Dalai Lama – May his reincarnation one day take his rightful place on the throne in the Potala Palace in Lhasa
It had been an epic journey around China. In my usual over-reaching ambition I had attempted to do a circuit of the country taking in east and west, north and south. I had travelled with a Bible bashing flagellator who had made me try and quit smoking. I still don’t know how I managed to drink so much cheap spirits without a fag. Along the way we had saved a Chinese peasant’s life on a train in the Gobi, we had shared a room with a pill popping psycho case in Inner Mongolia and we had been caught and nearly arrested for trying to hitchhike to Lhasa. It had been a journey full of memorable moments: deserts and ancient cities, walls and palaces, caves and temples, pristine and polluted, ridiculous and sublime. And now it was coming to an end. My God fearing co-conspirator was destined to continue on through the Himalayas to Nepal and down to the Gangetic plains of mother India. I had to make my way from one side of the Middle Kingdom to the other in only a handful of days.
It was tough saying goodbye to DJ. We had shared so much suffering and joy. The satisfaction of completion is a poor substitute for the end of an adventure. Thinking back on your achievements with sentimental pleasure provides only a hollow joy compared with the intensity and excitement of being in the heart of the endeavour, the crux of the moment. And here I was about to step on a bus to take me from Lhasa to Chengdu. The last of the massive kilometric ventures on my horizon before going back to teaching. Our shared holiday was dying in that moment. I got on the bus and didn’t look back.
The Trippy Traveller that got off that bus was a different man from the one that had boarded the bus three days earlier. Yes, that’s not a typo, three days on a really crappy bus that rattled and spluttered its way over the Himalayas.
I had impressed myself by managing to achieve what few foreigners at that time had managed, and that was to buy a ticket for a route that was prohibited to tourists. I had studied the official ticket sellers with a dispassionate eye. The blood curdling gorgon bursting out of her uniform would not do. Ah luck will be a lady with timidity in her eyes and there she was being harried by a man with one trouser leg rolled up. I had queued in her line and when my turn came I had shot off my poor mandarin and had shoved officially stamped papers from the college where I was working under the metal grill. She had frozen with hesitation and so I had instinctively seized the initiative and had assaulted the poor girl with more Chinese about me living and working in the Middle Kingdom. It worked. For a mere 200 Kwai I had got a ticket out of Lhasa. Going into Lhasa from Lanzhou they were raking it in from charging foreigners over a 1000 Yuan a pop. There had been no talking my way round that. That’s why we had tried and had failed to hitch the road. Now of course there is the train from Lanzhou to Lhasa. This was back in 1997 when the train line was still being built.
So it was that DJ and I departed and killed the beast of our shared venture into Sino space. As soon as the bus was around the corner I lit up a fag and started to re-read the only book I had with me at the time, Sophie’s World. If I had a choice I wouldn’t have started to re-plough such an over-rated literary cabbage patch of girlish adolescence and sophomore philosophy.
All was going not swimmingly but acceptably for a few hours until the bus started to climb begrudgingly up the first mountain pass. My seat was by the door. I was soon to discover why that was a really bum deal. Han Chinese may have iron stomachs when it comes to eating rotten eggs and street noodles but their Achilles Heel is high altitude. They just can’t control their cast iron constitutions when faced with the dizzying heights of the Tibetan plateau. And so what did they do? Did they ask the driver to stop to allow them to puke? No. Did they find a window to vent their vomit? No. They lurched their way down the bus and chucked up in the space between the door and the step; right next to my seat. This went on for three days – the nauseating smell and stringy grey slosh on the bottom step just painful psychological inches from my seat. It was far from pleasant but also far from hellish. One can get used to these things especially when you know they are temporary.
I had already come to the conclusion that the main problem with China was the Han Chinese. They had gotten power and had regally shafted the 55 other ethnicities of China. They had stolen half of Mongolia. They had stolen all of the Uyghur’s homeland, Xinjiang. They had made massive inroads into turning the ancient theocracy of Tibet into a Han Disney land. Everywhere we had gone in Tibet a brave local would whisper to me of their passionate longing for the return of the Dalai Lama. Han-Sauron had put fear in their hearts. A crumpled photo of the king and a passing comment to a foreigner was all most dared in terms of open defiance. And yet the Tibetans are not pushovers. They are titans of the spiritual and their troops are the legions of monks who continue to protest the occupation of their land. That is why the Dalai Lama is branded as a ‘terrorist’ by the Chinese media.
