It was another day of walking and there were very few vehicles; about one truck every hour, none of which even slowed down. Storm clouds approached, the temperature dropped and I was walking up a long, seemingly endless hill. Rain had started to pour down and the wind blew hard and drove the rain into every part of my clothing. I stared back down the mountain, willing a vehicle to come this way. Any vehicle! As if in answer to my prayers I realised that something was chugging slowly up the road. Eventually an old tractor appeared and the driver gave me a look of sympathy. He was going so slowly that I easily jumped in the back and sat silently with three other Tibetan men. We ground our way up a high pass. At the top the tractor stopped, turned off the engine and the Tibetan men went over to a pile of stones by the side of the road and offered it blessings.
The tractor wouldn’t start. The driver tried the ignition, we all had a go with a crank handle but nothing would get the engine to start. We then tried pushing it but it was too heavy to move. There was no shelter anywhere from the wind and rain and I realised that if I didn’t get moving I would freeze to death. So I said goodbye to my glum companions, grabbed my soaking rucksack and started walking down the other side of the mountain. The next valley was rocky and deserted but it felt good to be on the move. Just when I was getting into my rhythm the tractor reappeared and the men in the trailer waved triumphantly. I jumped back on and we bumped along for what seemed like an eternity, through vast open spaces, mountain ranges, some containing ruined monasteries, and new colours that had been highlighted by the rain. There was no talking in that freezing trailer but when we stopped at a quarry, where they lit a fire and made tea, I felt that they appreciated my presence. The feeling was mutual. In darkness they dropped me in a big town.
Shigatse is an ancient Tibetan town that has become a Chinese garrison. I checked into a big green, concrete hotel and met a tall Australian in the lobby who told me he was on his way to the Holy Mountain, pointing to the west and assuming that I knew what he was on about. I didn’t and was too tired to listen. I just wanted a real bed, a real mattress, real sheets. By the next morning I was wallowing in luxury and got up late, washed my socks, went out and ate delicious Chinese food on the street and then visited the big monastery that dominates the town. I noticed the strange smells, the atmosphere, and looked at huge statues with red faces, but didn’t have the energy to take it all in. I went back to that wonderful bed to build up some energy for hitching the next day.
The key to hitching is energy. If you have the energy it’s easy to cope with the walking, the standing around for hours and the constant rejection by thousands of heartless drivers. Without energy I just couldn’t do it. Hitching out of Shigatse was easy as there were more vehicles than I had seen in all of Tibet: tractors and trailers going to a nearby quarry, hundreds of cheery horsemen, some of them pulling trailers, all of them smoking and dressed in black, and the odd truck. I jumped in the back of a slow-moving tractor filled with boys with shovels. After a few minutes they gesticulated that I should get out (which I had no intention of doing) and then I saw why – they turned off the main road and into a quarry. Soon after I got a lift in an old Toyota Landcruiser and haggled hard with the Chinese driver to take me to the next city, Gyantse, for five yuan (50p). He offered to take me all the way to Lhasa for another five yuan but I decided to check out Gyantse. When we arrived in the evening he dropped me outside a rough tourist hostel and said he would be back to pick me up in the morning. I never saw him again.
The hostel was newly-built but it had been ravaged by the elements and looked shabby. It had a big concrete courtyard at the back that was full of broken vehicles, building materials and other junk. I could smell the low toilet building on one side of the courtyard. A surly Chinese family demanded money, took me upstairs to a balcony that led to a large, crowded and dingy dormitory. I noticed the windows were unusually big for this country, where local houses seem to have no windows at all, but the curtains were thin and grimy. All the beds but one were taken by foreign travellers.
There was a good buzz in the room. The centre of attention was a tanned Chinese American girl and her Danish boyfriend. They told good stories, were popular with everyone, and were having a good laugh with a group of hippies from Holland. They welcomed me into the discussion. They were laughing about the two Englishman who were camping on the balcony, just outside the door:
– What’s so funny about those English guys? I asked.
– They’re crazy, said one of the Dutch hippies. They come to a hostel, pay for a bed and then sleep on the balcony. I think they just want to show us how tough they are and what good camping equipment they have.
– Maybe they got a discount, I said.
– No, explained the Chinese American girl. I talked to them. They’re loaded. The one with the aristocratic Brit accent is an officer with the Ghurkhas and the other one is a stockbroker in Hong Kong. They’re doing this fake camping thing so they can tell their buddies back home: I went camping in Tibet.
That evening we stood on the other end of the balcony, watching the stars over the wave-like formation of hills. The friendly American girl was talking about her plans for the next trip to Tibet which would be by horseback (I asked her if she had ever done anything like this before and she said she’d ridden a donkey on a Mexican beach). A small Tibetan man joined us and asked endless questions; this was the first Tibetan I had met who spoke good English. All the travellers had been to Lhasa and one of them, the Dane, had spent four months there:
– What did you do for four months? I asked.
– It takes that long to get to know the place.
– Really? I get bored of a town pretty fast, unless I get a job. Maybe I’ll get a job in Lhasa.
– You can’t get a job in Lhasa. The only foreigners who work there are at the Lhasa Hotel, which is run by the American company Holiday Inn. That was part of some high-level government deal. You can’t just rock up and get a job.
– I know, that’s why I’m heading to Shanghai.
– What are you going to do there?
– Teach English.
– Aha, that’s possible. I guess you’ve already arranged it?
– No, I replied, feeling slightly embarrassed that I had arranged nothing in advance. What kept me going was a blind, dumb faith that things would turn out well.
The next day, before leaving, I had a quick look at Gyantse Monastery. It looked small on the outside but was vast inside. The inner walls were painted with big faces of black demons, creatures that Tibetans believe protect them from evil, and Buddhist statues everywhere. The place was deserted and there were marks of desecration everywhere, holes in the wall that looked like they had been made with pick axes or bullets. The town was dominated by a small fortress that sits on top of a low hill, but I didn’t have the energy to visit it. It was time to hitch to Lhasa.
A big group of Italians, who had been staying in another room, had assembled in the yard, awaiting their transport. They seemed rather like the Italians I had seen at the border: noisy, well-dressed and unable to hire a bus. Some time later a flat-bed truck turned up with a canvas-covered back and a Chinese driver. The Italians seemed delighted even though the truck was dusty and they were in fashionable clothes. Once they were all loaded, the Chinese driver sealed the back of the truck (was it illegal to pick up foreigners?) and got in the cab. He was joined by two cheery Italians who took the other front seats. Just before the truck pulled out an old Tibetan man ambled over to the cab and stared blankly at the Italian passengers. The nearest Italian thought this was amusing and he leaned out and pinched the old man’s cheek between thumb and forefinger and declared in a loud voice:
– Ciao bello.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article).