Friday, March 2, 2012

Barefoot and Drunk in Tibet

Portrait of a young man, as a charity worker, in Tibet
It is one AM in Chengdu, China.  Dr. Baum and I are trying to get some sleep after an eleven hour drive that started in the Eastern Tibet  and ended in this crappy state run hotel.  This place  looks like a cross between a 1960's Chinese detention center and the worst urban Holiday Inn ever.

Though I couldn't admit it,
I had your back, D.L.
The trip to Government Hotel Number 6 started 2 days ago in our government-appointed Landcruiser which came complete with a government-appointed low level spy to report on any potential anti-Communist or fascist Western behavior. Our spy was about twenty-five years old, smoked a lot of cigarettes and wore a blue baseball cap.  We were flattered that we were important enough to have our own spy.  Our Chinese Governmental hosts told us that he was a young doctor and a Ministry of Health official in training.  When he didn't know which was the business end of a stethoscope we quickly hashed out his actual function on this trip.    There would be zero tolerance of any Pro-Free-Tibet or anti-Chinese thought, expression or discussion by foreigners who are guests of the Chinese government in Tibet.   As we were those guests, our  employer (the fantastic sight-saving  charity SEVA Foundation) asked us not to openly discuss anything pro-Tibet or anti-Chinese.  We were also not to  mention the Dali Lama's name.  The Dali Lama was still considered an enemy of the state by the Chinese government.  We were strongly encouraged not to carry any photo or book with past or present images of the Dali Lama. At every security stop a uniformed Chinese soldier would leaf through our books, one by one, looking for any subversive photos of His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso.  Sympathetic Caucasian charity workers were high likely targets for this particular crime.  If photos were discovered there would be a quick halt to any of our humanitarian duties and an unscheduled stop in a Chinese cultural prison (for us and anyone else who saw the photo).  For this, and any other work in Tibet, we would have to bury our opinions and go along to get along. Dr. Baum and I had no problem with this.  Out in the middle of the vast, empty Tibetan plateau, sixteen thousand feet up a mountain, who cared what we thought?

Finally, some good road.
The Landcruiser took us through the vicious kinks and curves of Government highway G318.  This road cut through the massive, dense green foothills  of Markam in the Chamdo prefecture of Eastern Tibet.  We drove along the sides of mountains and dizzyingly steep thousand foot cliffs on roads with no signs or guard railings.  The only thing we could see in the caverns below was a low  ceiling of clouds and tree tops.  If we slid down there no one would ever find us.  I hoped we could trust our driver, but he drove like a maniac-- like a man who was either horribly late for a date or dangerously close to shitting himself.   At one point we stopped for a roadside bathroom break in the middle of a field of snow well above fifteen thousand feet.  As our hosts stood in a line pissing onto the side of the road, Dr. Baum and I took up an impromptu  sneak attack and pelted them mercilessly with snow balls.  Our Capitalist, Imperialist, Little League-trained throwing arms were deadly accurate compared to those of our Communist associates.  A few of them ended up peeing on the their own trouser legs or on those of a colleague.  They were ill-prepared for a fascist American snowball attack.  Dr. Baum and I quietly whispered:  "USA, USA!"  We giggled like idiots for the next hour.

Back at Government Hotel Number 6 something was afoot.  Thirty minutes previously we had dragged our luggage up five flights of concrete steps to our floor.  The bags were full of five weeks of clothes covered in Tibetan dirt, sweat and the smell of  burnt yak shit used to heat the homes in which we slept.  The smell was so bad that it seeped from the closed suitcases.  An old, nondescript Chinese woman sat at a desk at the top of the hotel staircase.  She handed each of us a neatly folded, old white towel, a tiny bar of soap and a plastic toothbrush with a small tube of Chinese toothpaste.  She flicked a timed light switch that lasted long enough for her to walk us down the hallway to our room.  She opened the room and walked away.  She would not be giving us the room key.  We were politely told by our hosts to have a good sleep and, in the nicest way possible, that there would be no reason for us to leave the hotel.  We got the message.  It didn't matter.  We were well past exhaustion and would be catching a flight to Bangkok in two more days.  I could do two days in a Chinese hotel standing on my head if I had to.