And yet, there I was in China teaching them English. Of course I didn’t hate my students. In fact, I couldn’t hate most of the Chinese that I met. They were kind and generous and great cooks (except for the rotten eggs and chicken feet). I was a hypocrite in the way many people are – I didn’t hate the Chinese but I judged them badly. I had no respect for communism and its fictitious achievements. China with its pervasive propaganda and pollution was not the place for me. And now having a steady cascade of lumpy vomit before my eyes did nothing to change my convictions about the Han.
This was soon to change in a hard to define way. But that is getting ahead of myself.
It was easy to get distracted from Sophie’s World, less so to ignore the stench of turned-out stomachs. I was the only Laowei on the bus and as soon as one of them discovered that I spoke toneless Chinese everybody wanted to know everything about me and when I say everything about me I mean where I worked and how much I earned. That helped kill some time and bring me into the unlikely fold of this community of fellow sufferers.
The first night the bus was flagged down by the military and made to make a detour. We parked up on a military base up in the high Himalayas near the border with Bhutan. A soldier in thick padded khakis and a machine gun went through the bus demanding to see the ID cards of all the native Tibetans. The Han Chinese and I were ignored. Then we were waved out of the bus and made to stand in the sub zero cold. My heart froze in panic as we watched the bus being driven off by a soldier. One of my fellow passengers tried to re-assure me that we would be re-united with our bus and our belongings soon enough. The situation only reminded me about what I had hated about my trip to Tibet and that was that it felt like a country under occupation. It felt like a country which was losing its culture, whose demographics were being diluted by a policy to encourage Han Chinese to move to Tibet and have more than one child. The Potala Palace was bereft of its rightful incumbent and it was cheapened by tacky billboards at the entrance selling soap and petrol. And here I was shivering in the dark subject to the whims and paranoia of the occupying army.
I had on a sweater and the army coat (yeah I know the irony of it) I had bought in Lanzhou. Still I was bitterly cold. It took a long thirty minutes for the Chinese army to discover that while our bus was undoubtedly a rattling deathtrap it wasn’t a deathtrap containing bombs or munitions that might help the underground resistance movement, if any such thing existed. Or maybe I was reading the situation wrong. Perhaps they suspected we were harbouring elements of a Bhutanese invasion force. All those rocket launches we had passed were pointing at Bhutan. Perhaps they feared those crack Bhutanese archers who regularly make it to the Olympics.
The beauty of the ink black night and the thrill of being held at gun point could only ward off the pain of the freeze creeping into my bones for so long. I never thought I would think it but I wanted to get back on the bus. The reek of retch was better than guns and cold. Nobody was brave enough to cheer when our bus re-appeared but we took quick glances at each other and smiled.
Back on the bus we all breathed a sigh of relief and my fellow passengers did what all locals seemed to be able to do with marvelous facility and that was fall asleep.
Next morning we stopped for ablutions and pot noodles. It was a wooden shack in the middle of nowhere with out of this world prices. Pot noodles was all anyone could afford. The most popular aspect this Baghdad Café was the privy. What hadn’t escaped through the mouth was now being released in a place more disgusting than the bottom step of the bus.
An hour or so later we made an unscheduled stop. The scenery made the sacred in me yearn for freedom. It was a vast plain full of colourful wild flowers. In the distance were snowed capped mountains. The landscaped stretched on to a very distant horizon. Here was an untouched paradise. The Chinese took a piss and someone swept all the rubbish from the bus onto the side of the road and then we were off again.
That night our bus started to show its age. The miracle or spell that was making the bus move was wearing off. In the dark it shuddered to a stop. The two drivers and their mate got out and started smoking cigarettes as they worked on the engine in the dark.
That was something I always admired about the Chinese and Indians. If they were given a driving job then somehow they acquired an immense knack with engines. Without any official schooling they could strip an engine or re-wire the electrics. They could diagnose and botch together a jerry built standby solution that would get them to the next oasis. Our chaps smoked and worked furiously but to no avail. Nobody was concerned. Everyone was huddled in a mass of blankets and dreaming of pork fat and littering.
The next morning everyone woke up and went for a shit. I had had only fitful bursts of sleep in my hard seat by the door. Huge birds could be seen in the middle distance cutting graceful lines through the piercing blue sky.
