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BREATHLESS IN LHASA
or "Fear and Loathing In Lhasa"
Originally appeared in HALI 79, © 1995



Long a nomadic player in the Asian rug game, contributing editor Tom Cole offers a less than romantic account of the Himalayan trade after a recent buying trip to Tibet.

Off to Lhasa on the morning plane from Kathamndu. The monsoon recedes in September and my first three days in Nepal in more than year are pleasant enough. Dense clouds obscure the sun most of the day and it really is quite comfortable. No snow mountains to be seen, but at least the hills forming and surrounding the Kathmandu Valley are visible. In the dry season, the dust is thick and the pollution so noxious in what has been deemed the world’s second most polluted city that even these hills disappear in the gray poisonous clouds which pass for air.

This morning it is raining and visibility is very bad. The plane apparently left Lhasa but turned around as it approached the valley. In all my years of going to Tibet from Nepal, not once has the flight ever left on the appointed day. Naturally, the next day we depart on time, traverse the mighty Himalayas in little more than an hour, and touch down at the military airport, located some one and half bumpy hours by car outside this fabled capital city.
The first day in Lhasa is always tough; headaches and dizziness are the primary symptoms of altitude sickness, which afflicts all visitors to some extent. As usual, at least two tourists at the Holiday Inn died this summer from an extreme reaction to the 3600 meter altitude of the barren valley floor on which the ancient city is situated.

Dominated by the majestic Potala Palace, Lhasa is a truly strange scene, medieval and mysterious, powerful and wonderfully pious. It is threaded with reeking alleys lined with dirty smoky mud and stone hovels inhabited by a very soulful people, of many ethnic types. It is a fascinating place, but one in transition from a population with an ethnic Tibetan majority of two to one to an unnaturally skewed ethnic advantage. Chinese entrepreneurs now fearlessly roam even the back alleys of the old city, where just a few years ago they would never have dared to trespass, while the new town, located to the west, is being transformed into a model Chinese neo-Stalinist frontier outpost.



A dealer in Tibetan rugs and artifacts in a stall located on the circular route known as the Barkhor surrounding the Jokhang in central Lhasa. Note the checkerboard rug in front as well as new saddle rugs hanging on the wall behind her depicting the ubiquitous snow lion motif seen in many forms of Tibetan art as well as featured on the national flag of Tibet.

Sanitation is an alien concept and disease is rife. Drinking the water is not even part of the equation; bottled mineral water is sold everywhere. I usually suffer from a sinus disturbance due to the swirling winds as well as the clouds of dust from all the rugs one looks at in the search of that one magic carpet. This time, I actually develop a rug dust allergy; not a minor affliction for a carpet dealer in Asia!

As if health considerations aren’t enough, the competition is here as well, an odd assortment of social misfits and outcasts, all players to be dealt with at this late stage of the Great Game. This has been going on for some time, essentially an extension of the imperial drama played out between Russia and England in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Charles Masson was one of the first treasure hunters in Central Asia, a mysterious and shadowy figure in the history of the British presence in Central Asia, gathering artifacts from his private excavations in Afghanistan. Sir Aurel Stein was of course the best known player, and honourable pillager of the material culture of ancient Inner Asia.

Jellyby Pine, Sir Aurel’s 20th century counterpart, is absent from Lhasa though toiling in Tuva (see HALI 77, p 77) Now the Game is played between an odd assortment of Americans, Tibetan-Nepalis (known as Kutcharas, kutcha being a Hindi word
meaning spoiled), the ever-present Brits and a few Swiss and Italian hustlers. Such scurrilous characters as ‘Sneaky Ron’ could be lurking, snake-like around the next corner. “The Maharani” is here, rumbling around town in all his corpulence like one of the Bengali Brahmin gangsters portrayed in the popular Hindi film industry. Reveling in opulence, he is reviled by even those Tibetans whom he has raised to financial glory.

