Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Seven Inches in Tibet

Durian Gray

Forget Lost Horizon--it's more like Lost Weekend for the lost generation in Lhasa. "Are you ready?" blasts the sound system promptly at 10 pm--and the crowd of young twenty-somethings shouts in unison,

"Yo! Hey! Disco! Disco!".

Benny, the beaming DJ from Chengdu cranks up the sound, the strobe lights flash and the dance floor fills up.

It's Friday night in Lhasa at the Top End Disco. The crowd is about 60% male, peach-fuzz faces and slant eyes, cuteness to die for.

It's a rice-queen's wet dream--although strictly speaking Tibetans do not eat much rice, but subsist on yak meat, potatoes, noodles and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Like their peers anywhere else in the world, these guys and girls (there are even a few drag queens), just wanna have fun.

You be the man!

There are virtually no foreigners--and being the only "European" in the hall, guys come up to invite me to join them--drinks (Pabst Blue Ribbon, Lhasa Beer or Coca-Colas) are on them.

I'm dragged to the dance floor to join their little circle, pay for my cab fare back to the hotel--and if you're lucky, sometimes you might get someone to go back with you after hand-holding, cuddling and dancing in the dark.

One well-built Tibetan student, on holiday from the University of Beijing, asked me to do a slow dance with him--pressing me up against his sweaty, barrel chest, and whispered, "You be the man."

Gay readers of Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet must have been heartened by the author's disclosure that in Tibet homosexuality is very common.

It is even condoned as giving proof that women play no part in the life of those monks that indulge in it." The former SS Austrian Alpinist (portrayed by Brad Pitt on the screen) who fled to Tibet from a British WWII internment camp in India, also admitted finding the Dalai Lama's brother an "attractive youth". So just as Harrer doesn't like to talk about his Nazi past, he may also have had other secrets in the closet. In any case, gay travellers will want to take their asses over the Himmies to look for their own seven inches in Tibet.

From Kathmandu to Lhasa

From Nepal you have to join a group travelling from Kathmandu to Lhasa, by air or overland, as individual travel is not allowed. Even in a Land Cruiser it is an arduous journey that could take three to five days. Crossing the Friendship Bridge from the Nepal border into Tibet and climbing steep cliffs into what appears to be a Chinese landscape painting with pagodas and cascading waterfalls, I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. Is this really Tibet--or is it a matte backdrop for Lost Horizon?

On our first night out, our Tibetan guide and cars had not yet arrived from Lhasa, so we were obliged to spend the night in the seedy border town of Zhangmu which, with its vice and (female) prostitution, has earned itself the reputation of being the Tijuana of Tibet. However, that could mean fun for some. We spent the night at the Gang Gyen hotel with its cute, friendly and obliging Nepalese staff. There is even a disco on the premises and a public bath. The Tibetan bath attendant was happy to show off his large tap in the shower stall, and was more than generous with the copious amounts of shower cream.

On the third day we detoured off the main road past lunar landscape to the Sakya Monastery where the flirty non-celibate monks challenge a visitor to arm-wrestling with their bare muscular arms. Unlike Thai monks, these guys didn't seem to mind an arm around the waist. By evening we reach Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet and which resembles generic Central Asia with its broad poplar lined boulevards and bazaars tended by Muslim merchants.

Practising English Tibetan style

We share a hotel with a troupe of equestrian acrobats who perform in a field the next day. The well-built, young horsemen are very friendly and surprisingly a few speak some English. One shows me their stables at dusk and takes me back to his room to "practice English". One of the first things he wants to learn, he indicates, is the word for lips as he plants his on my kisser.

On the fifth day we finally reach Lhasa. Aside from the fabulous, looming Potala Palace, considered one of the wonders of the world. Lhasa looks uniformly un-exotic until we reach the old Tibetan "quarter". Signs are in Chinese and the little English signage that appears everywhere is "OK", indicating karaoke. Across from the Potala a neon sign blinks "JJ Disco" a reminder that distractions such as discos, karaoke, bowling, brothels and roller rinks are omnipresent in Lhasa.

In contrast to South Asian countries, Tibet, as the rest of China, there is little social restriction against male and female mixing in public--and the barbers giving men's haircuts are all female, and many double as "masseuses". With the large contingent of PLA soldiers stationed there, Lhasa has more (female) sex-workers per capita than Bangkok!

