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China 35: Strangers in the night

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

March 11.

Get down to the depot this morning and get my pack on a lorry going to the airport. Take a last look around the market and buy some prayer scarves and am plagued by three kids who alternately hug me and kick me in the shins. Say my goodbyes to Agnetha and Michael and Mick and Julie, and get the bus to the airport. Remember to sit fairly close up front this time, so that I don’t go flying when it hits a pot hole. Still, the journey is not too bad. It takes four hours and there are times when I think we’re having an accident, but no, we are not careering out of control down a ravine, we are merely being driven rather excitingly down a hill that hasn’t got a road yet.

The airport hostel is appalling. The latrines are overflowing and I find I’m sharing a dormitory with a bloke from Saudi Arabia. He seems okay, but he has a master’s degree in moaning. He’s is the most miserable person I’ve ever met. More miserable than a friend’s great aunt, who used to tell people, ‘Ooh, you go on. I’ve had my life.’

He’s been here since his plane arrived this morning and he dislikes the look of the place so much, that he can’t be arsed to go to Lhasa. He just wants to fly straight to Shanghai. ‘I thought it would be a magical place,’ he intones. ‘All green and misty but it is just desert. If I wanted sand I would stay at home.’ At which I giggle. But he just goes on and on.

I leave the room and try to see if I can get into another dormitory, but they are all full up. All the other people here are Chinese and seem mystified that I don’t want to share a room with a strange man. After all, he’s another westerner, isn’t he? None of them are really bothered about my problems, but one bloke, at least, gives me some ink for my pen.

Back to the room. Misery Guts is lying on his bed swigging from a bottle of rice wine and staring at the ceiling. ‘I thought this place would be Shangri La,’ he intones. ‘It is not what I thought.’ I try telling him that I felt much the same way when I arrived, and that he should at least take a look at Lhasa. But he won’t listen. Moan, moan, moan.

He’s also fed up because the airport won’t take travellers’ cheques and he hasn’t got enough money to pay for his ticket. He wants to borrow money from me. He is astounded when I tell him I don’t have enough. Even if I did I wouldn’t lend it to him – but I don’t tell him that.  He is going to have to go to Lhasa to change his cheques. The thought makes him even more miserable.

He starts on about his headache. I tell him this is probably because of the altitude. But he’s having none of it.

‘Altitude? Altitude? I am used to altitude. It is this terrible cold I have. Oh this place. Oh how terrible I feel. Why did I come here?’

At least he’s at the other end of the room (although it’s not a very big room). At 10pm the lights are switched off by central control. This is creepy, and it makes him grumble even more but, eventually, he falls silent. I shut my eyes, but I don’t sleep.

At 5.30 he looms over me in the darkness.

‘Did you sleep well?’ he asks.

‘Yes,’ I say warily. He is far too close, and I don’t like the silky tone of his voice.

‘Can I get into bed with you for a warm?’ He is pulling at my sleeping bag.

‘No, you bloody can’t.’

‘Why not?’ he asks. He is, can you believe it, offended.

‘What do you mean, why not?’ I say.

‘But I thought all you western girls have sex with everybody you meet.’

‘Go. Away.’  If he tries anything more, I’m going to sock him.

But, amazingly, he goes. I get up, which is easy because I slept in my clothes, get my stuff packed and get out. But there is nowhere to go. The waiting room is locked and eventually I make my way to the canteen. The Chinese man, who gave me the ink last night, arrives and starts chatting. He talks apologetically about the state of the airport and I think he is quite taken aback, when I just let rip about the sleeping arrangements. Poor bloke. It’s not his fault.

And then I discover I don’t have enough change to pay for my breakfast, so he insists on paying the difference. It is rice porridge, diced raw turnips and four dry biscuits. I know it’s silly, but I cry.

China 34, A lesson in gold smuggling

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

March 10.

Don’t think I’ll be going anywhere today. We were planning to borrow bicycles and go the Drepong monastery, but after last night, I can’t even summon up enough energy to go with the others to the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, which is much nearer and has a western bog and a Philips radiogram, according to Michael, the gold smuggler.

Michael is a terribly serious, young(ish) bloke who comes from Cricklewood, and who is attempting to learn how to do the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword. He used to work in a dole office, apparently, advising claimants on how to fill in their UB40s, and now he runs a smuggling ring from Korea to India. Amazing the turns a career can take.

I don’t know why he wants to learn how to do cryptic crosswords. It’s not as if he needs something to do on the 8.10 to Liverpool Street every morning. And commuters only do the crossword so that they don’t have to speak to any of their fellow human beings. I keep thinking of that scene in James Bond where 007 says, ‘Do you expect me to talk?’

In my mind, Goldfinger is replying, ‘No Mr Bond, I expect you to help me with 24 Across.’

