This is chapter 30 from my Tibet memoir in which I make the transition from a debauched life in Lhasa and head into the mountains…
What followed was a nightmare. I could hardly control my feelings of panic and confusion; how was I supposed to make a lesson out of this ridiculous kid’s book that Elliot had thrust into my hand? And the students weren’t making it any easier by sitting there silently, staring at me as if I knew what to do. It was the longest hour I ever lived through and what made it worse was the news that the pay was only five yuan an hour. After the class I protested and said I wouldn’t go on unless they raised it to at least seven yuan an hour. Surely such a big group could scrape that much together? I sought Elliot’s support but he had washed his hands of the situation by now and didn’t even want to discuss it. It’s your baby now was all he would say. I waited for them to agree on a raise but, perhaps realising how hopeless their potential English teacher was, they presumably decided to forget about the whole thing and I never heard any more about it.
I was living a double life in those days. With Diane and Frenchy I was a drunk, a hooligan, someone of whom decent people would disapprove of and keep away from their daughters. With Isabella, who was a textbook definition of a decent person, I portrayed myself as a clean-living, enthusiastic English teacher who didn’t swear, spit and drink too much beer. It seemed to work and I felt sure that Isabella would give me the first job that came her way. I was glad to be getting the best out of both these worlds but was always careful not to get too close to one group or the other as I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a boring English teacher – or as a drunk.
After a few weeks this exhausting, debauched lifestyle was getting me down. All those late nights and all that booze was starting to burn me out. As the New Yorkers would say, I needed to bag the scene, do something else, move on. I was starting to feel rotten inside. I was getting hooked into this routine of sloth and alcohol and while I knew I should clean up my act, there was nothing else going on in my life – no prospect of a job, nowhere else to go and the idea of hitching all the way to Shanghai seemed like a drag.
During this time I was sustained by the optimistic belief that something good would eventually happen to me in Tibet. This sentiment led me to believe that I had better see some of Tibet now, while I still had time on my hands, as who knew how busy I would become in the future. I built up my determination to get out of town for a while, to give the decadence a break and look for a job restoring murals at Samye Monastery, whose representatives in Lhasa I had recently met.
I found out as much as I could about the route from Ganden Monastery, which was about an hour away from Lhasa by bus, to Samye Monastery, which was about four days walk to the south. I thought this sounded feasible and I geared up mentally to overcome my sloth. I hung out at the Travellers’ Co-op just long enough to scrounge a sleeping bag and some tinned food supplies. I wondered if I could find a travelling companion who wasn’t a crashing bore. Of course, I realised, Diane and Frenchy can come with me. They liked the idea but the reality of walking further than the nearest teahouse was anathema to them. When I pushed them about it they called me a Limey dork. The weather was getting colder and this made it impossible to get either of them out of bed in the morning, and I realised that I would never be able to drag them on a four-day hike. I was on my own.
What gelled thought into action was a particularly decadent night at the Lhasa Hotel, the place where I had enjoyed a Yak Burger when I came back from the plateau. Diane had booked a triple room for the reduced winter rate of thirty yuan (₤3) and we all chipped in. Six of us crowded into the room and we took turns to luxuriate in the bath. We were astounded by the crisp cotton bed sheets, the firm mattress and the deep pile carpet was more comfortable than my bed in the Cheese Factory. Heat kept pouring into the room as if by magic. We drank a bottle of Old Suntory Japanese whisky, several crates of beer and played poker in clouds of cigarette smoke until dawn. When I woke up on the floor I had a powerful feeling that the age of hangovers had just come to an end, and with a fresh sense of determination, I left the room before anyone else was awake, went back to the Cheese Factory, packed my rucksack and started walking along the road towards Ganden.
It was afternoon. I had missed the early morning bus by over seven hours but I was so determined to get out of town that I would have walked all the way. Fortunately a truck picked me up and dropped me off, a couple of hours later, at a small village underneath the mountain that Ganden Monastery sits on. It was evening by now and I felt tired, thirsty and hung-over. I was glad to have left my American friends behind and I hoped I would never drink alcohol again. I looked at the muddy road leading up to the monastery and decided to try and find somewhere to stay in the roadside village. Soon enough I found an old couple who took me in and gave me a cup of tea, and just as I was getting comfortable and hoping to settle down for the night they said sharply:
– You’ve had your tea. Now get out!
