Friday, October 02, 2009

Blue Heaven — Indochine 2008/09

A hundred years in this life span on earth
talent and destiny are apt to feud.
You must go through a play of ebb and flow
and watch such things as make you sick at heart.
Is it so strange that losses balance gains?
Blue Heaven's wont to strike arose from spite."
The Tale of Kieu

I'd changed my ideas about the region after reading Norman Lewis' A Dragon Apparent and watching a succession of brutally anti-war Hollywood war movies. From Lewis, I'd learnt that Vietnam was full of French colonisers who went about exterminating the wildlife, and that if you took it into your head to go up the Mekong you'd likely meet drunken tribals and religious exotics capable of mingling orgiastic fetish-worship with the harshest form of Puritanism. The film-makers led me to anticipate a land of orchestral Hueys, weed, gratuitous violence, prostitutes with denaturing but charming come-ons ('I love you Joe!'), steroid-inflated bullet-resistant Italian-Americans in headbands, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and fat bald men reciting T. S. Eliot in the darkness of Khmer ruins—not so different from what Lewis had said, really. There was also a BBC cooking show, in which a laconic New Yorker had toured the southern half sampling its fry-ups.

In Régis Wargnier’s Indochine (1992), Catherine Deneuve’s character, Madame Devries, owner of a rubber plantation, adopts Camille, a local Annamese girl, whose aristocrat parents have just died in an airplane crash. The cosy symmetry of this arrangement—colonising wealth providing sanctuary for colonised wealth—is shattered when Madame Devries has a fling with Jean-Baptiste, a young naval officer. In the best traditions of the romantic novelette, Camille also falls for the handsome young officer when he rescues her from a bloody incident involving the French police and a fleeing native convict. The film explores the complications against a backdrop of insurgency, the independence movement, and increasingly precarious French rule. Camille joins the nationalist and liberationist Popular Front. She has a son, but after her separation from both Jean-Baptist and the child, and Jean-Baptist’s mysterious death, the boy is raised by the ever-nurturing Madame Devries. When the narrative finally exhausts itself, with the surviving protagonists all in Europe, and with Camille now a delegate to the 1954 Geneva conference, the boy rejects any maternal claims his mother might have in favour of those of Madame Devries. At the conference, French Indochina becomes independent from France; it is divided up into North and South Vietnam.

This ending turns a domestic idyll into a national ideal. Rather than showing Vietnam in the throes of independence, divided or not, it posits France as the First World postcolonial refuge for the victims of a Third World family break-up. It makes no attempt to look outside its perceptual world. You won’t keep the wolf from the door with the lower-order’s point-of-view. The film is aimed at well-bred city folk, not rice farmers; it peddles National Geographic images and Asian mood music: diminutive brown beings in black fisherman’s pants and conical straw hats planting rice; water buffalo; karst scenery; junks with red sails drifting on jade-green seas accompanied by sleepy zither music; epiphytes and ropes of crystalline rainwater; glint of tiger; teak-wood mansions, each spacious room filled with antiques and graceful Europeans in white ducks; tangos; Hmong tribal masks; the yellow smoke of opium; nouvelle cuisine; theatrical performers with pancake make-up, dead eyes and 6-inch fingernails; more anonymous figures in fisherman’s pants, this time sneakily planting grenades in missionary bicycle baskets; white herons suspended above the mirror-flat surface of the Mekong which ripples with implication.

Indochine, the name resonates in a way Indochina does not. The latter boringly refers to Southeast Asia cultures—those of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, primarily, and also sometimes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar—which have been influenced by the cultures of India and China. The region is Buddhist, we gather, intercalated with Hindu belief and Confucianism. Indochine suggests something more transversal, or less transcultural. Its meanings are fugitive, personal, expensive. It speaks of a poesis of travel, available only to outsiders, or to the wealthy acculturated, a speech half musical and half visual. It makes the French colonial period look and sound glamorous: not in the sense of a return of the repressed (imperial nostalgia) but in the lighter sense of sublimation (escapism). Like the French colonialists, we travel to Southeast Asia because it offers an aesthetics of diversity, a claim on the senses not to be found in metropolitan Western life, grace and freedom from care.

When Norman Lewis visited the Moi people in the late 1940s, staying in longhouses which could accommodate entire villages, he thought that the people lived ‘idyllic lives’. Although at the time he didn’t much care for lying awake at night listening to the ‘bi-syllabic cry’ of geckos, or sucking up toxic rice-wine through bamboo straws from immense ceramic jars, in retrospect the experience seemed ecstatic. The longhouse way of life, Lewis adds, was bombed to extinction by B52s in the 1960s. Not much evidence of B52s or the French, in 2008. A different kind of invasion. A giant multi-chimneyed factory hovered over the rice like that spacecraft in District 9. The road was solid concrete, not a trace of asphalt or tar. The word 'quaint' cannot be applied to the city that appeared at the end of it. The houses looked like a toast rack. Each was the width of the door that provided entry. There appeared to be no shops selling food, and no telegraph wires.

A taxi tout sprinted towards me, his matt-black eye—the other was staring off to the left—unreflecting and unseeing. He grabbed my bag and arm. ‘No,’ I yelled, shocked by the violence of the manoeuvre, the fact that he was giving me no choice at all. Another man, on my left, was trying to twist my other arm from its socket. I made an ineffectual attempt to bargain—wasn’t that the protocol? didn’t you come to a mutually satisfying arrangement, after several feints and pretenses of indifference?—but no one was listening. Some 30 or more taxi-drivers were now bellowing offers or orders. One had my daughter in a head-lock. The original tout kept an iron grip on my bag. He wasn’t going to let go of it, whatever the others tried. He hauled me off, screaming at my laggardliness. He managed to jam my bag into the tiny boot of his car, by stamping down on it. Then he backed the car up, the rear fender bruising my shin. ‘You arsehole,’ I told him. Then I said to what remained of my daughter. ‘I think we’d better get out of here.’

We’d been to Nin Binh to look at the water buffaloes, karst scenery and emerald green paddies.Tombs stuck up out of the paddy like enormous stone armchairs. The Perfumed Pagoda lay at the end of a flight of steps littered with blackened objects and burning cardboard animals. The canoes that took us to see the pagoda were not made out of wood or vinyl or some other passenger-friendly material but what looked and felt like recycled boiler-plate. At the half-way point, a child gave us a plastic lotus flower and posed expertly for her picture. The National Park at Cuc Phong, which Ho Chi Minh had taken time off to dedicate, looked as caged in and pampered as the gibbons in the Primate Center, and just as vulnerable and fragile, like a fashion or a Cornish biosphere. The rain-forest walk featured chameleons, striped arthropods of prodigious size and number, cicadas, stick-insects and, deep inside, about two hours from the entrance, a 500 year-old tree with four attendant plastic waste-bins. We’d taken the bus back to Hanoi. On the way, we passed pyramids of motor-cycle helmets and shops filled with painted coffins.

(If you were to overfly the area in a Huey helicopter-gunship—wup-wup-wup—you'd see one or two narrow dark-green parallelograms squeezed in amongst the paddies, quarries and cement-works. Not quite what you'd expect after Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Rescue Dawn and all those other lovingly crafted emblems of desire and longing.)

Hanoi seemed to be centred on a lake filled with effluent and stone terrapins. The lake at least was what we, the tourists, were being channeled towards, before being thrust over a narrow bridge and made to inspect a shabby temple. Then we were driven back along an esplanade where one-eyed women sprawled obscenely on benches. Then, still in single file, we were marched to the Temple of Literature where the mandarins had been educated in medieval times, and where present-day wretches in stained underclothes tried to evade the plain-clothes cops and beg for dollar bills. Then, now frogmarched at speed, to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, where genuine Uncle Ho t-shirts could be excitably bought—though more for the rare clinging nylon than the sallow wispy bearded image on the front. Taxis and motorized rickshaws shadowed us throughout, thuggish drivers hanging out of the window bawling abuse.

If Thailand is the land of smiles, then Vietnam must be the land of laughs. This laugh is invariably shrill and prolonged, affording you an unusually detailed insight into the appearance and attributes of the epiglottis. You may also take in the various kinds and degrees of decay the human tooth can be subjected to, provided you have the stomach for it or chronic anosmia. Neither your attentiveness nor your disgust seems to disturb the laugher, however, especially when he's just finished billing you for a simple, slightly repellent meal of cha ca.

The Botanical Gardens was notable for its caged monkeys, sculptures, musicians, snogging couples and walkways that led straight into brick walls. There were too many ducks on the ornamental lakes. The trees were overgrown. There were benches round the lake, each taken up by a snogger. We looked back at one pair of dry-humping sweethearts. Probably, they would be living in small two-room apartments with their families. No room even for necking in the entrance. This must be the only place they could go. On the grassy knolls, wedding-couples posed for photo-shoots, the brides in white wedding-dresses with the trains arranged behind them like posh restaurant serviettes, the grooms in natty coats-and-tails. It made me think of Singaporean or Moonie mass weddings. It was more Guangzhou than Hollywood at any rate, a reminder that influences here are not quite so comfortably Western as postcolonistas like to think. Everyone looked blissfully happy.

Noi Bai airport looked like a gigantic ballroom or the venue for an X-Factor show. High vaulted ceilings, good lighting, chandeliers and lots of classy looking squeeze holding neatly printed signs. All the time I was there I had the feeling I was about to witness some grand televisual event that I had been made unaware of, perhaps through drugs or brain surgery. The departure lounge, with its high counters loaded with treasure and such curiosities as pith helmets and opium pipes, and its unexpected concert-hall dimensions, only prolonged the delusion. The passengers circulated with dazed expressions, some even staggering with stiff outstretched arms like zombies. One of them, I saw from a passing mirror, was me.

Siem Reap-Angkor airport was not a total contrast. Although it didn’t suggest talent shows and the same kind of glittering otherworldiness, it also seemed to have little to do with airports in the conventional sense of the word. We were funneled into a hall via crimson VIP ropes and multilingual signs. Our hands were shaken by smiling men in dark uniforms with gold braid on the sleeves. With its ATM machines and desks for visas on arrival, the arrivals lounge looked like the anteroom of a casino. The machines only dispensed US dollars. The men stamping our passports appeared to be proficient in the art of subtle but sustained fleecing. It was no different outside. It was impossible to find an ATM machine that didn’t dispense dollars or a taxi-driver who would accept anything else. The mere mention of riel, the local currency, caused one man to bay with hilarity. ‘Where is your national pride?’ I wondered feebly. The man clutched his knees and laughed till the tears ran down his face. Later on, it would seem as if every entrance—to hotel, bar, boat, bus, tourist site, Angkor itself—operated like a ticket booth to one of Disney’s theme parks.

Angkor and its temples could only be reached through a heavily fortified portal. It cost 40 US dollars to purchase a 3-day pass. This pass was usable between the hours of 5.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. To make sure it could only be used by one person, the purchaser's mugshot adorned the lower right-hand corner. Like an airplane boarding pass, it had to be torn in two along a perforated line, the larger section being retained by a uniformed entity behind a smoked glass screen. Above some official's illegible vermiform signature, the surviving docket stated: 'This portion to be kept by visitor and shown on demand during its validity.' What was this place? Theme park or secure facility, perhaps for the criminally insane? Anything was possible. Whatever it was, this wasn't the Angkor of my imaginings.

