“Seven Years in Tibet” was not filmed in Tibet. It was, of course, actually filmed in Argentina. The reason for this? Well, Brad Pitt was chosen to star and was perfect for the role, but he made a Free Tibet speech at some awards and the Chinese, being nice well rounded warm individuals that they are, refused him an entry visa. So, if the authorities are listening, I would like to say, “Thanks guys, can
I come back next year?”
Tibet has always been the nirvana of travel. I am not sure if it is because it is so difficult to get to, or perhaps it is the increasing number of high profile celebs who go to Tibet to “discover” their inner beings. For example, Alanis Morissette, who went to Tibet to seek inner peace and came back and recorded one of the crappest albums of last year.
Two things are for sure. You will spend half your time rubbing shoulders with pretentious middle class drop outs, who have probably never worked a day in their life and spend their whole time lamenting the fact that Afghanistan is at war, and the other half of your time looking
for a pedicab to take you to the Holiday Inn which is the only place in the country where the word “toilet” has any formal meaning. I can handle the hippies, as I have similar aspirations myself, but the toilets are another thing.
In my own warped and twisted view of the world, I think that the main reason for making the long and expensive slog to Tibet is the people.
I am sure that I will get accused of being a paedophile when I pick my slides up as I have about 100 pictures of children. They are so appealing, in a filthy, honest to god, we have been shovelling crap in the fields all day kind of way. And every time you point a
camera at them they just break into the most radiant smiles, arrange themselves into photogenic groups and pose. Unlike African kids who would rob you blind the Tibetans would always look bemused and embarrassed when you offer them a few coins.
Walking through Lhasa, the capital, is like wandering through the set for a West End production of Oliver. I kept expecting the Artful Dodger to nip out from behind a horse and cart and offer to pick a pocket or two.
One particular kid broke my heart. I was wandering around outside the Potela palace and he saw my camera and wanted to have his picture taken.
I guess some tourists have passed through with Polaroid’s, which I highly recommend, so I got him to pose and snapped a couple of shots off. I found it deeply moving, that here I was worried that I hadn’t changed my socks for several days, and this kid, who in all honesty, was covered in shit, was so proud to have his picture taken.
After I took the pictures I gave him a few notes and he followed me around for a bit hanging onto my trousers and smearing sticky hands on my last clean shirt. He seemed to be fascinated by my Pentax and watched wide eyed when I changed the lens. I held it for him and focused on the top wall of the Potala. After making many gestures, I finally got him to pluck up the courage to look through the lens. I was glad I was holding the camera, ‘cos his jaw hit the floor and his eyes were as big as saucers. He was clearly stunned that he could get so close to the Palace, which is the pinnacle of holy places and the
home to the exiled 14th Deli Lama, and as far as he was concerned it was a miracle.
I spent the next half an hour sitting in the dirt in the middle of the street supervising his high magnification investigation of the surrounding world. I was feeling all warm inside and compassionate
when I got back on the bus.
“Do you know what the kid was thinking?” asked my travelling companion.
“Yeah,” I replied, “what a nice tourist.”
“No,” he replied cynically (he was in all fairness suffering with mountain sickness), “he was thinking that with one of those cameras he could sit in his shack and watch the woman down the road get butt naked.”
So much for the milk of human kindness…
We all suffered from mountain sickness, which is not bloody surprising as Tibet is two miles above sea level. On the first day, we had the normal dizzy spells, lack of breath, heart pounding and chronic dehydration you get with trying to emulate the birds. Each morning I would wake up so dehydrated that my lips would be stuck together and my tongue felt like a carpet. Believe me this is one trip where beer was definitely not high on the agenda.
For the first few days you walk round like you are on the moon, everything has to be done slow. I tried to walk a few km on the first night and nearly died. But, gradually you get used to it, and each night more and more people manage to stay awake past 7.30. But all this is of course forgotten, because you are constantly surrounded by beautiful people.
I know some people do not agree on this, but I found the people breathtakingly stunning. Such earthy, healthy looks, and the women especially are tough as nails.
On one occasion I was sorting something out and left my friend to check into the hotel; by this stage my bag weighed about 30kg. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a frail old lady whizzed out of reception, grabbed my bag as if it weighed nothing and ran up three flights of stairs. Mike wheezed past struggling with his small day sac a few minutes later.
Over a few beers that night we mulled over the possibility of Mike getting the old woman to come round and dig his garden for him.
A few days later, we experienced how tough, both spiritually and physically these people really are. All I can say is that they are made from sterner stuff than me. We were at some obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere, and we couldn’t enter the main grounds because the monks were debating (should be a joke in there somewhere), so we found
ourselves wandering around.
We could hear singing and banging from the roof, to which our guide just shrugged his shoulders and said “Work song”. The wooden ladder to the
roof was too tempting and a few seconds later were standing slack jawed in the bright sun.
The temple roof was split into three sections and lined up in neat rows on each section was about 50 colourfully clothed, ruddy faced Tibetans. Each one had in their hand a metal pole with a flat plate welded to one end. Each section had a monk assigned to it, who had a large vat of concrete. He would walk down the aisle spooning concrete onto the roof and then the first section would all burst into song and begin to pound the concrete onto the roof in perfect unison. This would go on for about five minutes with the whole group advancing about 50cm. They would then stop and in unison turn and face the next section, as if to say “Beat that!”
