If you close your eyes and listen carefully to the sounds in next room you can hear a large pot of chai coming to the boil. The stove and its owner are out of view, but a weak shadow is cast over the corridor between our rooms. Before long the smiling owner appears, places two fresh thermos flasks on a shelf in the corridor before his foot steps recede back into his workspace.
After two hours of early morning wandering around Lhasa’s back alleys it was time to duck into a small chai house for some sustainence. Three rows of red laquered wooden benches face the back wall, or to be more precise they face the TV that is perched on the top right hand corner of the back wall. Hours ago the TV would have been blaring out bollywood movies to a packed local crowd but for now it sits in silence reflecting the room back on itself. To my immediate right are three labourers two with heavily worn hands and sun-at-altitude etched faces who I assume they are in their 30’s and with them sits a fresh faced 10 year old. In front of them three sleeping bodies try to make the most of the limited space and benches designed for sitting not sleeping. The labourers look up as I walk in, nod and then shift their concentration back to chai and cigarettes. The kid is also smoking.
The menu options at this time of the day are either to go for a large or a small themos of chai, the ordering-gesture for which is difficult to mis-interpret. These simple choices remind me of a road trip through small-town Mexico and walking into one-room bar that only sold tequila by the shot, half or full bottle. The other memorable aspect of that experience was that the main feature on one one wall of the bar was an open urinal – how many can’t-pee-when-you’re-really-not-watching men walked out of there with a full bladder. How many were sober enough to care?
If you shut your eyes and listen the distinct sounds of a space gradually reveals itself. Here, the clearest sound is the repeated slurping of hot chai from small glass cups. At regular intervals this is followed by a low thwump as the worn cork is pulled from the thermos followed by the sound of fresh chai hitting the bottom of an empty glass. Throats are repeatedly cleared of flem and spit is allowed to fall to the dirt floor. One of the sleeping dead emits the gentlist of snores though his sleep pattern is sharply interrupted by a kid repeatedly trying to use a lighter that appears to have run out of fuel.
Nobody speaks. Outside as the city wakes the nearest thing to vehicles going by is bell attached to a cycle rickshaw.
Covering most of the wall on my right is a panoramic poster of Lhasa seen from a nearby mountain range. It’s designer has thoughtfully surrounded it with a printed a wooden frame. On another wall a poster of a Chinese teenage with a skateboard looks down on our little nativity scene.
In Lhasa 1 yuan buys a thermos of hot sweet chai plus whatever memories you can walk out with.