OK, it's really more of a Thailand thing (Same, Same... but different), but I couldn't resist because one of the first stops after Lhasa was a place called Samye Monastery.
So I was pretty much dead wrong about being out in the middle of nowhere. Since we left Lhasa, there have been many areas where there is really nothing, and the monasteries are really basic, but whenever you roll into one of the towns (We have been to Tsedang, Gyantse, and now Shigatse) the situation changes dramatically. This is all due of course to the Chinese. Each of these towns has a massive amount of construction going on, all in the Chinese style, and the towns are becoming segregated into the "old" Tibetan quarter and the "new" Chinese zones. This means that we have been staying in really nice hotels all along the way (you are conveniently "controlled" as a tourist), and that communication is well established, including this computer with a high speed connection and windows XP.
Go Figure. Live and learn. Totally unexpected.
On the other hand, once you are in the countryside, the people and places are poorer than in rural Nepal. This speaks volumes about how the "progress" in China is really leaving behind a lot of people. It seems they are doing things only for the tourists in many ways.
Leaving Lhasa, we headed for the Samye monastery on the northern bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River which flows all the way to Bangladesh. Many of the world's great rivers have their origins in Tibet (The Indus, Ganges, and Mekong to name a few). A short wooden ferry took us over to the other side, leaving our land cruiser behind. The monastery itself is shaped like a Mandela wheel, with the main assembly hall, stupas, and various chapels and outbuildings arranged according to the Buddhist perception of how the universe is arranged - the Mandela wheel.
After a night here, we went to Tsedang (where we ate great dumplings in a little hole in the wall restaurant), where in a nearby valley the Tibetan people are supposed to have evolved from. The (simplified) story goes that a monkey mated with a human and produced some of the first Tibetans. Some find this story uncannily similar to Darwinian Theory, but who knows. Other parts of the story are less believable though; like the story of the first Tibetan king descending from the skies (there were 44 kings before the first Dalai Lama, from about 300 BC or so the story goes). Anyway, the valley contains some of the oldest Tibetan buildings and burial mounds for many of the kings.
After this it was off to Gyantse across the most spectacular road I have ever been on - and also probably the craziest. From Tsedang to Gyantse, the Southern Friendship Highway crosses three high mountain passes (one is at 5200 m), and two spectacular alpine lakes. The scenery is stupendous consisting of continuous alpine and high plain scenes dotted with glaciers, dry river beds, and small Tibetan settlements. The Chinese are here too though. Road construction is absolutely furious - and both primitive and modern methods are being used to improve what is essentially a roughly hewn track through very difficult terrain. The road would be impassable without a 4X4 - and this is a major artery! The Chinese are changing this though - and I'm certain in 10 years time there will be a modern two lane highway through the region. Along the way, we thought up another one of our usual great jokes, you see, the Tibetans collect all kinds of dung for fuel (there are no trees) and dry the individual pieces on the outside walls of their homes. This prompted the comment "Boy, that's really shitty wall construction." Ok, not as good as the other ones, I know.
Gyantse held the requisite monastery and also an old fort on top of a hill. This is the source of the "Samye, Samye... but different" title. After a while, the Buddha's all start to look alike, and the monasteries similar. Although, of these two items, I would say the monasteries change enough to make things interesting. Certainly seeing the monks chanting, and the drums going with all those deep horns was great when we were at the monasteries in Samye and Gyantse.
Today our drive took us to Shigatse - Tibet's second largest city. We are again in a 4 star room, and off to see another monastery this afternoon. On the way, we were able to stop at a small barley mill where primitive water wheels turn stone grinders that transform roasted barley into flour. The barley tasted great and it was interesting to see the life blood of the region. Without barley, many here would starve to death for sure. I'm also pretty sure that things will get more basic from here since we are nearing Everest Base Camp. We're up above 4000 m again, so hopefully we can sleep OK - so far, so good.
The Shigatse monastery (named Tashilhunpo) is stupendous! It's one of the only ones that was not damaged a lot during the revolution, so most of the statues and buildings are original and in good condition, including the incredible 26 metre tall Buddha. What a sight! Tashilhunpo is the most important monastery for the Panchen Lama's - the western (near) equivalent of the Dalai Lama's.
It was good to see this - finally. Although the restorations done at all the other monasteries are quite good, there was always the strange flavour of the fact that it was the Chinese who destroyed them in the first place, and now they were rebuilding them all for tourism.
After the monastery we went searching for a place to get some dinner. We try not to eat at the hotel because the prices are higher and the experience is a little sterilized by staying in the government approved hotels. We have the freedom to walk around and find our own place and interact with people which is great, all in spite of the fact that our guide has to go and register us at the local police office in every city we stay in. It's crazy but it's true. Tibet would be very difficult to do independently owing to all the permitting and registration that must be done. The best part about these walks is that we are obviously the only foreigners around, and there are constant stares. The more brave of the bunch toss us a "Hello!" or "What is your name!" and it's amazing how far a smile will go to break the ice.
Dinner tonight was fantastic in the sense that we wanted to find out from a woman at the next table where she got the bread circles she was carrying. A small crowd gathered as we asked her, everyone wanting to help the "lost westerners". Eventually, a monk got up from a nearby table and came over to test his English. He was actually quite good, and what ensued was an hour long conversation with him about his life as a monk and some of our impressions of Tibet as outsiders. We were very careful as to the words we chose so as not to do anything that might get him into legal trouble if anyone overheard - this is the sad reality in Tibet - and this conversation was probably the most poignant example that we encountered. His most disturbing story was one where he explained that the monks have added up the money they get from "the management" of the monastery and compared it to the ticket prices and traffic, and they receive less than 20% of the money that comes in. Ticket prices to the monasteries are actually quite high, and it looks like the lion's share is going to the government coffers. Now I understand why at Sera we saw Buddhist pilgrims circling among the monks giving them donations directly into their hands. What a sad statement this is. This is the reality of Tibet - in spite of the incredible natural beauty.
So, tomorrow we are off to Sakya, the last monastery town before Everest. This time, I'm pretty sure we'll be out of touch until Kathmandu, although I've been proven wrong thus far! In the cities, Tibet is definitely more developed than say Nepal, however, in rural areas; it appears the Tibet is even less well off than Nepal. An interesting contradiction. Sort of sad really to see a culture slowly bleeding to death, and not a bandage in sight...