Travel Classics: The Other Side of the Mountains


When travel to China was rough

We are moving to Kathmandu this year, but a long time ago in 1985, we were just on the other side of the massive Himalayas: Tibet. It was an adventure. Travel to Tibet had just opened to foreigners in our last spring in Beijing. We flew from Beijing to Chengdu, and then another flight to Lhasa. We flew in a newish Boeing 707, odd for the time, it was not one of the ubiquitous old Antonov or Ilyushin aircraft left over from the better times of the Sino-Soviet relationship
Over the Mountains
The flight was only part of the journey. We landed on an airfield that was only a runway and a small cabin. Everyone piled into buses for the 4+ hour ride to Lhasa.

The engine cover was easy to remove to "fiddle" with the carburetor while driving
The road was just a direction that the bus moved in over a barren wasteland of stone and gravel. Other buses and trucks moved in parallel to our journey. We forded rivers which in the wet season would have been problematic.
River crossing

We passed vehicles broken down, or stuck in soft soil. I remember in particular one bus stuck in sand. All of the passengers were out of the bus,

pulling on a rope as we passed. They were laughing! They too were part of the adventure of travel to Tibet.

A long journey requires a toilet break. Men to the right, women to the left.
It felt as though we had been traveling forever along the river plain. The dust, the smells, the constant hack and spit of our fellow travelers, when finally we rounded a bend and Linda said, "There it is! The Potalla!"
The Potala Palace
The Potala Palace, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama. An icon of Tibet  and its religion. However all I could say was "I'm blind." 

All I could see was a pinpoint, a small clear hole in the darkness. At 14000ft, I clearly had altitude sickness. At the bus depot, Linda helped me put on my backpack and led me down a long road to the best accommodations in town, a little guest house with 4-5 people per room. She worried, and I slept for a day. The next day I was ready to go after a quick bath. 

The bath was much better than the toilet....
We returned to the Potala Palace and I was able to see it this time. We toured the various monasteries and temples, spinning the prayer wheels in the crowds of pilgrims. The pilgrims prostrated themselves as they approached the holy sites, moving a small stone to mark their progress each time they flatten themselves on the path. Their skin was burnt by the high altitude sun and the hair literally crawled with vermin as we crowded together through the holy landmarks.

In preparation for the journey I had read a National Geographic article on Lhasa. There was picture of a rock outside of town where the Tibetans performed "Sky Burial" at dawn. From the rooftop of our guesthouse I could see far-off in the distance, a rock similar to the one in the article. The next morning I got up at 4am and walked in the same general direction I had marked the day before. About 90 minutes later I came to the rock. There were 3 bodies, and about a dozen other travelers, some of whom were Chinese. When the Tibetans arrived, they took out their knifes and chased the Chinese away. The western foreigners were allowed to stay so long as we kept the cameras in our bags. Two of the Tibetans were young boys, no more than twelve. They were given the task of burning clothes and hair, and of smashing the bones into powder with a large stone. The elder of the group started at the foot of the first individual and flayed the flesh from the bones. It was very quiet in the early morning. The thump thump thump of the stone against stone, ripping of cloth, and the scrap of knife on bone, filled the air otherwise devoid of sound. When the carver reached the viscera, he would, like a modern TV medical examiner, hold up what he thought was the cause of death. The bulbous bladder, the dark liver, and the black lung. It was at this point that foreigners started collapsing, overcome by the gore of the moment. I came close to doing the same at the cracking of the skull. When they were finished, the blood was mixed with the bone powder, the hair and the clothes were in ashes. The carver lifted a handful of flesh and flung it into the air. Then there were birds! I had not noticed them before, but now they filled the sky. Ravens and buzzards, they swooped down to grab the flesh, fighting over large pieces they flew up with scraps dangling over our heads. I had understood that it was ok to film this, and reached for my camera. As I was pulling out the camera, I realized I had a bloody knife against my stomach. One of the young Tibetan boys held it there and shook his head with a universal "no." I got the message and put the camera away. 

I did have the camera out for a walk though the market in Lhasa. Enjoy: 

Leaving Lhasa
We are fairly hardy travelers, but after 5 days in Lhasa, we flew to Chengdu, took a flight in first class to Shanghai, and went to the best hotel in town.... but that is another story!


  1. Fascinating story in the context of today's globalization. This was really off the beaten track. There is so much in your description that I had never heard before...

  2. I am astonished I have never heard this story before, or have I?

    Also, we went to Llasa in '85 as well, and darn it, I have no memory of the bus trip into town from the landing strip.

    The photos are terrific. I feel heartsick looking at the deep poverty and deprivation of the Tibetans.

    Wonderful psst, Bill, but maybe Megan wins the prize -- for unearthing the Yeti document. Priceless.



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At Home and Away: Travel Classics: The Other Side of the Mountains
Travel Classics: The Other Side of the Mountains
When travel to China was rough
At Home and Away
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