Friday, December 08, 2006

A Week in Lhasa: resting, job-hunting, shopping

After Nam Tso I needed to take a break from sightseeing. I was thoroughly exhausted and had a cold to boot. I had never really rested after my long dash to Lhasa. Instead I spent most of my first week there dragging myself out of bed far earlier than I should have to do some intense sightseeing, which in the case of Ganden and Nam Tso involved going to very cold places that I was not properly dressed for. The final straw was a very late night outing at Lhasa's night market with Zoe, Jasmine and a couple of other people who were also staying in our dorm-style hotel room. One of them was an Iranian-American man named Kamal, the other was a Han Chinese man from Xinjiang whose name I don't think I ever learned. The Xinjiangese man and Zoe challenged me to a drinking contest that night, and the five of us decided to go to the night market to resolve it. I managed to outdrink them in the end, but at the cost of my health.

I ended up spending the next week doing more or less nothing as I waited for my cold to go away. In Tibet's thin atmosphere it is very hard to recover from a cold, and though I got better after a few days I was never completely better until I left Tibet. While I was recuperating I got the idea of trying to find a job in Lhasa. I came to China intending to work in Beijing after travelling, but I was never a big fan of Beijing, and Lhasa felt like a much more interesting, lively and friendly city. My main reason for coming to China was to work on my Chinese, and though Beijing is the ideal place to do that in Lhasa was also (disappointingly) possible. In some ways it was actually a better place to practice Chinese than other Chinese cities, as many Chinese-speaking Tibetans learned Mandarin in school and therefore speak with a standard accent while most Chinese in other cities speak with a strong local accent.
I spent much of that week hunting down schools and NGOs, but in the end I couldn't find anything. Lhasa was too poor and its economy too tightly controlled by the government to support private English schools. Public schools could only hire teachers that had been approved by the government. As for NGOs, most of them wanted people who had some sort of pertinent skill or experience, and anyway usually required their employees to work in small towns. While that certainly would have been a more "pure" Tibetan experience than living in Lhasa, I did't think I was ready to live in a small, poor and potentially very lonely Tibetan town.
I finally discarded the idea of working in Lhasa after talking with a French woman who was working with an NGO there. She liked Lhasa and liked Tibetans, but told me that it was simply too lonely. Tibetans were just too different from Westerners for it to be possible to have a real friendship with them. No Tibetans in Lhasa had, for example, ever invited her to their home, though she didn't know if that was for political or cultural reasons. Also, Lhasa could become very lonely during the winter, when most foreigners leave and many stores and restaurants close. She herself was leaving her job there in a month.
I would still like to try living in Lhasa at some point, but I think it will have to wait- I only hope that by the time I do get a chance to live there there will still be some Tibetans left.

Aside from job hunting I also spent a lot of time wandering around the Barkhor. The Barkhor area around the Jokhang was the shopping center of the city, though for me its appeal lay in its energy and colorfulness rather than the actual shopping. The vast majority of what was sold there was fake or was made in Nepal and then shipped to Lhasa. Cheap plastic and tin prayer wheels, old and poorly carved knives and gaudy brass statues were laid out under bad prints of thangkas that were stained to make them look old. Fake coral, turquoise and silver were also everywhere. There was certainly some worthwhile things hidden among the junk, but ferreting them out was difficult and the chances of getting a fair deal were nearly nil.
That said, I still felt that I had to try buying a few things. One of my first purchases was a knife. Knives are a highly valued item in Tibetan culture, and Khampas especially like to carry very long knives that are almost more like swords. Many of the knives Tibetans carried seemed to be bayonets, and have “CCCP AK-47” or “US Army MK-16” written on the base of the blades.
Most of the knives sold on the Barkhor were very gaudy and had very poor blades, and were clearly intended for tourists rather than Tibetans. I didn’t really mind the low quality of the blades, but I didn’t want something quite as plain as the knives that many Tibetans carry, and most of the knives I saw were simply too overdone. Finally a man who claimed to be a Khampa offered to sell me what he claimed was his personal knife. The sheath was very pretty and not too ostentatious, and the blade seemed decent enough. However, Zoë and Jasmine, who were with me at the time, suspected that he was saying it was his personal knife just so he could raise the price. Zoë brought this up with him.
“Aren’t Tibetans supposed to be unwilling to part with their knives for any amount of money?” she asked.
The man shrugged and said, “Times change. Now business is more important than traditions.”
Initially he wanted 360 kuai for the knife; I felt 80 was a fair price. Eventually he went down to 120, but refused to go any farther. I tried the usual last-ditch bargaining tactic- I walked away hoping that he would call me back and lower the price even more. It didn’t work. I was ready to give up, but Zoë and Jasmine thought I was turning my back on a good deal. I figured that if Chinese people thought it was a good deal, then it couldn’t be too bad- anyway, it was the best-looking knife I had yet seen on the Barkhor. After I bought it, though, every Tibetan I showed it too would shake their head and say, “no good!” I showed it to Kamal as well- he was an obsessive shopper, and every evening would show us all the things he had bought that day. When I told him how much a paid for the knife he said “You really didn’t try too hard, did you?” I felt particularly disappointed to hear him say that because I felt he got ripped off pretty badly on some of the things he had bought. But at least I got I knife I liked.

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