Tibetan prayer flags waving on the plateau
Tibetan children playing jumprope


Lhasa (1994)

We wandered through a food market. That was an experience. The first aisle was the butchers’ section. Just big slabs of meat. Ok, I can handle those. Then snouts, feet, hooves, tongues, baby chicks, whole heads, you name it, it was there. Entrails. At one point I turned quickly because something had grabbed hold of my leg. I expected to see one of the many little children running through the market. I look down and — lo and behold — there’s a fish, about a foot long, hanging from my pant leg by its teeth. I had no idea what happened; I didn’t know whether the fish was dead or alive. But it had big teeth. I was so stunned I just stood there while the woman from whose bag the fish had leaped removed her dinner from my pants (which still bear the scar). I was in hysterics, as were the woman, Helen, John, and most of the vendors in the immediate vicinity. I still laugh about it now. The attack of the killer fish.

We walked on down the aisle, and John stopped to buy some peanuts. He pulled a bag down from a stack hanging on a hook and held it open. The woman took a double handful of peanuts from a barrel and put them in the bag, and we all fell into another fit of helpless laughter. The peanuts had fallen right through to the ground. A couple more bags were examined until a holeless whole was found. She kept piling and piling up the peanuts, and then weighed the bag. Then she proceeded to take giant scoops out of the bag. High comedy.


The most interesting part was the Barkhor market surrounding the Jokhang. Obviously, we were as much a sight to the Tibetans as they were to us. (At the time, the quota of foreigners allowed into the country was set at five thousand, and that limit had never come close to being reached.) There was no end of staring and giggling and prodding — my bottom was pinched and Helen’s bare calves were grabbed twice by a grinning old woman. You must walk clockwise around the market, with the pilgrims, to be respectful. Only the Chinese ignore the custom. All the vendors, seeing a foreigner, shout “Hello, lookee lookee!” and very persistently try to get you to bargain.

Watching the people was fascinating. Members of different tribes wear native dress, and the costumes are often wild and colorful. The women’s faces and headdresses are absolutely beautiful. They wear their hair very long and braid parts of it with red ribbons and strands of turquoise chunks. Most, once they were done staring, seemed very friendly, and smiled broadly, though often shyly. Some tried to practice their very meager English. A lot of the men, however, apparently from a few specific tribes, leered a lot. At one point a man who’d been watching us for a while came right up to me and pinched my rear end. When I told John, he strode gallantly off toward my assailant, to save my honor, I supposed. Helen and I hung back and stayed out of the way, looking on. Turns out he thought I’d said the man had pinched my wallet. Ah, chivalry.

Another man put his arm around John and made gestures toward Helen and me while muttering enigmatically in Tibetan. I think he was congratulating John on the possession of the two of us.


Then we arrived in Sakya — we truly are in the middle of nowhere. There are a village, two monasteries and a guest house. We’re on the second floor, up a rickety old ladder, five to a room, none-too-clean-looking mattresses on the beds. The toilets are two holes in the ground, down the rickety ladder in the pitch blackness. There’s a pump out front with cold water, and thermoses of hot water were brought to us in our rooms. John, Mike, Helen and I set off for the smaller monastery in the hills. On the way I was followed by six or seven filthy but adorable children. Eventually one took my left hand and another my right and we walked in a little line.

Later we were found and claimed by our red-hatted counting friend of earlier and a few of his friends. When all the other children were asking for candy and pens and money, he motioned for John and Trudy and me to put out our hands, and gave each of us several little seeds of some sort to eat. He was very sweet. He took John’s right hand and my left and adopted us for a while. We continued my Tibetan counting lesson. But it got cold and we went in for an early night.