Still, Michael is earnestly insistent that I unlock the mysteries for him, and in between wondering if I’m going to heave again, I do my best. He has a much-thumbed paperback of crosswords, and we go through them slowly.

‘It’s like a secret code,’ he says. ‘And nobody ever tells you how to crack it.’

Julie works for him, as a mule. She’s an ex teacher but she got bored with her husband who was an accountant and who wore shirts with contrasting collars. She had a hatchback and an executive house with fully fitted carpets and she and her husband went to fondue parties and drank Mateus rose, and one day she bought a backpack and went to India. When her savings ran out she did a few little trips for Michael and apparently it’s very lucrative. He pays $600 per trip.

I thought about doing it too, for about 30 seconds. The money is very good. But I’m not too keen on inserting two lumps of gold the size of large torch batteries, into my bum. You get on the plane to India and when you get off you are met by a taxi driver who takes you to a pre-arranged meet, where you produce the gold and get the dosh. But it doesn’t always work out like that.

‘Sometimes the taxi drivers have been bribed by a rival gang to take you to the police station instead,’ Julie told me. ‘That’s what happened to me. And I just kept telling the police I had no idea what was happening, and that I was just an innocent tourist, and they said they would let nature take its course. So I just hung about in the station doing my yoga exercises to show that I hadn’t a care in the world, even though, ohhh, that gold was really hurting. But then some more money must have changed hands because they let me go. And everything was fine.’

Everything, except, possibly, her backside, where she could now keep her rucksack.

China 33, The invisible monk

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

The Potala Palace is a hell of a climb, just to get to the main doors, and made even more difficult by the fact that the Tibetans like their steps to be steep. But when we eventually get to the first entrance, the main door is closed. Agnetha is gasping for a pee, and there’s no one about so she just squats by a wall. I can’t resist it; I get my camera out. Horrified, she stands up and her trousers fall down. Naturally, I think this is hysterically funny and we run up to the next level, shouting and laughing. I don’t know what’s got into us. Neither of us would behave like this outside Buckingham Palace, or the Royal Palace in Stockholm. But there is no one to hear or see us. We’re like seven-year-olds, skidding at last into a large, open, almost deserted courtyard.

At one end is an entrance to a temple and we buy the inevitable ticket and remember where we are. Up we climb again. This whole place, the official residence of the Dalai Lama, is a maze of tunnels and walkways. There is an open square, several storeys high, with balconies. There is a little bridge from the balcony we are on, to a central building. We go across to it and it is a restaurant. Closed. Looks sort of Chinese 1930s style again. Can’t imagine the monks using it. Peeking through a chink in the curtains I can see a Bakelite telephone. Direct line to the Dalai Lama? I doubt it somehow.

There are doors everywhere. Some lead to tiny little rooms, some to huge ones. A monk, with pads under his feet (to keep the floors polished?) smiles and points at Agnetha’s camera, but no, we haven’t got pictures of the Dalai Lama. He is a wonderful old monk and is all smiles when we want to take his picture.

We find another room, one with white pendant lamps like you get in a wine bar at home. There are Buddhas everywhere. And in front of all of them are bowls of yak butter and money and white prayer scarves and green grass growing in empty mandarin orange tins. The buddhas are magnificent. God knows what they are made of – solid gold probably. And there are great knobbly chunks of turquoise just lying about. Hanging from the ceiling in one room are child-size red hand prints on white silk – with evenly spaced dark dots on them. Are these the marks of the Dalai Lama as a child? Dunno. There is hardly anybody about – we seem completely free to explore. I so desperately want to find a secret passage, but I stop myself from prodding likely looking knobs.

As we wander deeper and deeper in to the palace the silent reverence of the place makes us fall silent and, when we do talk, it’s in slow whispers. We have become so awestruck by all this dim mysterious magnificence that when we are approached by a monk with a tin of toffees, we don’t know what to do. I’m particularly struck by the fact that they are Bluebird Toffees, just like my great auntie Maggie used to have, and that there is a picture of what looks like Edinburgh Castle on the lid. He says something and shakes the tin at us so, very respectfully, we take a sweet each and then look at each other.

‘Are we supposed to give them to Buddha as offerings?’ says Agnetha.

I don’t know. We hold the toffees reverently and look at the monk for guidance. He seems rather exasperated. Finally he points at the sweets and then points at his mouth, as if he were dealing with a very slow pair of children. I begin to giggle, and then, much to his obvious relief, we undo the waxed paper wrappings (each with a little picture of a bluebird on it) and start chewing the toffees. They taste so good. We’re still chewing when we walk into another room which has a beautiful, stylised painting of Lhasa on the wall. The monk who has led the way, points out the Potala and the Sera and the Jhokang, and then points to another and shakes his head sadly – this monastery was razed to the ground by the Chinese during the cultural revolution.

