The Hotel on the Roof of the World

THE HOTEL ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

This edition published 2013

First published in 1998
Reprinted 1998, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2009

Copyright © Alec Le Sueur, 1998

The right of Alec Le Sueur to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced by any means, nor transmitted, nor translated into a machine language, without the written permission of the publishers.

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This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.

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eISBN: 978-0-85765-836-4

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Praise for THE HOTEL ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD:

‘Le Sueur... provides us with the means of improving our knowledge of a far-away country about which we know little'
THE GUARDIAN

 

‘Horribly funny and worthy of any hotel sitcom'
SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

 

‘Imagine moving Faulty Towers from Torquay
to Tibet... Le Sueur has distilled five years of
real anecdotes into one hilarious volume'
FOCUS
magazine

 

‘This is a rip-roaring comedy of a book...
Underlying the story is a heart-warming and
sensitive understanding of the Tibetan people'
THE HIMALAYAN CLUB

To Conny and the Lhasa Loonies

YOU MEAN YOU WANT TO WORK IN LHASA?!

Flight SZ 301 with 83 passengers on board descended through the grey drizzle shrouding Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport. It was the morning of 31 August 1988. The usual close-up view of the thousands of television aerials, atop the dirty skyscrapers of Kowloon, was obscured by a dense fog. The control tower radioed its last message to flight SZ 301 at 9.14 in the morning: ‘All clear for landing.'

Kai Tak's runway, a narrow strip of reclaimed land extending across the polluted waters of Hong Kong harbour, was buried deep in the drizzle. Pilot Zhou Feng Li and the five crew who crowded the cabin of the Chinese flight were unconcerned. Kai Tak airport had an excellent safety record. The last accident had been in 1967. Nothing could go wrong.

Flight SZ 301 was destined to change Kai Tak airport's safety statistics as it skidded across the runway, plunging into the murky harbour and breaking apart on impact with the water. Rescue teams were at the scene almost immediately but tragically seven people died: one passenger, and the six crew who had been standing nonchalantly in the cabin without wearing seat-belts.

I sat in the departure lounge of Kai Tak airport on that same day, waiting to board my first ever flight on CAAC, China's national airline, on my first trip into China and Tibet.

While they combed the runway for parts of the fuselage of the old CAAC Trident I had a seven hour delay in which to contemplate my decision to work in this country: a place I had never been to, an airline with rather obvious disadvantages and a two-year contract in one of the remotest parts of the world.

Just one month earlier I had travelled from Europe to Hong Kong with my short resumé typed out as lengthily as possible and my best English suit packed. I was looking for a job in the luxury hotels of the Orient – reputedly where the finest hotels in the world are found. If I had done my homework properly I would have known that you do not visit Hong Kong in a thick, heavy woollen suit in the height of summer, but it was my first time in the tropics and I had much to learn. Dripping with perspiration from the sweltering, humid heat of Hong Kong, with my sodden suit clinging to my body as if it was made of neoprene, I entered the Holiday Inn offices for the last interview of my trip.

As interviews go it was a disaster from the beginning. I was only there because the helpful gentleman I had seen at The Peninsula had recommended that I see his friend at Holiday Inn, but my heart was not set on it. There is a tremendous snobbery built in with hotel work. For some reason it is assumed that if you work in a five star hotel you are automatically part of an elite upper class of hoteliers who mingle at ease with the rich and famous. As the reason behind my trip to Asia was to continue my career in luxury hotels I was infected with this snobbery and had little interest in working for Holiday Inn.

The high-powered air-conditioning in the office swept through my dripping suit and I shivered uncontrollably as I chilled to the bone. The lady conducting the interview was kind enough not to make any comment on this, for which I was very thankful, but from both sides the interview was going nowhere. We chatted for a while. All I wanted to do was to leave this refrigerator room as soon as possible. Even the sticky heat outside would be preferable to freezing in my own perspiration.

I made to leave. ‘Thank you for coming. Don't call us, we'll call you,' said from both sides with polite hoteliers' sincerity and with smiles all round. As I was leaving the room I casually mentioned that I would love to go to Lhasa, as I had seen a brochure for the Lhasa Hotel outside her office. From that moment my fate was sealed.

‘You mean you
want
to work in Lhasa?!' was the incredulous response to my passing remark. The door was closed behind me and before I had turned around my interviewer was on the phone to the company's Vice President.

I had to face him that day, as the next morning I would be returning to my job in Paris. Still wondering what I had let myself in for, I entered his office; an elegant apartment decorated with immense scrolls of Chinese calligraphy. Some of the scrolls had merely a few characters messily swiped over the rice paper with a large brush. It looked to me like the scribbling of a child let loose with a pot of black poster paint. My host, appreciating my observation of the calligraphy, pointed out the red chops on each scroll that showed we were looking at works of art from great Chinese masters. From the Chinese writing he read the names out to me and I nodded in admiration of these masterpieces, wondering how much one got paid for producing these things and whether my little nieces could be millionaires before the age of ten.

The Vice President swivelled pensively on his chair: a sumptuous black leather swivel chair, from which he made decisions every day concerning the multi-million dollar Chinese empire of Holiday Inn. This was the person who would decide the future direction of my career. Broad shoulders, a large square face with a mop of grey hair and thin wire-framed spectacles added to his sombre and learned appearance. He nodded for me to sit down and then proceeded to scrutinise me in detail. The intensity of his look and the wry smile on his face were unnerving and, not quite knowing where to look, my eyes darted from his face to the scrolls on the wall, to the spectacular view of Hong Kong from his window.

