The plateau stretched out across vast distances, with each horizon serrated by mountains. It was an uninhabited desert, alive with colours and strange sounds made by the wind, much more inspiring than the rather static photographs one sees in the National Geographic magazine.
The village I had been left in was a small collection of low-slung mud buildings, ideally suited to resist the wind and dust. You couldn’t actually see any houses as they were all surrounded by walls which, I guessed, act as a wind, dust and snow barrier. I could see goats and children and assumed I could scrounge a cup of tea, or some water. A barefoot child ran up to me and then dashed off in terror after I made a gesture meaning drink. He came back with a crowd of noisy kids and a strange mime act followed: me pretending to drink and the kids screaming with laughter. They were filthy, dressed in rags and scraps of animal furs but they looked happy, fit and healthy. Eventually they realised what I wanted and two of their members were sent racing off across the dust. A woman appeared carrying a gourd. She was wearing a long leather coat, with fur on the inside, belted at the waist. Her face was dark brown, filthy and weather-beaten but her teeth looked perfect. She passed me the gourd and I sucked at it desperately while the kids clapped and screamed with joy. It contained sour goat’s milk and felt like the best thing I had ever drunk in my life. I felt invigorated. I thanked them in Chinese and walked on. The kids followed me for about a mile down the long dusty road.
The land was empty as far as the eye could see. Every hundred yards stood a wooden telegraph pole and the wire stretching between them made strange humming noises in the wind. It felt like someone was trying to talk to me in a language I didn’t understand. I examined an ancient stone wall by the side of road and compared it to the ones I knew from the lowlands of Scotland. This wall was made up of large round stones, as if from a river or sea, not like in Scotland where stones for drystone dykes are dug from the earth. I got so lost in these thoughts that I almost missed the truck that was approaching. Then the roar and dust cloud was upon me. The truck was slowing down. What joy! I ran along the road, waving to the driver – who took one look at me and accelerated. But he had slowed down just enough for me to race after him, grab the tailgate and get into the back of the truck. I lay face down enjoying a moment of rest, grateful to be moving, enjoying the comfort of a wooden floor. And then I felt a hand on my arm. I looked up and saw a row of western faces.
They asked the usual questions:
– Where are you from? Where are you going? My answers were short and simple:
– Scotland and Shanghai!
It felt strange being able to talk normally with people who could understand me and I wasn’t sure I liked it. The more time I spent in the wilderness the less I felt the need to talk, and the more I felt the power of silence. On my right was the guy who had touched my arm and helped me up. He was from Denmark and his face was tanned from travelling. He looked kind and had a blonde moustache. He seemed to be with the thin Englishman with a red face, clutching his camera and staring out of the open back of the flat-bed truck. The Englishman didn’t want to miss anything and kept taking photos. On the other side of the truck sat an emaciated-looking Australian who seemed to be staring at the spare tyre. He was the only one who seemed unimpressed with the spectacular view that was unfolding behind us, as if to say this is nothing! You should see the places I’ve been to! The wooden floor became uncomfortable and we all stood up for long periods with slightly bent legs, in the surfing position, trying to absorb the bumps, chatting like a group of commuters on the train into London.
The sun was going down and the evening light illuminated the dust cloud behind us with flashes of gold. The road started climbing again and we continued uphill for hours. The Englishman told us that soon we would reach nineteen thousand feet and I wondered why these travellers feel the need to know all sorts of facts and figures before they go anywhere. I could feel the altitude fiddling with my brain. Despite the headache I felt a wild freedom welling up inside me. I wanted to cry, to weep and scream with joy – all at the same time. By the time we reached the high pass I was slumped over an oil drum, fast asleep.
There was no movement and the stillness woke me from a deep, dreamless sleep. The truck was empty. I looked outside and saw them standing in a group talking with the driver and looking at the sun going down on a jagged horizon. The air was incredibly clear and you could see for miles. I jumped down and wandered over. The young Tibetan driver and his mate were animated and friendly and it was difficult to imagine that they had been quite happy to leave me by the side of the road earlier on.