At the doorway to the Dalai Lama’s bedroom, two monks sell us tickets to have a look. You can’t actually go in, though. An American who has arrived doesn’t have any change, but it doesn’t matter ­- one of the monks gets the change from offerings thrown into a roped-off part of the sitting room.

And boy, does that guy have sitting rooms. There are five, that we see, and in each his chair has his empty coat and hat on it. Some of the monks must sleep in these rooms because, in each, there are little towels, neatly folded, with bowls of yak butter tea here and there.

As we come out, back into the great courtyard, we meet the old monk again, now accompanied by a boy monk who says the old man wants to know our names. So we tell him and he tells us that he is Lama Namideya, or something that sounds like that, anyway. He poses cheerfully again for a picture.

On the way back to the hotel, as I am crowing about finally getting decent photograph, Agnetha shakes her head.

‘Tibetan monks can disappear from pictures, you know,’ she says.

‘Don’t be daft.’

‘It is true. They pose for pictures and then when you get them developed, not nobody is there.’

‘Sounds like the kind of pictures my mother takes,’ I say cheerfully, and we meet up with the others and go off to a restaurant where we’re all given a basin of lamb bones to gnaw on. It’s so mediaeval I have to stop myself from throwing my used bones on the floor. They taste great, but in the middle of the night I get up and am totally and fabulously sick.

Months later, when I get my pictures developed, I don’t have a single one of the monk and his boy.


China 32, Baby yaks and bum pinchers

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

Agnetha and I get breakfast courtesy of a baby yak this morning. We go to the market to buy food, and take two empty yoghurt pots with us to see if we can get them filled. These pots are made of rather beautiful white china. You get them everywhere.

The nearest entrance to the market is down the main street and through a little archway. But we’re no sooner through it than this Tibetan woman is waving at us from behind a barbed wire fence. It looks like she’s been penned in, but no, she points to a heap of junk we realise is actually a rickety gate, and we get through that, and then through another door in a wall and we’re in her back yard; there’s a table, a man sitting on a chair sunning himself, and a little stable containing a cow and a calf. That calf is cuter than a boxful of kittens. It is sweeter than George Michael covered in sugar snow singing ‘Last Christmas’. It’s like a shaggy little dog with big brown eyes and a bunchy tail. Agnetha is so overcome she bursts into raptures of Swedish, but mummy yak is having none of it. She is four times as big as her baby and she has horns you could pick a lock with.

Coming back to more practical matters, we hand over the pots and one kwai (about 30p) and the woman gives us full pots in exchange.  Lots of nodding and smiling and bowing and off we go, hoping that the gate isn’t going to collapse behind us. We get some walnuts (expensive) and a couple of apples and go back to the hotel. Agnetha shares her coffee and I contribute a tin of mandarin oranges. God, it tastes good.

We sit, surrounded by majestic mountains and views of prayer flags and vast sky, and naturally start discussing electric toasters. According to Agnetha nobody in Europe had an electric toaster until school trips to Britain started. ‘I’d never seen a toaster before I came to Britain,’ said Agnetha. ‘We never toasted anything. And,’ she leans forward seriously. ‘Not nobody else did either. Not the Dutch, or the French. I have checked, you know. Nobody. The French buy their toast in packets, even.

‘Really?’ I say.

She nods. ‘They call them, tostes. Then, we all come to your country, and boom! Toasters everywhere. Everybody is eating toast now. Hot from toaster.’

Amazing the stuff you learn when you go abroad.

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

We decide to go to the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s official residence. We walk down the main street, past lots of men with little tables. One is a dentist with a box of gold teeth and a hammer and pair of pliers. He is trying to persuade a Tibetan who is clutching his mouth, to sit down. He’s doing this by waving a pair of pliers in his face but the Tibetan, strangely, doesn’t look very keen. A knot of men gather, and there is a lot of banter and finally they push him into a seat and he opens his mouth. The dentist flexes his pliers and …. But at this point I walk on. Dentists have never been my strong point. A guy at the next table is playing Una Paloma Blanca on a little tape player, which is just the last tune I’d expect to hear, here. God, I hate that song. It’s right up there for appalling rhythmic cheerfulness with Y Viva Espana and bloody Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. And why here??? This is, like, a spiritual refuge, man. They should be playing something deep and meaningful like Stairway to Heaven or Julie Andrews singing The Lonely Goatherd.

I can hear shouting behind me and the dentist’s customer is on his feet, his hands clapped to his mouth, while the dentist is waving something in his pliers.

