Ethan left the next morning for the U.S., causing a serious downward spiral in my bien-etre. I became sad, upset, angry. In case you think that, of course, I felt those emotions because travel is lonely and sad when you journey alone, I want to say, no, not true. Traveling alone is wonderful, as I was about to rediscover. When you travel with someone you form a unit and other people don´t talk to you because they are unwilling to intrude on that unit. If you travel alone, people talk to you. That was about to happen to me, but first I had to make the adjustment to losing Ethan. He is wonderful to travel with, uncomplaining about 90% of the time. Yes, he would rather have a sit down toilet but he isn´t going to spend the day telling you about it. He´s ready to try things. Curious. Interested, particularly in people. I often do things with Ethan that I would never do on my own—an elephant ride in Thailand comes to mind.
As I had another cappuccino under a tree in the Kathmandu Guest House garden, a black and white cat who accepts offerings of cheese and likes head scratches joined me. Above us in the tree, whose trunk is green with epiphytes, was a crow with a discerning eye who comes down to clean up crumbs and carry off large pieces of abandoned toast.
I took myself and my unhappy mood off for a walk. On the cashmere- sweater-stretch of Tridevi Marg I stopped to watch a woman photograph a young, black and white sacred cow who was settling into a doorway. I got out my phone and copied her. When she asked about the quality of the cashmere, I realized she was American. I suggested she try the shops at Babar Mahal Revisited. She pulled out a notebook as I tried to explain how to get there. We then lapsed into a Western tourist whinge about crossing the big streets in KTM. One of these crossings, just a few yards away, is where Tridevi Marg crosses Kantipath. A policeman is generally on duty but I think of him as someone who will call the ambulance when I am bleeding and broken on the pavement since drivers sometimes ignore his signals.
She agreed that it was a problem and then came out with the best one-liner of my trip. Gazing thoughtfully at the young, sacred cow, now dozing in a shop entrance, she said, “I always try to cross with a sacred cow.”
In Nepal you might hit a person, because the charges are variable for hitting a human but never a cow since if it died you would be charged with cow murder and executed.
[This story may be apocryphal. I hope it is not insulting to Nepalis and if it is I expect them to tell me. The reason I doubt the authenticity of the anecdote is because I don´t think a British Consul would drive his own car.]
I have been told that a British Consul´s car, driven by the official himself, once hit a cow causing a near international situation. It was finally decided that the cow, in walking in front of the car, had committed suicide and no charges were brought.
There are far fewer sacred cows in the center of Kathmandu than there once were, so that this youngster was a bit of an event. I crossed Kantipath sans its company but with lifted spirits.
A few days later the young man with the elephant hair bracelet, Shushan, picked me up for my flight to Lhasa. We also stopped for a British man, small, quiet, on the far edge of middle age, at the Yak and Yeti, the hotel started by the Russian, Boris, situated in a green and quiet park. I got a glimpse of the luxurious interior. We discussed Brexit.
Through the waiting room of Tribhuvan Airport came bustling, a cheery, extraverted American woman from Philly, but with a decided New York City accent, dangling from a finger something she´d bought in one of the little airport shops. She swung it in front of me saying, “These are great stocking stuffers.” You had to like her, she was so open and full of bounce. She seems to travel all the time and is one of those people who have a stash of gently dog-eared bon mots. When we saw little of the Himalayas, the flight to Lhasa takes one over Everest, she said, “I think I´ll ask for my money back.”
Our arrival in Tibet was amazingly orderly and efficient, although they spent some time going through the Brit´s guidebook, examining pictures, which recalled Russia in the old days when they went through your magazines. There was, however, a feeling that we had entered the land of automatons, the officials were so stiff. This was my 10th time in Tibet but it had been five years since my last visit and my eye was very much on the que vive for changes. I was hoping that the Chinese had not overwhelmed the Tibetan culture.
