This is chapter 27 from the eBook version of Tibet memoir. Podcast above, text version below. Hope you like it.
I was surprised that they let me back into the Pemba truck stop and even more surprised when they gave me my own room. It wasn’t a room, more of a glorified corridor – a tiny space, enough for two beds and a sticky patch of floor that allowed constant passage to the people staying in the big dorm next door – but it felt great to have my own space. If the Tibetans saw me lying on the bed and reading they would grab the book, look at the cover for a few seconds, toss it back and laugh. Their rude behaviour didn’t bother me as something significant had taken place: I had been accepted by them.
I had to deal with my priorities: getting a new visa and a job. The visa issue was starting to get worrying but there was no shortage of foreign travellers who were happy to advise. The visa extension procedure was laughably simple; all you had to do was go down to the PSB (Public Security Bureau), sit under a tin roof while they stared dumbly at your form, pay five yuan and get a big, wet square stamp in your passport that said One Month Extension. The green-clad policeman – overbearingly formal, bored out of his brains and speaking pidgin English – told me that I could get two more extensions.
Next stage was to find a job. Although the atmosphere in Lhasa was both laid-back and dynamic, it wasn’t the sort of place you could hustle for a job. It seemed that only three foreigners were working in Tibet at the time and two of them, Roger and Isabella at the Travellers’ Co-op, were presumably not approved by the Beijing bureaucracy. Considering my chances of getting hired were almost nil, I tried my most unlikely skill first: restoration work. It seemed worth a try. I had heard that the monasteries were being rebuilt and repainted – slowly, lovingly and voluntarily by local Tibetans – why couldn’t I join in?
I racked my brain for someone who could help and remembered Robert Morse, the sixty-year old son of an American missionary whom I’d recently met at the Travellers’ Co-op. He had offered to help me and I sought him out and asked if he had any relevant contacts. He reluctantly admitted that he knew the Minister of Culture and promised to introduce me if I met him the next day at noon.
– But remember, he said, bring a bike – it’s the ubiquitous form of transport in Lhasa.
The next day a friendly Chinese waiter reluctantly lent me his old bike. It was ruggedly built and, having been used to transport sacks of flour, was covered with white dust. I met with Morse as agreed but he didn’t say a word. I wondered if he was annoyed at being dragged out on this pointless search for a job? I didn’t dwell on it. We bypassed the crowded maze in the old centre and cycled along the new Chinese road, wide and deserted, to the south. The rainy season had ended and I wallowed in weather that felt just perfect. The sky was a deep blue azure and the sharp sunlight was an inspiration. However hot the sunshine became the air was always cold. I had read in one of the guidebooks that in Tibet you can get sunburn and frostbite at the same time.
That’s the university, said Morse, breaking his silence, and we turned off, went down a windy road, passed a long wall and there we were – in front of the minister’s house. It stood in a yard, behind a big wooden gate, and didn’t look very impressive. For a long time I had wanted to see inside a high-class Tibetan house. Nobody answered our banging, so we stood in the dust and talked. Robert Morse was well-proportioned, smiling and old – one of those people who embodied the Buddhist ideal of harmlessness. He beckoned me to the wooden gate and spoke in conspiratorial whispers:
– See the house in there? Look through this crack.
– It was built by Heinrich Harrer, you know who I mean? The Austrian who lived here during the war and wrote Seven Years in Tibet.
– Hmm. I didn’t want to admit that this was one of the many books on Tibet that I hadn’t read.
– He lived here for years and planted a lovely garden.
I was wondering if this was really true. Morse struck me as rather eccentric, the sort of person who could make up stories like this. Then we heard a noise and the wooden gate was opening. A lovely old Tibetan woman’s face appeared. Morse spoke to her in fluent Mandarin:
– We’ve come to see the minister.
– The minister? Here?
– Yes, he invited us here.
– Well you can come in and have some tea but he’s not here. He may come tomorrow. He doesn’t live here anymore. He’s moved into that new block by the Post Office, the block where the government officials live.
As we were led through the garden I noticed a flash of unusual colours and a wealth of flowers and shrubs. I realised that I hadn’t seen any flowers since I came to Tibet. In the house I greedily absorbed all the impressive details: polished wooden floor, unusual icons on the wall, colourful hand-made rugs, wide wooden windows through which you could see climbing flowers, an intimate little porch where, I imagined, Mr Harrer would sit and write his diary.