A few yards further on we meet Julie and drop into this noodle/tea shop where all the customers are Genghis Khan and, in the corner, is a man in a white hat rolling out noodles on a table you wouldn’t put your boots on. There are a couple of men in short hair and short, western leather jackets. They are rather watchful, careful types who have come over the mountains from Nepal with stuff to sell. What this stuff is, exactly, nobody is very certain about. Julie and Mick are travelling back to Nepal with them in the next couple of days and ask if I want to go too. I have to admit I’m tempted. The thought of just launching into the unknown; to keep travelling on and on and never know what is going to happen next, is seductive. But I have stuff to do back in England, and Cheryl and Elspeth would worry about me, especially if I couldn’t get word back to them. Besides, on an extremely practical level, I’ve already paid for my return flight to Cheng Du.

Agnetha is wearing a pair of pink tracksuit bottoms, but all the men think she’s just in her long johns. Two men patted her bum on the way in, and Agnetha is offended, but Julie and I have a hard time not laughing, because it does look as if she’s come out in her jammies. ‘Even if I was wearing my pyjamas,’ Agnetha says. ‘They should not be doing this to my bottom.’ She’s right, of course, but try explaining that to a bunch of cheerful blokes who’ve never heard of leisure wear. God knows what they’d make of Spandex.

The man in charge of the restaurant cannot add up. He’s very cheerful, even for a Tibetan person, but he just puts his hands over his head and moans when he tries to give us the bill. Every time he adds up the column of figures (for three teas) he gets a different result. In the end I work it out on a piece of paper for him, very slowly, much to his relief. Smiles all round and off we go to the Potala, Agnetha dodging the bum slappers on the way out, and saying what she thinks of them in Swedish.


China 31, Commotion at the temple

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015


Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

In the evening we go to the market. I feel as if I’ve travelled about 500 years back in time. At least. The place is stuffed with pilgrims and families who have come for a trip to the big city. Some of them surround a teenager who is juggling with silver balls. He occasionally swallows them – they are the size of tennis balls – and then he brings them back up and gets on with the juggling, which is disgusting but I can’t not watch. What happens if one gets stuck?

There is a man selling the strips of stripy material that Tibetan women make their aprons out of. His price depends on the length of your arms. Agnetha agrees reasonable terms and sticks her arms out and he cuts a length of material which stretches from her finger tip to finger tip. I mime that I want some too and he agrees the same price. But he doesn’t reckon on the fact that I am way taller than her. The Tibetans all gather good naturedly to watch and when I stretch my much longer arms out, there is a good deal of laughter. The seller is not happy at the poor deal he has struck, but he can’t back out, and there are lots of jokes at his expense. Still, he comes round and gives me a smile with my change. The material is like thick felt, way too stiff to make a scarf out of. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’m very pleased with my bargain.

The market has grown up round the Jokhang temple, the most sacred in Tibet. According to Julie’s guidebook, it was built in 642, (just about the time my ancestors decided blue paint would go well with a goatskin loincloth). On one of the pillars there is a rather poignant inscription recording a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. It says, ‘Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory.’

The square is festooned with what looks like bunting but which is, in actual fact, thousands of prayers printed on rectangular pieces of paper bought or brought by the pilgrims who flock here. There are more pilgrims than you could shake a stick at; some, still not quite at the temple, are throwing themselves full length on the ground and getting up and repeating the process, but once they get to the temple, they have to go round it once, clockwise, before they can go in. In front of the temple doors there are more worshippers bowing and kneeling and prostrating themselves, I can even see children doing it, in a nearby gutter.

Inside the monks are chanting and it is dim and peaceful. There are several different rooms, all with enormous Buddhas and, in front of each, there are all sorts of offerings, from lumps of raw turquoise the size of a baby’s head, to rusting tin cans in which grass is growing. Every gift, from the richest to the poorest is honoured. And then there is a sudden commotion at the entrance and a blare of music and about four Chinese soldiers come in with a ghetto blaster. They swagger up to the altar, Chinese pop music bouncing off the walls, sniff at the yak butter candles and hold their noses. They laugh and point in disdain at the tins of grass. I find this so upsetting, but none of us can say anything. It would only make trouble for the monks, and none of them pay any attention. They carry on with their prayers and their eternal sweeping and eventually the soldiers push off, their music still faintly thumping after they have gone.

Hannah from New York pops round for a cup of tea before she goes tomorrow. She too is going to Kunming, so we might meet up. She’s had a bit of a rough time here. When she went to a sky burial a few days ago, there were five dead children. ‘There was a guy who was there the whole time,’ she said. ‘I think, from what he was miming, that he was the father, and he couldn’t bear to watch, just kept hiding behind a rock. I didn’t want to watch either. So I just held his hand. Poor guy. God knows what they all died of.’

