At the Kirey Hotel, the most expensive place to stay in the old town, I met a charming Tibetan who had been educated at an English-style private school in the Indian city of Chandigargh. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans had fled their homeland since the 1950s and they were well established in India. Now that Tibet was opening up a few of them were coming back as traders. They all spoke Tibetan, and English with an Indian accent but not a word of Mandarin, which is China’s official language. My new friend was called Lobsang and I managed to remember his name by thinking of the word lopsided. Not only was he charming and interesting – he told me about India’s English-style education system with their elite private schools – but he seemed well connected in Lhasa too. I asked him to find the phone number of Samye Monastery and to call them to see if they needed some extra labour.
Lobsang was happy to help but where would we find a telephone? The only places that had phones were the units – the Chinese Communist term for companies, schools, factories and any other organisations – but it was highly unlikely that any one of them would let two suspicious foreigners in the door, let alone use their phone. There were no telephones at the Post Office, or hotels, as far as I was aware, and I had got quite used to doing without them.
Lobsang turned his charm on the pretty young Tibetan receptionist at the Kirey. He leaned seductively on the counter, stared deeply into her eyes and got chatting. She tried to be hostile and frosty but failed miserably and within minutes had told him the crucial information:
– There is a telephone in the hotel, in the accountants’ office…cross the yard and up the wooden ladder.
Seized with excitement, we abandoned the receptionist, climbed the ladder and found the accountants drinking beer and playing cards. There was a large abacus on the desk and a messy pile of paperwork. Lobsang asked if we could use their phone and they waved lazily in its direction. He made some calls, found the number for Samye and entered into a shouting match that seemed to last for half an hour. The accountants had paid no attention to our intrusion up to that point but eventually they were listening to every word. At the end of the conversation Lobsang said:
– They have an office in Lhasa and say you should go and see them tomorrow. I will come and translate for you.
The next morning I discovered the downside of Tibetans: chronic unreliability. From that day onwards Lobsang could not be found anywhere. He had disappeared and I couldn’t understand it: he had been so warm in his encouragement and I was sure that his offer of help was genuine. I was desperate and I ran around town looking for him. He had arranged an interview with the representatives of a monastery that may be willing to hire a foreign mural painter. I had to meet them but my Tibetan wasn’t good enough to stand up to an interview. I returned to the Kirey Hotel and turned my attention to the pretty young Tibetan receptionist who seemed, I was glad to note, rather bored. This time it was I who turned on the charm, doing all I could to make her feel special, before popping the question: Will you come with me to the Samye office?
She was shy and small and laughed at my suggestion but, when she saw that I was serious, said she couldn’t possibly leave her work and that her English wasn’t good – which was true. She was my last hope of getting a translator (or a job) and I hung around for hours, begging and persuading and imploring. Eventually she agreed to accompany me, but not for another two days.
It felt strange walking through the maze of backstreets next to a pretty Tibetan girl. She looked at the ground all the way and her face was red with embarrassment. The passers-by stared at us in surprise, some made comments and the young men whistled and laughed – giving me the thumbs up as if to congratulate me on my conquest. We reached a newly-built arched entrance with Chinese characters written on the right hand pillar and Tibetan words written on the left. We went through the arch and found ourselves in a deserted builders’ yard – sacks, bricks, metal pipes scattered everywhere – and moved towards an impressively restored Tibetan building. A huge dog looked at us lazily through one eye, pondered for a moment and then charged at us in a fury of barking and snapping teeth. The receptionist screamed hysterically, unable to run, frozen in terror. A millisecond later the dog’s charge was violently stopped by the thick rope that was firmly anchored into the ground. Recovering quickly from its temporary strangulation the dog kept on barking. The girl recovered from her paralysis and tried to run back, but I had a firm grip on her wrist and pulled her towards the main building.
Two bored youths were lounging in the hallway – neither of whom had reacted to the dog’s outburst – and they grinned widely when they saw me with the girl. They pointed upstairs and said third door on the left. Dark stone steps and dragons painted in fluorescent colours. A thick blanket hung over the third door on the left, presumably to keep the draughts out. We entered a large room with two huge wooden desks and some plastic chairs. At the sight of Tibetan officials staring at us, the girl had another panic attack and tried to retreat but I was still gripping her wrist and I whispered fiercely to not abandon me at this stage of my quest.
The two Tibetan men watching us were a harmless looking old man and a young cynical-looking one in a Mao cap. They waved us to be seated in the only armchair, which I gallantly offered to the receptionist, while I sat on one of the plastic chairs. There was an embarrassing silence as I fumbled for the dog-eared reference letter that I had preserved carefully since my mural painting job in Vienna. I passed the shabby bit of paper to the receptionist, trying to get some enthusiasm into the girl and stop her sinking deeper into the armchair. The paper ended up in the hands of the man in the Mao hat who looked at it blankly and was obviously confused about what the hell we were doing there. When the girl reluctantly explained that I was looking for a restoration job at Samye Monastery they said I would have to speak to the boss, who was directing operations down at the monastery and is far too busy to interview foreigners. The girl perked up as she realised this wasn’t working and we would have to leave, but I pressed on, trying vainly to get a name, a phone number, some sort of commitment – but in vain. Soon we were hurrying down the stairs and heading back to her hotel where I thanked her profusely, hoping I hadn’t compromised her reputation and put her through a traumatic experience.