I was met by my woman Tibetan guide, whose name I understood to be Diane. This seemed to be unlikely and, indeed, proved to be untrue. Her name is Zhayang. Between being a bit deaf and the Tibetan accent I often get things wrong.
Driving into Lhasa the fields on either side of the road were bare, having been harvested weeks before and, therefore, no cows, yaks, dris, or goats were about. There was snow on the mountains, not much, but the beginning. We went through three tunnels on a well-paved highway. These tunnels, that originally caused awe amongst the Tibetans who had never seen such structures, have cut the time into Lhasa from four hours down to one. We saw a building, undoubtedly a gompa, a temple, built into a cliff. When I asked my guide about it, I thought she said it was an ani gompa, a nunnery, but when I referred to this later she was mystified. An hour after arrival, I found myself in the midst of the usual snarl of incomprehension between Tibetan guide and Westerner. However, shortly thereafter we did pass an ani gompa, a big white spread of buildings on a green hill where, she told me, the government had built a road to connect the nuns to the main highway.
As we entered Lhasa we passed a grey herd of new, large, not entirely ugly, cast concrete apartment buildings. We then swiftly drove along the avenue of industrial and business buildings fronted on the road by large, ornate arches, that takes one into the center of Lhasa.
I was unhappy to find I had a dark, ground floor room at my hotel, the Trichang Lebrang, the former home of a Tibetan prelate. I stay there because it is Tibetan owned and run, not a Chinese establishment. Most of the rooms are lovely with big windows, brightly painted walls, ceilings held up by tree trunk pillars carved with flowers and Buddhist symbols and quite good bathrooms. Some rooms have their own terraces or balconies.
I had a window but it looked onto a dank court. It was so dark I couldn´t see the paintings on the walls without turning on all the lights. The bathroom was fine, however. Then I discovered that they were no longer doing laundry at the hotel. I started calculating how many days I could wear a pair of trousers. The place was crammed with Mainland Chinese, men and women eating in the garden, which they strewed with tea bags, used napkins, cigarette butts, banana and orange peels. They would lean over their plates to spit out a bone, a tough piece of meat. I had lunch, but the food was as terrible as ever and I think they have taken to using food coloring, something that all Indian restaurants do all over the world but not a thing Tibetans used to do.
My reasons for coming to Lhasa were a) to find out if I could, at 80, breathe at 12,000 feet, more than 3,500 meters, b) to see some friends, c) revisit the astonishing temples and other sites of Lhasa. My covert agenda was that if I found I was able to breathe at 12,000 feet, I would “think about” doing the sacred pilgrimage around Mount Kailash again. (The book I am trying to get published, THE MOUNTAIN WILL DECIDE, is about a number of circumambulations of the mountain. I´ve done 7.) My fear is that I no longer have the strength to do the 33 miles going up to 18,600 feet at the pass, Drolma La. My dearest wish is to do it one more time.
I have a contorted relationship with Tibet, with Lhasa. I love it with a vehement passion, the color of a fire-headed geranium, intense as the odor of jasmine. Against all reason I feel not just at home in this barren, aesthetic landscape, but happy, despite acknowledging that this culture is totally alien to my ingrained Western ideas. To walk the khora, the sacred path, around the Jokhang temple, accompanying Khampa men, their long, black hair braided up with scarlet fringe, or old Tibetan women whirling their prayer wheels while walking the family dog or holding the hand of a grandchild, is always a precious experience.
I hate being in Tibet where I feel unwell because of the altitude, the food is mostly lousy, dust infiltrates everything, the dryness causes blood scabs to form in my nose, and I must carefully guard myself against cold since there is rarely, very rarely, any external form of heating. Your body warmth is what you’ve got. These are the two strands that twist round and round each other all the time I am in Tibet. In any day I will twine back and forth between love and loathing a half dozen times.