And then, to round off her day, although this doesn’t really count on a dead children scale of disaster, Hannah got some bug and spent all night in the toilet room. ‘It wasn’t too bad until I dropped my book,’ she said. ‘Right through the hole in the goddam floor. It just fell out of my hands, and there was nothing I could do about it. My only book, can you believe it? I just cried. And you know what I was reading?’

We shake our heads.

I think she’s going to cry again. ‘Joseph Fucking Conrad’, she says, and then starts to laugh. ‘Heart of Fucking Darkness.’

China 30: Breakfast at the monastery

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

After the sky burial we walk round the mountain to the Sera monastery. It’s beautiful, all white and red and gold and shining in the sun.  There are several temples and houses all connecting with courtyards and little lanes. A couple of Tibetan girls hang out of a window and invite us in for breakfast – or, more accurately, mime us in.  So we walk through the doorway below them, into a courtyard, up some steps and round a balcony into the house.  In the courtyard is a very serious looking boy monk, about 14 years old, head shaved and robed in red. The house itself is very dark inside, with thick walls – it’s wonderfully cool.  The room where we sit is about 8ft by 15ft, the main room of the house. The walls are dark brown because there is no chimney.  The smoke from the fire is supposed to go out through the window. Julie tells me the Tibetans are very particular about what you can throw on a fire, no plastic wrappings, for example, or cellophane. They get quite cross if you don’t respect this rule. I suppose, apart from anything else, putting plastic on a fire where there is no chimney is going to stink the place out.

We sit on carpet-covered benches. The family serve us traditional Tibetan tea, which is made by pounding up yak butter, salt and tea in a thing that looks like an elongated butter churn and mixing it with water. It looks and tastes disgusting. It’s supposed to be very good for you, but it smells like vomit. Anyway, we can’t not drink it. Then they give us a bowl of Tsampa – traditional Tibetan porridge – and with much giggling the girls watch while we spoon the brown powder (ground wheat, but I don’t know what else)  into our tea in the approved manner. Then we get rolls of bread, which look like the soft, lovely morning rolls that you get in Scotland. I’m all for this, until I realise they are rock hard, but we dip them in our tea/tsampa and it’s not too bad, and then we are given biscuits – they’re lovely.

While we’re going through all this and miming how wonderful it tastes (desperately hoping they’re not going to give us seconds)  an old monk comes into the room and one of the women gives him a tray with some bowls of beans on it. He takes it away, I think to share with the boy monk, but comes back shortly afterwards with most of the beans. Maybe this woman is just a rotten cook, after all. But she can’t do enough to care for us, and it would be the worst manners to refuse anything she gives us. The monk picks up Ruth’s camera and says something to her. He doesn’t want his picture taken, but then we realise again, that he is asking if we have pictures of the Dalai Lama. And sadly we have to tell him that we don’t.

‘What are we going to do about offering to pay for this?’ I say, while smiling at the monk.

‘They’ll be desperately insulted,’ says Julie.

‘They might be desperately insulted if we don’t offer,’ points out Mick.

It’s a tricky one, and we talk the matter round while we eat, and decide that it is better to offer to pay, than not. When we get up to leave, we all lift up our purses and point at them, but the family just laugh and shake their heads and bow and smile as we leave.

The main temple is lovely, very dim with many yak butter candles burning in front of the different statues of Buddha. There are many cushions on the floor with Tibetan coats on them, and a monk is sweeping up between them.

Another temple, up and down some very steep stairs – they seem to go for steps here that are about four inches wide and and a foot to 18 inches high. It’s really easy to miss your footing, but a girl of about 12 with a small child on her back skips past me and hurtles down them, without missing a beat, her feet absolutely sure, and she lets her load down easily at the bottom. I’m already beginning to feel knackered.

We come out on to a flat roof with more little temples leading off and monks smiling and bowing and welcoming us in. I’m rather bemused by all this hospitality and good humour, and obvious affection for westerners.

Extremely long walk back to the hotel. When I get there I get a bucket of cold water from the kitchen, and take it up to the empty dormitory, where I stand in the washing bowl, and pour it over me. It’s shocking but lovely. There are no places to wash here and, actually, I don’t think Tibetans wash much. They probably feel it’s pointless considering how dirty the place is, with all that dust that swirls around everywhere and clogs up everything. I’ve seen several kids who were so filthy the dirt looked like a second skin. Wash my hair, out on the roof, much to the curiousity of the Tibetan girl sweeping the dormitory floor. She stands and watches while I rub the shampoo in and I let her smell the bottle, which she doesn’t know what to make of, at all. Still, I let her feel my hair and I feel hers and we have a good laugh. It’s so easy to be happy here.

Do not adjust your set



It’s Mothers’ Day in Britain, so I’m not posting the next instalment of my China diary today.   That’s very bad, I know, but I have an appointment with a box of chocolates. Back tomorrow.

