The common room at the hotel in Old Tingri.

Old Tingri Base Camp

There was no more hope left for us to visit Base Camp. We were stuck in the tiny Tibetan village of Old Tingri until the next day. This was as close as we would get to Mt. Everest on this trip.

Heavy clouds still obscured the view of the mountains. My two companions and I returned to the guesthouse for lunch. Kitchen and utilities were probably just as filthy as our accommodation there and the rest of the settlement, where wild dogs and skinny cows scavenge through refuse dumped onto the streets. We forced ourselves not to think too much about it. That way, the simple meal tasted surprisingly good.

The weather still hadn't cleared, and we remained in the common room. We were the only guests on that day. Initially, only one middle-aged local woman was around to serve meals and sell pop cans. Over time a few other women came and went. Eventually a group of them settled in front of the TV. For the next couple of hours, they were completely absorbed in the dramatic events at a fictional imperial court, a fantasy world that couldn't be any farther away from their own reality.

We were bored and still disappointed after the sudden change of plans. 'Why can't these women just take a broom and sweep the cabins instead, just sweep…,' I kept thinking. 'What's their fascination with ruthless emperors, conspiring concubines, reckless princes and spoiled princesses in lavish costumes and sparkling clean settings? This genre has nothing to do with Tibetan tradition and culture whatsoever.'

It was quiet in the room. The volume of the TV was too low to make out any words. 'How much of that audio do they get,' I wondered. The movies were in Mandarin, a language completely different from Tibetan. Even the subtitles were in Chinese characters, not in the exquisite Tibetan script. Many Tibetans don't speak Mandarin or at least not well.

We didn't talk much, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Suddenly, a little girl of about three came in. She didn't say a word, she didn't even smile, but her arrival transformed the dull and subdued mood of the room into a lively and bustling place. The women forgot about the TV show, turned all their attention to the child, pulled out a box with toys, chatted, teased and hugged her.

Up to that moment, Old Tingri felt like the most alien place I had ever experienced. That scene with the little girl, however, could have played anywhere, in the lobby of a fancy hotel or on a beach on Vancouver Island. That's when I realized: 'Maybe it's not such a different world at all!' Once our most basic needs are met, what makes us happy is to love and feel appreciated. Nothing expresses this better than a bunch of grown-ups giggling with a toddler.

Old Tingri

China and its society are changing at a phenomenal speed and that includes remote areas such as Tibet. But as it looks right now, this child is growing up in surroundings that resemble medieval Europe far more than modern China. For her, life is just like this, and her environment and upbringing doesn't include brooms to sweep rooms. And what difference would it make? Even if swept a hundred times, the crumbling shacks would still be crumbling shacks.

The "hotel" in Old Tingri