Our room had two small single beds side by side and a wooden night table inbetween with four non-functioning light switches.  The beds were hard as nails and a little small for medium-sized Western Imperialists, but they'd do for a couple of nights.  Dr. Baum saw me take off my shoes and socks.  I was about to walk to the bathroom when he yelled,


The only thing standing between
me and snot between my toes.
I froze.  I figured he must have seen a rat.  He pointed to the end of my bed to a plastic bag with a fresh pair of cheap paper slippers.   He'd worked in China before.  Apparently Chinese people have a habit of excessive spitting, coughing and snot hawking. According to Dr. Baum, it occurs both outdoors and indoors.  He said that if my bare feet never touched the carpet of a Chinese Government Hotel I'd be a happier, biologically safer man.  I managed a successful Cirque du Soleil-type leap and hovered from the chair to the bed.  I slipped on the thin pair of slippers and my feet have never since touched the floor of a Chinese Government Hotel.  We talked for a while and listened to some Tom Waits music because it seemed the perfect background music for this kind of hotel incarceration.  I shut off the lights and went to sleep.  As I drifted off to sleep there was a knock at our door.

"Who the hell is that?" I said.
"No idea.  They'll go away."
Knock, knock, knock.
"Who's there?  We're sleeping.  Come back in the morning."
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
"Jesus Christ! Just a second!"

I sat up and fished around with my toes to find the paper slippers.  My big toe hit the moldy carpet and I grimaced.  I shuffled carefully to the door to keep the oversize slippers on my feet.  When I opened the door and a woman--a  different woman than our hotel monitor/warden--was standing there with towels in her hand.  She said:

"Already have.  ALREADY HAVE!  Look."  I pointed to the towels on the bed.
"NO THANK YOU.  I mean shay-shay nee. No.  Bye bye."

I closed the door before she got out the next "you," spun on my paper slippers and shuffled back to bed.  Fifteen minutes passed.

Knock, knock, knock.
"Dammit! What???  We're trying to frigging sleep!"
Knock, knock, knock.
"Fuck!" (It always feels safer swearing in English in a foreign country).  Dr. Baum just ignored it.
"Don't answer it," he said, "they'll go away."
"WHAT???  Idiots!"

I repeated protocol.  Toe to floor.  Slippers to feet.  Shuffle to the door.  I opened the door and yet a  different woman was standing there holding the towels.  I got irritated.

"Look,"  I said, as if my insistence gave me universal translatable ability, "we already have frigging towels.  We.......don't........need.......any........more.........towels!  No need nada."

Dr. Baum rolled over.  He looked at the door, then looked at the girl, then looked at the towels, then looked at me.  He said:

Fresh towel sir?
"Erik, the towels are the same, the girl is different.  She's not selling towels."
I  felt pretty dim.  
"Look, we don't need that either.  Please go away.  We don't want.  WE..........DON'T.......WANT."  I slammed the door definitively.
"I told you not to answer it," said  Dr. Baum.

We made it through the night.  I'm fairly sure there were more fresh towel visits to our door, but I was so exhausted I slept through them.  We had one more day and one more night in Chengdu. The day was ours to do what we would, but the night was reserved for an Official Dinner with official officials from the Ministry of Health.  Anything important done in China is done around a meal.

We wandered around the dirty, urban sprawl of the Chengdu business district in the afternoon. Someone once wrote this about Chengdu:

With over 2,000 years of history, this capital city of Sichuan province is one of the most beautiful cities in China.  The national government has even determined that Chengdu is the cleanest city in China.  Chengdu is sometimes called the City of Brocade; the Jinjiang, which means brocade, is a river that flows through the city.

Even looking past the bad grammar, this is bullshit.  If by being "the cleanest city in China" they mean that the copious spit and snot on the street is the least biologically noxious, then I agree.  Chengdu was so depressing that it should have its own shade of gray named after it.  Even in the middle of the day it felt like the sun had just said "fuck it" and never came out.  The clouds had an unnatural brown tinge to them that gave the city the same glow you'd get from  bad yellow fluorescent lighting.  Dr. Baum and I just walked around and killed time.  In twenty-four hours we would be in Thailand for some R&R.  The sun would shine and I'd walk freely barefoot in a hotel room again.

Officially, an official meeting
with official Chinese officials.
Our government hosts and spy fetched us at the hotel at nightfall.  We were brought to a Chinese restaurant as big as a football field and ushered into a private room in the back.  The table was large, round and had a massive Lazy Susan rotating in the center.  Besides chopsticks and a small pack of napkins there were two shot glasses, a tea cup and an ashtray at each seating.  Dr. Baum and I took our seats and Ministry of Health officials sat themselves according to rank.  Once seated we did quick recon on the best places available to hide the food we'd need to pretend we'd eaten. This was not my first sitting at a large  Lazy Susan.  As the Western guests, our appreciation of the food in this chosen restaurant would make or break the evening for whichever official had chosen the venue.  This was a lot of pressure.  To refuse a dish would be insulting at least until mid-meal when you could pretend you were already full.  As luck would have it, we could expect all the scary, inedible foods to come out first.  We were in luck.  I tapped Dr. Baum on the shoulder and motioned under the table with my eyes.  There, attached to the table, was a long narrow shelf for cigarettes and belongings that ran the entire length of the table. If we stacked plates cautiously, it could hold the entire meal.  Even better, it was partially obscured by the table cloth. We smiled at our hosts and asked our translator to relay  the following message:  Bring it on.  We're starving.

