“Are you really going to Lhasa?” Danny was lounging against Simon’s sweaty knees.
“Yes. I really am! At least, I think I am.” I had finally reserved a visa and a ticket to go to Tibet for May Holiday. It had been quite an ordeal.
It had begun when I called Allie two weeks before.
“Allie??” I was terribly excited, “Have you worked out our May holiday yet? You said I should encounter Tibet; well I have! And now I want to go there! When do we leave? How many bags should I bring? Do you think I’ll need a coat? I mean, it is twelve thousand feet in the air, and I have some tablets that might help with altitude sickness, but they say mostly you should just drink a lot of water and walk slowly. I wonder what that means, ‘walk slowly.’ Why should that make any difference?”
“I am looking into tickets and visas.” Allie answered calmly. “Why are you so excited? It’s very… sudden.”
“I know. I just, yeah! I really want to go to Tibet! I mean, Tibet! Come on! It’s such a weird, mysterious place and some of my students, it turns out this term, are from Tibet and they all speak Tibetan, and I can say some words now—none of them very useful. I can say ‘yogurt, please’ and ‘to yogurt,’ and ‘I promise’ and ‘would you like tea or yogurt?’ —and I can do the Tibetan circle dance, and Danny, my student, has been to Lhasa and he knows all the best places to go, and did you know that the Potala Palace is on the fifty yuan note?”
Allie interrupted, “Okay, well, I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”
A week later she called me back. She sounded disappointed. “Ann, I’m really sorry, I just won’t be able to do it this time. I’ve been trying to work it out, but it is so much hassle to get tickets, and the visa’s really expensive. We only have two weeks before May holiday. I think I’ll wait till next year when the train to Lhasa is finished. It’ll be cheaper then.”
I was disappointed too. “Oh. I see. What about the others who were going to go with you?”
“Yeah, they’re not going either.”
“None of them?”
“None. They’ve made other plans. If you still want to go, you’ll have to work it out by yourself. I’m really sorry.”
For several days I thought and prayed. I really wanted to go, but I was not sure I could do it by myself. I got lost when I did things by myself. I could not even talk to the travel agent by myself. I had tried, and he had told me curtly to go get someone who could speak Chinese. As if I couldn’t.
You can’t, said a voice in my head.
Can too! I shot back. Sort of.
Yeeeah. Whatever, said the voice, heavy with sarcasm.
Remember, I said smugly, the last time I traveled by myself? 24 hours by train to XinJiang. No problem.
Uh hu, and remember the last time you traveled with a group? Overnight train from Xi’an, to Lanzhou? Intoxicated soldiers in your compartment? Not so pleasant. Good thing Laura was there to chat with them about the WWF till they fell asleep.
I stared hard at the Tibetan Gospel of John on my coffee table, and decided I should try at least one more time. I called the travel agent again. “HELLO? HELLO?” his voice boomed over the phone, “Are you the foreigner?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s me. Did you find me flights to Lhasa?”
“HELLO? You did not tell me you wanted TWO flights! I only reserved ONE for you. Now there is no flight leaving Lhasa.”
“But I DID ask about two flights!” I replied.
“Yes, you ask ABOUT two flights, but you only ask FOR one flight. You not very clear.”
“I see, so….you could get me the visa and the ticket to Lhasa, and then I would have to live there forever?”
“Yes. Or you can leave by bus, it will take, maybe three days.”
“Three days, eh? On a bus? Three days on a bus from Tibet? That’s it?”
“Or,” said the travel agent, “you can fly to Chengdu.”
“Oh, that’s fine!” I said. “I like Chengdu. Of course, every time I have ever flown through Chengdu my flights have been delayed by nasty smog and I’ve had to sleep on a bench or in a rotting hotel room. But it is much closer to Lanzhou than Lhasa is. Take me to Chengdu.”
The travel agent sighed like a worried dad, “Okay, I get you to Chengdu. How will you get home?
“By train, naturally! It only takes about 22 hours on the fast train to get from Chengdu to Lanzhou.”
“Yes, but how you get a ticket?”
“God will help me.”
The travel agent sighed again. “Okay, okay. You seem very determined foreigner. I will meet you in Xi’an in 16 days. I will have tickets and visa for you. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I won’t need luck.”
