Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Up at dawn. The hotel foyer is deserted except for a couple of men dozing in chairs by the main doors. Agnetha and the taxi driver arrive at the same time and we leave to the strains of a Strauss waltz on the car radio.
The airport is out in the countryside. It looks like Blandings Castle from the outside; inside, it’s a complete shambles. There are crowds of people everywhere; sitting on the floor drinking tea out of those little jam jars the Chinese take everywhere with them, crowded three-deep round what looks to be the check-in counter; snaking up a grand stairway – which is flanked by two fairly imposing looking security guards in regulation green with red tabs. One of them gets quite angry when I start walking up the stairs, and points, in what turns out to be totally the wrong direction, to where I should go.
We’re getting quite concerned we’re going to miss our flight. We have absolutely no idea where to check in, and we can’t find anybody who will take any notice of us, and then it happens again – just when I get so frustrated with this place that I want to scream, a miracle occurs and somebody does something really nice. A fairly incongruous miracle it has to be said; a Chinese bloke who can speak German comes up to us and, since Agnetha can speak German fluently, everything falls into place; ticket stamped, security checks in a flash, green tea in the waiting room and then out in the grey darkness to the plane. The back of the airport also looks like a stately home – great curving stone steps leading down to what should be sweeping lawns and possibly a butler or two, but which is, in fact, the runway.
The flight is like a village bus ride to market. Somebody’s brought a crate of cabbages on board. And Agnetha swears she’s seen a live hen. The stewardesses are constantly bringing us stuff. A small box of orange juice (I have to show the bloke sitting next to me what to do with the straw) a box of Chrysanthemum tea, a box of five peculiar preserved fruits, a free gift (toothbrush, toothpaste and comb) an orange, and a big box containing a sugar cake, a piece of swiss roll, some biscuits, inch-square pieces of dried bacon and a sachet of preserved vegetables.
The secenery below is just like it was over Pakistan, miles and miles of enormous brown mountains. No greenery. Not surprising really, since what we can see is way, way above the treeline. Everest can’t be that far away. I really do say my prayers when we start to descend. It looks like we are going into a mountain. I can’t see any runway, or any airport. The engines on the end of the wings are flapping at an alarming rate, and then, miraculously, there is a gap in the mountains and we are down.
Down the steps; the air is clean, the sky is bright blue and the mountains are brown. And there is that quality of silence that all mountains give. But there are no buildings. No control tower. There is a little shack with a soldier outside washing his smalls. Agnetha and I ask if we can have a pee, and the soldier points to a crumbling brown wall behind the shack, about two feet high, and we squat behind this and feel so exposed and embarrassed that we can’t stop laughing.
A bus takes us to the airport buildings, about half a mile away, where there is a customs shed, a waiting room, a basketball court and dormitories for overnight stays.
Our German-speaking friend comes up and tells us all the buses to Lhasa itself are full but that he can fix us up with free transport. While he’s arranging this we see our first Tibetans, a crowd of cheerful girls in bright woollen headscarves, coatdresses in red or green or blue-black over black trousers with colourful stripy aprons and stripy moccasins. One girl is wearing baseball boots. They are all carrying heavy loads roped across their chests – no poncey padded backpacks for them.
They think we are a big joke. They all gather round and stare and laugh and are utterly delightful. I don’t know why this feels so different from the scrutiny you get from Chinese people, but it does. It doesn’t feel intrusive at all, even when they dissolve into helpless giggles when Agnetha gets her suncream out and starts rubbing it on her face. They crowd even closer when she gets her camera out, but back off when she points it at them.
The German speaker arrives in a sort of Range Rover, very plush. Just as we’re about to leave, a Japanese guy arrives and asks if he too can have a lift. ‘Of course,’ says the GS, ‘But he’ll have to pay a little.’
It takes about four hours to get to Lhasa, the highest, most remote city in the world. The road is very bad and sometimes doesn’t exist at all, but the trail threads through a wide river valley. There is very little vegetation or habitation. There are plenty of road gangs, all made up of Tibetans, many of them women. Some are carrying enormous rocks on their backs to dump them in the right spot, while others squat, chipping and levelling the rocks by hand, ready for the final surfacing.
We stop by a river while a bulldozer clears a landslip. In front of us is a loaded truck with four Tibetans sitting on top. We get out, and they get down. One, an old man, gives me some odd little nut things and smiles and nods and places his hands together and bows his head like they do in India. I share out my orange in return and we chomp the juicy thing in the dry, clear air, staring with friendly interest at each other.
The second time we stop is while soldiers blast a mountain. There are so many people building this road, and it won’t be long before the railway arrives too, and then what price splendid Tibetan isolation?
Cut into the mountain side is a gigantic Buddha, painted and obviously cared for. There are some scattered settlements now. They look like villages in children’s bible stories – mud walls plastered white, but with prayer flags on sticks fluttering everywhere. Pilgrims on their way to Lhasa are throwing themselves full length in the dust and then standing up and throwing themselves down again. This is how they make their way to the Jokhang temple right in the centre of Lhasa and when they get there they have to go all the way around it throwing themselves on the ground, before they can allow themselves to go in.