This is Chapter 23 from my Tibet memoir which describes the most unusual Tourist Information Centre I’d ever come across…
Before the end of my first week Lhasa had me hooked and I knew I should stay, settle down for a while and find something to do. The finding of my hat impressed me deeply. I hadn’t expected to find it, since all my experience told me that when something is lost or stolen you don’t get it back. It made me re-think what is and isn’t possible. Could I apply this experience to something that seemed equally impossible, like getting a job? I needed to work, not only to make money but also to give a purpose for my presence in Lhasa.
But what could I possibly do in Tibet? I liked the idea of working on the restoration of a monastery and imagined myself filling in bullet holes that the rampaging Chinese had made in the murals during the Cultural Revolution, but the Chinese are a bureaucratic lot and I knew that I would fulfil none of the requirements even if a job was actually on offer. Also, it was obvious to see that the restoration work was being done by local tradesmen, who seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and the idea of them hiring a foreigner, even a volunteer, would have raised gales of laughter. The only relevant qualification that I possessed was a certificate in the teaching of English but the only experience I actually had was correcting the essays of a student in Vienna.
One of the advantages of being a foreigner in a place like Tibet is that people will let you in where you shouldn’t really be. I would walk into the various hotels and hostels and everyone working there would assume I was just another guest. In one such hotel I found myself in a corridor that was lit by a single light-bulb. Light was coming out of an open door and I looked in to see a large, thin, middle-aged man writing on little pieces of paper. I stood there watching him, noticing the white streaks in his long blond, thinning hair. He stuck one of the little bits of paper onto a small basket with a lid on it. The word STOMACH had been written on the bit of paper with a red marker pen.
I stepped into the room and tried to attract his attention, but he was deeply concentrating on the next label:
– What are you doing? I asked. He glanced up with a look of annoyance; I had interrupted him.
– I help foreigners who get sick or need help, he snapped in an upper class English accent. Was he some kind of doctor?
The next day I returned to the same room and the scene had changed: there was no sign of the man with the long thinning hair but there was a lady talking fast in an English accent to a room packed full of foreign travellers. I also noticed that the room was lined with shelves, each one full of books. What was this place? The foreigners were bombarding the lady with questions about travelling in Tibet and nobody noticed as I squeezed through and found somewhere to sit on a disused bed. She was middle-aged, and kindly looking, with long blonde hair, spectacles and faded flower-power clothes. She was talking loudly to the assembled mob about monasteries, opening times, prices, bus tickets, routes and what to do about diarrhoea.
I wasn’t interested in any of this information but I found the whole scene bizarre and fascinating and realised that she was running some sort of information centre. I listened carefully to the endless flow of information and joined in one of the conversations, involving five people, and managed to steer it in the direction of finding work locally. She explained in an aside that she was an underpaid, overworked English teacher in Lhasa and I popped the question:
– Any English teaching jobs?
– No, and there are unlikely to be any in the future but if you leave your name on a bit of paper we’ll get in touch if anything comes up.
Back at the Pemba truck stop things were getting chaotic. Now that the hot summer weather was over the real pilgrim season had begun, and crowds of tribesmen were turning up on overloaded lorries, many of whom would appear at the Pemba demanding a bed for the night. The din at midnight was incredible and I remembered how noisy my brothers and I had been after moving into Edinburgh from the Scottish countryside; people with no neighbours have no concept of keeping the noise down. Somehow I managed to sleep. The Hong Kong group were bristling with irritation and I could tell that they didn’t find these newcomers as interesting as I did; they obviously saw them as a noisy rabble. When they started complaining to the manager about the noise and the filth I started to distance myself from my former allies.
My dreams became powerful and vivid. I dreamt that my skin had been destroyed by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident, an event that had shocked the world a few months earlier. A vile apparition – a skinned camel – appeared in my dreams as an argument raged nearby and doors were slammed. I admired the audacity and freedom of these Tibetans but realised that, as a foreigner, I was at a great distance from them. In my dreams I rode with them across the prairie and shared their wild women.
I would recover from the chaos of Pemba by spending a bit of time every day in the middle-class calm of the travellers information centre – a place that was known as The Travellers’ Co-op. I persisted in hassling the talkative blonde, whose name was Isabella, about a teaching job and she introduced me to an old American professor called Robert Morse – a Tibetan scholar, polyglot, veteran world traveller and English teacher at Tibet University. He explained that Tibet University was a very new creation; it was small, underfunded, badly managed, had very few students and the two English teachers were recruited in Beijing. At last I felt like I was making some progress, finding out some information, sowing seeds. If I was patient and persistent things would work out.
