High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia in September 2012 and posted on her blog on January 1, 2013.
As Woeser says in the introduction to her blogpost, the article is lighter in tone for the first day of 2013. The blogpost centres on an amusing and slightly absurd anecdote about Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s visit to Lhasa in July 1987.
“‘Kohl’s Toilet’ on the Way to Lhasa”
I heard a story: in July 1987, the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, on his second or third official visit to China suddenly expressed the wish to visit Tibet; that was by no means an ordinary diplomatic undertaking, so far, he still remains the only Western head of state who has paid Tibet an official visit. Prior to that, Deng Xiaoping and Helmut Kohl talked about height. When Deng Xiaoping faced the 1.93 metres tall Helmut Kohl, he said, “If the sky collapses, I won’t be afraid because there is a tall man protecting me”, it seemed that their relationship was quite good.
So Kohl insisted on going to Lhasa and the Chinese side, “concealing its strength and biding its time”, agreed to his request; they even attached great importance to it, including thinking about what may happen if Chancellor Kohl had to go to the toilet on the three-hour-long journey from Lhasa airport to the city centre. Of course, they could not let him do his business next to the road, under the sun, exposed to the prying eyes of the people. So, they decided to work extra hours and quickly built a new, luxury toilet.
Considering that the German Chancellor was very big – some say that he weighed more than 110 kilos – the Chinese even transported a king size flushable toilet with a solid seat from China’s inland into Tibet, I am not even sure if it was actually imported from Kohl’s hometown. Perhaps even the workers who built the toilet were especially and urgently called in from some construction team of the military forces. In any case, after working at top speed the specially constructed toilet for Helmut Kohl was completed in time and when Kohl’s heavy feet stepped down the gateway of the plane, embarking on the journey to Lhasa, the Chinese cadres who had welcomed him, cherished deep hopes that he would have to go to the toilet on the way.
However, once on the road, Kohl kept looking out of the window, unable to take his eyes off the scenery, seemingly without the intention to relieve himself. The river valleys of Lhasa in the summer are more beautiful than one can imagine, below the blue sky with white clouds, the long Yarlung Tsangpo River quietly runs eastwards. The cadres calculated the remaining distance and started to gently ask: Chancellor Kohl, do you need to go to the toilet? “No”, was the expressionless answer. After some kilometres, they asked once more: Chancellor Kohl, do you need to go to the toilet? “No”. Kohl started to become a little bit annoyed. When the luxurious toilet started to appear at the horizon, the cadres impatiently asked for the third time, this time Kohl finally lost his temper, “No!” he shouted in a loud voice.
After this, everyone kept quiet, no one dared to suggest a visit to the toilet again so as to avoid causing a serious diplomatic crisis. Days later, when Kohl left Lhasa, he once again flashed passed the toilet without even raising an eyelid. Oh no, Chancellor Kohl, you really don’t give us any face, not once did you use this toilet that embodied Sino-German friendship and that now belongs to the past, only known to the world as “Kohl’s toilet”.
But it wasn’t really a waste after all since cadres from all levels took the opportunity to appreciate the toilet that was especially built for the German chancellor. Did they take turns to sit on that king sized toilet seat? In fact, since the majority of officials are highly obese, perhaps this toilet was a perfect fit for their buttocks. Later, the route from the airport to Lhasa city was diverted and “Kohl’s toilet” was no longer being used, not to mention the fact that it was worn down by years of non-repair, even the king size toilet seat had gone missing so it had turned into a squatting toilet. It was given to the farmers in the “New Socialist Countryside” and it was later also opened to passing tourist groups for RMB 1 per usage.
I got to know this story from a German journalist who was accompanying the German delegation back then and who is now stationed in Beijing. He said that he later asked Helmut Kohl’s wife why Kohl had insisted on visiting Lhasa. It is said that this visit was risking subtle changes in the Sino-German relationship, so everyone was extremely nervous about it. Kohl’s wife revealed a little secret, namely that Tibet had always been Helmut Kohl’s dream. He read Harrer’s book about Lhasa when he was young and was totally fascinated by it, which is why he had to visit Tibet in his lifetime no matter what, even at the expense of affecting the Sino-German relationship.
Heinrich Harrer is the Austrian sportsman who went to Lhasa over 60 years ago and taught English to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Some older Tibetans still remember how Harrer loved to dance and play mahjong, they remember his fluent Tibetan, an amusing person liked by everyone. Of course outside Tibet, he is first and foremost liked for his book “Seven Years in Tibet”.
This post is also available in: English