Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
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.