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.’