Miss Tibet Pageant

World traveler and cryptologist extraordinaire Oxblood Ruffin tells BB:
Last month I visited Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in Exile, and thousands of Tibetan refugees. It was there I met local bad boy, Lobsang Wangyal, founder of the Miss Tibet contest. Lobsang is a cross between Sergei Diaghilev and Jim Morrison, with a little Bert Parks thrown in for good measure.

When I first heard about the Miss Tibet contest I thought someone was pulling my leg. Tibetan society is charming but conservative, and the thought of Tibetan hotties mincing down the catwalk in their skimp challenged all credibility. But it turns out to be true. So true, in fact, that it's managed to work the Chinese government into a lather. The current Miss Tibet, Tashi Yangchen, was entered into the Miss Tourism world pageant held in Zimbabwe this past February. When the Chinese got wind of it they demanded Miss Tibet be thrown out of the competition, since China had invaded and occupied Tibet since 1950 and declared it to be non-existent and part of China. Since that time approximately 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese army, but who's counting?

At any rate, Tashi got chucked from the competition but exited with a lot of class. This year's Miss Tibet contest will be held in October in Dharamsala, India. The region is home to some of the world's best hiking and most striking natural beauty. I'm planning on making the trek and supporting the pageant, which BTW could use some sponsors. Any rich, liberal Buddhists out there?


Update: Stuart Sands says Tibetans are not an uptight people:

There was a comment in the piece on the Miss Tibet Pageant that stated “Tibetan society is charming but conservative”. While not an expert, I have spent some time in Tibet proper (as opposed to Tibetan communities in exile in India) and was surprised (at first) at the bawdiness and rawness of some of the humor, shared by men and women equally. They did and said things in public that I would think twice about doing here. It is certainly a charming culture and definitely there are conservative aspects to it, but, from what I witnessed, it is also an “earthy” culture and not prudish.


  1. I’m afraid Xeni Jardin & world traveller Oxblood Ruffin may have missed the real origins of the Miss Tibet story….

    It was first envisaged at a drunken dinner in the FCC HKG in 1991 by that inspired & dangerous hotelier Ernesto Barba, of sainted memory, and took place over one antic week in Dec 1991 at the Holiday Inn, Lhasa. Some 80 people, journalists, sundry socialites along with Bhuddist fellow-travellers of the day made the journey.

    For the full absurd story see the 2-part account I wrote a decade later in 2001 to mark the mahasamadi of that indomitable spirit, Ernesto Barba, entitled ‘Ship of Fools – Pts 1 & 2″, here appended.

    Adrian Batten
    (PatracelsusAsia), Bali


    11th July, 2001
    Alternative Voice by ParacelsusAsia

    TIBET & A SHIP OF FOOLS….. (Part 1)
    Over the past 20 years or so Tibet has become a spiritual and philosophic icon for many all over the world. So much so, that it has entered the mainstream of popular consciousness. The little known complexities of Tibetan shamanistic Buddhism today have a currency that Therevada never achieved. The times were right and Tibetan Mahayana tapped into the anima mundi, to the extent that the Dalai Lama is a universal pop icon in a way that the Pope could never be. How on earth did we get here?

    I guess the ‘dark side’ played a pretty creative part in it, what with the Chinese invasion and consequent Tibetan diaspora.
    And for that I suppose we must give thanks. After the flight to Dharmsala in the 50’s and a moment to regroup, the movement spread out into the world of the Gentiles like wildfire. With the wise, revered and much-loved Dalai Lama at it’s head, an extraordinary PR and fundraising campaign came to be. All without overt proselytisation, yet immensely successful. From Boulder to Birmingham, from Harvard to Houston, scarcely a town or institution of any size in the West has not received and laid out the welcome mat for a visit from a band of exiled Tibetan monks who chanted, rang bells, blew horns and were jolly. Rinpoches of all stripes and talents have gone out over the face of the earth. Some soaring like angels, others falling to earth in flames, sacrifices to the manifest temptations of the flesh and the material world. The Tibetan ‘cabinet’ in exile readily found the ear of the rich and powerful, as often as not through the whispered advocacy of spouses. In high and low degree, in Hollywood too, Tibet was in. Gnash their teeth as they might, the butchers of Beijing by their every move seemed only to add further fuel to the raging fire of popular appeal.

