'It is, after all, Saturday night, and the group of men have just come through a fun but tough trip to the roof of the world. What can we possibly do in this one-lane town, we wanted to know.
'The answer begins to appear before us in the dusk as we head back to our hotels.'
Hardcore Mumbaikar Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com discovers some startling facts about Tibet's nocturnal activities.
Given its Himalayan heights where, perhaps, ‘not a blade of grass grows’, you couldn’t be faulted if you thought of Tibet as a land of deprivation.
Add to that reports of Tibetan protests against the Chinese takeover of their country in 1959, and the Tibetan exiles living in India who keep alive their hope of a return to their homeland, and you sort of don’t expect much from Tibet.
Not great food. Not signs of development. You do, however, expect a restive people.
You certainly don’t go to Tibet expecting a rocking night life, not when you are from Mumbai, the city that allegedly doesn’t sleep (it does, but that’s another story).
Nothing prepares you for what follows, not the research you do before embarking on The Summit, Mahindra Adventure’s first foray to the Everest Base Camp, not the pre-journey notes sent to you, and certainly not the briefing at Kathmandu’s Handlebar pub by Sacred Summits, the logistics provider to the expedition which also, incidentally, owns the pub.
There’s so much focus on the extreme climate you will encounter on the trip, the inhospitable terrain, the altitude sickness, the lack of acclimatisation that, before you turn on the ignition on the first day of the trip, you tend to believe it is a journey to the end of the world.
But as you traverse from Kathmandu across Tibet, and speed over Zhangmu, Tingri and Rongbuk in three days flat, the trip assumes hues of its own.
Tibet is not this desolate, god-forsaken land that you have imagined it to be; it’s a land like any other situated at this impossible height, and the people are simple country folk, the lines on their weather-beaten faces speaking eloquent essays about their lives.
Through spending time, watching and observing, you learn a bit about Tibet you didn’t know before.
On the way back from the base camp, you hit Zhangmu, the Tibetan border town that is the final halt before you cross over into Nepal.
Zhangmu has everything a weary Himalayan trekker could look forward to. Hotels with clean linen, rows of stores offering everything from electronics to winter clothing to provisions to fresh meat to food to, even, spas.
It is in one of the spas where we are rejuvenating our tired soles that the topic of the evening ahead comes up. It is, after all, Saturday night, and the group of men have just come through a fun but tough trip to the roof of the world. What can we possibly do in this one-lane town, we wanted to know.
The answer begins to manifest before us in the dusk as we head back to our hotels.
Stores that appeared plain during the walk up the lane have now changed character. Elaborately made-up women dressed in tight evening gowns are visible inside, their features accentuated by the precision lighting.
That was when the bell rings… Zhangmu is getting prepped for Saturday night!
A couple of hours later, as we gather outside a building signage that says ‘New World Drama’, our first thought is oh no, we are not here to catch some Tibetan new age play.
As we are cajoled into going down the steps, the first strains of music waft up. We enter the place to discover that, despite its innocuous name, it is indeed a night spot.
It has a spacious dance floor, strobe lights, English music blaring from the speakers (courtesy a female DJ who, in the best traditions of her tribe elsewhere in the world, refuses to take requests) and low cubicles with tables and seating.
Tibetans take their drinking seriously. At restaurants and bars, you will find them bunched around, tippling with the earnestness of an Indian teen. But, at the Zhangmu night club, we realised there was a certain ceremony to the process of imbibing.
The waitress plonked Lhasa beer cans before us, along with glasses. These are bigger than shot glasses but smaller than regular ones. You say 'shyabdak!' ('cheers!' in Tibetan), gulp your drink, and plonk down your glass. It is refilled immediately. And thus you go on. And on. And on.
At first, it is fun because it is new. It is only after a few shyabdaks that you realise you have consumed more beer than you ordinarily would in so little time. But there is no easing up; not unless you divert your attention to the goings-on on the dance floor.
Which, you realise, is another ball game altogether.
Tibetan pop music was playing and a group of Tibetans doing the, well, Tibetan dance. For those of us from Mumbai and its environs, it seemed a bit like the stuff that you do at the Navratri garba, with a similar shuffle of the feet, then the quick turn to the other side, doing a few steps, then back to this side…
You can see a video of it here.
It was so addictive and seemed like so much fun that we decided to join them on the dance floor. The Tibetans gamely taught us the moves and let us dance among them. Soon the DJ switched tracks, playing a Hindi song (for our benefit, no doubt!) before moving on to the usual mix of international tracks you hear from Adelaide to Andheri. Watch the video below.
But the Tibetan track, even though one couldn’t understand a word of it, clearly had soul and depth.
To your surprise, you learn that Tibetan pop is a genre of its own and has followers by the legion. The most popular singer of them all is Kunga Phuntsok whose voice had just tugged at our heartstrings, and you realise the reason for his icon-like status. He even has a Facebook page, maintained by fans no doubt since FB is banned in China.
Night clubs are fun places to be a fly on the wall in, watching and observing what's going on. The surrounding cubicles see hunched up groups of all ages, from the young to the reasonably old, all willing to imbibe, all willing to shake a leg. And let strangers in their midst.
There is also the customary sozzled chap who everyone knows is there but no one is bothered by.
And then there is the dancer who takes everyone’s breath away with his moves. Check out his moves in this video below.
We've been at the New World Drama for three hours and, there’s no sign of the place shutting down. So what time does night life in Tibet end?
Never, you are told to your utter disbelief. Night clubs stay open as long there are patrons! You see, in communist China, there is no fear of drunken misbehaviour or crime, for obvious reasons.
We leave the place past midnight and find nightlife flourishing outside in its various manifestations. Our next halt is the Sherpa disco down the road.
This place is larger than the previous one, and naturally has more tables, which are all taken even at this late hour. The dance floor is equally packed, with Tibetan youth letting their hair down on the weekend. Like elsewhere, here too the young believe in working hard during the week and partying harder on weekends.
Otherwise, the process is the same. Enter Lhasa beer cans, fill shot glasses, say 'shyabdak!' and pour it down the hatch. As the frenzy builds up, at around 2.30 am, everyone is suddenly shushed off the dance floor. The place is taken over by a group of youth in thin jackets, hair gelled back, sideburns, the works.
And the song that blares from the speaker knocks you off your unsteady feet.
When Sajid Nadiadwala produced and directed Salman Khan’s Kick, I am sure he knew the song Jumme ki Raat Hai from the film will be a chartbuster, but neither Sajid nor Salman could have imagined that a group of dancers in a Tibetan night club would one day dance to the song.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Jumme ki Raat Hai, as danced to in a Tibetan disco:
There were a couple of other Bollywood songs the professional group danced to, but none so memorable as Sallubhai’s. In another 15 minutes status quo ante was restored, and everyone made a dash for the dance floor, to familiar music.
At around 4 am, as we stagger out, we look back at the party that is still going strong, the dance floor that is still packed, with no sign of it all coming to an end soon. It is true, you realise, that the show in Tibet ends only when the last of the patrons leaves.
Seeing our startled expressions, a local says, ‘Ha, but this is nothing, you must see the night life in Lhasa!’
Photographs and videos: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com.