There are glorious picture books by Kenro Izu and Osbert Sitwell, films starring the pneumatic Angelina Jolie and the exquisite Mam Kanaka with Angkor as romantic backdrop, and a slew of gorgeously produced guide-books—none of which mention monopoly capitalism and tickets for 40 bucks a pop. We had to hire a tuk-tuk and be driven to the important sites, with their catchy consumer-friendly names, Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, the Bayon, the Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King. (No need for guerrila-marketing or product-placement here.) But where were the porters who had stumbled after Geoffrey Gorer's peering and frantically leaping figure in the 1930s? Where was Sandokan and his pirates? Where was the threat of blowpipe dart and man-trap? Where were the tigers? What were all these paved roads, public toilets and ticket inspectors doing here? We might as well have gone to the Natural History Museum in London. They could easily turn up the central heating and pipe cicada song into the display rooms to simulate the jungly atmosphere. There are lots of homeless children they could employ to badger the visitors.

So we followed the others, dutifully scrambling through each pile of stone, photographing the faces on the Bayon, wowing over the vast roots and trunks growing through and out of the masonry at Ta Prom where (forget King Jayavarman VII and the celestial nymphs) Lara Croft had faced off the Illuminati. We stopped at the food stalls, drank chilled water at the kiosks, and jested with the urchins who pestered us for dollar bills, each keening the same tragic formula, 'Two for one dollar!' (the last word given a tremulous and faintly decrepit intonation, as if spoken by some decaying southern belle in a Tennessee Williams play). Then, as 5.00 p.m. drew near, we added ourselves to the human snake that wound up the hill of Phnom Bakheng to view the sunset over majestic Angkor Wat.

The climb to the top of the temple was not easy. We watched with our hearts in our mouths as rickety old people and parents with babies on their backs mounted the near-vertical wall, taking it in turns to swing up over projecting ledges. At the top, which doubled as a viewing-platform, the people sat or leaned on balustrades, steadying their palpitations. A few, less winded and more devout, photographed the sunset. We had come here, one after the other, not once asking why, just following in the footsteps of a precedent. Faces straining, eyeballs distended, hands reaching to steady stumbling bodies, plump buttocks rotating stolidly behind the pink fabric of holiday shorts. No one spoke. The atmosphere was hushed and reverent. Angkor Wat, like three sandcastles before an incoming tide, began to crumble and melt into the dusk.

And then it hit me. There was no Indochine, no Vietnam, no Cambodia, no Laos, and certainly no Angkor Wat. A worse realisation followed: perhaps there never had been. The whole panoply of forest, fisherman and frog was a phantasm.

'Two for one dollar', the child at my elbow said, dolorously.

Twenty odd years ago, the American Marxist critic Frederic Jameson wondered if non-Western culture (or as he called it ‘the Third World’) would have gone its own way, as he hoped, or been hoovered up by ‘some global American-led postmodernist culture’. Other critics scoffed at this not just for its perceived condescension but for its seeming ignorance of so many resistant counter-cultures and subcultures both within non-Western nations and within the West itself. But a look around Siem Reap-Angkor shows that Jameson’s fears were justified.

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like so many other places in South-East Asia, it has been preserved in aspic (or hydraulic renders and Portland cement), it's authenticity restored and eternalised, for the bourgeois classes. We want nothing less. Pilgrims, we travel half-way around the world to view the embodied confirmation of our cultural and educational attainments. Jameson spoke of 'libidinal investments'; middle-class desire needs an expensively produced object, on which to salivate and feast. The museum-piece is unanchored, bereft of its cultural history, invested with new significations which actually, even as they answer the viewer's private longings, depend on 'older' or 'received' ones for their continuing pulling-power. Angkor is likewise unangkored (sorry); its cultural value has little to do with the Khmer people who built it, and even less to do with the ones who live nearby.

I saw one of the latter—distantly, on the lake Tonlé Sap, doing something ancient and interminable with a net. In Siem Reap, the people who weren’t tourists were also fringe-players: migratory workers (crafts-makers, chamber-maids, tuk-tuk drivers, stall-holders, Internet café proprietors, masseuses, kids selling water or roses) scratching a living from recreational cash, loose change. The Khmer builders had been something else, which, whatever it was, had long ago melted into Thai culture elsewhere. I thought of the farming communities I’d glimpsed all over Asia, too far from the UNESCO World Heritage sites and the media outlets to matter. Occasionally the subjects of holiday snapshots or well-meaning Earth Report TV documentaries, they disappear behind generic soubriquets like ‘the common people,’ ‘sons of the soil,’ ‘peasant small-holders,’ ‘peons,’ 'native informants,' and ‘the backbone of the Asian Tiger economies’: ghostly beings, ankle-deep in paddy and buffalo shit.

Things got better after that. Boarding the local home-made ferry, we headed south across Tonlé Sap to Phnom Penh, where the scenery abruptly changed from EuroDisney to American History XXX. A horde of taxi-drivers fell upon us. Most were dressed rather unimaginatively as Dawn of the Dead extras, though one or two seemed to have made the extra effort, modeling themselves on Magwitch and Bill Sykes. This time we were nimbler, sprinting up the road, bags clattering our shins, and bolting into a restaurant, where we took an early lunch, fending off the waiters’ over-attentive hands while debating whether to wait till nightfall before legging it.

4.15 p.m. Sisowath Quay. A sepia-washed urban landscape, scrofulous shop-fronts, rotting temples and verminous hotels overlooking bars that could have been lifted out of the Saigon of The Quiet American; the lake-front was decorated with fake-looking palms—plastic fronds hanging at right angles—that might have come off the set of Full-Metal Jacket. There were also one or two amputees on trolleys, some beggars exhibiting the signs of stigmata, troops of bare-chested kids in the filthiest imitation Fila shorts I’d ever seen eager for banter (‘Hi Johnny! Wanna spliff?’’), and lots of very small, very brown, very young women in spray-on clothes attending to the romantic needs of a few very large, very ugly and very old white men. This was more like it.

The film to reference here is neither The Quiet American nor Full-Metal Jacket; it is Matt Dillon’s impenetrable yet weirdly compelling City of Ghosts (2002). A group of insurance scamsters, or something, on the run from the FBI, or someone, gather in a decaying villa in Phnom Penh to draw up plans for a casino with the bloated local ganglord—or something like that. Dillon’s love interest is supplied by Natascha McElhone. A depraved Thai prostitute is Stellan Skarsgård’s. In the background, Gerard Depardieu does his oafish but heart-of-gold barman routine. There is a brief interval of gorgeous sun-dappled temple-touring—McElhone is an archeologist—half-way through, but not enough to thrill the viewer into insensibility and only enough to prepare him for the picturesque carnage to come. (On this showing Dillon will make a canny director.) The viewer is treated, variously, to a murdered woman (Skarsgård’s ho) dumped into a tub, a severed hand delivered to Depardieu’s bar by a warbling child, a sordid torture-and-execution scene straight out of Guantanamo Bay, and a prolonged beating-up. The Phnom Penh my daughter and I had been gang-planked on to was as seedy and obscurely horrifying as Dillon’s testosterone-drenched fantasy.

Out on the town that night, I saw my first tattooed white man since Bangkok. He wore a sleeveless leatherette vest, curvilinear Maori rank insignia on each fleshy deltoid, and sported a freshly shaved blue head. He looked like a character out of a Viz cartoon, or a Sky news report. I asked him if I might take his photograph. He declined graciously, surprising me with his gushing Vicarage tea party tone. 'Dear me no, I'm simply not prepared!' There were lots of elderly Hannibal Lecter-lookalikes strolling through the bars with young transexuals attached to one arm; they were so alike they seemed to be competing for a prize. Rubber-lipped beings in wraparound shades lounged in nearby cane chairs, staring at my daughter. She held her nerve, where others, the young backpacker couples and second honeymooners, put their heads down and scurried by looking shocked, or frankly took to their heels, calling upon the mother of Jesus and other supernatural interventionists for assistance.

The daytime was fraught with greater danger.
To get to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda you had to negotiate an amputee on a sort of three-wheeled barber’s chair, which he could maneouvre into your path at speed. If you got past him with wallet intact, there was a convoy of tuk-tuk drivers, one of whom possessed a voice of such stentorian power and penetration it could turn corners, go up hills and even for all I know follow you down into the bowels of hell itself. ‘You want ride? See Killing Fields? Only fifty dollaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!’ If you got past him, then there were the map-sellers, water vendors and lepers, all of whom seemed to be gifted athletes, capable of putting on a sprint that might have embarrassed Usain Bolt. Perhaps the best way to survive in this place, and pass unmolested, was to become one of Matt Dillon’s unpleasant characters or a pedophile.

Choeung Ek. The Killing Fields turned out to be an acre of land with a chicken-wire fence round it. The fence was to keep out the beggars and grubby children. Inside, there were signs in English, French, Thai and Khmer explaining the history of the place. The circular pits covered in lotus leaves were the mass graves. Owing to the scarcity of ammunition, executions were performed with clubs, machetes and pickaxes. More signs told us which trees had been used as stocks. The glass-sided stupa of skulls was much smaller than I’d expected. A notice urged visitors to show respect and tact by removing their footwear and not taking any photographs. My guidebook said that if the shady trees, butterflies and mooching gardeners diluted the impact of the site then the stupa would send you ‘reeling back with horror.’ A white man was busy reeling back in horror as we approached. Still wearing his Nike sport-shoes, he was standing nose to the glass, angling his digital camera for the best shot.

Tuol Sleng Museum stands on the site of Security Prison 21 (S-21). This was where Pol Pot’s security forces interrogated soldiers and government officials associated with the previous Lon Nol regime, bourgeois or educated people (who might hold seditious ideas), or simply people who wore glasses, before sending them on to Choeung Ek. About 17,000 people were incarcerated at different times. These included academics, doctors, teachers, students, engineers, factory workers, monks, as well as the odd foolishly intruding foreign journalist. Waterboarding was one of the methods of torture. The Khmer Rouge wanted their prisoners to write confessions detailing espionage activities and identifying fellow conspirators. In practice this meant calling upon unusual powers of invention in the most harrowing circumstances and implicating family members. The confession of Hu Nim ends with the words: 'I am not a human being, I am an animal.' As many as a 100 people died each day. The rest were executed at Choeung Ek.

Some of the ground-floor rooms looked like the sorts of place the makers of the Hostel and Saw franchises would feel at home in. Others, disconcertingly, had the look of abandonment and ancient melancholy more usually associated with ruined country cottages or the farmsteads of eighteenth-century English poetry. Bare concrete floors, peeling walls, cracked windows, a single rusty bedstead, dust-filled rays of light—the bars on the windows and shackle-bar at one end of the bed struck the only jarring notes. There were countless photographs of the dead in the second-floor rooms. Our disquiet was heightened by the recognition that these buildings had once been a high school. Outside where morning assembly would have been, there was a tall gibbet, a heavy chain depending from the crosspiece. Back at the entrance, back on the road, just past the ranks of mutilated beggars, an emaciated kid in a stained red t-shirt that said I LOVE LA on the back was rapping to his friends’ clicking fingers.