    It also helped that the world of the Gentiles likes Tibetans, especially when compared to their occupiers. Otherworldly in some ways, they appear down-to-earth, good-natured and good-humoured. Dour they are not. Hat against Hat, whatever dark passions, rivalries and Byzantine intrigues may have (nay, must have) come forth from the dark corridors of the Potala to dwell in Dharmsala, the world saw very little of it and cared less – so charmed was it.

    The parallel with the Jewish diaspora is interesting, if not exact. For Buddhism read Judeo Christianity; for the Buddha read Christ; for the Chinese read the Romans; the Dalai Lama is St Paul; the Gentiles are the US and the West; the Potala, the Temple at Jerusalem; and Dharmsala being ‘exile’ or Babylon (bit of a stretch that last I grant you). And while the “Return to Lhasa” and the Potala, unlovingly restored by the Chinese as the Temple was razed by the Romans, may take a while (the Jews had to wait over 1,900 years), the fact is that an obscure Judaic sect went out into the world, morphing into one of the world’s great religious movements.

    And that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it?
    Could it be that we are at the brink of some universal syncretic Buddhism, call it what you will, but whose impetus is Tibetan and has a thousand different faces? That the dawning of a new consciousness finds common expression through the basic precepts of Mahayana with a bow to Hinduism, Carl Jung and the Perennial Philosophy? If that means a sense of loving kindness, cosmic unity, the search for self-knowledge and an abiding tolerance of individual spiritual expression then it’s no bad thing I say. In fact we might all have cause to become long-term optimists for our species – if it were so.

    Born in the FCC…

    All of which takes me back to my own first experience of Tibet, which was an epiphany of sorts and for what it’s worth I’ll share. It was in December 1991, a time of unrest in Lhasa and journalists, only recently permitted to visit, were once again persona non grata.

    Picture then, the President of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong and the General Manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, with sundry hacks enjoying a good dinner and excellent claret in the Club’s upper dining room. Serious business was afoot and there were problems to be solved. The FCC President was under considerable peer pressure to find a way to get journalists back into Tibet and the halls of the Lhasa Holiday Inn yawned empty. Because of the troubles a large group of French, who got off on high places and thin air, had cancelled and gone to Manchu Picchu instead.

    Now the hotel’s GM, alas no longer with us and sorely missed, was an extraordinary Italian named Ernesto Barba. A man as brilliant as he was bizarre with a low boredom threshold and rather chequered career. Completing his PhD in Tantric studies at the Sorbonne with a thesis on the sexual practices of the 6th Dalai Lhama while running the hotel in Lhasa, Ernesto had recently left Japan under a cloud where as GM of a Hilton there, he was said to have spiked the punch at a formal reception with a substance and results I do not care to mention. A man of impeccable energy and character. Quite irreplaceable. I can’t help but wonder if certain of our ‘ever so’ tasteful boutique properties in Bali might not benefit by finding such a man as GM.

    As the wine flowed, sure enough the solution arrived. “I have it!”. It was course Ernesto. “We hold The Miss Tibet Contest!” The assembled company fell silent, awed for a moment, before roaring their admiration and approval. It was perfect, it had everything. And so it was….

    A jolie laide French girl, who ran tours to far off places, in the spirit of the moment bravely volunteered to organise things. The FCC, which is the centre of some things in Hong Kong but not others, is a bit “Wig & Pen” in that it has it’s fair share of louche legals, financiers, admen and sundry media types, as well as a few of the braver socialites, who like to live dangerously. And thus it was the Word went out into the World.

    Hong Kong’s second airline, Dragon Air, was persuaded to sponsor the group, though they would come to rue the day. Within weeks some 70 of us were packed and ready to go. We were a motley crew. There were of course the foreign correspondents, cameramen and media types, plus a smattering of businessmen. Hong Kong’s glitterati was well represented, along with what quickly became known as the ‘OM Brigade’, most of whom straddled both these worlds (wealth and position being no bar, if not exactly a requirement for the spiritual path in Hong Kong). There was a group of French who complained a lot, and a small group of Spaniards, who were jolly and sang.

