Tibet & China in the 80’s
As Written by Michael In 1985
riends often ask what prompts me to go to some far-‐flung places on my travels. Obviously reading magazine articles and promotional emails from certain travel companies have a bearing. Condé Nast Traveller magazine has an excellent feature each month known as ‘Epic Journey’. I’ve just finished reading about the 4,000km railway from Beijing to Lhasa climbing so high that passengers are provided with oxygen – from coils of plastic tubing with a splayed end to put in your nostrils. Last month I was also teased by a mailing from St Regis Hotels talking of their new Lhasa property “surrounded by snowcapped Himalayan peaks only minutes from the Potala Palace and UNESCO World Heritage Sites”. M-‐m-‐m, there’s a stirring! At the same time, I also recall reasons why I may regret any idea of returning to Tibet. I can still vividly remember the dirt everywhere and the over-‐powering smell of yak butter in glasses for thousands of candles. Then the thought of having to get by with minimal facilities in a very basic government ‘guest house’ room doesn’t exactly excite me. All I had was a tin dish to wash in, and this didn’t help much to remove the dirt that had stuck to the Vaseline in thick swathes on my dry lips. More frightening is the recollection of looking for something to relieve the terrible altitude headache when I tried to sleep. In a vain attempt to alleviate the pain, I pulled a folded, cold wet towel tight over my forehead while pressing the back of my neck on the ribbed outside surface of an empty Coke bottle, rolling it back and forth, but to no avail. “And he’s still thinking of going back?” you might ask. It’s worth resurrecting a story I wrote around that time. Not only does it reflect on my experiences in Tibet, but also on conditions in China, still quite primitive only twenty-‐ five years ago. I write about the parlous state of aviation at the time, but why I felt no fear, I’ll never understand. Parts of the story also show me up as being quite inexperienced and naïve in some matters, and perhaps more than a little influenced by what my Chinese ‘minders’ were telling me. th Michael Musgrave, Sydney 20 April 2011 www.mmusg.com
China in the 80’s and My First Visit to Tibet
was 43 years-‐old when I first flew to Lhasa in 1985. At the time, I was living in Hong Kong with general management responsibilities for the countries in South Asia, primarily India and Pakistan. In addition to this, I was asked to help establish the first American Express retail Travel office in China through a Joint Venture with a Chinese Travel organization utilising my Travel business expertise. Here is the story I wrote back then! On my first fact-‐finding mission with the general manager of the Amex China business, we missed our flight to Beijing. Neither of us had checked the time on our tickets. Fortunately there was a seat on a later plane to Tianjin, an old 707 of CAAC. The stewardesses with blouses hanging out over their tight blue skirts didn’t do a bad job serving up the afternoon tea of smoked salmon and roast duck sandwiches. I can’t recall what we made of the Sweet Sour Plum Sauce container advertising at the time, or if we dared to taste it after reading the label, “Promotes the secretion of saliva, anti-‐cough and anti-‐pyretic”. On arrival at the modern terminal at Tianjin all passengers are invited to “proceed upstairs for supper”, where we enjoy cold beer and a delightful meal from blue and white china on white linen tablecloths. Very impressive and all in an hour before continuing on to Beijing. (Don’t come rushing to book this ‘CAAC Supper Service’, because on most of the other flights the old lunch box needs a tad of improvement. They can throw away the preserved vegetables to start with. ) In Beijing, we stay in the magnificent new seven-‐storey atrium of the Sheraton Great Wall Hotel and come down to the lobby for a night-‐cap. A beautiful young Chinese girl in a long red gown is playing “Ave Maria” and other popular classics on a grand piano with flute accompaniment, to an appreciative foreign audience. On the following night she entertains again, this time with a cellist. Who would guess that the Cultural Revolution and its abhorrence of everything Western was little more than a decade ago? Next morning, I’m struck at first by the squareness and size of the post-‐war Russian architecture along the main avenue of Beijing, but the traditional sights including The Forbidden City, Tian An Men Square, The Summer Palace and The Great Wall represent what I’ve always imagined China to be. (Why I didn’t write more about this at the time, I don’t know.) 3
