When I’m walking alone over a long distance, with no need to adjust my pace for other people, my subconscious takes over; it works out how far I have to go and then sets my body at the optimum speed – usually pretty fast. I felt myself powering over that mountain as if driven by some other force. I reached a village on the other side, had a break, crossed a stream and strode up towards a distant pass. One of the foreign travellers had told me that this pass was 18,000 feet high but this was no problem as I was flying up. I would arrive in a jiffy. Unfortunately it was a false summit that I had reached so quickly – and then there was another, and another. It was evening by the time I reached the pass and the weather was taking a turn for the worse. Dark clouds were being churned around by a strong wind and it felt like snow was on the way.
I was in need of shelter and was surprised to note that there weren’t any nomads around. I had been told that this was a common route for nomads to reach Lhasa from the south-east. Confident that I would come across somebody soon enough I charged on into the night, oblivious to the fact that I had walked about sixteen hours that day. Eventually I gave up on finding any nomads that evening; I found a spot between mounds of moss, in rough grass and stones, and settled down for the night. I started heating up some water for noodles with my petrol in the tin can trick, and laid out my sleeping bag and plastic sheet.
Suddenly there was a clash of thunder and a violent storm came crashing up the valley, with demonic energy. I forgot about the noodles and whipped out my plastic groundsheet – the Tamang porter’s raincoat that I had bought at the border – and tried to make a shelter. Just as hailstones started to spit furiously I got my boots off and crawled into the sleeping bag. The temperature dropped rapidly and I could feel water soaking into the bottom of the sleeping bag. The storm built up to a climax of fury and noise and was hurling down big hailstones. As long as this plastic sheet holds, I thought, I’ll be fine, and I stretched it to cover my feet. With an awful ripping sound the square of plastic ripped in half, exposing the sleeping bag to the elements. For some reason I started laughing; it served me right for being so unprepared, for sneering at the well-equipped travellers, for becoming so decadent. This was my punishment. It also felt like a test, as if the Storm Demon was saying: So, you want to stay in Tibet? See if you like this!
I tried to ignore the dampness and cold that was spreading into the sleeping bag from all sides and told myself I’m not cold! This isn’t so bad! Could be a lot worse! It’s not even winter. The nomads would laugh in the face of this storm. With thoughts of sunny days and warm childhood afternoons in Scotland by the River Tweed, and babbling continually to myself, I managed to get to sleep.
I woke up as soon as the grey light started creeping under the horizon. I was buried in snow. I couldn’t see my rucksack, boots or any of my possessions. I forced my way out of the sleeping bag, which had been frozen solid underneath. It took over an hour to dig out my gear. My hands – which I had used as snow shovels — were so cold that it was almost impossible to tie my shoelaces and pack up my rucksack. I kept motivated by running a dialogue in my head: This isn’t cold! This is nothing. What would the nomads say about you now? They’d call you pathetic! Get on with it!
Eventually I started walking and the movement brought welcome relief as my limbs got some heat into them. The snow was knee-deep and I had to wade through it slowly, each step was an effort and the valley in front seemed endless. It took all day to cross it and by nightfall I was lucky enough to find a cave where I fell asleep instantly. By the third day I reached Samye Monastery and the first thing I noticed was that it was surrounded by sand and I imagined for a moment that I was a French Foreign Legionnaire who had just survived an impossible march through the Sahara Desert.
Samye had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and was being rebuilt, but the atmosphere was totally different from Ganden: the place was overrun with pilgrims from the eastern part of Tibet, the unruly Khampas, and there was a reckless feel in the air. I was buzzing, delighted to be alive, and I was sure that this feeling would be crowned by the offer of a job helping with the restoration work, perhaps even on the murals. Before visiting the monastery I spent time in the workers’ tearoom, a huge space run by a cripple who leaped around the place with incredible energy. I made repeated visits to a vast cauldron that held delicious sweet tea. Then I wandered through the half built monastery and saw scores of brightly painted statues, each one more terrifying than the next. These were the guardians of the faith.
