A good friend passed through town the other day and we met over lunch to catch up on lost time. I first met Gary McCue in 1989 in Lhasa, Tibet, when James O’Reilly and I, along with Marybeth Bond, were traveling around the former forbidden world. Gary was a guide wise in the ways of Tibet and other Himalayan countries, and we were the lucky recipients of his services for a few days at a time when tensions were high. We were followed by secret police, and later detained for eight hours at the Nepal border when trying to exit. We never knew why we were hassled, we were just relieved to escape the clutches of the Chinese immigration officers into the friendly embrace of the Nepalis.
Gary wrote the book on trekking in Tibet, appropriately titled Trekking in Tibet, and he still leads trips there and elsewhere in the Himalayas, but he now lives in Tasmania. As we usually do on our once-every-year-or-two-or-three meetings, we shared tales of travel, family, friends, and of course, photographs. As we were leafing through Tibet pictures Gary showed one of his partner, Kathy, sitting at the base of a coconut palm.
“This is in Lhasa,” he said.
It made no sense. Coconut palms in Lhasa? At 12,000 feet? In that harsh, arid climate?
“Yes. This one’s in front of the Potala Palace. There’s a whole row of them now in front of the Jokhang. The Chinese installed them. All of the old Tibetan houses around the Bharkor have been torn down.”
I had to admit it was a good replica. In the photograph, Kathy looked perfectly happy sitting beneath that tropical tree, perhaps safe in the knowledge that the richly rounded coconuts above wouldn’t hurt her if one fell on her head. I could almost imagine a Chinese waitress sauntering by with a tray of tropical drinks, perhaps a little authentic Tibetan sand gathering around the tree to resemble a beach.
Gary showed another picture, this one of a sign that read in Tibetan and English that it was forbidden to climb the hill.
“You can’t climb the hill across from the Potala Palace anymore.”
“You mean the hill where all those classic photographs of the Potala were taken.”
Gary nodded. Forbidden by the Chinese.
I’d heard that things had really changed in Tibet since I’d last been there, but I never expected this. The Bharkor is utterly different, you can’t climb the sacred hill to gaze at the stunning Potala Palace, and you can bask beneath plastic coconut palms. A rail link will reach Lhasa soon, bringing, perhaps, thousands of tourists drawn to the sacred city on the roof of the world by its promise of tropical merrymaking. What’s next?
I’d better get back there fast.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.