September, 2009, Luang Prabang, Laos. Lewis came here before us, when the rebellious Issarak and Viet Minh were exciting interest and a great deal of inaction in the French colonial administration. I read Lewis’ account of his Laotian adventures closely for signs of pleasure or excitement, but it was a thankless task. Lewis'd had a pretty dreadful time generally, the only blips on the radar screen of his misery being an agreeable dinner with the Conseiller of Luang Prabang and a visit to a slaughterhouse in Vientiane. For the rest of his trip he seems to have endured ‘a slow, progressive and hardly perceptible decline in health’ and ‘a seeping paralysis of will.’ This seems to have had something to do with the difficulties of getting to and from Luang Prabang. Particularly from. The local doctor said that Lewis' vital fluid was obstructed, that he must avoid oily seeds and rock salt and that his spirit needed refreshing through the contemplation of white flowers. The doctor said that the illness would abate in the natural course of things anyway. Lewis seems to have got better when he left.

Our own journey to Luang Prabang was as seamless as a Star Trek jumpsuit. The plane banked over a landscape that could have provided the setting for one of the Lost World movies (Lewis, still caught up in the toils of modernist metaphor, compares the view from the porthole to ‘one vast Tahiti’), then settled itself down on the terrestrial equivalent of a Slumber bed.

Accordingly, I must now descend into brochure-speak. Luang Prabang is built on a peninsular formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan. An early capital of Laos, it is today a town of heritage hotels, all identically varnished and shuttered, with tiger-skins in the lobbies and deer heads mounted on the walls. The French colonial past puts in an appearance at breakfast in the form of baguettes, treacly coffee and the waiters’ starched white aprons. There are terracotta steps leading over the spine of the peninsular, intersecting with the three narrow streets that run along the length. Every other shop is owned by a German or Australian remittance man, and specialises in arts and crafts, antiques or essential oils. At dawn, the monks parade with black rice bowls, and are fed and photographed by gaping Japanese teenagers and TripAdvisor reps. It doesn't take a war for some global American-led postmodernist culture to leave debris behind.

Nothing much happened during our visit. I lost a book I was reviewing, which later turned up at the airport. We strolled round the temples, ate the noodle soup, drank the Beerlao, and listened to the monks chanting in Pali and the ‘mild booming’ of the gongs Lewis mentions. In the evenings we visited the night market, fondled the silver hairpins, sampled the whisky Lao, and then sat in the cafés watching the new age hippies wandering up and down smiling at the telegraph poles. Lewis says that Luang Prabang is ‘the hometown of the siesta and the Ultima Thule of all French escapists in the Far East.’ Nothing much had changed, just the personnel. The town was still a place of rehab, but not so much laid back as comatose. The white people here—and there were many more than I’d seen elsewhere in Indochine—were of the dreadlocked and fisherman-panted kind rather than the potbellied and tattooed species. Clearly this was a classier kind of Shangri-La than Phnom Penh. The evening air was sweet with hashish smoke, and the faces of the passers-by shone with psychotropic joy.

The film for this place is actually a TV series—The Prisoner, conceived, written by and starring the coiled and brooding Patrick McGoohan. Luang Prabang is as hemmed in as the series’ fairy-tale setting, and just as hard to leave. If you ran down one of the flights of terracotta steps, you’d probably be intercepted by a giant white balloon or a man on a penny-farthing. It was also just as cut off from disease and malnutrition. Only a mile or so away to the north and east were hundreds of square hectares of minefields and subsistence farming. The halt and maimed were kept out of sight.

We got onto a boat bound for the caves at Pak Ou where hundreds of Buddhas had been left perched in ranks on dusty shelves like fetishes or sports trophies. We stopped to take on petrol. The river was the colour of milky coffee, the current in the middle muscular, surging, fast. We hugged the bank. The engine kept up a faint insect whine under the great broad-leafed trees and spatulate root-systems. De-forestation hadn’t hit the banks of the Mekong this far north. But between the trunks, we had glimpses of shorn slopes, newly planted with maize; there were plantations of the quick-growing golden badu trees which are used for scaffolding and mass-produced furniture. The hills began to steepen into rocky karst the farther north we got. Creepers hung down. Some trees had anchored themselves in perpendicular fissures of rock. The water bubbled and sweated under the overhangs like a volcanic mudbath.

We diverted up the Nam Ou to watch the boat races at Hatgna—a sort of Henley regatta for rice farmers. The oarsmen screamed as they rowed—Ha! Ha! Ha!—the prows of the canoes standing clear out of the water above the short stabbing strokes. A man commentated unintelligibly into a loudhailer. A girl stared open-mouthed at something over our shoulders. There were families picnicking in the mud, bare toes plucking voluptuously at the ooze. Dogs copulated in a corner of the canvas.

On the way back, a canoe passed us, a boy in the bows aiming a toy gun at me. I was struck by his unembarrassed squint along the barrel, its video-game calculation. When we reached Pak Ou, we had to wait a bit while another craft loaded up and left the jetty. As we moved in I felt a stinging sensation between my eyes. A pellet had shattered against my forehead. ‘What a way to welcome visitors,’ I remarked, when we got out. I saw the culprit skulking behind a petrol drum. His plastic rifle, which I was free to examine, had a spring-loaded barrel. ‘You could have blinded me, you little shit,’ I told him, and tousled his hair. ‘And now your ma will want to charge me to see the Buddhas. Where’s the justice in that?’ The ticket sellers, who had made inroads into a crate of beer, tittered and swayed. ‘Yah! Yah!’ they agreed, not at all offended.

I thought this was nicely ironic: patronising white man getting his come-uppance and paying for the privilege. But it wasn’t just that. I thought the kid showed a certain disinterest—a blitheness, a coolness—in the face of strutting postmodernity and its seductions. You often have the feeling that these places—Buddha caves, rain forests, temples, torture museums, gibbon enclosures—disappear when you aren't around. Nice to find some kid shooting clay pellets through your pretensions.

Capitalism, not socialism, is the great leveler, flattening everything to the same flimsy gold leaf. The Internet is a place of paper-thin dioramas in which Viet Minh and American, the naked and the clothed, pillar-box red and olive-green, bactrian camel and Volvo, temple and chain hotel, Paolo and Francesca, Alp and tulip, Kalashnikov and wand, share the same banner headline. Nothing behind, just unreadable hyperspace.

Jameson’s cultural machine has been and gone, leaving very little other than a whiff of engine oil and a mild pounding in the temples.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Visible Cities

—‘A vile and ridiculous meditation’ Sunday Times

Translated from the English by Rrose Mutt

Esmerelda does not necessarily believe everything I say when I describe the cities I have visited on my expeditions, but she does continue listening to me with greater attention and curiosity than she shows anyone else I know of, and with rather less derision than I am used to. I have observed her presenting her considerable hindquarters to the garrulous tale-telling of other adventurers in my block. Esmerelda scrubs floors and scours the interiors of ovens with a thoroughness and single-mindedness that can baffle even the shrillest and most tenacious of speakers.

The Lion City has evolved on an island surrounded by tepid, thickly salted waters. It is actually three cities in one, each arranged within the other like the skins of an onion. The innermost ‘skin’ is a series of kampongs linked, and inter-linked, by a maze of rickety wooden walkways. The dwellings, like the walkways, are balanced on hardwood poles above a slimy swamp of mangrove roots and dull grey pools, which not only collects tidal effluvia but acts as a repository for the city’s garbage. The smell is not objectionable to nostrils accustomed to the sewers of Paris or the Venetian lido. Besides, wild pigs, dogs, fowls, crocodiles and other scavenging creatures soon clear up the freshest and most offensive of the droppings. Fisherman lay enormous wooden traps called ‘kilong’ in the lagoon, and sampans ply the waterways, when the tide is in, the infant oarsmen steering with leisurely thrusts of a single pole like Oxford punters. In these vessels sit old women in broad-brimmed conical hats made of strips of bamboo, or raffia of some kind. They sell bananas, bolts of cloth, copperware, and the exceptionally long green cheroots (they are a yard or more in length, dear Esmerelda, and have a sweet peppery taste) called ‘rokos’. Their sales patter is innovative and comical. I was invited to a copperware party where I might use a banana to advantage.

The walkways are thronged with picturesque lounging warriors with black tattooed thighs and red betel-stained mouths. Some of the men file their teeth to points and
insert iron plugs into their earlobes. They have muscular arms and legs, and demonstrate a supple spring when mounting the stepped tree-trunks that do for ladders. This agility, supplemented by the barbarity of their appearance, endows their staring with an unearthly and I have to say discomforting intensity of interest. When I passed through them, my dear Esmerelda, my flesh fairly crawled and I shuddered inwardly, expecting a poisoned dart in my neck followed by a prolonged tenderising of my choicest cuts in one of the large cast-iron pots they keep on their verandas. Nothing like that happened, as you may have surmised. In fact I have probably misled you. They are not at all inhospitable. Indeed, they offer their women to their visitors as a sort of Dutch wife for the night. The women are not much use as courtesans, however, as they copulate like beasts, without skill or pleasure.

The land is heavily forested beyond the sloping thatch. The clouds are low-lying, and of a bruised purple or nacreous coloration. There are no landmarks.

Esmerelda tackles the bathroom with Clorox and a hose. I hear her grunts as she wrestles with the toilet bowl, crashing it against the wall in her passion. I told her that one could get lost in the city because the walkways were labyrinthine and unending. I told her that there were strangers who had entered and never left, who had even fathered children and now stepped amongst the tattooed denizens naked and unremarked. I saw a man with grey eyes, startling in that brown anonymous setting. His hand touched my arm, as if he meant to say something, but then it fell away, and he returned to the throng, and I never saw him again.

The Lion City’s second skin is made up of wharves, go-downs, asphalted roads, deep V-shaped ditches, swarming bullock carts and rickshaws, and above these, on the shapely bougainvillea-draped hills, shuttered mansions and white colonnaded civic buildings with red-tiled roofs nestled amidst blue jacarandas and red sealing-wax palms. There is a playing field, called a padang, behind the go-downs, in which sweating Englanders in shirtsleeves hurl varnished crimson balls at black-bearded sacerdotal figures crouched over three gleaming candle-yellow sticks. These figures strike the balls back smartly, eliciting a pleasant pick-pock-puck from the collision of willow-white blade and bouncing leather-bound ball. Dark-featured youths with high jutting bottoms retrieve the balls from the malarial marshes and spiky nibongs that border the padang. They receive a penny for their thoughts. Men in white ducks with cork-tipped cigarettes and pale women in floral frocks, tipsy with gin and bitters, exchange languid glances in the Whites-Only clubs. In the dens of the city, there are tea-gardens, in which disgraced remittance men dance with transvestites, and narrow lanes of shophouses, in which busty Hokkien men and flat-chested Vietnamese prostitutes, the latter with rosebud lips in rib and thigh-hugging cheongsams, squabble over mah jong, gold bullion, opium pipes, birds-nests and the membra virile of tigers. The Malays, a dour hard-faced people with mahogany skins and barrel chests, wearing nothing but rolled-up sarongs, run amok in the spice markets, stabbing chickens and Sikh policemen. Darker beings, possibly Tamil, furtive and stick-legged, communicating in a soft twittering speech, work the rubber plantations to the east of the city. They die continually, in large numbers. They leave no graves.