    A panel of 15 judges, comprising various sponsors and members of the glitterati, were selected to pick the beauteous Tibetan queen-to-be. Among them, my companion at the time, a striking woman of Indian/Chinese parentage and not unconnected to Holiday Inn management, whose looks were matched only by her vulgarity and an o’erweening ego. I was infatuated, but did not admire. This was not a trip to be missed.

    We flew to Chengdu, where we overnighted, and onto Lhasa the following day. The outward journey was not without incident. As we kicked our heels at Chengdu’s grubby airport awaiting the flight to Lhasa there came early signs that this was not a group to be messed with. First it was the smokers amongst us, rebelling at the No Smoking signs, prominently displayed and officiously enforced by a bunch of entrepreneurial airport cleaning ladies empowered to exact on-the-spot fines. Commie bossiness run slap into ‘gweilo’ bloody mindedness. Imagine a Chinese Margaret Thatcher v. the harder bitten elements of the Vietnam press corps and you’ll start to get the picture. Full marks to Ah Maggie though, the gals hung right in there until eventually our flight was called and butts extinguished.

    We arrived on the Roof of the World mid-afternoon in the dead of Winter, sunny without snow but well below freezing. In shadow or at night it was seriously cold. The landscape was awesomely stark and beautiful. My heart soared.

    The Holiday Inn was a sprawling characterless building. The public rooms were unheated and you needed your overcoat or a few stiff drinks to survive. Group members quickly demonstrated their preference. Fortunately the bedrooms were comfortable, well heated, with modern plumbing and copious hot water. We had food for five days, most of which had to be flown in as nothing fresh was locally available, not a sprig o’green to be seen at this time of year. From hereonin Ernesto’s extravaganza was to unfold over the next five days and nights…..

    (To be continued next issue)

    25th July, 2001
    Alternative Voice by ParacelsusAsia

    TIBET & A SHIP OF FOOLS….. (Part 2)

    Having settled into our new Lhasa home for the week, the journos quickly set up an FCC-in-exile in the small hotel bar and, for the hard core, an annex in a run-down cafe around the corner with an amazing picture signboard depicting the “The Drunken Celestial Beings”. Cynically remarking that the press corps had obviously been here before I was quickly put right by the leader of the OM Brigade, an elegantly dressed rather prefectorial Englishwoman, who said crossly that it was nothing of the kind, Drunken Celestial Beings were an integral part of Mahayana iconography.

    In such redoubts of an evening my companion, with a passable voice and fancying herself a torch singer, was prone to vamp the assembled company, especially when egged on by the hacks in need of comic relief. Left to her own devices her repertoire can best be described as ‘Shirley Bassey, a tad flat’ and it didn’t take much for her to drop into the bumps & grinds of “Big Spender” . Fortunately for her and us perhaps, over the months of our connection I’d been able to steer her toward the standards of Cole Porter, Gershwin, et al., as rendered by Ella, Peggy Lee, Julie London and the like, and she took a shine to this rather more sophisticated persona. With time and few drinks the bar crowd stoped rolling their eyes and became almost appreciative, while the OM Brigade would smile ever-so faintly.

    On the Town

    In the day, we spread out over Lhasa, each group following their particular bent. The OM Brigade to visit temples and shop, hunting down tankas and other forbidden artifacts on the cheap, or replenish their stock of shatoosh and other ‘meditational aids’ (in those days the fiction that the wool was painlessly plucked from the neck of these poor creatures was still just about tenable, that is before one of their number actually got busted for flogging them). The French off to shop and some hard bargaining, while the Spanish did the sights and sang. We all had one thing in common. We all sallied forth bearing photos of the Dalai Lama to put about, having been told this was strictly forbidden. The OM Brigade feeling deliciously subversive, like the early Christians in Rome, the glitterati distributing largesse like rotten apples, while the Press thought it eminently fair coinage for any Tibetan source they interviewed for local colour.

    Most colourful of all was the Bharkor, the market and beating heart of the city, where all the produce of Central Asia seemed to be arrayed in an atmosphere that could not have changed in 500 years. Handsome blue-eyed Turkic girls, fashionably attired in jeans stopping by the food stalls for kebabs, mingled with the locals; the young Tibetans with those glowing ruddy countenances of the high plateau; their seniors with lined faces of immense character, quickly earned by life in a harsh clime. The only discordant note being the young PLA soldiers in their ill-fitting tunics wandering about in couples with the sour deadpan faces of despised occupiers. Poor things.

