China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 9 (v.1) - Lhasa

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 261

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Llasa

You join me on a plane from Chengdu to Llasa. Almost all the passengers are Han Chinese, demonstrating who wears the trousers in modern Tibet. The first group of ethnic Tibetans I saw were unloading the luggage from the plane.

The ‘roof of the world’ is only an hour away. From the plane window, the scenery looks ‘moon-like’. I know this adjective is often overused, but in Tibet’s case, the description is valid. The mountain tops are occasionally snow-covered, but mainly brown and barren.

I had expected mountains like the Alps, with craggy snow-covered peaks separated by fertile green valleys and lakes, but I couldn’t see anything green from the plane; just an endless series of brown lumps. This must be what all of the earth looked like before life evolved.

As the plane descended into Gongkar airport, I noticed that several of the valleys did manage to support some kind of meagre agricultural production, but even these crops looked brown and almost petrified.

We drove into Llasa, but as the bus headed into the city from the airport, we very quickly began to feel dizzy and giddy. Altitude sickness was kicking in. The feeling you get from the lack of oxygen going to your brain when you suddenly ascend to 4,000 metres with no time to acclimatise is a little like being drunk: you laugh for no reason and your co-ordination is shot. It also becomes difficult to think logically or coherently.

Sandra quickly went into a ‘hangover stage’ and became nauseous, as well as dazed and confused. When we finally got to our hotel room, she lay on the bad, pulled the covers over herself and didn’t get out of bed for the next two days. I was still rather giddy, but too disorientated to effectively deal with the most basic of questions, like the hotel receptionist request for my passport.

The symptoms of altitude sickness grew more severe as the day went on: a screaming headache, fever, disorientation, nausea, and in Sandra’s case, vomiting and diarrhoea too.

The strangest effect though is the permanent shortage of breath. The slightest exertion, like getting out of bed to take a pee, leaves you wheezing and your heart pumping. Your instinct is take long deep breaths, but this only makes things worse. What you need to do is take lots of short, shallow breaths, like a panting dog.

Even sleeping becomes a skill you have to relearn. When we sleep, our breathing automatically slows and becomes deeper. This is not a problem at normal altitudes, but at 4,000 metres, there isn’t enough oxygen getting from your lungs into your brain, and your heart beats faster and faster to try and make up the deficit. Soon, you wake up with a start to find your heart is racing, and you’ve got to breathe like you never breathed before.

This happened to me last night every twenty to thirty minutes, so my sleeping was fitful at best. At about 2.30, I woke up for the last time, and spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling and listening to my heart pound. It wasn’t very interesting-pretty repetitive actually.

Even when lying in bed, my heartbeat was over a hundred beats per minute, and taking the slowest of walks, with frequent stops to drink water, as the dry mountain air robs your body of moisture, brought it to well over 120.

Our room was laid out in a traditional Tibetan style, and quite beautiful to look at, but it was freezing. Well, not really freezing, to be honest. I suppose it was about 15 degrees during the day and 10 degrees at night, but after Bangkok’s 30 degrees at night, it felt freezing. I can put up with the cold for short periods of time, and even enjoy extremely snowy cold winters in a way, but I cannot bear to be cold inside. It can be 30 degrees below outside, and I won’t complain, but anything less than 20 inside and I become a Super Grouch.

There was no heater in the room of any description, and the hotel staff said they didn’t have one to give me. I didn’t really believe that there wasn’t a heater in the hotel somewhere, so I tried pleading with them, cajoling them with tales of my wife’s imminent demise. I even descended to borderline begging and then attempted bribery, but I eventually realised they were telling the truth. There were no heaters in the hotel. Moreover, none of the other backpackers I met had heaters in their hotels or guesthouses either.

Finding myself, perhaps for the first time in my life, forced to experience cold on a long-term basis, cold as an all-day event, I quickly realised how inherently unpleasant it actually is.

The lack of heating appliances is very odd, when you think about it. Even then, in April, the temperature can fall to zero at night, and in the depths of winter, it can plummet to minus 20. How can these people survive, I asked myself, without heating? How many layers of clothes can you wear? How tough could they be?

