret it forever.

The thing is, when we ate that dinner, I wasn't even hungry because I ate so much at lunch. And then after dinner I had ice cream, a pineapple, and candy. Every night after dinner, the three of us come back to the room, play cards, and Annetta and I eat candy. We like trying lots of new kinds, and sometimes we force Jason into eating some too.

I'll be interested to see how much I weigh when I get back to Beijing. Today Annetta said that one of her friend's mothers thinks that if you don't gain weight when you're on vacation, then you didn't have fun. I like that. If Tibet is any indication, I had more than a few pounds worth of fun.

*All pictures by Jason Foong, because his are prettier than mine.

19 April 2007

Que pasa, Lhasa?

I've said once or twice that in Beijing, so much happens in one day that there's too much to say. Well, one day in Lhasa is like three in Beijing. There's too much to fit in to photographs or blog updates. I just wish I could upload what I'm seeing and put it here.

Tuesday we went to Drepung Monastery. Actually, we had planned to go to the Potala Palace on Tuesday, but we got to the line to buy tickets and discovered that you have to reserve tickets in advance. we still bought a ticket, but it was for Tuesday at 2 o'clock. I remembered reading in my guide book about a temple 3 kilometers outside of Lhasa that looked promising, but of course, I forgot the name. So we hailed a cab and asked the driver about that temple or something outside of Lhasa. Surprisingly, he got us to the right place, a humongous, gorgeous monastery situated on the side of a huge mountain.

Yeah, it's hard to be in such a beautiful place. We had no idea what we were in for, but the 50 Yuan entrance price was well worth it. Drepung is a labyrinth of stairs, temples, and random buildings. We spent four hours there, but we probably could have stayed longer if we had brought food.

I guess this is what people of when they think of Tibet; a monastery, monks, beautiful scenery, peaceful surroundings. It was nice to get away from the city and see the city from the mountains instead of the mountains from the city. There was a little river and places for climbing around; we did some of that.

Drepung is just one of those perfect tourist attractions. The Potala is Lhasa's most famous landmark, but Drepung is bigger, more beautiful, quieter, and not overrun by those ever-present waiguo ren (oh wait...).

I've put up a lot of pictures of me because I feel like it's proof that I've been here. I think once I leave, I'll feel like I was never here. We need some proof to counteract that.

Drepung is also mostly outside, so we were in the sun the whole morning. My scalp started to get sunburned, so I used my scarf as a head cover. We joked that every day, Chinese people think I am from a different country: France, Russia, Italy; but with the cover on my head, I looked more like I come from the Middle East. So Annetta and Jason have decided that I look like I could be from anywhere except Asia or Africa. We also all agree that I shouldn't have been born American.

The best thing about Drepung is that we could just wander around wherever we wanted. There were no signs that told us we couldn't go somewhere; we could take pictures just about anywhere, though in some temples you had to pay 10 or 20 Yuan; the monks were just walking around and friendly and willing to have their pictures taken.

A few times we accidentally wandered into their living quarters, where we probably weren't supposed to be, but they just looked at the three stupid waiguo ren and told us how we could get out.

The place was a maze, but we made it to the very back, which was dark, un-restored, and quiet. We wandered up an unstable ladder to the roof of some living quarters (perhaps techinically not allowed) and got the greatest view ever. We got Jason out from behind the camera (for once), so here are Jason and I. Isn't it gorgeous?

I took a lot of pictures—I filled up a whole memory card (250ish pictures). And yet, Jason beat me. Not that it was a competition. He took 1232 pictures. Most of the ones on the blog are his. But I won't tell you which and then you can think that I'm a fabulous photographer.

In our time here in Lhasa, the three of us have been actively seeking out the “authentic” Tibet. We want to eat authentic Tibetan food, buy authentic Tibetan jewelry or bags or clothes, and see authentic Tibetan sights. Every time we go to a restaurant, we ask for “didao” (authentic) dishes. But every time we do, I feel like it's kind of a joke. What is the “authentic” Tibet? Is it the old people walking down the street carrying beads and prayer wheels? Or is it the migrant workers who have lived here for years just trying to make a living? The monks? The fake antique junk vendors sell in stalls? As hard as we try to find the “authentic” Tibet, I feel like it doesn't exist. That doesn't mean that we should go out and eat American food for every meal, and that doesn't mean we should buy total junk knowingly (or at least pay too much for it), but I think that Lhasa has been too overcome by industrialization, commercialization, and tourism for there to be an “authentic” Tibet.