It’s too bad that the most charming and entertaining character on the entire Himalayan scene doesn’t come here any more. On his last visit, ‘the Mullah’ was accompanied by a bodyguard, a large Khampa carrying a huge sword more than half his size. Some affluent Tibetan were enraged that he had survived and actually profited from his business dealings over the years. His magic mouth and disarmingly charming manner attracted many local vendors to his doorstep and the rich Tibetans who wished to control ‘the business’ reacted with typically gentle Tibetan threats of violence and/or incarceration. Now in self-imposed exile, he is exploring other Central Asian locales in search of another receptive audience of dealer with whom he can do his business, which is regarded by some of his detractors as removal of valuable cultural relics; all vicious rumours, of course.



Vendors of new Tibetan thangkas (religious paintings) on the Barkhor, surrounding the Jokhang Temple in Central Lhasa.

Rambo is here, a diminutive British chap who works harder than most (he’s younger than most) running around town with a large bag on his shoulder, which more often than not is filled with rugs. But those who deal primarily in rugs and textiles are a minority in Lhasa. Given the chance, most of those who come will buy anything and everything good, money no object.

Others hang on the periphery of this scene; ‘Goatee Bob’ (now beardless), Haas, an American living in Amsterdam, who collects and decorates ‘Tibetan’, ‘Dutch Boob’ surviving and, at times, thriving here for 25 years, though his two best friend have died from liver disease trying to match him drink for drink, ‘Terrace’ – a pleasant anachronism from the 1960’s
and his Anglo-Vietnamese consort, who organize and commission the production of appliqué silk thangkas for an outlying Tibetan monastery (including the largest thangka in the world), ‘Carpet Factory Bob’ in Kesang Tashi’s gainful employ, the affable trekker David from Wisconsin, who moonlights as a purveyor of antique Tibetan rugs, gentlemanly and educated ‘Fat Sonam’ from Nepal , as well as the ever-present Nepali-Tibetan vampire and notorious vacuum, ‘Mr. K’. The competition is fierce, well connected, experienced and ruthless, in addition to being at the very least pragmatically conversant, if not fluent, in the local languages (Tibetan, Hindi, Nepali). Care to come and try your luck??



Another dealer of rugs and artifacts at an outdoor stall in Lhasa. Often these smaller, less affluent dealers provided some of the more interesting rugs and small artifacts in that earlier, more exciting period of sourcing antique rugs and textiles in Lhasa. Even 'important' buyers like 'Mr. K' could be seen poking through these small stands in search of a real treasure.

Trepidation and apprehension precede any trip to Shangri-la for me, but once treading the narrow alleys, a feeling of contentment inevitably ensues. As young Khampa and Amdo girls titter small children scream their best and clearest “Hello!!” grabbing at your hands and clothing and old people stick out their tongues in traditional Tibetan greeting, smiling to reveal toothless gums and parched, cracked lips, I navigate the old city an enjoy the foreignness of old Asia, a continent where I have spent almost half my life observing the timeless movie that passes before my eyes.

The air is thin, and very, very dry. Even in the wet season there is still dust circulating and when the sun comes out its s actually considered hot by some (mainly the Brits). The cold season is a welcome relief, a pleasure despite the sub-zero temperature and howling wind; at least the human waste is frozen solid and doesn’t smell so bad! Dodging piles of excrement piled up like holy mani stones and following a Khampa warrior-cum-trader through the old city, one never knows what one may find in that next house.

Business requires some working knowledge of the language. The words for rugs from different areas are local and unreconisable to our ears; asking for a Tibetan rug will not necessarily produce the desired result.
But a request for a ‘pedrum’ brings an immediate reaction though still not necessarily an intelligible or intelligent one. After all, I am in Tibet. But I don’t want to buy Tibetan rugs – it has been some years since I actually sought them out. Where’s that early ‘animal rug’? Or at least an interesting fragment of an animal rug? Or at this stage of the game, how about just an interesting fragment, period?

Slim pickings this time around. First of all, one of the countless festivals is happening, a water ceremony where everyone goes down to the river to bathe, or at least to watch the young women bathe. Tibetans are not particularly shy people and personal modesty is not a consideration on the part of these rather exotic and, at times, beautiful women.

