You know how big-city life and a busy job and, now I’m at it, a family, can make you feel confined; imprisoned in inevitable routines and unchangeable habits. Tired. Then it is time for an escape; time for wilderness and raw freedom. Then it’s time for the Tibetan mountains. And so I planned a 10-day trip to Sertar monastery high up in the far western mountains of Sichuan and made the necessary preparations: talking with insiders; watching the latest news; taking my altitude tables. All was fine -that is to say; as fine as can be expected in these parts- and I was ready. How little did I know…
It is 7:30 in the morning and raining. Not a bad way to leave: it can only get better. Old people are walking to the market with plastic bags on their heads. Young people are rushing to work on electric bikes that congest the road. So-long busyness! I’m off to the relaxed and sunny mountains! Ah, how good it feels when freedom is just around the corner.
The road climbs through countless tunnels and reappears on the western side to new valleys. A different world. Here, it often dangles above steep and deep drops while at times, it just isn’t there anymore, ripped off by the powerful river. The new valley looks different. Prayer flags hang everywhere and small pieces of paper litter the otherwise clean environment. There are more pine trees on the surrounding slopes and more snowy mountain tops in the distance. It smells different too: here is the smell of fresh air; of the forest awakening after a long and cold winter; the smell of the rapeseed flowers that color the fields yellow. This is the ‘raw freedom’ I was looking for.
The otherwise pleasant scent of the rapeseed fields has quite a bad odeur to it though. It reminded me of a conversation I had earlier this week. This deep into the Tibetan area, farmers mostly grow barley. Barley can grow here despite the dry winters and short summers, without exhausting the soil. In good years, the harvest provides for sufficient income. Lately, local Chinese leaders ordered some farming villages to grow rapeseed, even though it is known to use up the soil and make it useless after some years. The old communist practice of telling farmers what to grow was abandoned by Deng Xiaoping long ago: it inevitably leads to poor harvests and starvation. But a new local factory needed a cheap oil supply, an entrepreneurial local official knew just how to get it and together, they really didn’t care about longterm consequences. In this modern neo-communist China, Tibetans have very little say and find themselves, not unlike the Indians in North-America, hopelessly at a loss and without a future. And if there is much to be found and discovered in these mountains and high plateaus, freedom is not among it. I should have known better. But I’m not a farmer, so for now, I move on.
It not only smells different; it feels different too. But that may just be the altitude. Whenever I travel above 3000 m, it slowly gets a hold of me. I am glad I can stay overnight in Maerkang, a small city at just over 2,615 m (8,579 ft) high, to give my body some time to adjust. Long ago, when it still took a whole day to reach by lack of tunnels, I felt the same. Back then I was part of a group that trained Tibetan teachers. In those days, education in Tibetan area was a hot topic, like a red-hot iron one better stays away from. It still is. A recent article from the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that local authorities in Tibet have launched a campaign to improve public awareness of “national territory and education”. An earlier attempt to introduce the program in Hong Kong was stopped after heavy protests. The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy doesn’t work so well for the Tibetans though. This new program, and the recent prohibition to teach in the local Tibetan language are just a few among the many issues that have lead to an increase of self-immolation among Tibetans (up to 114 at the beginning of April). But, alas, I’m not a Tibetan student nor a Tibetan teacher, so for now, I moves on.
The density of policemen here seems higher than that of citizen. They fly by in high speed Landcruisers; they occupy the street corners and crowd the restaurants. I try to ignore it but I have to admit: this is quite unsettling for me. You see, as a young boy discovering the world’s boundaries, I had my way of attracting policemen. They always showed up at just the wrong moment. So now, as a lonely driver, I am careful to appear invisible: pretending to look at a map when passing policemen and wearing my cap and sunglasses as much as I can. But those sunglasses are troublesome on a road with so many tunnels. I see monks stopped at police checkpoints and made to register. But I am not a Tibetan monk, so I move on.
Through my rearview mirror I see a police car speeding around the corner with siren and roof lights yelling loud, aggressively flashing their headlights. I just passed another checkpoint unnoticed. It closes in quickly. This had already happened several times during this trip: police cars chasing no-one but overtaking with the speed of sound. They always do that, even when they go home for a cup of tea, salty yak butter tea, no doubt. This time though, the police car stops right in front of me. The driver steps out.
“Please come with us.”
“Well, I’d rather not. I’m on the way to Maerkang.”
“It won’t take long. Turn your car around and follow us.”
2nd policeman: “I told you I saw the blue eyes. Haha.”
“It’s already 3 o’clock. I need to arrive on time.”
“Just 5 minutes.”
Right. I follow them back to the checkpoint I had just passed. There is a desk outside with stacks of registration forms and one pen. A mobile police station is parked on the other side of the road.
“Where did you come from today?”
“Chengdu. I work there.” He hads difficulty writing and I ask him if he is cold.
“Why don’t you place your desk inside the station?”
“Then we can’t see passerby’s.”
More policemen crowd around now, curious to see their latest catch.
2nd police: “It’s those blue eyes I saw. Shine like a torchlight. Haha.”
“Where are you from?”
“Is Holland cold?”
Another person joins in. It’s quite a party now. Just one of those I had hoped not to be part of. This one has a different uniform and surely a different attitude.
“What were you planning to do in Maerkang?”
“I am on holiday; we have one week vacation.”
“Where do you go after that?”
“Tagong.” It comes out in the fleet of the moment. I don’t want to reveal my real destination for I know this is sensitive area. Tagong is a very touristic Tibetan town, though the season usually starts only after all the snow has melted. It isn’t bad but I should have said Danba, another tourist spot that is closer and directly south of Maerkang.
“How long will you stay there?”
He is now making some calls and in China, that’s usually a bad sign.
“You have to go.” He says while he slides his phone in his pocket.
“Fine. I was surely planning to.”
“But not to Maerkang.”
2nd police: “You can see those blue eyes from as far as Beijing! Haha!”
“But if I can’t go to Maerkang, how can I reach my destination? From here, this is the only road.”
He smiles. Is it embarrassment? Is it joy? Maybe both. They are, after all, just doing their job. They accompany me to my car and wait until I pull up onto the road and head north, away from Maerkang.
So there I was. I just wanted to escape the city and feel the freedom of endless mountain tracks and simple monastic chanting. But if there is much to be found and discovered in these mountains and high plateaus, it is, for now, not by this blue-eyed laowai and, as I learned, freedom is not among it. I’m not a Han Chinese, so for now, I can’t move on and this freedom can’t be mine. I should have know better.