China 29: Sky burial

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015


PLEASE NOTE: This is an account, from my 1985 diary, of how the Tibetans dispose of their dead. It is not sensational, but some people might find it upsetting. 

March 8

Get up while its still dark and walk out of Lhasa to see a sky burial. The sun rises as we leave the streets and go out, past a field of greenhouses and anti-aircraft guns, across a rubbish tip and part of the way up a mountain. There is a high ridge above us. It looks just like the desert and mountains that you see in cowboy films and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of apaches suddenly appeared against the skyline.

There are four of us; me, Agnetha, Mick, and Julie. We get to the place; there are seven men drinking tea around a bonfire; a few feet further on is a monk dressed very ornately and sporting a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He is beating time with a little hand-held drum. The men give us cups of hot sweet tea and offer us cigarettes.

One of them mimes a camera, and then makes a slitting motion across his throat. He is not joking. You can watch this ceremony, but they won’t allow you to photograph it. One American who tried it had a human heart pushed into his face and his camera smashed on a rock. The Swedish girl, Kristen, who is leaving today for Xigaze, told us last night  that when she came here a few days ago, she thought she did have permission, but when she got her camera out they threw stones at her, and one man chased her with a knife.

Why they let us watch at all, I don’t know. A bus toils up the track and some Chinese squaddies get out. They are unarmed, cheerfully jostling each other. They have obviously come to see the sights. The Tibetans stand up, get their knives out, and walk towards them. This is not what the soldiers were expecting and they falter, their smiles dying. They’re only young lads, far from home. They’ve just come for a trip out, and they don’t really get what is happening. But there is no misunderstanding the Tibetans. The bloke who dealt with us goes right up to them. It doesn’t take a degree in languages to understand that he is telling them to bugger off. Some of the soldiers point at us, and the Tibetan lifts his knife and says some more. There is a moment of silence and then the soldiers get back on the bus, and it drives away.

When the sun is fully up five of the Tibetans go down to a large rock below us. It is as if it were held between two knees, and we are standing on one of the knees. Three of the men sit down, side by side.

There are two small bundles on this rock and what looks like a lump hammer. There are joss sticks smoking everywhere in the earth, the air is heavy with the scent of incense and burning yak dung. The two men left standing sharpen their knives, and begin. They rip open the bundles and there is an adult body in each; a man and a woman, trussed up like chickens. They untie them, but fasten them by their necks to a rock. And then they start. They simply turn the bodies on their fronts and hack them up. They throw the bones to the three men who are sitting, waiting, and they pound them up. They put the internal organs into a sack and smash the skulls by dropping rocks on to them. The woman’s hair, still braided with ribbons, flutters away and is caught and hung on a bush, where there are already several others. The priest chants and drums the whole time.

When the men are done, they all come back up to us, except for one who stays behind and shouts to the vultures which are sweeping in, perching untidily in the crags and ridges above. The birds won’t come down until they are absolutely certain it is safe. Other people begin to arrive and stand beside us now. They are the relatives and they have come to see the vultures arrive – the quicker the birds arrive, the greater the honour. It’s impossible to tell what these people are feeling, and I’m not going to stare at them. Their attention is focused on the birds.

A couple of birds swoop down and the man throws the flesh. More and more birds, including eagles, arrive and the rock is a moving mass of brown feathers. The vultures are easily spooked. The eagles take longer to come, but once they do, they don’t scare easily. When they show signs of losing interest, the man throws the contents of the bag at them.

And then it’s all over. The whole thing has taken about an hour. Apparently Tibetans choose this way of disposing of their dead, partly for practical reasons – there is not enough wood for burning, and you can’t dig graves on the side of these mountains. But they also feel that death is part of life, and that other creatures must benefit. At least, that’s how I understand it. But I don’t know what it takes for a person to rip a body to shreds and feed it to vultures. I do get the distinct impression that all the guys involved, including the priest in the shades, are a bit crazed.

We walk down the mountain in complete silence. It is a beautiful day.

China 28: A Tibetan lesson in dignity

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

March 7

Decide to check out of the Snowland and go to the Tibetan Guesthouse instead. Not because there’s anything wrong with the Snowland, we assure the lovely landlady, but because we have friends at the Tibetan.

The Tibetan, or Hotel Shol Balak Lhasa, is just down the street. You enter through a narrow door and on one side is a dim stable with yaks in it and on the other is a little bare room which is reception. Agnetha and I get beds in the dormitory up on the roof. The passage from the main door leads into a courtyard and there are wooden steps leading up to the first floor and then up to the next. There’s a little verandah on each floor running past the rooms and, at our level, we have a flat roof to walk about on, too. Next door is a school, and every morning the kids do their exercises, counting along, Chinese style, to loud piped music, just like I did with Cheryl and Elspeth on the train.

