To Lhasa... AND BEYOND!

We've arrived into Lhasa relatively early in the afternoon, having traveled past yet more beautiful scenery, albeit with very little sign of human habitation. So it's a bit of a shock when we arrive into the station in Tibet's capital and find a hugely modern building (both technologically and architecturally), packed with people and that exits into a large, but sparse, public square. It's all tidy and neat, and quite other to what I was expecting. 

As we make our way past the security checkpoint that leads into the square, and boy do the Chinese love an excuse to check your documentation, we step out of the air conditioned coolness of the arrival hall and into, of all things, blistering sunshine. The sky is a vivid turquoise colour, hemmed in by wispy, flat clouds that seem to be flowing over the edges of the surrounding mountains. Lhasa itself sits in a large, flat valley, as you might expect, so it's difficult to get a sense of the edges of the place; you get the same sensation in some of the valleys in the Lake District, where it seems that the fell edges contain the whole world. It's a similar experience here, albeit on a much larger, and sunnier, scale and one that is difficult to get across with words. 

Even if I can't properly explain the qualities of my distant surroundings, I can at least have a stab at the ones immediately around me. The station, the square, the billiard table roads, the nearby office towers - they all scream of one thing. Money. The Chinese have invested billions of yen in Lhasa and it really does show. Everything's ordered and polished, even the many, many soldiers that line the square (hence why my photos are bravely taken from the car park, rather than where the passengers actually exit the station), so much so that the whole place feels like a tiny slice of Beijing dropped in the Himalayas. Chinese citizens are being encouraged, and incentivised, to relocate to Tibet and it seems that the government are keen to ensure there's as little cultural friction as possible when people arrive at the station. A little 'social engineering' buzzer went off in my head upon arrival, and it could be the start of a frightening precedent for the Tibetans, but Chinese money has ensured a good station and modern roads - but it doesn't seem like good value if it costs you a piece of your culture. 

Anyhow, that culture is suddenly in front of us, alive and kicking, as we meet our local guide, Gun Chow. He's the exact opposite of Drujal, both in physicality and appearance, being as he is a sort of cross between a wrestler and a Tibetan hairy biker. He's got a massive smile of dangerously white teeth and a slightly American inflection to his english, but he's open and almost psychotically friendly when compared with Drujal's understated brand of traveller interaction. He greets us all, mostly with hugs, and then puts long, silk (read nylon) scarves around our necks - a traditional local greeting - and leads us to the bus.

As we drive through Lhasa, watching the Chinese money river flowing alongside us, washing up department stores, gold shops and glittering restaurant chains, I struggled not to be a little disappointed. It wasn't really what I had imagined the capital of Tibet to look and feel like, and although the shiny-ness and tinged of western culture implied a certain level of comfort could be relied on, it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. But as we pulled up at our hotel, which symptomatically enough is next to the construction site for a new shopping mall, and unloaded our bags, I realised that little pockets of Tibetan life still survive in the Chinese wasteland - our hotel being a prime example. It's a family run place, traditionally styled but smart and clean, and a pronounced step up in luxury from the hotels of the last tour. The rooms are arranged around a pretty little sun trap courtyard, scattered with large brass cauldrons filled with water and capped with floating flowers that skim around in the breeze. It's a beautiful little sanctuary, tucked away from the noise of the roads outside and raises everyone's spirits as we head into the evening. 

As we're still acclimatising to the altitude, Drujal declares the day a 'rest day' and we have a short, slow walk to Barkhor Square, pretty much the centre of Lhasa and it becomes clear that the Chinese money only reaches so far. To labour the 'money as water' metaphor a little further, it's like the wealth China's poured into the capital in recent years is like the tide as it slowly creeps up the beach - there's a ragged line that runs through Lhasa, perfectly visible when you look for it, on one side of which stands Lhasa, on the other, Lhasa as China would have it look. It's very surreal, but makes me happy because this line means that there is some of the real Lhasa left and I'm looking forward to exploring it over the next couple of days. 

Our group meal is a leisurely affair, and we try some local delicacies - momo's, a kind of filled dumpling either fried or boiled; Tibetan curry, which is meaty and mild; and, of course, the Tibetan staple meat - Yak. Yak is not too dissimilar to beef, richer perhaps, but it's hearty and accompanies my first Lhasa Beer very nicely. Drujal warned us against drinking on our first night, but a few of us risked it and the altitude, along with the relatively high alcohol percentage, meant it hit me like a sledgehammer. Whilst I maintained what meagre dignity I have, it took the wind out of my sails and I collapsed into bed without even seeing the pillow.

Goodnig... Zzzzzzzzzz.