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Telephone Blues

You only realize how used you’ve gotten to the ways of 21st Century communication when you’re suddenly deprived of them. Upon arrival in Lhasa my PDA didn’t work and couldn’t read email, there was no Internet in the hotel and the hotel phone could only make calls within the city. … even after talking to the front desk, there was no way I could have made a phone call even within China from my room, let alone to a foreign country. And the people at the front desk also didn’t know where I could go to make a long-distance call, or didn’t want to tell me.

After some tweaking and a lot of patience, I finally got my PDA to make phone calls again and send text messages, although emails never worked. For Internet access, on one of the occasions I had escaped my government minders, I found this state-run Internet cafe around the corner from my hotel, whose computers were far from truly operational. More often than not, the browser couldn’t connect to the pages I was looking for, especially yahoo had its problems, none of the computers had a word processing program (although I did fine one in the end with a basic text editor) and most of them simply froze ever so often. Access was cheap though: 3 yuan per hour (ca. $0.39). But there was no way I was allowed to connect my own laptop to their Internet system: NO SE PUEDE was the very determined answer I got out of the otherwise rather uninspired girl that was manning the front desk.

It seems, young male Tibetans don’t have much to do on a Thursday afternoon. Most of the computers were taken by young locals, playing video games with each other, smoking like chimneys and ever so often yell out a scream if they got caught in their game.

My government appointed guides had taken me to the typical tourist restaurants: lousy service and mediocre food at astronomical prices. One evening I snuck out of my hotel and found my way down the street without my supervision and dove into a little restaurant I had walked by a couple of times before. My meal was simple (a pot of soup with a few noodles, some vegetables and beef) but delicious and cheap. A family sat at the only other table, obviously celebrating an occasion, judging by the amount of food they had ordered. As I ate my soup, their young, maybe three year old girl, came up to me and started talking in what I believe was Tibetan. I smiled back and tried to converse with my few words of Mandarin, but it was obvious neither understood the other. After a while, her older sister, maybe fifteen, came up to me and asked “Sprechen Sie deutsch?” Amazed, I answered yes, and asked her how come she spoke the language. It turned out she grew up in a small Swiss village named Rikon, located 15 miles outside the city I was born in, and one of the largest Tibetan communities in Europe. I had grown up seeing buddhist monks and other Tibetans wandering the streets of my hometown, and now, thousands of miles away, I met one of them. It truly is a small world …

Ah, well. I’m back in Beijing now, with my very personal Internet connection, right from the comfort of my bed … CNN’s and BBC’s websites are still not accessible, and neither is my blog, although I can obviously post on in through my google account, but otherwise things communication-wise are back to normal.


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