by Victoria Richards
Ethnic Tibetans live off the land, roaming across vast, barren terrain. But they never lose their sense of community – and I found one too, with the most unlikely of companions.
Us Brits aren’t exactly known for our dancing abilities. It’s a stereotype, I know – but if you ask a British person to show you their ‘traditional dancing’, chances are they’ll do a sort of hybrid between ‘the robot’ and the type of sliding shuffle you usually see your dad doing at a wedding – both hands pumping in the air, bending his knees, completely out of time.
If you’re no great shakes on the dancefloor yourself, you can perhaps imagine (or empathise with) the feeling of abject horror that descended upon me when I found myself in one of the world’s most remote, beautiful and brutal landscapes – the Tibetan plateau of the Himalayas – and was asked to show an entire community of nomads my “special dance moves”. Not only had they never seen a foreigner like me, before; but they certainly, unequivocally hadn’t seen anyone do the Y.M.C.A.
Yet, there I stood, in the centre of the ‘town hall’ – the largest of a cluster of tents cleverly woven together with black yak hair, impenetrable to the wind howling across the plains outside – shuffling awkwardly, while trying to hum the tune I hoped, desperately, they might recognise.
I waved my arms around as I performed the quintessential four-letter dance moves. Pointed my fingers in between, in semblance of the classic, hip-holster ‘double gun’ stance, trying to look ‘cool’. I probably pursed my lips. I may well have gyrated my hips, too; but I’ve managed to blank out whether or not I closed my eyes, to demonstrate that I was really, really into it – just like you’d have found me doing at Zeus nightclub in Cardiff on a Friday night in 1999, listening to Baby D’s Let Me Be Your Fantasy, at one in the morning.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. I was joined by three reluctant dance partners: my then-boyfriend, and an Israeli couple we’d met and hit it off with. They were travelling indefinitely, like us; yet rather than exploring after living and working abroad, as we had, they’d spent more than two years with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and were doing what so many young Israelis do to shake off the confines – and trauma – of national service.
Our trip onwards through south-east Asia would later be defined by seeing hordes of IDF graduates taking up smoking spots in cafes and shisha bars in Thailand; burning off steam in backpacker bars in Cambodia, haggling hard in markets in Vietnam and diving deep into the mind-cleansing worlds of yoga and meditation in Laos. Many would tell us of the drive they felt to “reclaim their youth” after giving up their precious teenage years to the frontline. Most were choosing to “cut loose” before they returned to Israel to study at university – and that meant “cutting loose” by way of partying, big time.
But for now, he – an IDF lieutenant – and she, an IDF intelligence officer – were standing self-consciously beside me, showing off their own rhythmic “traditional dance” interpretations; the type of movements we all clearly wished we were doing in private, or in front of very good friends. Yet we’d met just days before, in a hostel in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, before agreeing to hire a Jeep – and driver – and share the 800 mile, seven-day trek across the stark and mountainous terrain to Kathmandu.
As the epic landscape rolled by out of the window, and we gazed in reverence at the shoreline of the stunning, naturally-turquoise Yamdrok Lake; we got to know each other – comparing notes of the circumstances of our individual journeys out of the regional Chinese capital of Sichuan, Chengdu (famous for giant pandas, of course) to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). We agreed it felt, at best, clandestine; at worst, dangerous. Everywhere we went, Chinese officials reminded us – verbally and on paper – that Tibet “didn’t exist”; that Lhasa was “part of China” – despite the then-recent wave of self-immolation suicide protests, mostly by monks and nuns, prepared to die over Beijing’s rule.
Before setting out on our epic road trip to Nepal, we’d visited the Potala Palace in Lhasa together, a dzong fortress-turned-museum and World Heritage Site – previously the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas from 1649 to 1959.
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