July 27, 2010
At long last we are in Tibet. Last time we were in China, we wanted to come here but couldn’t arrange the permits in time. We were well prepared and had laid the groundwork months in advance. We left later than we planned as there was a minor hiccup in our papers. Somehow, the passport that was given for Ange’s permit was not the one that had his Chinese visa and we had to postpone our trip a few days to have everything corrected. We were unable to get seats all together for the two day train ride up and so we opted to fly in. We landed yesterday in Lhasa and were met at the airport by our guide Tashi. Our hotel is a beautiful old house that is intricately painted in the Tibetan style. I think we were all pretty in awe of it. I was concerned about how much success the Chinese had in trying to eradicate Tibetan culture. The drive in to Lhasa made me a bit nervous when we passed through the periphery of the city through the Chinese districts and there was little to distinguish it from any other modern section of a Chinese city other than the fresh air. But in the old district, it is still very much Tibetan.
I’ve been feeling a little lightheaded from the altitude and have to pace myself while walking. They say that you have to drink a lot of water so I am forcing water down my throat every chance I get. Alisa has not been feeling well and ended up needing to lay down in a back room in the restaurant we ate at last night. She started a course of medication to treat altitude sickness and also got a small oxygen canister from the hotel.
Today is our first day to do sightseeing around town. Our first guide Tashi was unable to join us today and so his good friend and guide Tashi (#2) accompanied us. Our first stop was to the Drepung Monastery just outside of Lhasa. It was built in the 15th Century and has been maintained beautifully. It is still very much a functioning monastery with monks living on the grounds (albeit a fraction of what it could be) and pilgrims coming to pray at the complex. The Tibetans are such a devout people, I don’t think the Chinese government could ever successfully ban religious worship (even if they try to ban the reverence of the Dalai Lama). Some pilgrims make their way to the holy sites by sliding on the floor using blocks of wood strapped to their hands, fully prostrate chanting prayers the entire way. It reminded me of performing a “sun salutation” in yoga. I found the dedication, stamina, and humility of the progression of two young boys particularly moving. I couldn’t imagine children in America doing anything of the sort. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that either; I would probably get past one stretch, become tired of all of the down, slide, up, chant and opt to bring some extra butter for the candles instead.
For lunch we were invited to Tashi #2’s home. He also had the beautifully painted interiors which were lovingly done by his uncle. We started with the butter tea, dried cheese and yak meat. It was surprising how many similarities there are between Tibetan and Mongolian cultures. I know that there had been exchanges. Tibet had once been under the Mongolian Empire and the Mongolian renaissance man Zanabazar had spent a good deal of time in Tibet as it was the center of their religious world and brought back many ideas. I think another big part of it has to do with both cultures also maintaining their traditional nomadic lifestyles.
After our lunch, we continued on to the Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa. We were dropped off near the Barkhor; a loop of streets around the main square and temple. Throngs of Tibetans come here to worship and circulate clockwise in the Barkhor circuit chanting and praying before they enter the Jokhang temple. Aside from seeing a large mass of traditionally dressed Tibetans moving as a single unit, the other surprising thing was to witness the strong Chinese military presence. Every square and every other street has a military post with a few soldiers, all of whom were ethnic Chinese/Han. The Barkhor in particular is a heavily patrolled area. I found the military presence intimidating at times but it dissipated immediate when I was greeted by or interacted with a Tibetan. It is a tough contest between the Philippines, Syria, and Tibet but I think the Tibetans may take the prize for being the most welcoming people I have ever encountered. We worked our way through the peaceful, chanting crowd and draconian soldiers and made our way into the temple.
I was absolutely awestruck when we entered inside. When I thought that the Drepung Monastery was well preserved, the 1300 year old Jokhang temple has surpassed it. The walls are beautifully painted with scenes illustrating the story of how and why the temple was built. The murals are in excellent condition despite constantly being near smoky candles and incense. We were told that the monks periodically lacquer over the painting to protect it. The only light inside the temple comes from the doorway and the huge candles lit throughout the interior that create a warm golden glow. Large golden goblets are filled with butter (rather than wax) by worshippers who ensure the flames never extinguish.
We followed the crowd up the stairs to the rooftop to the soundtrack of chanting worshippers and could see the golden spires of the Jokhang temple and the Potala Palace in the near distance with rain clouds gathering. I can’t put into words the emotions that were welling up inside of me at that time, nor can I fully understand why. Perhaps it was the sheer beauty of the scene; the architecture, the people, the sounds of their devotion. I was so thrilled and thankful that I finally made it to Tibet.
It began to rain, which didn’t deter us much, but more importantly this was our afternoon designated for shopping and we just needed to dart across the Barkhor to the large shop where we will find everything we need. I’ve been waiting many years to come to Tibet to do some jewelry shopping and have regretted since 2008 not buying the Tibetan jewelry I found in Nepal. Inside the store they have fake marked prices. When I was talking with a sales person about the unrealistic prices they explained that they put the prices very high because the Chinese tourists expect to bargain hard and feel like they are getting a big discount. I personally would have rather have saved all that time and just have a reasonable price from the get-go. I already knew what I needed to pay based on the prices for Tibetan things in Nepal so it was a little frustrating spending the few hours there waiting until they finally agreed to the prices that I know I need to pay. Alisa and I picked out a few small things and Ange and Chantal ended up having some things shipped back to the States for them. We spent several hours in the shop and I think they kept it open late just for us. We all enjoyed it though; the staff was very kind and accommodating and there were so many beautiful things to gawk at.
Dinner was pretty late tonight since we spent so many hours shopping. We went to a spot just off the Barkhor where we can do some people watching. It was there that I realized that we weren’t the only ones observing the locals. When I went to the bathroom, I turned to flush and got a glimpse out the window. On the roof of the next building to us, I saw a sniper with a helmet and padding on pacing and observing the people down below. It saddened me to see the constant reminder that such a peaceful people are oppressed in such a way. I am actually shocked to see that Tibetans have still been able to retain so much of their culture considering they have been occupied by China since 1950s. I am particularly looking forward to seeing the former residence of the Dalai Lama tomorrow, the Potala Palace.