If you want to make friends in Lhasa, it's probably a good idea to start out with your guide whose English skills and knowledge of Lhasa would be pretty good. Many of the guides--mostly young men in their early 20s--were schooled in India, and after graduation returned to Tibet to find employment, but the Chinese authorities are now clamping down on the Indian-educated returnees who are loyal to the DL (Dalai Lama), considered a "splittist" by Beijing.

As you circumambulate around the Barkhor, you'll also find a few merchants who also speak English. The public billiard tables are good places to find guys (though they won't speak English) and the blaring videotheque caf├ęs are also good for cuddling and pick-ups. One guy came back with me to my room from one of these video joints and another followed me upstairs to the toilet for some hanky-panky.

Free show in the locker room.

Another venue to meet Tibetan guys is the indoor public swimming pool. You can get a free show in the male locker room where guys undress without covering themselves and shower naked in the open stalls. I couldn't help noticing a couple of well-hung Tibetans, and a muscular, off-duty Chinese cop. The cops in Lhasa are recruited young, and many look like Boy Scouts in uniform and are not averse to snuggling. Inside the pool, it is easy to make new friends, and phone numbers are exchanged beside tables where food and drink is served. Swimsuits and towels can be hired, if you don't bring your own.

One thing not to bring is pictures of the DL. Photos of the Nobel Peace Laureate are, of course, forbidden by the Chinese in Tibet. A few years ago, His Holiness made a disparaging comment about homosexuality in San Francisco, of all places. But the insensitive comment coming from a man known as an apostle of peace caused such an uproar in the international gay community that it was "retracted for further review". Buddhism, particularly in Tibet and Japan has a long homosexual tradition in the monasteries. Nevertheless, despite the more open-mindedness of Buddhism compared to most religions, homosexuality is not one of the twelve steps, "unless," as Boy George commented (having dabbled in Buddhism himself) "you're going backwards in high-heeled stillettos."

If you go to Tibet

The politically correct who boycott Burma may also balk at visiting Tibet. However, few Tibetans would discourage tourists from visiting their homeland. It is relatively easy to join a group from Kathmandu for the one hour flight to Lhasa or 3-5 day overland journey--either way it will cost you about $300 to get there. One reliable Kathmandu travel agency that organizes groups or can put you in touch with one is Adventure Tibet, e-mail: advtibet@wlink.com.np

It is also possible to fly to Lhasa from Bangkok via Chengdu with a special Tibet permit. From Chengdu the airfare is $150, but you still need to join a group.

Tourist infrastructure is very basic. Tibet is not for hypochondriacs or those finicky about cleanliness and hygiene. It takes a few days to adjust to the altitude of Lhasa (3,650m; 11.970 ft) with its atmosphere of only 68% oxygen. If you have a history of heart or breathing problems, consult your physician before departure. English is not widely understood. In Lhasa, Mandarin is the lingua franca.

Although politically part of China, Lhasa is a far cry from Beijing or Shanghai where gay activity is now coming openly out of the closet, and is tolerated by the authorities. The tourist infrastructure is still very primitive outside Lhasa, which boasts a few 3-star hotels. There are also a number of backpacker hotels that offer budget accommodation.

The best places to stay are the Tibetan, family-owned hotels near the Jokhang (the so-called Tibetan Quarter), and the Hotel Kyichu where one can find recent copies of Genre and Men's Health in the lobby is a particular favourite of the writer, and no problem with visitors.


The park and open-air market across from the Potala Palace could be cruisy around late afternoon to sunset. Hang out around the pool tables, you'll be sure to make some new friends. Look for the martial and nomadic Khampas, brawny hunks in red-tasselled braids which they wrap around their head. Tibetans, like other Mongolian races, are generally hairless and beardless, if that turns you on.

Monasteries are, naturally, the logical place to meet those queer monks that Harrer writes about, although times (and mores) have changed since the Chinese occupation. The large monasteries are now tourist traps and you'll probably be herded through by your guide after paying $5.00 admission. If you want to meet Tibetan monks, you'd be better off going to India or Nepal

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting but - -nothing newer than 2006???

Would like to hear how someone like me can make it to Lhasa from HKG...