I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable sitting inside 61-year-old Pasang’s living room in Sangzhulin village outside Lhasa, sipping on barley wine she’s served. Her face, with its creased lines, is a picture of radiant grandmotherly comfort. Her husband and daughter are out farming on their 7 mus (1 mu = 600 sq metres) land while she tends to some 20 strangers from India and Nepal who have descended on her house to confirm the virtues of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s peasantry.
Our hosts, after taking us to a barley field (“You can interview the farmers”), wanted to show us a ‘typical’ Tibetan farmer’s home. Well, city-slicker me does make favourable sounds to Pasang hoping that it’s not translated in some brochure as being impressed by the People’s Republic of China’s loving relationship with the Tibetan kisan.
I would prefer to think such an ‘investigation’, with people going into her bedroom, is intrusive and serves only one purpose: to meet Pasang and her two grandkids — who are only too happy to pick on me and then pose with a foreigner-idiot for a photo.
As the boy clambers over me and the girl tries out different smiles for the camera, I notice a Nepali journalist painstakingly capture the dung cakes burning on his video-cam.
As we’re taken to the next household — of 62-year-old Quinda — and are plied with more barley wine and are subtly made to admire the Mao-Deng-Hu poster that happens to be on the living room wall, I’m still thinking of Pasang, who was even younger than her scampering grandkids when China ‘liberated’ Tibet on a similar summer afternoon in 1959.
Cheap, not free Tibet
Nightlife in Lhasa isn’t expensive. But it can be difficult if you’re low on cash and are thinking of using a credit card. Very few restaurants and bars accept plastic and it’s easier to spot a Han Chinese in downtown Tibet than to find an ATM. (The China Construction Bank machines are few and far between.)
So as I entered the Music Kitchen, a Lhasa mainstreet pub, to grab a drink and observe Lhasa’s hip set, I counted my yuans and my blessings. Music Kitchen has the aesthetics of an English pub (glasses hanging from the bar) mixed with that of an American diner (framed pictures of movie and pop stars) mixed with that of a Buddhist monastery (low-lit and box-like).
Playing alongside the silent images of Chinese naval exercises and that of the Japanese PM apologising to Koreans for colonisation on a large screen TV, a Chinese song sounding vaguely like the Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’ manages to get me into the mood. There’s a small group of women guffawing away at everything a middle-aged guy is saying at a table; at another, two women are engaging in a conversation over what seems like a disproportionate number of pint bottles; a European sits in front of a computer screen at the bar Facebooking.
Most bars in Lhasa — and I had done my rounds of checking out more than a few in my two cashless days — are dim-neon-lit halls advertising Budweiser outside and good times inside, if your idea of a good time is to chug a mug while a lady looks in to see if you need a refill. I had asked outside one of these dives if they accept credit cards. The words ‘credit card’ elicited no response, a swiping gesture got the man confused. When I said ‘Visa, Visa’, he told me that I should go to the embassy.
After two shots of mau tai and two pints of beer and feeling a lot emptier in wallet and head, I ventured out to take my last walk back to the hotel in beautiful, shimmering, fish-oil-smelling Lhasa.
Under remote control
On XZTV, Tibet’s local TV channel, there’s a comedy stageshow on late night. First, I think that it’s a folk song‘n’dance show with two Tibetan men in traditional black and white costumes. A few moments into it, I realise that the two are funny guys doing an act that mixes parodic song and dance gags (one includes Tibetan-rap replete with gansta gestures) with funny lines in between.
I switch to a news channel. There’s a Sri Lankan delegation in town and local officials are doing what mandarins all over the world do: pose with firmness. On another channel there’s an old film set in the time of the Sino-Japanese war that somehow reminds me of Balraj Sahni.
I switch channels again and find myself in familiar terrain: a gameshow is on with a very raucous ‘un-People’s Republic of China people’ crowd letting out a cheer each time a contestant gets a question right.
I move to a martial arts movie that looks more Kaaminey than The House of Flying Daggers. I finally settle down to John Abraham and Lisa Ray in Deepa Mehta’s Water with Mandarin subtitles and fall asleep waiting to be reincarnated the next day as a diligent, ball-and-chained newspaperman in Delhi.
In Tibet, only Lonely Planet carries a statutory warning
Of true belief and authentic festivities
Yoghurt and beer paths to salvation