The new place we went to was a grimy truck stop with Tibetan pilgrims from all over the country, people who looked weather-beaten and dangerous in their long woollen coats. Some of them had swords. The manager was a barrel-chested bandit with a laugh that could have awakened the dead; he didn’t want us there and he entered into a long and noisy argument with my Hong Kong friends in Mandarin. They overwhelmed him with arguments and paperwork showing they were Chinese citizens and therefore eligible to remain. He reluctantly agreed and the group started trooping up the steep, wooden, outside staircase. Suddenly the manager roared out in anger – he had seen me – and evidently this was too much for him; he screamed a volley of abuse in my direction. I knew he wasn’t allowed to receive foreigners in this place, we were all supposed to stay in specially designated hotels. But my friends were on a roll and the manager’s hysteria seemed to amuse them. They trooped back down to the yard, surrounded him, and insisted that I too was from Hong Kong, from Aberdeen, and therefore I had a right to stay too. The argument raged and the manager could see that he was heavily outnumbered, and they weren’t giving up, so he stomped off in disgust, cursing. We were in.
We went up a steep ladder-type staircase, along a slimy corridor and into a room at the top of the house, a room that took my breath away: each of the four walls had a window and we had a panoramic view over the old town. We could see the golden roofs and incredible colours of the Potala Palace. It was also the dirtiest room I had ever seen in my life. The floor was so sticky that my shoes stuck to it and the beds looked flea-ridden, sagging and flimsy. It stank of feet, stale sweat, unwashed bodies and rancid cheese. The manager’s face was no longer red with fury, he now had a wry grin as he knew his new Hong Kong guests would be appalled. This was his revenge. There were twenty small beds in the room, each one more horrible than the next, but before long my friends had taken over and the place was full of their noisy chattering.
Our truck stop was called Pemba and the atmosphere was raucous. Although people were yelling at each other, their look showed that they weren’t shouting in anger; they were teasing, taunting and mocking. Someone told me these people were pilgrims, had travelled far to see Lhasa’s Jokhang temple, but all I ever saw them do was shout, drink, gamble and joke. Every night a gang of big Tibetan women would come round the dormitory with buckets to collect the rent. Everyone paid two yuan, twenty British pence, but some of the Tibetan men tried to refuse payment so that they could provoke a wrestling match with the women. The women wouldn’t hesitate to throw themselves onto a disobedient male, pin him down and search his pockets.
The Pemba truck stop was located in the city centre, on a street that didn’t seem to have any traffic apart from people wandering by. Underneath the hostelry was a teahouse that faced onto the street. It was just a room with four tables, thin benches and full of noisy Tibetans who looked so different from each other that I guessed they were from all over the country. The noodle chef had a big grin on his face and was covered in flour. He would walk around the teahouse as if he were in his own kitchen, ignoring the invisible barrier that most chefs observe between the kitchen and the restaurant. He would tease and wrestle with the sweet tea waitress at every opportunity and engage in shouting matches with the clientele. When he saw me he came over at once, sat down on the bench next to me and with a beaming smile proceeded to search me: he wanted to feel my clothes, to see what I had in my pocket, to try on my sunglasses, to show the others my diary. He was rude and outrageous but he made me feel welcome and that evening I wrote in my diary that he had introduced me to the casual exuberance that is Lhasa.
This seedy little teahouse became my base as I explored Lhasa, but I was careful not to tell the western travellers about it or they would have spoiled the atmosphere. I drank sweet tea by the gallon; sticky and milky, invigorating, served in small glasses, only costing a penny a cup. Fooling around with the people there and looking out on the town made me feel part of the local scene.
One morning, before dawn, the Hong Kong Chinese were getting dressed in a hurry and preparing to leave. I asked them where they were going and before they all trooped out one of them casually said we go see dead body. I later found out that they had been to see what travellers call the Sky Burial, a ritual that takes place every day on the outskirts of town, under one of the high mountains. Dead bodies are laid out on a huge rock and then chopped up by body-cutters, a class of men whose profession is to crush the bones with rocks. The pieces were then thrown onto the ground where great flocks of vultures and other birds of prey devour them. This ritual was one of the main tourist attractions in Lhasa and every morning the backpackers would march off towards the hills to see it for themselves I found it hard to believe that this way of dealing with dead bodies had anything to do with Buddhism, the religion that pervaded all aspects of Tibetan life. I wondered if it came from ancient Tibet, before the spread of Buddhism, or was to do with the lack of topsoil needed for burying people? I didn’t want to see the ritual and felt that the crowds of tourists who went to watch were similar to the vultures who swooped down to get their breakfast every morning.
The best way of finding unexpected places in a new city is to get lost in it, and getting lost in Lhasa is inevitable considering that street signs were in Chinese and Tibetan and the very concept of city maps was completely unknown – not only here throughout the Communist world, where detailed maps were considered classified military information. Lhasa was like a doughnut in that the old centre was Tibetan and wrapped round it was a swathe of newly-built Chinese buildings. The old buildings were simple, single-storeyed, stone-built and whitewashed, The new Chinese buildings were also quite low and unobtrusive – but ugly, built of concrete and unpainted.
