The next morning I set off early and within an hour reached the massive turquoise lake I had seen from the hilltop the previous day. Some time later an old truck rattled past and ground to a halt ahead. It had big rounded wings at the front, in the pre-war style, and a windscreen made up of two separate panes. It was probably based on a German design from the 1930s. One of the travellers had told me that the Russians had stolen entire factories from Eastern Germany after the Second World War, sent them into Russia by train and, in some cases, passed them onto the Chinese. Was that why pre-war German truck designs seemed to be the order of the day in Tibet?
A tough-looking Tibetan jumped out of the truck and sauntered over to me. He was dressed like a warrior from a children’s fairy tale book: strange boots, tribal hat, black cloak and a big sword strapped to his waist.
– Lhasa, he said with a smile, pointing east.
– Yes, I go to Lhasa.
– Twenty yuan.
– Twenty yuan? I said with a sense of shock. Two quid! I could fly for that price. I knew this was what they charged foreigners and was far higher than locals paid.
– Five yuan, I offered. The warrior laughed as if I had told a hilarious joke, then started acting out how good the truck was and what a great driver his friend is. The driver wandered over and stood there meekly. Unlike most truckers, this pair weren’t in a hurry.
– Fifteen yuan, they offered, making it clear this was their final price. I walked off in disgust, in the direction of Lhasa. Some minutes later the truck appeared alongside, going at walking pace, and the grinning warrior stuck his head out the window and shouted:
– Ten yuan.
Having strapped my rucksack onto the top of the vast pile they were carrying in the back, I took the seat by the window, admired the lake and felt quite at home, as if I had earned my place among them. The Khampa took on the role of court jester and a good atmosphere soon developed. He kept telling me he was a Khampa as if I should know what this was and be in awe of him. The more I shrugged in incomprehension the more he tried to explain. When I took out my map he jabbed at the eastern part of Tibet and kept repeating Kham! with a look of pride. Aha, the penny dropped: Kham is a region and the Khampa are a people! From the way he was talking I guessed that Khampas look down on the rest of Tibetans and I wondered if they were similar to the Sikhs of India, a proud warrior people who live in the Punjab and don’t think much of the rest of the population. It was obvious that the Khampa couldn’t drive but he had put himself in charge of the truck and the Tibetan driver.
At the end of the big lake the road started climbing and I looked up and saw that it went up for mile after mile and that we had to cross a massive mountain pass, bigger than anything I had crossed thus far. I wondered if this overloaded heap would make it but one of the great things about hitching is that you don’t need to worry about the reliability of what the Americans would call your ride. If it breaks down you just get out and walk. I was heading to Lhasa and I was grateful if any vehicle – truck, jeep, tractor or cart – could take me just some of the distance. Getting a lift was doubly satisfying because I would be moving in the right direction and getting a rest. Just before we started the long climb we stopped by the lake and the Khampa strode down to the waterside with a bucket, filled it up and poured it into the truck’s radiator. Clouds of steam rose from the engine. I started to skim stones and wondered why the lake looked so ordinary from close up but when seen from afar it had an incredible turquoise colour. I took the bucket from the Khampa, filled it up and drank as much of the gritty water as I could, assuming there would be no water up the mountain.
The engine started with a roar and a cloud of exhaust smoke, the gears were crunched into first – and we were off. A few minutes after starting the long climb the engine stalled and we ground to a halt. We all got out. The driver lifted the bonnet, swearing continually, and studied the engine with a look of fury. I realised that the carburettor was the guilty party and I watched in fascination as the driver gave it the kiss of life: he took a swig of petrol from a filthy bottle he had in the cab and squirted the fuel inside a thin fuel pipe he had disconnected. I could see the carburettor filling up with yellow fuel and clear bits of saliva. I felt sick at the sight of this and took a swig from the bucket that was hanging from the side of the truck and still had some water in it. I offered some to the driver but he wouldn’t drink. He stank of petrol for the rest of the day.
An hour later we were on the move again, chugging upwards. It took half a day to reach the mountain pass and the view of the turquoise lake, and the bottomless drop below us became ever more spectacular. At the top we stopped for a leak and then began the steep, twisted descent. Surely he was going too fast? Did the brakes work? Would I be able to leap out if disaster struck? What about my rucksack? Suddenly a truck appeared in front of us, in the middle of the road. The driver reacted quickly, showing none of the sickening panic that was welling up inside me, and veered towards the abyss. I closed my eyes and waited for the plunge, and then opened them and everything was back to normal. Joy surged within me after this brush with death. I was alive!
When we reached the valley floor we drove alongside a huge river. I looked at my pocket atlas and identified the Tsangpo, which flows all the way across Tibet, getting bigger all the time, and finally drops down into northern India where it becomes the Brahmaputra River. This mighty river goes through Bangladesh, joins the Ganges and empties into the Bay of Bengal.
