Consequently, Tibet feels like a classic frontier region, with typically peculiar demographics. There are disproportionately few Han children, and almost nobody comes to stay: the intention is invariably to return to the interior. The majority of the Han are men, including the government-sent workers. Of the Han women I saw in Tibet, more than a few were prostitutes; locals told me that they had come in a wave in 1994 and 1995, after the investments in the sixty-two major projects. One Han volunteer I spoke with had arrived in a group of thirteen men; one woman had applied but was rejected because the authorities felt that Tibet was no place for a young woman. The young man was resigned to finding a wife during his three paid trips home. "During vacation I'll be able to look for a girlfriend," he said. "I'll have six months. You can meet one then, and after that you c can write andall when you come back here."
There were moments when everything—the ethnic tension, the rugged individualism, the hard, bright sun and the high, bare mountains—seemed more like a Jack London story than a real society. One day some American friends and I hired a driver, a twenty-five-year-old Sichuanese named Wei, who was nursing a defeated 1991 Volkswagen Santana. He had a two-year-old son at home, and he hoped to earn enough money by carrying passengers—though he wasn't registered to do so—to buy a new car in six months. We agreed to pay him $36 if he drove us to Damxung, five hours north of Lhasa. Drive he did—past the police checkpoint, where he faked his credentials ("It's simpler that way," he explained), and past a Land Rover full of foreigners driven by a Tibetan, who, realizing our driver wasn't registered, swore he'd turn him in at Damxung. "It's because I'm Han," Wei said grimly. "And at Damxung the police will be Tibetan." He drove faster and faster, racing ahead of the Land Rover, until finally he hit a bump and ruptured the fuel line.
The car eased to a stop in the middle of nowhere. To the west rose the snow-topped Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains. The Tibetan driver cruised past, glaring. Wei cut a spare hose and patched the leak, and then he addressed the problem of injecting fuel back into the carburetor. He unhooked the fuel line and sucked out a mouthful of gas. Holding it in his mouth, he plugged the line back in. Then he walked around the front of the car and spit the fuel into the carburetor.
The car started. I could see Wei working the taste of gasoline around his mouth, and then, a few minutes later, he took out a cigarette. Everybody in the car held his breath—everybody but Wei, who lit the cigarette and sucked deeply. He did not explode. He stared ahead at the vast emptiness that stood between him and $36, and he kept driving.
That was the way a Sichuanese did things in Tibet. Gasoline was bitter but he ate it, the same way he ate the altitude and the weather and the resentment of the locals. None of that mattered. All that mattered was the work he did, the money he made, and the promise that if he was successful, he'd go home rich.
A House Without Pillars?
Tibet gave rise to exciting stories, but it was indeed jianku, and the social problems made a hard place even harder. Near the end of my trip I ate dumplings at Fei Xiaoyun's restaurant, and as I ate, she complained about her situation. Business was bad, and her life was boring; she worked fifteen-hour days and she had no friends in Lhasa. She missed her son, back in Chengdu, and she probably wouldn't see him until the following year. She asked me how long it had been since I'd been home, and I said I hadn't left China in more than two years.