I felt sure there had to be heaters somewhere in the city, so tiring of lying under my four blankets and wondering if my toes were in danger of gangrene, I decided I would need to purchase a small heater for myself here in Llasa. I had most certainly not come to Llasa with the intention of buying a heater, but it became my first mission and my number one objective.

I realise this sounds absurd, and perhaps this obsession with heating appliances was part of the altitude sickness, or simply another sign that I really do need professional psychiatric help, but all I could think about was the cold and how much I wanted to escape it. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for warmth comes near the top, and Tibetan culture would just have to wait until I had satisfied my most basic needs.

I set off into the heart of old Llasa to find a heater. With the naivety that comes from growing up in the shopper’s paradise of Western Europe, I thought it would only take five minutes, but hour after hour went by without success.

Night was beginning to fall, and I knew our room was only going to get colder and colder. The cloudless sky looked very unforgiving, and the mountains surrounding the city took on a bleak air, as the shadows of the setting sun shrouded them in darkness.

I also knew from previous experience in China that restaurants and bars rarely have any form of heating either, and when you go out to eat in China, you do so with your coat on. So I trundled on and on, determined not to spend the evening in my coat in a freezing restaurant, trying to eat my dinner through chattering teeth, with nothing to look forward to but returning to an even colder room.

I was also aware that my sickly wife had grown oddly silent before I left, and as I got completely lost in the old-town, I thought of her lying in bed: fully clothed, wrapped in blanks, and staring at the ceiling, like a frozen mummy. This brought out the hunter in me, and I was determined to trap a heater and bring it home.

It took on the feeling of a holy quest: the Search for the Holy Heater. It would have been easier to find the Holy Grail in a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I searched all over the beautiful old town of Tibet, and then I ventured into the ugly Chinese new town, but heaters were not to be found. I looked in more shops in four hours than I had looked in during my whole life beforehand, but without success. There are no heaters in Tibet!

This may not count as spiritual enlightenment, but it sure shocked the Hell out of me. Tibetans have no heaters! They cannot be bought for love, nor money, nor yak’s milk.

Slowly I find myself seduced by the ‘heaterless’ environment I found myself in. There are places in this world that are so beautiful, and so different, that even a mind as warped as mine cannot help but appreciate them. Old Llasa is one of those places, and I slowly became aware of it. It crept into my consciousness that I was somewhere truly special, somewhere magnificent.

Old Llasa is like something out of a medieval museum. Not just the buildings, but the people. There are plenty of European cities that boast an old town, or rather the fade of an old town, but there is something almost Disney-like about them in comparison to Lhasa. Europe may have old towns, but its people are 21’st century people: uniformed, insipid and mass produced; crafted by the mass media they think they control; automaton and cogs in the invisible machine that is modern society. Tibetans are not yet part of the machine; they have not yet been assimilated.

Occasional, for the briefest of moments, my mind shook itself free of the machine and I actually saw them. More than 99% of the time I am blind: I do not see, I think, or rather I think I see, but all I receive are images fed to me by the machine that has crafted and controls me. That afternoon, I saw for real: flashes of the most vibrant traditional costumes, layer upon layer, ‘real’ in a sense beyond comprehension, then or now.

I saw spinning prayer wheels; always moving clockwise, always held in upturned wrists; I saw the colourful clothes and the ceremonial daggers of the young men from outside Llasa; and above the clothes, the Tibetan faces; tanned, lined and both tough and soft, both wise and ignorant at the same time, chanting melodically.

I saw, or rather felt, many things that afternoon, in a way I have not seen or felt anything since, and perhaps may never see or feel again. My rational mind tells me that these ‘sights’, and I will not use the word ‘visions’, were simply the result of altitude sickness, but I would like to believe they were something more. I do not mean something spiritual, for I have no time for spiritualism, but I would like to believe I experienced, even if only for the briefest of instants, another world; a world so entirely different from my own that I cannot understand it, and if I cannot understand it, I cannot really describe it.