A wild family from the east took me into their makeshift room that night. They were gambling and drinking late into the night and people were coming and going constantly. Over the course of the evening I started to piece the story of Samye together: the monastery was a vast three-storey structure before its demolition during the Cultural Revolution; each floor represented Buddhism from a different country. Tibetan Buddhism was on the ground floor, the Indians were on the first floor and the Chinese at the top. The whole complex was built in the shape of a mandala – a tiny circle surrounded by bigger circles and squares. By the end of the evening I got the name of the man in charge of the restoration work and my confidence, fuelled by drinking too much chang and my luck at surviving the snowstorm, was at stratospheric levels. Surely they would be delighted to offer me a job? I would be an honoured guest, a respected advisor, a foreign expert living with the monks.
The next morning the wild family who had taken me in, and who shared my enthusiasm for my imminent employment, sent their youngest daughter scurrying off to find the boss. Soon she returned with him and I realised, to my horror, that he was none other than my drinking partner from the night before – in other words, he’d seen me at my drunken worst. He was young and businesslike and seemed unimpressed with my reference letter, which had been badly stained during the storm. He didn’t offer me a job. I pleaded with him to hire me, soon running out of the vocabulary needed to argue my case. He seemed unmoved and then had an idea; he searched his pockets, pulled out a picture of a Tibetan mandala, passed me a scrap of paper and a pencil and said copy it. The family crowded round noisily, expectantly, but I knew the game was up. I couldn’t do it, all I had learned in Vienna was to draw a straight line. What was I thinking? Who was I kidding?
I tried to recover from my humiliation by offering to show what a good labourer I could be, but the workers seemed to be under orders to ignore me. I watched lines of cheery Tibetan women wearing traditional, multicoloured aprons picking up baskets of sand, walking along networks of rickety wooden planks and dumping them in a pile. They had a good system going, they were working hard, and I started to realise that perhaps it would be inappropriate for me to try and insert myself among them. I would look totally out of place. There were plenty of children running around and they were used to fetching and carrying stuff for the women, and taking messages around the building site. They didn’t need me.
Not sure what to do with myself, I went into the monastery and climbed the stairs. I wandered into a huge room where a group of young monks in purple robes were sitting in a circle. They were printing text onto strips of paper which they then rolled up and stuffed into small statues. When they saw me they jumped up and insisted I join them. One of them went off to get a cup of tea but it was tepid and too buttery (if Tibetan tea isn’t piping hot you notice how greasy and disgusting it really is). One of them said What do you have in your pocket? and I pulled out the Swiss Army Knife I always carried around with me. They asked if they could look at it and each one of them examined it carefully. When one of them found that it had a small magnifying glass they leaped up in excitement, forgot all about their work and took it in turns to examine the murals that were painted on every wall of the room.
I left Samye with a good feeling. Although I had been humiliated by the boss I felt I had totally deserved it. That particular avenue of employment was now closed. It was time to return to Lhasa but there was no way I was going back over those mountains. I walked down to the main road and spotted an open-backed truck that had slowed down. It was packed full of pilgrims and I raced after it, grabbed hold of the tailboard and started climbing up. Strong hands grabbed me and hauled me aboard. I was surrounded by big, smiling, sunburned Khampas and there was a carnival atmosphere – they were heading for Lhasa, their holy city.
The truck only went as far as Tsedang. We reached a truck stop and everyone got off. The pilgrims started walking towards Lhasa but I wasn’t in a hurry and went into the town to see if there was an old Tibetan quarter. There wasn’t. Tsedang looked like a small Chinese settlement but I ran into some travellers who told me it’s one of the biggest cities in Tibet. They also told me there was a friendly PSB (Public Security Bureau) nearby where I could get my visa extended. I had completely forgotten about my visa and I quickly checked it, glad to see that the storm hadn’t totally destroyed my passport, only dampened the edges a bit. Oh my God! I thought, My visa extension has run out! I cursed my laziness and stupidity. What do they do to people whose visas run out? I thought as I hurried to the PSB, I expect they will fine me. They might even expel me from the country. The policeman who dealt with me was polite, dressed in a uniform, and Tibetan. He gave me a one month extension without fuss and didn’t seem to notice that my visa had expired.