Fifteen days later Laura sat on my bed, watching me finish my packing. “I can’t believe you are doing this,” she said as I zipped up my backpack. “You are going to Tibet alone, and you don’t even have a ticket! You have to travel all the way to Xi’an—eight hours on a train by yourself—and then find this so called travel agent—”
“I’m not going alone,” I said priggishly, “No Americans go to Tibet alone, we can’t get in at all if we aren’t part of an official tour. Besides,” I grinned smugly, pulling out the indisputable excuse: “God will be with me.”
“I don’t suppose Mr. Li knows you are going.”
“Are you kidding?? Mr. Li would have my head if he knew I was going! Nope, I’ll be just fine.”
Laura sniffed. “Well, call me when you get there. If you get there.”
I walked out of Building One, pulling my small suitcase, with my passport and a wad of cash hidden in a security pouch around my waist. I waited on the curb for a taxi, my palms slick and my heart pounding heavily against my ribs.
I huddled in my upper berth on the train all night, sticking, fly-like as close to the ceiling as possible. I reached Xi’an’s crowded train station the following morning, hailed a cab, and found the travel agency. It was located at the back of a dodgy business park, and had a sheet of printer paper scotch taped to the door that read, “Wu Han Travel Agency” in 64-point, Times New Roman font. I hesitated to knock, but I did not need to; the door was flung open by a small man in bent spectacles and a dusty plaid suit.
“HELLO, FOREIGNER!” he welcomed me into the little room and shoved my plane tickets into my hand. I looked them over while he made a photocopy of my passport—to be able to identify my remains, I assumed, if anything went amiss.
He handed me back my passport and a little card scrawled all over with Chinese and Tibetan writing. “When you get to Lhasa,” he boomed, “go to this hotel. You have paid already to stay there six days, and they will take you on your tour.” I tucked the card into my security pouch. “Have a nice trip!”
That evening, as I lay on my hard bed in a clean room at the Melody Hotel in the center of Xi’an, I meditated on the fact that I had never stayed in a hotel alone before. I had stayed in dozens of hotels, in many countries, from upscale Hiltons to run-down hostels, but I had always stayed with someone. I hardly knew what to do with myself. I toyed with the idea of calling room service, but remembered the last time I had stayed at the Melody, with Grace. I had called in a request for an extra blanket. Housekeeping had brought me a teacup instead—which sent my sister into a fit of laughter that lasted almost three minutes. Apparently my pronunciation was not as good as I thought it was. I decided not to call room service. Instead, I brewed some instant coffee in my complementary electric kettle and sat by the window, watching dusk settle over the city and counting the red paper lanterns that filled the square across the street with iridescent light.
Twenty hours later the foothills of the Himalayas heaved below me like massive swells on a restless sea. I had left Xi’an and spent the first half of my flight peering thousands of feet below me at the gentle landscape of central China, its humid farmland spread soft and smooth across the earth like warm butter on a slice of toast. But as my plane kept a level course, the ground below began to climb closer, till the icy mountaintops beneath me were only hundreds of feet away. Suddenly the high, bleak, Tibetan plateau broke away from the mountains, and we began our short descent. Soon we were taxiing down the runway, my head feeling like it was still thousands of feet above where it usually lived, which indeed, it was.
A storm of passengers rushed off the plane and onto a waiting minibus. Presuming that my official tour group was somewhere in the crowd, I tried to keep up with it, snatching my luggage out of the overhead bin, dragging it close behind me, and trying, in admirable Chinese fashion, to elbow my way onto the bus with the others. Just as I thought I would succeed in knocking an elderly woman out of my way and clambering on, the doors closed, the bus rumbled away, and I was left with a handful of stray passengers, standing on the curb. My colleagues did not grumble or glower at me; they quietly rolled up their suitcases and squatted on the sidewalk—the usual Chinese posture for waiting. I did the same, and looked around me. Colorless, peat-covered hills folded one behind the other far into the distance. The air, cold and thin and bright, was so translucent I could see for miles, across plains dotted by a few low tents, to the icy caps of far-away mountains. The small airport was very still, its one lonely terminal the only building I could see anywhere. Another minibus rumbled up.
“You go to Lhasa?” asked a Tibetan man near me.
“Yes.” I said.
I did, and twenty minutes later, the bus lumbered into the city. The wide, empty streets looked pale in the colorless setting sun. Dusk gathered in the doors and windows of simple concrete homes. The only sound breaking the stillness was the clanging of dull, metallic bells sounding from atop white and yellow temples. It felt as though the departure of the fourteenth Dalai Lama forty-seven years before had frozen the city, and it now waited, hushed and still, for his return.
