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Great Wall of China in Lhasa

There's something quaintly charming about Tribhuvan International Airport, but it's not a terribly exciting place to hang around while waiting for a flight. So we decided to do a last minute check-in for our flight to Lhasa, which didn't prove to be a bright idea. Indian nationals flying out of Kathmandu to foreign destinations need a clearance from the Indian Embassy, a rule about which we were ignorant. 

The immigration officer was friendly but firm. After much persuasion and flashing of press cards, he relented but made copious notes of our personal details on a yellowing sheet of paper. Somewhere at Tribhuvan International Airport that piece of paper is at this very moment being gnawed by termites.

It had been raining in Kathmandu and the sky, though not exactly overcast, looked less than promising for a smooth flight through the Himalayan peaks. "Don't worry, we will be flying above the clouds," my pipe-smoking friend Siddharth Varadarajan sought to reassure me. Sure, but for that we need to climb through the damn things first and pilots are known to have confused snow-clad mountains for cloudbanks, I muttered. Siddharth settled down on a bench with his spanking new copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Tibet, opening the book at a page daintily marked with a parrot feather. I wandered off in search of a corner where I could sneak a smoke.

The China Airlines flight from Lhasa was delayed on account of bad weather. The same plane does a return flight from Kathmandu. So our flight, too, was delayed. Morning turned into noon and by the time we took off for the Roof of the World, we had missed lunch. The oatmeal cake served on the flight was poor compensation for what could have been a lavish feast. As the plane skimmed over the peaks and with peeled eyes I tried to spot the tip of Everest peeking out of the sea of clouds, my pen leaked. 

It's a short flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa and as the plane began to descend, the stark contours of Tibet emerged, sprawled below us � a harsh terrain with the occasional patch of green. I tried to imagine Tintin and Captain Haddock, with Snowy trailing them, trekking along the mountain track that looked like a matchstick thin ribbon from the air. I later learned it's an all-weather road that goes right up to the point where Tibet ends and India begins, one of the many roads that criss-cross Tibet and are part of China's strategic infrastructure. It was a smooth landing at Lhasa's Gonggar Airport.

We collected our luggage and made our way towards a narrow passage that said 'EXIT', taking short, steady steps, as advised, so as to acclimatise ourselves to the sudden precipitous drop in the oxygen level. It was then that we ran into an invisible Great Wall of China. Or, rather, Siddharth Varadarajan ran into it. In the middle of the passage stood a group of PLA soldiers next to a scanner through which all baggage had to pass. My bag went through. Next it was Siddharth's bag. It went through. As he reached for his bag, one of the PLA soldiers, a Chinese woman with a pistol twice her size, stepped forward and seized it from him. Siddharth stammered, "What happened?" I silently prayed he hadn't been picking weed in Kathmandu the previous evening.

"Book, there is book, show me book," the woman snarled. It was quite a nasty snarl. "No book, only clothes," Siddharth said in matching Pidgin English. "Yes book." "No book." And so it went on till she sternly commanded him to open his bag: "You open zip now." There was no zip to open, but two steel clasps which Siddharth, by now red in the face unclasped. And there right on top of his clothes nestled the copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Tibet. "Book!" the woman declared triumphantly as she picked it up. Nonplussed, Siddharth said, "It's a guidebook. But what's the problem?" "Big problem." 

She expertly thumbed the book and then showed a page. Lo and behold, there was a picture of the Dalai Lama, his beatific smile beaming out of the page.  A stream of expletives followed, of which I could make out two: "criminal" and "terrorist." It was amusing to think of the Dalai Lama as either, but clearly the woman and her colleagues were not amused. By then our Chinese escort had begun to sweat. This could turn nasty, he told us sotto voice. 

Much pleading followed. Siddharth offered to tear out the page. He even mentioned his association with the Hindu a couple of times, but that nugget of information was rudely ignored. Years of flag-waving and so little to show for it! The PLA soldiers remained unmoved. Finally, a deal was struck. Siddharth would surrender the copy of Lonely Planet and we would be allowed to leave the airport. 

Siddharth was inconsolable. I don't think it was on account of the Dalai Lama being abused in so gross a manner in what was once the seat of his spiritual and temporal power in his free country.

The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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