    On the day we ascended the Potala, it was an important day of pilgrimage and the place was packed by thousands of Tibetans lined for miles as they made passage through the various halls. Their good spirits contrasting with the Potala’s sombre magnificence and somewhat ransacked air. The entire building was undergoing renovation, which in the gloom of the interior gave everything a dreamlike laborynthine quality as we filed our way from level to level. How much of the original quality of the place, it’s works of art and devotion would ever return one could only guess.

    Each afternoon in a park on the shadow side of the Potala, Ernesto had set up an open-air Academy. Here in areas divided by a number of canvas enclaves and various refreshment tents, experts lectured us on such matters as Tibetan art, healing and Buddhism. Not to mention the fortune tellers. The most popular of these activities, needless to say, was Ernesto’s own discourse on the politics and tantric shenanigans of the 6th Dalai Lama. The days sunny, the atmosphere benign, the whole thing resembled nothing so much as a garden féte.

    At night, while some retired early, others partied and generally conducted their affairs as they would at sea level in Hong Kong. A goodly number disappearing for a day or so, struck down for the sin of ‘wonted indulgence in a high place’, only to
    re-appear for dinner the next day, a bit pale around the gills but determined not to miss a thing.

    Sky Burial Country

    Among our number was a nice American woman, writer, PR person and networker. One of those people who move easily through the world of NGO’s, who had a long standing professional connection with the WWF and the Tibetan cause. Much of her year was spent in confab at Dharmsala. She it was who had set things up from the Tibetan side for us and she had somehow wangled it so that we were able to visit a monastery within half-a-day’s drive of Lhasa. This was no mean feat since the monastery in question did not usually allow visits and given the recent unrest the Chinese were clamping down hard on religion generally. Monks were being arrested again and monasteries closed.

    The monastery we visited was quite small, a succession of ancient whitewashed buildings on the side of a mountain. Again my heart soared in such a landscape. The sun shone and in the blue sky above the kites wheeled. Across the valley I spied the large flat slabs of rock where the sky burials take place. The contrast with the warmth of the sun’s rays, the altitude and chill winter air gave a vivid and stark sense of the proceedings of dismemberment, which though alien was not horrifying, provoking in that environment feelings of an overarching impermanence and something very ancient – liberating and oddly comforting.

    My own meditative practice then, if I could call it that, went something like this. Footle around the house for an hour to get everything just so. Finally, sit. After 30 seconds, be overcome with an overpowering need to scratch various parts of my anatomy. Sit a bit. Wonder how long it’s been. Take a peek at my watch, strategically placed in reach. One minute. Sit. Feel the need for a cup of tea. Resist and sit some more. Wonder how long it’s been again and take a peek. Five minutes, time to go make that well earned cup of tea. Over time however and in the company of others I found I could do a bit better than this, sometimes even an hour. Not one to go to extremes, I was encouraged, though not impressed by my progress.

    On entering one of the monastery’s halls, dark and low-ceilinged, where the monks young and old were chanting, my practice made a quantum leap. I knew that for me more than any other sense, sound was my key to the Divine. The vibration and energy of the place threw me instantly into a deep meditational state, where I remained until a gentle tap on the shoulder indicated, some hours later, that it was time to leave.

    The Big Event

    By now it was clear that nothing gave our host Ernesto greater pleasure than taking the piss out of the Chinese, whom he loathed and despised as despoilers of the country he had come to love. The night of the Big Event was approaching and we wondered what Ernesto had in store. Tantalising tidbits of information came our way. There were to be some 18 contestants for the “Miss Tibet” title, all of whom were members of a local dance troupe. Outnumbering them by far were the panel of judges, which had now swollen from our original 15 to 30. The Chinese for inscrutable reasons of their own had insisted that for every foreign judge there had to be a Leading Comrade of their own. They were adamant and since our side neither understood nor had any strong feeling on the subject, gracefully gave in. Rumour was that some of the contestants were the mistresses of our Chinese hosts and their protectors wanted the “Foreign Friends” well marked lest their wicked Western ways led to unwelcome fraternisation. Acquainted with a number of our judges, this wasn’t as silly an idea as it first appeared. Nor can I say that the prospect of such fraternization appeared to worry our contestants unduly. In the case of a tied decision it was agreed that it was only right and proper that Ernesto should have the casting vote.