Steam-ships anchor in the harbour, between Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. From some of these descend naked porters bearing portmanteaus and great leathern trunks. Men in solar topees and women in net hats, narrow-eyed merchants and wide-eyed missionaries, moustachioed patent medicine salesmen and planters, the latter hangdog and hungover, follow. On one gangplank, I saw a pretty little girl in a white flounced frock come skipping down. She had a hoop which she rolled along the quay and sped after, striking it with a stick. A Celestial of uncertain sex and great antiquity hobbled after her, shouting obscenities, while Memsahib looked on with a detached glassy smile. I saw a florid Sahib climb down scowling from a rickshaw. He started after the elderly androgyne in a fury, his fingers closing round the ebony head of his Malacca cane. Punishments here are summary and exquisitely prolonged. Generally, thickset policemen in braces and rolled-up sleeves flog the malefactors, who are, yes, when it comes down to it, mostly those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than the floggers, on a rack in full public view. They use flexible rattan canes, which leave deep wounds in the flesh. I have watched the floggings several times, mostly on my way back from luncheon in Raffles, near the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and have remarked the way the flogged grit their teeth and utter not a word in repentance or even agony.

Some ships disberth files of skinny Dravidians in loincloths, each bearing a paper of indenture, or Malay pilgrims shaven-headed and decked out in the skimpy white raiment of devotion, the wives following after, huddled up in black sacking and face-veils. But mostly, the ships take on cargos of guttapercha and palm-oil, pepper and nutmegs, coffee and timber, all day long, which, later, they carry off across a flat rippling sea the colour of stainless-steel to the freezing continent in the north. You can see them steam away, large creaking iron plates riveted together in Glasgow, beneath red and black stacks painted in Barrow-in-Furnace, dwindling to magical silver darts trailing radiating lines that never seem to lose shape or direction. The smoke of the stacks adds a black underbelly to the heavy cumbrous grey gut of the sky.

Esmerelda never stops for tea. She works at breakneck speed, sluicing the terrace, swabbing the walls, vacuuming the carpets, beating dust out of the beds. Sometimes, when her eyes light on mine, I detect a kind of darkness behind her pupils. Yet she regards me with fondness, I am sure, handling my ornaments with rough tenderness, lending an attentive ear when I follow her from bedroom to kitchen to living-room and back again. She rarely speaks, but when she does she utters words of encouragement and praise, remarking a new mask, exclaiming over a Tibetan chest, touching with wonder the sleek tube of a blowpipe.

The third skin is made of concrete and glass. It soars above the river. It is called Central Business District, or CBD. Money clings to the insides of its transparent walls like pale green gekkoes. The melancholy heart-wrenching bloop-bloop of drongos has given way to the hideous bawling of cell phones. The skyscrapers reach through the clouds. They symbolise not vanity or sexual potency but the power of money, financial clout, the dry rustle of freshly printed bills. The towers mimic not the topless towers of Illium but the toppled ones of Wall Street and the World Trade Center. This is the newest and oldest of dreams—the dream of untold riches, the Midas touch, the clink of coin. Here the young flock in search of a windfall. Here youths, with buzz haircuts, gimlet eyes and swollen crotches, land, slinging aside their jackets, rolling up their sleeves to plunder remote exchequers and invent new ones out of thin air. In Harry's Bar, at the foot of the towers, you can see them nursing their beers, spitting calculus through soy sauce smeared mouths. It is number and quantity that drives them, the infinity figure that cannot be counted. The Lion roars in the narrow antelope haunt of their heads.

There are mini-cities, Roman-arched and Bauhaused, in the shadow of the CBD, called Suntec City, Vivocity and Raffles City, the consumer spin-off of corporate spending. Here, leggy Chinese girls in ribbed jeans and discreet shoulder tattoos (scorpions, butterflies) drawn in henna, and phthysic Chinese boys with pierced ears and shocked blue hair ransack the designer shops and Gap franchises and nourish themselves on lattes in the Starbucks and Coffee Beans and Tea Leaves. Putting on our Aviator sunglasses and plunging into the broad whispering concourses of the Mass Rapid Transit, we head for Orchard Road and its bulging malls, our hearts beating, our fingers inter-linked, white over yellow, naturally blue-eyed and jut-jawed White Man with surgically-enhanced Singa Girl. Giant video screens show trailers from the latest Bond blockbuster or ads for holidays in New Zealand and Alaska. The clubs are brothel-red inside with strobes and vodka breezers and hiphop and trance. With opium unfashionable and cocaine-use inviting a whipping, the drug of choice is Red Bull and Panadol. The clientele, mostly white, spin like tops on the under-lit floors, while black marines terrify the Orient in the shadows.

Chewing gum is forbidden. Littering is forbidden. Anyone who spits or smokes in sight of the CCTV cameras will be incarcerated in Changi with the British ghosts, or deported to Indonesia. There is no racism. Quota systems are symbolic. Dogs don't defecate. No one has Aids. Mosquitoes have been vaporised. The air does not smell of overcooked cabbage and cat piss. Hygiene, heat-reflecting tinfoil hats and free speech are loudly encouraged. There is a Speaker's Corner where one may speak one's mind, provided one has a license, one is aged above 21, one is a property owner, one is in full possession of one's faculties and one is at one with the world.

Esmerelda is dusting the bookshelves, lifting out books by the armful, returning them the wrong way up, or in the wrong order. Cities are made of dreams, I tell her, and like dreams they are the end and the beginnings of our fears and hopes. If we are afraid of change or darkness or sorrow, the city will reflect this in its ordinances and regulations, its prisons and hospitals, its electricity grids and back-up generators. If we long for heaven and its gardens, the city will give us back parks, amusement arcades, malls, esplanades, great pleasure domes and stadia of light. I catch Esmerelda's arm and spin her round. Don't you see? I implore her. Look around you! What do you find here? She shakes her head. I have omitted to mention that Esmerelda is hard of hearing.

The Lion City’s second skin sometimes shows through in places, but is soon mummified with silicon laminate or cast in bronze for the tourists. Towkays and coolies stride eternally, artistically, under Kapital’s mausolia. The shophouses are double-glazed, retaining their colonial-era charisma, while the insides gleam with chrome and glass, doubling as boutique hotels and muscle gyms.There are enclaves of vegetation on Ann Siang hill, prettified and plaqued for the curious. The Merlion is the creature for which the city is named. It is half lion, half fish, and has the petulant features of a child deprived of a cookie. It stands at the mouth of the river facing seawards, spitting. People like to have themselves photographed with an arm round its neck. Fort Canning Park is a place of spirits, Malay ghosts walking through the oleanders with krisses gripped between their teeth. The Battle Box remembers the defeat of the British by the Japanese. It is made out of bones. Overlooked children howl in its stuffy innards. Nothing more is visible in the Autumn months because of the haze which is caused by the seasonal burning of forests in Borneo and Sumatra. Respiratory disease is common. Oxygen starvation is growing. The people on Orchard Road are staggering. They tumble and sprawl, their thin chests heaving.

Coughing, tearing, on my way back to Pagoda Street, dear Esmerelda, I saw people reeling about the piazzas and subways, tumbling with small barely audible screams. It could not be the haze, I thought, or bird flu, or a poison gas, as the city’s governors were always assiduous in anticipating calamity, and broadcasting the vaguest intimations of approaching peril on the sides of buildings, through TV or the MRT’s tannoy system and the city’s omnipresent plasma screens. It must be something invisibly ancient, a disease extruded through the city’s several skins that only attacked those whose roots reached deep down, through the planks, tattoos and slime. I came across a man with green hair, a bolt through his neck and orange reptilian eyes. I have an aversion to lunacy, or affectation. I barged into him, catching him off-balance, so that he fell under a passing truck. The truck jumped over him—the human body is remarkably solid—and shot into a crowd of gaping children, cutting a moist swathe, like a mower through young green grass.

And then it all vanished, before my very eyes, and I vanished too, before yours, my dear Esmerelda.

Esmerelda is not thunderstruck by these claims. She only titters, which is what she always does when she must broach an indelicate topic, and shakes a can of Vim in my direction, not it would seem in remonstrance. ‘Empty, sah!’ ‘Ok,’ I remark, ‘I will replace it.’ ‘Can have new gloves too, sah?’ she adds, now holding up two tattered yellow objects which appear to have seen better, much more elastic and wholesome days. ‘Yes, there will be a new pair awaiting when you come next.’ ‘Not good for cleaning toilet-bowl, sah.’ Another titter. ‘Quite.’ ‘Thank you, sah.’ This miserable exchange will have to do for a sample of our repartee, the whiz and crackle of our brilliancies. ‘There are cities, I tell her,’ as she ventures into the spare room, and retrieves the vacuum from its corner stall, ‘whose lustre and magnitude is largely a matter of rumour or trick photography. They exist, if at all, chiefly in hyperspace, as an arrangement of pixels or a rainbow cascade of digi—.' The rest of this utterance is drowned out by the dismal Horowitzian howl of the vacuum at work.

When next I alighted, it was on to the Arabian Gulf, amidst the floating spires, citadels and sweltering streets of the City of Creeps, once called al-Wasl. No one knows how the city arrived at this appellation, though it is put about that the word refers to the movement of water in the creek the city is built around rather than to the nature of the inhabitants—who are not, on the whole, invertebrate, or furtive, or unduly, unpleasantly complimentary. A case might be made for the noun’s subsidiary sense of parasitism, but that seems unfair on the ones who must live and work in the city and yet are not native to the place.

The City of Creeps is more fiction than fact. Its name implies base and bedrock, not superstructure or free-floating weightless ambition. For the city appears not to be earthbound, not to be down here, amongst us, so to speak; it defies, that is to say, its earthly roots (city comes from civitatem, Esmerelda, a Latin signifier meaning citizenship, whose own roots, returning to Greekish eponyms, denote homestead, the place where people lie down). It is more like a figment of the imagination (albeit a vulgar philistine imagination—that of one who has been brutalised and de-natured by reality TV, bling and other manifestations of the deity), a projection, a dream, a heavenly dwelling, than a real properly evolved place. It is material but not concrete. It sells itself. But it is unreal estate.

This city is money idealised, money stripped of exchange, currency, number, value, tang and biro scribbles in Arabic. It is money reified to the point of pure pullulant abstraction. As such, it is charismatic and highly marketable, like, well, like God. Perhaps that is why it is admired so much by the neighbours. Perhaps that is why celebrities from all the corners of the earth like to buy holiday homes on its islands and within its whirligig walls. Celebrity, my dear Esmerelda, is an effect of light. And light, as we know, attracts light. That is why, let’s face it, the universe is not dark. And that is why, inversely, wherever we find darkness we cannot find money or celebrity or God. This collocation is neither mischievous nor unreasonable.

