Laowai—March 2008

The rat-tat-tat of gunfire awoke me. It was just a single burst—a rapid, thundering slash into the silent darkness. I was out of bed and fumbling with the curtains at the window in an instant.

I had heard that same disruptive sound earlier that night, and had assumed, half-asleep, that it was simply a car backfiring. But then as I lay there, the tense events of the afternoon played back in my mind:

The Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of Tibet, usually surrounded by waves of prostrating pilgrims, suddenly closing as we were about to enter; the shopkeepers and street vendors packing up their merchandise in the popular Barkhor marketplace surrounding the Temple during the height of the market day; the police in their loosefitting green and khaki, emblazoned with bold red stripes and lettering, suddenly appearing; then the soldiers in dull brown emerging out of the shadows, their stern, wary eyes lazering the streets; and our guide, Tenzin, his bronze, sharp-featured face tightening with tension, announcing softly, but insistently, “We must go. Now.”

We walked rapidly for fifteen or twenty minutes, following Tenzin, who was communicating with our driver, Chamba, by cell phone. Chamba, in our Landcruiser, was blocked from entering certain streets, so we had to keep walking, chasing Tenzin’s back and his quick jerky strides, as he zigged and zagged through alleys and winding, narrow partially-paved side streets, his cell phone glued to his ear, until he and Chamba could devise a rendezvous plan.

“Dad? What’s happening?” Sam asked.

“I will tell you in the car,” Tenzin interjected. But even after our rendezvous with Chamba, Tenzin tactfully avoided providing substantial information. There was a “one-land” demonstration further down in the Barkhor, some blocks from where we were, Tenzin told us. “It has to do with the D.L.,” he said.

“You mean the Dalai Lama?” I asked.

Tenzin nodded without responding directly to my question. “Ears are everywhere,” Tenzin said. Since the Han occupation, Tibetans did not speak the name of their Priest and King, head of the Monastic Hierarchy of Buddha, out loud, he informed us.

That evening, the streets around our hotel were cordoned off. Gaunt Chinese men in cheap black suits and wrinkled white shirts milled on corners and in doorways, chain smoking cigarettes and talking softly, glancing at us, as we walked up Beijing Middle Road toward the Tibetan Steak House. We intended to eat yak steak and blood soup on our first night in Lhasa. “We’ll be yakking it up,” Sam said.

We had already sampled yak butter tea, a warm, oily concoction of tea, sugar, butter, and salt at the home of an old lady Tenzin had introduced us to, who lived in a neat hut in a rock-strewn alley in the middle of Lhaza. The old lady had served us a number of Tibetan delicacies, a few of which Sam had sampled. At home Sam remained a conservative eater over the years, difficult to please, but lately, on the road, he could let go and experiment. Slumping on a quilted bench and sipping the warm, oily yak tea brew, he allowed the old lady’s filthy cat to jump up on his lap, and he stroked it gingerly. The old lady, her face a coppery tan, continued to smile and stare at Sam.

Tall and lanky, Sam had been a curiosity the moment we landed in Tibet. His narrow shoulders and smooth white face framed with light brown hair loomed like a mast over the crushing waves of dark, short Tibetans and Chinese, who consistently whispered the word for foreigner— laowai—as we walked by. Sam was unaware that he was attracting attention; he is often oblivious to his surroundings.

The Tibetan Steak House was closed, an accordion of sheet metal rolled over the door and front windows—airtight—as were most of the other businesses on Beijing Middle Road. Our neighborhood was in the heart of the Han district, and the tension and anger—and fear—were thick in the air. We joined a dozen westerners back at our hotel, in a nearly empty restaurant.

“What is happening out in the streets?” I asked a young Tibetan man—a student—who had been having dinner with friends and volunteered to help translate the menu.

“You will find out tomorrow,” he said. His voice was bursting with restrained excitement. “No one will talk with you now,” he added softly. And then in a whisper: “Tomorrow will be a beautiful day.”

All of this came back to me as I lay in bed after the first burst of gunfire, dead tired from the flight into Lhasa from Chengdu in China’s Szechuan Province the day before where I had been teaching and touring with Sam, and the shocking adjustment to the altitude here in the snow-capped Himalayas, from 500 meters in China (1,640 feet) to 3600 meters (12,000 feet) in less than two hours. But I was on edge, unable to succumb to the sleep I desperately needed.

So when the sound came a second time, the jarring, unnatural crack and pop of gunfire, that haunting, threatening rat-tat-tat, I knew that whatever was happening in Tibet on this night was much more than a minor, temporary disturbance. Something serious—life threatening—was taking place in this country and to its people—and perhaps to me and to my son.

I ripped open the curtains and saw the soldiers illuminated in the streetlights, marching rapidly, equipped with riot gear—full-body shields, bamboo batons, and automatic weapons, and heading in our direction.

And then I thought, as I sank into the chair next to the window and peered across the darkened room at the long sinewy shape of my beloved son, bundled under his blankets, so peacefully sleeping, unaware and innocent of all of the angry, violent commotion outside: “What have I done to him this time?”

That was 6 months before Kilimanjaro.