Eat me.
No great surprises at this meal:   Blood Red Sausage with clots, chicken knuckles, some sort of animal heart, filthy brown million year old eggs and the tongue of some animal that had the  most disturbing texture I've ever bitten into.  Last, but never least, there was my worst nightmare: Tripe in viciously hot Szechuan sauce. Rice was given at the end of the meal which for me  served a dual purpose.  Firstly, scattering rice on my plate and putting different sauces on it gave the illusion of good night of eating.  Secondly, it laid a strong and absorptive base in the stomach for drinking challenges that would soon follow.  This  drinking challenge ritual was as much a part of an official government meal as chopsticks and Tripe.  

A large  bottle of Baijiu was placed in the middle of the table and small glass shot glasses filled carefully to the brim.  The first of many toasts to come came from the local head of the Ministry of Health.  Our translator went to work.  Thank you to our honored guests, blah blah blah, thank you from the Chinese people, blah blah blah, we hope to see you again, safe journey, blah blah blah blah.  All eyes were on us and glasses were raised with expectation.  It was at this point where Dr. Baum informed our hosts that he does not drink alcohol.  The table grew quiet.  Dr. Baum said it was a religious choice and as this was translated all heads nodded together in acceptance.  "Nice move," I said.  I felt abandoned and figured it was a good opening for me to follow in suit, but I felt a stronger need to uphold the Western Imperialist image of strength and resolve in the face of a Communist challenge.  All eyes shifted to me, the lone round-eye in the room still holding a shot glass.  I looked to my translator and said,

"Let's do this."

Bring it on, my Communist friend.
Baijiu is not an especially strong alcohol, but it tastes like petroleum pickled in Tamarind.  It's revolting and even the smell of it these days turns my stomach.  But not on that day.  Eventually the toasting was chaotically broken down into groups of two to four people and negotiations were taking place.  I will drink two shots if you drink only one.  I will drink four shots to your three.  The official next to me pulled me aside for a personal toast.  He filled our glasses, we clinked them together and then he grimaced and slowly, painfully poured the Baijiu down his throat.  As he was half-way finished, I looked him straight in the eye and tossed back my shot straight faced in a quick second, Crint Eastwood style.  The table went silent.  Then the official said something to me and everyone started laughing hysterically.  He motioned to my translator to fill me in.

"He say, a man who drink like that, he must have many many girlfriends.  Too many girlfriends! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

He's gonna blow!
There comes a moment of exquisite acceptance when you finally realize that you are in the club.  This was my moment in China.  Suddenly I was the flavor of the night and everyone had to have a  Baijiu challenge with the Western Imperialist.  But I had an ace in the hole and I knew it:  an American liver.  It is scientifically proven that the American liver will outlast a Chinese liver in an alcohol challenge nine out of ten times.  Potentially I only had one guy to worry about.  I'd take those odds.  Fortunately for me, living in California provided me with enough Mexican Tequila excursions to know in my heart that I'd outlast this Chinese crew and uphold the Western end.  It was about forty-five minutes later when the first red cheeked government official hit the floor and we decided to call it a night.  Cultural boundaries were bridged, poor Tibetan people were treated and it was a successful ending to a successful trip.  Dr. Baum and I had less than twelve hours before our flight to Thailand and we were giddy at the thought of touchdown in Thailand, the Land of Smiles.  All that stood in our way was one more night in Government Hotel Number 6 and a slew of  annoying, yet hopeful, towel ladies.

"Anyone want to talk politics?  Anyone?"


  1. Having passed the 35 year mark as friends I hereby grant you first name basis. Henceforth, Please to call me Ken. Damn, I can't believe that I remember that stuff like it was yesterday. We must have been awful tired and grimy to pass on the towel girls. The first night was understandable, but refusing their hospitality two days in a row may pass into posterity as unforgivable

  2. This brings back memories of work and travel in Foshan, Guanzhou, and Shanghai. Xie xie. I enjoy your blogs. Keep it up.

  3. Absolutely love this - wanted to say hi as I just spent day 1 of 2 with the Dalai Lama and found your blog while searching for a great road pic in Tibet.