I went into the Mother of Malls. (Everything in the City of Creeps is the ne plus ultra of everything everywhere else, my dear.) I saw designer shops thronged with Europeans, Americans, Singaporeans, Japanese, Chinese, Australians, Russians. I saw a ski slope entombed in glass, down which athletes in padded ski-jackets swooped, and over which shivering children in fur-lined anoraks clanked on a ski-lift. Keep in mind that outside, my dear Esmerelda, the temperature was over 40 degrees centigrade and the humidity count 98 per cent. I saw an avenue of camera and cell phone outlets. I saw camels with gold brocaded headdresses step lightly through the lumpen diners in a food court. I saw a hot-air balloon descend through a sliding panel in the roof. I saw roller-skaters and sword-swallowers, funambulists and robots. I saw men with computers strapped to their skulls. I saw temple dancers and fakirs. I saw a bungee jump stetched taut a thousand feet above a pool of jade, and a bear being baited in a pit. I saw a game-boy minotaur in a labyrinth, I saw oiled wrestlers throttling a multi-limbed plum-coloured alien. I saw the Devil, I saw the face of God. This is a city that knows no limits. As I passed through, I was reminded of a Quranic warning: ‘Hast thou not seen how thy Lord did with ‘Ad—with Iram of the columns? —the like of which has not been created in the lands?’ On going to take possession of his earthly paradise, it is locally claimed, Shedad, son of ‘Ad, was struck dead by terrible noise from heaven. But then again, I reflected, this city is in the heavens. It is no terrestrial creation. It is a virtual Paradise. It is its own noise.

Who are the people who live here? How is the City of Creeps constructed? Let us answer these conundra, Esmerelda, by scrutinising the city as it passes overhead, arid and rocky, trailing ropes, fishing lines, cables, ducts, rubble and veils of dust, like a land Lemuel Gulliver might have travelled to, the sea following after, like a petrified splash, or a sheet of stiffened blue tarpaulin. The underside is composed of crumbling porous sandstone and stalactites, which have been formed out of the excrement of molluscs, compounded to a friable white stone. The topside is glass and breezeblock, marble and tarmacadam, date-palm and eucalyptus, sand and sea. The people who build the dreamy spires and colossal galleries are stunted hardy types from Kashmir and Nepal. They don’t get paid anything, they are content with their crusts of bread, tins of sardines and bottles of warm antiseptic cola. When they are not working, they sleep 25 to a room, just as they do in their own countries, which is therefore no hardship. When they are working, they wear their normal stained trousers and broken shoes, and swing like Himalayan langurs, from girder to girder, a paintbrush or rivet-gun between their uneven discoloured teeth. They long ago lost the habit of speech, communicating in hoots, whistles and moans.

Below them, in the glass tunnels that link each tower, translucent beings in silver suits and bejewelled sunglasses come and go, exchanging small talk about cold fusion, Banksy and organic rice. These are the tourists, the consumers, the easily appalled. The women have deep bronzed cleavages and spiral painted finger-nails. They vogue for cameras, any cameras, even the closed circuit TV ones, adopting expressions of violently abrupt happiness, or else they punish themselves with Nautilus machines and self-induced vomiting in the airborne toilets. They say ‘whatever’ a lot, and have affairs with cicatriced African warriors. The men are hollow. They are stitched together from hair implants, straw and glossy magazine covers. When they raise their heads from the glass tables you can see white foam seethe at their nostrils. They are very good at scuba-diving and baccarat.

The owners? you query. Ah, Esmerelda, the owners. The owners of the City of Creeps are even more fabulous beings, rarely seen outside their marmoreal desert retreats. They attire themselves in finely crafted spotless white dishdashas which appear to be watermarked with coronets and angels’ wings. They put on headdresses, whose peaked edges they contrive to make waviform. They will spend hours tweaking the troughs and crests into place. The ends of their agals hang down their backs like rodents’ tails. This is all they do each day. Sometimes they sigh into titanium-plated mobile phones. When they walk they exude a sort of musk which pervades the immediate atmosphere like an inert gas, silencing some, causing others to feel intrusive, tolerated, worthless. Their gait is measured and stately. They appear to have no emotions. The quick silvery laughter and the show of mild irritation at the tardy accumulation of the day’s profits are rare and untypical. They have no need of speech or bathrooms or food. When they stir a sandaled foot, it is said, even the sponges in the ocean look lively.

Esmerelda paces anxiously about. She seems lost in thought, no doubt overcome by the implications of my speech. Her empire is delimited by the walls of the rooms she sweeps and scrubs. She has little knowledge of the wider world, except what she can glean from the grunts of her companions, or the torn and stained pages of the Pondicherry Gazette that parcel the bundle of dried fish she gets from the Indian store in Hawally. She knows nothing of the world’s immense gulfs, between rich and richer, between white and whiter, between strong and stronger; her simple instincts are confined to the narrow straitened circumstance of apartments such as this and their grains of red dust. I await her rustic questions. Perhaps she wants me to tell her of the food they eat, of the opulent perpetually clean bathrooms and sitting rooms of the Tower of the Arabs? Perhaps she wants to ask about the spas and swimming pools. I am happy to oblige, to fill in another gap in the vast continental emptiness of her mind. I wait with a kindly encouraging expression playing lightly across my handsome Aryan features. I can see she is the throes of a decision. ‘Yes, my dear?’ She summons up all her courage, and says in a rush, ‘Can use house-phone, sah?’ ‘House-phone?’ I repeat. ‘Is that all you want?’ Her features writhe with apology. 'Well,' I say through tight lips. ‘You'd better help yourself.’

The Tower of the Arabs is designed to suggest a traditional ocean-going vessel, a dhow, say, or boom, in full sail.This effect is nicely ironised by the circular helicopter pad at the top and the fleet of limos at the entrance. The hotel stands—in dry-dock, as it were—on a man-made island, which is linked to the rest of the land satirical types call “Do Buy” by a causeway where honeymooners, dabbing the humidity away, pose for photographs. It is outside, looking up, that you have the sharpest and most lasting of epiphanies. Nothing is real; all is false, or false-bottomed, product of matter and mimesis. The world is a copy, a Platonic counterfeit, which has replaced the original. When you go into the Tower, my dear Esmerelda, it is as if you are entering the Arabian Dream: all the trappings of plush inlays, marble, thick-piled carpeting, bulbous columns, timed water-spouts, aquaria, figurines, mosaics, hundreds of pretty concierges from impoverished Asian countries. It makes Versailles or Blenheim Palace look shoddy and penny-pinched.

Sharp-suited men with Premier footballer haircuts approach on spongy sound-proofed shoes. They introduce themselves with sad knowing smiles and painless handshakes. They sit you down, amidst candelabra and potted plants, clapping for dates and cardomon coffee (a winning local touch), and then appear to interview you, in the confidential manner of a clinic for gentlemen with sexual problems or a gun-running outfit. When they’ve finished filling in their forms and offering murmured advice, another man, introducing himself as ‘Glen, your personal butler,’ keenly grasps your haversack, shrugging off your unthinking backwoodsman’s attempt to carry it yourself. You have the feeling he would like to pick you up too, bearing you aloft on shimmering dragonfly wings. The atrium opens above, limned in crimson and gold, with fairy lights winking around the glass capsules of the elevators. You ascend past familiar-looking people in linen suits and Versacci print dresses (didn't I see him on E-channel? isn't she..? no, surely not!) stepping in and out of the jewellery shops. Suddenly, you feel overwhelmed, not out of inadequacy or cloddishness. It is not a class thing. It is not even moral. It is matter of exaltation and its displacements.

‘For this is what you’ve been dreaming of. This is the acme of all that life has to offer. This is what you work for, Esmerelda, this is what you strive for, as you wield your bucket and mop. This is it, the Great End, the Point of It All.’ Esmerelda gapes up at me. There is a cord of drool playing from the corner of her mouth. I hand her a tissue. ‘This is what justifies all struggle, this is what validates the exertions of work, the callused palms, the broken nails, the backache and heatstroke. This is the glittering prize. Oh, it may come in different shapes, different smells, different costs—but however it comes, however humble or expensive it is, it always boils down to what is, essentially, absolutely, finally, nothing at all.' Esmerelda turns to one side, wiping away bubbles of snot. I see in her stooped resigned walk an allegory of our earthly passage. She returns with a dustpan and brush. ‘Can clean under desk, sah?’ ‘What?’ I regard her foolish benign features with a mixture of dismay and admiration. Esmerelda is stoical, a creature of almost superhuman courage and perseverance. ‘Of course, my dear child,’ I tell her, patting her tightly wound coconut-oiled topknot.

Esmerelda thrashes the sofa cushions, her tracksuit bottoms lifting with the effort of each blow, while the TV blares in the corner, advertising a fresh atrocity in Africa or Asia Minor. I approach on tiptoe—Esmerelda does not to like interruptions—a finger to my lips. ‘Cities are reservoirs,’ I tell her boomingly, aiming my words at her vermiform right ear, ‘of memory!’ ‘Aie!’ she screams back, in unrestrained delight. ‘They are the unconscious of the world, revealing in their shabby backstreets, bedraggled squares and rain-eroded columns the history of a people. The museums are the tarted up memory banks—they need not detain us—but the parks and gardens are the moments of recovery—from trauma, my dear, and fear of the unforgettable. Only consider the exhaust fume-blackened plane trees, the wilting violets, the old man alone on a wrought-iron bench, staring transfixed, not by the litter of used condoms and syringes, as you might expect, but by the pale leached sky.’ Esmerelda wields the carpet-beater, a wild look in her eye. ‘It is all right,’ I tell her gently, ‘we are the city’s narrators, not its dark uncertain narrative.’ Esmerelda makes a dash for the bathroom, and tries to lock herself in. ‘Diarrhoea?’ I ask kindly, hastening after. ‘I have Imodium, legacy of my recent voyage to Tibet, if you need it.’ I jam my toe in the door, forcing it ajar only a couple of inches. I am a man of sensibility. ‘The City of Creeps has no past,’ I declaim, to distract her. ‘It enshrines no ages of gold or even brass. Its people are temporary visitors. It has no past to recall in parades and demonstrations, posters and paintings; it is a place of surfaces, two-dimensional bliss. The City of Creeps is a zone of appetites, my dear Esmerelda, earthly hungers morphing, by a psychosis of loss and rootlessness, into ranting cosmic greed.’

‘During my stay in the Tower of the Arabs,’ I explain through the gap, ‘I several times noticed a Slav or Russian—he had that Eastern European look of sleek malevolence and suspect luxury and was coarsely voluble and loutish at the breakfast table. He had a gold earring inset with a ruby, Esmerelda, a gold necklace, chinking bracelets, and tiny pointed shoes made out of snakeskin. But what I noticed most—and I believe I was not alone in this—were the hefty pair of buttocks—larger I would argue than yours—and of which he seemed inordinately, if perversely, proud—that swayed behind him as he sauntered between the buffet tables. He wore a red thong, plainly visible through the thin fabric of his flannels. He had the habit of bending elaborately over the hot-trays and spearing lambs’ kidneys, calves’ livers and hogs’ testes in a way that seemed designed to draw attention to the protuberance and rotundity of his gluteai.’

