Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lhasa through the back door, Part Two

Throw 'em off the train

No one seemed to know for sure whether or not we could go to Tibet because of the recent unrest that I have already mentioned. So the scheme we hatched was to purchase plane tickets leaving Lhasa, Tibet for Kathmandu, Nepal before doing anything else. This way we could convince everyone that of course we were alowed to go to Lhasa in the first place why else would we have tickets? It wasn't a very good scheme, but we thought it would work. In our worst imaginings we thought that we would just be sent home if we got caught. (Months later, I realized we could have gone to prison.) It took us three days of going to the airlines and shoving our way through crowds of people to get those tickets, but we got them. I think they finally decided we were suckers. They got the money, so what if we couldn't get into Lhasa to use them. Buying train tickets as far as Golmud, China was no problem but there was no train to Lhasa back then. From Golmud we would have to take a bus.

The train ride was sheer misery. We had no place to sleep for days because we sat upright on hard over crowded benches. At times we couldn't sit at all and somewhere way out in Western China we nearly got thrown off of the train... Our Chinese traveling companions did not always choose to open the window to throw their trash on the tracks. So little by little, the floor of the train filled with orange peels, nut shells, and food wrappers. Occasionally someone would shoot a fat phlegm ball onto the floor. I'm not really sure that tea was intentionally added to the slop, but all the same it ran in gully's through the garbage. At some point the mound of garbage grew so large that a sweeper came along. She pushed the garbage up the corridor on the train until she reached the end of a car and then pushed it out the door onto the tracks. When the sweeper reached us near the end of our car, the mound of trash that she was pushing was higher that the seats we were sitting on. I thought it was hysterical and asked my friend to take a picture. She got out her camera and lifted it to her eye when a commotion started to erupt around us. Our one companion, who spoke Mandarin Chinese, started to turn a little red in the face. Very quietly he said, "They are saying throw us off the train." He kept very cool, but it was pretty obvious he was doing some quick explaining. All of us were pushed in front of the conductor who would decide if we could stay on the train or not. I thought that they might have been embarrassed about the picture that we were going to take of the garbage, but according to our Mandarin speaking friend, that wasn't it at all. The problem was that no one was allowed to take pictures from the train in that part of China. My friend finally proved to the man that we had not taken a picture. The flash would have gone off if we had. To prove the point, he showed the conductor how to take a photo himself. Somewhere I have a marvelous picture of a crowd of Chinese spectators on a train who were waiting to see if we would stay or go. We stayed.

*Just a note of explanation. At that time, 1992, not everyone in China had a camera or knew how to use one. Actually few of the Chinese people we met on our trip had them. We went to China without a guide and using the cheapest possible tickets, so our experience of China was often that of the poor. (Not what most tourists see.) I remember we asked one woman to take a photo of us and she took a picture of her own eye instead. A more affluent part of China might not have had any problem with the camera. In rural areas word of change travels a little slower, I don't really know if we were breaking a rule or not. But the reality was that Westerners were very rare in that part of China and everyone was suspicious of why we were there.

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