Back at the Cheese Factory the scene was the same, but more Americans had moved in and it felt like they had colonised the place. Diane and Frenchy had stayed longer at the Lhasa Hotel, until they were thrown out for not paying their bill. Frenchy had seen a bucket full of aborted babies and felt nauseous for a week. My short trek had purified me of my previous decadence and I felt in a different mood now, healthier and determined not to binge. I would have to focus on getting a job or facing up to the fact that I would have to leave. I checked my money supply – just over $200 left – and knew it was time to move on.
I managed to get my own room at the Cheese Factory – a tiny, vile hole with black walls – but I was delighted as it put some distance between me and the Americans, a breathing space. One evening two hitchhikers from California pushed their way into the room, sat themselves down on the bed and started telling me their story. They talked for hours and I wasn’t interested; I wanted them to leave, but they were determined to tell me about their route (which they pronounced rout) of hitching from Chengdu, the Chinese province directly east of Tibet. They went into minute detail about avoiding police checkpoints at night, walking through mountains and jungles and beating off savage dogs. Although their tale bored me I did absorb the information that it was possible to leave Tibet by that route and it did sound more interesting than going through the northern desert. But I wasn’t so interested in going into China, or my initial destination of Shanghai, as my new priority was to stay in Lhasa. If I needed a new visa I could get one in Kathmandu.
The next days were spent asking everyone I had ever met if they knew about a job. I spent hour after hour walking from unit to unit, asking for a job. I asked Tibetan exiles, Chinese leaders, secretaries, teachers if they had any ideas. Nothing. Isabella was keen to help but she couldn’t produce a job out of a hat, she had had to wait four months before finding hers. Diane and Frenchy thought I had gone insane:
– Man, you can’t get a job here! This is China for Chrissake. Communism. Duh. Just go back to bed.
It was Wednesday and I set myself a new deadline: if I don’t find a job by Saturday I will leave. I would hitch down to India and make my way home. Every moment became precious as I realised this might be the last time I saw Lhasa, a city I had grown to really appreciate. I spent the mornings hustling for work and sat around gloomily in the evening with Diane and Frenchy, trying to savour my last moments in Tibet. I packed my tattered rucksack. I didn’t have much and was careful not to accumulate stuff, like the beautiful silver antiques in the market, as when you’re walking you regret every bit of extra weight and start thinking of what you can jettison.
On the Friday night I was psyched up to go, I had done my best to find a job and had failed. With a friendly Mexican I had just met, I went to the restaurant in the Snowlands Hotel and got into the party atmosphere coming from the neighbouring table – where ten well-dressed Tibetans were celebrating. They spoke some English, we got chatting and they invited us to join them. We said cheers in every language we knew (this is the one word I learned in every country I had visited). They were a handsome looking bunch and they told us they had just returned from two years in Beijing where they had been trained to come and work for the Tibet Import Export Bureau.
– Do you have an English teacher? I asked
– I am an English teacher. I am looking for a job. Could I come and be the English teacher at the Tibet Import Export Bureau? They talked furiously among themselves for what felt like ages and then said:
– We see leader. We say you good English teacher. You come Monday.
I couldn’t believe my luck, I jumped for joy, raised another glass, I had managed to get a job in Tibet. I didn’t need to leave after all.
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.
- The Fabulous Funeral of Angus Wolfe Murray - February 28, 2023
- Do you have any funny, unusual or interesting memories of Angus Wolfe Murray? - January 18, 2023
- Ukraine must learn from Bosnia’s disastrous peace treaty - March 10, 2022