‘He was accompanied by a sizeable square-jawed woman with thick chestnut-brown hair—possibly a wig—who monopolised the bacon-rashers and ham cuts, elbowing anyone else aside, should they attempt to capture a morsel or two for their own plate. Others had to stand by at the roast fowl counter while she piled twelve or more plates high with steaming turkey cuts, drumsticks, and other favoured portions, few of a lean or nutritious quality. Then, with an imperious bark, she would direct the waiters to convey the heaving platter to her table. She would sit down, rolling up her sleeves, napkin tucked into the neck of her blouse and work her way through it all, the small muscles in her shoulders jumping at each lunge of fork or knife. She gave no signs of enjoyment, merely uttering a hoarse grunt whenever her companion delivered a stream of invective or a brutal oath. On the other side of the window, I noticed half a dozen skinny Nepalis, drowning in the hotel’s royal blue livery, who would break off from raking the soft white sands to gape as she sucked the thick orange-trimmed white fat off the slices of ham she carried whole to her mouth.

‘It was clear to me that something would have to be done about these two. I conceived a plan, Esmerelda, of an ingenious and, if I may say so, felicitous and witty nature. What I would do to them would be done in such a way as to compensate the woman for the years of abuse she had endured at the hands of the man. I am a humanitarian at heart, Esmerelda, as you must have realised by now, and am conscious of the intersection of class and gender in all forms of oppression. In essence, my plan involved feeding the man’s plump buttocks to the woman. How, what, why, I hear you cry? Hatred is like love; unrequited, it leads to sleepless nights, black engulphing despair, and bad poetry. To be alleviated, it must be consummated. I am a resourceful man, impudent and bold. I disguised myself as one of the hotel cooks, enticing the Slav pervert into the dimly lit recesses of the kitchens (I used a bait of succulent animal organs, anointed with cranberry jam and sour cream), when the other cooks were preoccupied with the salads and tropical fruits, and sharply despatched him in the darkness of the pantry. I am a dab hand with a bone-saw. It was a matter of a moment to carve off his rump, wash off the blood, put it through the salami slicer—you should have seen the beautiful opalescent shavings, dear Esmerelda, like mother of pearl—and fry the slices up in butter on one of the hotplates. These I substituted for a tray of ordinary rashers, knowing that the ogress would certainly get hold of them before anyone else. Are you all right in there, my dear?

‘What was left of the Russian gangster I beheaded and lopped free of limbs, before leaving it cocooned in butcher’s gauze in cold storage. I fancy I did a pretty thorough job. I had never gutted a human before, but I can assure you, Esmerelda, it is surprisingly easy. You just grab a handful of glossy purple intestine—initially rather slimy to the touch, and flocculent, like the feel you might associate with that drainage hole you are attempting to unblock, and yank.—Are you well, Esmerelda? You sound as if you are retching. The odour of drains can be stomach-turning, I grant you. Pinch your nostrils together, or insert twists of tissue into each. Anyway, the best part was watching the monster’s better half, if that was what she was, gobbling her plate of gleaming coiled rashers. As she munched, crunching on the scorched rind, she seemed happy, glowing, I thought, as if with an inner radiance.’

In the role of Lord High Admiral, James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany, gave his name—or handle—to the city towards which the world (and this tale) presently tends. He never visited it. Instead, he spent his time ogling Queen Catherine’s maids of honour, debauching most, before converting to Catholicism, and becoming, on the advice of God and the death of his brother Charles, an absolute monarch and champion of Catholic pleaders. (England, you should know, my dear Esmerelda, was at that time officially a Protestant country whose king or queen must be defender of the faith, not the willing subject of papal frottering.) Amongst the new king’s most infamous appointments was Judge Jeffries—he of the ‘Bloody Assizes,’ in which Protestant rebels were tortured, enslaved or beheaded in fantastic numbers. Such outrageous turns or snubs to people and polity could not last; the upper classes conspired with James’ Protestant daughter Ann and her Dutch husband, the engagingly named William of Orange, to usher in the Glorious Revolution. This led to the establishment of the supremacy of an elected parliament, a situation that would prevail in time throughout the rest of Western Europe and the emerging Free World. James fled to Ireland pursued by the Orangemen, an erratic relocation which resulted in another lamentable episode in modern history (you will know it, litotically, as the Troubles, my dear Esmerelda, if you know anything at all). Fearful of William’s bugaboo army, James very soon fled Ireland—his Irish supporters referred to him as James the Beshitten—for France, where he languished in a state of bewilderment and hyperstheniac penitence before dying of a brain haemorrhage. What a man! Few can claim to have caused so much to happen to so many in so short a time. The old rogue was the founding father of what is now known as modern civilisation.

James’ eponymous town looked more like a Hollywood blockbuster setting—a series of gleaming glass turrets in the slanting rays of the sun, awaiting a computer-generated giant wave or shower of meteors of immense size—than the stately minster I had expected, as my craft swung to starboard, bisecting a lacy cloud. The gleaming white airport was bizarrely situated amongst broken-down clapperboard dwellings inhabited by poor black men with strange ice-coloured irises and stiff-legged walks. It was like a clip from a zombie film. But the freeway soon left all that behind, rising in a generous parabola to reveal a vista of crystal structures, more fabulous from below than those I had seen from above. ‘Look!’ I told the taxi driver. ‘Look at that!’ He didn’t seem as impressed, merely contemplating me through the rear-view mirror for a while, with a dramatically arched eyebrow. Freeways now met freeways, the city rose between, like expensively whitened teeth from blackened and withered gums.

Esmerelda tackles the windows with an orange rag and Dac glass cleaning fluid. She perches on the sill on one knee, reaching round the sliding panes, while her left hand, or right hand, depending on which direction the pane slides, describes ever more widening circles. The other hand grips the window frames, the knuckles flexing under the strain. At times, hearing her shriek fearfully, I assist by holding on to her ankles. Neither of us would like her to plummet several storeys into the date-palms below. There is every chance a falling body would miss the fronds altogether, hitting the concrete decking beneath them at speed. I have pointed this out to her. But she is deaf to my warnings, or nerveless and unstinting in her quest for job-satisfaction.

‘Not only do cities embody human hopes and memories,’ I tell her, as she leans out perilously, striving to reach the upper right-hand corner of the glass with her rag, ‘they also entomb fantasy, imaginative excess, the leakage of the aspirant mind. In the main thoroughfares and civic centres, in the statues and squares, in the art galleries and libraries, there is a lure, a distraction, an abomination. And yet this thing, this ce la, to use a fashionable French term, is only there by virtue of what we, in our innocence or despair, long for. It is the endlessly escaping, endlessly ramifying secret that motivates, sustains and frustrates our lives. If I say “New York” to you I am sure that you will immediately imagine something far in excess of anything I might in turn imagine or communicate to you, something before which even language falters. Am I right?’ Esmerelda’s back tenses, her hand slips, she utters a squeal. I divine instantly that this is no concurring yell. I wrap my arms round her legs, as she tilts and lurches into the void. Her upper half swings out of the window. Somewhere far below, I hear the fat thud of the plastic bottle of Dac’s cleaning fluid. My eyeballs bulge. Esmerelda is far weightier than I had anticipated. ‘Hang on,’ I gasp. I brace myself, putting one foot against the wall. ‘I all right, sah!’ Esmerelda protests. I see her peering face above me. ‘Nonsense,’ I tell it, 'I'll have you inside in a jiffy!' I heave her back into the room, but as I do my foot becomes entangled with a chair-leg, and I trip, collapsing backwards with outflung arms. Esmerelda comes down on top of me, the orange rag and Esmerelda's fingers inadvertently thrust into my mouth. It is as if I have attempted to catch a grand piano. All the wind is knocked out of me. The rag tastes of turpentine.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Abominable Snowmen — Tibet, August 2007

The Kodari checkpoint was a rallying-point for grubby kids and money-changers. We descended into a thicket of reaching hands. We had to be quick when the driver handed our bags down. Behind us, the monsoon was heavier, darker. It seemed to be hastening towards us. Our Nepali guide introduced us to his brother who would take us across the bridge. The brother stepped forward, turning on a smile of reassuring brilliance. He told us we’d have to carry our bags a few hundred meters up the hill, or else pay the kids to do it. The kids, pressing in, smelt of sewage. ‘Porter, sahib?’ Fearing for the valuables, I fended them off, stumbling and wheezing up to the bridge. The river smoked and crackled like a lava flow.

We were instructed to lay our bags opposite where we were lined up. ‘Why?’ ‘Just do it, OK.’ I left everything, including a plastic bag stuffed with crackers, bananas and water. A man with a hose came along and drenched it in disinfectant. ‘That’ll improve the taste,’ I told him. We were made to step in single file across the Immigration window, and were rebuked if we stepped too fast. I thought of Russia and the USA, Syria and the Gulf states, Myanmar and North Korea. Is Orwell’s oligarchical collectivism the ideal state of the post-modern world, its dark projection and unholy wish? Of course it is. Only idiots believe that globalization can actually loosen the grip of passport control and identity checks, opening the world up to carnival and endless inter-continental clubbing. This is the age of CCTV, metal-detectors and tazer guns. ‘You may stand here,’ a Chinese officer in a leaf-green uniform said—at least I think he said that. Whatever he said, he said it very politely. (Another officer would discreetly take my photograph when we left Tibet.) Coincidentally, the word ‘courtesy’ has roots in medieval law whereby a man gained custodianship of his dead wife’s inheritance—rather than the lesser violence of courtly love; the word ‘polite’ derives its buttoned-up fury from the Latin ‘politus,’ signifying neatness, order, discipline. The clay must fit the mould, not the mould the clay.

Round the corner, a row of moulds waited. This was a fleet of identical beige Land Cruisers. One of these would be taking T and I (and two others, as agreed upon with the agent in Kathmandu) up to Zhangmu—or Dram, as Tibetans called it—and thence to Lhasa, or so I thought. But some sort of altercation was taking place. The brother was having courteous words with another man. This man had a ponytail, North Face trekker’s gear, and the shriller voice. They spoke in English for our benefit. The road from Zhangmu to Nyalam was nearly impassable, due to landslides, and so we would have to traverse it in four-wheel drive jeeps, not the coach everyone had paid for. This meant we would each have to pay an extra 10 US dollars. I say ‘each’ and ‘we’ no longer meaning T and me (and the two others) but a company of 30 or more. (This eventuality had not begun to dawn on me when we’d been herded on to the bus—its roof bent double with backpacks—but only a few minutes ago, when the brothers addressed us all as one.) ‘What? But I thought we’d paid for a jeep already!’ This supposition proved as grounded as the suggestion that a yeti was presently making water on the other side of the road. The shrill man, whom I will call Mosca (he would be our Tibetan guide), grew shriller. Some of us began to smell a rat, though none of us could be sure where it was, or on which side of the border it had died. ‘What the hell is going on?’ a white giant enquired closely of a tiny brown man. Another man, hair apparently filled with static, told Mosca what he thought of him (‘Cheat! Brigand!’), then strode about striking operatic poses (‘Ladrón! Ratero!’). ‘You always do this,’ the brother told Mosca, folding his arms across his chest and staring off into the distance with trembling lip. ‘Every time.’

