I first glimpsed the Potala Palace behind the bending legs of a prostitute. She swayed, obscuring a vista of the Dalai Lama’s vacant home with the taut sail of a black dress rigged from her hips, eyes closed, face contorted into a mask of transcendence and passion, belting out a Tibetan folk song somewhere in downtown Xining, an urban barnacle on the Eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
The karaoke TV screen panned across Lhasa, the Potala Palace and ethereal valleys spoiled by scrolling lyrics and a digital dot measuring their progress. There aren’t enough lukewarm beers on the tray in front of me, I thought, to wrangle this scene into the pen of ‘sense’. This was not how I intended to begin my Tibetan journey, but then the unintended and unexpected are the stimuli of travel, delight or horror the effects. Let the sober ombudsman of the morning work it out, I thought.
A Welshman, a Monguor and two Tibetans walk into an euphemism, that’s how the night’s joke began. Heard that one? A classic. Here, listen to this.
I was disturbed from a nap by my effervescent hostel room-mate, a twenty-something Monguor anthropologist. Did I want to play basketball with him and his friends? I did, and followed him to a modern university campus lit by a chromatographic sunset of pinks, oranges and blues. Beer and a heavy meal of spiced mutton followed humiliation by the skillful pivots of my Asian friends.
Come to the karaoke club, was the next suggestion. The compass needle in my guts twitched towards, ‘Euphemism: brothel’, but curiosity juggled its bag of magnet: the company was far too good to abandon for bed and rest ahead of the next day’s long ascent to the Tibetan plateau proper.
The club’s lobby was an oblong room with a long bar. Sagging from the walls were garish posters of tropical scenes faded by time, smoke and the low pink lights. Kitsch exoticism of golden sands and palm fronds in this poverty-locked, politics-locked, landlocked lobe of Central China, where local exoticism winked at me on every corner: modern money towers, Tibetan temples, noodle shacks, spiky script and mosques.
We were ushered into a private room, everything in it painted in fuchsia lipstick. A sofa followed three of the walls like a plush lobster claw, threatening to ensnare sitters’ senses and sense, pinching and prodding us into submission to our latent carnality.
I still clutched at the naivety which allows me to follow determined curiosity into such situations without remonstration. But as ten bored women formed a line in front us, naivety escaped me, like a helium balloon slipping from the palm of a distracted toddler. I mournfully watched it float through the pink ceiling into the floors of sweat and sex above.
‘Evan,’ said one of my friends, genuine warmth in his dark eyes, ‘You’re the guest. You get first choice.’
Far above me the balloon popped on the pink point of a stiletto heel.
I gave a timid stutter of monosyllables concluding with a ‘No.’
Triumph! I thought. Triumph against the cultural practices of hosts!
A fleeting triumph. I was just pushed to the back of the queue. My companions sat with their choices by their sides and thirteen faces looked at me expectantly.
‘It’s OK,’ said my room-mate. ‘You don’t have to fuck her. Just pick one.’
I had squandered the guest’s prerogative. My companions had, of course, chosen the only attractive women for themselves. I had been entered for a penny, but passed on the pound. I settled for a tarnished fifty-pence piece, one of the bigger, older designs, worn from overuse.
I felt extreme regret and pity, no doubt terribly patronising, for the departing women. Unchosen, returning to the bar. I thought of school, picked by peers for football teams. Standing in line, I of course did not want to be chosen last, but I would have much preferred that football not exist at all. Did these women want to be chosen?
The evening’s only surety was the women’s amusement at the foreigner: his dry heaves as he nibbled chicken feet vacuum packed in their own jelly, his mumbled meander through ‘My Heart Will Go On’, the only English song on the books. Asian karaoke bars’ musical stock were usually better than this, but the services here were more diverse and some clearly neglected.
I didn’t examine the quality of these other services but one of our party did. He seemed very familiar with his choice. She was a woman in her twenties in tight jeans and pink vest, and the glittery sparkle on her long fake fingernails reflected in her eyes as she commanded the room with flirtatious aplomb. When she returned from her private service the sparkle had gone.
We burped our way back into the night and joked about the briefness of our companion’s absence. I bounced my surprise around my hosts. What of the sexual conservatism of the Tibetans, the Chinese, the Muslims? They replied with insistences of wills and ways, of scaled buildings and Shakespearean transgressions through night-time windows. The universality of sexual desire, they said. I staggered back to the hostel with my head raised, following the skyscrapers’ fingers as they reached for the navy velvet that swaddled the city, and the distant glinting balloons caught in its curves.
Steph laughed when I told her this tale in the early hours of a Lhasa morning. Our last morning in Tibet. Our last morning together. Her flawless teeth returned the small moonlight, a neat white ridge breaking the hushed blue light of the hotel courtyard. For ten days we had been touching, thigh to thigh on the seats of a four-by-four. I had convinced myself of some attraction, but this brief morning was the first moment masks were removed to let truth bleed through. It was the only moment.