A servant appeared and placed little ceramic bowls in front of us and filled them with golden-coloured tea. It was similar to the salty, greasy tea I had drunk on the plateau but in this environment it tasted totally different – smoother and more refined. Biscuits and snacks were offered to us and as soon as we had eaten and drunk our bowls were refilled. They kept insisting we have more. This was done with charm and exuberance. The old lady and her servant seemed delighted to have foreign visitors and I was pleasing them by wolfing down everything they put in front of us. Leaving was complicated as Morse had to implore and explain that we were required elsewhere, that we didn’t want to detain her any longer but were eternally grateful for her generosity and hospitality. We slowly retreated towards the door, walking backwards and repeatedly saying
– Thank you so much. You are the best hostess in Lhasa. We will be back soon.
The following afternoon Robert Morse didn’t show up at our meeting place – I assumed he was well and truly fed up with helping me – and so I went to the minister’s house on my own. The chance of seeing that house again, and its enchanting garden, overcame my sense of doubt about getting a job and the weather was too perfect to worry about work. The grandmother took me in and kept me full of tea, an excellent substitute for lunch, while I flicked through ancient copies of National Geographic. Then a small man with bright, sharp features appeared. He spoke some English and introduced himself as the brother of the minister. I explained what I was looking for and he shot off on his bike, in search of his brother. I sat around contentedly, watching the afternoon drift by. After a small meal of deliciously fried shredded meat and vegetables, and more tea, the minister himself appeared, on his bike, puffing from the exertion of cycling home in a hurry.
I had always assumed that government ministers were fat, pompous and had big jowls from too many boozy dinners. The man who stood in front of me was slim, unassuming, good looking and in his mid-thirties. He was full of warmth, friendliness and interest in my quest. He asked about me, my past, my interests, my plans – in a mixture of basic Tibetan, which I was still struggling with, and monosyllabic English. He was genuinely interested in my idea of working in a monastery and his bright face seemed to be searching for possibilities, opportunities. His response was negative in the most positive way possible; honest about my slim chances and yet hopeful for the future. He said they desperately needed to restore more monasteries and the best scenario would be if I could organise a restoration project at a national level, and get funding from a donor. Although I had no idea about how to go about such a task I was deeply encouraged by the meeting. It gradually became clear that he didn’t really have much influence at the Ministry of Culture – where the main priority was to open up more sites for the visiting foreigners – and all he could really offer was advice.
We exchanged addresses – I used the Travellers’ Co-op as mine – and agreed to meet up again in the New Year when mural painting and restoration projects would be taking place in certain Buddhist monasteries. I was impressed that this man had put so much time and thought into helping me with friendly advice. It didn’t matter that I would almost certainly not be in Tibet the following spring – how could I get a visa for that long? – but what was important was that I had been welcomed into a Tibetan home and treated with such respect. I wondered how I could repay it. The old lady and the brother came out into the yard and, in the warm evening sun, they warmly said goodbye. I slowly cycled back to the Pemba, treasuring my good fortune at having met these people.
Even though the Pemba was a dump, I appreciated it as a crash course in Tibetan culture and language. I was learning new words every day, making a fool of myself when practising them in the teahouse, something I could never do in front of other travellers as I would feel a horrible sense of embarrassment. It felt fine when the Tibetans would laugh and mock when I tried to speak their language – it made the exercise fun – but if I tried to speak Tibetan or Chinese in the presence of foreigners they would become analytical, ask about grammar and tones, about which I knew nothing, and I would just close down. My way of learning languages was not approved, but it was really working.
The Pemba had been an ideal place to immerse myself with Tibetans but the honeymoon was over: travellers had discovered it and they had obviously worked out that the fat manager’s protestations, that foreigners are forbidden, was nothing but bluster and hot air. I bumped into an energetic American couple I had last seen by their tent at Lake Namtso and there were two strange Englishwomen who were making cheesecake which they would then sell to other travellers. Their salesman was Jake, an emaciated Englishman who was full of strange wisdom and stories of travelling around India. Although their presence was annoying – I felt they had invaded my private space – I did appreciate the travellers for the fresh information they sometimes had. They were a far better source than the guidebooks, which were okay for maps, photos, basic words and historical background but out of date when it came to what was going on and how to get around.
I got talking to an American:
– Have you been to Samye Monastery?
– No, I replied.
– Check it out man, it’s awesome. It was totally trashed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution – you know about the Cultural Revolution I guess?
– Er, yeah, I heard about it.
– They sure trashed it, man. Now it’s being renovated by Tibetans. Totally awesome project. You can go in and see them painting mandalas.
– What’s a mandala?
– Man, you really don’t know nothing do you? A mandala is an intricate icon painting thing. Religious, Buddhist. You’ll see.
– How do I get there?
– Best way is to walk. It takes five or six days from here, over those mountains to the south. We hitched back and got a truck.
– Do you think I could get a job there?
– A job? You outta your mind?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.
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