This episode could be taken as a mis-en-scenic foreshadowing of what we were getting ourselves into, or of what had been ignored in all those choices we’d made in getting this far. It was not possible to enter Tibet as an individual tourist. You needed a group visa, entrusting your life and luggage to a party or parties unknown. You might have to share a bedroom with a grotesquely tattooed and pierced Eastern European child of nature, a trio of excitable anthropologists with Inspector Clouseau accents and the habit of delivering off-key versions of 60s love-songs during those long boring intervals between sleep, chummy Australian New Agers with pencil and paper games, home-videos and photographs (‘See that?’—passing over a picture of kangaroos feeding in front of ghostly gum trees—‘That’s our garden’), German corporate lawyers dropping out to travel round the world on pogo-sticks, a Portuguese-Canadian-Scottish freelance journalist with improbable stories about former wives (‘chased me down the street, brandishing a cleaver’), Italian sweethearts, Egyptian spiritual voyagers, piratically scarfed Korean hippies (‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Here and there, dude… Korea at the moment’), Aid workers from Arizona and Sri Lanka, a recently unbuttoned Something-in-the-City busily acquiring a conscience, an ethically promising future and a Asian girlfriend, a mild-mannered teacher from Hyderabad, or a rude and intolerant one from Kuwait.

But this was where globalization, in its hyperreal incarnation, really did swing. We’d all used the Internet and its myriad sites to get here; we’d been brought together in ways unthinkable 20 years earlier. Instead of being packaged and wrapped by Thompsons or TibetTours dot com, we were long-tail speculators, micro trend-makers, niche-venturers, forming our own high altitude tribe, based on little more than an affinity for momos and prayer wheels. We hadn’t known each other beforehand, we all had different origins and accents, yet we were happy to be propelled along at nightfall, 2 or more miles above the earth, holding hands and making bad jokes in worse English, falling out and making up, skimming flash-floods and scree, gulping oxygen-depleted air and garlic soup, being whisked past monasteries and mountains, rivers and rimpoches, till we reached Lhasa and the massive sunlit embodiment of a 200 year-old collective fantasy. We might tell each other about those who’d been there before us, braving blizzards and bandits, butter candles and butter tea, high altitude sickness and hyperthermia. They were part of our tribe, the ancestors. Those that we could name, Henry Savage Landor, Alexandra David-Neel, Captain Francis Younghusband or Brad Pitt (posing as Heinrich Harrer), had had a thrillingly rough time at the hands of the affronted inhabitants. It wouldn’t be so different for us. This was still the Forbidden Land.

Tibet was part of China, and had been since 1950 when Mao sent in his armies to liberate the people from feudal oppression, Buddhist superstition and Western imperialism. According to Mary Craig’s Tears of Blood, liberation involved the public shaming of monks (‘thamzing’), forced sterilisations of women and girls and forced abortions, torture and confinement in prison camps of those who didn’t want to be liberated, the coercion, beating and incarceration of the old Panchen Lama, the kidnapping and subsequent re-incarceration of the new one somewhere inside Beijing, the flight into exile of thousands to Nepal and India, including the Dalai Lama, the re-distribution of Tibetan children into torrid industrial zones in Hubei province for educational purposes, and the settlement of vast populations of Han Chinese in the central valleys of Tibet. Between 1950 and 1970, 1.2 million Tibetans—or one fifth of the total population—died as a result of murder, starvation, torture, disease, or imprisonment; between 1950 and 1970, 1.2 million Han immigrants settled in the towns of eastern and southern Tibet. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), hundreds of monasteries were destroyed, and of those that survived, their images and paintings were defaced or tossed into rivers or melted down for their gold. It was perhaps unsurprising that Mosca should try to extort money from us. He was only adapting to his paymasters’ techniques; he was trying to survive. I was inclined to pay up. But things are never quite as simple or clear-cut as we would like them to be. One of our party, Robin, later told me that the whole 10 dollars business was a set up, involving Mosca and the Nepali brothers, no one else. ‘Really?’ ‘Of course it was.’ Robin was a chartered accountant. He must know about such things. I thought of Mosca’s expensive trekking gear and flash ponytail. ‘Oh,’ I said.

It was pitch black. We were now about 2500 metres, or 1.5 miles, above sea-level. Our convoy of jeeps was parked somewhere just below the Himalayan peaks amidst wet opaque clouds. There really was, it turned out, something wrong with the road, but it wasn’t a romantic landslide, product of the monsoon and steep slopes; the road didn’t exist, or rather was still being built. Only one-way traffic was allowed along what passed for a track for 12 hours at a time. Sometimes we got out of the jeeps to smoke or urinate or just stretch our legs. Robin got out to feud with Mavis, in clattering thin-lipped whispers. Armande hung around the American aid workers, serenading them with ‘Twenty-four hours from Tulsa,’ in a full-lipped screeching falsetto. Troy carried a tripod and a selection of Leicas, stopping every now and then to photograph the drizzle. There was something both heroic and sinister about Troy. He could turn the most boring activity into a thing of utmost fascination. He had gaunt features and a hoodie, like a Grey Rider or the killer in Scream. He showed me a dull smudge in his viewfinder. ‘If you lengthen the exposure,’ he murmured darkly and left the sentence hanging. In the jeep, they were watching a movie on the inboard DVD player. Brunhilde and Stig craned over the head-rests, eyes popping with excitement. ‘Terminator in Tibet,’ Stig said (he pronounced Tibet ‘Tee-bet’). ‘Who would believe it?’ ‘Oh wow,’ Brunhilde said. ‘Awesome!’ Brunhilde had been travelling in India and Nepal. She had a rope of hair coiled round the back of her head like a character in a tale by the Brothers Grimm, and a jumble of pins stuck through her lower lip. I asked her if she was making up for months of sensory deprivation.

The journey to Nyalam was made more spectacular by the fact that we couldn’t see any of it. We couldn’t see the wall-like mountain, on the right, or the sheer vertical drop to the left. We could see, in the headlights, the gouged plunging track and the sudden spray on the windscreen, and we could hear and feel the waterfalls as they bounced off the roof. Haphazardly parked bulldozers loomed out of the night, along with the odd infernal campsite—blue tarpaulin drawn over lanterns and flickering fires around which demonic figures seemed to prance and gesture with pitchforks—where, presumably, the road-workers had retired to sleep. I noticed a pair of naked legs stretched out into the road. They didn’t even twitch as we careered by. On one bend, in the sweep of the lights, we saw a group of men in black suits standing together, shoulders hunched in the rain. They were all smoking, with the conformity and disinterest of the clerks and archivists Yiyun Li describes in A Thousand Years of Prayers. They looked as if they were waiting for something normal to come along like a bus or a train. Perhaps there was a block of offices nearby. Perhaps they’d just been returned by satisfied aliens.

I felt ill with lack of sleep and the strain of sitting bolt upright. Or was it the beginnings of altitude sickness? We had climbed to more than 2 miles above London and New York. Another guide called Goli had joined us and now frolicked amongst the bags in the back. He was babbling something lewd about yaks and yonis. When I lost interest, he told me what I was missing outside—Chomolongma, or the Princess Cow, also known as Everest (‘most picturesque at this elevation’), Gauri Shankar, Cho Oyu, Milarepa’s Cave—the cave where the minstrel monk had sojourned 900 years ago, subsisting on nothing but weeds till he’d turned a vivid chlorophyl green—and the terrifying gorges where so many vehicles (‘including Land Cruisers, Purse, hee-hee’) had come to grief. When we got to Nyalam, we had to wait around while Mosca went to inspect the hotel we were supposed to be staying in. When he finally reappeared, an hour later, it was only to tell us that we wouldn’t be staying there after all. We would have to go on to Tingri, 3 hours distant. We would sleep in a guest house there. ‘What? But we need to sleep now! It’s 3 a.m.!’ ‘No rooms! You are too many!’ Mosca stared at us in outrage for being too many. Goli stood beside me banging his arms against his sides possibly to beat off the cold, possibly in voiceless mirth. Just before he vanished forever, leaving me with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d imagined him, he said, ‘Nyalam means “Gateway to Hell”.’ His titter seemed to follow me down the road.

Tingri was a jerry-built hamlet, held together by breezeblocks, cement and corrugated iron, not quite the ‘photogenic huddle of Tibetan homes’ the guidebook spoke of. (Lonely Planet really screwed up on Tibet.) The guest house seemed modelled on some poorly drawn story-book picture of a khan or caravanserai—a common room and kitchen, a row of bedrooms, a squat-toilet and a few storerooms hypotenused around a heap of bricks and churned up earth—rather than folk-memory. Most of the party passed out around a stove fed by yak dung and goat droppings. The rest of us crept into freezing little rooms with rudimentary doors, keeping our clothes on, and trembled on the verge of sleep for a few hours, wallets under our pillows, dagger at our sides. Ahab, the Portuguese-Canadian Scotsman, had eloquent dreams. He got up and reeled about the room, groping at the curtains. ‘Santa Maria, Agnes!’ he cried, ‘I only went round to borrow her murthering kettle!’ When he realised he was awake, and that I was too, he said he felt out of sorts because of the altitude sickness pills he’d been taking. His hands had taken on a life of their own. They flew up in front of his face and seemed to claw the air. ‘See? Bloody things.’ Swallowing three Immodium capsules so I wouldn’t have to use the toilet, I climbed out of my own sack. T woke up, her eyes wild as a hare’s.

In the common room, people were buying bottles of water to counter dehydration. ‘Five litres already I have drunk,’ Brunhilde told me. ‘Really? And how many litres in the toilet you have left?’ Her piercings seemed to have linked together during this pit-stop, causing her lower lip to bulge oddly. ‘Is that Tiger Balm?’ one of the Germans asked. ‘Boots lip balm,’ I said, and watched as the huge man smeared his chest with it. Ah, the shared cigarette, the cards in the candle-lit barn. Someone took a picture—rows of eyes, red-eyed from the flash, dissheveled faces peeping out of sleeping bags, Tristram, the man with the kangaroo garden, helping his mistress to her feet, the operatic Castilian gobbling soup, Alphonse, a monolingual Frenchman, performing the necessary grin.One of the Poles staggered to the door, gripping his temples and moaning softly. Robin, gingery features quivering with perception and poetry, told me later that Tingri was the best place we’d stayed in.

The Tibetans had round wind-blackened cheeks. The dress of the woman who fed dung into the stove was patterned with roses. The man who sold soup and water looked like Graham Greene. I caught a glimpse of Mosca lounging in a private room, hair unbound. A girl was trimming his toe-nails. Outside, the light hurt my eyes. Henk, a shaven-headed Dutchman, had put on John Lennon shades and a yellow plastic mac. He stood framed against the knife-edge of the hills to the west, large Beano-comic ears tuned to the field mice. A boy wobbled by on a chunky iron bike. His cheeks were red with ochre (ochre in Tibet, thanakha in Burma: mental note). A yak in the fields looked like a pony with a number of old carpets thrown over it. There was a stony plain to the south. A lean black dog was running across it. Greta, from Switzerland, sat alone on a rock, Garboesque, one knee held in her hands, the corner of her mouth turned up in an enigmatic smile. She had cherry-red hair, startling in the strange light. This place was all sky, white and depthless. It shrunk everything below it, and expanded correspondingly. To the east, I could see the Himalaya, two or three insignificant triangles tipped with snow, about to submerge below the strange whiter-than-blue welkin.