Why is it that in most of these Eastern countries, the men are so crass, coarse, and crude, while the young women are absolute goddesses? Some of the time, that is, especially just after bathing, which is not a common occurrence in typically cold and arid Tibet. Many Tibetans prefer to pattern themselves after their Scythian forerunners, their exposed skins covered with a black paste which gives protection from the unfiltered rays of the sun. The men are turning into ‘Chinese’, smoking excessively, with repulsive affectations picked up from Chinese television dramas.



A woman from Amdo circumabulates the Barkhor, with her child strapped onto her back.


A Khampa woman takes her rest in one of the back alleys of Lhasa, her child seated beside her.

When I first went to Tibet in the mid 1980s, hardly anyone had television; now most do. For the more affluent, uncensored images from BBC and MTV find their way into this still isolated land via the white mushroom-like dishes that have sprung up, fungus-like, all over Asia, in spite of the obvious discomfort and objections of governments. The medium is the message and the regional authorities (generals, mullahs and assorted octogenarians) have passively ceded control of it.

The festival means that it’s harvest time, and the farmers and villagers who actually bring goods to the Lhasa antiques marketplace are leaving town to return to their filed to reap their crops. And I’ve been told that just before I arrived a couple of good pieces were sold to an unidentified dealer, one of the hated competition. But so it goes – it always has been and always will be a matter of timing.

A few shops have sprung up in the Lhasa, a new phenomenon. They go by various names, with varying degrees of sophistication displayed in signboard graphics meant to lure the tourist public. One rarely find anything of great value in the shops, as they are established primarily to
attract sellers, rather than buyers. And after the frequent visit of the voracious ‘Mr, K’ to all of these locales in the course of a day, how can one expect find anything at all? I spot one squirrel-like trader earnestly following a hulking Khampa through the back streets with a purposeful step and something obviously in mind, not in sight. I will visit his shop within the hour to see what he may have bought.

Trekking the streets of Lhasa can be therapeutic, an exercise in patience and endurance, but one I wish upon others, not myself. I can do without the suspense and literally breathless work it takes. I prefer the instant thrill of success, the physical rush at the sight of something potentially exciting in a pile of dusty, garishly dyed Tibetan wool rugs, something which may actually be desired in the world marketplace. I have come to realize that Tibetan rugs are for people who think they love Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Rug dealers, for the most part, and rug collectors, are only vaguely interested in even looking at old Tibetan rugs, much less considering a purchase. I do manage to find one I can buy, depicting the ‘animal style’ iconography of a past era, but will anyone else notice or care??



One of the new signboards seen around Lhasa, appealing to the tourist trade. The naivete of the Tibetans is obvious; all foreigners were thought of as British, as in a previous era a century ago.

Chinese rugs are chic, and one always hopes for a Kangxi period piece to appear out of the clouds of dust. East Turkestan rugs in good condition just don’t exist anymore in Tibet. The silky wool in these rugs from Xinjiang is not suitable for the rough treatment accorded any floor or bed cover in this primitive land. Ten years ago they may have been more plentiful, but now, Khotan rugs are rare in the marketplace, and one in good condition is the only kind that sells, appropriately as high-class furniture.

Alas, it is only scraps of marginally interesting rugs which surface on this trip. Everyone else complains too. ‘The Maharani’, dentures gnashing, can be seen actually rolling around the bazaar! Going to the shops, of all places! Trekking through the streets, dirtying his shoes. Watching from a distance, it’s clear that he’s unhappy with the state of the market, but I can’t know for sure as we have reached that wonderful point in our relationship where we do not speak to one another. Thank god (or rather the Jewel in the Lotus, Chnresig), peace at last!

Rambo spends an inordinate amount of time lounging in his puja room at the Snowland, rarely running these days, and with a lazy look in the eye,
a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he arranges and re-arranges the décor. Even ‘Goatee Bob’, purveyor of fine chatchkis is distraught about the lack of material. And he will buy just about anything old. Ah, but that the point. So many fakes in Lhasa, they’ll produce $20 tokchas at the fop of a hat, never mind a $20,000 statue or painting. Nothing is safe from the resourceful minds of the Tibetan artisans. Even ‘ancient’ silk textiles have been known to appear in the Lhasa market apparently right out of a Japanese manufactory and artificially aged 500-1000 years. And they still try to pass off the odd assortment of fake Tantric, tiger and skeleton rugs.