The dormitory isn’t half as nice as the room at the Snowland but Helen from New York is there and so are Mick and Julie, friends of Agnetha’s. It doesn’t really matter what the room is like; lying on my lumpy iron bed I can look out of the door and see the Himalayas, clear in the morning sunshine. Take that, Cesar Ritz. There’s a big Chinese flask of water on the table, with a wash bowl. Water is available between 4pm and 7pm from a hose in the kitchen. So we have to remember to keep the flask filled.

Agnetha and I go out walking and we are stopped by three Tibetans, wild men in thick padded coats. They are rubbing their fingers together and obviously asking for money. I feel really disappointed that they are begging, but it can’t be easy living here. I don’t normally give handouts, but this time, I feel I owe them, somehow.  I’m just getting my purse out when someone shouts at us and Julie hurries up. ‘For Christ sake don’t try to give them money, they’ll be really insulted.’

I am completely confused by this. The Tibetans are just standing, watching hopefully.

Julie says, ‘Just look in your purse and then shake your head really sorrowfully.’

I do as I am told. The Tibetans look really disappointed, but they all put their hands together and bow. We bow back.

We watch them walk off, and Julie explains. The men had come up to us, because they wanted to know if we had pictures of the Dalai Lama. When the Chinese invaded in 1949, he was taken into safety in India and has been protected and treated with honour ever since by the West. This is the reason the Tibetans are so welcoming to us, and it is why they will do their best to protect us. All they ever ask for is to see the face of the man who has been taken from them. I feel very, very, small. I wish I’d know this before I came. I’d have brought them a bloody crateful of pictures.

We take the table out of the dormitory and put it on the verandah and spend the afternoon sitting in the sunshine, writing postcards. There are four Swedes at the hotel; one Dane; one Australian; Mick and Julie from Hemel Hempstead; Hannah from New York; Michael, a gold smuggler from Cricklewood; Agnetha and me.

The first six are planning on a four-five day bus trip to Xigaze and back, starting at dawn tomorrow. One of the Swedish girls, Kristen, has a stomach upset, but she’s determined to go. She’s already spent two months in hospital with amoebic dysentry and no measly bug is going to stop her from doing what she wants to do. Blimey, Swedish people are tough.

Night falls and the sky is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is blazing with stars. I drag a chair out into the middle of the flat roof and lie back as far as I can without tipping over. The stars are so low, so bright it’s like being in the lighting department of a celestial John Lewis.  I’ve never seen so many stars, but it does strange things to your mind, contemplating stuff that you can’t really take in. It makes me feel like I’m falling into them and so I get up and look about at the here and now instead. Down in the courtyard I can see through the open doorway into the kitchen. There are two women in there. One is stirring a cauldron over an open fire. The other has just put half a goat on a tree stump and is  hacking at it with an axe.


China 27: High anxiety

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

I can’t believe Lhasa when I see it. There must be some mistake; wide roads, a block of flats and modern buildings. I am so disappointed, I thought it was going to be some mysterious mountain hideout with buddhists.

Actually, I didn’t know what I thought it was going to be, but not this. This is awful. Of course, what I don’t realise is that this is the Chinese part of town, and that, although Lhasa is 12,000 ft up it is flat because it is built on a huge plateau.

The Range Rover draws into courtyard in front of a Chinese guest house and we say goodbye to the German Speaker, who has been so helpful. He looks astounded.

‘But this is the guesthouse where you will stay,’ he says.

‘We’re going to the Snowland Hotel,’ says Agnetha.

‘There is no such place,’ he says.

‘Yes there is,’ says Agnetha. ‘I’ve got it marked on my map. It’s just over there.’

‘No it isn’t.’

The Chinese can be pretty odd at times but this is definitely weird. This guy is not a happy man, and he looks even more upset when an American couple Agnetha knows walk past and say, ‘You going to the Snowland? See you there!’

So we say goodbye and just start walking. He trails after us for a while, saying over and over that we have to stay at the Chinese guest house, but he eventually gives up, shouting, ‘See you at the depot at 4pm, when the baggage arrives!’ (Checked in bags come separately by truck and are claimed in the afternoon from the China Airlines office).

The neat Chinese part of town disappears, and we enter Lhasa proper. It is everything I thought it would be and quite a lot I didn’t imagine. We seem to have walked into a Breughel painting. All the buildings are flat topped and white-washed like the ones we saw on the way in. Many of the ground floors in these buildings are either stables or shit stores. There’s no regular running water in this town, so no flushing toilets. The toilets are just rooms with a hole in the middle of the floor, and when the room below is full, a couple of Tibetan women come along, open two enormous doors on the street and shovel the waste onto a cart, which they then drag off to fertilise the nearby fields. The air is so dry, it doesn’t smell bad. Or maybe we’ve just got used to smells.

