Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, March 20th

Dirty beggars

When I said China is dirty, I wasn't including Tibet. Compared to Tibet, you could eat your dinner off China.

People spit twice as much here; someone even hocked a vast glutinous loogie onto my much-maligned Timberland on the way to the Potala. The street sounds of Lhasa include an omnipresent, constant hawking and flobbing, from the tiniest kids to the oldest geriatric. Little kids seem to crap twice as much in the street, too, and adults crap and piss outside with abandon. To add to the general ambience, many Tibetans smell. Mostly of rancid butter - the staple drink being rancid yak butter tea. Add to this witch's brew the aversion that many Tibetans have to soap and water (some never wash - ever), and the toilets that are usually uncleaned, water-free holes-in-the-ground, and you have a seriously humming environment.

The dirtiest of all Tibetans, naturally, are the many beggars. Because, presumably, of the social respectability of monks begging for alms, and the impossibility of a peasant or a nomad making their way to Lhasa on pilgrimage - some prostrating themselves every step of the way for hundreds of miles - without receiving assistance along the way, begging definitely doesn't have the same stigma that it has even in other Asian cultures that I've experienced.

Some of them are quite cute though

Alas, being western here makes one a permanent target, either due to our reputation as bearers of limitless wealth, or due to overgenerous individuals in the past, or probably both. Indeed, sometimes even non-beggars see a westerner and think "well I may as well have a go and see what I get", and stick their hand in your face. In Lhasa beggars follow you into shops and are tolerated by most shopkeepers (apart, notably, from the pharmacist who threw water over two overpersistent kids the other night). The worst aspect of this is the way that many children have been brought up to behave. Some scarcely a year old, we are surrounded on all sides by kids chanting "money money", grabbing one's clothing and refusing to let go.

Giving a small amount does not alleviate the problem. On my first day a monk approached me with a piece of paper on which was written "Please help monastery repair", and thinking it a good cause, I naïvely gave him 5 yuan (€50c), a princely sum in begging terms - most Tibetan donors give 1 jiao (€1c). He immediately told his monk mate that I was a soft touch, and the mate chased me down the street for more lucre. I also gave 1 yuan to what I thought was a worthy cause: a mother and her five children, one suckling, living filthily on the street. She immediately dispatched her two filthiest urchins to plague me all evening, which culminated in the pharmacist drenching them.

We took the local bus to Drepung monastery, about 5km outside Lhasa, and walked a few hundred metres up the hillside to the buildings. Therein were some fascinating buildings, assembly rooms, and large statues of Maitreya, the future Buddha. We followed a well-dressed, cheerful ten-year-old as he devoutly scooped yak butter from a plastic packet into the temple lamps, chanted his mantra, and like us attempted to avoid the gaggle of obnoxious Chinese teenagers as they hooted and ran through the tranquility, goading each other into seeing how fast they could spin the prayer wheels. The ten-year-old said "hello, how are you?". I replied and asked him how old he was: "thirty four!" he replied, and ran off giggling.

This monastery above all others we'd visited, was riddled with the most pathetic begging causes we'd yet seen. Lying within the complex was a man with no toes, barefoot and prostrate; toothless, limbless women stretched out claw-like hands; as we ate at the monastery canteen, a blind busker approached us with a big fretless Tibetan guitar. We told him "no", so his minder whispered something to him and he turned his face to me and showed me just how blind he was by pulling down his lower eyelids and showing me his empty, red-raw sockets.

It's, as ever, a nasty dilemma for the bleeding heart backpacker. I probably have more money in my pocket now than these people will see all year. But to encourage the practice makes westerners a disproportionate target, and being constantly surrounded by the horribly destitute can be a distressing experience, and can damage the reputation of the country, damaging the tourism industry on which many developing countries rely. Far better, in my opinion, to give generously to a charity or NGO that tries to create a sustainable solution to the poverty. And there's just so much of it: give a beggar a yuan and there will be another ten thousand beggers behind him. To comprehend the enormity of the poverty and suffering so evident in this region would cause one metaphorically to explode into ten thousand eyes and ten thousand eyes, which is what happened to the Bhoddisatva of Compassion.

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