Lhasa, Tibet #1: The World Basketball Tour at 3,650 meters

So we're wandering around Lhasa for 5 days surrounded by warm, friendly Tibetans with the biggest warmest smiles we've ever seen anywhere and we're wondering how in the hell are we ever going to befriend any of them considering half the people on the streets are tourists. The answer: The World Basketball Tour, of course!

We flew into Lhasa from Chengdu last week or, rather, we flew into the airport, which is 2 hours outside of town. We had heard lots of bad things about flying in China, but our 2-hour flight was just as good as, if not better than, a similar flight in North America. Stepping off the plane we both felt quite excited to finally be in Tibet. Excited and lightheaded.

Lhasa's 3,650 meters above sea level and the altitude sickness hits some people really hard here - a few even die - but that first night we both felt fine, just a little "high". But from the second day Sonoko really felt the altitude and for the next few days she had trouble sleeping, trouble breathing, mild headaches and in general she just didn't feel all that well. I luckily didn't feel the altitude much at all myself, aside from a mild headache on our second day here and a feeling of lightheadedness for the first 4 days or so.

Due to the altitude and Son's condition we couldn't do much for those first few days but walk (slowly!) around town and get a feeling for the city, the culture and the people. What we got was a pretty mixed feeling. While the Tibetan people are really laid-back, warm and friendly, their culture and temples extremely interesting, and the Old Tibetan Town fascinating, all this is under serious threat from, you guessed it, the Chinese government and its policy of mass Chinese immigration.

The Old Town is called the "Barkhor Area" and it is still almost totally Tibetan, ignoring the fact that the main street that runs through it is called "Beijing Donglu"! Talk about an out and out "Fuck you!", eh? You can spend all your time in the Barkhor Area, where our hotel is located, and really feel like "Wow! This is Tibet!". The only problem with that is that the Barkhor Area now only makes up less than 5% of the city. Yes, 5%! That's what I read and all you have to do is walk around town a bit to see that it's true. The Barkhor Area is less than 2 square kms in size and once you leave it the change is dramatic - the whole city is a Chinese town. Talking to people who were first here a few years ago, the change seems to be happening at breakneck speed.

It's not just the buildings, however; when you leave the Barkhor Area most of the people you see are Chinese. The government publishes silly propaganda numbers since it's obviously a very sensitive issue for the Tibetans, but it's clear that the city's population is at least 50% Chinese, probably more. The situation here is much worse than that in Kashgar in Xinjiang. The simple reality is that, outside of the tiny Barkhor Area, Lhasa has become a Chinese city. And they're building a bloody railway here, which will begin operating in a few short years. After that you can be certain that things will become significantly worse for the Tibetans when it comes to avoiding becoming a minority in their own land.

The thing is, you can stay in the Barkhor Area and ignore all of this and simply enjoy your Tibetan vacation, which is what it seems most foreigners here are doing. But you really have to close your eyes - not only to the fact that the rest of the city is in no way Tibetan, but to the plight of the Tibetan people as well.

One thing that is very telling is that you see almost no poor Chinese in Lhasa; they come here because they are offered all sorts of incentives, including good jobs. The Tibetans, on the other hand, are obviously much poorer and you see so many of them begging in the streets. It's really quite sad... and infuriating.

Another thing that's really sad and upsetting is watching the majority of foreigners here who refuse to give anything to the so-clearly-poor beggars. They've spent thousands of dollars so they can come and enjoy themselves in Tibet and most are willing to spend 3 to 4 times extra to have a Western meal at their hotel restaurant, but they won't give even a few cents to Tibetans in need.

You hear these pathetic excuses like "Some of these beggars aren't actually poor". To which I say: "So what?! Ninety percent of them are. It's just a lousy excuse for being a cheap self-centered prick! You think you deserve the $20-$30-$40-$80 per hour you get paid back home? Most people around the world work much harder for a few dollars a day, you self-absorbed, incompassionate assholes!" No one will ever accuse me of being diplomatic. Nor would I ever want them to. Sometimes you've just gotta tell it like it is. I mean, isn't it better to help many people who are truly in need, occasionally getting ripped off by a few fakes in the process, than to never help anyone at all?

Anyway, there are so many beggars here that what we do is break a big bill at the bank and get 1 "jiao" notes and then give a few to anyone who's asking. That's pretty small money (a "jiao" is only worth about 8 cents U.S.), but that's what the richer Tibetans give (and most of them seem to give) and 1 jiao is certainly worth something here. We used to give out 5 jiao or 1 yuan notes, but we can't do that for everyone, so we switched to the big wad of 1 jiaos to give to everyone, including (yes!!) the few fakes out there.

The mass Chinese immigration is only one of many terrible things that the Tibetans have had to deal with over the past 50 years, but I'll leave that for another letter. Despite feeling quite sad for Tibet and the Tibetan people, we've had a really good 10 days here so far, albeit a great 10 days full of lots of sadness and anger at things we've seen, heard and read. The amazing thing is that through all of their suffering the people here have remained remarkably full of life. I know I'm repeating myself here, but they really are such warm and friendly people.

One of the highlights of being here in Lhasa is just being able to walk around the Barkhor Area observing everyone. The center of this area, and the center of Tibetan cultural and religious life, is the 1,300-year-old Jokhang Temple, which is surrounded by the Barkhor "Kora" (pilgrimage circuit).