The drivers and their entourage no longer needed to use a torch and could smoke and dismantle with greater precision. One chap pulled out his bamboo bong in order to really cane his fags. The bong must have worked because in an hour or so the impossible had happened and the bus growled back into life. My fellow passengers abandoned their despoiling of nature and re-took their seats.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. I drifted in and out of sleep and made brief attempts at finding interest in a young girl’s discovery that Western philosophy can be made intelligible but not fascinating. I was beginning to wonder if the whole book wasn’t some elaborate oedipal fantasy.
All that day and night the bus held up to its Himalayan battering. The frequency of vomiting was decreasing as we made lower altitudes. I practiced my pigeon mandarin and wondered how many days were left of this not very subtle form of torture.
On the morning of the third day on the road the bus made an unholy cracking noise and stopped. It only took a single ciggie for the drivers and buddy to know that the bus was utterly fucked and wasn’t going a metre further. Now we were stuck on the side of a mountain. Everyone just knew the bus had died except me. Why was that? Did I lack the Chinese intuition that could meld with machinery and diagnose hope or hopelessness? Or was it that Kant and his Kantness had distracted me when the announcement had been made? I had no time to ponder. Well that was a lie, I had plenty of time to ponder since we were stuck in a nameless place of wet craggy rocks, but everyone was in hurry to tie up their blankets and climb on the roof to retrieve their possessions. No one grumbled. What was the point of cussing fate? The Chinese are admirably practical. I think I was the last to fully detach my fate from the dead bus.
All thirty something of us stood by the side of the road waiting for salvation. Even the drivers and their bong buddy abandoned the mountain vessel and stood waiting. It wasn’t a picnic for them but then again nobody seemed that bothered. I liked them a bit more at this point: stoicism was the noblest response to the situation at hand.
I smiled and offered a ciggie to the young man that had kept me company on the door seats. Throughout the journey he had been keeping a friendly eye on me. Trying to tell me when to piss, when to eat and when to get back on the bus. As we smoked he tried to explain something to me well beyond the range of my limited vocabulary. Never mind.
It only took an hour or so for our salvation to arrive in the form of another incredibly old and decrepit bus. Everyone piled on in front of me. As I tried to enter the driver said in Chinese, “No foreigners.” And shut the door in my face. This is when I changed my mind about the Chinese. For as soon as the driver did this a huge hullabaloo erupted on the bus. They screamed and swore on my behalf. Women berated the driver in machine gun Chinese. Whereas previously their stink had disgusted me, now the stink they were kicking up on my behalf endeared them to me. I heard one passenger shout words to the effect that ‘I was one of them’. Our travails had joined us, had crossed cultural barriers and had made the old outsider an old insider. I blessed every single one of them as the driver reluctantly opened the doors and let me squeeze in with my pack. My brothers and sisters cheered and we were off.
The bus was already full so we crammed ourselves in every available space. I found myself next to a group of soldiers. They were delighted with my company and poor linguistic abilities. They bought me lunch and dinner and promised to smuggle me into their barracks in Chengdu.
The bus positively zoomed through the lush lowlands of the Song pan region. From the bus window I saw Tibetans and water buffalo living must what have been an agricultural idyll compared to the harsh deprivations of a life spent subsisting on millet and yak at the top of the world. The green and the sunshine buoyed the spirits of all the passengers. My newly made soldier buddies made rude jokes about women and tofu and laughed their contented bellies off.
Evening fell and we got onto better roads. Streetlights and the shadows of crumbling houses announced that we had arrived at a place on the map. This was the outskirts of another Chinese mega-metropolis, Chengdu. It felt like an anticlimax when we eventually pulled up at the side of the road. Nobody offered thanks to the gods for their safe deliverance from the unmerciful mountains and three days of pot noodles and chucking up. Of course they just filed out in a disorderly fashion. The foreigner who had become one of them had been forgotten. Instead they were preoccupied with the next transport challenge which lay ahead. Even the soldiers set their faces in seriousness. I was happy and exhausted. I had learned to do a little of what the Dalai Lama was forever exhorting his people to do, I had come to love the enemy. To love their humanity.
In the confusion I slipped into the cover of the night and hailed down a taxi. The driver didn’t bother trying to inflate the price. He took me to the only cheap place the Lonely Planet listed, the Traffic Hotel. The next day I bought a fourth class train ticket to Kunming and I was off again.