The bus dropped me off next-door to the Potala Palace, whose brooding presence sits, sentinel-like above the city, in front of a large, clean-looking establishment called the Post Hotel. A porter dashed out and snatched up my bags. “You have reservation?” he asked, politely.
“I don’t know.” I said, handing him the precious little card the travel agent had given me in Xi’an.
The porter glanced at it, looked at me in surprise, and then hailed a pedaling rickshaw. He spoke to the driver in a southern Chinese accent and then handed me back my card. “He will take you to your guesthouse,” he said.
I thanked him, and climbed onto the tiny seat behind the rickshaw driver, hugging my suitcase. The driver strained at the pedals, and with great effort our three wheeled cart swayed across the street and around the corner. After about 10 minutes of slow, heavy pedaling over bumpy cobbled roads the driver braked painfully and slowly, stopping the rickshaw like halting an elephant. “Here,” he wheezed.
I climbed slowly out of the rickshaw and stared at the entrance to a very small guesthouse before stepping inside. It looked like a cave. There was no sign out front. The lobby was small and filthy. Dust-filled curtains sagged over two small windows, and a few ratty Buddhist prayer flags dug their long, rusty nails into an old reception desk. The reek of cigarettes was heavy in the cold air. A small, bony woman with a choppy haircut greeted me as I walked in.
“An Xin?” she asked sharply.
“We have been waiting for you. Sign here.”
I signed in, an uneasy feeling beginning to build in the pit of my stomach. I did not see any trace of the tour group without which I was not supposed to travel around Tibet. I followed the woman out of the lobby and through a tight, dark hallway. She led me up some uneven stairs and into a smelly courtyard filled with trash. A few broken bicycles and an old, ten-gallon drum were jumbled in the center, with one dead tree protruding from them. Around the courtyard were guests rooms, stacked two-high, with a balcony running the length of them. I dragged my suitcase up another stairway and followed the receptionist down a hall that smelled like urine, past a bathroom with three clogged up squatty-potties wedged side by side into the floor, and one cracked porcelain sink. She stopped at an open door.
“Here,” she said, “your bed is in the corner.”
I held the sleeve of my sweater over my nose as I stepped into the room. Six sagging beds with stained sheets were crowded close together on the dust-filled carpet. Four of them were occupied. On one sat a thin girl with long, dark hair and large, empty eyes. She looked Tibetan and was staring into a small mirror in her hand. She glanced up at me as I walked in. A European hitch-hiker was lounging on another bed; his dirty blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail, his dirty backpack propped at the foot of his bed, and his lean body resting on one elbow as he flipped through a guidebook. Two young Chinese men were sitting on the other beds. They stared at me when I walked in. One of them whistled softly as I inched through the room.
“Hey foreigner!” he said. “Come over here!” His friend laughed and elbowed him.
I felt my chin lift slightly. “No.”
He laughed, beckoning me with his hand and making room for me beside him on the bed. His friend stood up and stepped toward me.
Several thoughts flashed through my mind. The first was an incoherent, stabbing sense of danger. Another came right behind it. An old memory walked through my mind as calmly as if the quiet voice of my sixteen-year-old self had spoken in my ear: There is NO WAY.
My dad had once taken his two teenage daughters to an expensive RV park in France so we could shower. We were traveling across Europe in an old Mercedes motor home, and, to get running water, we had to stop from time to time at the European version of a KOA. Unlike American campgrounds, many of the ones in France had co-ed bathrooms. I had panicked when I walked into that three-walled shower house, with men standing at open urinals on one side and toilet stalls side-by side with shower stalls along the others. There was no way, I said, no earthly way I was going to undress behind a flimsy door with half-inch gaps around it, and take a shower with my legs visible almost to my knees and European men walking in and out of the room behind me. NO WAY. It did not matter that those European men would not have thought once, let alone twice, about the scrawny, broom-headed teen behind the door. My dad had understood. My Heavenly Father had also understood.
I glanced at the blond guy lounging on his bed. He kept his eyes on his guidebook and did not look up. I turned toward the door, suddenly resolute. There was no way I was going to be in that room when the lights went out.
The Chinese man was only inches away. “Sit down,” he said.
“No.” I said through clenched teeth, “I’m not staying.”
Gripping my luggage tightly, I stormed out of the room and back down to the grimy lobby. The reception desk was empty.