But to return, rather sadly I must admit, to the world I do inhabit, let me describe Llasa as best I can, as best as I remember it, being who I am, a 38-year old ‘civilised’ man, sitting in a flat in Paris, on a cold November Sunday afternoon, wishing I was somewhere else, wishing I was something else.

I think ‘tough’ is the best word to describe Tibetans. I could barely survive there in a comfortable hotel with all the creature comforts money could buy; except a heater, of course. The Tibetans from outside Llasa eek a living from the most barren and inhospitable land I have ever seen.

Before Buddhism gained a hold here, the Tibetans were regarded by their neighbours much as the Huns were regarded by Europeans: fierce savage warrior creatures; intent on pillage, rape and general destruction. And, to be brutally honest, I was still rather apprehensive of them. They looked wild and savage, much as the indigenous population of the Americas must have looked to the first ‘settlers’.


If I had been some kind of Hemmingway figure, I would have struck up a conversation with one of them, hastily built a friendship with some of them over hot Yak milk and whiskey, and headed back into the mountains with them to see how real men live, and experience life at its toughest. Of course, I probably would have died in a week or less. I’m a city kid, and cannot survive outside it. The environment has imprisoned me. Even the Han Chinese, a pretty sturdy bunch, tend to stay within the towns, and leave the herding in the Wastelands to the Tibetans.

Even the monks, who I had expected to display a glowing serenity, were a little on the scary side. One of them approached me once, smiled with a touch of menace, and then showed me a tattered piece of paper requesting money to rebuild some monastery or other. I took some crumbled notes out of my pocket and went to give him a five yuan one. He grabbed the other notes out of my paw too, and took off smiling, spinning his prayer wheel as he went.

“What a naughty monk,” I thought to myself.

This happened several times in Llasa on my first day, so that pretty quickly, I learned not to make eye-contact with any red-robed fellow, and to ignore their many ‘hellos’ and commands to parley. They seemed insatiably greedy, and displayed an avarice even the Catholic Church would balk at. Apologies to the Dali Lama and to the entire Tibetan Spiritual Movement, but I do not appreciate being targeted in this way. I am nobody’s cash-cow. I am an atheist and do not want to give my money to exploiters of the proletariat, and peddlers of the opium of religion.

Ignoring monks wasn’t always enough though. A few days later, after staggering down from the Potala Palace, and falling into the nearest restaurant, hopelessly out of breath and desperately in need of something cold, liquid and sweet, I looked on aghast as my just-opened can of coke was swiped from my table by a middle-aged monk.

The owner of the restaurant (a Han Chinese) shrugged his shoulders sympathetically, and I was left to wonder how the monk helping himself to my can of coke was going to bring either of us one step closer to enlightenment.

In the dizzy and disorientated state of my first day, as I walked around the Barkhor temple, Llasa’s holiest shrine, incongruously asking all and sundry for a heater, not knowing the word in Tibetan or Chinese, I was accosted by uncountable numbers of beggars and enthusiastic stall owners who enjoined me to purchase large quantities of prayer wheels, yak’s butter, prayer mats, prayer flags and hand-woven carpets.

Everything proffered was accompanied by the mantra “luck-ee luck-ee” and “cheap-ee cheap-ee.” Nobody offered to sell me what my heart desired-a heater. The sounds and smells of the crowded market street were overpowering. As I crawled along, zombie-like in short shuffle steps, I was struck by how alien the place was compared to everything I had seen in my life before.

I was also struck by how close to fainting I was, and more than a little worried by my inability to remember how to get back to my hotel. Thankfully Llasa is quite a small town, so I stumbled across my hotel again eventually. The room was freezing, I was exhausted, and after checking that Sandra had not frozen to death in my absence, I began the roller coaster ride of sleep and heart palpitations.

Slowly the worst effects of altitude sickness subsided, but the racing heart beat and the shortness of breath continued. I also managed to pick up a cold and a nasty cough, which I suspected could be tuberculosis, being of an optimistic disposition. I almost thought about giving up smoking, but sanity prevailed.

Instead, I decided to visit a nearby health clinic. Sandra had also told me that we should buy some altitude sickness medicines, which with a complete lack of foresight and planning, we had neglected to buy before the trip.

