October 21, 2006

seventy hours in tibet

potala-guardian dalai-lama-view lhasa-monks barkhor-square flag-potala mountains-windows

Of course Tibet was never the idyllic Shangri-La of myth. Fourteen hundred years ago, its armies conquered half of China. Seven hundred years ago, when Tibetan Buddhism was the state religion of Kublai Khan, the monks were bitterly resented by the Chinese, who were forced to food, shelter and convey them at their own expense, and who were executed if they so much as raised a hand against a man in a saffron robe. And if you'd come here before the Chinese invasion seeking a land of spiritual bliss and meditative detachment from the material world, you'd have been barking a long way up the wrong mountain.

In 1943, German mountaineers Heinrich Herrer and Peter Aufschnaiter escaped from a British POW camp in India and made an amazing journey across the Himalaya and into Tibet, where they stayed for seven years. Herrer describes a charming, friendly, welcoming country - but also one ruled by a corrupt theocracy that wasn't above using howitzers on rogue monasteries, and that viewed all kinds of progress and innovation as an attack on the absolute power of the monks. I'm certainly not trying to justify the Chinese invasion, and by all accounts the current Dalai Lama is an amazing human being - but if you were imagining pre-invasion Tibet as a land of peaceful enlightenment, guess again. (And frankly I found the Nepalis of six years ago a hell of a lot nicer than today's Tibetans; then again, to quote Matthew Hogan, oppressed people suck.)

Modern Lhasa is only about half-Tibetan; the other half is a fairly modern (and fairly boring) Chinese city. In the streets you pass roughly equal numbers of Han Chinese and Tibetan faces (they're pretty easy to distinguish) - large numbers of them wearing breathing masks against the city's acrid smog - and many of the Tibetans are poor peasants in the big city to make a pilgrimage to the Jokhang Temple (tomorrow's destination) and the massive Potala Palace that looms above the heart of the city, surrounded by parks and plazas.

The palace is gargantuan, with literally thousands of rooms. Hundreds of birds swarm above, and the views of Lhasa beneath and the mountains beyond are stunning. The chapels inside are feasts for the eyes; Tibetan Buddhism is all about relentless detail work and repetition, and in most of its rooms literally every square inch of every wall and ceiling is occupied by painted patterns, etchings, engravings, mandalas, thangkas, lacquered wood carvings, drapes, scarves, prayer flags, paintings of Buddhas or Wrathful Protectors, cubbyholes full of bronze Buddhas of Longevity or sacred books (about the size of bread loaves, loose-leaf but wrapped in leather and linen), all of it intricate and colourful. The central features are usually giant Buddha sculptures, or huge three-dimensional mandalas or stupas, or, in several cases, the tombs of Dalai Lamas, all made of metal, sometimes solid gold or silver. The tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama - considered one of the two all-time greats, along with the 13th - is some twenty feet tall incorporates almost four tonnes of gold.

The thousands who filed through the Potala Palace today were about thirty percent tourists and seventy percent Tibetan pilgrims, mostly dressed in rough nomad clothing, chanting ceaselessly, wielding handheld prayer wheels or prayer beads, bags full of yak butter1 and handfuls of money which they left at the many offering-sites. Occasionally we passed monks who worked there, keeping a stern eye on the treasures, or vacuuming the Buddhas, or just sitting and chatting over tea as if there was no herd of tourists and pilgrims filing past them. Despite the pilgrims and monks the palace felt more like a museum than an active place of worship - of course, the Dalai Lama hasn't lived here for a good fifty years.

1Most rooms in the Palace boast large metal lantern-vats full of yak butter in which eight or ten candle wicks burn; the pilgrims help replenish the butter.

The streets around the Jokhang are a lot more lively. Seething crowds of pilgrims make the circuit around the temple - some on foot, some prostrating themselves all the way - passing walls of stalls selling all sorts of religious paraphernelia when they're not selling trinkets to tourists. (Including the TIBET baseball cap I picked up for 30 yuan. The weather is cool - Lhasa's further south than Cairo but also two miles up - but the sun at this altitude gets nasty in a hurry.) The local Moslems in their white caps hang out at the nearby mosques, cycle-taxis carry tourists to and fro, incense burns, and generally the whole area is a combination of Major Religious Site and Pedestrian Shopping Mall, but in a good way.

There are plenty of tourists in Lhasa, but few stay all that long; it's a pit stop between Land Rover expeditions out to the Himalaya hinterland. It'd be cool to jump on a Jeep and head up to Everest Base Camp, or west to mega-sacred Mount Kailash, or best of all take the five-day ride across the mountains to Kathmandu - but not me, not this time, this is just a dip of the toe. Instead tomorrow I fly to Shanghai, and in just a few short days I will time-travel once more across the Pacific.

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