The exhilaration I felt upon setting foot in Tibet was not momentary. For several weeks thereafter, I felt as though I was walking on air.
Which was just as well, considering the assortment of complications that were to follow.
Tourists had started to arrive in Tibet a year before we went, but at a very slow trickle. The country had been seized by the Chinese in 1951 and China itself was opened to tourists in a limited way, only in the late 1970’s.
To say that the area was unprepared for tourism would be an understatement. We weren’t looking for tourist hotels or organized transport and the lack of those things were not the problem, at least not as far as Tim and I were concerned.
Neil, our tour leader would no doubt have preferred the availability of better facilities, but his major issue was the apparent suspension of truth.
Having arrived, in some state of exhaustion, at the Tibet border (I refuse to call it China), we found ourselves standing around in the encroaching gloom and increasing cold, waiting to have our passports processed.
It wasn’t as if there was exactly a queue to get in.
As we waited, wondering how affixing a stamp into a few passports could possibly take so long, a lone Western back-packer came by. He looked a little dazed and confused and sported a large bandage around his head.
“Got caught in an avalanche”, he said, then trotted off into the night.
As we continued to wait, we heard the ominous growl and rumble of boulders tumbling down rock faces all around, a unique and intimidating sound.
Finally our passports were returned and we were allowed to board our Chinese bus.
Not that we were going anywhere.
Neil clambered aboard with news. There had been another landslide making it impossible for us to reach the inn at Zhangmu, so we needed to select between two options:
- We could drive another three hours (I’d lost track by then of how long we had been underway, probably 12 hours) on the chance of finding a place to stay at another town.
- We could spend the night where we were, on mats, on the floor.
Astonishingly, some of the group wanted to continue, but it would have been madness trying to negotiate those roads in the dark, with no guarantee of accommodation to even make the choice a decent option.
So we would sleep on the floor. While these appealing arrangements were being sorted out, supper was announced. We were ushered into a large, cold, dirty and barely lit edifice and served a rather nasty Chinese meal. It was a fair comment that our table-napkins were squares of toilet paper. Well, we had been warned!
From what we could gather, this was the “inn” where we should have stayed, (therefore not beyond a landslide), so obviously there was no problematic rockfall inhibiting our access. The problem was, hard though this was to believe, that the hotel was oversold. Admitting this, however, would have involved loss of face. Issuance of a transparent lie seemed not to be a problem.
Finally at what appears to have been 10pm, but in which time zone I can only guess, we were rounded up and driven to our “accommodation” which we were delighted to learn had been upgraded from mats on the floor.
We were told that a handful of rooms were available but that 12 of us would have to volunteer to share a dormitory. Tim and I shrugged and said we weren’t bothered, we would volunteer.
Next thing, I discovered I was to share the dorm with 11 men. OK then.
Then the story changed once more, it was 2 dorms, then 3. I’ve no idea where the other women spent the night. I had my dorm and my 11 male companions and one Chinese who observed our arrival and installation from the safety of his bed where he clasped his duvet to his chin and watched this bizarre invasion, his eyes shifting side to side like those of a nervous bird.
The dorm was like an army barracks, an unheated and very drafty one.
We hastily closed the windows which had been wide open, apparently as the solitary Chinese had preferred. We impolitely overruled him.
Our beds were basic platforms on which were piled an assortment of very dubious-looking bedding.
The idea of getting undressed to go to bed was for various reasons the furthest thing from my mind.
I decided more layers were in fact called for.
The most discreet and least frigid way to accomplish this was by jumping into my bed fully clothed, clutching thermal underwear in my hand. I then performed an assortment of interesting maneuvers at the end of which all my clothes were back on with an additional layer in the right place. My Chinese friend lay silent, eyes like saucers.
Having accomplished all this, I discovered I had a small audience at the foot of my bed, in the form of two young Tibetans that had wandered in and were staring as if we had arrived from a different planet, which we might well have done.
Everyone scrambled into a bed leaving Pierre, the last man standing, to close the door. This required firm slamming. Then we called out:
“Pierre, turn the light out!”
The light, you understand was a bulb suspended by a wire from the ceiling.
Poor Pierre searched for a switch but we concluded that it must have been outside the door that was now finally shut, so there ensued a period of semi-hysteria while we all rolled around in our beds laughing as Pierre attempted to drape a makeshift shade over the naked bulb. In the end he abandoned his efforts and himself jumped into bed.
We passed an uneasy night, listening to boulders bounding down the mountains. I would have said I did not sleep except I know that I did, as I dreamed of a triple airplane crash!
China is all one time zone which means that in “the autonomous zone of Tibet” one rises in pitch darkness. I cannot remember that there were any facilities for ablutions although I seem to recall Pierre, the intrepid Swiss, taking a cold wash somewhere outside.
I was happy to remain dirty beneath my many layers of clothing.We had been warned that in Shigatse, our proposed next destination, the temperature was -15C (5F).
We were relieved to see that the clouds of the night before had drawn back, revealing the clearest most star-laden sky I have ever seen, the air so pure at that altitude.
Breakfast was in the same cold room where we had “dined” previously. We were served weak Chinese tea and hunks of solid bread with yak butter and a garishly coloured jam that we had to spread using our teaspoon. It was a meal that had been inefficiently explained to our Chinese hosts who, as an afterthought presented us with a hard boiled egg.
Replete after this feast, we prepared to continue our trek toward the next bus that awaited us beyond the infamous landslide that appeared to have shifted its position.
Chinese sherpas, this time, loaded up our baggage and we walked with our backpacks and cameras. Stumbling along in the greying light, we came upon a woman (we thought, it was hard to tell) breaking wood with a stone in the road.
Then, as various “boulders” began to move, we realized that we had almost walked into an encampment of Tibetans who had been sleeping around a tiny fire. They seemed amused to have been thus awakened, smiling at us as we passed. One could only guess what they must have been thinking.
A little further on we noticed big bales of wool piled up, and when we reached them we found that two young lads had been sleeping in the middle.
The scarcity and general temperature of water in these parts made washing of the face a somewhat impractical (and seemingly unnecessary) thing. Yak butter was used for everything, so faces became covered therein. Add to this a healthy layer of wood smoke. Underneath it all, the high altitude added a rosy complexion to the usual Tibetan demeanor.
For all the yak butter, the soot, the dirt and the lack of apparent washing, there was no detectable odor as one might have expected.
All of the people we met in Tibet, that is, all the Tibetan people, were so friendly, so warmly welcoming. They seemed as curious about us as we were of them. Why would they not have been? We wanted to offer them some token but we really had nothing to give except a few buttons that they accepted gratefully.
The only thing the Tibetan people really wanted was something we were unable to provide. We had searched high and low but had been unable to obtain any, even in India. People would approach us hesitantly, almost chanting “Dalai Lama picture?” Some would just say “Dalai Lama” and stick an enthusiastic thumb in the air. It was touching.
After passing the lads in their pile of wool, we reached a house that had been flattened by a boulder and just beyond we came to the bottom of a menacing cliff face. At this point one of the local guides said “go quickly please”.
As sherpas with suitcases came barreling past me at a sprint, I got a feeling of urgency and tried to pick up my pace which was a little hard on the rocky ground, along a sheer precipice.
I has just reached safety when there was a great rumble above. I groaned and everyone gasped as an enormous boulder began its way down the slope. Tim was just making it across and behind him there was fortunately a gap.
The rest of the group were able to shelter against the rock face as the boulder and piles of rock came shooting overhead. We then held our breath and when it was all quiet, Tim called out “all clear” and the rest of our gang arrived on the trot.
“That”, it says in my notes, “was the easy part”…