Tibet ... where women dress for success

I AM bent over a glass display case, mesmerised by its contents, when I feel hands on my back. Instead of jumping at the unexpected manhandling, I remain calm.

Before I turn around, I know someone is adjusting my dress. Once the tugging and pulling stops, I turn to face my unexpected wardrobe assistant.

A solid Tibetan woman, with multiple, waist-long plaits cascading down her back and a giant brass-mounted turquoise fastened to the front of her head, smiles at me with satisfaction.

She signals that my Tibetan tunic is now adjusted properly and the double plait at the back is securely tucked in. I thank her and she pats my back.

We are in a handicrafts shop in remotest Dege, one of three ancient centres of Tibetan culture, carved into the side of a ravine rising from the Zi Qu River in Sichuan.

Before leaving the shop, I find a stack of Australian-style hats of the kind everybody wears around here, and try one on. It fits perfectly. On the satin lining is a familiar coat of arms and the words "Genuine Akubra - made in Australia". The price, though, tells me it is not the real McCoy but if the hat fits ...

I walk out of the shop decked out from top to toe like a local (minus the wealth of turquoise, coral and silk many women wear in their hair). Marco Polo, who travelled through this region in the 13th century, wrote that women wore their wealth, mainly woven into their hairstyles.

He reported that, when horse caravans transporting tea from China to Tibet stopped in these high-altitude towns, villagers freely offered their unmarried daughters to the merchants to remain with them for the duration of their stay.

When it was time to leave, it was understood that the merchants would give the women who had cohabited with them a token of their appreciation in the form of precious stones, which the girls would promptly weave into their hair.

The more ornaments, the more desirable they would become to prospective local suitors, their wealth marking them as successful women. Whether this was a true observation I don't know but it is true that women in eastern Tibet do wear precious stones as part of their coiffures.

After shopping, I complete several circumnavigations (known as kora) of the colourful Dege monastery with hundreds of other pilgrims, including a gaggle of young Buddhist nuns who have walked 200 kilometres to be here. As I am doing so, again I feel hands on my back (by now I know my dress must have slipped again) and laugh heartily with the women who surround me inquisitively.

We chat as we do the kora, though we don't have a word in common. Suddenly, someone who's caught up with me from behind takes my hand. I complete a lap hand-in-hand with two elderly monks, who express their delight at my fantastic fashion sense.