Kathmandu was the first Asian city I had seen that wasn’t built of concrete.
This small city seemed genuinely ancient and the centre was full of Hindu temples, each one a hive of activity. Some were covered with elaborate stone statues of Hindu Gods penetrating their consorts with massive stone penises. The streets were narrow and packed with crowds, people selling fruit and all manner of foods, sacred cows wandering freely and helping themselves to the produce of the fruit sellers who would get infuriated but were unable to do anything. There were more hippies per square yard than I had seen anywhere in my life and their expressions told me there were plenty of cheap drugs available. Everywhere you looked Nepalese men would be hustling, offering hotel rooms, cheap restaurants, tours to the mountains, rupees, precious stones, antiques, temple visits and, of course, hashish. It was pouring with rain and everything felt damp.
At 70 pence a night, the Trekkers’ Lodge was the cheapest place I found to stay. The boys in charge of the guesthouse walked me up some dark stairs, along a gloomy corridor and showed me into a small grubby room with three beds. The boys thought they were doing me a big favour by putting me in a room with two Englishmen. We entered the room and two shabby looking travellers glanced up from their fat paperbacks and tried to look welcoming. Mosquitoes circled the sole light bulb and a towel was stuffed into the small, broken window. I took the free bed by the door.
Richard was dark and good-looking and he had the bed by the window. He sounded like an upper class Englishman but he claimed to have worked as a brickie before going to study at East Anglia University. He fervently believed in the British Labour Party and put all his energy into convincing us that Neil Kinnock, the leader of the party, was different and would transform society when he became Prime Minister. His diatribes were fascinating and I learned more about British politics than I had done at university, where I had studied the subject, but I didn’t believe in party politics, or ideologies of any stripe. I told them that my view of parliamentary elections was based on some graffiti I once saw in Liverpool: Whoever you vote for, Government wins!
Adrian was in the middle bed. He was thin, witty, had a whispy beard and was a seasoned traveller from the West Midlands. He showed me a photo of his mates back home, lined up outside the pub, a grotesque glimpse into another world. Adrian had lived in Greece where he had witnessed the Socialist Party getting elected based on a promise of expelling the American troops from their country, a promise they had failed to deliver. Nothing could convince him that any political party delivers on its promises, Neil Kinnock being no exception, and so they had endless material for debate.
We would go for meals together in cheap restaurants with pastel drapes and nice decor, endlessly talking about world politics while eating westernised food at a tenth of the price. Prices are a big topic among travellers and I noticed how our understanding of money changed to suit local prices. The restaurant we frequented most often sold delicious bean burgers, with all the trimmings, for just twenty rupees which is one British pound. If we went to another restaurant and saw bean burgers on the menu for thirty rupees we would consider it extortionate and leave in disgust.
I had to get a Chinese visa and I wanted it quickly. Neither of my roommates had a clue where I should begin, but across the landing a chatty Chinese American girl with chubby cheeks and a bright smile told me where to go. At the Chinese Embassy, an inscrutable official sent me packing: I didn’t have the relevant papers and couldn’t possibly get a visa for China. They told me to get one in London. This isn’t what I was told in that bar in Budapest.
I then ran into a haggard looking American journalist who told me how to go about it: send a telex to Beijing requesting permission to visit the People’s Republic of China and to issue the visa in Kathmandu. Then send a telex to the Bank of China, New York branch, to pay for Peking’s reply. Whatever the reason behind this ludicrous procedure it took ages, cost far too much, and left me twiddling my thumbs in Kathmandu for the next two weeks.
My new Chinese American friend had travelled overland from Tibet with a horde of young people from Hong Kong. I noticed that Hong Kong Chinese people, when travelling together, can be incredibly loud and also rather exclusive: they seemed to ignore everyone around them and are self-contained in a rather selfish way. I had tried to share a dormitory with them, as they occupied the biggest and cheapest room at Trekkers’ Lodge, but they had specifically told the boys in charge that they didn’t want to share with anyone. I later noticed that Hong Kong Chinese people behave totally differently from their compatriots in the People’s Republic, where people seemed more friendly and humble.
But my Chinese American friend was different; she had all the openness and warmth of the Americans and was keen to talk. She had been brought up by an American family in the Midwest (I presume she had been adopted) and only learned Chinese when she went to live in Taiwan for two years. Her recent trip from Hong Kong through China and Tibet was the most potent experience of her life. She described her best moment as watching the Potala Palace, a vast and ancient structure that overshadows Lhasa, at sunset, while listening to country and western music on her Walkman. Her description of Lhasa’s street life was far more vivid that anything I had read in in the guidebooks. She talked of playful monks, dogs snoozing on the streets, the infectious friendliness of the people, children running alongside the tourist buses and demanding sweeties. She told me that Tibet was quite backward compared to China proper but the effect of western tourism was spreading fast.
