I am in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I’ve been here for four or five days, and in two further days I will leave to return to Beijing, and then to Paris on Sunday. It’s now two weeks since I left home.
I’ve changed my hotel room. I came here on a guided tour organised as part of the conference I attended in Xining, and that tour finished a day or so ago. In in the space of three days I saw an incredible amount of sights, but now at last I have time to absorb it all before I head west. Our tour company organised things efficiently for us but, alas, without almost any sense of aesthetics. We were booked into a clean, modern Chinese hotel in the new part of Lhasa. All our needs were catered to. Our guide was slightly incredulous that we had no interest in eating (Chinese food) in the hotel’s (almost) subterranean dining room facing the parking lot when we could be wandering the ancient streets of Lhasa and eating momo and drinking yak butter tea.
My new hotel is infinitely preferable to my older one. I am in the centre of town on almost the last floor. It is a damp morning, like most mornings here, and the mountains surrounding the town are wreathed in cloud. A fine misty rain is falling. Heavy storms rolled over the city last night and this morning, which is a little hard to imagine, as we are already at an altitude of 3,400m. From my hotel window I see a chaotic jumble of rooftops, slightly strange here for Lhasa as almost all the buildings have flat roofs and are almost all the same height. My small hotel room is filled with intricately patterned traditional Tibetan wooden furniture, which is a great relief after weeks of anonymous Chinese hotels.
One metre across the narrow street I see a rooftop garden with dozens of flowers in pots. An elderly lady emerged only a few minutes ago to water them. On a old iron drum nearby there is a blue thermos which I know is probably full of Yak butter tea. A few meters further to left to the left I see many coloured cloths tied to a pole high on the roof. These are prayer flags, each scrap of cloth contains incantation after incantation, lines and lines of prayer. The closer to the sky these prayer flags are, the more powerful they are. The mountains around Lhasa (some of which reach more than 4,000m) are covered in them. The air is full of the sounds of horns and bells, Lhasa’s chaotic traffic. The street where my hotel lies is a market street, full of every imaginable kind of produce. There are people there until late into the night.
This is where I am; in the next day or two I will try to recount where I have been.