My old travelling buddy, Tim has mopped me up more times than I can remember. In the beginning maybe he paid more attention, but once he got to know me better, he would tend to chuckle. Or sometimes he would just ask “what’s wrong now, Dor'”. (He used to call me Doreen…too silly to explain.)
Can I help it that I am emotional?
I certainly was when we left Tibet.
On our last evening in Tibet we dined in a somewhat more respectable restaurant than those we had been frequenting, but the food was still Chinese. I was never a great fan and since my trip to Tibet I have avoided it studiously. However, on that last night, one of the group had a birthday and was presented with a yak-butter cake. It was actually not too bad.
If there were any end-of-trip celebrations, I don’t recall them, but in any event we were not quite done. We now had to make our way to Hong Kong whence we would disperse to our various homes. As “space available” travellers, Tim and I weren’t sure what fate awaited us.
When you are a lowly airline staff passenger, in a place like Hong Kong, and discover that all flights are full, you start to feel a long way from home.
From Lhasa, though, we had fully paid tickets on whatever the local branch of China Airlines was in those days.
We had a very early departure and since, as I already mentioned, China is all one time zone, this meant that we left the hotel in darkness. The airport was more than a hour’s drive, along the desolate Lhasa Valley. As we got underway, a full moon appeared, casting its silvery light over the snow covered peaks all around and reflecting off the ubiquitous Kyi Chu River. It was bitterly cold, which somehow seemed appropriate.
Just as dawn began to struggle over the mountains, bringing a spectacular sunrise, our bus suddenly turned off the road into what looked like a school courtyard. We were hard up against the side of a mountain, so Tim and I looked at each other and he said “airport?”
We sat freezing in the bus as Neil went in to negotiate our next move. We had been pre-checked-in as a group, so we were spared the ordeal of the ticket counter which looked positively GRIM, a free-for-all of people dragging bags to and from the counter where they were rejected for being overweight, or having the wrong sort of ticket, or God only knew what sort of problem! Instead, having descended from the bus, we now waited some more, for the security checkers to get their act together. This took a long time.
However, we found ourselves entertained by the airport muzak which played waltzes at high volume. Yes, waltzes, the Austrian kind. Those among us who had the energy danced around, just to keep warm. I preferred to freeze, bemused by the whole thing and not wanting to leave this special land in the clouds.
An inscrutable security officer finally allowed us to continue into the departure lounge which was cold, filthy and bedecked with spittoons overflowing with a variety of very nasty things. People were sitting about, loudly clearing their throats and spitting, between taking mouthfuls of ghastly green liquid from dirty glasses.
Rumors went around about our departure time, but fortunately we did not have much longer to wait. We suddenly got rounded up once more and marched right back outside to the school courtyard, having made a complete circuit.
The buses we boarded this time, were so cramped it was literally impossible to move. One busload left for the airplane and after 30 minutes, Tim and I finally squeezed onto the second one.
We arrived air-side to find the first hundred passengers still all lined up on the tarmac, waiting to board, and now almost frozen to the ground. We simply joined the queue and made our way slowly toward an ancient Boeing 707. As we got near, Tim checked out the bald-looking tires and rolled his eyes. I mentally twirled my prayer wheel a couple of times.
Our aircraft had been configured to transport small Chinese people and there was very little room for our large Western bodies. We could barely get our knees behind the seats. My notes say that my nose was “offended”, although I can’t remember that the aeroplane was particularly dirty.
It looked as if every seat was occupied, but somehow the old 707 struggled into the air and began its climb above the most stunning, jagged peaks of the Himalayas.
As I watched from my window seat, a tear ran down my cheek. I knew that I would never return to Tibet. I had seen evidence of what the advent of tourism was going to mean here. Blocks of ugly Chinese apartment buildings already overpowered the beautiful traditional Tibetan architecture. Hotels were being constructed. Better roads would be built and soon would come a great inrush of tourists from all over the World.
Tibet was never going to be the same. I knew I would not be able to bear seeing it that way.
Yet I was a tourist myself. My feeling was and is, that tourism in places like Tibet, needs to be very carefully controlled, as it is in Bhutan. Visitors to that country are obliged to book on an approved tour, with a fixed daily tariff of $250 and to purchase a visa before arriving. I was never fortunate enough to visit Bhutan but I fully support their policies.
At least I can say that I had to put a real effort into visiting Tibet. We had many discomforts and inconveniences but I was so thrilled by the opportunity, none of that mattered. Because it was so difficult, back then, at least the visitors who got there were people who were going to really appreciate and respect everything they saw. I believe this makes a huge difference.
Our two and a half hour flight to Chengdu was uneventful. Our breakfast box consisted of buns and Chinese cakes and a packet of dried yak meat.
Glancing over my shoulder, I caught sight of our baggy- pajama clad stewardess, approaching with her trolley. It was piled high with loose tangerines that she was handing out.
In my emotional state, this suddenly struck me as hysterically funny which won me a strange look from Tim.
I was hoping we would hit an air pocket. There would have been tangerines everywhere.
Regrettably, we were obliged to spend an overnight in Chengdu which at that point in time was not prepared for an invasion of tourists. While I was happy to accept basic accommodation in Tibet, here in China there was nothing that made discomfort worthwhile to me.
At lunch that day I almost walked out. The food was inedible, which didn’t matter, but I found it hard to tolerate people spitting on the floor in the middle of a meal. The dishes and glasses were greasy, the tablecloth was grimy beyond belief.
Afterwards, to pass time, we went to see pandas. I was happy to encounter the little red lesser panda but the two large pandas we saw seemed not very well cared for. The zoo where they were located was indescribably horrible and quite upsetting. I absolutely hated it.
In the evening we were taken to a better class restaurant where we had traditional Szechuan food which was certainly an improvement over what we had been given previously but my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to go home.
We escaped the next day via Canton, now Guangdong. It was all a bit chaotic and when we reached Hong Kong bad weather required numerous circuits around the airport before we could land, however as we taxied to the gate, my heart lifted a bit as I caught sight of Concorde touching down. She was there on a round-the-world charter. A friend.
Tim and I were now on our own, with our valueless tickets, far from home. We had decided, as we still had a few free days, to head for Bangkok, so we walked meekly up to Japan Airlines. They had a flight leaving quite soon and without too much trouble we procured two seats on it.
The JAL 767 was brand-spanking new. It was all clean. The crew were immaculate. The service was brilliant. The food was delightful. Tim laughed at me because I kept saying everything was so very very nice.
And soon we were in the wonderful Regent’s Hotel in Bangkok, where everyone smiled and couldn’t do enough for us and it was so really lovely….
There is, however, a PS to this piece:
I realize that I have said quite a bit throughout my story of Tibet, that will sound very negative about China and the Chinese, and I really don’t want to leave it there.
China should not have occupied Tibet. I shall never change my mind about that.
The Chinese people I met in Tibet and also in Chengdu were, across the board, sullen and unhelpful. There was nothing that warmed me to those people.
But there are always two sides to any story.
The Chinese people we met had most likely been sent to Tibet against their will. Probably the last thing any of those people wanted was to deal with arrogant (for I’m sure that is how we seemed) Western tourists.
So who could blame them for being sullen and unfriendly?
China is an amazing country with an awesome and incredible history. I have met many, many Chinese people, from many different parts of the Chinese world. Most of them are perfectly charming, nice people. I have no issues with the Chinese. Only with their Government. And what is so different about that?