Before getting started on the hard work of finding office space and negotiating terms of the joint venture project, I suggest to our hosts that I do some ‘touring’ to get my bearings and a general understanding of this new country. All my Christmases had come at once when the Chinese partners offer to show me how they operate an escorted tour, and then experience first-‐hand how they can manage a fully-‐inclusive ‘independent’ travel arrangement. “Why not Tibet?” I thought, and I chose to go to Lhasa. On the first part of my ‘familiarisation’, I had an enjoyable five days and shared many adventures in Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) with a group of Americans on an escorted tour. Modern airconditioned coaches, excellent English-‐speaking guides, and hotels getting better all the time. I saw three new ones in Canton, each with more than 1000 beds that would rival the luxury and service of Hong Kong. And this is China! A less memorable adventure was when we were circling Guangzhou airport in a brand new DC9, for the sixth time, and I saw the captain and cabin crew feverishily pulling carpet up along the aisle searching for something. I’m seated in the back row watching the stewardesses huddling around the back door reading the emergency exit instructions in Chinese. Apparently, the landing gear hasn’t locked into position and they’re looking for a viewing hole to check and if necessary to manually lower the wheels . No announcements are made, but we finally land without incident. For a while there, I was thinking that the old prop-‐jet Russian ‘Ilyushin’ that still has an aerial strung from top of the tail to the cockpit from my previous flight, would have done me very nicely. I’m even more excited for the next portion of my fact-‐finding mission, travelling alone to Chengdu, an overnight stop on my way to Lhasa. Sitting in Guangzhou Airport, there are no western faces in the departure lounge and the flight details are displayed in Chinese only. My ticket doesn’t have one word of English on it, and I discover at Security that my name is ‘American Express’. Thank goodness numbers are the same in both languages and I can look out for both flight number and plane number on the notice board. The scene has overtones of “Casablanca”. The airport hasn’t caught up yet with the rest of Canton, which is a bustling, fast developing, commercial metropolis in a wonderful sub-‐tropical setting on the Pearl River. Joint Ventures of the type I would like to be part of, abound. I am on my way to Chengdu in the Sichuan province in Central China. Ashamedly all I know about Sichuan is that it was home to the panda, and also the restaurant of the same name around the corner from my apartment in New York. (On my return journey I made a quick trip to the zoo to see them. Like Americans visiting Australia to see the koala bear, it was dis-‐ appointing that I couldn’t get photographed with the furry animals). As we taxi to the imposing Russian structure that is the Chengdu airport terminal, the clock 4
turns back in time. And then back a few more years as we drive at sundown through cultivated fields to the hotel. Farmers wend their way home -‐ some with vegetables or implements balanced on their shoulders. Others have pigs on the back of their bicycles ready for market, and ducks and cows amble across their paths. It’s all from another age. After eating dinner alone in the monumentally large dining hall of the Jin Jiang Hotel, I take a stroll to catch some local colour. I’m besieged by students wanting to practice their English and I really confuse them when they learn that I’m an Australian working for an American company in Hong Kong. This ambition by the youth to learn and speak English was evident everywhere, particularly in Shanghai where the tour I was on actually included a scheduled stop for forty five minutes on the waterfront for tour members to walk and meet the students. Our group loved the experience as much as the students. Dress in China is fast changing to the Western style, so the first leg of my journey into Tibet did not have the mystery of my journey into the Western end of the Himalayas in Pakistan last year (1984). On that flight I travelled with turbanned mountain men who were transfixed and petrified by the flying experience, curled up and huddled in their blankets for the entire journey. The only thing odd about my fellow passengers on this flight was their carry-‐on luggage. Fresh chives and eggplants, not to mention the stereos in big boxes. I was flying in the same old 707 as I arrived in the day before and figured the crew knew this flying machine well enough for me to relax and get ready for the unknown. The snow-‐covered peaks are beautiful, but as we get closer to Lhasa, the topography changes to very barren, boulder strewn mountain ranges, alternating with what appear to be giant, wind-‐smoothed sand hills. I learn later that these were sand glaciers, caused by wind vacuums, that has smoothed the surfaces oveer the years. Lhasa is in a valley and the approach is through mountains each side. Very similar to Skardu and Kathmandu, only much higher at 3,650 metres. The air is much thinner too and another lesson soon to be learned is the need to rest and acclimatise oneself or risk the chance of headaches and shortness of breath. I disregarded the advice, went sightseeing, and suffered. The 100km rocky road from the airport to the guest house rattles my bones but at the same time provides a great introduction to the mysteries of the region. My guides, Dong from Chengdu and Jiang from Lhasa, are full of history, legends and sociology. They impart much on the long drive through the valley and along the willow-‐strewn river banks. I see very primitive housing sprouting long poles like fishing rods, decorated with coloured flags the size of handkerchiefs. These contain scriptures and are prayers for the Gods. I don’t ask about sanitation, but I can see dollops of yak dung drying on the mud walls to be used for fuel later.
