Traditionally dressed Tibetan men in wide brim hats and heavy, dark coats, and women in long, multi-colored skirts stand near the entrance to the courtyard where I’ve come to take photos. I’m in Tibet for a week and during one of my wanderings a faded yak skull hanging on a shop door catches my eye. I move toward it and start taking pictures.
Just then, in a nearby building, I hear a man’s voice. He yells in a rapid, staccato manner and sounds angry. More than angry, he sounds vengeful. Is there a fight somewhere? But then his tone shifts and becomes more melodic. Maybe he’s chanting. I look up at where I think the voice is coming from and see a bank of windows. Several heads are all turned in the same direction. Then another traditionally dressed Tibetan couple steps into the courtyard and disappears through a doorway. I walk to the courtyard entrance and see a sign: King Gesar Storytelling Center. Is that what’s going on up there? I wonder. Some kind of story telling event?
I walk over to the doorway, push back a heavy cloth curtain and step into a grungy stairway.
Curious, I approach the doorway, push through a curtain and climb the stairs. My heart pounds hard from the strain of being 12,000 feet above sea level. As I climb, the singing/chanting sounds closer. On the third floor, I pull back another heavy cloth curtain and step into a room filled with small sofas and low lying tables. At the head of the room, a man wearing a white silk shirt and a white head piece holds a mic. The storyteller. His lips move fast and his words spill out. The whole time I’ve been listening, he hasn’t taken a break. His words have continued unabated, something I don’t think I could do. I can’t understand what he’s saying but whatever it is, he is telling from memory. No script.
People notice I’ve stepped into the room. I am the only foreigner here, the only Westerner. Heads turn. A woman looks over at me, then a few children. They smile and I smile. “What is this Western woman doing here if she can’t understand Tibetan?” they must be thinking. Even though this center is in the heart of one of Lhasa’s main shopping thoroughfares, I feel like I’m in a village high in the Himalayas.
I wonder if I should leave but it feels rude somehow, so I take a breath, find an empty spot on a nearby sofa and sit down. I focus on the storyteller. He’s talking as if he were in a trance. The family to my right is drinking tea. A boy half listens while he plays a game on his iPhone. Another boy smiles shyly at me from across the narrow room. I smile back. Now that I’ve sat down, adults from the other side of a nearby aisle turn to look at me. We smile.
A woman in traditional dress walks up and down the aisle picking up and dropping off thermoses.
The storyteller’s voice rises and falls. I pull out my journal to jot down what’s happening. If I don’t write this down now, I’ll forget important details. Just as I start to write, an extremely old man walks up the aisle, a dark cowboy hat on his head, his gate uneven. He sits down on the other side of my sofa and smiles at me. I smile and nod. He keeps smiling and watches me as I write.
As I scribble, I fold the pages of my journal so that he won’t see that my journal has a kitschy image of Mao’ face on the cover. I bought it at a tourist shop. It seemed wrong to put Mao – a man responsible for so much suffering and starvation during the years of agrarian reform in China – on the cover of a journal, but the shop seemed in on the irony. I’m only in China once, I thought, so I bought it.
But now I’m sitting inside a room of Tibetans, inside the so-called “Tibetan Autonomous Region.”
But being in Tibet is another matter. China’s grip here is clear. Military bases dot the city and check points are everywhere. When we first arrived, the airport felt like an occupied territory with Chinese military planes and helicopters sitting to the side of the runway.
But the dynamic came more into focus when we entered Lhasa itself. A huge blue banner stretched across the wide avenue announcing, “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful, socialist Tibet.” Just beyond it, a huge sign featured the portraits of the last five chairmen. Mao’s face was at the top. It didn’t look kitschy at all.
But in this small room where a traditional storyteller tells a cultural story, the Chinese State seems distant. I’m just starting to relax, jotting down my thoughts and impressions, when I sense someone over my shoulder. The tea server stares down at me. She’s all smiles but I close the journal anyway. After all, this is a room devoted to the oral tradition of storytelling not the writing of it.
Just then a man two tables away approaches and asks me if I like Tibetan tea. “Yes!” I say.
A moment later a thermos is placed before me and the old man next to me pours me a cup. It’s tangy and buttery and like nothing I’ve ever had. In fact, it doesn’t taste like tea at all. It’s more like liquid butter. People turn to watch me drink. Even though it is a bit sharp, I smile and give a thumbs up.
By the time the storyteller ends, I’ve drained my cup, making sure to finish it all.
I don’t want to seem rude or unappreciative. The moment I place my empty tea cup on the table, the old man takes the thermos and fills my cup again. I wasn’t prepared to drink more so I laugh. Still, it’s kind of him to pour the tea and I take another sip.
Five minutes pass and then the storyteller stops finally, putting down his mic. Although I don’t know what he’s been saying, I later learn that he has been reciting a story based on the mythic story of the Tibetan King Gesar. I also learn that the way someone becomes a King Gesar storyteller, is through a dream. The person wakes and begins to tell the story of King Gesar, a story he’s never heard nor read before. It’s a kind of divine knowledge and so telling this story becomes their calling. The storytellers travel Tibet and tell the exploits of this mythic king, a king whose story traces the history and outlines of the culture of Tibet itself.
I see it’s time for me to leave. I take a last sip of the yak butter tea, get up and make my way over to the counter to pay. I smile at a few more faces and thank the server. Afterward, I step into the gray hallway and make my way down into the courtyard below.
The guide books say the future of Tibet is unclear.
I think about the future of Tibet under so much Chinese control. The city of Lhasa is now at least 50% Chinese. Can it survive continued Chinese control and domination? But today, I feel I witnessed the strength and power of a culture told through story. Children and families had gathered to listen to the old story, the story of Tibet itself. I’d like to think that stories can heal us, that they can help us stay whole and free and strong. This then is my wish for Tibet.