Our conversation inspired me to find out more about Tibet and as I began devouring guidebooks, with their short potted histories, I realised my knowledge of Tibet was virtually non-existent. My only source had been Tintin in Tibet, a cartoon book involving a plane crash in the Himalayas, some amusing encounters with Tibetan monks and a showdown with the Yeti, the Abominable Snowman.
I learned that Tibet had been a medieval country until the 1950s. Neither China, home of ancient technology, nor Britain, the scourge of Asia, had introduced anything more than a radio set to this ancient abode of Lamas, or Buddhist priests. It seemed inconceivable that such a strategic country, located between the Chinese, Russian and British Empires, had managed to evade colonisation for so long. Tibet’s policy towards its imperial neighbours had been simple: ignore them. Incredibly, this policy had worked and they had been left in relative peace for almost a thousand years. When a Chinese dynasty got powerful it would install an ambassador in Lhasa and encourage trade in silk and tea, and when the dynasty grew weak their influence would wane and the ambassador would go hungry. Not until the 1950s did China conquer Tibet and incorporate it fully within their border.
By the nineteenth century Britain was raping China, selling them vast quantities of Indian opium and setting up fortified trading ports where huge profits could be made. Meanwhile, to the west, Russia was expanding into the vast deserts of central Asia, butting up against the outer rim of the Chinese area of influence and conquering the ancient kingdoms that had ruled the region for centuries. China’s ruling Ching dynasty couldn’t cope with all this. For hundreds of years they had considered themselves to be the centre of the universe – they called themselves the Middle Kingdom as they believed their land was between heaven and earth. When foreign kings would visit they would be expected to kowtow: prostrate themselves on the floor in a gesture of total submission. Unlike the Japanese, the Chinese were unable to adapt to modern technology and, as a result, the western powers were able to humiliate them. The Chinese didn’t know how to cope with the arrogant Brits who not only refused to kowtow to the emperors, but undermined Chinese society with opium, made a mockery of their armies and destroyed the exquisite Summer Palace in Peking, a vast playground of parks, pagodas and ponds, in an outrageous act of vandalism.
As the twentieth century approached, Tibet’s importance as a strategic buffer zone grew. In 1904 a British force marched into Tibet, fired a few volleys against medieval troops and met virtually no opposition. They found that rumours of Russian influence had been exaggerated, there were no foreign representatives in Lhasa, and they quickly withdrew. But they did sign a treaty, lay a telegraph line and install a trade representative in the city of Gyantse. The Tibetans started to realise that they couldn’t go on ignoring the rest of the world and they tried to sign a treaty with China, but the Ching Dynasty was disintegrating at the time and they were unable to make any progress in this regard.
The chaos of the Second World War enabled Mao Tse Tung and the Communist Party to seize control of China and by the late 1940s they turned their attention to Tibet. They considered Tibet to be another part of the Chinese Motherland that needed to be liberated. They didn’t need to fight their way in as they made a promise that Tibet’s autonomy would be honoured, that the Dalai Lama could remain as leader and that its unique cultural integrity, including a distinct language, would be respected. A treaty was signed in 1951, under duress, and for the first few years the Communists did carry out some useful reforms. By 1959 Chinese heavy-handedness had become unbearable to the Tibetans, and especially to the Dalai Lama, who was nominally in charge. It became clear that the Chinese would only tolerate Tibet’s culture for as long as it took to install the Red Army and their oppressive system of administration.
In 1959 there was a general uprising in Lhasa. The unarmed Tibetans didn’t stand a chance and thousands were killed. The Dalai Lama, followed by about 80,000 Tibetans, fled over the Himalayas and eventually set up a government-in-exile in the Indian village of Dharamshala. The darkest period in Tibet’s history was still to come: in the 1960s over a million were displaced or killed, villages starved, collectivisation was brutally installed and, during the Cultural Revolution, Tibet’s vast network of monasteries was destroyed and the monastic way of life abolished.
But this had all changed when China’s new leader, Hu Yaobang, visited Tibet in 1980 and publicly apologised to the Tibetans for the mistakes that had been made. He decreed that Beijing’s grip on Tibet should be loosened and that Tibetans would have a say in its governance. Part of the reform process that followed included the opening up of Tibet to international tourism.
At that point I still retained some faith in Chinese Communism, which I believed to be more benign than the East European and Soviet variety. I wanted to believe that Communism could work somewhere on this planet as it is such a great theory. I became fascinated by Tibet and refused to believe all the horror stories I was hearing. I wanted to find out the truth for myself.
The more I found out the more questions I had: why wasn’t Tibet even mentioned at university where, in my final year, I had studied The Western Powers and Asia? Why did all the other tourists in Kathmandu seem to know the history of Tibet back to front? Did people in the west know this story? Was I completely wrong in thinking that the Peoples Republic of China was the one place where socialism hadn’t been so terrible? Were the guidebooks wrong? Was the potted history I had just learned nothing but capitalist propaganda? Was Mao Tse Tung really such a baddie?
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. It was about a journey that happened in 1986 and 1987. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article).