Walking with the crowds clockwise around this kora is quite fascinating. At least half the Tibetans are dressed in traditional clothing, many others are in jeans and t-shirts and then there are the many monks in their wine-colored (sometimes pink) robes. Walking slowly, it takes maybe 15 to 20 minutes to make one lap of the circuit. The route is crammed with little shops selling everything from tourist junk to religious items, from "Tibet" t-shirts to traditional Tibetan clothing. Many of the Tibetans are pilgrims from the countryside and they are often the most joyful. Being here in this sacred place walking this holy circuit is obviously a very exciting and long-anticipated experience for them.

Directly in front of the Jokhang temple you can watch as dozens of people prostrate themselves over and over again, as is the Tibetan Buddhist style of prayer. Many of them actually dive to the ground onto mats and use pieces of cardboard to protect their hands. Some of them keep it up for hours at a time - definitely a good form of exercise!

The streets forming the circle around the Barkhor Kora are not the only interesting places, however. Wandering off into the side streets and back alleys is, in some ways, even more interesting. The shops, the buildings, the many little temples and monasteries are all fascinating, but, in the end and as always, it's the people that make it all so amazing.

The Tibetan people, that is. Lhasa, or at least the Barkhor Area, is full of tourists, the majority of whom are Japanese. In fact, I should correct myself. Lhasa isn't a half Chinese/half Tibetan city. It's more like one third Tibetan/one third Chinese/and one third Japanese.

So, to escape the tourist crowds and to get The World Basketball Tour rolling again (and to hopefully meet and befriend some local Tibetans) we headed out to Tibet University (where all the classes, it should be noted, are taught in Chinese - really!). On arrival I was immediately invited to join one of the many games taking place on the outdoor courts. I imagined that playing basketball at 3,650 meters above sea level would be hard for more than 10 to 15 minutes, but 3 hours later I was still playing.

At 3,650 meters you've only got 68% of the oxygen of sea level, but that's not the only problem. Up here the sun is also incredibly intense - we're 3,650 meters closer to it! But 68% oxygen and incredibly intense sunshine is no excuse at all to slow down the Tour, so I not only played for 3 hours on Saturday, but for another couple of hours each day on Sunday, Monday and earlier today (Tuesday) as well. Four days in a row of The World Tour on The Roof of The World. Sonoko hasn't felt like playing since she still gets tired just walking around, but she says she hopes to play one of these days.

On our first day at the university, while I was out on the basketball court, 2 students came and sat down next to Son and started talking to her. Afterwards, we all sat around talking for a while and eventually one of the guys invited us to come over to his home. That was the beginning of our REAL Tibetan experience. But you'll have to wait until my next letter to hear all about that.

The incredible thing about this World Basketball Tour is that we started it out of a simple desire to play some basketball and get some exercise, but it has clearly become THE way to meet local people. Not just any old local people, but, rather, fun, warm, active, hospitable, interesting and incredibly friendly local people. The World Basketball Tour is The Way, but I bet not many Taoist have figured that out yet. Don't tell them though. Let them struggle through the I Ching a while longer.

Before I go, and on a completely non-Tibetan and non-W.B.T. topic, let me tell you about the Joy of Bob. As I mentioned in a few previous letters, I've had a real craving to hear some Bob Dylan of late. So, in Chengdu, before we flew here, I bought 2 classic Bob CDs and finally got my fix: "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Time Out Of Mind".

Most beautiful and soul-satisfying of all was lying here in my hotel room in Lhasa listening to all 11 glorious minutes of "Desolation Row" - with it's brilliant, almost-nonsensical lyrics, sublime Spanish guitar and no chorus whatsoever - 3 times in a row! And loving it more and more with each listen. We're talking 33 minutes of bliss! "Highway 61", by the way, was the first CD I ever bought after buying my first CD player way back in 1985. I also feasted on all 17 wonderful minutes and the entire hilarious story line of "Highlands" from "Time Out of Mind". Not 3 times in a row, mind you, only once, but what a beautiful 17 minutes it was!

Yes, I'm obsessed with Bob, but I'm not the only one. I hear the Dalai Lama loves Bob too, but don't tell the Chinese government or they might stop calling him a "splittist reactionary" and start calling him an "obsessed spittist reactionary" and we wouldn't want that now, would we?

A couple of final notes before I go:

- On the door to the shower room at our hotel here it says: "Please by the way off the light button".

- Inside the Jokhan Temple Sonoko accidently walked on the wrong side of the prayer wheels and spun them in the wrong direction. The next day she caught a cold!

- I bet you're wondering what's going on since I've never written a letter so far on this trip without at least briefly mentioning beer. Well, it's true, we've had barely any beer at all up here since we arrived in Tibet; however, this past weekend our new friends not only bought a few big bottles of Lhasa Beer - they bought crates! More about that next letter.

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Tuesday, September 24th, 2002


Now check out the next chapter in the story: Lhasa, Tibet #2: Taken Home: Uproariously Fun Parties, Tragically Sad Stories

And for a purely political rant about China's repression of the Tibetan people, check out my Tibetan Freedom Rant from March 2008.


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