– That’s Mount Everest over there, said the Dane, pointing to a ridge of mountains on the distant horizon. It looked impressive but it was hard to make out which one was the biggest as they all looked roughly the same size. I looked again and saw that one was slightly bigger than the others. That was the tallest mountain in the world?
– Chomolangma, said the driver with a smile.
– That’s the Tibetan word for Mount Everest, said the Englishman. To the Tibetans it’s a holy mountain.
There was a pause and I was glad to see nobody was encouraging this annoying Brit to spout any more of his schoolteacher-ish knowledge.
– He says we should take photos, said the Englishman, who took another. There was no way I was going back to the truck, to rummage through my bag, find my camera and waste a precious shot on a vast plateau like this – even though the colours were rather incredible. I had a crappy camera and only one film; I wanted to remember the feelings on this trip, not rely on photos to remember what happened.
– I only have black and white film I said, feeling as if I had to justify myself.
– The driver’s inviting you into the front, said the Australian with a trace of resentment. He lets us all ride in the front for a bit. Go for it mate!
Now I understood why nobody seemed to want the front seat: there was so little space between the dashboard and seat that your legs were constantly crushed. It reminded me of a story I had heard about the Russian T34 tank that was built in huge numbers during the Second World War. Apparently the Soviets saved huge amounts of steel by building the tank for small people and, so the story went, the Russians only recruited short people for the tank brigades. I wondered if the same designer had worked on this truck.
Darkness fell with surprising speed. Blackness spread out in every direction. I leaned forward, looked out through the grimy windscreen and saw that the sky was lit up by bright stars. The driver was talking to me in Tibetan and pointing up, but I couldn’t understand a word. The stars shone so brightly that I wondered if they were the same stars that we sometimes saw at home. They had to be, but these ones looked so much bigger and brighter. They seemed to illuminate the ground in the same way that moonlight would.
I decided to make friends with the driver and his mate so I rolled them a cigarette. Soon the cab filled with Dutch tobacco smoke and it seemed more cosy. They were chatty and I started to practice some Tibetan words with them. After much confusion I worked out that Dro is the Tibetan word for go. I pronounced it again and again, raising a few laughs from the driver’s mate, and eventually found the right tone. As we ploughed on into the night I worked out how to say: Lhasa. Go. You. Me.
We drove on and on through the night and I realised the driver wasn’t going to stop. My headache was getting worse and I felt exhausted too. I couldn’t cope with any more Tibetan words or jokes I didn’t get. Why didn’t the driver feel tired? He had been driving all day but he just seemed to get more cheery. We stopped a few times in the wilderness to get out, stretch our legs, have a pee and stare up at the sky. The Ozzie was getting restless and said I had been in the front for long enough; I came out of that warm cocoon and he jumped in. In the back I noticed the others had brought out puffy down jackets and Arctic sleeping bags and were looking very snug. I had nothing but a hat, a thin jacket and the plastic sheet I had picked up at the border. I started to freeze.
At the next stop an old woman wrapped in rags emerged from a low mud building. She was carrying a metal flask and she handed us each a hot cup of tea. The driver gave us all a packet of Chinese noodles and we dissolved them in the tea and ate greedily. Nothing had ever tasted better! Then I realised that I needed to stop, to get some sleep, to try and deal with my pounding headache. I told the Dane that I wasn’t going any further with them and he seemed disappointed, as if to say: don’t leave the cosy protection of the gang. I gestured to the driver, pointed to the mud buildings and indicated sleep. He understood, shouted what sounded like orders to the old woman and she disappeared into the darkness. There was a flurry of activity: parting greetings, headlights spearing the blackness, a roar of engine and the build-up of their dust cloud. I was left standing alone by the side of the road, hoping the old woman hadn’t barred her gate and left me to freeze. A few minutes later she re-appeared with another cup of tea, led me inside her low, dark, smoky abode and pointed to an ancient metal bed covered with a filthy carpet that would serve as my cover. I was so tired and in such pain from the headache that lying down on a surface that wasn’t bouncing up and down was pure unadulterated pleasure. I lay there with a smile on my face, trying to work out what the appalling smell coming from the carpet was and thinking that I really needed to get one of those high-tech sleeping bags. But none of this was important and within minutes I was fast asleep.
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).