The road had become a proper road. It was called the Friendship Highway, built to facilitate the transportation of goods from Nepal to Lhasa and Sichuan and back. The Chinese had not only provided Tibetans with roads and track; they had also brought electricity, plumbing, hospitals, schools, and vast smoking factories. Tibet had been yanked out of the Middle Ages, carried at a brisk pace through the colonial and atomic periods and set down, rubbing its eyes, in modern free market economy post-Mao industrial China. The Chinese had just opened the door to tourism, mainly via the Sichuan-Tibet highways, Qinghai-Tibet railroad and China Airways. Peter Hopkirk, in his Trespassers on the Roof of the World says that it is now package tourism that disturbs the equanimity of the Tibetans. He adds: ‘Just how they feel when they see coach-loads of inquisitive foreigners peering into the Dalai Lama’s private quarters in the Potala it is impossible to say.’ But just who is Hopkirk talking about? Who are these impenetrable Tibetans of his? Most of the people we would meet after Tingri were Han Chinese. There would be no Tibetans in the Potala, only Chinese, swarming and bumptious. The Tibetans on the Barkhor square were sellers of trinkets and fake gems, only too happy to see us sweep down upon them behind the waving guidons of our Moscas and Golis.

At some point in the early hours, cold stratospheric light subjecting the landscape to its rippling swimming-pool gleams, we stopped to view the highest point we would reach. We were some 5 miles above sea-level. It was extremely unpleasant. The wind tore at the prayer flags that marked the spot, making an ugly cracking sound. That comment of Hui-Neng, sixth patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism, beloved by Zen anthologists (‘Is it the flag that moves? Is it the wind? Neither. It is your mind’), recurred to me. I tottered about, trying to photograph my mind moving the flags. I felt nauseous from exhaustion and headache. My pee came out in an octogenarian trickle. A snow-capped peak off to the right belonged to the Princess Cow. One of the French troubadors cut an ungainly caper, crashing into a line of flags. I saw his boots, their concentric patterned soles, as he dove over the edge of the world, trailing blue and white triangles. One of the circumnavigators threw up in a ditch, his hands planted on his knees. He worked hard, like a pump, squirting regular jets. Troy took the pictures.

We passed fields of what looked like rape in flower, though Mavis thought they might be chick-peas. Mavis was travelling with Robin. They hadn’t spoken since Zhangmu. Mavis wanted to get into touch with her spirituality, and had come to Tibet to draw energy from its power-points (I resisted the temptation to ask her whether she’d brought an adaptor); Robin, as far as I could tell, just wanted a shag. Mavis hoped to go on to Kalaish, after Lhasa, in order to circumambulate the holy mountain with the pilgrims. ‘What, on your belly?’ We saw no sign of barley, source of the tsampa porridge Mavis liked to order for breakfast, but perhaps the barley season had ended. In the early years of the liberation, I had read, the Chinese had caused a famine by making the farmers substitute wheat for barley, wheat being more suited to the palates of the immigrant workers. Nowadays, Tibetans were also growing sorghum, mustard and millet. But we saw none of these crops either. We only saw fields of yellow flowers, above which plastic bags flocked, like a BritArt update of a Van Gogh painting. Mavis pointed out the brown blocks the Tibetans piled on the tops of walls. She wondered what they were. ‘What do you think they are?’ She had a faraway tranced voice. That, Mavis? That is yak shit, left there to dry. It is the only fuel available at these altitudes. Our agronomy-for-tourists lesson over, we arrived at another checkpoint. A gale was blowing. The rain was horizontal. The soldiers (and Mavis, too, I suspect) enjoyed watching me sprint through the puddles as my umbrella turned inside out and took wing.

There was one more ‘guest house,’ in a place called Lhatse, where some of us managed to sleep properly and even enjoy a large unhampered dump. There were no lights though, and most of us appeared to have missed the hole in the floor. This made for a slippery night for those, like Brunhilde, who had imbibed their recommended 5 litres of water. I was awoken more than once by heavy crashes and anguished cries. The owner of the guest house had a turquoise stone plugging the lobe of one ear and the filthiest shirt I had ever seen. He delivered Mavis’ tsampa and butter tea with a high-pitched yodel and a sort of flamenco twirl. Bits seemed to fly off him. Brunhilde and some of the women washed themselves at a stoup before we set off. Witold, the sick Pole, stared across the breakfast table like a man about to be executed. I munched my bun with considerable care. At the other table some baby-faced English mountaineers were practising that plummy stentorian ragging of the meek and mild that Tory MPs take for confidence and a sign of leadership qualities. Mosca didn’t take us to see Phuntsoling monastery, where the heretical scholar Dolpopa had explored the notion of emptiness, or the red fortifications above it with their views of a ruined dzong (fort) and the Yarlung Tsangpo river (Brahmaputra), or to Jonang kumbun (kumbum=chorten filled with statuary and paintings), just a bit farther on, prototype for the famous one at Gyantse. Perhaps these were unsuitable for viewing.

Things got better after Lhatse though, accommodation-wise at any rate. In Shigatse and Gyantse, we slept in real hotels and were able to see the sites in broad daylight. But the monasteries—Tashilhunpo and Pelkor Chode—and the dzong at Gyantse which Francis Younghusband and troop had stormed and overcome on their way to Lhasa—had been converted into picture postcard settings for the chattering classes; these had come in coachloads from Lhasa. The locals looked as if they were wearing costumes. There were ranks of souvenir stalls outside; Chinese in RayBans and Gucci shades posed beside elderly girning monks or my blonde daughter; nobody took their shoes off. The monks quickly gathered in the assembly hall to chant amidst floating incense smoke. It was performance, not prayer. Shaven-headed bouncers prowled the edges shaking piggy banks, pointing at the signs urging visitors to pay 10 or 15 yuan for a snapshot. Mosca kept up a steady bleat as we trudged around each temple, the thirteenth dalai lama, the fourteenth dalai lama, the panchen lama, the once, now and future Buddha, the gold leaf on the statues, the hand-woven books etc. One of the Poles made a tactless remark to the giants about the swastikas. Ludwig, a big swaggering youth with too many teeth in his mouth, said the arms were bent the wrong way. We passed on.

At one point T and I and Ahab and Fang (another mysterious guide who had joined us at Tingri) split off from the rest to go across country back to the Friendship Highway, rather than follow the road. We passed through crumbling mud-brick villages, and were chased by packs of slavering dogs. The track vanished altogether in the hinterland, and we bucked and slid past elegant black sand dunes. Goats and ragged men with staves watched us go by, sharing the same expressions of wonderment or derision. When we finally reached the Friendship Highway, and Ahab had accepted that we weren’t being diverted to a camp of bandits or hostage-takers (Fang and the driver could not speak English), we stopped to urinate. On the way back to the jeep I saw a girl in quilted leggings run across the road towards us. She stood some way off, clutching an exercise book, pretending to be interested in a section of ditch. I went over and said hello (‘tashi dele’). She looked up after much cajoling, squinting above apple-red cheeks, and showed me her book. It was filled with lines of beautifully drawn Tibetan script. After I had finished admiring her art and industry, calling over T to bear witness, she took the book and sped back across the road. It was a kind of visitation. Only Mandarin was taught in the schools. Tibetan was forbidden. (The standard tactic of those wishing to impose one culture, one nation, one motherland, on recalcitrant minorities is to deprive them of their tongues.) This was a small moment of resistance; it is recorded here, not without applause and sorrow.

And so finally we came to Lhasa. It lay at the end of a vast U-shaped valley, through which the Yarlung Tsangpo flowed before making an abrupt turn and flowing back the way it had come. The water was scummy at the edges, dense with soft drinks cans, cigarette packs and plastic bags. No fish jumped. Wild life, I suddenly thought, was rather thin on the ground in Tibet. Lhasa was a city modelled on the broad clean grid systems of communist countries and the USA. It even had the same concrete blocks, telecommunications towers, cars, tourist rickshaws, ‘Walk Now’ signs and whistle-blowing traffic cops. An eye-watering smog hung over the city. There were sex shops (selling a range of inflatable dolls and penis substitutes for the adventurous), standardised postcards (those rich velvet blue skies and glaring white buildings, those walnut-brown and -creased faces), rows of souvenir stalls in the Barkhor square, men prostrating themselves as they circumambulated the Jokhang and environs, taxi ranks, banks, money-changers, Internet shops, international restaurants (Cantonese, Sichuanese, Pekinese, Tibetan, Thai, Nepalese, French, American) hawkers of gems and tantric scrolls, and extraordinary notices in English. It was like downtown London or New York. At least the breakfast was authentic. It was that white bun and sloppy omelet again. All the other tour groups could choose from a buffet. Mosca returned my gaze innocently.

Robin thought the Jokhang was the best monastery we’d visited. ‘I like it too,’ T said unwisely. ‘Why?’ Robin struck a politically correct pose, eyebrow cocked. ‘Um, it’s actually used by the locals?’ ‘Right, good, cool.’ When he was sharing a lonely meal with us, revealing all about Mavis and the trials he’d been through, Robin began using a self-consciously ‘youthful’ argot. ‘Wicked! Well fit!’ he shrieked insanely, whenever he saw an opening in T’s conversation. Ahab would like to have gone on to Sikkim to interview the nationalists—he’d once done a one-on-one with the president of Azerbaijan—but he was feeling too woozy and frail. Ahab looked like Del Boy in Only fools and Horses, gone to seed. He was also a bit of a card, chatting up monolingual local women and causing extraordinary offence. He called Fang and the driver ‘bloody fools’ for not being able to tell him the name of a river. When I laughed at his mugging, he joined in. So did Fang and the driver. Witold was short-sighted. When he looked at the others, which he did rather too closely for comfort, he stared as if examining something strange in a jar or an anus. He was ill most of the time, spending nights hunched over a squat toilet. He sent me an email afterwards claiming that this had been ‘my best trip in my life.’ Tristram worked as games show host for charitable institutions. He had the patter and what the Tory MPs would identify as leadership potential. He kept everyone on the coach entertained, following up Mosca’s announcements with several of his own. His wife affected ethnic dress and broke down in floods of tears in the Potala palace when she entered the Dalai Lama’s rooms. Armande was good looking. He liked girls, and thought girls must like him. I remember a scream in one of the palace rooms, and a Chinese girl come running out.

The Potala was the end of the journey. When we came down, we came across a befuddled wild goat on the path. It sprang, Ibex-like, up the slope. ‘Look at that’ I said. ‘Wild life!’ A Chinese tourist coming down behind me overheard and said, ‘There are two more. Can you see? Up there.’ ‘What is it called? Do you know?’ ‘Tibetan goat? I don’t know the name in English.’ He was with his girlfriend. They’d come from Beijing by plane. He’d picked up his English in America. How did he like Lhasa? ‘Beautiful. I hope it retains its character.’ He looked well-fed. His girlfriend clung to him, smiling. We smiled back, global suburbanites sharing a moment.