In the clinic, the doctor took my heartbeat, but I must admit I was worried by the amount of time it took her to find my pulse, and even more worried by the state of her faded and discoloured stethoscope. I had watched enough medical hospital dramas to know that stethoscopes are meant to be shiny and silver, but nothing in the clinic was shiny or silver, least of all the doctor.

She was a woman of indeterminate age, but certainly over a hundred, and she had breathing problems as bad as my own, or worse. She had about 50 faintly recognisable words of English, and an unwillingness to speak Mandarin with foreigners, a trait common to every Tibetan I tried to speak to. To make up for these linguistic deficiencies, she affixed ‘ee’ and ‘upa’ to the end of Tibetan words, hoping this would made things clearer, but it didn’t.

Her medical apron had once been white, but was now rather off-white. In fact, everything in the clinic looked slightly off-white to me, and it didn’t reek of bleach, which alarmed me.

The doctor placed a thermometer under my armpit, and was then called away by another client at the counter. I think she forgot about us, as I’m sure a thermometer doesn’t normally require 20 minutes to get a reading.

In her absence, we chatted to a young woman from Chengdu in the bed beside where we were sitting. She lay fully clothed, even to the extent of having her chunky coat done up to the top button. She also had some dark brown blankets pulled over her since the clinic, like everywhere else, had no heating.

She said she was suffering from a cold and had come in to have a drip put in her arm. The Chinese often go to a hospital to get a drip when they have nothing more than a cold to worry about. In view of the highly questionably hygiene standards of the establishment, I refused the doctor’s later offer of a drip for me. Indeed, as long as I could maintain consciousness, I was determined not to let the wheezing doctor insert a needle into any part of my anatomy.

By the time she returned, the thermometer had fallen form my armpit and was resting on my hip, but she said it didn’t matter. She diagnosed a cold, and gave me the same prescription as everyone else; dispirin and altitude sickness potions.

I got the impression she sold these to everyone who visited her clinic, regardless of their complaint. You could walk in with your arm in shreds, hanging off at the shoulder, following a savage attack from a flock of rabid vultures, and you’d probably leave with nothing more than a few dispirin and some altitude sickness potions.

She also advised me not to climb any tall mountains in the next day or two. Ha! I had problems enough climbing the single flight of stairs to my hotel room. Everest was definitely not on my agenda.

Determined not to develop pneumonia, I made some frantic phone calls from deep under the covers in my hotel room, and managed to find a hotel that promised to provide me with a heater.

It cost triple what I was paying for the other hotel, but it was still only 35 Euro a night. This is a fortune in Llasa, and I’m sure I would have been expelled from the Backpacker Association of Scrimping for paying it, but I couldn’t face the thought of another day shivering under three blankets, a t-shirt, a fleece and a winter coat.

Moreover, the new hotel’s location was nothing short of spectacular. It was right opposite the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest shrine, and right in the middle of the old town, the Barkhor. The temple building cannot compete with the Potala Palace but the atmosphere of the Jokhang is incredible.

Crouched over my beloved electric heater, trying not to burn my fingers by hugging it too closely, I looked though the window as the pilgrims walked around the temple, over and over again, always in a clockwise direction. This is called ‘doing koras,’ and it apparently earns you some kind of spiritual merit, a Buddhist version of ‘Hail Mary’s’, I suppose.

Rather than counting rosary beads, the Tibetan pilgrims walked, chanted and kept spinning ornate prayer wheels in their hands, all dressed in the elaborate regional costumes that I mentioned earlier.

The PSB and the army kept a very close eye on everything, but the Pilgrims didn’t seem to even see them, or if they did, they paid them no heed. Even 50 years of Han domination, or what the Dali Lama once labelled ‘cultural genocide’ does not seem to have destroyed Tibetan’s culture, or even dampened their spirit. In spite of the oppression and hardships, they laugh and smile a lot more than the Han, or westerners, for that matter.

