Lessons of Xegar

We spent ten days in Xegar. Every day, we watched it rain, waiting. Prior to our sojourn in Xegar, we spent ten days crossing Tibet on muddy roads, over landslides, through floods. We expected our gear to be waiting for us in Xegar, as it was sent from Beijing before us. Instead, we waited in Xegar for our gear, for ten days.

On the dark morning of the twentieth day after leaving Beijing, I woke to violent shaking; the single bulb above my bed swung from side to side. Along with everything else, I was very sick. I heard somebody shout from another room,”Earthquake! Earthquake!” Relieved that the shaking wasn’t some further manifestation of my illness, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

A few hours later, the first of six trucks that carried our gear arrived. Eighteen hours later, the last truck rolled in. Mostly, our boxes had been packed upside-down. Rightways, they were waterproof; upside-down they were water-tight. In the monsoon rains they filled completely with water. All of our gear was soaked. Some things could be dried – tents, bags, climbing equipment – but the toilet paper and chocolate chip cookies were all waste. We spent two days drying some stuff and trashing others before finally leaving Xegar.

We didn’t make it far. The earthquake altered the course of a river, which in turn washed out the last bridge between us and where we were going. A small, crumbling strip of dirt connected the bank with the bridge, and that was it. Less than 10K out of Xegar, and we were stuck, again.

Our LO was fatalistic: ”It won’t be possible to go to the mountain. We will only charge you $XX,XXX.00 to take you back to Beijing early.” Liaison Officers are paid per expedition – successful or not – and they get paid a portion of everything they are able to charge. They also get a portion of any funds that are left over from the expedition’s budget. The quicker the expedition finishes, the more money they make, and the sooner they get to go home.

We unloaded our gear from the trucks, and moved it all out onto the bridge. We pitched our tents and moved in. We decided to live on a bridge in central Tibet for as long as it took to get off of it, but only if we were moving in the right direction. The LO said,”This is very irregular. We will charge extra for this.” He got back into his Landcruiser and returned to Xegar.

We schemed ways to get our gear across the river to our destination. One of our drivers tried to make it, and failed spectacularly.

We walked miles in each direction to find a better crossing, and found one that we thought might work. The LO was unconvinced. Bob Skinner stripped down to his BVD’s and his cowboy hat and strode in his boots purposefully towards the glacial river. “I’ll show ‘em how to cross a damned river!” he growled.

The LO – visibly shocked at the sight of Bob’s bare white skin – gasped and protested. What followed was a game of Red Rover at the water’s edge, with one mostly naked cowboy against a line of shocked and prudish CMA authorities. Bob stepped forward, prepared to break through. The LO said,”We’ll find a way – please, put your clothes back on.” We went back to the bridge with nothing settled.

That afternoon, we formed a fire-brigade to pass stones into the hole in the bridge. “This is ridiculous,” said Sibylle Hechtel, and she was right. There was no way that we could fill the hole with rocks and our bare hands. I was dispatched to Xegar with a wad of cash on a mission to buy shovels. The LO assigned a young interpreter to go with me.

“There are no shovels in Tibet,” he said as we walked into town. He then bolted into the first store we came to, and I followed, confused. He spoke with the man behind the counter in rapid-fire Chinese, although the man was Tibetan. There was a moment of silence, followed by a question in Tibetan that I took to mean,”What did you say?”

The interpreter turned to me and said,”This is the best store in Xegar, and they have no shovels. This man say that there are no shovels in Tibet. They don’t have them here.”

“This is a candy store,” I said, pointing to the rows of sugary sweets,”We need a hardware store.” I walked out with the interpreter already pursuing to block my way.

“We must leave Xegar,” he said,”You will not find shovels here.” I stepped around him and walked down the road towards the next store. Turning a corner, we came across a work-crew repairing the dirt road. There were dozens of people working. Each one had a shovel. “Here are our shovels,” I said and reached into my pocket for the money to buy them.

He grabbed my hand and pushed it back into my pocket: ”You will not buy these shovels! These are not for you!” I thought of Bob at the river’s edge, and wondered what he might do, now. My inner Bob said pretty clearly,”Deck the sonofabitch!” Somehow, this didn’t seem like the best idea, although I was tempted.  Instead, we stared each other down, inches away from each other. “Why not?” I asked.

