The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 26 March 2009

The Hotel on the Roof of the World

From Miss Tibet to Shangri-La

by Alec Le Sueur

The political situation in Tibet isn't something to laugh about. It isn't very funny. The Chinese have occupied what was a defacto independent nation when it was invaded by the People's Liberation Army in 1950. In the decades since, the Chinese have made Tibet their own, for better or for worse. Patrick French, in his Tibet, Tibet, has suggested that the question of Tibetan independence is complicated by the intervening history, by the status of Tibetans and their economy, and by global politics. Back in the mid-1980s, shortly before a dramatic anniversary uprising by Tibetan monks in the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa, the Chinese government decided to explore the idea of opening up Tibet to tourism. Step by step, they made Lhasa a tourist destination and a booming city, dominated by Chinese commercialism and tinted by the relentless suppression of any Tibetan demands for independence. This has proven successful for the Chinese and, ultimately, for some Tibetans. It's a complicated problem. And a not particularly laughable one. Still, in any human situation, there are moments of humor, absurdity and compassion. When the Chinese opened Tibet to tourism in the 1980s, the first western-style hotel they opened there was a Holiday Inn. At the time, the notion of a Holiday Inn in Lhasa seemed perfectly bizarre. Ultimately, Holiday Inn would abandon the hotel to the Chinese. But for a decade, they made a valiant attempt to run this place as a tourist destination. In the couple decades since then, Lhasa has grown more open to western tourism, with (especially on the 50th anniversary of the uprising that led to the Dalai Lama's exile in India) regular crackdowns on dissent and journalists in that turbulent capitol. This book, which came out in 2003, is a memoir by one of the people who ran that Holiday Inn during the early years of Tibetan tourism. Alec Le Sueur arrived in 1985 with the unenviable task of marketing the hotel in an environment of hostile western attitudes toward any commercialization of the holy city of Lhasa. He also, of course, had to cope with the arcane and elaborately turgid bureaucracy of Chinese Communism, the demands of tourists, the work style of Lhasa's Tibetan and Chinese population, Himalayan hamsters (i.e. rats), ambitious managers, and much much more. The blurb on the book jacket makes reference to the old British TV show Fawlty Towers (Le Sueur, himself, is from the isle of Jersey), and many of the episodes portrayed in this often hilarious book echo those crazy TV scenarios. There are rats dying in the air ducts and flies dropping from the sky during an official function in the banquet hall. There are demanding tourists who don't understand the extreme environment of the Tibetan plateau. There are confident climbers of Mount Everest. There are characters running the hotel in what seems like an incompetent manner, but they are doing the best they can with absurdly limited resources. But the book has a more serious side. Le Sueur can not avoid the political realities, though he wants us to understand they're more subtle than either side of the political fight would have us believe. He seems a bit boorish in the opening chapter of the book, not particularly interested in cultural sensitivity. As the story unfolds, and five years pass, he grows fond of the place, its people and its unique cultural and physical landscape. There are some touching episodes, including a hike up a nearby mountain and the cremation of an unfortunate tourist in a chaotic but ultimately moving ceremony on a mountainside. The book is a quick read. Le Sueur's writing is simple and straightforward, but also engaging and often very funny. It is a highly valuable portrait of basic survival and everyday life in the cultural stew that the Roof of the World has become, against its own will, maybe, but nevertheless becoming a colorful and vibrant landscape. A troubled landscape, still, and certainly not free, but Le Sueur brings out its essential and often absurd humanity.

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