I’d like to think this will continue forever, but Beijing is thinking long term, and it is not prepared to give this ‘province’ back to what it considers a bunch of savage primitives, too backward to even appreciate their ‘liberation from feudal servitude’, not to mention the roads and airports the Chinese have built, the schools they’ve set up, and the jobs they’ve provided.

Greater Tibet (Tibet itself, Qinghai, and parts of Sichuan and Yunnan) is an enormous area, far bigger than the size of the Tibet province one finds on maps. Greater Tibet, defined in terms of areas with a majority of ethnic Tibetans, is the size of Western Europe. Moreover, it’s grossly underpopulated, especially in comparison to overpopulated Chinese lands to the east, and it is ripe for Han expansion. There are also significant untapped mineral resources here that the Chinese are keen to explore.

Beijing offers great financial incentives for Han Chinese to resettle here, and as there are only about 5 million Tibetans in Greater Tibet, and there are 1,207 million Han, crowded into Eastern China’s lowlands and costal areas, the Tibetans will soon find themselves a minority in their own ‘autonomous region’. The same is true for other ethnic minorities in China, who make up only 7 per cent of the population, but occupy nearly 40 per cent of the land.

Apart from repopulation, the Han fights the Tibetan campaign on a second from, a cultural front. The pilgrims I mention come from remote mountainous regions. In the urban centres, the young Tibetans seem a great deal less devout. They listen to hip-hop, wear western clothes and watch VCD’s. Western culture, insidious and all-conquering, may achieve what communist propaganda has failed to achieve in 50 years-it may make the Tibetans forget who they are.

Being brought up in a secular Europe, where even the Catholic church is on the wane, I was completely unprepared for what awaited me inside the Jokhang temple. Even in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the epicentre of the Catholic world, camera-toting tourists outnumber the faithful three to one. Every Christian church I’ve ever visited feels like a museum; of historical and architectural interest only. In Macao, I remember a pair of young Chinese girls smiling for photos under the more picturesque station of the cross, searching in vain, I presumed, for a smiling Christ.

The Jokhang Tample, on the other hand, is most definitely a place of pilgrimage and worship. At the entrance, in the large open square in front of the temple, pilgrims perform a long ritual before entering.

First, they kneel and then hold their hands in front of their chest, almost as if they were praying in a Christian way. They then place their hands on the ground and use them to support their body weight as they gently allow their body to touch the ground, finally touching the sacred ground with their forehead as an act of worship and atonement. They then slide their hands (covered in some kind of mat) forward in front of their head so that it’s pointing at the temple. They chant something special for each part of the procedure, and repeat it over and over again.

It looked very strenuous, like doing a push up, but the tough Tibetans continued on and on, oblivious to all discomfort, as always. If Tibetans can experience pain, I never saw them show it.

All religions, it seems to me, contain some element of self-humiliation. In Christianity, the act of humbling oneself before a deity has been reduced to symbolic genuflection, and the days of self-flagellation are thankfully a thing of the past. In Islam, one is still required to lie on the ground, prostrate and powerless before an all-powerful Deity. The Tibetans Buddhists also placed themselves on the ground, in complete humility. Armed with the arrogance of a western rationalist, I simply could never do this.

As you enter the temple itself, everything suddenly becomes very dark. Electric light is not permitted, and this in itself is a shock to the system. At least, it was a shock to my system, as I get nervous without the electric hum that has been a part of my life since birth, and even beforehand.

We slowly tried to navigate the dark labyrinthine corridors, the smell of incense and yak butter candles mixing with the smell of the unwashed pilgrims and their dirty clothes.

The chanting devotees moved hurriedly and purposefully past the fading paintings of the Brahayama (one of Buddhism’s most sacred books), spinning enormous silver drum-like prayer wheels as they went, making brief stops at tiny alcoves, each containing a different Buddha statue.

I didn’t see any other foreigners in there, but nobody stared at us, as they were all far too busy seeking salvation to bother with a pair of wheezing ‘big noses’.

Red-Robed monks were everywhere, and in the central room, a gigantic gold Buddha smiles down, secure in the knowledge that life and existence are nothing but illusions. He is also probably relieved that the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution have left, as they destroyed about 40 per cent of the temple the last time they paid a visit.

