The road from Khasa was surfaced with gravel and clung to the gorge precariously. Soon it became clear why there was no traffic: as I walked along I could hear boulders crashing down from the forested gorge above, bouncing over the road and plunging into the abyss below. It was still pouring with rain but the little square of plastic I had bought from the Tamang porters was keeping me dry and happy. After a few hours a Chinese man bounced along in an old car and gave me a lift. He was middle-aged, friendly and the seats were covered in some sort of carpeting. Even though he was only going for a few miles it was wonderful to relax in a comfortable chair. Our conversation consisted of single words:
– You? America? He said. America good! You go?
– Me? I replied. I go Shanghai!
– China! He concluded with disgust. No good! No money!
We finally reached the top of the gorge. On a nearby hillside was a miserable settlement of low houses huddling from the wind. The driver indicated that this was where I had to get out. I happily complied, grateful for the lift. I waved goodbye and to my outrage noticed that he didn’t turn off into the village at all, but drove on towards Lhasa. The swine! He just wanted to get rid of me. Maybe I should have offered him money. I walked on.
Hours later I saw a tiny shack by the side of the road – a tea shop – and went in. The tables and stools were so small, and so low to the ground, that it looked like a kindergarten. I sat down on a stool that wasn’t much bigger than a cigarette pack and looked at the big, pretty, round-faced Tibetan girl who was standing over me. She looked nervous and kept saying momo which I assumed was the Tibetan word for steamed dumplings. Tea and momos were the only thing she had on offer, apart from hot chili sauce. They were delicious, invigorating and cheap.
Back on the road I was starting to feel light-headed because of the altitude. The colours were changing: in the gorge it had been dark green, brown and grey but now the predominant colour was yellow, the sort of browny yellow you associate with the desert, or lions. The air was incredibly dry and dusty. There were no people around, no settlements, no cars, no animals. I was feeling optimistic and not at all lonely.
Suddenly a Tibetan man on horseback appeared. He looked weather-beaten and far bigger than the pony he was riding. He looked at me with interest, jumped off his pony and came over to sniff me out. He made appreciating noises about my rucksack, my sunglasses and my boots, smiled broadly and then indicated his stirrups, boots and hats. Would I like to swap? He took my sunglasses, put them on and squealed with delight as the whole landscape changed colour. He moved towards his horse and I was sure he was going to shoot off with my specs, so I grabbed them back and we wrestled and laughed like a pair of teenagers. As he rode off with a wave I was struck with the harmlessness of the incident – if this had happened in a western city it could easily have turned violent. I walked on.
Am I on the right road to Lhasa? I thought. Surely there should be more traffic on the main road from Kathmandu to Lhasa?
I hadn’t actually asked anyone if this was the right road but it was the only one leading out of Khasa so it had to be. I trudged on, enjoying the atmosphere, talking to myself and not caring where I was going. Some time later I noticed a dust cloud in the distance, coming up the road behind me, and then a small new minibus appeared. I stuck out my thumb. If there’s one thing I learned from hitchhiking it’s that the more expensive the vehicle, and the better dressed the occupants, the less likely you are to get a lift. To my amazement, the minibus stopped some distance in front of me and I raced up to it. But something was wrong: a kind-looking Tibetan man was blocking the door:
– I’m sorry, he said, in good English, but we can’t give you a lift.
– But didn’t you stop for me?
– No. Driver have problem. You cannot come on bus. This is private bus, hired by Japanese tourists. I am guide and translator.
I pushed onto the step of the bus and looked at them: waxwork models, expressionless. They didn’t seem to notice me and I realised this was an opportunity; they weren’t objecting to my presence. They were probably embarrassed by the incident but didn’t want to speak out. I knew how to exploit this.
– I go to next village, I said to the guide, staying fixed in the door frame.
– There are so many empty seats, I continued with as much charm as I could muster, moving inside another fraction.
– Okay, at next village you get out, said the guide unhappily. I jumped on and gratefully dumped my rucksack. The bus moved off and I found a seat near the Japanese tourists, appreciating the luxury for every minute that I could.
– Where you from? I said to the nearest Japanese. No response, not even a glance in my direction.
– You from Tokyo? I asked again cheerfully, not caring if they replied or not.
– I’d like to go to Tokyo. I continued. Nice place.
At the next village I watched the minibus disappear into the horizon, followed by its faithful cloud of dust, I realised that the landscape had changed again: I had passed through the mountains and reached an endless plain. Much of Tibet is a flat country, a high plateau, with mountain ranges around the edges. The unique thing about this plateau is its height – thousands of metres above sea level – no wonder they call it the roof of the world. India also is relatively flat, with the Himalayas along the north and a range of hills running through the centre. I remembered my geography teacher saying:
– India crashed into Tibet and the impact formed the Himalayas. The Himalayas are a barrier between the two plateaus. Wolfe Murray, boy! Are you awake? What plateaus are we talking about here?
– Er, um. I’m not sure sir.
– Stupid boy! Never pays attention. I’ve been talking about India, which is more or less a flat country, a plateau, which crashed into Tibet, which is also a plateau.
– And what mountain range was formed by the impact?
– Er…um…not sure.
– I don’t know why I bother. Does anyone listen to me? The Himalayas, boy! Have you heard of the Himalayas?
– Er, yes Sir. Highest mountains in the world.
– Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.
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).