Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Lhasa evening

Before getting back to Lhasa we stopped by Ganden. I didn’t mind taking a second look, and Kirk and Erica hadn’t seen it yet, though in the end Erica decided to give it a pass and just wait for us. Even this visit was cut short, as Losang came looking for Kirk and me before we even finished the kora. The road up to the monastery was closed (Kirk and I had to take a monastery van to get there) but Losang had bribed the workers to let him drive up and find us. Luckily he didn’t try to get us to pay for the bribe.
On the way back to Lhasa the three of us couldn’t agree on whether or not we should give Losang a tip since he had made us wait in the cold on the first morning, tricked us into letting his brother come with us and later tried to get us to pay ahead of time because he claimed that he didn’t have enough money for gas. Erica felt we should tip him because he was poorer than us, though Kirk and I were less sure. I don’t remember what we did in the end.
I was happy to get back to Lhasa. I enjoyed the trip, but the hardship felt less worthwhile than in western Sichuan. Hiring a car gave us less freedom to do what we wanted, and also meant that we had to deal with a driver. In western Sichuan I could do as I wished without having to worry about paying a travel agent or sticking to an itinerary.
To celebrate getting back to Lhasa and to make up for the dismal food on our trip Kirk, Erica and I went to Lhasa’s fanciest Western restaurant, run by a Dutch woman who used to be a schoolteacher. When she was still a teacher in the Netherlands she decided on a whim to apply for a job with a tourist agency that she had seen an advertisement for. Eventually she ended up working in Tibet. A Tibetan colleague kept pressing her to open a Western style restaurant, telling her that it would be popular among western tourists, and although she wasn’t interested at first she eventually decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t easy and she had a lot of red tape to work her way through but she was happy with her choice in the end. She told me she was one of the only 10 or so permanent foreign residents of Lhasa, though there were many other people there who worked short-term for NGOs. Even she spent the winter back home in the Netherlands, when very few tourists ventured to Lhasa. The food in her restaurant was pretty good, and if it wasn’t for the Tibetan waiters and waitresses I would almost have felt like I was back in Soho.
Before Kirk and I met Erica at the restaurant we passed a Xinjiang kebab cart where I had often eaten with Jared, Zoe, Jasmine and Kamal before they all left. There were two foreigners- a girl and a guy, both English- making a lot of noise by the cart so Kirk and I went to check it out. They were begging, and making a lot of money- over 200 kuai, they later told me. Except for Kirk and I most foreigners did their best to ignore them but many Tibetans actually gave them money. One man even gave them 50 kuai, or around $6.50.
They had just met that day when the girl, named Rachel, was dancing to some music she heard playing in the street and attracted a crowd. (I’m positive Rachel has some sort of social disorder- when I got to know her later on I found that she was possibly the most irritating person I had met in my travels.) John, the guy, walked by, saw her and joined in. Rachel had just finished working in western Sichuan for a year and was doing a last trip before heading home. John was on a detour from a cross-Asia trip. He was in Pakistan and had heard about Mt. Kailash, Tibet’s holiest mountain, so he decided to check it out. He had come into Tibet through the same route that Kamal had followed. When he got to Kailash he walked around it 13 times before coming to Lhasa. Doing 13 koras is especially auspicious, and those who do it are permitted to walk a special inner kora on their 13th walk. The Kailash walk is over 30 miles long and reaches an altitude of 5,600 meters, but John managed to do some of his koras in single days. It was, he said, an intensely spiritual experience. He followed up his 13 koras around Kailash with a kora around the nearby Lake Manasarovar, Tibet's holiest lake. That kora is around 60 miles along, and John went through a blizzard as he walked it.
Before Kirk and I headed over to the restaurant to meet Erica John asked me if I knew where to get pot in Lhasa. I’m not a big smoker, but I was in the mood, and before he left Kamal had told me where I could go to get some. John and I agreed to meet by the kebab stand later that evening to check out the place Kamal had recommended.
When we did meet later that evening we ran into another guy John had met at Kailash, an American named Alex who like Kirk was into trekking and like me was into food. Initially there was some talk of going to check out some Tibetan “disco,” which Alex had seen before, but Alex later disappeared so in the end John, Rachel and I just went to the Chinese disco.
Chinese clubs have always weirded me out. The people in them try as hard as possible, often too hard, to look cool- especially the 40 year-old businessmen who incongruously mix with the 20-somethings. The music and the dancing are usually pretty bad. Sometimes there are other white guys who would probably never even be let into a club in the West but take themselves seriously in a Chinese club. The strangest thing for me, though, is the stone-faced security guards who watch the dancers. Usually they wear suits, but a few of them in the Lhasa club wore police uniforms and helmets. To me the best way to enjoy these places is to treat it like a joke and play along.
After the club closed (at 3am) Rachel, John and I spent another hour or so chatting and drinking outside with the security guards. Most of them were ethnically Chinese, but one particularly big guard was a Khampa. He showed us his knife, which was like most Khampa knives around two feet long.
“The blade is too blunt to stab people with,” he explained to us as we inspected the knife. “I can only chop people with it.” He then added, “I’ve drawn the blood of five people with this knife!”
John was both impressed and a little freaked out. “I just don’t want to be the sixth,” he said after I translated for him.
After another hour or so it started drizzling, and John fell asleep on the sidewalk. I was drunk and tired myself, and Rachel and I hailed a cab, got John to wake up and walked him into the cab. The Khampa guard didn’t want us to go. “What are you worried about?” he said. “You don’t trust a Khampa?”
“Oh, of course we do,” I said. I had to think harder than usual to make a coherent Chinese sentence. “But my friend is going to get sick if we let him sleep on the sidewalk.”
With that I staggered into the taxi and we drove back to the old town.

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