On the roof of the temple, the Potala Palace, two kilometres away, appeared even more wondrous and stately.

Even Llasa itself, surrounded on all sides by freshly snow-covered mountains, seemed truly locked away from the world at large, and above Earthly concerns.

We had deliberately left the Potala Palace until our last day in Llasa, daunted by its many steep steps. Finally, armed with a large breakfast, and an increasingly powerful set of lungs, a set of lungs a 60-year old would be proud of, we felt ready for the climb upto the Potala.

We still took it slowly, stopping frequently to take in the views of Llasa. However, they were a little disappointing. It’s only from the height of the Potala that you realize how greatly 50 years of Beijing rule have changed the face of the city. While the Jokhang and what remains of the old town are still very much Tibetan, the rest of the city is completely new. Of whatever there was before, nothing remains. It’s all been rebuilt in accordance with modern urban planning; all straight lines, wide roads and uniformity.

At least they have kept it low rise, and the Potala does not have to compete for skyline with some shimmering steel and glass Bank of China monstrosity, but new Llasa is about as interesting as a small mid-west American town. It’s only the backdrop of snowy mountains that remind you that you’re not just in the middle of Normallsville, Idaho.

When we had climbed about one third of the way up to the entrance, we were aghast to find somebody shouting at us and telling us to hurry up because the Potala would be closing soon. I looked at the remaining steps to the entrance, hundreds of them, and the few steps we had so far climbed, and shrieked, or would have done, if I’d had the breath.

Not for the first time, I cursed my guidebook for trying so hard to be witty and not paying enough attention to essential details, like opening and closing hours. If I want to read something witty, I pick up a Bill Bryson book, and if I want to know what time the Potala Palace closes, I expect my guide book to know about it.

As to the name of my illustrious guide book, let’s just say it has ‘Planet’ in the title, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the authors were exiled to a different one, preferably a cold one where possession of a heater carries the death penalty!

Determined not to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the only sad fools who had managed to come to Llasa and not managed to see the Potala Palace, we sped up. After climbing 20 steps, my heartbeat reached 140; after another 10 steps, everything was zipping in and out of focus in an alarming fashion; after another 10, there was an odd buzzing sound in my ears, like helicopter blades from a Vietnam War movie.

We simply had to stop again and catch our breath-perhaps hyperventilate is a more accurate description. Once the worst of the dizziness and nausea subsided, we clambered up more steps and through a feat of super-human exertion I never thought myself capable of, we made it to the ticket office.

I tried to explain our late arrival, but couldn’t stop gasping long enough to badmouth the guidebook. In fact, I couldn’t emit any comprehensible sounds at all. The assistant did not summon the nearest doctor or monk to administer whatever the Buddhist equivalent of ‘last rights’ is, as I would have done in her place when confronted by two swaying wrecks who looked as if they were about to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil,’ but just punched 100 Yuan into a talking calculator and said, “you must hurry!” I tried to think of a witty retort, but at this stage of oxygen deprivation words were not even forming in my brain, let alone coming out of mouth.

We fell into the Potala only to be confronted by more steps. There are thirteen floors in the place. Thirteen! While geriatric monks seemed to have no problems whatsoever bounding up the tree-like steps, we certainly did, but there was always a monk or caretaker nearby to helpfully tell us to hurry up.

One should look on the bright side… I don’t know why, but people always tell me this. However, it is true that the lack of oxygen in my dying brain and the mild visual and auditory hallucinations it caused did make the experience more mystical. Also, we had the place to ourselves, and didn’t have to suffer a single tour group or guide, praise be to Buddha.

The Potala has 1,300 rooms, but of course, only a few of these are on view. A lot of them seem to be under urgent repair. The Potala was built and is still supported using wooden beams, and they are far from eternal. The endless rooms contain Buddha upon Buddha, thousands and thousands of them; some big, some small; some silver, some gold; some with him sitting, some with him lying down. Each one is probably a collector’s piece and I’m sure many are priceless.