It was evening and we stopped at a roadside shack that served food. The Khampa ordered something to eat from the Chinese cook, who threw her hands towards heaven and launched into a tirade. I didn’t need to know Chinese to understand her message: no food. The Khampa went into the kitchen and entered into a shouting match with her. Five minutes later he emerged triumphant, carrying a tray full of strange looking biscuits. They were greasy, rock-solid and sugary and he insisted that I eat. I tried one but it was so vile that I couldn’t get it down. Further discussions followed and it was decided that I would sleep on a grimy bench in the cafe, for a cost of five yuan, and they would sleep in the truck. I wondered if they would sneak off in the night but I was too tired to care.
The following day the road became real asphalt for the first time since I had entered the country, and it felt strange not hearing the endless rattling sound of truck on gravel and the rhythm of constant bumps. Presumably we were getting near to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. There were scores of villages, cultivated fields and military bases. At one point we passed a new bridge, guarded by a soldier in green, standing motionless by his little sentry box. The Khampa started acting out an aeroplane and pointing over the bridge; presumably an airport was located across the river. The closer we got to Lhasa the more miserable I felt; I didn’t want to end this journey. I had got used to being with people like this and I liked them, I wasn’t ready for a big city and I had no idea what I would do when I got there. Maybe I would just keep going onwards to Shanghai? But shouldn’t I see more of Tibet? The weather was warm but cloudy and I dozed in the truck, feeling like a schoolboy in the morning, saying to his mother: just a few minutes more.
Now that we were on luxurious asphalt the truck had picked up speed. Lhasa was approaching fast and my companions seemed pleased with the prospect. I was missing the wilderness and wishing I had spent more time in it, wondering what I would need in terms of equipment if I were ever to go back. Suddenly the Khampa shouted, pointed towards the left and the driver turned off the main road and bumped along a gravel track towards the foot of a huge mountain. The Khampa became animated as he was trying to explain where we were going, but I understood nothing.
The truck parked in front of a huge monastery that was surrounded by a high whitewashed wall. The Khampa hurried me out of the cab and insisted I follow him into the compound. The driver stayed where he was, pulled his cap over his eyes, leaned back and seemed to fall asleep in an instant. The atmosphere inside the high wall felt strangely intimate and quite different to how it was outside. Young monks stood around in purple robes and shaved heads. They had grins on their faces and were far more welcoming than I had imagined they would be. We entered the main building to the sound of monks chanting and I noticed the musky smell from hundreds of butter lamps. I fell into step behind the Khampa and watched him perform a series of rituals – kneeling and chanting and touching his brow on the floor – in a way that was practised and natural. Gone was the happy-go-lucky persona I had come to know in the cab, the bandit-warrior image he projected. Here was a gentle, warm and spiritual person. Some of the monks seemed to know him and they offered him some strange-looking cakes. The Khampa introduced me with a sense of pride and soothing words of welcome were said. I felt that I was being blessed.
Back at the truck the Khampa gave me one of the cakes and I tasted it. Yuk! I could taste sour milk and the dusty barley flour the Tibetans eat, and it had a disgusting sticky texture. But it seemed disrespectful to reject such an offering, after all it came from a holy man in a monastery, and the Khampa seemed to be enjoying them. When his back was turned I threw mine into the dusty roadside. We woke up the driver, hopped back in and drove back to the main road and the river that seemed to follow it everywhere. My companions were humming with pleasure, unable to contain their glee and I supposed that Lhasa was their hometown.
Suddenly the Khampa shouted Lhasa and pointed ahead, but I couldn’t see anything: just a narrow plain and surrounding mountains. Then I started to notice ugly, low concrete buildings everywhere and vast numbers of soldiers. Lots of questions came to me: Is this city populated by soldiers? Do they live in those concrete bunkers? Isn’t there an old part to this city? As if in answer to my question I could see an old building, a huge white building, sitting on top of a little hill. Potala! Potala! shouted the Khampa, pointing to the vast white palace that stands over the whole city, an image that seems to be on the cover of every guidebook to Tibet. It didn’t look so impressive from where I was sitting; there were too many featureless new buildings cluttering up the foreground.
We drove into the centre of what looked like a very ordinary little town and the truck stopped. The Khampa put his two hands to his ear, bent his head to indicate sleep and pointed down a side street. He was obviously saying that’s where the hotels are for you foreigners. This is where you get out. I didn’t want to go but neither of them looked too sad at the idea. I handed over some banknotes, got out and said goodbye glumly. The truck drove forward, unusual in that it didn’t produce any dust, and I walked around the unimpressive centre looking for somewhere to stay. Eventually I ran into some bronzed westerners who pointed me towards what they called the Guest House Ghetto, where I reluctantly settled in with a crowd of Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese and western travellers.