The next section (which I seem to remember all being stunningly beautiful women) would then try and out-sing them before handing over to the third section, which sang even louder, before turning back to the first section.
I stood transfixed by the sheer vitality of the voices and the energy of the people. It was infectious. Later, I got to question the monk about it and he told me that the people work for 15 days, for twelve hours a day, and get paid at the end of what must be a back breaking two
weeks, the equivalent of a dollar.
I hated myself when he told me this, because they looked so damn happy and I had been, a few moments earlier, arguing with a vendor over a few coins for a bottle of water. I was sure it was a meeting for the Prozac addiction group. My other question I was burning to ask him was “Do you get a song sheet when they hire you for this job?”, but this suddenly seemed rather irrelevant.
But, irrelevancies seemed to dog my every move. For example, one American from our group spent the whole week coming out with the most crap I have ever heard. He was an English teacher in China, and old enough to know better. I was standing chewing the fat with a beautiful Tibetan girl in a Temple one afternoon, and we had got as far as the fact that she believed, as we all should, in a free Tibet (this was before she began breastfeeding) when this American wandered up and announced in a loud voice that China was doing a “Bloody good
job of running the country”. He then went on to lecture me and her, who I hope couldn’t understand him, about what a wonderful thing China had done for the people.
I was absolutely livid, and dragged him to one side and asked how he could believe such crap. But he was adamant. He explained to me
that what was the loss of an antiquated and outdated belief system when in return you had electricity, and who could possibly deny that religious persecution was not justifiable in return for the sewers that the Chinese had built.
I asked him how he would feel if the UK occupied Washington tomorrow, and he began to rant and rave about how that was totally different. I was just launching into a long tirade about how the American constitution is the best corruption money can buy and that sewer
rats have better morals then their president, when our genial guide dragged me away and told me, rather charmingly, “Shit happens” and then tried to buy me some butter tea.
He had picked this phrase up on our first day and loved it, every time something went wrong, he would grin a huge grin, and smile at us “Shit happens”. We felt proud that we had done our bit for cultural awareness. However, this expression did get a bit trying after 6
days of continuous use.
At one stage we found ourselves at about 4200m on a single track road
winding our way through some stunning mountains. Suddenly, the driver, who was a bit of a fruitcake behind the wheel at the best of times, slammed on the brakes, fish-tailed across the road so that 3 of the four wheels were hanging off the edge and jumped out the bus. Mike and I
wondered if we were involved with a Tibetan remake of the Italian Job.
Without any warning, our manic driver ran to the back of the bus, pulled out a jack and began to jack the front end up. It was at this point that I stopped pretending that I was Michael Caine and as the idea of
plummeting 500 feet into a river didn’t really turn me on too much, we quickly exited the bus, which is easier said then done when the
passenger door opens out onto a shoulder of road about 6 inches wide.
After about half an hour of our guide shouting at the driver and the driver barking at the guide, it became apparent that the bus was knackered. Knowing I was something to do with engineering, our guide dragged me over and soon had me laying in the dirt looking at the bus. I don’t know anything about cars so I just made some encouraging noises and got up.
“You can weld?”, he was asking me, which I can (a bit), but there was no way I was going to hang myself over a 500ft drop with a welding torch and try and patch a tear in the oil pan. Our guide, who obviously saw this as a great way of increasing my karma and advancing in the next life (and shortening my mortal anguish in this one) looked most peeved. To this day I am sure they patched it with an old sock and some
chewing gum, or perhaps it was just Buddhist magic.
It’s not really possible to get away from the tourist track, so the only place we could go was to Shigatse, which is about 8 hours drive from Lhasa. I had been playing a game for the previous few months sending a fax a day to the Chinese authorities to get permission to visit as many obscure places as possible, but they just wouldn’t buy it. Well, actually that is not true, because if you have lots of hard
currency, especially dollars, you can go pretty much where you like.
Anyway, on the way we stopped for lunch in a real one horse town. We know it was a one horse town, because the horse and cart of shit had just arrived and was surrounded by a large group of bemused locals all wondering if these new fangled form of transportation would ever catch on. The horse itself looked more dead than alive and I felt if I hung around long enough, then I would probably get to see what a no horse town looked like.
I am guessing here, but I think that the Tibetan economy must be linked to shit, because everywhere you go you see huge loads of excrement being moved about the place. I had all kinds of ideas about playing poker in Tibet, “I’ll cover your pile of yak poo and raise you a pound of
sheep shit.”, until someone pointed out what a feudal economy was.
On one particular occasion I was doing my bit with nature and was having a quiet contemplative moment on top of a mountain (4500m) when out of nowhere, a horse and cart pulled up. A stunningly attractive young girl jumped off the huge pile of shit on which she had been sitting in the back of the cart, ran up to where I was sitting ( it took me about half an hour to climb up, she took a few minutes), draped her bundle of pray flags on the collection beside me, curtsied to me like it was perfectly normal to see an English man sitting alone deep in thought on top of a mountain, and sped off.
I couldn’t help but notice that her clothes looked immaculate, which confused me, because every time I put on a clean T-shirt 20 seconds later it looked like I had been wearing it for six months. I guess some people just look good in shit.
But, all too soon, it was time for us to leave this wonderful land. As our plane took off from Lhasa I promised myself that one day I would return, but never till Tibet was free.
More stories on the author’s travels can be found at: