Book Review

In 2004 I hitchhiked illegally into western Tibet, passing myself off as an Uyghur who had misplaced her identity papers. I got arrested twice, made a daring escape over a frozen mountain, pushed trucks through waterlogged valleys, and got a smashing case of near-fatal pneumonia. I also lost all my underwear (long story) and got adopted by a company of Chinese army troops who, thankfully, fed me without asking to see my travel permit. The end of my journey was Lhasa, where I met a contingent of self-identified Badass Backpackers, all of whom had hurried to Tibet so they could see it before the trains arrived and, in their words, made it less of a badass destination. They spent their time at a grungy dive called Another Bar, posturing and picking each other up, debating politics and bragging about how little they had paid for X, Y, Z. If you’ve ever been a backpacker, you know what I’m talking about. These are the people who “do” a country. As in, “I did Tibet in 2004 and now I can tell you everything about it.” Very annoying.

Well, 2004 was a long time ago now, but last year I picked up a narrative nonfiction book written by a man who was traveling through Tibetan lands at about the same time as I was. Scott Ezell—author, poet and songwriter—started off in southwestern China and traveled along eastern Tibet, known as Kham and Amdo, entirely skirting the backpacker routes and documenting, in the sort of prose only a poet can write, the cultural and environmental destruction of which the Beijing to Lhasa train is only one example. Journey to the End of the Empire is a beautiful read but it isn’t an easy one. “All I could do,” writes Ezell as he walks, buses, and rides his motorcycle past displaced people and vast construction sites, “was pass by and observe, make my notes, and let as much as possible seep into my bones and heart.” 

Empire starts out in Hong Kong Bay on a vine-tangled island where Ezell has been living as a musician, mixing jungle noises into indie movie soundtracks. One day an endangered pink dolphin washes up on his shore. The dolphin is dead, and Ezell is shaken. He buys a one-way ticket to Dali in Yunnan province, the foothills of the Tibetan plateau, in search of “landscapes of light and stone.” Here hawkers use marijuana to cushion the fruit in their baskets, and artists and anarchists host underground night clubs. For a while things are great. It’s bamboo flutes and roasting coffee beans, incipient love and late-night jams. But Ezell is over six feet tall and he attracts police suspicion wherever he goes. He has to keep moving.

Go all the way north, a friend tells him, to Hohoxili, a plateau above a plateau, the highest point in geographic Tibet, the furthest, highest landscape. Its the source of the Yangtze. Even the f*ing dust there smells like nirvana.” And so Ezell takes off on a bus and then a motorcycle, with a thin windbreaker and an even thinner wallet, holding fast to a dream to see an endangered Tibetan antelope just once before they, like the pink dolphins, are all gone. “Everyone must believe,” Ezell writes in increasing desperation, “as Thoreau did, that he or she was born just in time, because the world as we know it is always disappearing.”

Part memoir, part travelogue, part social and political commentary, Empire is the contrail of an unrepeatable voyage. A girl works up a sheen of sweat as she churns a pot of yak-butter tea. A man bashes clocks apart to find and reuse their parts. A mountain woman, dressed sensationally in a two-foot wide embroidered velvet headdress, boards a bus with a cage full of chickens. Ezell passes mines and dams and resettled people living in pre-fab houses so compact and uniform they looked like insect eggs,” and newly surfaced roads glistening like a path of caviar.” TVs run on car batteries and stoves are powered by yak dung. A weathered monk cleans Ezell’s eye out with his tongue and welcomes him to Shangri-la.

This is not the Tibet of Beastie Boys concerts and sand mandalas in hushed museums. This is the actual Tibet of crumbling walls and hand-warmed bowls of tsampa, of prayer flags staked in the whipping winds of high mountain passes to celebrate the extraordinary fact that someone, at one time, lived to see the other side. If you have trekked through these passes you will know what I mean when I say I often did not think I would make it through them myself. There’s little oxygen at 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). Your lungs suck at empty air, like trying to breathe through sand. As Ezell writes, this is life straining to survive in extreme sun and extreme ice and somehow blossoming with beauty in the process.”

All along his route Ezell is dogged by mysterious graffiti that proclaims: they’re going to cant and bevel you, until he begins writing it himself, scratching the phrase onto walls with broken fragments of red brick. Is this a threat? A prophesy? A sign of paranoia? He takes us past work camps and missile defense systems, through a militarized tourist attraction with golf carts and fluorescent signs. He shows us a dam-in-progress…so enormous and robotic that I began shivering involuntarily. It rose hundreds of feet into the sky, a gridded leviathan, a monolith of technology and power. Hundreds of machines swarmed like insects around a queen.” Ezell calls his freethinking friends in Dali—he is cold and he wants to go home, the winter is fast approaching—but his friends have been cleared out by the security police and Ezell has nowhere to go.

Well, nowhere to go but up. He wraps himself in wool and makes the final ascent to Hohoxili, the highest plateau on Earth, “which seemed immutable and eternal but which had once been the bottom of an ocean,” stumbling into a gold and rhubarb landscape where endangered antelopes are leaping. Antelopes everywhere. We can explain the complexities of the universe,” Ezell reflects, but the fundamental simplicities are beyond us.”

These days Tibetan nomads live in grey apartment blocks and monks are State appointed. Highways grid the pastures—which have been canted and drained for efficiency—and that train was completed, a fast train which links Beijing directly to Lhasa. The mighty rivers have been diverted and the mountains have been beveled for farming, and mines, and military exercises. The Tibet that Ezell saw, and that I saw in mirror reflection, is incontrovertibly gone.

But by some strange fortune we have his visceral account, and as Ezell put it, “The world we know is always disappearing, but I still wanted to grasp and hold it as it went, despite the famous line from Heraclitus. I wasnt opposed to new waters flowing on, I just wished I could hold them a little longer as they escaped between my fingers.”

About the Reviewer

Dara Passano's fiction and humor has appeared in J Journal, The Apple Valley Review, The Southern Humanities Review, ANMLY, Ruminate, Arcturus, Meridian, Typishly, The Tishman Review and elsewhere, receiving three Pushcart nominations. Dara was the author of The Guardian UK's 2015 column, "Confessions of a Humanitarian."