“These people, these shovels are not theirs. They cannot sell them to you. If they do, they go to prison,” he said. The wad of Chinese Rinminbi burned in my pocket, enough to buy all of the shovels there, and then some. With me I had the equivalent of a year’s salary for each of the workers. I thought of bullet-holes and blood spatters – evidence of firing squads – that I saw on the walls in Lhasa and Xigaze and Xegar. I didn’t doubt what he said about the workers going to prison for selling me a shovel. And I knew he would turn them in, just to make the point. I turned back towards the bridge without saying another word.

The whole way back to the bridge, he went on in a theme: “If you need anything – shovels, food, trucks, ANYTHING – CMA gets it for you. You get nothing on your own. NOTHING. We get everything you need. Only CMA. ONLY CMA, you understand?”

I understood. Sadly, it wasn’t the first time that I had encountered people whose only goal was to thwart the goals of others. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Sometimes, people do this for profit. Profit is what motivated the CMA.  That, and they wanted control, which is the primary way that they make profits.

Other times, people thwart others because they lack a vision of their own, and fear change. Not able to imagine a different outcome or process than what they already know, they fight with all that they have just to keep the status quo. These people respond to a vision or goal with only “That won’t work.” Then, they do everything possible to assure that their prediction comes true. The saying goes,”Whether you predict success or failure, you’re right.” Only with one of these can you be accurate 100% of the time. More than anything, people who fear change find comfort in making correct predictions about the future. By contrast, others believe that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

We got off the bridge by hiring trucks that were stuck coming from the other direction. We were only able to hire four and we needed six, and we had to ditch our bus. So, we went to the mountain in stages over the course of several days. We rode on top of the loads . Where necessary, we siphoned gas from our trucks to fill empty tanks on the other side, hand-carrying the fuel across the bridge. The thing about the bridge at Xegar is that it wasn’t about getting across; our goal was beyond the skyline. It would’ve been easy to get caught up and thwarted by a roadblock, but that wasn’t what we had in mind when we set out. Our goals were bigger than the small obstacles that got in the way. 

The takeaway? As Todd always said: “Stay on mission.”

6 responses to “Lessons of Xegar

  1. Awesome post.

    Makes me want to go to Tibet with a container of shovels.

  2. Definitely fun to read this story. I first heard it from you years ago, when I was on my very first 10K run, having my doubts that I could run that far. I was beginning to feel like walking but then you told us of this and some other amazing experiences on your climbing trips. I was fully entertained and inspired.

  3. Hey, thanks for the comments Wildsanna and Canoelover! Canoelover, thanks also for the scanner. This piece wouldn’t have been possible without you.

  4. Thanks Brad! That was a timely dose of Bob. How I miss him and how I would have loved to see him in action there in China. . .I think it just might have been the very most important time in his life. I say that because that’s where he was at the very end of his life. Those last few days, he was in China – cursing and smiling and happy. xo

  5. avatar MtnLvrLakeLvr

    Brad, thanks for the wonderful story. Last week Holly and I watched a documentary recommended by a friend.

    After the film, I felt so silly for having not really understood the big fuss to FREE TIBET!

    I’m sure you’ve seen it, but maybe other blog readers haven’t. We rented from NetFlix. Here’s their description.

    Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion(2003)

    Ten years in the making, this feature-length documentary was filmed during nine remarkable journeys throughout Tibet, India and Nepal. Taking viewers to the long-forbidden “rooftop of the world” with an unprecedented richness of imagery, the film powerfully chronicles the dark secrets of Tibet’s recent past through interviews, personal stories and archival images. Martin Sheen narrates; Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris provide voice-overs.

  6. Hey, thanks for the lead on the Tibet documentary. I actually haven’t seen it, but will now. Here on the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet, it would be a good thing to watch and think about.

    We saw some amazing things, both inspiring and horrifying. I would hate to think how much things have changed in the twenty+ years since we were there. It can’t have gotten better.