The centre of the old town was the ancient Barkhor, a network of old streets that made a circuit round the Jokhang – the city’s main Buddhist temple. Each of these streets was stone paved and packed with stalls selling hand-made curios, grimy old antiques, Tibetan clothes, shoes, candles and ceremonial gear. There was a constant flow of pilgrims walking round the Barkhor, chanting, fingering their rosaries, prostrating themselves and oblivious to the world around them.
I came across a narrow street that the travellers referred to as Yak Alley. It smelled of stale piss and, curiously for the old town, was paved with asphalt. A yak walked by and an old woman greeted me with great warmth. There were traders squatting down both sides of the lane, in dark filthy coats, with a wild look about them, as if they had just come down from the hills. Many of them were holding long knives and sitting next to piles of freshly cut meat, yak’s heads and trotters, separated from the pavement by old scraps of leather and cloth. Scores of Tibetans were haggling with these traders and I could pick up the good-humoured banter. At the far end of the lane beefy women were unloading big heavy blocks that were wrapped in badly treated leather – still covered in hairs. I looked closer and saw that these blocks contained rancid butter, the stuff that went into Tibetan tea, and the smell was overwhelming. There was always a big crowd around the butter sellers.
I began to absorb the atmosphere of the city. There was a reckless humour about the people that appealed to me and I began to realise that behind their raunchiness was immense warmth and a spirituality that was spontaneous and without any of the self righteousness one comes across among religious people in the west. A feeling developed that I should stay here in Lhasa as long as I could. I began to lose the drive to push on for Shanghai although I knew there were no jobs for foreigners in Tibet.
Every day I would go to the Barkhor and walk round the temple with the pilgrims. It was like getting into the flow of a river. Many of the pilgrims were in rags and I was struck by the contrast between their obvious poverty and the joyous expressions on their faces. The Jokhang is the central point of Tibetan Buddhism, a sacred place in their culture, and getting there was a lifetime achievement for poor villagers. From the outside the Jokhang didn’t look that impressive: stone whitewashed walls about one-storey high, sloping slightly inwards (an ancient earthquake precaution), with black-painted window frames and white cotton curtains. Inside was another world of murals, statues and yak butter lamps. The experience of visiting the Jokhang was, for me, deeply moving but also accompanied by a feeling of bewilderment: I felt like the only one who didn’t know what to do with myself. The Tibetans would approach each statue, stand in line and address it with a prayer and a ritual – they had a circuit to follow – and the foreign visitors had guidebooks open and were ticking off, and photographing, the various statues and images before them.
The inside of the temple was overwhelming at first and I found my way onto the flat roof, where I found something I was familiar with – construction work . I started comparing building techniques with what I knew from back home in Edinburgh. A team of Tibetan joiners, in blue Chinese cotton clothes, was working on a big tree trunk and I observed their tools, their methods and their banter. I was particularly intrigued by the adzes they were using to whittle down the massive piece of wood. An adze is a short axe on which the blade is at right angles to the shaft, so it forms a T-shape and is suited to whittling down tree trunks. The action required lots of gentle but accurate strikes, chip-chip-chipping away at the massive piece of wood. The tree trunk they were working on had big bulbous lumps at either end and these would become the elaborate, splayed carvings that I had seen at either end of the pillars below in the temple. The work looked easy and the workers were friendly; they saw that I was interested in what they were doing and they offered me a cup of home-brewed chang. I wondered how to say in Tibetan have you got a job?
Back at the Pemba truck stop I realised with horror that my hat was missing. It was a dark blue Mao-style hat that had only cost two Yuan, about twenty pence, at the border but it had been useful protection against the sun on the road. What gave it sentimental value was a little tin badge that I had picked up in Warsaw, a badge that said Solidarnosc (Solidarity) and had helped me get the mural painting job in Vienna, where the foreman was a Pole. Somehow it felt like an important part of my identity and I just had to get it back. I retraced my steps and found myself back in the Jokhang Temple. The monks on the front gate were amused when I acted out my message:
One of the young monks ran off, his maroon robes flapping behind him, and then reappeared with an excited look on his face. He beckoned me to follow and we walked quickly into the temple. The search was on! Whenever he questioned a monk or a worker they would send us deeper and deeper into the interior of temple, and all over the building sites on the roof. Just after I had given up hope a young worker led us through a labyrinth of wooden scaffolding and pulled out a dusty old trunk from a cupboard. It looked like nobody had been in that cupboard for years. He opened the trunk, rummaged around inside and, to my amazement, pulled out my hat. I couldn’t believe it. But there was a problem – the little badge was missing. Another hunt began and after more searching and questioning it was eventually found in a dank cubbyhole.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published on 4 May 2019. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback from the print version click here.