Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tall Tibet

After nine days in Tibet I thought I had developed a stoop. My main hazard was, predictably, monastery doorways and most of those not destroyed by the Buddhist-purge of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, were built in medieval times, when the monks were considerably smaller than they are even today.

All doorways involve a cautious duck in this country, but several times in the Baiju Monastery in Gyantse and the Jokhang in Lhasa, I had to fold double to fit through the gap. One momentary lapse in concentration, tearing your gaze from a house-sized golden buddha and you could well break a nose or knock yourself out. A German girl I was travelling with was sporting two black eyes by the time we arrived in Lhasa, having done just that!

We happened to be visiting the Tashilunpo Monastery in Xigantse during the peak of the pilgrimage and the place was brimming with rural locals paying their respects. Often finding ourselves in huge queues trying to exit tiny rooms, I was once waiting patiently beside a tiny, wizened old lady. Her head just about reached my elbow but she beamed a gap-toothed grin at me and we started a sign language conversation of sorts.

It went a little bit like this:
"You're very small"
"You're very tall"
"Are you going to ask me for money?"
"Is she going to give me money?"

Unabashed by the vast white person looming over her, she shoved and jostled good naturedly and eventually pushed ahead of me in the queue, glancing back between people's shoulders with a mischievous grin.
For a country of such minute people - cleverly evolved to be low to the ground on an immensely high and windswept plateau - the Jeep we took to Lhasa had acres of legroom. Admittedly, despite being a six-seater, the only way in and out of the vehicle was via the passenger door, the heating didn't work meaning the windows were constantly frozen on the inside and it limped over the high altitude passes at walking pace. But, nonetheless, we were able to enjoy eight-hour journeys through quite outrageously beautiful mountains in surprising comfort.

Totally falling in love with the traditional Tibetan boot - bright red and black wool, knee high and beautifully embroidered - we were devastated to find they didn't stretch to even a reasonable size 6. My friend, observed by a crowd of spellbound local onlookers, valiantly tried to squeeze her petite feet into the felt footwear but was defeated. With my size 8s, I didn't even bother trying - sadly not even the men's would suffice.

Low tables were an issue - the majority of my meals were eaten from my lap as, not being able to fit my legs underneath, I couldn't get close enough to the table to eat off it. The locals thought this very funny and, as when walking down the street, they would stare upwards in friendly wonder, nudge their companions and mime the whole "You're a giant" thing while giggling and wanting to shake your hand. All reports about the fabled Tibetan friendliness and hospitality were in no way exaggerated, they were the most wonderful and resilient people.
During our trip, my favourite example of the famous Chinese space-saving techniques was the bath in our hotel in Gyantse. Three feet long at a push, it filled the whole wall of our pocket-sized bathroom and was 90% useless, except for perhaps washing clothes, a baby, or small dog. When I got into it my knees were folded up under my chin, leaving a good two feet of leg high and dry. In the end I stuck to the shower and prayed for it to be hot. Which it wasn't. More like off-cold or the temperature of a paddling pool in British summertime. A real home from home!

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