Back at the Pemba all the foreigners were packing their stuff. I spoke to one of the Americans:
– What’s up? I asked, are you being kicked out?
– No, they’ve just opened up the Cheese Factory. Why don’t you join us? Get outta this dive!
– What’s the Cheese Factory?
I helped them move their gear about ten minutes up the road – turn right at the Kirey Hotel and go past the smelliest toilet in Tibet – and saw the Cheese Factory, a Tibetan style construction made of square blocks of stone and leaning inwards to save itself from earthquakes. The building was austere and you got to the rooms by climbing up steep, fixed ladders which led onto wide wooden balconies. There was a rich smell of bread coming out of a noisy unit on the ground floor. We passed some unfriendly looking Tibetan traders on the first floor and eventually reached the third floor where eight rooms had been taken over by foreigners.
I dumped the couples’ gear on a surprisingly clean concrete floor and took in the fact that in this room there were eight beds, each one of which was taken, and two windows. The travellers seemed to take themselves quite seriously and some were dressed in Tibetan clothes, which looked ridiculous. There was a lot of demand for beds and they had developed a dog-eat-dog system to cope with it. As soon as the word got out that a free bed was available, travellers in the more expensive hotels would hurriedly pack their rucksacks, rush over and throw themselves onto the free bed.
I was told there was a free bed in Ron and Cherry’s room and so I ran back to the Pemba, packed my rucksack, hitched a lift on the back of a bicycle, got back to the Cheese Factory only to find that the bed had already been taken by some other swine. There was nothing I could do except go back to the Pemba and get my room back, but they didn’t want to know; a horde of pilgrims were disembarking from a truck. The fat manager shouted at me, pointed up the street and made it clear that I was no longer welcome. By now I knew the layout of the Pemba and when the manager’s back was turned I raced up the ladder, pushed through the crowd of smelly pilgrims, found an empty bed in the big dorm, dumped my stuff on it and asked those nearby to hold it for me. They grinned and seemed amused to have a foreigner in their midst.
Confident that my bed was booked and my stuff would be safe with the friendly nomads I went back to the Cheese Factory where some Americans from Arizona had asked me to eat with them. We drank and joked late into the night and at midnight, like some debauched Cinderella, I remembered the Pemba and my bed. Through dark and empty streets, silent apart from the howling dogs, I raced back to the Pemba: too late, the three metre high metal gate was closed. I silently climbed it and saw the night guard was asleep – his feet were sticking out from under a truck. I also knew he was a light sleeper and sure enough he woke up when I landed, cat-like, on the inside of the yard. He roared at me in rage, reached for his metal bar and started to get up. I put my fingers to my lips to urge him to shut up and hissed some words at him: Nga Injee (I am the Englishman). This was fine by him, he recognised me, and settled down again for the rest of the night.
I crept upstairs as silently as I could, anxious to not wake the volatile management, heard muffled noises of people drinking and talking from a first floor room, reached the big dormitory at the top and found, to my horror, that my bed had been occupied by two pilgrims. I began protesting and people started to wake up and look on with interest. The two men on my bed looked at me blankly but had no intention of moving. They shrugged their shoulders as if to say bad luck. Then the manager’s women appeared and the lights were on. Get out they screamed and moved in on my gear. I shouted back at them and a struggle began for my rucksack. I knew the game was up; I had already been told to leave and was unable to stop the forced move towards the big metal gate – which I had to climb back over as they cackled and laughed.
It was after two in the morning and the town was totally dead: not a soul to be seen, not a light on anywhere, even the dogs seemed to be asleep. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wandered in the direction of the Kirey, which was all barred up and dark. At the Cheese Factory there were some lights on the top floor and I climbed the wall and looked in at the yard for a few minutes, scanning the area for guards or dogs. There was no sign of either but just to be on the safe side I didn’t jump down into the yard, but climbed up the wooden frame that held up the balconies. All was quiet on the first floor, which was fortunate as the Tibetans who stayed there looked like they could be dangerous and who knows how they would react to finding a foreign intruder on their doorstep at this time of night. I crept over to the ladder up the next landing and found a room full of drinking, smoking foreigners, none of whom seemed surprised to see me. I told them my story, which raised a few laughs, and a redheaded girl from New Zealand asked if I would like to share her bunk. Thanks a lot I replied and then spent the night carefully keeping my hands to myself, not wanting to touch, hug or get involved with a woman. In the morning she had her arms round me but when she saw that I wasn’t reacting said:
– The Scots aren’t very affectionate, are they?
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.