Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lhasa: Day One

 I waited an hour in my room, wondering when my guide would show up to do whatever guides do when you first arrive in a country. He'd been at the airport straightening something out with a departing group's tickets and sent me ahead to Yak Hotel, which was crumbling and had a stinky sewer drain in the room (I quickly got into an ongoing battle with some invisible force of housekeeping, who took the towel off that I'd throw over the bathroom drain every day), but was a damn sight better than having no room at all. Plus, the location was great for access to the center of Lhasa's old town.

I unpacked and stared at the wall for a bit, before getting bored. I took my laptop and went to the restaurant next door, Dunya, which turned out to be delicious and had wifi. 

"I'm going next door," I told the hotel receptionist. "When my guide arrives, can you tell him I'm in the restaurant having a cup of tea?"

I worked there for a few hours until my MacBook battery ran down, then tried my iPhone via wifi on a proxy server just to see where the bigger world thought I was but all I got was a loop of interwebs confusion, so I went back to my room. The phone rang immediately.

"This is your guide, Jack. May I see you downstairs?"

Of course he'd been waiting for more than an hour. No one had told him I was in the restaurant and it worried me a bit that he hadn't thought to check. I was still suspicious. WHY did I need a guide? WHO did he work for? If a guide is mandated, isn't it possible he sucks? Did I really have to spend all that time with him for nine days?

"Jack???" I was puzzled.

"Well...not really. But it's hard for people to remember my Tibetan name, which is Rinchin."

"I'll call you Rinchin."

He went over the itinerary with me and I completely confused him.

"I really like to be alone. Can I just walk around by myself in Lhasa aside from where it's mandated that you go with me?"

"Yes...are you sure?" He probably felt relieved on one hand but on the other, worried that he wasn't doing his job, or that he'd misunderstood me.

Of course I was sure. I'm a terrible tourist. I hate being dragged around and shown things. I prefer to wander the back alleys and look at stray dogs, or to sit in a coffee shop and see who comes in. Anyway, I had scheduled four days in Lhasa because I wanted to adjust to the altitude (if I even could, I mean). There was plenty of time for touristing once we got on the road to the Tibet/Nepal border.

Rinchin arranged to meet me first thing tomorrow, and I wandered down the block to take a look at the center of the old town.

Rows of plastic flags fluttered across the main street of short, white buildings accented in red-brown edges. I looked closer. The plastic flags were of the kind you'd see when a store opened at home. These wircuit around, passing vendors of all manner of Tibetan souvenirs and prayer goods. Each corner had a tall pole, covered in prayer flags.

What a rich, astonishing place.

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