We check in at the Snowland and get a bright little room with all the beams, above the windows and the ones holding up the ceiling, painted red and decorated with flowers, like European naïve art or the decorations you see on an English barge. A German guy tells us to lay off beer for the first few days. ‘Just drink water, lots of it. At this altitude beer will make you fall over.’ I believe him. I have a splitting headache and feel pretty dizzy already. The air is so thin I feel I have to take in great lungfuls of it, but it seems as though there’s nothing in it. It’s like trying to breathe with a paper bag over your head.

We get something to eat; a bowl of rice and some meat, which is twice the price it is in China and, at four we walk back to the depot and get our luggage ok. The German Speaker is there and he doesn’t look very happy. As soon as he sees us he makes a beeline for Agnetha and starts talking to her very fast. She erupts in molten German, in which the word ‘nein’ appears a lot. The driver, who appears to be the cause of all the trouble, stands a few feet away and draws patterns in the dust with his toe.

Turns out they want to charge us 40 kwai each for the trip, even though they told us it would be free. They’ve already skinned the Japanese guy, who is in tears, because he’s been cleared out of all his cash. They took his bag and wouldn’t let him have it until he paid up. The German Speaker tells us that the driver’s boss would hold him responsible for our non payment and that we should go with him to explain why we weren’t paying. (All cars in China are owned by a group of people, with a cadre in charge.)

‘You must come,’ says the German speaker. ‘It’s only a short drive in the car.’

‘There is no way I am getting in that car again,’ says Agnetha. ‘You must be mad.’

Quite a large crowd of Tibetans and Chinese gather round. A good shouting match is always fun to watch. We are tired, hot, shaky on our feet, and desperately thirsty. No one understands English, and only one speaks German.

And then we hear the faint sound of bugles, and Montgomery Clift and the seventh cavalry arrive to rescue us. Well, ok, so I made up the bugles, but a tall, good-looking American has certainly suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere, asks what all the fuss is about, agrees that we are being ripped off and proceeds to chew out the opposition in an extremely satisfactory manner, in fluent and possibly perfect Mandarin.

The Tibetans, who are not huge fans of the Chinese, are absolutely delighted. The driver tells the American that he doesn’t need him for an interpreter. The American tells us what is going on, and tells him he is a complete asshole (wish I knew how to say that in Mandarin) and that the driver can talk to us in Tibetan if he wants to. (Much laughter all round from the Tibetans). The Chinese are not happy. If they lose much more face, things could get ugly.

Agnetha and I say we don’t mind explaining the situation to the driver’s leader, but that we are not going to pay. We give him our address, and tell him, through the American, that he can call on us if he wants.

‘But I can take them to my leader now, in the car,’ says the driver.

‘They’re going to the hotel to rest; they are very tired,’ says the American.

‘I am tired too,’ says the driver plaintively.


More laughter from the growing crowd.

So we thank the American and he just waves us off cheerfully as we go back to the Snowland. What a journey. It’s not that far but, at this altitude, my pack is really weighing me down. My feet are heavy, sweat is running down my back and the sun is almost unbearably hot. The wind is up too and swirls of choking dust clog up our eyes, noses and mouths and turn our hair into coconut matting.

The hotel at last. A thick-walled cool haven. Agnetha dumps her bag and goes off to look for some mates. But I no sooner flop down on my bed than the delegation arrives; the driver, the leader, the German Speaker, an interpreter and two unidentifiables. The interpreter doesn’t bother to interpret. He just asks us to see reason. ‘You must realise that you have to pay something for this service. Forty kwai is cheap; we normally charge tourists 100 kwai. You are British, I think, yes? Then you are reasonable, and will realise you must pay.’

‘Yes, I’m British,’ I yell hoarsely, feeling, I dunno, like Richard Attenborough in drag, on a bad day, and wishing I was somewhere else. ‘I’m bloody British and it’s the principle of the thing. We were told it was free, and if we had been told it was 40 kwai we never would have accepted the lift.’

He says if we don’t pay we will have to leave Lhasa.

At this point the Tibetan lady in charge of the hotel walks in, pours me out a mug of hot water, gives me another pillow and then stands by my bed, her arms folded, silently facing down the opposition, while the argument rages on. Brave, brave woman to stick up for me like this. The Chinese could make things very difficult for her. Eventually, I’m so exhausted I just turn over and go to sleep. Agnetha comes back to find that they have argued themselves round in circles, and they tell her they hope I will feel better in the morning and that perhaps we’d think about paying something towards the cost. They never bother us again.


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