Lhasa is packed with pilgrims, poor country farmers and nomads who visit the monasteries and temples every winter. Their obeisance involves dragging themselves on their bellies across the square and round the temples, their knees protected by rags, their hands by wooden blocks. In the Potala, one-time palace of the exiled Dalai Lama, those who are sick pray for a cure as the yak butter flames flicker in the gloom.
A monk approaches me, bent on practising his English – or so he says. There is a solitary Chinese man standing aloof, observing the proceedings. The monk’s eyes flick in his direction. “They send people to watch us,” he whispers. “In case of fire,” he adds caustically.
There are certainly legitimate reasons for concern about the Chinese government, but when ire is directed at its citizens, the wonderful people who made me so welcome, I am saddened. The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populous country and beneath the layers of Party bureaucracy and officialdom, beyond the West’s anti-Chinese propaganda, there are over a billion ordinary souls with hopes and dreams.
A decade ago, as I travelled thousands of miles from Beijing in the north to the extreme south, I encountered vibrant, noisy folk who seemed more Latin in demeanour than inscrutable or downtrodden. Streets were lined with tables of people playing games, swigging back beer, slapping down the Mahjong tiles, guffawing and shouting. My three-day journey travelling ‘hard sleeper’ by train was one long party. As for the parks, they were overflowing with storytellers and musicians, with people who sang opera, performed tai chi, and danced.
At Emei Shan, however, a place of mist and mystery dotted with temples and tea houses, it was tranquil. I followed an isolated path through a fairy-tale forest, where I came across foragers collecting fungi and men felling bamboo. Turning a corner, I stumbled on mourners struggling up a steep incline bearing a corpse wrapped in cloth and decorated with leaves. When firecrackers shattered the peace it proved too much for the priest, who stood with his hands over his ears. A long, lonely, spooky stretch, and suddenly by the side of the path I saw a beautiful young man asleep on a huge tree trunk. (I was tempted to kiss him and see if he turned into a prince, but I kept walking.) Further on, as I was buying spicy sausage from a wayside stall, I was joined by a friendly monk wearing a golden robe, a cowboy hat – all the rage – and large, squashy trainers!
I was over sixty at the time, so the attentive charm of Chinese youngsters never ceased to amaze me. On a hair-raising bus journey along mountain roads, I found myself sitting next to a lad with fashionably spiked hair who was plugged into his music. Squashed together intimately for nine hours, in a tiny space overwhelmed with luggage, we became silent companions as he offered me food and drink and retrieved my book from under the seat. The following day, I was waiting for a train when I heard someone snap their fingers – and there was my bus boy! He danced a jokey little jig of happiness at seeing me, before buying me cake from the station shop.
Many other young people went out of their way to befriend me. A group of art students painting landscapes by the river insisted on showing me their work, and a serious youth – sporting one long fingernail to indicate he was not of the labouring classes – bought me beer and put the world to rights. “There should be a pollution tax,” he announced, “but it should be paid by you in the West. The factories which cause the pollution are manufacturing the goods that you buy.” On another long bus journey Chairman Mao was the topic of conversation as a girl told me how her grandparents had adored Mao. “But my parents loathed him,” she added, “because of the Cultural Revolution.” “And you?” I asked. She shrugged. “None of my generation cares about Mao,” she said.
A traditional oasis in modern China, I found the variety, flamboyance and sheer magnificence of Chinese theatre riveting. A young woman accompanied me to a performance in a tea house, where usherettes replenished cups long-distance using metal teapots with 3ft spouts. On stage, women sang traditional opera with high-pitched squeaky voices. There were puppets and shadow shows; emperors, princesses and fools, whose stories of love and intrigue were reminiscent of pantomime. When it came to the changing faces act – where actors’ faces decorated with brilliant designs change colour and pattern behind one swipe of a fan – my host wickedly divulged how it was done. “They’re wearing tight-fitting masks which are flicked up under their hats as the replacement masks descend,” she whispered.
It was less surprising when older people welcomed me. The eccentric Dr Ho, an octogenarian who ran the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Herbal Medical Clinic showed me newspaper cuttings of famous people who had taken his remedies. A doddery grandfather at my lodgings cooked me sloppy Chinese porridge, sitting beside me companionably every breakfast as he noisily slurped his own portion from a bowl. One afternoon, when walking through fields surrounded by karst mountains, I met a wizened farmer wearing a traditional conical hat. He was enjoying my photos of home when a young man walked past with a baby on his back. My companion snorted with derision, indicating his contempt for modern youth; I nodded in agreement to humour him.
Perhaps the most unexpected interlude I spent in China was with a group of Communist Party officials on a compulsory government tour to raise their awareness of unfamiliar regions. One member, a woman who spoke excellent English, pressed me to join them for ‘a banquet’. In a private room, at a large round table, the centre of which rotated lazy-Susan-style, an extraordinary array of delicacies was on offer. Anticipating a sombre Party political affair, I was astonished when the proceedings became raucous. Beer flowed, shots of strong liquor followed, and the English speaker translated personal anecdotes and jokes for my benefit. A couple of men rose unsteadily to their feet, one making a short speech, the other singing a song with tears pouring down his face. “Oh dear,” said my translator, “he’s missing his wife. He’s never been away from home before!”
On my last day in China, craving a ‘proper’ coffee, I popped into a McDonald’s. It was just before Christmas and the smiling girls behind the counter were wearing reindeer antlers. In this land of extraordinary contradictions, McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks are apparently acceptable to the Communist Party, whereas Uighurs and Tibetans are incarcerated for ‘political re-education’.
In September, satellite pictures confirmed the presence of 380 detention camps where, at a conservative estimate, more than a million Uighurs are imprisoned. Reports abound of inmates subjected to abuse, torture, forced labour, and ethnic cleansing. And when I visited the courtyard at Sera Monastery in Tibet to watch young monks debating the theological points of the day, it never occurred to me that a month later the Chinese police would move in and beat these men to the ground. Subjugation can take more subtle forms, from excessive surveillance to ethnic tourism, but despite the violation of human rights I reflect with relief that citizens of a totalitarian state can hardly be held responsible for these crimes; that the warm welcome from people I met in China was genuine and heartfelt.