I was full of optimism the next morning as I walked through the golden fields outside Kathmandu, enjoying the warm sunshine. It was one of those moments of such complete beauty that I momentarily forgot that I was doing something that often feels depressing: standing by the side of the road and trying to hitch a lift. There wasn’t much traffic: a tractor now and again, some trucks and the occasional official zipping by in a shiny Japanese jeep. A kindly man on a small motorbike gave me my first lift. He didn’t mind the extra weight even though his back springs screeched over every bump. The wall of mountains ahead got closer and closer and at the foot of them my companion stopped, said he had to turn off the road and I had to get off. I started walking up and up. A lorry carrying sacks of grain picked me up and we made good time; it was a Mercedes and the driver easily overtook the Indian-produced trucks that seemed to be crawling along. Within a few hours we had reached the Nepalese side of the border, which is located in a steep gorge.
A torrential rainstorm had started and I didn’t have a raincoat. The driver stopped by the Nepalese customs house and I dashed in before getting soaked. The customs house was actually a shed perched on a thin strip of land between the road and a river that was powering through the gorge with a deep roaring sound. There were a few more sheds stuck to the customs house, a teahouse, a primitive shop and some shanty type accommodation. The whole shambolic construction looked like it would get swept away by the river at the next monsoon. A few hundred yards up the road was a ramshackle bridge that marked the border between China and Nepal.
Inside the Nepalese customs house was a group of Italians who were all talking furiously at the same time. Their gear had been soaked and was spread all over the small room. An attractive woman with short black hair, glasses and a mad look in her eye pointed a finger into my chest and said:
– You go to Teebet?
– I’m going to Shanghai, I admitted sheepishly. There is something fascinating about furious Italian women and this one reminded me of the raging torrent outside. She looked at me askance, tapped her temple vigorously and launched into a tirade:
– You can’t go! No transport! We try to go to Lhasa. We get nowhere. Why? Because no transport, no nothing, only the stupid donkey and cart. Three days we wait. No car, no bus and no food! We get so wet. You like adventure? You have big adventure. You must be crazy!
– Is there no bus service on the Chinese side?
– You no listen to me! I say you there is no bus, no nothing. We order private bus from Lhasa, we spend thousands of dollars and what happen? Nothing. We wait like stupido. Now we go to Kathmandu and complain to Chinese Embassy.
– So there’s no bus service on the other side? I repeated, more to myself than the enraged Italian, thankful that I was hitching and able to walk if there was no transport.
Pools of water were forming on the mud floor of the customs house and I noticed that the Italians had hung their raincoats and capes all round the bamboo walls. The only person who was completely detached from this chaos was the customs officer himself, an emaciated Gurkha who was calmly ironing his khaki drills. I quietly waited until he had folded away his trousers, caught his attention, showed him my passport, got an exit stamp and walked out into the pouring rain.
Standing on the shaky bridge, I looked up at the Chinese village and realised it was quite close as the crow flies. If you were to climb directly up the gorge it wasn’t more than a mile away, but the road must have been four times that length as it switched back and forth, forming a zigzag pattern up the mountainside. There was no traffic of any description and I presumed the road had slipped off the edge at some point. Suddenly I saw a fountain of brown earth thrown up into the air and heard a sharp explosion echoing off the gorge walls. A group of men in white helmets appeared on the hillside above, Chinese engineers trying to tame this wild hillside. Rocks spasmodically cascaded down the mountainside and bounced off the road. The whole mountain seemed unstable, as if annoyed by the impudence of cutting a road into its surface.
A line of what looked like Sherpas passed me on the bridge and disappeared into the undergrowth on the Chinese side of the border. I later learned that Sherpas would never do such lowly portering work (the Sherpa’s domain was Mount Everest and the foreign climbing expeditions – these people were local Tamang tribesmen).
