Alec Le Sueur spent five years as the marketing and sales manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, the first international hotel to be opened in Tibet after China reformed and opened to the world.
The Holiday Inn was known as “the hardest hardship post.” Nicholas Kristof once wrote an article about it titled “A Tibetan Horror Story.” It was two flights away from Hong Kong on the chaotic state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, and for long periods of the year, the only meal to be had was spam. But the sights on mountains, Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and streets with yaks wandering freely were another thing.
Le Sueur chronicled the beauty of Tibet and the absurdities of running a hotel, where management duties were duplicated between a Chinese party and a foreign party that rarely saw eye-to-eye, where staff didn’t know how to use the new, technologically-advanced washing machines, where teaspoons went missing and a guard was hired to protect the toilet paper, in his book The Hotel on the Roof of the World.
Le Sueur’s witty and conversational style brings the place to life. Some of the scenes will look familiar to people who have spent time in China recently (Chengdu taxi drivers racing to the airport, rice wine banquets), but much else is lost into the past. Tibet has changed much. China’s airports are still chaotic masses of people, but they have changed, for the better, with modern airplanes and functioning logistical processes. The Holiday Inn has been taken over by the Chinese government’s managers, and new international hotels have opened up in Lhasa.
Le Sueur was also in Tibet at a time when pro-autonomy protests and riots broke out between 1987-89, and Tibet was under martial law for about a year, with no tourism. He mentions the political situation in so much as it impacted daily life and hotel operations, but he did not dwell on politics as a main subject.
After five years, he left Tibet with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and went with her to Belgium, which was the subject of his next book, Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land. He also left the hotel business and got an MBA in law firm management. He continues to contribute to travel magazines, including Food & Wine.
Following is my interview with the author:
Mitchell Blatt: Before going to Tibet, what was your impression of China? What were your biggest surprises?
Alec Le Sueur: My mother had been on one of the first botanical tours to China in 1980 as the country tentatively opened up to the outside world (Mount Emei Shan and Chengdu area) and I had her photographs in my mind – bicycles and Mao suits. Chengdu hadn’t really changed that much when I passed through for the first time in 1989.
There wasn’t a great deal published on Tibet at that time so most of my impressions had been formed by reading books such as Percival Landon’s account of the 1904 Younghusband expedition, and Spencer Chapman’s 1938 Lhasa the Holy City. And of course Heinrich Harrer’s brilliant Seven Years in Tibet which I think was the most read book on Tibet at that time and probably still is. I had expected most of this world to have been wiped out by the Cultural Revolution but found that fortunately much of it still survived, certainly in the spirit of the Tibetan people.
When you were working at the hotel, did you have the idea that you would write a book about the experience?
That wasn’t the intention when I went there but I have always enjoyed writing and so many funny situations came up that I felt compelled to write them down. I think the turning point, when I thought ‘I must write this’ was when we were informed in one of our daily morning management meetings that a uniformed guard would have to be posted outside the gents toilet opposite the Hard Yak Café as so many toilet rolls had gone missing. That was bad enough if you are trying to keep a straight face in what is already a surreal meeting with Party A and Party B managers in attendance, but when the next line on the agenda reported that a VIP, a Mr Li Ki Bum, had checked-in the day before the disappearance of the toilet rolls, many of us lost it while the Chinese and Tibetan managers looked on stony faced. It was like the seen from the Life of Brian when the Centurion mentions the name of Pontius Pilate’s friends in Rome to the guards.
Did you keep a journal when you were there? Did you take a lot of photographs? What kinds of things helped you remember the details?
Yes, I kept notes and wrote letters home which were very helpful. I did take pictures but photographs are two dimensional and I find not as useful as notes scribbled down at the time which capture feelings and observations that photographs don’t show.
Have you visited China since then? Visited Tibet? If so, what are some of the biggest changes you noticed?
I get asked this question a lot. I expected I would go back but I haven’t been yet. I am regularly sent photographs of Lhasa today by people who have visited and it has changed almost beyond recognition. I don’t want to go back and be all bitter about what has been lost, as Heinrich Harrer comes across in his 1980s Return to Tibet. When I was there in the late 1980s there were still yaks being driven through the streets by the nomads who came into town in the winter. Now it appears to be all tarmac, traffic lights and traffic jams. Perhaps I’ll return one day but no plans just yet. I’d like to visit Bhutan though, as that’s somewhere I didn’t get to when I was out there.
The way you describe it, it seems like the Lhasa Holiday Inn, especially under General Manager Barba, was kind of doing its own thing a lot of the time: for example, building the hotel pool very quickly, without approval from Holiday Inn’s central offices (and celebrating the opening of the pool with an elaborate cultural performance). Was that a kind of situation where, as the Chinese say, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”?
