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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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