Assuming this was the shortcut, I followed. The porters were barefoot, wearing only loincloths and each one carried on his back a huge pack, wrapped in canvas, about the size of a bale of hay. The packs were held on their backs by a single strap that went in front of their foreheads. They moved fast and silently, up a steep, muddy track that was covered in various sizes of boulders, effortlessly carrying the huge packs that seem to have been glued to their backs. I struggled to keep up with them, conscious of the fact that I was carrying a puny little rucksack, a handbag compared to their loads. Eventually they stopped for a two-minute cigarette break and I begged one of them to sell me his raincoat – a square of thick polythene, probably from a construction site. Even though I was already soaked to the skin, this scrap of plastic seemed to help against the cold that was seeping into my bones.
Was I the worst prepared traveller to have reached Tibet? With a slight sense of shame I realised I didn’t have any warm clothes, waterproofs or a sleeping bag. I had been put off by the smugness of some travellers who knew exactly where they were going, how they would get there, how much they’d spend, the political situation; they had the whole thing worked out, they were executing a plan with a complete lack of spontaneity.
Khasa is the Nepalese name of the Chinese frontier village and it was dominated by a big white customs building and a new hotel. It is located halfway up the gorge and the only place where construction is possible is right by the road. The street was full of people milling around: porters waiting patiently with their huge loads, pushy Nepalese traders whispering Change money! Change money!, western travellers checking their maps and trying to look purposeful, Chinese soldiers in green uniforms, rifles slung over their shoulders, not seeming to notice what was going on around them and dark-looking Tibetans who were joking with each other and didn’t seem to have anything to do. There was a whiff of anarchy about this town, it was like something out of the Wild West. I went into the new customs house and was struck by the almost clinical hygiene and calm, the automated politeness of the uniformed officials and the speed with which my passport was stamped.
Food was my first priority and the smell of Chinese cooking was drawing me towards a ramshackle wooden construction a few hundred yards up from the customs house. Smoke billowed out of an improvised chimney; there was a trail of black slime on the cliff directly under the shack and the place was packed. As I got closer I could see that it was built in mid-air. They had somehow fixed poles into the cliff below and built a platform on the poles. The walls consisted of scraps of wood that were roughly nailed up to keep out the elements. It looked as though it could disappear off the edge at any minute.
I learned one of the secrets of Chinese cooking that day: the worse looking the establishment the better the food. It looked like Satan’s boiler room inside the shack: packed with rowdy, hard drinking groups of Chinese and Tibetans, all talking furiously. The walls were black with sticky grime and the air was thick with tobacco smoke. All the Chinese I had seen thus far seemed to be chain smokers. There was no kitchen, it was just one big room, and if you needed the toilet I supposed you went outside and did it over the edge (hence the trail of black slime below). In one corner was a small man in a cloud of steam, standing over a flaming wood fire, handling a wok with a speed I had never seen before. I went over to watch and he didn’t seem to mind. Cooking a dish took less than a minute: he held the wok in his left hand, a metal ladle in his right and he would start by ladling some oil into the wok, holding it over the flame until it spat, then use the ladle again to toss in the finely chopped meat and vegetables that were neatly arranged in a series of bowls. He would then squirt some evil-looking sauce into the fray, and ladle in a big quantity of what looked like salt – while continually moving the wok over the flame in a tossing movement.
Then I realised the brilliant logic of it: he had to keep the food moving constantly or it would burn, it had to be tossed to ensure that the sauce and meat and vegetable would all blend. When he wasn’t cooking the wiry little chef would step over to a huge tree trunk that stood behind him – his bloodied chopping block – grab a metal cleaver and hack away furiously at chickens, fish and vegetables. I stepped closer to see what sort of mess he was making of the ingredients and to my surprise everything had been chopped very precisely; he was using the big cleaver with the delicacy of a French chef, but with much more force and speed. I felt quite comfortable amidst the chaos, ordered a dish by catching the cook’s attention for a moment and pointing at a nasty-looking concoction he had just produced. It was the most delicious Chinese meal I had ever tasted.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. I’d be very grateful you’d reserve
a copy; just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article).