That’s a lovely expression which describes exactly Barba’s attitude to Holiday Inn head office.
I would like to understand your relationship with [GM] Barba better. At times, it sounded like he was a pain to work with, like he was manipulating and running over everyone. You even prepared a resignation letter after one such episode. At other times, it sounded like you learned much from him, that he liked the work you were doing, and you went to work with him on a (short-lived) tourism project in developing countries after leaving the Holiday Inn. How did your relationship change over time?
Barba was quite a character, a true eccentric that these kind of outposts can sometimes attract. Think of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He was brilliant in parts, charismatic, amusing, intriguing, clever, generous, an adventurer, a story teller, enigmatic, ‘a student of Buddhism’ as he once told me, a mentor, but also unorthodox, anti-establishment and a maverick (which is why he fell out with corporate head office), and worse, he was manipulative, borderline psychotic and had some totally unacceptable beliefs (fascism for example). People are complicated is what I learned. So yes, he was ‘a pain to work with.’
After the resignation letter, you ended up working under Barba and for the Holiday Inn for a few more years. Barba, too, ended up working for them for much longer than he said he would; he said he expected (and apparently hoped) to get fired within a year. Do you think he ended up respecting you more for threatening to resign—for standing up to him—in a way?
Possibly. He was so strange it’s hard to know. He didn’t object to me having certain principles even if he didn’t share them. He loved Tibet and the Tibetan people which was something we shared. I always thought that odd seeing as he was a fascist, but it might be explained by his love of the underdog and his anti-establishment views, or perhaps his dislike of Communism.
One of the points of your second book, Bottoms Up in Belgium, is about trying to find what exactly is interesting or exciting about Belgium, which you thought would be incredibly boring before you went (especially when compared to China). I, too, find China to be an extremely interesting place because, even today, even in Shanghai and anywhere else, there is still a lot interesting traditions, events, places, and things, that are very unique to a Westerner. I can only imagine what Tibet 30 years ago was like, and you did a good job describing some of it. Yet you described times in the winter where the food was spam for days on end, and the beer was flavorless swill at best (dirty water at worst). The part about the beer hasn’t changed much. Would it be fair to say China (especially at the time) was chaotic, difficult, and exciting, as compared to a more comfortable, prosperous European country? Did you experience a lot of culture shock on leaving?
That’s a good description of China and Tibet at that time. It was certainly very exciting, seeing a nation on the brink of change. I still can’t believe the changes that have occurred in China in that time. If I think of my mother’s photograph of Chengdu – a sea of bicycles, Mao suits, all hair styles the same, no makeup, no individualism, to what it looks like today… that’s quite an incredible change.
Since then, you have gotten an MBA in the management of law firms. What made you decide to leave the hotel industry? And how does managing lawyers differ from catering to fussy Westerners visiting Lhasa?
It turns out that managing lawyers is remarkably similar to ‘fussy Westerners visiting Lhasa’ in the 1980s.
Who are some of your favorite travel writers writing today?
For writing on China I like Peter Hessler. He was there at about the same time as me in the early 90s and I can relate to his experiences in his first book, River Town. However my writings are more as a casual observer who happened to be there at that time – I just wrote what I saw and heard: good, bad, funny, unbelievable – I recorded it and it comes out as a story, like an eye-witness account of that time. Whereas Peter Hessler really gets under the skin and is very informative. I have found his later books useful in trying to understand the huge changes from that time to the present day, more so than writings of the many armchair ‘China observers’ who don’t know the country and people as Hessler does.
For travel books on Tibet, Michael Buckley is extremely knowledgeable (Bradt Travel Guides) and for anyone thinking of trekking in Tibet, getting hold of a copy of Gary McCue’s excellent book, Trekking in Tibet, is a must.
Of the present day general travel writers I like Tim Moore although he tends to get a bit too bicycley for me. Still very entertaining though.
Michael Palin is always entertaining and informative. He must have good researchers (or be very good at the research himself) as he gets to see wonderfully quirky things on his travels which make for great reading. Being born in the 60s and growing up with Monty Python on TV and Palin’s Ripping Yarns, I have to confess that Palin is one of my idols.
For general travel writing, it’s hard to beat Bill Bryson. He could make crossing the road into an amusing incident lasting two pages with the reader chuckling at every line, which is quite a feat.
My favourite travel writer is no longer with us but his books are still in publication and I hope always will be: Eric Newby. All his books are good but A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is my favourite. He gives wonderfully evocative descriptions of the scenery and people which carry you to the place and the moment, and while not being the laugh a minute that Bryson provides, he perfected the art of the under-statement. British humour at its best.”
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.