Lhasa 2.0Who should show up at breakfast but our old driver! (The one who came down with a paralyzing leg problem without apparent physical cause the last time we passed through here.) He seems to be in perfect health, apart from a persistent shifty look around his eyes, and will be driving me and Dorje back to Lhasa. Hmmm...
I was planning to give the other driver, who despite his very un-heroic look helped us through many difficult moments, a 100-yuan tip. I give the tip to our old/new driver with instructions to pass it on and he promises to do so, but obviously my level of confidence in him is not presently all that high.
Half a mile along the road we want to take is a hut out of whose window comes a rope stretching across the road. This is evidently some kind of symbolic barrier, because Dorje spends quite a while talking to the invisible presence inside the hut before the rope is finally lowered.
The first hour or so of the final leg of our journey is over the hellish dirt roads and construction sites to which we have become so accustomed, then suddenly we are on the excellent brand-new Chinese highway system. These new roads are if anything better than the ones I drive in the States, and are obviously designed for the next generation and for the phenomenal growth that is coming here.
We stop for a pee in one of many incredibly beautiful spots, the verdant valleys in the foreground leading back to vast tilted slab-mountains like a greener version of Colorado's Flatirons. I long to return with some climbing shoes, a bag of chalk, and some spare time - the slope looks easy enough to climb without a rope.
We arrive in Lhasa around 2 (passing Atisha's Samadhi without stopping). First we head for a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop on the extreme outskirts of Lhasa run by Dorje's sister, where we drop off the dried fish that Dorje bought at Lake Mansarovar. She hides it immediately and somewhat furtively, and only then returns to express her appreciation to Dorje. Then we head for the Keyri Hotel.
I am looking forward to a shower, a lie-down, and a little souvenir shopping - perhaps even getting my old room back. However, when I ask if they have a room, the Tibetan lady behind the desk looks at me as if I am completely insane. I get the same reaction at the Yak Hotel. Dorje then takes me to another hotel that he says is too expensive and out of the way but has rooms when everywhere else is full. This hotel, too, is full up, and we are starting to realize that we (or at least I) have a problem. Further research reveals that the Western tourist hotels are all full, and so are the Chinese ones. Even the funky Tibetan hotel, in a bad neighborhood, with no sign outside, that only opened last month, and that I only know about because I found it on my first visit while I myself was completely lost, is full.
After the first four or five hotels I start to understand the reason. The new train line from Beijing has brought a flood of young Chinese tourists, mostly couples, all dressed in newly-bought and fashionable outdoor gear, and all having the time of their lives. They are all so pleasant, so good-looking, and enjoying themselves so much that I can't resent them, and in fact I am picking up a 'contact high' just from being around them.
Between the last time I was here three weeks ago and today, the train has changed Lhasa irrevocably and forever. Even though all the buildings are the same I hardly recognize the place - it's now become a cultural and religious theme park for the young Chinese middle class. These people are humble and respectful, and they know how lucky they are. Most of them have dreamed for many years of coming to Tibet, but can only now turn that dream into reality. Many of them also have a deep interest in Buddhism and the minority cultures of the Chinese West. The fact that many Tibetan emigre groups (and sympathizers) object to their presence doesn't say anything about the Chinese visitors - it's a commentary on the objectors themselves, and in my opinion an adverse one. They would be much better Buddhists if they were to just let go, accept impermanence, and move on.
Even though I appreciate their presence, these hordes of Chinese tourists are a problem for me right now. We are even having problems finding somewhere to park the car while we look for a place to stay. Dorje and the driver obviously want to be rid of me and go home just as much as I want to find a roof over my head. At my suggestion we park near the Barkhor (and are immediately blocked in) while I look around some of the small hotels around the Jokhang. They are all full, of course, but the staff in one of them mention another place that might have some room. The directions they give me are long and confusing , threading through a labyrinth of ancient alleyways. Even the staff themselves don't seem entirely agreed on where this place is. I wind my way to the extreme unfashionable edge of the Barkhor area. I do find one hotel whose prices are outrageous (600 yuan a night for a place that is really nothing special - probably more than it would cost in the U.S.) and that also appears not to have any room.
I wander through the alleys in desperation. Finally I start asking at random if anyone knows of any accommodation. The first place I ask looks promising but turns out to be something like a women's shelter. They definitely look at me cross-eyed for even going in and asking.
Across the street is a dark and dirty stairway 'guarded' by a woman sitting in a chair. There is something rather furtive and sinister about the aura of the place, like a gambling den or a clip joint. Nor is this feeling dispelled when I ask whether the place is a hotel and a man appears over her shoulder and says, in Chinese, 'That's right - it's not a whorehouse, it's a hotel!' I'm led up the stairs and shown a room that looks fine, really, especially if you're coming from an extensive trip through the wilds of Western Tibet. The price is 30 yuan, which compares very favorably with the 600 yuan I was quoted at the last place, so I close the deal and run back across the Barkhor to get my stuff.
Once I return, some of the reasons why the room is so cheap start to become clear. This is not so much a hotel as a flophouse or even a homeless shelter; everyone here is obviously down on their luck even by Tibetan standards. People wander around the corridors in their dirty underwear, muttering to themselves. I don't get a key to my room, but am dependent on the staff to lock and unlock it. The filthy toilets don't bother me too much, since it seems like years since I actually saw a clean toilet anyway, but the washing facilities for the whole place seem to consist of a single cold-water sink. Having to shave off my beard in cold water, in almost total darkness, in the middle of a busy corridor, is definitely a challenge.
I move my return flight to Chengdu up from five days hence to the day after tomorrow. Suddenly I feel really done with this trip: I'd leave right now if I didn't feel the need to buy some presents for friends back home. I go to the market around the Barkhor and bargain for some souvenirs, then back to the flophouse, as I think I should call it, to drop them off.
Warning: The following section, currently hidden, describes a legitimate massage that turns into a sexual encounter. It is R-rated for sexual situations and does not show me in a good light. You're welcome to read it (and this includes my friends): I just thought I owed you a heads-up. Click here to show hidden material.I return to the flophouse in the evening. There are two Tibetan couples from the country sharing the room with me, one with a young screaming baby, as well as a single male Chinese backpacker who arrives later (Seven of us in the room all told.) The couples seem to be nomads and even the concept of a walled room rather than a tent seems fairly new to them. They stay up talking for hours, then have trouble working the light switch, and even after the parents lie down the baby screams continually, needs diaper changes, and the parents get up to discuss what is to be done.
I get almost no sleep at all. Even though I get up in the pitch dark before 6 a.m, the Chinese backpacker is already long gone. I leave my bags in the office for a couple of hours, circle the Jokhang one last time, them head over to Shigatse Travel to change my flight again, to today rather than tomorrow.I can't take even one more night like last night.