We are lucky they are still here. The Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution were all set to come in to destroy the ‘Four Olds’ and Potala could have easily been raised to the ground.

Thankfully Deng Zhou Ping, at no small risk to himself, as he was already being accused of being a rightist and a reactionary, sent a contingent of loyal Red Army troops to protect the Potala and it emerged from the Cultural Revolution unscathed.

The walls and roof of each room are painted to depict scenes from the Brahayama, with its freaky assortment of goblins and monsters. Centuries of yak oil candles have darkened and blackened everything, and there is very little natural light in most of the rooms, but this only heightens the feeling of peace and isolation. Other rooms contain holy scrolls, browned by age and musty beyond belief. Some of them, I was told, had been brought from India by Tributaka himself.

We also passed through tall cavernous rooms, containing hefty golden, jewel-encrusted tombs of the previous Dali Lamas. Near the top of the Palace, we were briefly allowed to see the Dali Lama’s living quarters; where he ate, slept, and looked out on a world that was about to disappear.

Standing in the throne room, I thought how strange a world it must have been to grow up and live in; believing yourself to be the reincarnation of previous Dali Lamas, universally credited with possessing divine qualities and born with a right to rule. In this fairyland world, it’s hardly surprising he didn’t see the Chinese Dragon at the door. But it is the Dragon’s house now, and I for one cannot see her giving it back.

Although we would have liked to have spent a great deal more time in the Potala, as it probably is the kind of place that one should not see with a heart rate nearing 140 beats a minute, we did at least get to see it, and we comforted ourselves with this knowledge on the many steps back down from the Potala.

This was to be our last day in Llasa, which seemed a great pity, since we were only know beginning to acclimatise. I wanted to spend a lot longer there, and I wanted to explore the rest of Tibet. Part of me even wanted to become a yak herder, but I knew my time was up.

Llasa airport is situated hours away from Llasa city right beside a military barracks, presumably in case of a revolt. The last thing Beijing wants is a group of revolutionary Tibetans seizing control of an airport.

On the plus side, the very early morning taxi ride gave us a chance to see dawn rise over the Tibetan mountains, as we sped through empty roads, hugging the hillside as it followed the slow, green-blue and meandering Llasa River along its lonely path. Thick fog banks flowed over the mountain peaks and slid down the valleys. An occasional serene yak munched away on clumps of yellow semi-frozen grass, and for a while, Tibet seemed like a magical place.

That feeling immediately vanished when we left the warm taxi and entered the brand spanking new, and completely unheated, airport building. At the check-in counter, we found that our flight had been cancelled, for reasons unknown, and how dare we have the audacity to demand to know why.

We were waved away to the other side of the hall. There, a woman with an enormous amount of attitude said she was the Bank of China, and waved us back to where we had just come from. This happened over and over again, as we pinballed our way from one counter to the next.

These coming and going was made all the more difficult by the abject inability of Chinese people to form a queue. Yes, I know I have no right to ask other cultures to abide by the strict queue following norms of the society I was brought up in, but queues are just such a good idea, and when I rule the world, I’m going to make queue forming obligatory worldwide. It will be part of my manifesto, along with self-determination for Tibet, the abolition of cars, and a Phillipus Moanicus Breeding and Research Centre.

Instead of the orderly line of people you find in a queue, in China you must enter a kind of scrum, or rather a tightly packed semi-circle of barking fiends.

All of them are simultaneously shouting at anyone behind or near the counter, stuffing documents under their noses, and nudging each other to and fro, jockeying for position like their life depended on it. In this kind of situation, the meek may very well inherit the earth, but they’ve absolutely no chance of getting a plane ticket.

Different cultures, sociologists tell us, have different acceptable levels of personal space, into which strangers must never tread. The Anglo Saxons, they say, have one of the greatest distances; they require more personal space than other cultures.

The Chinese, it seems to me, in situations like this, operate with a personal space threshold of zero. I should be able to accept this as a cultural difference and not expect other cultures to play by my rules, since I am not as yet in charge of the world, but I simply cannot bear people in my personal space. It just seems so insufferably rude, so terribly presumptuous.

