As I looked out of the window of my dormitory I thought this must be the smallest capital city in the world.
The only traffic was an occasional tractor, or a truck, moving at walking pace, and lots of bicycles. There was so little traffic that pedestrians didn’t bother looking left or right before crossing and people were standing in the middle of the road, chatting. I saw crumbling old Tibetan buildings with new constructions tacked on shakily to the front, forming a higgledy-piggledy mess of shops and cafes, each with a hand painted sign.
Around the hostel was a rash of Sichuanese restaurants, each with a little crowd of foreign travellers, and I noticed that they all seemed to congregate in a tiny area on the Beijing Road, the main route through the city. I ate noodles in one of the Sichuanese places and eavesdropped on a group of travellers:
– Tourism will soon ruin Lhasa! Just like it did to Kathmandu…I wonder where we can score some hash in this town?
The people in my dormitory were friendly. They shared stories, books, chocolate, maps and teaspoons. They had formed into groups and the singles gravitated towards one another. So many questions: Have you been to….? Do you want to go to…? How much is….? The most frequently discussed issue was prices; they would quiz anyone who walked in about how much they paid for this or that and then compare, comment, complain and evaluate. All of them were on strict budgets so they could only spend a limited amount each day. They were carefully planning their time in Tibet: studying lists of monasteries that had to be visited; time and cost estimates; bus timetables; organising food, wash bags, water filters and purification tablets, first-aid kits and appropriate reading material. This approach to travelling looked stressful and I felt that in their zealous attempt to understand Tibet they were somehow missing the point. All this planning removed the spontaneity and joy of discovery that I thrived on.
– I am from Zurich, said a young lady with a big smile. My name is Christina. Would you like to come with us to visit the Potala?
Christina was travelling alone but she had attached herself to a group of Australian backpackers. I could sense that she was looking for a male travelling companion but I wasn’t ready to join their comfortable clique. I was drawn towards a group of Hong Kong Chinese who didn’t seem to want any contact with us westerners. They looked horrified when I first spoke to them but I persisted. Their English wasn’t good but one of them asked me:
– Where are you from?
– I am from Scotland.
– Ah, Scotland, he replied, not really knowing what to say next.
– I am from the city of Aberdeen, I said, knowing that Aberdeen is the name of the port in Hong Kong.
– Ah! Aberdeen! You from Hong Kong? They laughed. My little white lie seemed to have broken the ice and from that moment on they tolerated my presence.
I think the Hong Kong group were intimidated by the close proximity of so many westerners, but within a few days they had built up their confidence – as well as the amount of noise they were making. Their concept of conversation is totally different from ours. They all talked at once and if someone wanted to stress a particular point they started shouting, and inevitably someone else would shout back, and then they would laugh and the whole place would be in uproar. They could keep this up for hours and I found it entertaining. The westerners didn’t know how to deal with the noise they were making – in fact they hated it – I could feel the tension between the groups.
I noticed the Hong Kong travellers had organised themselves into groups and when I asked what was going on they told me they were looking for a cheaper place to stay. I was keen to get out of the friendly embrace of the western travellers and I asked if I could come along. To my surprise, they agreed. They divided into small groups and systematically searched the town for cheaper accommodation. Within a few hours they had re-assembled and were engaged in a noisy discussion, I presume about which option to choose. We all packed our rucksacks, paid up and left. I had no idea where we were going but I was delighted to be joining this group of nine.
This is an extract from my forthcoming eBook: 9 Months in Tibet. To see the feedback I got from the print version click here. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article).