Beggaring games

This morning we were supposed to drive to Yushu with the living buddhas Ge and Snow. But the shiny Japanese car still looked very much front-wheelless when we got up. And continued to look so for the next 6 hours. The monks drove back and forth in a borrowed car on pointless errands to try tools which didn’t work, and eventually we realised that they were waiting for Ge’s brother to arrive all the way from Qinghai province. I had a bad headache so I sat outside in the “square” to catch some fresh air and watch Manigango’s central attraction.

Manigango’s central attraction is a sort of game between two teams. One team is the 8 or so old ladies who hang around outside the hotel, begging. They are all wrinkled and dirty with layers and layers of old Tibetan clothes and plaited, matted hair. They have missing teeth, runny eyes, grubby hands, gnarled bones, and they sit around the square all day, sometimes accompanied by their grandchildren. The other team is the Chinese tourists, who arrive in swanky 4-wheel-drives, kitted out  in expensive hiking gear and cowboy hats as though they’re about to set off into the wilderness for a month.

The game works like this. Swanky car pulls up outside hotel and Chinese tourists get out. Old women leap to their feet, and head straight for the car, grinning. Their speed varies a lot, with the more sprightly making it in seconds, the most arthritic catching up several minutes later. Each holds in her hand a stack of filthy low-value renminbi notes, and they nod their arms up down like one-eyed bandits, crowding around the tourists. Chinese tourists shrink back in revulsion, then make a dash for the hotel, perhaps chucking a 5-mao note in their wake. Old women crowd after them, with a chorus of “thank you thank you thank you”. This roughly translates as “give me more money now you miserly young sod”. Finally they give up and return to base, stroking any winnings and grinning toothpartly.

Since I was a poor foreigner who clearly didn’t understand the rules of this team, I was sort of taken pity on and adopted by both sides. Chinese tourists gave me vinegary medicine for my headache and wanted photographs taken with me. Tibetan ladies tried to feed me a dodgy-looking  powder which included “aspirin, caffeine, msg” and several other ingredients I didn’t understand. I rejected the offer but they were wolfing it down. They were also very worried that I was wearing shorts, and kept trying to massage my legs and rub my hands, though I insisted I wasn’t cold.

Occasionally they were fed by the hotel-owners, an old Tibetan man with a face full of boils and his young son and his girlfriend from Qinghai province. They also got them to do some odd jobs such as cutting cabbage, which they did very ineffectively. I really, really hope they washed that cabbage properly afterwards.

Other attractions of the square included young monk children on rickety scaffolding painting a shop next door, feral dogs rolling in the mud, police men with yellow Tibetan scarves playing ma jiang, and some pilgrims on their way from Lhasa.

I talked for quite a while to one of the old ladies who spoke good Mandarin. She had been to Beijing once, but now her husband was dead and she had no children no property and no skills. A friend of her husband’s gave her a place to sleep in Manigango, and she spent her days in the square collecting money from tourists and sharing her wicked sense of humour. She was very bright and very very funny. Even the Chinese tourists who at first tied themselves in knots to avoid her scabby skin and black mouth would be in fits of giggles after one of her “xiaohua” about how stupid Sichuan people are. Whenever a monk walked past all the old women pulled off their hats to reveal scratty pigtails or unevenly cut 1cm bristles, and once a Chinese lady stood nearby without removing her hat. The old lady shouted, “She didn’t remove her hat for the lama, in the afterlife she will turn into a YAK!” and she held her fingers to her head like horns, giggling with wicked delight.

The old ladies had, as well as the 7-year-old girl who never spoke,  pennants of living Buddhas kept under their thick outer layers. And all of them had one of the DL. They kept trying to persuade me to go to Lhasa and I had to explain that it’s very hard to get a visa. The Mandarin-speaker whispered “That’s because you’re a foreigner. Foreigners all like him. That’s why they don’t want you lot going to Tibet.”

Then she gave an exaggerated look over each shoulder, made a very loud hushing noise which showered me with spit, and hobbled off towards an unfortunate tourist who had just stepped out of the hotel. It seems the beggars’ life here could be fun at times, but I dread to think what it’s like with minus 30 degress during the 9-month winter.

And finally the game was over. At about 4 that afternoon, Ge’s brother had shown up in a police car – because yes, he is in fact a policeman – and their car was fixed. We all piled into the incredbly posh interior with padded seats and good luck charms, and I waved goodbye (and gave a small amount of cash) to my newfound friends. And as we drove off northwards, we were left thinking it was now so late that there was no way we could make it to Yushu today after all.

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One Response to “Beggaring games”

  1. Dick Says:

    Elle
    Just so you know you are not shouting into the void, I am loving my daily episode. Are you going to try to get it published? It quite reminds me of the Eric Newby classic a short walk in the Hindu Kush.

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