Crimson and silver taxis edged along the congested streets far below us in a world which was miles away. It is strange to see the world from above. Somehow it is a private place which humans were never meant to see, like the kitchens of a restaurant or the bathrooms of royalty.

Far below, perspiring heads glimmered in the sunlight. Litter and fallen laundry covered every ledge and portico beneath the high-rise. Daylight betrayed the rusting brackets of the neon street signs which crept even this high up the skyscrapers. Unsightly air-conditioning units jutted out of the exterior walls, spewing annoying little drops of water onto the hapless pedestrians far below.

This last thought on the air-conditioning brought my mind back to the present. I was decidedly uncomfortable. My suit had still not dried out, and the Vice President's grey eyes, enlarged by the thick glass of his bifocals, continued to stare at me, penetrating my inner thoughts.

After several minutes of silence he tilted back in his chair and spoke with a deep, slow, authoritative voice:

‘So, young man, you are going to be the Sales and Marketing Manager. You are going to spend six months a year in Tibet with the yaks and six months a year screwing your brains out in Hong Kong. How does that sound to you?'

Startled by his own question he jumped suddenly from his chair and nervously asked me not to repeat what he had just said. Trying to regain his composure he sank uneasily back into his swivel chair and gave me some advice on survival in China. He had worked there for many years and was reputed to know the system better than anyone.

‘Be careful,' he said, ‘it is not like the Western world.' He paused. ‘When you see a local girl just remember this one proverb: You can't try the shirt on before you buy it.'

Not really certain what he was on about I nodded in agreement.

‘They will be watching you,' he continued. ‘Remember, even when you break wind they will know it. Be careful.'

With these last words fixed in my mind and still wondering why I should be buying shirts with local girls, I returned to Paris to hand in my notice.

‘Where are you going Alec? The George V? The Ritz? Back to London?'

‘No, I am joining Holiday Inn.'

‘Holiday Inn?!' he exclaimed. ‘Why? Which one?'

‘Lhasa.'

‘Lhasa?' he repeated, looking quizzically at me.

‘Yes. Lhasa. Tibet.' I answered.

He could barely bring himself to whisper: ‘Au Tibet?! Au Tibet?! Au Tibet?!'

The drizzle and fog at Kai Tak airport had cleared and I watched with a morbid fascination as the airport engineers hoisted the nose of the plane out of the water. I am not a nervous flier but I must admit to being more than a little apprehensive as later that day we took off on CAAC's flight SZ 4401 – over the remains of SZ 301.

I told myself that even CAAC couldn't down two of its own planes in the same day and I closed my eyes to let my mind wonder what the future had in store for me.

Tibet. What had I done? Why was I leaving my comfortable job in a luxurious Paris hotel? Instead of walking the Champs Elysée to work, where would I be now? Why wasn't I returning to the family home in the Channel Islands, where I could be now, with all the love of wonderful, caring parents?

Despite my homesick thoughts I knew that I was doing the right thing. I was twenty-five years old, single, and looking for a challenge. Paris had become dull and faded. It was time for something, somewhere, new.

Tibet. Images of a land of magic; towering castles, inhospitable mountain peaks, ancient palaces in swirling mists. Yes, this is what I wanted to find. I had not even set eyes on the place but my heart was burning with desire to be there. Some foreigners are drawn to Tibet for religious or political reasons but I was not in search of discovering myself or freeing a country. I was simply out for adventure.

There were no direct flights to Lhasa. All aircrafts had to land and spend the night in Chengdu: the smelliest city of Sichuan where the sun never shines.

Chengdu is the
cccccrrrrrrrrgggggggkkkhhhhpt
capital of China. This is not a word to be found in the
Oxford English Dictionary
, so is not much use for Scrabble, but it does very accurately describe the first sound encountered upon arrival in Chengdu. It is one of the national pastimes of China, and you too can try it when you get there. It issues from as far back down your throat as possible, preferably from somewhere down between your toes, then you pull on the back of your vocal cords, involve your nasal passage somehow, bring it all up and give a good wholesome (and as loud as possible) shot on to the carpet. If there is no carpet available, which there often isn't at Chengdu airport, you may try to get it into one of the brimming spittoons which have been placed for your convenience in the waiting rooms.

Having fun? Well wait until we get to some of the other games they play, such as the no-tissue-needed-one-handed-double-nostril-fulsome-snort-onto-the-pavement job. When I pointed out that this wasn't a very pleasant way to blow your nose, I had my first lesson in Chinese etiquette. I was told that our Western method of blowing your nose into a tissue and then putting this paper and its additional contents into your pocket is quite disgusting. They do have a point there. In fact, a very good point. How did our Western culture ever develop such a habit? Luckily that is the only tissue waste we put in our pockets. It could have been worse. Much worse.

The adventure had started. This certainly wasn't Paris.

Mr Li, who had picked me up at the airport, told me of all the great sights in Chengdu and asked me why I didn't spend a week there on my way to Lhasa. And anyway, what did I want to go to Lhasa for? It was such a terrible place.

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