The scenery is spectacular and the mountains on either side change continuously -‐ from green to rocky, to patches of sand glacier. In silhouette against the sun they take on the papier-‐ mache appearance I’ve always loved about the mountains in Arizona. Colourful Buddha images are etched into the rock face. 6
During the nearly 300 years of the Qing Dynasty up to 1949, the population of Tibet reduced from 2 million to 1.2 million. Forty percent of the men were lamas (monks) and fifty percent of the women were nuns. I’m told, “if the Chinese hadn’t intervened, the race would have disappeared”. The Chinese Central Government has invested three billion dollars in this Autonomous Region in an attempt to bring it into the twentieth century. Education is still difficult, as parents prefer their children to become lamas, learn the holy scriptures, and chant their lives away in monasteries. These monasteries are self-‐sufficient, from livestock to learning. I hear no reference to the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile twenty five years ago after invasion by the Chinese. The fervour of the people is seen everywhere and again I’m informed that monks travel for up to 2½ years from distant provinces -‐ prostrating themselves and kissing the ground all the way. One-‐third of them happily die on the way. In Lhasa I see pilgrims with faces covered in dirt making their way along the street kissing the ground -‐ invoking the blessings of Lord Buddha. I suppose this is no worse than the Orthodox pilgrims I’ve seen climbing the hill on hands and knees up to the Cathedral on the Greek Island of Tinos, or the pilgrims climbing to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico, but … Tibet is primitive to say the least. The lifestyle is steeped in centuries of tradition with strong devotion and adherence to the teachings of Buddha. Dirt permeates all I see. The people in the streets are dirty -‐ their skin, clothes, hair, shoes . . . the lot. But it doesn’t seem to worry them. I’ve already been told “Dirtiness is akin to Holiness”. On a visit to the 7th Century Jokhang Temple, home of the bejewelled, revered statue of Sakyamuni, and the first principal Buddhist temple in Tibet, I meet the Head Lama who shows me through the Inner Sanctum. He hasn’t seen water in eons. Lamas smear their new robes in yak butter and rub them in the dirt. This is plainly evident. The smell of yak butter alone is enough to turn my stomach, and as I walk through the various chapels, ducking to avoid hitting my head on four-‐foot high entranceways, I nearly gag on the stench. There are urns of the stuff with candles floating in it everywhere. I gracefully decline the cup of butter tea, but do thank him and shake his outstretched hand as I leave. The pilgrims outside are prostrating themselves up and down, up and down. They must have good lung capacity. The main square of the town in front of the temple is a beehive of activity with donkeys, carts, pilgrims and workers. Stonecutters are everywhere, using hammers and chisels to hew eighteen-‐inch square paving blocks from enormous chunks of grey granite. There is a lot of hotel development and landscaping in the central area in readiness for an expected influx of tourists with their much-‐needed dollars and yen.