I asked the way to the ani gompa, although I was sure was just down the street, and it was. When I walked in I saw a tall, lean young woman, with long hair and a large camera guided by a short, masculine Tibetan woman. Coming up behind them on the temple stairs, I asked the Western one where she was from. She was from Milan. We spent a good part of the day together.
The nuns were chanting; we walked around the hall and Drolma, the guide, suggested we sit, which we did for an hour. The nuns managed to simultaneously chant and grin at us. When they changed from one mantra to the next there was a flurry of blasts from a clarinet like instrument, clashes of cymbals, and a rumble from a drum. They seemed a loving and united community. One nun with a slightly lop sided face, a stroke perhaps, poured tea. She asked me with gestures if I wanted some but I had no cup.
After a while I went to stand outside where the tea-maker, a different woman from the tea-pourer, offered me butter or milk tea. After some confusion about my cuplessness she went to get me one. I alternated between butter and milk tea, which seemed to stabilize me. I was wobbly with the altitude. Drinking butter tea is, I find, a big help in adjusting to altitude.
I love that the nuns show affection for each other. They were endearing to me, which, of course brought back memories of previous trips to Tibet, the German girl who first brought me to the nunnery and the abbess who used to be here. All this is in my agentless book.
We came down from the chapel to watch young novices making the rolled up prayer strips that go into prayer wheels. They smiled at us briefly and then went back to rolling up mantras. I was shocked when Drolma told me that the Chinese had closed the shrine where Tsongsen Gampo meditated underground. I presumed that it was because Tsongsen conquered all of western China, right up to the gates of Xi’an, then the Chinese capital. Nevertheless they were busy selling his Chinese wife, Wencheng, in a movie, posters for which were all over town. The Chinese claim they have a right to Tibet through this Chinese wife. They never stop pushing their propaganda. However, the closure turned out not to be true as I discovered some days later. I still have no explanation as to why Drolma would tell that lie.
I went for a very slow walk to Tashi´s, a friend’s restaurant, noting my breathing, which seemed to be fine although from time to time I felt light headed. When I entered the Barkhor, the khora, the sacred path around the Jokhang temple, the Saint Peter´s of Tibetan Buddhism, I had to do it through a metal detector portal and put my bag through an x-ray. Several police persons were standing about. Out of curiosity I left my phone in my pocket when I went through the metal detector. It didn´t go off at any of the detectors I went through. So this is all show on the part of the Chinese. I also noted all the little stalls selling everything from prayer flags to fur hats, that I used to poke into as I walked were gone. This made the Barkhor cleaner but much less interesting and a little sad. I also found that my friend Sonam´s tourist agency FIT had closed up.
Slowly I climbed the stairs to the Tashi One Restaurant but to my surprise I had no difficulty. I was hoping to see Tashi, a young woman I have known for twenty years, but she was in Chengdu with the daughter of the woman, also my friend, now dead, who had established the restaurant. This story is also in my agent-seeking memoir.
However, her sister, now a very grown woman, was running the Tashi in her absence and trying to feed a puppy a couple of days old who was being ignored and abandoned by its mother.
After a while Erika and Drolma came in. We had bobis, a sort of Tibetan crepe that you stuff with veggies and chicken or yak, drizzling a lovely cheese and shallot sauce over the filling.
I walked with Erika to her hotel along Beijing Street trying to locate my old landmarks. The Yak Hotel was there, but not the Kirey which I used to stay in, and I didn´t see the Banok Shul. Erika took me to a wonderful postcard place where I bought enough cards and stamps to probably finish this year´s mailing. My addressees have been much reduced by death.
I wrote for several hours in the Lebrang´s garden, then tried to send out my blog but couldn´t. Slowly it dawned on me that I was being blocked. I gave up and had a banana and local yogurt, which turned my gut into a heavy metal percussion section.
My guide, Zhayang, had told me not to take a shower my first night in Lhasa because she said it would increase my altitude problems. Why this should be true I can’t imagine but I dutifully eschewed my shower.