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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Tibetan yak herder who stole my heart. He hadn’t washed for three months, but I loved him.

June 5, 2009

From The Times

June 4, 2009


When I arrived at the small hotel in Lhasa I noticed him immediately — he was dressed in an oversized military uniform, guarding the entrance to the bigger, flashier hotel next door. His eyes sparkled as he smiled at me. I smiled back and said Ni hao” — hello in Chinese, which I had studied at university. It became a daily occurrence — a shy wave and hello each time I came and went. When, one day, he asked me to spend the afternoon with him, I agreed. And on a sunny afternoon in April, in the shadow of the Potala Palace, we wandered hand-in-hand through Lhasa.


I was aware of the curious stares as we ate dumplings in a little café — a meal I paid for out of the embarrassment of being a Western tourist and he a poorly paid security guard earning £40 per month. He told me that his family were nomadic herders, moving from place to place with their yaks, and how he had joined the Chinese Army with the promise of a well-paid job — a promise that was never kept.


He told me that he dreamt of going back to join his family. That evening we spent the night together. As he undressed, he shyly informed me that he hadn’t washed in over three months; a statement which filled me with horror but which I later learnt was standard for most Tibetans! I handed him some soap and pointed him in the direction of the bathroom. We spent every night together after that. He would finish his shift and in the early hours of the morning would creep to my room.


I began to imagine the call I would make to my family, telling them that I would not be coming home and that I would be spending the rest of my life as the wife of a nomadic yak herder called La Lang.


On the morning before I was due to fly out, we agreed that I would do some last-minute shopping and then meet back at the hotel to say goodbye. I waited for his knock on the door but none came.


I asked the other guards where he was but they told me that he had gone out and they didn’t know where. I took one last look up and down the road, then reluctantly climbed into the taxi. At the bus station I kept expecting to feel his hand on my shoulder. Then I thought that he would somehow reach the airport in time to say goodbye. Instead, I left Tibet never knowing what had happened to my lover and wondering if he had been just a figment of my imagination.

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