Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, March 11th

Little Tibet

There are lots of Tibetans in Sichuan province. Some are immigrants from Tibet proper, while some are ethnically Tibetan and from Sichuan or other surrounding Chinese provinces that overlap the Tibetan plateau. There's a ghetto of Tibetans in Chengdu, so I decided to visit it to get a taste of what we could expect to find when we get there.

I went on my own, as M was trying to sleep off the cold. I got the local bus, and crammed onto the top deck, where a slightly crazed old man with bottle glasses and white gloves was crooning to the other passengers in a shockingly good falsetto impression of a female opera singer, and occasionally broke into poetry. The passengers looked amused and bemused by turns, occasionally applauding him.

I sat next to a Tibetan peasant woman, who turned to me and said something. "Woo ming bai", I said ("I don't understand" in Mandarin). "Doh rur", she repeated. I smiled and shrugged and said woo ming bai again. "Ni woo ming bai 'doh rur'?" she asked incredulously. Eventually I realised she was asking me for a dollar, but I maintained the pretense.

The Tibetan quarter, or "Ethnic shopping street" as the sign proclaimed, was terribly depressing. Run down, and with rows of shops selling tourist tat. Tibetan women clutching babies stood by traffic lights, begging at the windows of cars stopped at the red light, looking exactly like the eastern Europeans who do the same in the west.

I eventually came to a Tibetan café. It had an English sign outside. "Here you can try all the Tibetan food" it proclaimed. I went inside. A little old man dressed as a monk came up to me and said hello in Chinese. How cute, I thought - they've dressed the waiters up as monks. Hello, I replied, do you have a menu? "Hunh?" he asked. I mimed a menu. "Hunh?" he repeated, and walked off.

Then a waitress came up and led me to a table. It was like being in An American Werewolf in London. The entire café went quiet. A table of monks glared at me. And I realised that there was one empty chair, and the waiter dressed as a monk that I'd confronted was just saying hello, and he was actually a monk being friendly. Hence the glares.

A table of young Tibetans was watching a knackered DVD of Tibetan pop songs. One of the angry-looking monks grabbed the TV remote control and turned the volume down. He put the remote control on my table, so when the waitress came out of the kitchen, and found the volume turned down, she glared angrily at me and turned it back up again.

I ordered milk tea, which turned out just to be hot yak's milk in a teapot, and beef buns, which turned out just to be Chinese beef dumplings. I ate them quickly, and left, and the young Tibetans smiled and waved and said "bye bye".

I got the bus back to the hostel, a little saddened. But the entire day had only cost me ten yuan; eight for the food and tea, and two for the bus. Determined to do something different, we've booked a trip to the Big Buddha in Leshan, two hours from here, for tomorrow.

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