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.