    The ballroom was bedecked caravanserai style and dominated by the two high tables of judges sat 15 aside like 2 opposing rugby teams. Ernesto made sure that the obligatory toasts and speeches were kept to the minimum and well out of the way before dinner was served. The entertainment commenced with a fashion show by the contestants. Then came a parade with drums, shawms and cymbals from the different parts of Tibet. Among them were two cute yaks, who in the middle of the floor stopped, bringing the entire procession to an ungainly halt. The yaks looked at each other fondly and farted, each marking the spot with a copious deposit, eloquent expression of their view of the proceedings, and then moved on to a standing ovation. There followed a short interval during which a team of tumblers swept in, deftly removing the dumps of ordure, while all present marvelled at how Ernesto had got the yaks to do it. Then came a strange far off sound from distant halls, which as it came closer, had a strident martial air. Into the room burst what seemed to be the entire Tibetan staff of the hotel dressed as Red Guards, beating tambourines, playing accordions and waving little red books. If you recall Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” and the scene where the good prison governor was humiliated and paraded during the Cultural Revolution, you’ll get the picture. All eyes were glued on the Chinese judges, who actually took it quite well. Perhaps they were finally entering into the spirit of things, or perhaps they knew we were off the next day and their ordeal would soon be over.

    The selection and coronation of “Miss Tibet” went off well enough. The judges deliberated, each drolly explaining their criteria before duly crowning the comely victorine. The runners up, I am happy to say, appearing as pleased for each other as the winner. The Leading Comrades then made their exit after a decent interval, retiring for some stiff cognacs in the hotel’s karaoke bar, which had become their HQ for the duration. The partying then began in earnest, clouded only by the knowledge that we had a 4.30 am departure, but a few hours away.

    The Retreat from Lhasa

    Younghusband had nothing on us. Bundled hangovers, the walking wounded silently huddled in the freezing gloom of the lobby pre-dawn, as we awaited transportation to the airport. We were not feeling our best. Dawn came up on our way to the airport, where we arrived about 9.00 a.m. with the flight scheduled for 11.00 o’clock. It was not to be. We had walked into what looked like an invasion, as the PLA rotated one of it’s regiments. Those among us who knew a thing or two about military logistics and aviation did not look happy. The thing was, if you did not take off before noon, because the air thinned as the day wore on, you had to wait until the next day. A prospect that few of us relished, knowing that the hotel had no more food and was low on heating fuel as well. Perhaps too, a glimmering that we may have outstayed our welcome and be pushing our luck. We eventually took off at 2.00 p.m. White knuckled, we were on our way. By night we would be back in the fleshpots of Hong Kong.

    It was not to be. As we landed at Chengdu and trooped into the transit hall the news came, and it was not good. Our connecting flight, our sponsor Dragon Air and Hong Kong’s second airline had left for Hong Kong – empty, just 10 minutes before we had landed. Their next flight was three days from now. That really put the cat in the dovecote. As the outside world re-asserted itself, there were deadlines to be met, Ball Committees to be chaired, trysts to be kept, companies to be bought, and families impatiently awaiting the return of loved ones. The airline’s PR person, a girl no one had noticed until now, managed to make a bad situation many times worse by her transparent lies and evasions. You know how some PR people are just plain anti-PR and can’t do a dam’ thing right? Wrong bunch to muck with! The airline’s boss back in Hong Kong, who at first tried to wash his hands of the affair, was soon ‘persuaded’ to change his mind. A China South West flight was chartered and we flew back to Hong Kong the next day, the journos sharpening their pencils ominously all the while while the sociallites clicking through their addresses with grim resolve.

    Looking back on this curious episode and its rich cast of characters bizarrely brought together, I recall it as a time of great movement and excitement in my life. When life ‘plateaus’, it quickens me to recall our Ship of Fools; Precious human life expressed in vivid interplay of the sacred and the profane – funny and sad by turn.

    And, in some corner of an Elysian Field doth the manic anarch Ernesto still hold sway, and is there still dope for tea……?

    ©Adrian Batten, ParacelsusAsia, 2001.


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