It was pitch dark and the muddy road was steep and endless. I plodded up and lost track of time. A wild howling of dogs mixed in with the sound of the wind and the higher I got the louder the barking sounds became. There must have been hundreds of stray dogs up there and I imagined they were passing the word round that some new meat was on its way up. Ganden Monastery was said to be vast but there was no sign of it, no lights or sound (apart from the dogs). Had I come up the wrong mountain? Was it invisible? I was staggering, parched with thirst and frustration. Why hadn’t I organised this properly? Why hadn’t I brought a bottle of water? Where was the monastery? Will the dogs attack?
An old building with thick stone walls came into view. Weak candlelight was coming through the windows and I rushed towards it, hoping to reach safety before the dogs got me. I banged loudly on the wooden door and then screamed. No reply. The barking was getting louder. I reached down, grabbed some stones and started throwing them as hard as I could at the beasts, missing but momentarily keeping them at bay. I knew that when they had built up enough numbers they would charge.
The door of the stone building burst open and three young monks came rushing out and ran, screaming, towards the dogs. The dogs just melted away. Then the monks turned to me and invited me inside. I was safe. They all seemed to be teenagers and their chief, to whom they showed great respect, couldn’t have been more than twenty. They gave me tea and food and seemed delighted to have me in their midst. Was I the first foreigner they had entertained? They were laughing and chasing each other around the room, not the sort of behaviour one would expect from a Buddhist monk. By now I could communicate in basic Tibetan:
– The Guest House is over there, one of them said.
– Can I stay here for the night? I asked, pointing to the floor.
– No, you have to go to the Guest House. You’re not allowed to stay here.
– Please, I asked, I would much rather stay with you.
They argued about this for ages. The chief monk wanted to stick to the rules but the three teenagers obviously wanted me to stay. Eventually it was agreed that I could stay and I settled down for the night on a wooden bench. The three teenagers lay down on the floor and the chief monk on a bed. We were all in the same room and they joked late into the night. I slept like the dead. The next morning I woke early and everyone was gone. I stepped onto the porch where pale sunlight was coming through frozen, misty air . The three young monks were all sitting cross-legged, chanting furiously. Was this a way of staying warm? Each one of them had a curious collection of papers on their laps and they seemed to be chanting from what was written on them. I looked more carefully and realised that these were books with mantras, or chants. Each book consisted of about fifty or sixty thin strips of paper, all covered with ornate Tibetan script, and the covers of the books were made up of long pieces of wood. They would flip each page over after they had chanted it and each monk had two piles of paper in front of him – the pages they had chanted and the remainder. When they were done the monks gathered up the papers, closed them in their wooden covers and then wrapped them up in cotton – presumably against the dust. They piled these sock-like packages into a cupboard where hundreds more were stacked. When they had finished their chanting they gave me tea and tsampa, and started to mock fight with each other.
The ruins of Ganden Monastery are majestic. There are hundreds of gutted buildings, spread out on top of a crescent shaped mountain. It looked like the remnants of a small town. Seven thousand monks had lived here before the whole place had been dynamited during the China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1968. During that period, when much of China’s cultural heritage was destroyed, Mao Tse Tung encouraged the population to attack the Four Olds – old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. In Tibet over six thousand monasteries were razed and thousands of monks were killed or sent to prison camps.
The effect of seeing these ruins was numbing and I wondered what it took for people to destroy such a spiritual place. Some of the buildings were being rebuilt and I could see Tibetan workers heaving great oblongs of chiselled stone and there was a boisterous atmosphere on the building site. Most of the young monks were allowed to run around and play like kids; nobody seemed to mind their shouting and pranks. It had the atmosphere of a school-yard. I was introduced to a monk who must have been in his eighties and his room was an ocean of calm and solitude. His floor was covered in rugs, his walls filled with icons – and a poster that seemed totally out of place: the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party.
He tried to talk to me about spiritual matters but my grasp of Tibetan was far too basic to understand anything. He showed me a photo of Ganden before the Communists had got to it and it looked like a full-sized town. I felt honoured to be in this man’s presence and I could feel the goodness and wisdom emanating from him, to such an extent that it didn’t seem important that I couldn’t understand his words. I never found out who he was. He asked if I would like to stay in his room but I politely declined as I felt more comfortable with the rowdy teenagers. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the ruins, catching a bit of sleep when I found a sunny spot, and by evening I was with the boys again, shouting, singing and laughing.
The following morning I was full of energy and ready for anything the heavens could throw at me. I got up at dawn, said goodbye to my young friends and confirmed with them that the narrow path heading into the mountain above Ganden was the right track for Samye.
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. To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.