Annapurna sinks back in time despite standing guard above us all the while here in Pokhara, the sedate travellers waltz has taken it’s grip on us in a slow rolling sway through a city not known for passivity. The world peace pagoda holds no surprises, a big shiny stupa commemorating world peace and not much more. We take in the great views on the way up on Buddhas birthday none less to a drastic lack of fanfare, box ticked. The scenic walk back sees us drenched in sweat and passing nearly Peru levels of rubbish, an otherwise picturesque lake sports children playing and women washing in a clot of non-biodegrdable’ness. This culture traditionally composts or burns its waste but chip packets and plastic bottles don’t agree with that approach too much, old ways are struggling to catch up with new found convenience. On the flip-side these humble lifestyles could never come close to the industrial scale pollution our countries emit: outrage packed tightly in the hypocrisy box and thrown on the plastic fire, we walk on unburdened by judgement.
The usually pumping city of Pokhara sleeps of late, the earthquake is a sure way to keep tourists away while a local economy clearly limps along on a scrap of its usual income. I wonder if we’d like this town so much if it was in the throb of it’s party time, I suspect not. Far from the headspace of happy hour drinks, western cover bands and novelty T-shirts we jaunt off today to the exciting world of Tibet; well Tibet in Nepal at least. Tashi Palkhel lies on the outskirts of town selling rugs and handicrafts as their only way to make an income. A bleak picture is painted particularly through Australian eyes, the terms refugee and asylum are so loaded with fear politics that we can so rarely see a clear vision of what those terms mean.
The Chinese invasion of October 1950 was brutal and complete sending these people and their forebears fleeing for their lives finding safe harbour in Nepal. With little contact to the outside world Tibet lived in its own peaceful borders with no real standing army or ties with allies to help defend itself; to hungry Mao and his red army it was easy fruit to add to his megalomaniac empire. Tibet had such limited experience in reaching out to the world so with limited requests for help the world stood by and watched Tibet fall; if only Tibet had oil. Excitement brims for a sight of something lost as we near the settlement full of anticipation for what might await us, Tibet was a forbidden land before the invasion, now it’s not Tibet at all, it’s China.
Stepping out of our cab the scene before us looks nothing like the news reports we see from home. Where much of Nepal has a rubbish problem the informal streets here are quite clean, not a chip packet in sight. There’s high walls of functional cinder block type brick but no barbed wire, there’s gates but no locks and no one standing guard. I expected to see meagre accommodations of shanty huts and tents but a rising temple crowns over the fences and run of market stalls, the rapid reshuffling of expectations occurs on the approach to the market we can’t avoid. We’ve heard that Tibetans are bargainers who love a haggle but this feeding frenzy is immense and we are the food. A sort of etiquette is observed between stalls not to call out to a customer when dealing with another person on their step. One foot off the step though and boom, voices call, hands wave and it’s all on.
Luckily we’re prepared for this and the only way we’ve found to escape is to show no fear and indulge in comedy. I joke that if I step onto their step they’ll yell at me and I’m scared. A moment of uncertainty passes before the sharp wits catch my joke; you have genuine contenders here ladies, it’s game on. We excuse ourselves promising to return with the vision of forlorn tents long gone in the excitement. To the main gates that aren’t entrapping anyone we ask an old man if we are allowed to enter, a wave of the hand swishes below a worn cheerful face shooing us in. This is not a refugee camp as we know it in Australia.
The colourful gables of the temple that hinted at something more from outside the walls don’t disappoint, a rearing building rises up decked with painted ornate timber work high above us. Again we’re ushered inside on a cheerful face, I thought refugees always looked forlorn and desperate? Obviously this settlement has been here for a long time, a new life has been forged but the images we bring from home aren’t so easy to shake. We sit in the temple of dim light that is not dim enough to hide the bright paintwork and glittering adornments. With heads full of musky incense we hear the low rhythmic chanting of a room full of monks kept in time by large drums, cymbals and the occasional cry of a horn. With Tibet so forbidden this is as close as we’re ever likely to get to the famed isolated nation that used to live in such peace, a culture retained in the face of the hammer and sickle. Throughout this chanting I can’t help but notice that there are no public, no one hearing the message. Where churches as we know it ‘sell’ their message aggressively it seems that the monks are more concerned with themselves and not so worried about interfering with what other people are doing, thinking or saying: enough said.
Through this maze the adventure continues, we walk around the biggest prayer wheel we’ve seen only to be told by an old lady that we need to do it three times, oops. In another world we’re flanked by functional red brick apartment blocks, housing flats we might call them at home but here they’re neat, clean and all together nicer than most Nepali houses. We’d noticed that the more Tibetan towns in the mountains approached a cleaner type of life and this place reinforces the ideal; an air of peaceful community hangs over this whole settlement in place of a personal drive that leaves communal spaces to squalor.
Wandering freely through the town looking for the carpet workshop we’re in no time guided by an old lady right to it. Dim light filters into a room that feels like an old abandoned mechanics workshop to me. Large clunky timber looms sit like a gathering crowd all washed with the monotone dustiness of camouflaged soldiers forming a silhouette forest of heavy clutter. We’re assaulted to buy belts and bracelets in a now familiar rush before escaping with only the purchase of one bracelet, we’re holding firm so far but only just, this war of buy and sell is no trifling matter. No rugs take our fancy so it’s across the basketball court to our date with destiny, the market. I can’t help notice that the court is littered with a lot of USA basketball slogans and team names, the typical Nike tag line of ‘Play Hard’ even makes an appearance, it seems marketing makes its mark even here. But hang on, it’s not play-hard at all, it actually reads ‘Play Fair’ I notice on a second look; where else but in Tibet. We move on with a smile after shooting a couple of shots with a young boy playing on the courts in an unmistakable slice of privilege, another thing we’ll likely never get to do again.
Market time, it’s game faces and battle stations. First stop, I’m right on the offensive as I ask what the material is on a bracelet. ‘Tiger-eye’ comes the reply as I recoil in mock horror to bewildered faces on the other side of the stalls. ‘Tiger eye’ I cry, ‘you killed a tiger for it’s eyes?’ I accuse as I drag my thumb across my throat. Killing a living animal is abhorrent to Tibetan buddhists but there’s no risk of offence, they’re too sharp not to get the joke. The gallery giggles and I’m winning this one so far as I draw another stall operator close in mysterious confidence. She leans in awaiting the heavy burden of a secret. ‘Be careful of her, she killed a tiger’ I whisper in conspiratorial tones. Not only my confidant but the few eavesdroppers reveal their guilt to burst into comical outrage as I hold my victorious place in the haggle battle of the century. But they angle in relentlessly, I’m not sure how long I can stay in front here but who really cares.
Another time this sales pressure might be disconcerting but in the right spirit we’re buoyed and enlivened to take an opportunity we’ll probably never see again. We pack our pockets with all manner of crafts and antiques plucked straight from forbidden Tibet spreading our money as evenly as we can. Chinese occupation sees Tibet as practically the last forbidden nation on earth, even though the world recognises it as China nowadays. In Tashi Palkhel we sit in on monks chanting, shoot hoops with a Tibetan boy, see a rug workshop in full swing and haggle with the pro’s. Of course Tibet and Tibetan culture has all but been destroyed by the Chinese but in this little world the word refugee abandons it’s inflammatory meaning for a world of promise for a culture lost. With a flutter in our stomachs we depart feeling a privilege we can barely grasp; we’ll probably never get to see Tibet but just for a time it feels like we got to witness a little slice of what the world decided wasn’t important enough to protect.