Bored with the tired rugs and silk weavings thrown at my feet, I go in search of old turquoise beads in bulk. But wouldn’t you know it; there are none to be found, supplies all gone, probably sent down to Nepal. Others seem content to wait another few days in hope of of a Chinese rug showing up from distant Qinghai Province, or for a Khotan to come from Shigatse, if one can believe the endless stories one is told. But my patience is worn thin; my time is short after beating around these exotic bazaars for almost a fortnight, so I depart.



A little used gate to the grounds of the Norbulingka Palace on the outskirts of Lhasa, the summer residence of the Dalai Lama.

I leave light, with a thick wad of cash still in my pocket. Life could be worse than having a bunch of money and few rags to flog. After all, the whole point of doing this business is to gather money, and I still have most of mine. But being a member of the it-could-be-worse club is not my cup of tea, nor is the rancid butter brew they serve in Lhasa.
So I go,happy to escape again from the potentially dangerous clutches of the ever-watchful Chinese PSB and customs agents and the pitiful offerings of the desperate Khampa traders. After arduous flights at ungodly hours of the morning, I eventually arrive in glittering modern Hong Kong, and suddenly those few tattered rages don’t look so bad. There’s hope yet.

Postscript - 2003
Breathless in Lhasa is probably one of the best things I have ever written. Its creation was spontaneous, literally flowing off my fingertips in a matter of no more than two hours - what I call an inspired piece of writing. Needless to say, it raised an hellacious storm in the far off bazaars of Kathmandu and Lhasa.
Addtionally, the HALI staff was bombarded - with feedback by their readership - asking for more and praising the vision of the magazine to publish something so outlandish, so graphic, and so entertaining. And informative too, as most collectors/dealers
in the west have no comprehension of the sights and sounds of Asia from where many of the rugs and textiles they cherish have come. Some even commented they could ‘smell’ the place after reading this travelogue, but believe me, that is not true. No words can relate or transmit the smells of the back alleys of Lhasa! But out of this travelogue grew a demand for similar material (Diamond in the Rough, The Texture of Time, among others) and my writing style and interests evolved as a result. Thankfully HALI continues to indulge that style and me, publishing more of my material on occasion.



Lhasa is still a scene, a place to go to for looking at and buying antique rugs, textiles and artifacts, though the pickings are slimmer and slimmer all the time. Few good Tibetan rugs have emerged onto the market in the last years, and even if they had, interest has waned so much that no one, or rather, few would notice. Checkerboards remain popular among designers, and tiger rugs as well as tantric weavings are few and far between. From what I see that comes from both China and Tibet, the good old days of Tibetan rug hunting are, for the most part, over which only serves to emphasize how rare a good piece is and that it should be respected as well as collected.
Beijing evolved into the real marketplace for rugs and textiles in China, more accessible, more ‘civilised’ and easier to navigate, both physically and psychologically. But I have heard that Lhasa has relaxed somewhat, with the SARS scare a thing of the past, to go to Lhasa is nearly as pleasant as it always has been. New construction in the center of town surrounding the Jokhang is complete, for the most part, which removed the quaint surroundings in which the Tibetans lived, but the people themselves are not unhappy with what they view as upgraded living quarters.


Acknowledgements
Originally conceived as 'Fear & Loathing in Lhasa', patterned after the madcap style and prose of Hunter S. Thompson and his own narrative entitled 'Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas', the HALI editors decided to rename it Breathless in Lhasa. I still think my original title is more appropriate to the content and style of writing. With thanks to Mr. Thompson for the inspiration to write such a thing.


Original photos and text appeared in HALI 79, © 1995
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the author.
© 2003 Thomas Cole
I also wish to thank the publishers of HALI for permission to reproduce this article on the site.


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