Perils of Polly: Onward, upward

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Polly and their Tibetan guide walk through old town Gyantse, avoiding mud, livestock, begging children, and rabid dogs. (not all pictured!)

Both Sue and I were exhausted. The altitude, along with having traveled with bare necessities for 3 1/2 weeks, had taken its toll. No water in the hotel our first night in Lhasa almost pushed us over the edge. Then the Chinese military with their morning calisthenics woke us before 7 every morning. If it weren't for Mount Everest, we would have considered canning the tour through Tibet and going home early.

I'm glad we didn't. What would I be writing about?

Altitude was definitely our biggest issue. I woke up nearly every morning with a slight headache which went away rather quickly. Consulting our Lonely Planet Guide revealed

that was OK and normal. We were to watch out for acute mountain sickness signs, like inability to breathe or euphoria which rendered the sick person helpless. Neither of us could sleep at night, and Sue would get up in the middle of the night panting, unable to get enough oxygen until she sat up. We had a prescription remedy if the altitude sickness got worse, but neither of us liked the stated side effects: excessive urination. The slats over the holes were even worse here than in Mongolia or China.

Having a constant lethargy, inability to sleep, and panting every five steps definitely put a damper on the experience, but we heaved our backpacks and met our young guide, I'll call her Jiu to protect her identity, and the driver of our 4-by-4, anyway. We were required to hire a guide and driver because Communist China rules Tibet, and Tibet doesn't necessarily like it. Foreigners are not really considered a positive influence. Chinese troops march everywhere, are stationed in nearly all the cities, patrol the Jokhang Monastery and Barkhor Circuit regularly as a hot spot, and even post snipers on the tops of buildings. Permits are required to move, breathe, and pee -- and of course to drive on the road to Mount Everest. USA, you're looking really good.

We left the 12,000-foot Lhasa to go up. And up. The driver took us on a whiplash-producing road up to nearly 17,000 feet, driving it as if it didn't have any curves. I had to hang on for dear life, but also had to keep the window open, as gas fumes wafted up from somewhere and battled with the altitude to see who could produce nausea first. I battled both, and won. But a headache would still rear up occasionally. The top of the pass was supposed to reveal the seven major peaks of the Himalayas, but clouds covered the tops. We got out and walked a little, but I even declined an invitation to ride a yak. I don't think I could have gotten on. It's really amazing how important oxygen is to our brains!

On to our destination, Gyantse, and a relatively decent hotel. Jiu took us to the old Tibetan part of town, and opened up to us. Throughout Tibet -- at least on the Friendship Highway part which was seen by foreigners -- the Chinese were pouring huge amounts of money into infrastructure. The roads were good, bridges and dams excellent, and new construction of homes everywhere. But Jiu said the Tibetans don't like the Chinese homes; however, their traditional homes, which are warmer because the livestock live in the bottom floor, are being bulldozed over.

Then she opened up about her family: her grandmother committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, her father was banished from his Lhasa job which was given to a Chinese worker, and then he was sent to a village for re-education where he met his wife. Jiu is one of three children from a total of six for whom her parents scraped up enough money to smuggle into India for education when she was 8. Her two sisters are still there, but she had to return home because of a stomach problem. She said people still smuggle their children to India.

As we strolled through the narrow, muddy street lined with white, stucco-type buildings, avoiding cows and goats, two little girls came running toward us. "Hello! Money!" They held out their hands. Jiu scolded them and sent them scurrying. She didn't have as good of luck with a dog lurking in a particularly tight spot between buildings. Dogs were everywhere, but were owned by no one. Rabies is a problem. Dogs are dangerous, she said, but no one would harm them. This particular dog wasn't going to move, so Jiu took us a different direction.

I was struck by how different Tibet is from Mongolia, even though they have similar ancestry. Mongolians, even with poverty, seem a happy people. Tibetans seem oppressed and controlled both from within and without -- by communism, enforced poverty, and by their singular dedication to Buddhism which seems to cause them to focus on pilgrimages, penances, and traditions instead of just plain living life.

The next morning we continued toward Tingri, having lunch at a restaurant which just didn't seem to be able to understand its customers. I asked for something absolutely non-spicy, which Jiu translated, and they brought me curry. Sue asked for a yak burger, and they gave her the next table's yak steak but we didn't know it. I looked at it, and said they needed to take away the curry and give me that (pointing to Sue's plate and repeating "yak burger.") After much argument with Jiu, they did, but brought me a true yak burger, totally different than Sue's. Oh well. It was good. We ate there on the way back, too, and the waitress spilled a portion of Sue's cabbage and meat plate on her pants and the floor. It remained there the duration of our meal. Not a restaurant I'd recommend, but we didn't have a say in the matter.

At Tingri, we walked all the way through the one-street town looking for a place to eat. They were hard to recognize, without reading signs. We finally found a hole in the wall, and were hungry enough to stop. We were tired of fried rice, but it seemed safe, so we ordered it. Instead of fried rice, they brought fried noodles, and they were delicious. What a surprise!

We got back to our hotel and waited for the electricity to come on at 8:30 p.m., watched a bit of Chinese TV, making up plot lines to go with the actions, then drifted off into a non sleep. Tomorrow was Everest. I prayed for all clouds to disappear. This part of the trip was approaching drudgery.

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