I walk away from the square into the more frenetic free market in the side streets and see more dirt. And the devout spinning their prayer wheels or praying their beads as they shuffle along. Most of them look to be a 100, but I believe the life expectancy is very short. I don’t have the patience to shop the stalls as the dirt aggravates me. The dust starts to blow and stick to the vaseline I put on my dry lips. Then it’s definitely time to return to my guest house, get some hot water in a dish, and wash. Any wonder I can’t eat dinner! To understand my situation a little better I should relate a couple of the stories I’d heard from Gong and Jiang. The rivers of Tibet abound with fish but as the Tibetans regard fish as holy, they don’t eat them. On asking why, it was explained that they have many types of funerals depending on one’s status or caste. One is a water funeral where the dead body is cut into five pieces and thrown into the river for the fishes to eat. (Would you eat fish under the circumstances?) There’s also a Celestial funeral for lamas where the body goes to the heavens with the blackbirds and eagles. So, these birds are revered. The poor old horse trader, regarded as a cheat, is buried face down in a grave in the earth, and if you’re unlucky enough to grow up to be a blacksmith, you’re considered to be a devil, and buried deep in the mountain. I’m intrigued with this “no washing” syndrome. Legend has it that centuries ago the Medicine Buddha fell over in the river and medicine spilled out into the waters. Henceforth the waters were holy. Farmers bathe only twice a year at festival time so as not to dirty the water. During this time they pray for the evils of Greed, Passion and Stupidity to be washed away. And, on that latter evil I say no more. It’s amazing what a difference a bright sunny morning makes! My sleepless night doing battle with the altitude headache is soon forgotten. I awake to a beautiful day, and to the company of two student guides, Cindy and Lucien. They have recently arrived from the 2nd Foreign Language Institute in Beijing, and while touring the Potala Palace they are so keen to impart their knowledge that I’m not permitted to pass by even one Buddha. There are past and future Buddhas; Buddhas in ascendancy; Buddhas that marry and Buddhas that don’t. Some were very smart and married Indian, Nepalese or Chinese princesses to consolidate their positions. They all have disciples, advisers and guardians, and all of these are depicted in the temples and monasteries. I don’t see any reclining ones here. I learn that the images change in Chinese, Indian, Thai and Tibetan Buddhism. There is a Dalai Lama and a Panchen Lama. It was the Fifth Dalai Lama who met with Emperor Shunzhi of China in the seventeenth century and established both political and religious leadership status. If the living Dalai Lama ever returns from India to China to take up residence, he will still be regarded as a political and religious head, but he would have to live in Beijing, and not Tibet. The 13-‐storey Pokala Palace with more than one thousand rooms (not that I saw a fraction of them) is outstanding, and a highlight of the trip. It is the largest and most intact ancient building now preserved in Tibet and is a monastery for only thirty-‐five monks today. It has a
history of over thirteen hundred years. It sprawls over an area of 130,000 sq. metres and crowns a hilltop in the middle of Lhasa. I can personally attest to its 118 metres height because I climb it, up and down stairs with inclines of 65 degrees and slippery treads. Thank God for Cindy’s torch (and her touch). The whole interior is lit only by wicks in yak butter, and lots of stoops and steps laying in wait to trip unsuspecting victims. It is Pilgrims Day, and hundreds stream through with their jars of yak butter, spooning it into the vats and making their prayers. “In so doing, they have offered themselves to the God in order to express their pious heart.” says Jiang. Views from the top, down over Lhasa City and the river valley are spectacular, and gold leafed dragons heads are conveniently positioned to allow picture postcard photographs. For some reason lunches have been better than dinners. I’ve come away from Tibet with a delectable rival for spaghetti primavera. Freshly made egg noodles in a chicken and cardamon broth with big chunks of lightly steamed summer tomatoes and lettuce with white pepper was delicious. (I had to try this as Dong bought me a noodle machine in Chengdu for my housekeeper, Norma, and I wanted to have experienced the real thing). I can’t take to the yak and potatoes, but eat the pork and chili, and the sautéed leek shoots, eggplant and water chestnuts. I was given prior warning about the shortage of fresh meat and veges, and the frequent use of canned goods. However, one night I see yak and yuk one too many times and am overjoyed by the sight of canned Camp Pie and Herrings in Tomato sauce in a familiar oval tin. There’s no fresh bread to eat with them though. I leave the other nine glutinous-‐looking dishes untouched.