The ongoing drama at the Pemba took a new turn when the irate manager and his harem of rent-collecting women appeared in the dormitory early one morning and ordered the Hong Kong group to leave immediately. The beefy women moved in on their rucksacks, with every intention of throwing them into the street, and the Hong Kongers leaped up, screamed hysterically and started struggling with the women for the possession of the baggage. I was watching all this from under a dirty sheet, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, hoping I wouldn’t get the heave too – and with absolutely no intention of helping. Pandemonium reigned but the Tibetan women were winning and the Hong Kong group were gradually forced out of the room, with sleeping bags trailing after them. Suddenly my sheet was roughly ripped off and I was exposed; fingers were pointed and a volley of abuse hurled my way but I stayed put and for some reason they didn’t grab my rucksack, hurl it down the stairs and order me out. The woman standing over me was called over to the main struggle which was now taking place on the staircase. They never came back for me.
That same night a violent storm hit Lhasa and, with four windows overlooking the town, I was ideally placed to observe it. Bolts of lightning lit up the landscape and the roar of thunder, echoed by the surrounding mountains, was louder than anything I had ever experienced. It rocked the building and shocked all the noisy pilgrims in the room into a timid, cowering silence. Torrential rain was hurled against the windows with a demonic fury that seemed intent on destroying us. The wind tore at the roof and battered the windows until one of them exploded in fragments of glass. Energised by the storm, I moved from window to window to get the best view. The street outside had become a river and water was pouring off our roof in furious, spitting arcs, from gutters that were extended about a metre from the edges of the roof. Water was spraying through the broken window and nobody else was making a move to stop it so I found a blue cotton sheet and held it to the window to try and stop the rain pouring in. I got soaked immediately, as did the sheet, and the wind seemed to grab and shake me as if I were a rag doll. Floods had formed all over the floor and other windows were being burst open. We were helpless.
As the storm reached the height of its fury a huge lightning bolt, far thicker than anything I had seen yet, shot down. Unlike the other lightning bolts, this one didn’t go into the ground; it shot back up towards the clouds and formed a massive u-shape in the sky. The whole landscape was brilliantly illuminated for about half a second. The image that was forever burned into my retina was the building directly under the u-shaped bolt of lightning: the Potala Palace, revealed for a moment in a mosaic of gold and red and white colours, a massive fort-like structure that was sitting on its own little hill.
The following day I was surprised to see that the city was still intact and not much damage had been done. I felt we had survived an aerial bombardment, but the Tibetans were going about their business as if nothing had happened at all. Presumably they were used to this kind of weather and I wondered what a big storm meant for them spiritually; their temples were full of demons and dragons and I imagined we had met one of them the previous night.
Lhasa was becoming surprisingly hectic and I needed some silence. I became more aware of time: my visa was running out and if I didn’t make a move soon there wouldn’t be enough time to reach Shanghai, or see anything more of Tibet. I had done my best to find a job but was under no illusions that I could actually get one. Where could I go and visit? I should try and see some of Tibet before leaving. I started asking the travellers, all of whom were keen to share their knowledge. There seemed to be two main options: the Everest Base Camp, back down the road I had already travelled, and a big lake up north. The Everest option seemed too touristy so I opted for the lake which was on a huge plateau populated by nomads. I borrowed some camping equipment and walked out of town.
Unlike the road I had travelled along from Kathmandu, the road north into China was paved with tarmac. It was also full of military convoys: lines of trucks, each one packed with soldiers or covered in green tarpaulin; none of whom ever stopped for me. Lhasa is located on a narrow strip of flat land but it is surrounded by mountains and once you cross these you reach a high plateau that stretches out into the horizon. They call this plain the Changtang, the Northern Plateau.
Other foreigners were heading out of town that day and I was determined to get ahead of them so I marched as fast as I could, across the short plain and into the hills. Eventually a flat-bed truck stopped and I climbed up, noticing that a middle-aged foreigner had already installed himself. I stood on the tailgate for a while, holding the metal bar, feeling the wind on my face and enjoying the fact that I was on the move again. Then I went to talk to the foreigner, an elderly Austrian:
– Nettles, he said, are the only survivors in this area of overgrazing. There are no wild flowers up here anymore and the grass is disappearing. The Chinese have doubled the population of yaks and this fragile ecosystem can’t take it. Soon there will only be dust.
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). Click here to see feedback to the paperback edition.