TIBET: A War Seen Through Blue Gauze
published in Esquire
They say the Dalai Lama keeps reincarnating in Tibet specifically to pacify this most remote, savage place on earth, and visitors believe it instinctively: Even here in Chengdu, in central China, people are superstitious about ascending. It is the hour before dawn, and in the dark lobby under the faint bidding stars, everyone is hushed as they await the twice-daily flight (headwinds permitting). To your right the Chinese soldier holds a cricket solemnly between thumb and forefinger; to your left a group from the Gobi Desert clasps prayer beads. The apprehension is reasonable. Next stop: Roof of the World.
The suspense began last night, in the bar of Chengdu's Jinjaing Guest House, a very on-the-brink kind of place. Of the three thousand outsiders who attained Tibet last year, a good portion started here: guys with that world trekker look talking matter-of-factly of when they used to reside on the edge of volcanoes. The women are the spiritual equivalent of Hell's Angels molls, globally sexual, in Indian-print dresses over sunburn-freckled legs, peering atop their wrinkled copies of "Justine" to interject an acerbic comment or let roll from their lips the sound of strange destinations: Lhasa, Shigatse … who else would go there, to Lost Horizons?
Airborne at last, the awe breaks loose -- you're ascending at an unheard-of angle and there they are, the snow-covered Himalayas, roiling like soap shards out of the sudsy clouds below. Part of you wants to crash, in a way; to crash in the Himalayas seems, if not an ascetic exercise, at least one of beauty, of worthwhile sacrifice. The remoteness you are witnessing down there compels a worshipful feeling: you know that to make this two-hour crossing would take two weeks by land. "I've never seen anything like it," breathes one dude sitting za-zen at a window seat. "I'll never be the same."
Well, that's pushing it a bit. Wait till you disembark near Lhasa, and then see how unsame things are. So unsame, it turns out, that this is how the natives say hello: they stick out their tongues (proving their harmlessness; an unblackened tongue hasn't been sampling killer potions). This is how they say goodbye: for a funeral, they haul your unlucky ass to a mountaintop, chop it into bite-size pieces, and toss it to the vultures in a ritual called "celestial burial." For recreation, they drink violently nauseating tea with yak butter churned immiscibly through it. And for all that they have the most level, most serene gaze in the East.
Feel how unsame. You're three times the altitude of Denver, half as high as Mount Everest (450 miles away); no wonder you can barely breathe. And even though you swore you'd never do it, here you are at the banquet table eating yak jerky, drinking chung (barley beer), blissing out on the Tibetan tranquility, chit-chatting with a Tibetan vice-president -- until in your light-headedness you ask him about the status of political prisoners. Talk around the table stops. He puckers his Chinese lips in a kiss to sip his yak-butter tea. "There are no political prisoners," he says.
Well, something's keeping the Dalai Lama in self-imposed exile in India, hollering distance across the Himalayas. But now's no time for temporal matters: better to attend to the stars, the likes of which you've never seen before. Arcing from horizon to horizon, the Milky Way has never before exposed itself in all its naked moodiness, never revealed to you so many comets segueing in with candles from the monasteries. You feel wise, suddenly, sensing several things at once: that throughout this devout, dangerous land, people are lining up to stick needles in holy fabrics, that priest-doctors are applying their ancient poison cures (using yin to kill yang, the double edge, if not the cutting edge, of medicine), that past rivers so green they look paved with jade, past golden eagles rising in a swirl of dust, the kids, the next generation of Tibetans, are playing marbles with bullet casings.
In your unsameness, you do bring something back. A certain remove, perhaps -- Tibet's inaccessibility has been a lesson in solitude. Something sinister, too: the inkling that this kind of serenity has to have a flip side. Or maybe it's more general, having to do with the stars, lighting up the night like a war seen through blue gauze. This, perhaps: that for better or for worse, you were as close to them as you can get on this planet.