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Crossing Tibet on a very small motorbike


It must have been about 7 degrees below zero. I had been holding on tightly to the exhaust pipe of my 150 cc motorcycle for about five minutes in order to save my fingers from hurting in the cold. As my frozen shoes hung close to the warm engine, all I could do for my bare feet was to ignore them for a few more minutes until they thawed soft. I sat there on the earth that never saw any plant grow more than a few inches because of the permafrost that she kept under her skin.

At an altitude of more than 5000 m, it was the evening of the fourth day of my ten-day-motorcycle-ride from Yushu (Qinghai) to Lhasa (T.A.R.). Freezing wetness in my clothes, gushing winds and hunger made me want to end this part of the trip. I wanted to be in India eating the spicy-juicy foods and breathing the warm tropical winds. A thousand miles on the off road terrains in unknown territories had been a scary thought even before I had ignited the engine for the first time. 
 
Amidst these thoughts I saw rain falling at seven different corners around me. It was far enough to wet only the snow covered mountains in the horizon in all directions. The grass displayed all the shades of green a human eye could see. The sun looked a sleepy red and gave those clouds around it, shades of celebrating crimson colours. It seemed that the sky was probably smiling and very happy, like we are when we come home after a long tiring day. The landscape was a celebration of some sort. Probably Tibet was the home for all those beautiful clouds and the sky. The land was owned by the overwhelming presence of the dark blue skies and contrasting clouds. A little feeling of accomplishment sat on subtle smile that I felt in that cold. I was there – “On the roof of the world”. 

But this should have been expected. I was avoiding the road that joins Nagqu with Chamdo to avoid the Chinese check posts. Anyway, off road anywhere can be uncomfortable. After all this was Tibet. The native people cover these distances on motorcycles if not by foot. But no one seem to know for sure if there was a way south. I had been riding in the direction towards the snow covered mountains that reflected sunlight in brilliant colors. Those mountains didn’t seem to come any near me even after riding the bike for two days. It was like one of those dreams where you strive for something really bad and it doesn’t even come close. I was able to cover only 12 km that day because of the rivers and u-turns. The fifth day I was to find myself beyond those mountains and on the track that ran through villages and little towns.   

With only yaks, butter tea, and salt to their name, I always thought of Tibetans to be the most spiritual per capita. This place had an image of contempt and vastness. With these notions in my mind, Tibet was in my plans since years. I wanted to live here for a while like the locals. I always wanted to feel the vibrations that the land gave out where people tend to live a life of satisfaction and utter peace. I also wanted to see how the natives living in Tibet felt about and reacted towards the Chinese oppression. My journey gave me a first hand experience of Amdo and Kham (provinces within the ancient Tibet) where I lived in a Buddhist monastery, and biked through the mountains and grasslands of Kham and U. Further I went south to travel through Nepal and India to meet Tibetans living in exile. While I was at it, I ended up stimulating my senses through the colours, tastes and smells of the vibrant cultures of the subcontinent. My journey started in Beijing in September. Overland covering more than 12000 km,  I crossed Tibet and entered India, to finally call it a day in Varanasi. 
 
Politically, Tibet is confined to the political borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which can be considered the Chinese idea of Tibet. Tibetan language, religion and lifestyle can widely be seen in the neighboring provinces, like Qinghai, Sichuan and Xinjiang. Jeykundo (Yushu in Chinese) is a small forgotten town in the remotest province, Qinghai.

I stayed in a monastery with the monks at this place along with other foreigners who come to this city to volunteer. Chinese oppression was apparent, as people were not allowed to wear or possess the image of Dalai Lama. I learnt that if the native people don’t speak mandarin, the prospect of them getting education or job will reduce to zero. The social stratification on the basis of language and religious inclination was obvious as a result of Chinese ethnocentrism and fundamentalist nationalism. 
 
In spite of this oppression, compassion was the most evident characteristic among the monks in the monastery. In a traditional Tibetan monk debate, a boy almost stepped on a spider walking on the floor. The submissively silent audience broke into screams to stop the monk from inadvertently killing the animal. A young monk ran towards the spider, picked it up in his hand and walked out to set it free. In my mind I could not help but recollect a distant memory of my little brother setting ants on fire. 

This compassion was not limited to the walls of the monastery. It was abundant everywhere in the mountains and open grasslands of Tibet. Every time I was about to get frustrated because of the weather or long hours on bike, this compassion cheered me up in the form of the local inhabitant’s typical openhearted Tibetan hospitality.  
 

Hospitality was a collective effort of the family or the village. However, right before the welcoming attitude, I experienced a universal hostility that lasted a few seconds in the barks and the stares of he dogs and the people. But soon enough my brown skin would be accepted with wider smiles because they associated it with the presence of the Dalai Lama somewhere in India. In spite of the absence of any media for news, somehow they all knew that the Dalai Lama lived in India after fleeing Chinese occupation. 

From the second day on the motorcycle onwards, it became a habit of mine to stop close to the Girs (Tibetan tents) and ask for chakhama (boiled salty water with tea leaves) to cook noodle soup. People would bless the motorcycle and me, and offer far more than the requirement. Their tents had nothing more than a few plastic drums, ropes, clothes, and a lot of smoke from the burning yak dung. Along with a few yaks, this is all that they possessed. Yet it seemed that they didn’t need much more than that. 

After one such stay for an hour to rest and to get some food, two elderly ladies came to me and offered me their wrists. I was puzzled, but soon I realized they wanted me to check their pulse. I didn’t know where to start. But I held one wrist to which the lady started talking in fast Tibetan. She pointed towards her stomach. The other pointed towards her head. They were trying to tell me their ailments. I wondered if they were asking for a cure or a medicine because when I gave them my supply of Advils and painkillers they were unable to identify it as medicine. I saw some Italian funded medicine trucks and Italian doctors in the cities. In these vast lands where the socio economic structures depended heavily on the monasteries and the Rimpoches (heads). With the absence of the traditional ways of life, medicine, education and other basic human needs seemed to be adversely effected in the Chinese regime. 

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