An Old Hotelier Remembers 1980s Tibet

| April 7th, 2019

Alec Le Sueur had never been to China before when he agreed to work at the Holiday Inn Lhasa as the sales and marketing manager, but he had been fascinated by Tibet after reading books about it by Spencer Chapman and Heinrich Harrer. After five years working at the hotel that was known as “the hardest hardship post,” he had enough interesting experiences to write a book himself.

That book, The Hotel on the Roof of the World, was published in 1998 and was praised for its humor and its vivid portrayal of Tibet just after opening to outside tourism. Foreign language editions have been published in Spanish, German, Dutch, Polish, and other languages. 

With tourism to Tibet breaking records—it met the goal of 30 million annual tourists last year, one year ahead of schedule, and now some officials hope they can hit 40 million this year—I took some time to review what Tibet was like in the late 1980s and early 90s. Le Sueur agreed to answer my questions.

Le Sueur was fascinated by the distinctive attributes of China and Tibet. He strolled through the market, where locals offered to sell him a Tibetan sword. He climbed mountains in the area, losing the path, but finding a better one. He struggled to find the best way to drink the least amount of rice wine and yak butter tea possible without without losing face in front of his too-hospitable hosts.

“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,” Le Sueur wrote by email.

His mother had visited Chengdu and Mount Emei in 1980 when China first allowed foreign botanical tours after Reform and Opening.

Operating an international hotel in China was an endeavor that brought with it its own set of unique challenges. The Holiday Inn Lhasa was one of the first hotels operated by a foreign brand in post-reform China and only the second Holiday Inn. The hotel unit had been donated to Tibet by Gansu province as one of China’s interprovincial assistance projects. Holiday Inn was brought in for a limited period of joint management between a foreign team and a Chinese management team. Sometimes the two “parties” did not see eye-to-eye.

Writing a book was not Le Sueur’s original intention, but the idea came naturally. “I have always enjoyed writing and so many funny situations came up that I felt compelled to write them down,” he said. “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.”

The foreign general manager was also a character. Ernesto Barba had been renowned as a marketing maverick for Hilton hotels, a master of attracting free publicity by staging grand openings and cultural shows, but his unconventional stubbornness caused a falling out. In Lhasa, he hosted a “Miss Tibet” show and built an outdoor pool at the hotel without approval from Holiday Inn’s central offices. Le Sueur nearly resigned in protest due to his imperious decision-making style, but they ended up working together until the end of Holiday Inn’s contract.

“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 worse, he was manipulative, borderline psychotic and had some totally unacceptable beliefs (fascism for example),” Le Sueur said. In fact, Barba had a portrait of Benito Mussolini affixed to the wall of the restaurant when he managed the Sheraton Taipei. “People are complicated is what I learned.”

In 1997, Holiday Inn left, and with it, so did Le Sueur, Barba, and the rest of the foreign managers. The hotel still operates today as the Lhasa Hotel. Le Sueur moved to Belgium, with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and wrote his second book, Bottoms Up in Belgium.

Tibet continued to develop and change, and Le Sueur has resisted going back. He doesn’t want to see it change so much that he doesn’t recognize it. 

“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,” he said. My full interview with Alec Le Sueur is posted at ChinaTravelWriter.com.

I visited Lhasa in 2016 with my younger brother and enjoyed observing temples with long lines of pilgrims from all over the province and country queuing for prayer and feeling the high alpine sun warm my skin. Sometime in the future, the Tibet I visited, too, will become just a memory.

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