I don’t know what disturbs me most: the feeling of a stranger’s breath on my neck; his crotch in my backside; his falling asleep in a crowded bus with his head on my shoulder. These things never fail to aggravate me.

However, I have just to grin and bear it, or rather, grind my teeth, mutter abusive remarks in Spanish, and bear it. When I rule the world, it will be a very different place, and everyone will have personal space detectors that emit a siren alarm whenever someone gets too close. Ah, when will this Utopia come about?

After a few more yo-yo perambulations of the airport, just to make sure we left Llasa feeling as dizzy as when we arrived, they informed us that the next flight to Xian was in two day’s time, and we should sort out the details with a travel agent back in Llasa.

Standing firm, well swaying firm actually, we insisted on flying the same day and demanded an indirect route, if no direct one was available.

They reluctantly offered to exchange the Llasa-Xian flight for a Llasa-Chengdu flight leaving in a couple of hours. We pointed out that this was only half way there, and wondered if we were expected to walk the rest of the way, or perhaps grab onto a passing swan.

The girl behind the counter was getting angry now, and shooed us away like you would a malevolent ghost or a smelly skunk, and told us to buy another ticket in Chengdu. Sandra was getting pretty angry too, and was beginning to take on the air of a tigress, with her flight to Xian representing the cubs she was going to protect with her life.

After a lot of snarling and bearing of teeth, they gave us the connecting flight, but made us pay a 50 dollar surcharge. Somebody in the scrum realized what had happened, and before long everyone was demanding the same thing, much to the attendant’s displeasure. It was not ‘convenient’ for her, as she now had to fill in two pieces of paper for every customer instead of just one.

I had similar experiences in Russia when dealing with officials. I think it’s something to do with communism. The ‘service mentality’ of Western cultures is turned on its head, and officials of every rank believe that they are doing you a favour by serving you. The customer is not always right, as in the west. On the contrary, the customer is nothing more than a petty inconvenience and should be ignored whenever possible, or if they must be dealt with, they should be treated with undisguised contempt.

Eventually, the plane took off and Llasa and Tibet disappeared from view. Forever.

It’s customary to say that you will return one day, but I know I’ll never go back to Llasa. I’m simply too weak to survive there, but I’ve nothing but admiration for those who can.

I do earnestly hope the Tibetans and their culture manage to survive up there on ‘the roof of the world.’ There is something unique about them, and the world will be a poorer place for their passing.

However, I can’t help but feel pessimistic about their prospects. History is full of peoples and cultures that have been laid waste by ‘The Mighty Han.’ Even those who appear to have defeated and conquered them, like the Manchus or the Qing, are later assimilated and become indistinguishable from the Han, in language and culture.

Originally, the Han were merely one people among many in central China, but they grew and grew, and reached a ‘critical mass.’ Like the Borg from Star Trek, they conquer, assimilate and grow, growing stronger and stronger with each fresh conquest. However, no Captain Piquard is going to beam down from the Enterprise with an away team to protect the outnumbered and outgunned Tibetans. They must fight alone, and fight passively, without even the threat of violence, in a manner even more subtle than Gandhi’s passive resistance movement in India.

Can they succeed? I don’t think so, but I hope so.

Looking at a group of army cadres on the plane, I softly hummed the tune of an old Morrissey song that had come into my head out of nowhere:

“Shelve you western plans

And understand

That life is hard enough

When you belong here”

As acts of defiance go, it was pretty pathetic, and it didn’t appear to have any effect on the course of Sino-Tibetan relations. But what could I do, and what can you do? We are all mere ants in the face of something as large as the Han’s swallowing of the Tibetan people and culture.

As the plane landed in Chengdu, a group of Tibetans in the central rows of the plane ignored the ‘Fasten your Seat Belt’ sign, and stood up to get a better view out the plane windows. They looked in awe and wonder at the flat, green and lush farmland below them.

Perhaps it was the first time they had seen such a landscape. How strange it must have appeared to them.

They wanted to visit the Dragon’s home, perhaps wondering if the Dragon would ever leave their home.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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