Checking-‐in at Lhasa Airport for the return flight is a nightmare, again with no English announcements or notice boards that make any sense. Finally on board in First Class I squeeze into the one available seat amidst piles of covered cargo strapped into the other seats.
Back in Chengdu, home of the famous Sichuan food, I had the very best banquet ever and realise how much my taste buds have adjusted to the spicier dishes. Then in Canton, I became an easy convert to lychees. After learning how to peel them, I ate branches of them. I’m not too fond of hosted Chinese banquets. So often the menu features rare specialties selected for the occasion by your host. Recently I had to smile and eat cold, marinated, spiced, de-‐boned ducks tongue. Sea slugs and some squishy tripe-‐like substance also figure low on my list. On a recent menu I saw sautéed gizzards and promptly ordered cold boiled chicken and a bottle of beer. Of course, that’s par for the course for an expat in China these days. On nine CAAC flights, I collected nine fans, three name card holders, money purses and red tote bags. I can’t do much with the purses with CAAC beaded on them, but simple removal of the plastic bag and a re-‐wrap job on the other articles gives me a treasure trove of “carefully selected” presents for future trips home. Looking back on the Tibet episode, I must admit I went looking for the exotic, and found it. Michael Musgrave, 4 August 1985 10
This story as written in 1985, omits some of my even earlier experiences in China. And, in light of the spectacular events we all witnessed during the recent Beijing Olympics just a few years on, such advancement in a relatively short period of time is almost impossible to comprehend.
hen I went to Beijing in 1984, there was not one neon light! There were no retail stores. And I was there on a mission to open a Retail Travel Office! I was behind the eight ball before I’d even started. How I won through and had one of the international model offices opened, complete with a neon sign clearly visible from the road in less than a year, is another story! The extent of public transportation for visitors at the time was a fleet of only 1,000 black Toyota Crown sedans with white anti macasa seat covers. Whistle-‐blowing police in the centre of intersections were directing swarms of local residents on black bicycles only. I recall that the people had an air of resignation about them. Were they all wearing grey? Streets and streets of plain hutongs where people lived cheek to jowl were definitely a depressing grey in colour, and the old trucks were painted seemingly in the same grey paint, with a large set of numbers denoting a particular commune painted on the back. It was a colourless, uninteresting place. I would stay in a Canadian/Chinese joint venture hotel that resembled a low-‐rise American motel from the Fifties, minus the parking lot. Uncontrollable heating was so high and air so thin that I’d be gasping for breath by the time I reached my room down the end of a long corridor. But worse, I would be slow-‐cooked, dried out and lips chafed by morning after a night of fitful sleep. There was nothing I could do. The food wasn’t good either, but my deprivation seemed to justify ordering unhealthy American grilled ham (processed) and cheese (tasteless) toasted sandwiches dipped in ketchup squeezed from one of those little punnets you always seem to spurt over yourself trying to remove the foil lid. High-‐rise apartment blocks had started to appear along the widened boulevards (of bicycles), and in the winter I can still see (and smell) balconies stacked high with cabbages to last the occupants all winter. Most of the Chinese I was working with had experiences in foreign postings and were socially adept – nice guys really. They spoke excellent English and most of the time, they wore open-‐ necked shirts. However, when the time came to negotiate finer points of our relationship with their bosses, these same people who had befriended me would appear at the meeting in navy (or grey) Mao suits, and be struck dumb. They would communicate only through an interpreter! Writing this also brings back fond memories of a good friend, our legal counsel for Asia/Pacific, who flew to Beijing to assist me on a couple of occasions. We lived close to each other in Hong Kong, and I flew to New York for her wedding. Susan Picariello was a wonderful Italian American, a New Yorker and District Attorney from the lower East side of Manhattan before her move into the corporate world. She later became general manager of the South East Asian businesses based in Singapore. Sadly, returning from a business trip to Indonesia with a last-‐ minute flight change to get home earlier to her new son, the plane crashed and Susan lost her life. God rest her! Susan Picariello