“Hello? Hello?” I called, my knuckles white around the handle of my bag.
The receptionist walked in, her sagging eyes looking resentful. I had interrupted her dinner.
“I decided not to stay.” I said, calmly. “I want to check out.”
“But you have already paid—through your travel agent.” She stared icily at me. “We don’t give refunds.”
“Fine. Just sign me out.”
“You won’t find another hotel,” she said grudgingly as she pointed to the line where I should sign, “not without a reservation. And you have to be back here in the morning, to meet your tour guide. You can’t just wander around without him. It’s the law.”
“Fine.” I said, sounding more aloof and confident than I felt. “Have a good evening.”
Fresh night air and cool, sweet relief met me as I stepped from the cave back onto the cobbled street. Around me were several other hotels and guest houses. Walking into the cleanest-looking one, I asked the young man lounging behind the desk if he had any rooms available—any private rooms. He chewed his gum and laughed. I tried the place next-door. No private rooms.
Back on the street, I took a deep breath and tried to be thankful. I was sure that my Heavenly Father had prepared a place for me to spend the night. I forgot, for the moment, that His own Son had been born in a barn—that Mary, who was highly favored and blessed among women, had not found a nice private hotel room the night she was traveling through Bethlehem.
Two young men walked up beside me as I stood on the sidewalk perplexed about where to go.
“Hello, pretty foreigner!” said one, placing his hand on top of mine as it held the handle of my suitcase, “where are you going?”
“It is none of your business.” I said.
“Hey! There is no need to be rude, we just wanted to help!” He breathed into my face and did not let go of my hand. I yanked my suitcase away and walked quickly up the street. They followed, falling in step with me, one on each side, so close that their bodies brushed against mine. I stopped suddenly and stepped backward, turning into a clothes shop on my left. The men followed me inside.
“Why don’t you stay at our hotel?” said the one who had spoken first, “there is room for three.”
The shopkeeper, a short, heavy woman with a little donut of black hair on the back of her head stepped from behind her counter. “Hey!” she hollered at the men, “Get out of here! Get out and leave that girl alone! I’ll call my husband if you don’t.”
I do not know who her husband was, but at the threat of him the men reluctantly skulked away. I turned wide, troubled eyes on the woman.
“Thank you.” I said
“Humph,” she said. “They should be locked up. You shouldn’t be out by yourself at night.”
“I don’t have a hotel. Could you recommend one?”
She shook her head. “It will be hard to find a room in this part of town—at least, not a respectable room. The only places that probably aren’t full are upscale ones.”
I remembered the large, clean Post Hotel with its efficient doorman. “Then I guess I’ll be staying uptown!” I said, suddenly sure what to do, “Thanks again.”
I stepped onto the sidewalk and hailed a passing rickshaw.
Swaying back around corners and down busier streets, the driver delivered me in front of the Post Hotel—the same place the bus from the airport had dropped me off an hour before. The porter dashed out, smiling courteously, and took my suitcase.
“Good evening miss! Do you want to make a reservation?”
“Yes,” I said gladly, “yes I do.”
The receptionist was a young boy, standing behind a clean, shiny desk, with a row of clocks behind him. He squinted thoughtfully at his computer screen when I asked about a room.
“For tonight?” he asked.
He stared at the screen for a long time, scrolling. “Yes, ahhhhh, yes!” he said, triumphantly, “I have a double room, with a view of the Palace.”
“Great!” I said. “Private bath?”
“Three hundred and seventy-five.”
I smiled, as if he had not just quoted the price of a presidential suite. In fact, in US currency the price of the room was only about forty-seven dollars, a screaming deal for a nice hotel in a prime location, but in the local economy the price was steep. For the price of one night in that hotel I could have stayed at a guesthouse for a month. Fortunately, I had brought a lot of cash.
“I’ll take it.”
The room was clean and cozily-lit, with twin beds, a massive deadbolt, and dark wood paneling on the walls. I locked myself in and exhaled a grateful prayer. For the first time since I had seen the door of the guesthouse, I felt safe. I walked across the room and lifted the blinds. The Potala Palace, only a few hundred yards away, gleamed pale and eerie in the moonlight, its vacant windows staring from its white walls like the empty eyes of a corpse. I tried to see inside them, and saw only darkness. Choosing the bed farthest from the window, I crawled between its clean, cool sheets, and fell asleep.